Monday 30 October 2017

October Horror Stymie

October Horror. Well, that fell on it's ass, didn't it?

Work and that goddamned black dog threw a Kong-sized spanner in the works. Feel awful that I couldn't follow through with it all.

Not the end of the world. I still have a big pile of Blurays to get through. Let's see what happens.

Monday 9 October 2017

October Horror Catch Up Pt 1 - The Devil Bat

 One of the things I love about the great Bela Lugosi was his commitment to a project, on screen at any rate. He appeared in some of the greatest classic horror films ever made and he also appeared in the rock bottom worst of them. And yet in those awful titles he still remained the most enthusiastic presence on the screen. He had a sense of power that could come and go but his charisma and love of acting seemed always there. He just gave it his all.

This is by no means among Lugosi's worst movies, but it's certainly not up there with Dracula or White Zombie.

The Devil Bat (1940) has Lugosi as a mad scientist who keeps his raving mostly to himself (and his bats) but presents that effortless Lugosi charm to the outside world, both to fool his would-be victims and those investigating the giant bat murder spree (more on that in a moment) and also just as an aspect of the character’s natural personality. If he wasn’t sending his mutated creatures out into the night to do his murderous bidding, he seems like a rather affable chap. It’s difficult for the first half of the picture to root against him 100%.

It’s a bit odd seeing Bela Lugosi in a film about “devil bats” and there be no vampirism. One wonders how cheesed off horror fans might have been on watching the film.


 The Devil Bat was one of the Poverty Row horrors being churned out in an attempt to cash in on the success that Universal and RKO were having with their own creepy titles. So many complain about Hollywood churning out sequels and jumping on the genre of the year but it’s really always been this way. With the success of Frankenstein and Dracula it was only logical that Universal’s competitors would jump on the band wagon but, it seems, most of them were the smaller, less well financed outfits (hence the  name Poverty Row) that were most attracted to doing the horror thing as well. Enter Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) who gave it their own go with director Jean Yarborough.

It’s a mixed bag and doesn’t really feel like a horror to me. Of course there are the horror elements, as Lugosi’s revenge driven Dr Carruthers mutates bats into slightly larger monstrosities (fruit bats…) and trains them to kill whomever is wearing his specially formulates shaving lotion. Once he realises that his financial backers have stiffed him (although they’re open about the fact that he took their cash without wanting a percentage. The fool!), he decides to take them out, along with their playboy/girl rich kids. So, we have the mad scientist, his lab and his creepy experimental monsters. Now enters our hero, ace reporter Johnny Layton (Dave O’Brien) and his frankly rubbish shutterbug sidekick, “One-Shot” McGuire (Donald Kerr), and the tone of the thing alters. These guys were clearly trying to operate as a comedy double act here (and in some other films) and they’re no Abbott & Costello (who Yarborough would direct in later years). O’Brien comes across as a typical low-budget romantic lead and with all of the lack of effort that incurs. This is your typical reporter with a pistol, ready to step in and save the rich heroine he’s just met from any crazy villain. The best that could be said is that, early on, he comes across as Gregory Peck’s slightly rubbish forgotten brother. Kerr’s photographer is nothing but lame comic relief, an unending parade of crappy one-liners (most aimed at the attractive maid character – he’s going to marry her) that, combined with his earnest face, gave me the impression that he might snap from despair and fucking murder the lot of them. Except Lugosi, of course. These guys appear and all of a sudden the thing feels more comedic and even serial based; I expected some cliff-hangers. It had a feeling more of King of the Rocket Men than Dracula.

 Why does the seemingly amiable Carruthers make giant bats to kill people before he’s given his reason to start offing his enemies?

Production design is basic. Lugosi’s lab (both secret and not-very-secret areas) looks a bit threadbare, with the usual chemistry set paraphernalia mixed with walls that look painted to appear like stone, and his bats consist mostly of inert bat dummies hung upside down intercut with close up shots of fruit bats that look like they’re chewing on particularly sticky toffees in what looks to be an attempt to make them look scary (I got a bit concerned about their welfare as they seem to have their wings stretched out by human hand). Said Devil Bats, as described in hotshot Layton’s newspaper articles and One-Shot’s phony photos (a plot point, I tells ya!) launch out of Lugosi’s lab window into the night, literally screaming down wires at their intended victims, surely inspiring a young Edward D. Wood Jr.

Ready for a night out at The Hive...
I’m being harsh. It’s all enjoyable silliness meant to amuse of thrill an audience trying not to pay attention to what was going on in Europe at the time. Most chances to see Lugosi in action are worth snapping up.

There is actually one moment that seems to try and evoke a bit of horror through some nice silhouetting of Lugosi as he prepares to do his worst towardsd the end of the film. It;s a shame the rest of the film isn't given more thought like this, insetad chossing to focus on the shenanigans of Layton and One-Shot, as though someone was thinking, "Hey, got an idea for an series of flicks with these newpaper chumps!"
Amusing trivia: our journalistic hero’s boss, who fires him and One-Shot at least once in the film, is played by the wrongfully forgotten Arthur Q. Bryan, whose gruff voice here is not all that recognisable from his most famous role of Elmer Fudd. Mel Blanc is a bit of a hero of mine but I can never really forgive him for insisting on taking almost all the credit for the voices of Warner Bros. cartoon legends in Loony Tunes and Merrie Melodies. After Bryan died in 1959, the character of Fudd* was retired and not resurrected until over a decade later by a noticeably vocally different Blanc.

"No, for de wast time, dere's no one named Woy Kinnear here!"
  I feel a future blog about Arthur Q. Bryan is looking on the horizon.

*Scots readers are giggling at this phrase as you read this.

Sunday 8 October 2017

Interval - Depression is a Bitch

Apologies for the gap in posts. One of the reasons I decided to view and blog about a horror movie a day in October is to combat depression, which has grabbed me by the balls of late. I regret that it got the better of me over recent days and a particularly bleak period has put a bit of a dent into my daily schedule. However normal service is now resumed. That is provided anyone is reading this. *cries out into the abyss*

One of the reasons I resurrected this blog recently was not only due to said depression but also on professional advice earlier this year after an adult Asperger's diagnosis. This subject is something for a future blog, but verbal expression isn't exactly my forte while I find myself far more comfortable with the written word. One of the issues with my own individual Asperger's situation is that frustration from not being able to properly express myself can be infuriating and cause all sorts of short circuits in my head. Unless I'm talking about movies, which is just as well as I teach filmmaking and film history...

So, interval is over. Grab your Cornettos and Cokes and return to your seats. The curtain is about to go up once more. This means that I'll be viewing and posting a couple of times a day to get back up to speed.

Previews of coming attractions: Bela Lugosi in The Devil Bat, Lamberto Bava's bonkers Demons, a Count Yorga double bill and Donald Cammell's White of the Eye.

Thursday 5 October 2017

October Horror Day 4 - Horror Hospital

Holy shitbiscuits! What did I just witness?

I'm trying to go for a range of titles (verging on random, to be honest) and picked up Horror Hospital (1973). The image of UK genre stalwart Michael Gough on the cover drew me to it. The additional image of Robin Askwith on the cover sealed the deal.

Horror Hospital is a horror comedy, aiming for an exploitation feel (director Anthony Balch had previously been a distributor of exploitation movies in the UK)  that seems to forget this mix and takes itself somewhat seriously at random points. The laughs don't exactly occur where they're intended to. The story follows Askwith's Jason Jones (got to have a bit of alliteration for the hero) as he abandons an attempted career in music for some time away at what he thinks is a health spa, all arranged by dodgy character Pollock of "Hairy Holidays" (a clearly frail Dennis Price who was consumed by alcoholism). En route he meets Vanessa Shaw's Judy who is heading to the same destination to meet her Aunt Harris (named so because she liked to wear Harris Tweed, something never ever referred to again afterwards) who is executor to Judy's late mother's will (something never ever referred to again afterwards).

"All a bit rubbish, isn't it?"
Their "meet cute" consists of Askwith complaining he's not eaten that day as he phwoars at Shaw eating her lunch but promising that he's "not going to rape" her. She is fine with this.


Upon their arrival at the "health farm" they are met by Skip Martin's dwarf henchman, Frederick, acting like an even weirder version of Richard O'Brien's Riff Raff. Martin, already famed from previous horror movies such as Corman's Masque of the Red Death, gives a wonderfully odd performance, at times seemingly not in control of his eyes or grin and at others like he's fighting back tears. A lovely man who everyone liked and was up for anything from all accounts on the Making Of doc on the disc. His character is pretty tragic. They soon discover other young people there, lured the same way Askwith has, now mindless slaves after brain experimentation. Cue the usual scenes of capture, amusing deaths and thwarted escapes until Askwith and late arrival Kurt Christian (who I recognised from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger) save the day with Frederick's help. Things go boom, there's a sudden monster and some smoking deadly quicksand (in the UK...) before deaths are forgotten about after a cheeky fright gaga from cheeky Askwith.

It was around 20 minutes in that I was compelled to pour myself a drink.

Askwith is channelling, well, Askwith. This was just before he embarked on the most popular/notorious section of his career with the Confessions films and his cheeky chappy persona is already winking his way through the proceedings here.  His character starts out as an annoyed "cool" 20something who's after a shag (and so begins Askwith's career); he and Lewis have known each other less than a day before they're not only in bed but comforting each other as though they're Jonathan Harker and Mina Murray. Lewis' lack of acting experience is apparent, let's leave that at that. Askwith instantly develops into a heroic leading man when the film calls for it, which is, frankly, a very odd thing to see. During a big escape scene, two burly guards in biker leathers catch him, beat him with coshes and pull at his t-shirt as he screams like a child at regular intervals. I wasn't sure how deliberate this was and this confusion was further fuelled by moments where screams are quickly repeated over the same footage, which reeked of laziness as opposed to an intended effect. Some of Skip Martin's dialogue is just downright bizarre but which also makes his character the most interesting.

Gough loses the Zero Mostel lookalike contest.

British stage actress Ellen Pollock appears as the villainous Aunt Harris, channeling a combination of Norma Desmond and Irma Bunt. Her character's sudden and not at all believable change of heart results in an odd scene where she packs to leave, grabbing random objects from around her room and shoving them into a suitcase. She seems to have an unexplored love of creepy dolls.

The unevenness of these two scenes are reflective of the whole film which tries to mix spoof with a love of exploitation and z-grade films but ultimately fails. But part of the problem is director Anthony Balch's inexperience. This was only his second film after spending years making experimental films and collaborating with William Burroughs - it appears during that time he never really learned how to direct a narrative film. It's all inept stuff and you really wonder why Michael Gough is in this. Gough, you say? The same Gough who was daft enough to appear as a mad scientist in Konga? This sorry affair makes Konga look like King Kong. It's telling that Gough wouldn't speak about this film at all once it was finished. His presence does sometimes lift the proceedings and his character is directly derived from some of Bela Lugosi's characters from the sad end of his own career - director Balch was a Lugosi fan and asked Gough to watch The Devil Bat (1940) to understand what he wanted. Gough's mad Dr Storm is clearly inspired by Lugosi's mad doctor from Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster (1955) but his intentions involving the young people whose brains he's tampering with to create mindless slaves is never made all that clear.

Balch's use of music is equally odd and inept. The titles proudly proclaim the film's music to be done by De Wolfe, they being a music licensing company. Consequently, Balch's £22,000 budget has possibly squeezed his musical choices, but in any event his use of music is odd. There are moments where he lets the music define the cutting of some scenes, which does not work at all. The scene where Aunt Harris packs her suitcase has a long, sad score that suddenly ends while the scene continues for a bit longer. That is, until Aunt Harris is dispatched by the film's monster, a large misshapen thing seemingly made of wax (well, that's how it looks) and which turns out to be... maybe not spoil that bit, but the reason for this character's physical transformation is never explained. The use of De Wolfe, for this Monty Python fan, also fooled me into thinking that a fight scene in a leafy wooded area was about to be invaded by John Cleese and Graham Chapman's Black Knight and King Arthur. The inconsistencies of the music help no one.

Amusing trivia: the exteriors of Dr. Storm's hospital were shot at Knebworth House, the same location where Michael Gough would find employment as Alfred Pennyworth some 16 years later where it doubled for Wayne Manor in Tim Burton's Batman. Famed UK stunt performer Colin Skeaping, who doubles for Mark Hamill is the original three Star Wars films, also fills in several roles as various motorcycle leather guards and a lobotomised youth.

At the wrap party, leading lady Vanessa Shaw (actually called Phoebe Shaw) made a cake for the cast and crew. Laced with drugs. One wonders what had been passed around before filming started.

Horror Hospital is one for a late night and some booze. Maybe some small objects to throw at the screen. I mean, where else can you see Dennis Price decapitated by a Rolls Royce?

Wednesday 4 October 2017

October Horror Day 3 - Eyes Without a Face

Director Georges Franju said that his 1960 production of Eyes Without a Face was not a horror but was more concerned with anguish - this is understandable. I don't think horror can ever be defined into a hard category. The range of human emotions, which horror cinema taps into perfectly, is too broad to let itself be defined in narrow terms. Cheap scares and a night spent picking up spilled popcorn from jump scares is all and well but I find the best horror films are the ones that get under your skin (if you'll pardon the expression) and play with our pre-concieved notions about what it means to be human and how we face mortality. Like any literary genre, a film genre should always look to push its own boundaries, both in terms of shock and emotion and in it's exploration of ideas. Eyes Without a Face looks to mythological and fairy tale imagery. I can't help but think about Guillermo del Toro when I watch it.

Eyes Without a Face is fantastic.

From the wordless opening, where Alida Valli drives her lifeless passenger (revealed to us as she moves her rear view mirror) to a watery grave, accompanied by Maurice Jarre's twisted fairground parody (in fact, this theme accompanies Valli whenever she's up to no good in the film), like a helter-skelter slowly descending into a distant hell. Jarre's score is wonderful, used sparingly (a complete absence of music during the Doctor's final scene is powerful) and clearly features musical snippets he would return to in Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, Christiane's sad theme in particular.

The anguish comes from both Pierre Brasseur's obsessed doctor and his disfigured daughter, Christiane, whom he hides from the world, her face hideously damaged by a car accident. Doctor Genessier has sent his secretary, Louise (Valli), out to abduct young women so he can remove their faces in an attempt to give his daughter back her beauty. He is a man driven by a quiet anguish and a scientific determination, like all the best villains, the protagonist of his own story. He wants his daughter returned to him, as he managed for Valli in restoring her own face. Valli is almost the Fritz/Igor to Brasseur's Frankenstein, as she sets about her grim tasks with unquestioning loyalty and a lack of anything resembling morals. The good doctor and his assistant are a bit underwritten - her loyalty to him and the absence of Christiane's mother might suggest a relationship between the two but it remains unexplored. This is not to say that their relationship should be so, but they do seem a bit flat in that regard, Louise especially. Is her loyalty to him (and therefore willingness to commit terrible acts) simply out of gratitude? In this respect, she seems worse than him. He seems to act out of love for his daughter (twisted and morally corrupt as he clearly is) whereas Louise only shows any sense of fear or guilt near his family tomb, focusing on a passing plane to drown out the noise of his digging. Even Dwight Frye's Fritz was a willing digger for Henry Frankenstein. Her apparent lack of morals is odd and Franju even gives Doctor a chance at sympathy with the audience through his care towards the patients in his hospital. However, anyone who experiments on animals is a c*nt, in my book. Through and through. His demise, reminiscent of the fall of Doctor Moreau or Dr Frankenstein in James Whale's classic, is fitting.

Franju was skirting a fine like with his treatment of the actual tissue graft. This film was made in 1960 and the scene of skin being cut and visibly lifted from a character's face must have been shocking at the time. It still made me squirm somewhat, even if the face on the move does look a bit white and rubbery. It's bold stuff for its time. I've read that some critics derided the film as disgusting but the sense of quiet desperation and, indeed, anguish is palpable through the film. Horror shouldn't be afraid to play on emotions other than straight fear.

Edith Scob's Christiane is kept mostly behind a mask, seemingly cast from the actress' own face, so natural does it appear. Her sad visage is truly haunting and at times is one of the saddest images I've seen in a film for a long time. She moves like a ballet dancer (as noted by my wife) and her first scene features her dressed in a long raincoat, buttoned up to her neck. She appears doll-like not only in her face but her entire being. Even the scenes where we see her new face, her face exhibits an otherwordly yearning with those giant, sad eyes. Her final scene, accompanied by white doves, is reminiscent of Snow White but far sadder and consumed with a despairing madness. It's an image I'm not going to forget in a hurry.

Tuesday 3 October 2017

October Horror Day 2 Pt 2 - Theatre of Death

I think we bought this years ago from a charity shop under the mistaken belief that it might have been the vastly superior Theatre of Blood, starring good old Vincent Price. It's been sitting on a shelf for a very long time and, well, should it have stayed there? I certainly didn't hate it but it doesn't seem all that sure of itself. And it commits the crime of wasting Christopher Lee.

Lee's Phillipe Darvas runs the Théâtre de la Mort in Paris, kind of an updated (for the 60s) take on the Grand Guiniol where the middle classes would flock to see various sketches that portrayed the apparently realistic deaths of those onstage in a variety of highly grisly ways. A bit like an Alice Cooper gig. An ongoing spate of murders is occuring at the same time and Darvas' arrogance and cruelty to his actors is earning him a reputation that places him under suspicion as the serial killer (a phrase never uttered in the film). That is, until he himself goes missing. All of this is delivered through the sighs of Leila Goldoni's actress, Dani, and her professionally convenient policeman boyfriend, Charles, played by Julian Glover. At the centre of all of this is new member of the troupe, Nicole (Jenny Till) who spends part of the film hypnotised by Lee's maniacal director and is gradually brought out of it by Dani and Charles. But her enigmatic character doesn't end there, even though her final reveal is kind of pointless as it's hard to care about her. In fact it's hard to care about anyone in this film.

Lee is his usual grand self but disappears halfway through, his murder only signified by a couple of lovers on the Sienne who find his grey and dead hand/arm which does not seem to be attached to anything; whether or not this is deliberate is up for debate. It seems that Lee's complete absence from the second half of the film indicates a certain frugality of budget; they had him for a small amount of time and couldn't afford him anymore?

Goldoni's character proves effective enough at expressing a reasonable fear of being harmed onstage but her character's history seems shoehorned in so Lee can shout at her and the murderer can frame her very late in the game. Glover's police officer is at once charming and suspicious of everyone but there come several moments where director Samuel Gallu shoots him with his own suspicion of him in mind. I was convinced at one point that he was in the frame and yet nothing narratively was done there. Even his superior, Ivor Dean, famous as the long suffering lawman who had to deal with Roger Moore's Simon Templar and Jeff Randall in Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), has a moment where the audience might even suspect him. And yet nothing is done with these moments, depriving the film of any sense of paranoia on the part of the Goldoni.

Gallu also has a bit of a predilection for framing characters to the extreme side of the frame, at times warranted at other times not, and for shooting from low angles. Fair enough to make the tall Lee seem even more imposing and interesting during a Tarot reading where the cards, on a glass table, seem to float in the air providing the audience with a spot of dramatic irony, particularly regarding one character. At other times, the low angles sprinkle in here and there for good or ill. It's all a bit meh, considering the story revolves around Grand Guignol and yet chooses to spend more time on the piddling love story.

At least the climax occurs around a performance at the Theatre de la Morte, but the villain's end, set up earlier on, appears ot be an accident, a scene pushed forward by the tense diegetic drum beat of the performance, even if it does involve some rather racially ropey voodoo dancing, with once performer revealed to have been blacked up. The flippance with which it does this is kind of amusing and amazing at the same time.

It;s a bit of a disappointment and one that wastes Lee. At least there as a scene for this child of the 80s where two Bond villians/Star Wars villains got to share the screen. Scaramanga would have made mincemeat of Aristotle Krystatos.

October Horror Day 2 Double Bill Pt 1 - The Lost Boys

 I never saw The Lost Boys when it come out in UK cinemas in 1987. I was 14 but looked 10 years old so there was no chance I was sneaking into a cert 15 film. And yet, when it came on UK TVs on the Christmas of 1990 I think it was the right time for me to see it. I was too busy with Joe Dante, Krull's re-release (bite me) and Spielberg's Amblin films which seemed to be on regularly at the ABC on Lothian Road. Ah, Saturdays...

I was a fragile child and would likely have been put off by some of The Lost Boys - I just didn't connect with teenagers when I was one. By 1990 I was in my final year of high school and, after years of bullying and ostracism, had finally learned precisely how to tell the world to "fuck off" and I was finally getting into music that wasn't movie soundtracks. Frowns were the order of the day ("Smile, Brian!" "Fuck off.") and the time was right for me to appreciate Joel Schumacher's tramp-chic take on vampires and JM Barrie. Not literally Barrie, per se, but I believe the original idea had been, "What if the Lost Boys in Peter Pan never grew up because they were vampires?"

I said before that this season of blogs is about horror movies I've not watched before or at least not watched for a long time. We figured out it had been a lot longer than I thought since I last watched The Lost Boys, although I'm sure some late night drinking session has ended up in the Banshee Labyrinth, in Edinburgh's Old Town, watching it in the cinema there. And yet, I can still insta-quote the film as irritatingly as I could back in the 90s. It's all still there: the rice maggots, motorbikes in the fog, the Frog brothers and their comatose parents, Corey Haim's relentless cheeriness, that reveal, the "Attack of Eddie Munster" and Barnard Hughes final line (my teen self couldn;t help thinking, !Mr Merlin!" upon seeing him. It's probably me and my age but I hasn't aged as badly as it might have, with the obvious exception of Corey Haim's wardrobe, Edward Herrman's jackets and that ridiculous oiled up muscle dude singing with his sax on the beach which surely must rate as one of the most 80s things ever put to film. Crazy sax dude aside, the soundtrack still seems relatively fresh (OK, it's my age); Echo and the Bunnymen's cover of People are Strange (produced by Ray Mazarek, no less) hits exactly the right note. But the less said about Roger Daltry's cover of Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me the better.

"Something for the weekend, sir?"
The Lost Boys isn't particularly scary, but I will argue that since it is about vampires and people are killed that it is indeed a horror film; the scene at the beach bonfire where Keifer Sutherland's David reveals the gang's true nature to Jason Patric's Michael is an explosion of quickly cut vampire mayhem, with arms ripped off, bald heads bitten into and corpses sizzling on a fire, the aftermath mixing Michael's conflicted revulsion and David's gluttonous appetite clearly sated. Sutherland wipes away what could be a bit of food from the side of his face as though he's just finished a pie eating contest. And Schumacher and his DP Michael Chapman know exactly how to light Sutherland's baby-faced features, giving his appearance real menace and an otherworldy quality. Sutherland's casting is superb. Much of the other casting revolves around the teen idols of the time or pretty faces, alas, with the exception of the Frog brothers. But one gripe I do have with the film is that there doesn't seem to be a main character. Arguably, it's Michael but its hard to care about him, especially when his brother shows him up so spectacularly. Herrmann's Max is suitably sympathising which gives more power to his reveal at the end. And yet, is that what everyting's been about? His speech about family doesn't hold that much water when the rest of his scenes with the gang have been antagonistic.

The film's imagery homages many other movies, notably Psycho with it's predilction for taxidermy with sprinlings of Mad Max through the denizens of Santa Carla and their home made couture. There is a feel of twisted nature to it through the use of gnarled wood in much of the production design, notably, Barnard Hughes home and the vampires' lair. Any of the plastic artifice so synonymous with the 80s is reserved for Max's video store, which the film doesn't seem too keen to spoend a lot of time, instead opting for a grubby nostalgia for times past on the boardwalk. The vampires' victims are shot from above, often very high above, giving us a flying vampires-eye-view of their prey without going to the expense of sticking the actors unconvicingly on wires, something kept for the final showdown between David and Michael among the rafters of his grandpa's home, all kept in shadow and quick cut close ups, a nice bit of cineman to mask any budget deficiencies. I prefer it that approach - nowadays, it's all "easy" and I feel so much is lost of any impressionism cinema can still pull off - it's an emotional experience and we don't necessarily perceive the world in grand, open shots when action is called for, even though some filmmakers take quick cut, close up action way too far these days (oh shit, I'm a grumpy old guy!). Schumacher knew what he was doing with this movie, full of knowing winks without ruining the artifice. The image of a floating boy at the window from Salem's Lot is nicely homaged through one of the film's most famous scenes and endlessly quotable lines that would have been manna from heaven for the film's marketing people and was ideal for its audience:

"My own brother! A goddamned, shitsucking vampire! Well, you wait til mom finds out, buddy!"

October Horror - Day 1: The Pit & the Pendulum

Yep, I'm aware it's the 2nd of October. But we kicked off October horror last night so I'm writing up this post a day later. And so what did we (my wife is in on this) choose to get things going? We went with some classic Vincent Price. Some of his most famous work was with the legendary Roger Corman and their Edgar Allan Poe series. Fopp have a cracking sale on at the moment and I snapped up a bunch the recent Arrow Corman/Poe titles last week. I like to try and go in chronologicla order with these things so The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) was the earliest of the titles I bought.

The image of Vincent Price hovering maniacally nearby while said pendulous blade swings back and forth, close and closer to our hero's torso is an enduring one but there is a lot more to the film than just that. Price's character, Nicholas Medina, begins as a mysterious but ultimately sympathetic character, wracked with grief and eventually misplaced guilt at the loss of his wife, Elizabeth, played by Price's equal in horror, Barbara Steele. Along comes Elizabeth's brother, Frances, looking for answers upon receiving the terrible news. Of course, nothing will seem as it appears on his arrival.

John Kerr plays Frances sporting a permanent pouty frown, whose only other expression seems to involve opening his suspicious eyes wider every now and again. It's difficult to give a toss about him, particularly once the now insane Nicholas has him strapped beneath his monstrous pendulum (oo-er missus). This in stark contrast to Price's performance, which drives the film, ranging from quiet dignity in his grief to bug-eyed histrionics, especially once certain forces begin to finalise their plan to drive him mad. Price's entrance into the film is a great sudden close up when he bursts out of a secret room, uttering the demand, "Who are you?" to Kerr's new arrival. It's this adulterous plot that is revealed in the film's final act, set up to mirror the awful fate Nicholas' father set out for his own wife and her lover. Seeing as it didn't go so well for them, surely the effort to drive insane a man obsessed with his murderous father rates among the poorer plots in horror? Nonetheless, Price duly takes up his character's new outlook with suitable aplomb, as he slowly lowers the pendulum in an attempt to slowly bisect Kerr's Frances - cases of mistaken identity jump around as one person dies only for Price to believe that the next live soul is the same target. He manipulates the awful device with such glee that he could be twirling his ever present moustache while Kerr writhes tied up to a trainline in an old silent. He's marvellous and his performance is a solid reminder of the pathos Price could give us, albeit on an exagerrated scale here.

Luana Anders does fairly well as Nicholas' sister, a role that begs for development. Of course she winds up with Frances, but who cares? It's not that Price just dominates the screen, but that her role as sister isn't all that believable. Her eyebrows, on the other hand, would give Kim Novak's in Vertigo a run for their money; they're just odd. Antony Carbone lends the proceedings a slightly more jovial air early on while Barbara Steele, not onscreen all that long, makes her presence well and truly felt, those big eyes exuding evil and fear in equal measure. She's great. And the reveal of her character's "corpse" is a stunner. However, and this is spoiler territory, the actual identity of the corpse is never given once certain reveals have taken place. Who's desicated husk is that? One of the film;s plot mysteries, along with the disappearance of the maid, Maria. She doesn't disappear in the story, she's just forgotten about.

Corman had been offered the chance to do a Poe adaptation after growing tired of delivering black and white double features for American International. "Give me twice the money and I'll do a far better one in colour," or something like that (not a quote). After kicking off with The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), he moved on to The Pit and the Pendulum, working with a script from Richard Matheson, who took Poe's short tale and gave the horrible scenario an actual story. Corman retained Price after Usher, as the men seemed to enjoy greatly working with each other. Their continued association developed over several more Poe adaptations.

Corman is on the record, I believe, as never having watched a Hammer film before production on Pit started and yet he and the UK studio's features have much in common visually. The great house in which Price lives is rendered well; several beautiful matte paintings represent the exterior of the ominous castle, composited/printed next to a wild and dramatic shoreline. The interior is vast and ranging, taking a switch to the weird in the dark dungeon at the end where said pit and pendulum reside; expressionistic paintings on the dungeon walls show dark hooded figures with red eyes standing in cold judgement combnined with sharp rocky lines Not confined to a location such as Bray studios' Down House (filmed from every concievable angle by Hammer for countless productions), Corman occupies visually similar territory but is freed up by the studio space, allowing for some nifty camerawork and some great whip pan edits, both horizontal and vertical. The flashbacks to the gruesome fates of Nicholas' mother and uncle are done in monochrome, messing around with tilted angles and contorted imagery. It's marvellous stuff, along with the opening and closing titles which mix multi-coloured paint and oil to give us more than the expected scarlet of blood. Corman also brings in rectangular irising, giving us final glances at the terrified eyes of torture victims and some intially odd optical zooms in to Kerr on the torture table that somehow do work to increase the tension - there's something about the increased film grain of the optical zooms that succeeds for me.

Morticia Addams goes a bit extreme.

There is a sense of tragedy running through the film, with Price's grief and ultimate manipulation at the hands of deceptive lovers driving him over the edge. The image of Price dressed in black robes and skull-hood is an enduring one but upon viewing the film his villian is ultimately tragic, created by the lies and desires of worse people. A wonderfully dark tale slightly diminished by the two dull romantic leads and keeping the titular death device only until the very end. Call me sick, but I really wanted to see more of the dreadful device in action. John Kerr had to wear a metal band around his waist when they decided that the rubber blade just wasn't enough and a real metal pendulum was brought in. Stoic sod.

Coming tomorrow, a double bill: Christopher Lee mingles with Barnard Hughes in The Lost Boys & Theatre of Blood.

Sunday 1 October 2017

October Horror Season?

Too many unwatched titles among this lot.
So, it's October. That means much of the UK and US is on Halloween watch. Personally, I prefer to actually celebrate and event like that on or around the actual day (Christmas maniacs, I am looking at YOU). It can drive me crazy. I know some folks like to spread purchases for kids around for a few months as belts are tighter these days but it's that old chestnut about commercially driven crap; the shops are full of Halloween stuff now; sweets, masks and costumes, etc. But it's only once a year so, I figure, why hide from it?

I need something to keep my sanity at the moment and movies are my constant. I feel I don't watch enough anyway so my idea, providing I can prevent myself from sinking into apathy and keep it going, is to watch a horror movie a day in October, preferably ones I've not watched before or ones I've not watched in a very long time and might reappraise like, for instance, John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness. This means I'll also keep blogging, something I've been advised to do (sanity, and all that)

So, here goes. I've got a whole bunch sitting on shelves to watch. Time to bite the bullet, choose one and get this thing rolling.