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Friday, October 31, 2014

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2014-Day 31: DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1941)

Mr. Hyde (Spencer Tracy) turns Ivy's (Ingrid Bergman) life into an abusive living hell.

One of the drawbacks to being addicted to scary movies when one is a kid is that while devouring such fare by the metric ton at a tender age, sometimes some great stuff might not seem to be all that because of the viewer's youth and lack of life experience. As a kid I watched horror movies for monsters, gore, violence, pretty girls, and whatever other lurid content I could garner from films that more often than not had been edited for TV. The genre's deeper aspirations and examination of the human condition meant less to me than the startled look on the face of my dimwitted Collie when he'd let out a particularly clamorous fart, which is why I always wrote off the 1941 Spencer Tracy version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE as a non-event. Well, watching the film again with a mindset and worldview quite far removed from my perceptions of things at age nine or ten revealed a film far more horrible than I remembered it being, and by "horrible" I mean that the most real horror is that which we human beings inflict upon one another.

Four's a crowd.

This iteration of the classic story finds Dr. Jekyll (Spencer Tracy) very much in love with and engaged to pretty blonde innocent Beatrix (Lana Turner), but their ardor is serially quashed by her father's insistence that Jekyll confine his work to conventional medicine rather than pursuing crackpot theories on the nature of good and evil within man. When her father takes Beatrix away to Monaco for an extended vacation — in actuality a massive case of ultra-assholish cock-blocking on the part of daddy — Jekyll uses his unwilling singlehood to create a serum that will fully unleash man's evil side, using himself as a test subject. Thus is born Mr. Hyde, the living, breathing, nasty expression of the saintly Jekyll's basest urges, and he wastes no time in hitting the town in search of some strange. Having previously committed an act of gallantry while Jekyll, namely rescuing a young woman from a back alley rape at the hands of a random brute, Hyde encounters the toothsome lass at her job as a barmaid at a local dance hall. The barmaid, Ivy (Ingrid Bergman), earlier proved to be a bit of a bawd when Jekyll gave her a once-over following her thwarted violation, so Hyde, recalling her saucy attitude, engineers her getting sacked from her job (while instigating a riot at the same time) and offers to see her home. However, the gallantry of Jekyll does not exist in Hyde and he immediately rapes Ivy, subsequently keeping her in a state of perpetual terror as he makes her his sex slave and the recipient of beatings that escalate in severity. 

Ingrid Bergman as the tragic Ivy.

When Beatrix returns from her vacation, Jekyll decides to abandon his sordid second life as Hyde and settle into staid normalcy, but, following weeks of abuse at the hands of Hyde, Ivy works up the courage to seek help, so she goes to see Jekyll, not knowing that he is in actuality her tormentor. She vents her tragic state of affairs to Jekyll, even going so far as to get down on her knees and offer herself as his concubine in exchange for his help, and from there things spiral to inevitable blackness as Jekyll, to his horror, discovers that his shifts to his Hyde persona are no longer in his voluntary control...

Spencer Tracy as Hyde.

Very adult for its era, this version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE's potency eluded me during childhood, largely due to Hyde's monstrous nature bearing only relatively-subtle markers of the bestial. Rather than the werewolf-like fiend of the 1931 Frederic March version, Tracy's Hyde starts off looking like a swarthier, darker-haired and caliginous version Jekyll, gradually evolving into what could be mistaken for a long-lost Marx Brother. That allows Tracy to give free rein to the all-too-human monster within, and this take on Hyde is all the more believable for it. This is the familiar embodiment of the self-absorbed asshole who courts and creates trouble and misery for all around him, taking sadistic pleasure in his sheer palpable malevolence intimidating those unfortunate enough to cross his path. A hateful expression of the male at his very worst and most unchecked, Hyde is the most loathsome kind of bully in that he won't hesitate to follow through on the promise of his intimidation, gleefully stooping to excessive physical violence, rape, and outright murder, and he could not care less about any possible consequences of his foul actions. His lack of such blatant physical cues to his demonic nature as fucked-up teeth, coarse body hair, and claw-like hands only bolsters Hyde's evil and renders him as horrifically mundane as a wife-beater, a date-rapist, or the common violent street thug. 

The element in the film that resonated most strongly with me was the plight of the story's women, neither of whom get what they want or need and are destroyed by the man to whom they would gladly give their love. Beatrix is on hand to be perpetually frustrated, first by the machinations of her father and later by the existence of Hyde, thus her virginal innocence serves as a sexually and emotionally-stifling trap. Ivy, on the other hand, makes it crystal clear that she is no stranger to the pleasures to be had with men, has an endearing lust for life, and a working class earthiness that radiates sensuality, but those healthy attributes are crushed like so many dried flowers beneath the heel of Hyde's shattering abuse. The Madonna/whore dichotomy may be a bit on the nose but it is given vivid expression as part of an hallucinatory vision during Jekyll's first transformation into Hyde. Jekyll sees himself in the role of a fevered carriage driver, viciously whipping a pair of horses into a crazed gallop, only to have the equines morph into nude representations of Beatrix and Ivy.

The whore and the Madonna, galloping mares in Jekyll's transformative vision. 

So, yeah, there's a hell of a lot going on here that would have seemed boring or ordinary or simply gone over my head when I watched it as a kid, but a solid knowledge of grownup cruelty and dysfunction gained over the past four decades or so helped shed light onto the worthiness of the 1941 DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. It's a surprising gem that I can't believe slipped past the watchful eye of the Hays Code, and I've gained a new and deep appreciation for it. If you have not seen it or if you, like me, wrote it off for not being a straight-up monsterama, it deserves a second chance.

 Poster from the original theatrical release.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2014-Day 30: THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963)

Not exactly my idea of a party snack.

All kids know what vampires are. We learn about them early from cartoons, comic books, TV shows, and of course the movies, but it's a real moment of growing-up clarity when we realize for ourselves that there's more to vampires than them simply lurking in the night in search of blood to sustain their un-deaths. I'm referring to the seductive/sexual aspect of the vampire, which could only be alluded to in the most tasteful of ways in the movies of yore. and which was easily missed by a pre-teen audience back in more innocent times, and my own personal first experience with that side of the undead suckface on screen came when I was around six years old and saw THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE — under the American television title of KISS OF EVIL — on the old Bob Wilkins iteration of CREATURE FEATURES during my family's years in South San Francisco.

THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE is one of Hammer's signature undead suckface flicks, bearing all of the earmarks of the studio's indelible style and flavor, though lacking some of the visceral oomph that garnered the brand's well-deserved rep. Set sometime in the early-1900's, the story focuses on a newlywed couple, Gerald (Edward DeSouza) and Marianne (Jennifer Daniel), whose car breaks down near the chateau of Doctor Ravna (Noel Willman) and his two adult children, Carl (Barry Warren) and Sabena (Jacquie Wallis). Ravna and his kids are the core of a vampire cult and the not-so-good doctor sets his sights on the toothsome blonde Marianne as their next disciple, so it's up to Gerlad and a man with a vendetta against the Ravnas, the booze-soaked Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans), to set things put the boot straight up some nosferatu ass.

Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman) beckons. In a case like this, the difference between seduction and rape is a matter of semantics.

While not as straight-up sexy as any number of other vampire antagonists in film, Dr. Ravna exhibits the classic attribute of dark seductive power that he wields quite effectively against Marianne, and it was during that seduction scene when my mind was opened to the concept of vampires using such a mind-trick to do forbidden things to pretty girls. I was too young to understand what rape was but when Ravna slowly mounts Marianne while she's wearing that red ball gown and hypnotized, there was no doubt that something "adult" was taking place, even when the scene cuts away from the action. And when a newly-vampirized Marianne is introduced to the cult, we see Ravna dress her in the group's white ceremonial robes, which gives the audience a tasteful glimpse of Marianne's unclad shoulder, an image that gets across the point that she was just naked in front of Ravna and the cultists. 

The glimpse of shoulder that introduced me to the fact that horror and sex often go hand in hand.

Though I was too young to know what it was, I recall with crystal clarity a pleasant shiver running through my wee naughty bits during those sequences and it gave me much to ponder over the next week or so. (It was also not long after that eye-opening bit of entertainment that the cute little girl who lived next door was kind enough to show me her most intimate of female anatomy — and it was her idea to do so — thus compounding the things I had to ponder, but that's another story altogether.)

And along with that early twinge of sexuality, the film also shook my perception with the means by which the story's heroes vanquished the vampire cult. Rather than the traditional holy water, garlic, crucifixes, stakes, and sunlight, Professor Zimmer, who lost his beloved daughter to the suckface Ravna, performs a black magic ritual that summons up hundreds of vampire bats, presumably from the very depths of Hell itself, to suck the cultists dry of their own ill-gotten fluids in a bit of ludicrous poetic justice.

It's Satan to the rescue! Yaaaaaay!!!

No, seriously. Zimmer calls on the power of FUCKING SATAN HIMSELF in order to win the day. Think about that one for a minute. As anyone who has even the most rudimentary understanding of vampires and how to kick their coffin-slumbering asses can tell you, their biggest weakness is all things related to Christian iconography and suchlike. To have Zimmer summon the blackest of black forces to get the job done is essentially saying "Fuck Jesus and fuck God, you gotta fight evil with evil!" and let me tell you that that approach confused the living shit out of me, being stuck as I was at the time in a churched-up household. Now that I think about it, this movie may have been the earliest work in media that added fuel to the pyre of my disbelieving heathenism.

So, THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, while not a classic along the lines of some of Hammer's other efforts in the same department, ranks high in my nostalgic estimation and I heartily recommend it to those who want to start their kids off on post-Lugosi vampire flicks with a non-explicit piece that works minor-league titillation and the totally unexpected deus ex machina of outright Satanism into the mix.

 Poster from the original theatrical release.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

DANZIG-ERA MISFITS + VINTAGE MONSTER FOOTAGE = BLISS

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2014-Day 29: THE MASK OF SATAN (1960)

The film's unforgettable opening moments: the sequence that ushered in the distinctive look and flavor of non-Hammer 1960's Euro-horror.

In seventeenth century Moldavia, the eerily beautiful Asa (Barbara Steele) of the house of Vajda is condemned by her brother to death for being a witch and consort of Satan, along with her servant/lover Javutich (Arturo Dominici). Before her accusers seal her fate by hammering a spiked bronze mask to her face, Asa curses her brother's descendants. Two centuries later, Asa's crypt is disturbed and she and Javutich rise from the grave as doubly-nasty witch-vampires with the blackest of intentions, namely to get their evil mitts on the innocent Katia (Steele in a dual role), a ringer for Asa who happens to be one of the accursed descendants of Asa's brother. Supping on Katia's blood will grant Asa eternal life, so it's only a matter of time until the house of Vajda's past catches up with it and makes good on its fell threats...

The Italians are an artistic, passionate people who have refreshingly never shied away from the bloody and gruesome — the fun had at the Roman Colosseum, anyone? — so it was perhaps inevitable that their cinematic forays into the horror genre would reflect that ingrained enjoyment of grue and nastiness. Helmed by the now-legendary director/cinematographer Mario Bava, THE MASK OF SATAN — better known to English-speaking audiences as BLACK SUNDAY — exploded across Italian screens with seismic effect, simultaneously paying loving tribute to the horror cinema that had preceded it while setting new rules in place for what would follow, and its impact was felt well beyond the confines of the Boot.

Atmosphere, thy name is THE MASK OF SATAN.

THE MASK OF SATAN bears the influence of decades of monochromatic horror outings, most particularly the Universal horror cycle of the 1930's and 1940's, with its levels of eerie atmosphere a reflection of those films as filtered through Bava's artistic eye. Bava had a flair for providing his fantastical films with a sense of heightened unreality that lends the films their own narrative-specific visual logic and believability, and this film reads like a very dark Gothic fairytale. There are fog-shrouded forests, remote hillsides, a castle complete with spiderweb-draped underground tombs, thunder and lightning, and at the heart of it all, the Stygian presence of Asa, a truly scary arch-fiend who was something of a revolutionary figure for the genre at the time. There had been female monster prior to her arrival but their function was more often than not decorative rather than horrific, and Asa turned that around big-time. Her double-threat of witchery and vampirism are immeasurably bolstered by Barbara Steele's singular eerie beauty, even when her face is newly-regenerated and still bearing the wounds inflicted by the masked that was forcibly nailed onto her face.

Energized by drops of blood, Asa regenerates as her empty eye sockets grow new orbs (an effect accomplished with back-lit poached eggs being pushed up into a life mask of Barbara Steele).


Asa lives again and immediately gets down to the job of seduction.

When bearing in mind the horror climate when Asa showed up, she really must have come as quite a shock, especially with her undisguised Euro-style sexuality. Fresh from the slab and with a face full of holes, she puts the moves on the doctor who unwittingly reawakened her, so if you think about it you can also add reverse-necrophilia to her list of offenses. That's some pretty heavy shit for 1960! Seeing it as BLACK SUNDAY when I was a small child really did a number on my head as I tried to process its content. I had been exposed to scary stories in fairytales and some early exploration of horror movies on TV, but BLACK SUNDAY was my first encounter with adult-level scares and it left a permanent mark upon my imagination and sensibility. 

Javutich (Arturo Dominici) rises from the grave. This sequence scared the shit out of me when I was little.

The film's atmosphere-drenched imagery is truly the stuff of nightmares and its aesthetics seared themselves into the genre's DNA the second it hit the screen. The visual mood bears an almost-palpable sense of dread things lurking in the shadows just out of our sphere of perception, and the dusty, web-festooned tomb set is the kind of place where it is simply impossible for anything good to take place. I could go on and on but in short, THE MASK OF SATAN delivered its creepy excellence  to the audience on a silver (screen) platter, and in no time it was influencing other genre entries. Case in point: during my re-watching of classic horror films for the 2012 edition of 31 DAYS OF HORROR, I sat through the excellent Mexican shocker THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN (1961), and as I watched its horrors unfold I had a strong feeling that I'd seen it before and I could not understand why. Sitting through THE MASK OF SATAN again during this year's research/refresher finally answered that question, because THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN owes a massive debt to what Bava had wrought a year prior to its release. In fact, if I were being unkind, I would tar THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN with the epithet of "bold-faced ripoff" for just how much it "borrowed" from THE MASK OF SATAN. (That said, I love THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN, so I'll just shut up from here on out.)

The bottom line is that THE MASK OF SATAN/BLACK SUNDAY was a game-changer that still resonates some fifty-plus years later, and seeing it again for the first time in ages — and in the uncut European version, no less — was like a long-overdue reunion with an old friend who taught me something of great import long ago. I adore its every tenebrous frame and looking at it again from my just shy of fifty-year-old perspective, I rank it among my Top 20 horror films of all time. Your mileage may vary but I urge you to give it a serious look and judge for yourself. Films of this nature are rare treasures and should not be missed. Now, if only one of NYC's classy revival venues would run it projected on the big screen so I could see it all proper...

Poster from the original U.S. release.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2014-Day 28: ZOMBIE (1979)

What is it about zombie movies that always makes me hungry?

Once again I have tried. I swear to god, I really tired, but after over three decades the appeal of the Italian-made ZOMBIE continues to completely elude me.

When George A. Romero's epochal DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) made it over to Italian screens and blew audiences away with its unprecedented prefect fusion of intelligent script, completely believable acting, hardcore gut-munching explicit gore, and overall quality filmmaking, it was only a matter of time before the cinematic knockoff artists from the land of pasta and awe-inspiring tits began cranking out shameless cash-ins. To the best of my knowledge, director Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE was the first and probably most high-profile of the DAWN clones, and I distinctly remember being intrigued by ads for it on local TV when I was in junior high school. (The film was released in the States during the summer of 1980, a little over a month before I hit high school.) It was one of those flicks that made a big noise in its ad campaign about admission to those under the age of 18 being totally out of the question — in other words skirting the MPAA's regulations on gore and violence by essentially giving itself a self-imposed "X" — but I did not see ZOMBIE until it ran during one of the  now-legendary (to us locals, anyway) "Scream All Night" festivals at Norwalk, CT's Sono Cinema, a beloved venue where I got my most concentrated doses of early education in projected cult movies. By that point I had seen and loved DAWN OF THE DEAD, so I was eager to see the film that in Italy was released as ZOMBI 2, cribbing DAWN OF THE DEAD'S Italian title, ZOMBI, and attempting to fool audiences into thinking it was a direct sequel to Romero's masterpiece. What I got when I finally saw Fulci's knockoff was a 91-minute endurance test that lacked everything that made the film it was attempting to cash in on excellent. It was boring, the plot was perfunctory at best, and the gore was merely present but not inspired in the least. To be fair, even the cheapjack and genuinely awful movies of Herschell Gordon Lewis packed more of a visceral wallop than ZOMBIE, and some of those films predated it by nearly two decades.

The non-scary, ultra-dull and un-interesting plot involves an investigation into the disappearance of a research scientist, an investigation that leads to a tropical island where the flesh-eating dead walk the land, blah blah blah... It's all just an excuse for its gore sequences, and the film lays there on the screen like week-old roadkill when gore, violence, or nudity is not taking place. Seriously, I was at a loss to explain the film's popularity just over three decades ago and I'm just as amazed by the movie's enduring popularity among horror and gore fans today. I know there's a certain undemanding element in horror fandom that will heap kudos onto just about any piece of shit as long as it features zombies or a modicum of blood, disembowelment, and cannibalism, but should those elements automatically grant a pass to a film so unrelentingly turgid?

So, having established that ZOMBIE basically sucks, please allow me to note the three factors that assured it would live forever in my memory and the memories of others who have sat through its onslaught of torpidity:
  • Aside from one bargain basement zombie attack on a derelict yacht, nothing much happens during film's first half-hour, so Fulci kindly throws in a gratuitous topless scuba scene featuring actress Olga Karlatos. During her prep for the dive and while she's swimming beneath the waves, the camera lingers all over her toothsome flesh in a successful effort to awaken dozing male heterosexual audience members (and possibly attending lesbians). And considering that she clearly possesses a bikini bottom, what happened to the top in the first place? Not that I'm complaining, mind you, but still...

When your horror movie is tipping over the edge into torpor-inducing boredom, it's time for titties to the rescue!
  • There are two other "money" sequence to be had in ZOMBIE, and to me the most memorable is the bit wherein a zombie gets into a fight with a tiger shark. While the topless scuba enthusiast makes her way along the sea bed, she encounters the aforementioned shark and hides from it behind a handy outcropping of coral. That's when a zombie happens to be shambling by underwater and makes a grab for her, which she eludes (accompanied with loving closeups of her bikini-clad crotch as she swims away).  The zombie then sees the shark and decides it would make a suitable snack, so the two tussle for a bit while the zombie bites a chunk out of the shark's underside and the shark pays the walker back in kind by depriving it of its left arm. It's a ludicrous moment and extra-funny when coming just at the ass-end of when the JAWS craze was finally petering out, and its unexpected audacity only makes it that much better. Plus, one has to wonder just how they managed to pull of such a sequence with what's clearly a very real tiger shark. My money's on very strong tranquilizer darts.

Now that you've seen this admittedly innovate image, you don't really need to sit through the film in its entirety. You're welcome.

  • The other big money shot, and definitely the one that most fans of the movie cite as the reason for the film having a soft spot in their hearts, is the bit where a trapped woman is slowly dragged by a zombie toward a jagged piece of wood that's on an inescapable collision course with her unprotected eyeball. That sequence provides the film's one moment of genuine suspense, but it's undone when an unconvincing dummy head and eyeball are necessarily substituted for the actress at the moment of ocular penetration. The first time I saw it I thought it looked like someone stuffing a splinter into a marshmallow, and it still looks that way to me. I suppose the sequence's enduring power for most viewers has to do more with the idea of the old "injury to the eye motif" than the actual execution of the effect. Yeah, it's conceptually nasty but it's nothing I couldn't have handled when I was as young as nine years of age.

 The old "injury to the eye motif," as it was called when such material was discussed relating to explicit comic books in the 1950's.

So, by now my disdain for ZOMBIE should be clear, and I'm glad to say that viewing it again for this year's 31 Days of Horror has cemented my opinion on it, thus allowing me to finally be done with it once and for all. That said, your mileage with it may vary. I'm over-saturated on zombies thanks to nearly two decades of them being perhaps the most ubiquitous horror presence in pop culture, but most folks I know just cannot get enough of the undead, no matter how sub-par the works featuring them may be. And for the record, I have seen several zombie movies that are far worse than ZOMBIE in every respect, but I nonetheless only recommend this film for undemanding zombie movie completists.

Poster from the original U.S. theatrical release.

Monday, October 27, 2014

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2014-Day 27: TRIANGLE (2009)

They would have been better off if left to the mercy of a legion of ravenous sharks. No, seriously.

Harried single mom Jess (Melissa George) experiences odd lapses of focus and memory while caring for her autistic son, but she nonetheless makes takes up the invitation of her friend Greg (Michael Dorman) for a day out sailing on his yacht, the Triangle. When Jess arrives without her son, whom she was supposed to bring along, she states that he had school, which is not as odd as it seems because his special-needs school is open every day. Still exhibiting signs of strange behavior, Jess, naps for a few hours in one of the yacht's cabins and has a vivid dream in which she's apparently washed up on a beach.However, there is no time to ponder her strange vision as a frantic distress call from anther vessel is received, only to be interrupted by interference from a bizarre localized storm of epic proportions that capsizes the Triangle. One of the six-person party is apparently lost at sea, but the survivors soon note the approach of the Aeolus, a cruise ship that they board despite its arrival setting off feelings of deep dread in Jess. Once aboard, they discover the huge liner to be deserted, and Jess experiences strong feelings of déjà vu...

Melissa George as Jess.

It is at that precise point, around a half-hour into the film, that things get majorly weird and dire, and I cannot in good conscience discuss the plot any further without possibly giving away a truly interesting, intense, and (mostly) original exercise in terror that does a serious number on the audience's head. I can't even run most of the pictures that I found from the film for those same reasons, so I'll leave this as a painfully short review, despite how very much I would love to discuss my opinions on its every aspect. All I'll say is that TRIANGLE bears similarities to a handful of other films and television series that I could name — but won't — but it takes those possible influences and paints them very, very dark, with a central mystery that becomes more perplexing, horrible, and inevitably shattering with each passing minute.

I know this short review may seem like a cheat, but trust me when I assure you that you'll thank me for my restraint when you see it for yourself. TRIANGLE, a UK/Australian production, is absolutely not merely a popcorn-munching way to pass ninety-eight minutes, and it is also not in any way a feel-good flick, so approach it with the knowledge that something quite special and a departure from today's soulless, cookie-cutter, so-called horror cinema awaits you.

(Special thanks for alerting me to this movie goes to Russ Braun, an uber-talented cartoonist and dear friend with whom I have often discussed our shared filmic interests at length. He loaned me his DVD of TRIANGLE nearly a year ago and for a number of reasons I never got around to it until now, but as a result of his strong recommendation of this film, I will take his suggestions very seriously from now on.)


Poster from the original theatrical release. Why the hell this was never released theatrically in the U.S. is something I cannot comprehend. It would have been a hit.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2014-Day 26: DOCTOR WHO "IMAGE OF THE FENDAHL" (1977)

The Fendahl: Proof that monsters on DOCTOR WHO don't have to be scaly, slimy, or composed of tentacles to be disturbing as hell.

It always comes back to Lovecraft.

In the present day of 1977, a group of evolutionary scientists run tests on a skull of a homo sapiens found during an archaeological dig in Kenya and determine it to be at least four-million years too old to exist. During one of the tests, the skull reacts and possesses the team's female member while also unleashing a swarm of deadly tentacled wigglies into the nearby area. Naturally such weirdness attracts the attention of the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker), who arrives to investigate with his future-savage companion, Leela (Louise Jameson). What they discover is best summed up as "DOCTOR WHO collides head-on with H.P. Lovecraft," as a diabolical cult led by one of the scientists seeks to awaken and control the Fendahl, a gestalt entity of great malevolent power and intent straight out of the mythology of the Time Lords (the Doctor's race). The Fendahl devours life itself and in the past destroyed at least one entire planet and its population, and when it arrived on Earth all those millions of years ago and went dormant after being buried, its influence may have borne heavy influence upon the development of the human species. But whatever scientific and evolutionary revelations the Fendahl's skull could yield, the baleful entity must be utterly destroyed lest planet Earth be the next to meet its fate ate the hands of the life-eater.

The Doctor attempts to communicate with the Fendahl entity. It does not go well.

If you want to get your kids into the whole Lovecraft flavor of horror, I strongly suggest starting here. "Image of the Fendahl" pretty much runs the gamut of the father of modern horror fiction's tropes and the result feels just like one of his WEIRD TALES yarns, only guest-starring the Doctor and Leela. Lovecraft's old school prose style is terrific for conjuring up mental images of formless, misshapen threats that drive men to states of gibbering insanity, but it's kind of quaint and a bit daunting to modern audiences that are used to their scares thrown in their collective face with little or no conceptual heavy-lifting, so dressing the Lovecraft ethos in the guise of DOCTOR WHO for a 1970's audience was a stroke of genius. A black magic cult, the summoning of an uncontrollable otherworldly terror, ancient rites and  artifacts, resurrected destructive alien gods, scientists messing with things best left alone by man, lesser creatures that reflect a much larger horror, minds shattered by un-human contact... It's all here and somehow deemed kosher for what's ostensibly a kids' program, though I very much doubt such material would have flown in an American children's show during its era. I mean, really, would an image like the following ever have been allowed on the after-school air ?


"Coming up next: Bugs Bunny and all your cartoon pals!"

I'd bet good money on the answer being a resounding "NO," so once again I give heartfelt kudos to DOCTOR WHO for going that extra mile and caring enough to truly put the frighteners on its young and avid audience. Don't want your kids to be a bunch of pussies? Then don't feed them pablum while treating them like idiots. Give them quality horror. It gets the survival instincts going and makes them think, and there were few other children's entertainments that seriously brought both respect for its audience's intelligence and genuine fear to the wee ones like vintage DOCTOR WHO. Accept no substitutes!

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2014-Day 25: LEMORA — A CHILD'S TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL (1973)

Lila Lee (Cheryl Smith), the most innocent of the innocent, discovers things the church never warned her about...

Sometimes it's all right there in the title.

13-year-old Lila Lee (Cheryl Smith) is the beautiful daughter of a Prohibition-era gangster, a violent gunman who is a fugitive from the law after committing a double-murder. The girl has been raised in the church by a devout reverend and is as innocent and pure as the driven snow, but she still harbors affection for her criminal father. While on the lam, Lila's dad finds himself in the sinister town of Astaroth, where he is waylaid by a pack of vampires, and soon Lila receives a letter from him, urging her to visit him. Knowing her guardian would not approve, Lila runs away into the night, making her way to a depot where she catches a bus to Astaroth, a journey punctuated with ominous warnings from a creepy driver. As the bus passes through Astaroth's nearby swamp, the vehicle is beset by some especially-bestial roving vampires, causing the bus to crash. Upon awakening, Lila finds herself in the care of Lemora (Lesley Gilb), an imposing woman in black who lives with a number of ever-giggling and menacing kids. Innocent though she is, Lila swiftly becomes aware that Lemora is a queen vampire and that the entire town is overrun with vampires, including what used to be her father. Trapped in the town's perpetual night and surrounded on all sides by undead suckfaces, can Lila's purity and piety guarantee her survival?

Hell is for children.

LEMORA — A CHILD'S TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL is exactly what its title proclaims, namely a horror film that operates within a childlike realm of terror. The entire film looks and feels like a kid's fever dream of dark places, ominous grownups, scary children and, of course, vampires (that further mutate into even worse creatures), and to me it comes off like what you might get if you allowed a particularly together eight-year-old to script and helm a horror movie. It's shocks are strictly of the PG-rated variety but the lack of gore and violent action are more than made up for by a pervasive mood of a nightmare being acted out before our eyes. 

Creepy old crone Solange (Maxine Ballantyne), whose eerie a capella song about an old woman — possibly herself — is one of the film's highlights.

The acting is just broad enough to strike the delicate balance between child's-perspective exaggeration that works in the film's favor and over-the-top self-parody, and the performance of exploitation mainstay Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith is letter-perfect for the material. Like I said, it's basically a crazed kiddie film, and there are innumerable children's movies where little girl characters are played by adult women, so Smith natural waifish look made her a natural as Lila. She's clearly around sixteen or seventeen at the time of shooting the movie but she is totally believable playing a few years younger, and she exudes innocence on a collision course with unholy corruption. And speaking of corruption, the film features a strong lesbian subtext as Lemora attempts to seduce Lila to the Dark Side. Though couched as attempts at swaying Lila to willingly submit to becoming Lemora's undead, eternally-beautiful companion, adults will no doubt twig to the predatory sapphic vibe that Lemora puts forth, especially during the sequence where she bathes Lila while slipping her a drugged libation.

Seldom has getting squeaky-clean felt so dirty...

Lemora herself, while a ruling vampire, is far from the most evil examples of her breed. Yes, she's macking on an underage girl, but she's quite pleasant, which serves as an intriguing counterpoint to her chalk-white complexion, black-clad Victorian spinster/librarian look and obvious vampiric presence. Sure, she feeds on children who eventually become her undead, eternally-young minions, but she feels unease at the weird vampires who run rampant in the local wild, a pack whose alarming disfiguring mutations are a direct physical manifestation of the innate evil that lay within them before they were turned. In fact, it seems that her goal in seeking Lila's vampiric transformation has a lot to do with Lila's unabashed innocence, which would allow her to not physically degenerate like the hideous wild suckfaces. We fear Lemora solely because we know what she is and what she is capable of, not due to any truly aggressive nastiness on her part. She consumes human blood solely in order to survive, and she appears to be quite lonely, so she's actually somewhat sympathetic. That aspect really struck a chord in me when I saw the film as a youngster, and I consequently never forgot it.

Who can't relate to the need for companionship.

LEMORA is very much within the same territory as the kid-oriented INVADERS FROM MARS, and the two would make for a cool double-feature for one's children on a rainy afternoon. (I suggest paying attention to your kids' reactions if you opt to run the films, mostly to see the look of "What the fuck?!!?" on their faces when confronted with the films' bizarre, oneiric twist endings.)

Cover art for the DVD release.

Friday, October 24, 2014

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2014-Day 24: MOTHER'S DAY (1980)

There's nothing like backwoods hospitality...and this is NOTHING like backwoods hospitality.

The "wrong place, wrong time" sub-genre, in which innocent people meet appalling fates when outside of their familiar environment, has yielded some particularly twisted fruit for decades. PSYCHO, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, DELIVERANCE, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, SOUTHERN COMFORT, EDEN LAKE, list goes on and on, but the example of this niche that came as an interesting effort at the dawn of the 1980's slasher era was the indelible MOTHER'S DAY.

Every year, a trio of college friends, Abbey (Nancy Hendrickson), Jackie (Deborah Luce), and Trina (Tiana Pierce), get together for a retreat to some location where they can catch up, reminisce, get high, and reaffirm their deep bond, coming away from the experience knowing full well that while other aspects of their lives may come up lacking, they will always have each other's backs. This time around the women decide to camp out for the weekend in some remote, wooded area of New Jersey, only to unwittingly find themselves in the territory of punk-rock-loving Ike (Holden McGuire) and disco advocate Addley (Billy Ray McQuade), a pair of insane brothers who do unspeakable things to interlopers simply because they can, all with the enthusiastic and supportive approval of their aged mother (Rose Ross). Operating in the middle of nowhere, discovery by the authorities is a virtual impossibility, so if Ike and Addley get you, you're done, and inevitable death is the very least of your worries.

Ike (Holden McGuire) & Addley (Billy Ray McQuade): "Punk sucks!" "Disco's stupid!!!"

Shortly after their arrival at a chosen campsite, the women are kidnapped in the middle of the night and hauled to the ramshackle abode of the sociopathic family, where they are to be systematically brutalized for their captors' amusement. With their sensibilities informed by junk culture, the boys set up role-playing scenarios that humiliate their terrified victims before savage beatings and rape, and Jackie, the group's sad sack, is unlucky enough to be picked as the first "participant." While her bound and gagged friends watch helplessly, Jackie is battered and raped by Addley while Ike merrily snaps Polaroids, after which the boys are allowed to keep her in their room overnight, though their mother cautions them about being too tired the next morning. (*shudder*) On the following day while the boys train, the women manage to escape, dragging the unconscious/in shock Jackie along, but Jackie soon dies from her abuse, so her friends steel themselves for a trip back to the home of their tormentors to grant them the gift of vengeance every bit as savage as that which was inflicted upon them. And then some. Oh, and what about the possible presence of the legendary Queenie, the hairy and bestial sister of Mother?

Mother (Rose Ross) proudly surveys her sons' handiwork.

Opening a mere four months after the genre-defining FRIDAY THE 13th (1980), MOTHER'S DAY was likely already in progress when its more influential contemporary hit the nation's screens, but it would not be impossible for it to have been rushed out in an effort to capitalize. The only real set is the mad family's house, a residence that looks just a little bit more put-together than an actual run-down derelict in the middle of the local woods, and the gore — effective though it certainly is — would not have required more than a few hours of pre-filming preparation, so for all I know MOTHER'S DAY could have been shot over a period of about a week. Anyway, it appeared seemingly overnight in the wake of FRIDAY THE 13th and wielded considerably more mystery to us under-age would-be attendees because instead of a straight MPAA rating it bore one of those warnings that amounted to a self-imposed "X." Not even the slaughterhouse thrills of FRIDAY THE 13th went that far, so MOTHER'S DAY must have been really nasty! Sadly, none of us kids stood a hope in hell of seeing it during first-run, so we had to wait until it hit VHS years after the fact, but it turned out to be worth the wait.

By the time I and my peers finally got to see MOTHER'S DAY, we'd experienced most of the cookie cutter slasher flicks that helped define the zeitgeist of our generation, so we expected just another splattery ninety minutes of farming tool-fodder trotted out to sate our gorehound appetites. After close to a decade of the likes of the turgid HUMONGOUS, a succession of ever-worsening FRIDAY THE 13th sequels, and the unintentional hilarity of NAIL GUN MASSACRE, we had learned not to expect such luxuries as plot or characterization, so MOTHER'S DAY came as something of a surprise. Yeah, the trio of protagonists could pass for escapees from any number of post-collegiate reunion/nostalgia flicks and the villains were like  an even more nightmarish version of characters straight out of a vintage E.C. horror comic (only writ more explicit thanks to a pop-cultural distance of nearly thirty years), but they all had identifiable character that made them interesting and worth spending the film's running time with. Ike and Addley fascinate me because of what we see of their family dynamic when they're not out murdering and raping.

A nutritious breakfast with Addley and Ike.

They're like any other rough-and-tumble brothers; childish, ever-bickering and blame-casting,
engaging in an amusing perpetual debate over the relative merits of punk as opposed to disco, with only their physical age and grown-up bestial lusts belying their seeming pre-adolescence, and only their equally-warped mother wielding control over their borderline-feral wildness. They are true cases of arrested development, a state ensured by their controlling and needy mom, and their state is not at all helped by what appears to be a certain degree of mental retardation or the results of heavy-duty in-breeding. In short, they are man-child animals of the worst, most dangerous order; vile, all-too-human forest-dwelling bogeymen who know every inch of their backwoods home, and it is their non-supernatural humanity at its most base and lawless that makes them prime nightmare fuel. Their mother is certainly no slouch in the creepiness department, but her doting offspring make her look like a paragon of compassion and gentility.

MOTHER'S DAY is nasty, mean-spirited, and downright reprehensible in many ways, but I'll be damned if I don't find its every frame to be compelling stuff. It's my favorite of the many "city slickers vs. rednecks" movies and I recommend it to those who can handle its unsavory charms. All others are advised to stay out of the woods.

Poster from the original theatrical release.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2014-Day 23: INVADERS FROM MARS (1953)

I've said it before and I'll say it again: A horror story is a horror story, no matter what genre trappings it may be disguised in. Be it a musical, a western, a comedy, or what have you, the impulse of fear still remains. That aspect has most often been put to the test in films that are ostensibly science-fiction efforts, but look at movies like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956 or 1978) and ALIEN (1979) and try to convince yourself that they aren't straight-up horror. Another excellent case in point is the original INVADERS FROM MARS — the less said about the ill-advised remake, the better — which is at first glance a standard alien invasion flick from the flying saucer-crazed 1950's, but is in actuality a story of sheer, nightmarish terror told from the point of view of a child.

The waking nightmare begins in the wee hours when young David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt), an aspiring astronomer, witnesses a glowing green flying saucer land behind a hill near his house, settling in a large sand pit. David's father (Leif Erickson), himself a scientist, goes to check out his son's claims and disappears for a few hours, only to return bearing a face that reveals little or no emotion and a mean, angry demeanor that is the polar opposite of his established persona. In short order, David's mother, a neighboring little girl, and some of the local authorities also disappear into the sand pit, to the accompaniment of an eerie almost-choral sound, only to return as blank-faced, emotionless drones, each bearing a strange penetration mark on the back of their necks. The adults are clearly not to be trusted, so David seeks help at the local police station, where he meets Dr. Pat Blake (Helena carter), a health department professional who, thankfully believes the lad's story. Also on hand to believe and lend assistance is Dr. Stuart Kelston (Arthur Franz), an astronomer who knows David and now does work for the military. Kelston surmises that the alien presence is only the first wave of an invasion from Mars and that their point of arrival was strategically located near the site of a nearby experimental rocket base, so he alerts the military to what's going on. Things only escalate from there, with more alien takeovers of Earthlings (and the deaths by cerebral hemorrhage of those who are in danger of being caught), the active involvement of the military, and descent into the subterranean saucer where the descriptor "alien" doesn't do the environment justice. It's a close encounter of the most dire kind when our heroes meet the Martian intelligence and the hulking "mu-tants" it controls,  so what hope does mankind have against malevolent intent and super-science from across the stars?

Two of the Martian "mu-tants"...

...and the intelligence they serve.

If INVADERS FROM MARS was intended as a mere matinee time-filler for Fifties kiddies, I honestly wonder if the filmmakers realized they'd unleashed a film so unabashedly terrifying upon the audience of just over six decades ago. Looked at from an adult perspective it's still pretty good, but to really get the film's impact one either has to be a child when first encountering it or be able to look at it from a kid's perspective. The altering f mom and dad and other trusted, security-assuring authority figures is bad enough, but the film visually renders its proceedings with the look and feel of a particularly vivid nightmare one might have while majorly whacked-out on cheap Jamaican cough syrup. Familiar interior sets tend to be starkly designed and accented with the kind of bright lighting one finds in hospitals — a location and aesthetic that can trigger a response of dread — and what's supposed to be an all-natural hill and sand pit surmounted with a picket fence resembles something out of a German expressionistic painting. The interior of the Martian vessel is lit in greens and stark white, with smooth and virtually featureless surfaces, somehow simultaneously generating a feeling of open space and claustrophobia, perhaps in an attempt to convey an un-human sense of dimension. If Dr. Seuss had eschewed whimsy and embraced a Chesley Bonestell sensibility fused with Gahan Wilson's queasiness, the saucer's confines are what you'd get.

The cast is uniformly perfect for this narrative and special props go to Jimmy Hunt as David. His is an wholly-believable performance that never once falls into the kind of nauseating precociousness or cutesy bullshit that I so despise in the majority of kid actors' performances of its era. No tear-jerking, no mugging for the camera to appeal to grannies in the audience, just a boy caught in a fantastic and horrible situation, and he responds as any real kid would.

David (Jimmy Hunt) rages against the master Martian.

If memory serves, I first saw INVADERS FROM MARS when I was around five or six, just the right age for it and during my formative years as an addict for this kind of stuff, and its imagery and kinder-paranoia stuck with me for years afterward. I also saw the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS around that same time, and it was very interesting to absorb two very different takes on the horror of people we love losing their humanity; one from a viewpoint fueled by grownup Cold War nerves, and the other from the most hard-wired sense of childhood security, only to have that parental/authoritative reassurance inexorably shattered. Though rooted in the early 1950's, INVADERS FROM MARS is a timeless exercise in fear and being forced to deal with things that one simply cannot handle, so sit your little ones through it as soon as possible. It's a dark 20th century fairytale that doesn't bullshit its audience, and it was that respect for its young audience that endeared it to me so long ago. Sure, it has an ending that is one of the handful of definers of its particular trope, but just when you're ready to get pissed off, it manages to pull off a double-twist that redeems what would have otherwise been a lame climax. That, dear readers, is what I call artistry, and INVADERS FROM MARS is absolutely a solid work of nightmare art.

Poster from the original theatrical release.