FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: Island of Dr. Moreau (1977)

Dangerous Adventures Make the 1977 Island of Dr. Moreau by Kristin Battestella

AIP’s 1977 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau directed by Don Taylor (Escape from the Planet of the Apes) pairs down the half man half animal mad science to its core themes with claustrophobic symbolism and strong performances anchoring the beastly adventures as shipwrecked Andrew Braddock (Michael York) is taken in by the isolated scientist Dr. Paul Moreau (Burt Lancaster). Also on the beautiful but dangerous island are Moreau’s enchanting adopted daughter Maria (Barbara Carrera) and his crusty assistant Montgomery (Nigel Davenport). Braddock, however, discovers there are more monstrous inhabitants – victims of Dr. Moreau’s twisted experiments – leading to a struggle of wills, abominations, and control.

The silent vast and empty blue ocean open The Island of Dr. Moreau with a tiny boat and one small, desperate survivor bearded and thirsty. Epic music mirrors the hope of this green, lush island oasis, but hanging vines, uneven terrain, and booby traps belie this paradise said to be one thousand miles from nowhere. Fenced in buildings with food, bedding, mosquito netting, books, and fresh clothing appear civilized, however dangerous animals are said to roam the island and one should never leave the compound after dark. Idyllic pets and pleasant races in the woods lead to strange sounds in the night and “muffled roaring.” Viewers think we see something amid the rustling leaves but we don’t know what. Hunched creatures, creepy servants drinking from puddles like animals, and more “special” types of people on this island are in need of Dr. Moreau’s care – and his laboratory is complete with a menagerie of wild cats, cages, and shackles. Rearing horses, chases, fear of the unknown, and unanswered questions are difficult for men who like to know and control all when exploring the natural or unnatural boundaries they should not. The once lovely island locales become increasingly congested environs as the external out of control science closes in on the body sacred thanks to serums, syringes, and surgery. Why would a doctor create such suffering animals now made partially people? Are the hairy inbetweens and experimentation in the name of science worth the loss of one’s morality? The civilized man must defend himself in caves where unwelcome, monstrous, man made creatures have their own laws – not to walk on all fours, not to eat flesh, no taking of life. Gunshots scare away fierce offenders, for these animals given speech and rules remain controlled through fear. Will these hybrids remember what humans told them to say and do if they regress to their innate ways? After all, to study nature, one has to be as remorseless as nature, which has its own sense of justice, selection, and violence to match our undeniable ability to destroy. Dangerous tiger attacks, mercy killings, and angry mobs with torches lead to blood and pain in well paced action as power devolves into anarchy. Although The Island of Dr. Moreau’s symbolism is apparent, the sentiment doesn’t hit the audience over the head thanks to a multi-layered cycle of man made monsters and men made gods.

Dr. Paul Moreau showed signs of brilliance in his youth and loves to converse about emerging technology, but Burt Lancaster’s (From Here to Eternity) extensive academic has been here in his own paradise for eleven years. His colleagues opposed his work, criticizing his theories on the nature of good and evil, to which even Moreau agrees he doesn’t have all the answers. Fortunately, he admires Braddock’s intelligence, explaining to him the need to help his fellow human beings by controlling all stages of life whilst also keeping him at the compound and withholding the details of his trial and error experiments to save mankind. Moreau thinks what he is doing is just – making his work all the more frightening when the results aren’t as he hoped. The doctor gets angry with his whip when his creations remain animalistic. He speaks to his subjects about the law from his rocky pulpit, lording over those punished in his house of pain with his white suit and halo-like hat almost as if Elmer Gantry turned to dastardly mad science. Moreau thinks he can tell an animal he is human and it will understand. He wants his flock to obey Braddock – Moreau needs a successor to continue his delivery of science from cruel butchery and dissection. However, Braddock is a man who doesn’t do what he’s told, and Moreau is determined to use his tough love science to prove Braddock’s true nature. Unfortunately, Moreau is threatened by his own cause, unaware his do as I say not as I do superiority does not give him reign over his creations. Formerly of The Lady Vain, the situation goes from bad to worse for Michael York’s (The Three Musketeers) rugged seaman Braddock. He’s curious about the island, reads, questions where everyone came from and if there are nearby places. He walks the coast and repairs his damaged boat – the audience is on his side as the handsome hero uncovers the askew science. Alas, Braddock is too inquisitive for his own good, in over his head and meddling where he shouldn’t. He must learn to abide by this island’s rules or he will be punished for his interference. Braddock becomes desperate to remember who he is and where he comes from in all this upside down, and The Island of Dr. Moreau is a fine two-hander between its leading men – father and son figures where the elder won’t get his way thanks to the new, stronger man. Though often sweaty and shirtless when proving his macho, Braddock becomes embarrassed by his animal instincts. Ultimately, he buttons up his clothes when these dire circumstances force him to show he can behave like a civilized man. Barbara Carrera’s (Never Say Never Again) stunning image of beauty Maria, however, answers only to Dr. Moreau’s commands. He raised her, and initially, she keeps her distance despite Braddock’s romantic interest. Although the tender, sensuous explorations are well done, viewers know we shouldn’t trust the frolicking strolls along the beach as she gives in to her passion. Carrera doesn’t really have a lot to do, but Maria’s an innocent young woman, a blank slate being shaped by her in the wrong father figure and a lover who would take her away from the island when she’s afraid to go. Nigel Davenport (A Man for All Seasons) as Dr. Moreau’s gruff assistant Montgomery also has less to do than in the novel, but his cryptic attitude adds to the sinister isle orchestrations. He tells Braddock to get over the shock of it all, for he sleeps better on this island than anywhere else. Ironically, this man who chooses to be subservient because he lacks humanity becomes a problem once he does show sympathy.

Safari hats, white linen suits, and lacy women’s frocks match The Island of Dr. Moreau’s turn of the century talk of fantastic flying machines and underwater vessels. Candlelight, lanterns, gramophones, longhand journals, leather volumes, and pistols add vintage to the emerging gear, telescopes, globes, and specimens in jars. Laboratory equipment, medical beds, and giant needles create disturbing science alongside creepy teeth, gross smiles, and distorted faces making the audience recoil. Granted, some of the animal make up is weak compared to contemporary designs – the noses, wild hair, and horns could be laughable but they are not thanks to the serious abomination implications. One red scarf becomes a symbolic bright spot in the otherwise earthy palette while foreboding shadows around the buildings instill fear thanks to the natural and unnatural sounds beyond the halos of seemingly civilized light at the compound. Pans over the mountains capture the divine Caribbean locales, but the point of view more often looks out the windows or in past the verandas as if the cameras themselves won’t leave this little oasis. Overhead spins parallel the disorienting jungle alongside well done chases and unseen monstrosities amid dangerous but beautiful bears and big cats in cages. Animal claws and growling effects set off disturbing mobs and vicious attacks before a fiery finale with blood on all hands accenting both the messianic savior visuals and Judas retribution hangings. While the classic horrifics and big performances make Charles Laughton’s 1932 adaptation Island of Lost Souls, the 1996 Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer version is a little too messy despite being more faithful to the novel than the excised bookends here. With its horses, weapons, upside down tone, ravishing brunette, intelligent spark, revealing pace, and primitive design; this Island of Dr. Moreau at times feels more like the original Planet of the Apes. Perhaps we are due for another fully realized Wells interpretation, however, I fear that today’s over reliance on CGI talking animals, motion capture special effects, and spectacle transformations would miss the point of the piece.

Even if such shock value isn’t as important as the scientific harbingers, the bitter parable with man meets beast violence here can still be uncomfortable for some audiences. This well known story of half animal, half human would also seem to get old eventually – audiences aren’t meant to be surprised anymore by the monstrous warnings of combining man and beast for one’s own gain. Nonetheless, The Island of Dr. Moreau remains a relevant conversation starter in today’s era of cloning, stem cells, and healthcare debates, and this well done adventure with fine performances is worth a fresh look.

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FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte

Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte a Delicious Gothic Treat by Kristin Battestella

Director and producer Richard Aldrich capitalized on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? with the chilling but no less sophisticated Southern Gothic examination of murder, gossip, and madness in 1964’s Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

After Charlotte Hollis’ (Bette Davis) father Big Sam (Victor Buono) insists she break off her dalliance with the married John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), Charlotte enters the cotillion covered in blood. Decades later, Charlotte remains an infamous murderess and recluse, living alone save for housekeeper Velma Cruther (Agnes Moorehead). The state of Louisiana plans to tear down the crumbling Hollis House to build a bridge, and with Doctor Drew Bayliss’ (Joseph Cotten) help, cousin Miriam Deering (Olivia de Havilland) returns to convince Charlotte she must leave. Unfortunately, ghostly violence terrorizes the women, blurring past crimes, contemporary suspicions, and deadly delusions.

Happening jazz, dancing, and 1927 good times hide the illicit schemes, secret elopements, and vicious murder opening Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. We think we’ve seen a cold-hearted kill thanks to intercut chopping, gruesome slices, and screams, but is this crime all it seems? Wind chimes and silent shocks lead to 1964 cemeteries and youthful rhymes detailing the chop chop legend of headless lovers as boys sneak in the desolate ballroom ruined by passion, scandal, and insanity. Construction vehicles rumble nearby, yet there’s a certain gentility to the venomous shouts. Everyone says miss or sir, using full names and regional colloquialisms despite the ten day eviction notice, paranoid conspiracies, suspicious old enemies, and secrets coming back to haunt one and all.

Talk of an innocent teen girl having a dirty affair with a married man and calling each other bitches was shocking dialogue at the time, but there are also regrets, tears, and wishful thinking of an inheritance that should have been well spent instead of wasted on the lonely, dilapidated decades.

The dramatically paced conversations are layered with talk of the past, current states of mind, double entendres, and shade – creating zingers and storytelling comforts before wardrobes that open by themselves, slashed clothing, crank letters, and unforgiving threats quicken the pulse. Creaking doors, cleavers, and severed limbs scare the women – our eponymous character may be a little mad, but others are experiencing the frights, too. Crimes of Passion magazine reporters are excited that now in the sixties they can play up the murder’s sex angle, and there’s no one to trust amid phantom figures strolling the grounds and ghostly harpsichord playing. Storms, lightning, and winds blowing across the balcony lead to breaking windows and shattered mirrors. Today we have crazy versus ghost horrors, but they are often teen light rather than sophisticated dramas with performances free to carry the murderous motives behind the frights.

Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte provides superb scenes with heavyweight talent, and revelations in the final act place the viewer within the footsteps, physical bouts, and shocking violence. The southern gentility degrades into cruel intensity as the sense of dread escalates without any need for in your face jump scares. Deaths we’ve seen happen are said to have happened entirely differently, and the women do what has to be done thanks to the men’s messes – be he builder, destroyer, father, doctor, or lover. Beckoning echoes and tormenting serenades are twisted, sad, and delicious all at once thanks to eerie masks, gunshots, headless suitors, and nightmares. Delusions revisit the original crime while chilling visuals, bitch slaps, and dead bodies rolled up in the carpet contribute to the hysteria. These dames won’t suffer for the lies, blackmail, and cruelty anymore, but the can’t take it with you and what was it all for pain serves up a few more frights before the madness is all said and done.

Is Bette Davis’ (All About Eve) Charlotte a crazy killer, abused, or just misunderstood? She’s mad, one minute, pushing planters off the balcony at construction workers, but demure in white, crying, and heartbroken the next. Charlotte’s an unreliable old woman dealing with trespassers and losing her home. She doesn’t need sympathy or company, just help in saving Hollis House. At times she is very sharp, but she’s also caught in the moment of her lover’s murder, dressed up and waiting for a dead beau. She knows the townsfolk think she got away with murder, however the audience likes her moxie. We’re on her side when the sheriff insists she only acts loony because it’s what’s expected of her, and we pity Charlotte’s sobbing sing-alongs to their song.

She wakes up in the night, for her fantasies are only real in the dark.  Charlotte used to be positive she wasn’t crazy, but now she isn’t so sure thanks to ghostly visions, medication, and nightly damaged she swears she didn’t do. Mad murderess or not, she is certainly scared, and the family pride, fatal disgrace, gossip, and the irony of letting go make for a sad vindication. Olivia de Havilland’s (The Heiress) cousin Miriam Deering tries to make it easier for Charlotte to leave, reminiscing and sharing fond memories of sliding down the banister. She makes Charlotte laugh, telling her not to pay any attention to trash rags, old rivals, or nasty letters but come back to reality. Unfortunately, Miriam can’t stop the state’s eviction, and she’s always looking out for herself first. Charlotte says her public relations job “sounds dirty,” and past tattle tales on who was the poor relation or favored daughter make Miriam wish she had never come back. Nonetheless, she increasingly takes over the household, packing and making Charlotte say goodbye to Hollis House whether she is ready or not.

According to Joseph Cotten’s (Duel in the Sun) Dr. Drew Bayliss, Charlotte has nothing more than a persecution complex. He insists the state’s condemned order is solely about the bridge construction and not Charlotte’s infamy – although he has looked into committing her but doesn’t have enough evidence. Drew calls himself an old man who missed out, regretting choosing his career and breaking off his past romance with Miriam. She, however, insists he’s too quick with his compliments and intentions. He flirts with her as he did in their youth, preying upon her even as he wants to protect her – giving her a handgun in case there are any more trespassers. Unfortunately, only more memories of the past come back and Drew wonders if Charlotte isn’t creating her own company and reliving her debutante days with newly fixed delusions. Surprisingly, only Agnes Moorehead (The Bat) as loyal housekeeper and sassy defender Velma Cruther received hardware for her performance in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte – a shiny Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe contrasting her crusty, cranky self. Velma dislikes Miriam, mocking her before sulking behind a column and muttering comebacks between her chores. Although initially humorous, Velma isn’t stupid. She tries phoning for help and confronts Miriam outright when told she’s being dismissed with the month’s wages. Velma only takes her orders from Charlotte, and the imminent tearing down of Hollis House does not mean she won’t be needed when the manor’s gone. Velma sees through Miriam’s high and mighty behavior in several taut confrontations that become scrumptiously physical.

Certainly there are a few superfluous characters – utility players dispensing exposition yet detracting from the taught hysteria, but Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon) makes the most of her brief time as Jewel Mayhew, the widow of Charlotte’s mutilated lover. Although Charlotte suspects Jewel is out to get her, she’s not afraid to tell Miriam and her vicious tongue off in public. Jewel is gravely ill and ready for the truth to be heard. Victor Buono (King Tut in Batman, people!) mostly appears in the prologue as Charlotte’s stern father Big Sam, but his threatening presence lingers throughout the film. He disapproves of some lothario like the married Bruce Dern (The ‘burbs) intending to elope with Charlotte and ruin the family legacy he has rebuilt – and his orchestrations ironically cause exactly what he was trying to prevent in memorializing the Hollis name. Unfortunately, George Kennedy (Earthquake) appears too briefly as the foreman ready to bulldoze the manor standing in the way of his bridge project. He’s tried being kind to Charlotte and objects to her shooting at his crew. It might have been interesting to have seen him appear more as a physical reminder of the ten day requisitions countdown, for at times the need to vacate for the tear down is almost forgotten in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte’s crazy horrors.

Art Direction, Cinematography, and Editing nominations abound for Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte thanks to excellent gray scale schemes, symbolic shadows, scary silhouettes, and askew camera angles that remain sharp on 4K screens. Overhead visuals peer into the scene with our point of view in tight for the harsh, angry faces or panning wide to capture the empty, stage-like mansion interiors. Choice zooms, distorted up shots, and foreboding down angles accent the spinning ceiling fans – we feel the congested southern heat despite breezy lace curtains, open windows, wispy willows, and dangling moss. Trees and balconies are high, but Hollis House is dimly lit with few candles at the dinner table and dark strolls on the veranda leaving room for those disturbing severed heads, phantom hands, and great horror effects. The expansive locales mean every scene takes its time, laid back with people made small in the Louisiana inside out lifestyle. There’s no rush to walk down the long corridors as mishaps belie the grand staircase and grandfather clocks tick tock. Barking dogs and silent pauses add to the atmosphere alongside the nominated Score with its angry crescendos, sad melodies, and bittersweet lyrics. Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte has ye olde big newspapers with thick headlines, flashbulb cameras, and $2.50 for a cab drive after which he’s told to keep the change! There’s a firmly sixties mood thanks to the big cruising cars, hats, gloves, white suits, and cigarettes – however the grandeur is also trapped in time with tall columns, wallpaper, tea in the garden, chandeliers, telegrams, leather libraries, and looming large family portraits. And bench car seats mean we see some good old fashioned slide across!

 

Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte has always seemed a little less beloved than it’s exceptional predecessor Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and video options remain slightly elusive thanks to unavailability on Netlix and a limited edition blu-ray. Some audiences may find the psycho biddy style too camp – at times there’s certainly over the top inducing laughter to the scary. At two hours and fifteen minutes, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte may also be too long and not all out horror enough for viewers accustomed to contemporary, formulaic slashers. For others there may not be full rewatch value once one knows how it ends, but Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is worth repeat viewings for all the graceful clues and nuances amid the Southern Gothic terror – remaining a gripping, can’t look away master class of chilling moments and staple performances.

FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: Tales from the Crypt Season 3

Tales from the Crypt Season Three Stands Out by Kristin Battestella

 

During Summer 1991, HBO’s Third Season of Tales from the Crypt delivered fourteen episodes adapted from the Tales from the Crypt, Shock SuspenStories, The Vault of Horror, and Haunt of Fear comic book canon – and nearly every half hour plot steps up the sarcasm, star power, and scares.

The ‘Honey, I’m home!’ opening of the “Loved to Death” premiere leads to something saucy in the kitchen but it’s just a bad script in progress by Andrew McCarthy (Weekend at Bernie’s) when he’s not fantasizing about his demanding actress neighbor Mariel Hemingway (Lipstick). Forget the old boombox and shoddy word processor – leather, lingerie, and boobs inspire his creativity and a watching big brother landlord speaking over the intercom braves him to knock on her door. Of course, she’s not interested until he’s successful, making for a bemusing mix of imagination and real world bitter from writer turned director Tom Mankiewicz (Live and Let Die). Unfortunately, subtle make up and costuming reflect the turnaround when a love potion makes the amorous too much to handle.

The Crypt Keeper, meanwhile is smoking in bed with a headless skeleton as the escaped Kyle MacLachlan (Twin Peaks) opens “Carrion Death” with dusty Arizona manhunts, motorcycle chases, and fiery accidents. The desert setting invokes a barren purgatory as a vulture waits amid the echoes, gunshots, race to the border, and loot blowing in the wind. The no water, talking to himself delirium may seem slow for some audiences, however the sardonic trek, gore, and just desserts escalate once the handcuffs are on and there’s no key.

Back to the Future star Michael J. Fox directs Terri Garr (Tootsie) in “The Trap,” for her nasty husband has a life insurance policy and a coroner brother-in-law who can help fake a death. Bemusing morgue saws, faux dead make up, and a bumbling cover story combine for over the top funeral wailing, cremation mishaps, and tropical hideouts. The askew trials, double crosses, and mistaken identity aren’t really horror, but the crime fits the screw here.

Likewise, the memorable “Abra Cadaver” opens with a black and white morgue, autopsies, pretty corpses, necrophilia quips, and dangerous practical jokes on Beau Bridges (Stargate SG-1) by Tony Goldwyn (Scandal). The color present has high tech lab equipment and research debts owed for these experiments on brain function after clinical death – studies done with ritual altars, folk medicine, and poisoned scotch. The distorted voiceover and overhead camera angles match this appearance of death as the acute senses remain to experience the meat locker, hooks, saws, embalming, and John Doe toe tags as the warped mix of science and revenge creates blood trickling down the screen twists.

The Crypt Keeper does a little Mashed to Pieces Theatre in “Top Billing” as desperate Jon Lovitz (Saturday Night Love) fails another audition. He won’t stoop to commercials like successful sellout Bruce Boxleitner (Scarecrow and Mrs. King), and this is an interesting commentary on the look being more important than the talent. Agent Louise Fletcher (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) says it’s commerce and product, not art, that sells tickets, winking to the viewer as oft comedian Lovitz is determined to play Hamlet with intense director John Astin (The Addams Family). Will he kill for the part? This little back alley theater at 895 ½ needs a real skull for its Yorick.

“The Reluctant Vampire” also begins with a traditional gothic atmosphere – before the alarm clock by the coffin and fang dentures on the night stand add modern humor as blood bank nightwatchman Mr. Longtooth Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) dreads Mondays and The Keeper reads Vampirism Made Easy. Manager George Wendt’s (Cheers) donation numbers don’t add up, so our sensitive vamp – who doesn’t drink direct from humans so he can respect himself in the morning – attacks an old lady’s mugger to replace his martini makings in the vault. Certainly he asks if his victim has any blood born diseases before filling up the water cooler. He’s saving the blood bank and taking a bite out of crime amid newspaper spinning montages, Transylvania soil myths, lighting candles at the snap of the fingers, and dangerous squirt guns with holy water. Van Helsing descendants are on the local talk shows, and Tales from the Crypt manages to be gothic and cute at the same time. Of course, Little CK has a Betty Croaker cookbook while womanizing reporter Steven Weber (Wings) keeps a tape recorder under the bed to get what’s off the record when, as they say, pumping a source for information in “Mournin’ Mess.” Hard nose editor Ally Walker (Sons of Anarchy) wants the scoop not drunk excuses, but suave spokeswoman Rita Wilson (Now and Then) spins the rhetoric on cleaning up the streets as the homeless murders mount. Dead witnesses and some literal cemetery digging lead to tunnels, coffins, skeletons, and underground revelations on The Grateful Homeless Outcasts and Unwanted Layaway Society, ahem, GHOULS. Although this starts off run of the mill, Tales from the Crypt continues to push the envelope with its grotesque.

As a kid I loved director Russell Mulcahy’s (Highlander) “Split Second” and even had it on one of several made ’em myself Tales from the Crypt VHS mixes! Foreman Brion James (Blade Runner) seethes over his sassy waitress with a reputation turned hottie wife Michelle Johnson (Blame it on Rio) while her short shorts and tank top get skimpier for new lumberjack Billy Worth (The Lost Boys, you know, the “Death by stereo.”) Axes, chainsaws, and the inherent dangers on the job immediately hook the audience as the camera reflects the peril, speed, and saucy games people play – leading to new power tools, a violent comeuppance, and plenty of blood splatter.

“Deadline,” however, would see drunk newsman Richard Jordan (Logan’s Run) clean up his act for particular hooker Marg Helgenberger (CSI). Although the narrative bookends are unnecessary, the newsroom clickety clack adds nostalgic pressure, and his cranky editor wants a juicy murder headline or else. Fortunately – or unfortunately – Jon Polito (The Crow) gives him an exclusive, ironic scoop on a crime of passion gone awry.

Tales from the Crypt’s tongue in cheek is in full swing for “Spoiled” as bored housewife Faye Grant (V) loves the over the top scandals of her favorite soap There’s Always Tomorrow. Her married to his work husband’s basement experiments may make medical history, but they interrupt her fantasizing, too. Good thing ‘Abel with the cable’ repairman Anthony LaPaglia (Without a Trace) is there with all the connection in the bedroom innuendo, drafting a bemusing life imitating art mad science mix and self-aware commentary complete with Tales from the Crypt on the boob tube. Like the soaps, the saucy isn’t actually shown – letting the male input and female boxes speak for themselves once the lovers play out their part.

Series producer Robert Zemeckis directs the supersized “Yellow” finale with general Kirk Douglas (Spartacus), his lieutenant son Eric Douglas (The Golden Child), loyal captain Dan Aykroyd (Ghostbusters), and gritty sergeant Lance Henriksen (Near Dark) facing the no man’s land trenches, explosions, and limbs lost of 1918 France. Battle failures, breaks in the communication line, family expectations, and the titular cowardice risk the chain of command, for this solider son refuses to kill and doesn’t want to be killed, undermining his father’s position as the enemy nears. Panic on the mission results in more slaughter and church held court marshals layer the religious iconography. It’s okay for fathers and sons to be afraid to die, and one’s a fool or a liar if he claims he isn’t – especially when facing the firing squad. This is a serious parable about real fear and horrors, yet the episode is not out of place. Who says Tales from the Crypt has to be all cheeky all the time? Rather than the expected juicy or sensationalism, this unique choice sells itself with innate intensity and cruelty for one of the series’ finest.

Of course, there are several less than perfect entries sagging Tales from the Crypt mid-season, including the late Tobe Hopper’s (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) star studded “Dead Wait.” The thieves are arguing over small scale island plantations and pitiful pearl treasures, and should be tense chess conversations fall flat amid red hair superstitions, voodoo talk, and witch doctor suspicions. Jungle fever romance with red king takes black queen quips and sweaty sex with voodoo drums compromise the hanging ram heads and dead chickens in the bed – playing into the very exotical stereotypes that the dialogue warns one to respect. Each eighties era horror anthology series seems to have a problematic voodoo tale, but they are always about a white man looking for something sexy and dangerous with an obvious turnabout. The gore and creepy worms are fine – this isn’t a terrible episode, but it doesn’t zing as it should.

The late night spoof with Whoopi Goldberg (Ghost) as The Crypt Keeper’s guest is more fun. Painter Tim Roth (Rob Roy) doesn’t get the showing he was promised and fantasizes about killing his agent in “Easel Kill Ya,” but some accidental violence and nearby deaths inspire his art. He channels his darkness into some gruesome canvases and sells the paintings to a creepy buyer, but he can’t keep up with the killer demand for his art. Again the fatal twists and obsessive performances aren’t the worst, but this tortured artist cum murderer plot is nothing new.

“Undertaking Palor” also has obnoxious punks at the movies complaining about being one short in the Milk Duds box before they scare each other and capture it on camera. They break into the mortuary to raise the frights in their amateur film making and unfortunately discover twisted little practitioner John Glover (Smallville) using a Shop Vac for his latest embalming. The ironic classical music and Pepsi with pizza while the creepy mortician works makes for some delightful Tales from the Crypt grossness, but the juvenile found footage Nancy Drew mystery weakens what could have been wild had we seen the morgue conspiracy from the inside perspective. The Crypt Jam music video feature on the Tales from the Crypt Season Three DVD set is also a humorous little rap with babes, gore, and highlights from the year in a fittingly oh so nineties fashion both embarrassing and hysterical at the same time. The features also cheat slightly by listing two panel segments, for the first fifteen minute bonus recounting the history of EC Comics mid-century history and their ongoing relevance in horror is just pieced together from the second feature – which is the full half hour Comic Con discussion with voice of the Crypt Keeper John Kassir, producer Alan Katz, and additional crew telling more behind the scenes tales and answering audience questions. This DVD set also goes right to the menu without the “Kill Intro” theme playing only once per disc as in the previous video releases, and I like being able to see that spooky house opening per episode.

There are less fifties abstract and colorful comic designs for this season of Tales from the Crypt, but the seedy dark palette feels a little more nineties grown up to match the mayhem. Lots of familiar faces in supporting roles lend an extra sophistication with old televisions, rabbit ears, Polaroids, or T-n-A as icing on the cake per the humorous or grotesque plots as needed. That newfangled frivolous cable and HBO freedom allows Tales from the Crypt to exploit many women with then nudity, abuse, and victimizing. However, the series also has numerous working women in positions of power or ladies that give back all the ills deserved and never get naked to do so. Occasionally, the hammy over does it with stunt casting and humor falling flat, but bigger names, chilling stories, plenty of gore, quality production values, and heaps of ironic horror help Tales from the Crypt step up its winking formula for Season Three for a macabre and self referential but no less twisted good time.

FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: Water Perils!

Water Perils! by Kristin Battestella

If you aren’t afraid of water, you may be after these moist movies and wet frights.

Cowabunga!

The Reef Sunrises and sunsets, stunning blue water panoramas, and lovely reef life create coastal bliss for this 2010 Australian fright loosely based on a true story. Shark teeth foreshadowing, statistics about the likelihood of shark attacks, and an inexperienced crewman aboard invoke the ominous to come alongside natural water fears, racing to beat the tide, trouble raising the anchor, and leaky rafts. Capsizing thuds, flooding, and underwater hectic don’t need any herky jerky action cam as the innate water movement makes the audience feel like we are there amid the missing keel, sinking hull, no supplies, and outdated distress beacon. It’s frightening when viewers can just make out the shark silhouette beneath the surface for themselves, but headless turtle shocks and false suspense moments go for cheap thrills. Instead of keeping us on edge with every chop in the water, over the top music tells the audience when something bad is happening.

Unlikable characters inspire little conflict amid a lot of childhood friends and lookalike blonde cliches – they are completely unprepared for any aquatic disaster and there’s no sense of ocean vast, the slow passage of time on the water, sunstroke, or thirst. These helpless followers holidaying on this deliver the yacht job are also over reliant on their macho, supposedly world water traveling leader who messes up tide times, can’t find north, and thinks they can maybe swim to an island perhaps twelve miles away. Wishy washy, don’t know they are in a horror movie stupidity compounds the uneven pacing as the strong girl, suddenly in tears, stays behind while others risk this uncertain swim before she changes her mind thirty seconds later so they wait in the possibly shark infested seas. The women rightfully call out the guy who orchestrated the trip under false pretenses before apologizing that its not his fault but yes it is. Weak men say they are tired and laugh over sex stories, breaking the swimming scenes to stop and stand on reef rocks rather than shape any kind of epic endurance risk.

Fortunately, seeing the nonchalant great white cruising past the hysterical people as they flounder and panic both justifies the yell at the television aspects and makes the viewer recoil. Mirage visions of land and thought they saw something paranoia frays the group as one by one they must leave the dead behind in the ocean. The fatal attacks are well done, and eventually – disturbingly – those remaining can see land but can’t get to it. Despite loose characterizations and an uneven narrative in need of taut focus – again all the negatives in low budget horror appear due to one writer/director wearing too many hats – overall this is well filmed with several quality sequences featuring fine scenery and practical shark work perfect for a late night scarefest.

You Make the Call, Addicts!

Black RockChildhood friends Kate Bosworth (Blue Crush) and Lake Bell (Boston Legal) revisit a Maine island with co-star/director Katie Aselton (The League) in this 2012 survival tale from writer Mark Duplass (of the 2014 Creep). Hip music, packing inventories, and crass jokes join the scenic drive to the horrors, but one has invited the other two ladies without telling each one, lies about having cancer, and admits she wants an we’re all dying anyway last hurrah.

Fortunately, the speedboat, cold water, and barren coast are already chilling as the women revisit a childhood map with old forts and time capsules. There are no distinguishing characteristics such as jobs or even last names, but it’s easy to see why the two similar brunettes dislike each other – none of them really seem like friends but they go along with their pushy blonde leader anyway.

Despite tough hiking and mosquito complaints one brunette can’t get over the other sleeping with her douche boyfriend six years ago. They shout and nearly come to blows as the blonde between them insists she isn’t taking sides just as she confers with one and not the other. Instead of discussing their problems, the conversation is of men and childhood lesbian crushes amid try hard cursing every other word.

Of course, there are three suspicious dishonorably discharged soldiers turned hunters on this island and the women are obviously their game. Fireside flirtations with drunken blow job talk reveal the once shy brunette as a tease liking attention who thinks a make out session will suffice. Unfortunately, these guys don’t play by the rules or take no for an answer, and assault becomes a typical plot point as each trio falls into bullying peer pressure from its strong arming leader. Our sexually dominate alpha male has a meek black follower and his white pal is perhaps so in love with his commander that he is impotent without the rifle he uses against the women. Rather than exploring catty women snapping in the isolated horror, men hit and bind them while the helpless girls say they fear rape – putting the sexual violence back in the minds of the weak trying to prove they are real men.

Though directed by a woman with an understanding of shit men, this is written by her husband as a male fantasy. These women are called cunt slut bitch and said to be getting their deserved symbolic impalings and kicks in the crotch for denying the superior war-fighting male his pleasure. Graphic gunshots, action filming, and chases in the woods are well done, and up close camerawork draws in the fear or intimidation. However, the mixed message on whether the violent men or the teasing woman is at fault takes away from the tense women’s point of view.

The jealous blonde insists they can’t escape and dislikes her previously at odds pals working together when they don’t need her to fight back – which becomes more male viewer titillation as the lookalikes strip off their wet clothes, panties and all, in the itchy woods with killer men in pursuit! The brash gal with the masculine nickname quivers as her once meek pal slaps her, and the cheek to cheek, heavy breathing, and hair pulling is almost sex scene coy. They walk around in the woods naked, bonding while making spears, yet for all the girl power, this becomes less about defending oneself over an assault and more about two women psyching each other up to slit a guy’s throat. Instead of a horror movie by women, for women, this becomes a bizarre he said, she said. It’s worth a viewing discussion, but it skews toward male tropes disguised as a women’s piece.

Versus

Lake EerieA widow moves to a too good to be true lakeside house in this 2016 ghost and genre bender. The white chic and bright windows should be quaint, but creepy furniture, old pictures, phonographs, and 1969 décor draft an increasingly spooky atmosphere. Old archaeology, retro phones, and voices on the radio add more bizarre while no cell reception, power outages, and doors opening or closing by themselves escalate the tension. Ghostly winds blowing out the candles and phantom figures in the hallway make not knowing where everything is and searching for the matches or kitchen knife heavy – simple but effective fears amid sandy footprints in the house, locked drawers, and undiscovered museum relics.

Concerned dad Lance Henriksen (Pumpkinhead) is only in a few scenes, but quirky neighbor Betsy Baker (The Evil Dead) knows a bit too much about the forty year vacancy, experiments, ancient amulets, and Egyptian mysticism. Attic searches and nightly visions create twists, and the inter-dimensional fantastic isn’t all it seems. Exposition told rather than seen, however, becomes suspect mumbo jumbo – the fantastical technicalities, time limits, and mystic jewelry get a little too preposterous. The dark underworld finale is silly, tossing in a nonsensical maze that unravels all the spooky happenings that were doing just fine. Rocking camera pans, loud music, and ghostly POV strobes are unnecessary annoyances. Poorly delivered voiceovers contribute to the amateur acting, and rather than help hide the weak performances, the directing and editing calls attention to them. This family production certainly isn’t perfect and ends up falling apart as it goes on – it’s obvious from the start but might have enough intrigue and fun bemusement if you can take this ghost cum mystical story twist for what it is.

FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: Forest Frights!

Forest Frights! by Kristin Battestella

Here’s a round up of wooded perils and forest fears – as if the ticks weren’t bad enough!

Bird Box Foreboding radio reports, risky rapids, blindfolds, and children not allowed to talk belie the lovely rivers and still forests of this 2018 Netflix thriller directed by Susanne Bie  (The Night Manager) starring Sandra Bullock (Practical Magic), Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story), Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight), John Malkovich (Shadow of the Vampire), and B.D. Wong (Awake).

Nothingness point of views from behind the blindfold accent the backpacks, lead lines, titular pets, riverside boats, and rowing toward the dangers unknown. If you look you will die, and mom means business as fog and water perils add to the lack of sight unease. Five years before, our mom-to-be is arguing with her sister and painting art full of disconnected, lonely people.

These women have realistic conversations with layered dialogue and familial quips, but the relatable doubts about motherhood and everyday big decisions degrade into mass crowds, suicide reports, sudden hysteria, and panic as something seen by some but not others results in slow motion car accidents, road rage, and shocking deaths. Unlikely strangers fearing demons or religious judgment and arming themselves are thrust together amid busy signals, screaming cell phone calls, no media, and no military help. Is this some new biological warfare making people see something that kills themselves?

Birds sense the danger and a faint growling, but cameras are to no avail and our family on the river will only remove their blindfolds when huddled under blankets as the story goes back and forth between their journey with static on the radio and our previously housebound survivors concerned with rationing and the pregnant women among them. It’s tough to think about baby names when electricity, supplies, and shotgun shells won’t last. No one was prepared for the apocalypse to happen that day. Do they let others inside their abode or listen to voices on the riverbank saying it is okay to take off the blindfolds? Desperate runs to the nearby supermarket for essentials such as canned goods, toilet paper, diapers, booze, and electronics use GPS only, with windows blacked out, tape over the cameras, and proximity sensors to warn when something comes near.

The slow burn suspense allows time for these disparate strangers to forge late friendships amid fears they are all going to die and debates about living versus surviving in these topsy-turvy circumstances. Some briefly consider staying in the supermarket – leaving others behind while they maintain all they need despite the escalating violence outside. Whiskey talking admits how bleak the situation is while others hope things may get better.

However, five years later our mother is still rowing toward the unknown possibility of safety as the family dangers on the boat increase. Of course, a few people do some foolish things, and there may have been other options than taking the most dangerous course of action. The supposedly helpful birds are useful or forgotten as needed alongside somewhat obvious metaphors about the people being who’s actually box-bound and resorting to new, heightened senses. Understandably, the tension escalates when outside influences are let in – one by one people are lost as suspicious newcomers knock and hopeful possibilities end with appropriately blunt gunfire and shootouts. Training to survive without sight becomes paramount while terror in the home, outdoor separations, and family sacrifices test the temptation to look.

Thanks to the courage and drama here with frights real and fantastic, there’s no need for any spoon fed twist, toppers, scary movie cliches, or bombastic  horror in your face. The multi-layered studies and suspense are well-interwoven, progressing naturally as the isolated settings allow the performances and storytelling to carry the must see intensity.

It Comes at Night Gas masks, bodies in the wheel barrow, and backyard executions open this 2017 thriller as rough and bearded Joel Edgerton (Loving) does what he has to do for his wife and son. It’s excellent to see an interracial family front and center – horror needs to stop being blonde babes all the time – but we know things won’t bode well for the family dog! The lone lantern light and shadows traveling through the expansive but boarded up log cabin add a certain sadness to match the sans electricity, long dark hallways, plastic sheeting, and one red door to enter or exit.

Pictures of good times line the walls – the days before this unexplained plague necessitated rifles, the defending of one’s castle, and shoot first ask questions later mentalities. What do you do when another family of three is in need of food and shelter? Flashlights, outdoor sweeps, and night time blues aide the tense family protection amid gory dream scares, body horror, and tied up intruders. Interrogations provide talk of precious water, sickness in the city, going off the grid, and trading for supplies. Men can understand these desperate measures when seeing to their families, but can they trust each other? A family conference votes to welcome the new trio in their secure homestead, yet the skeptical, suspicious, on guard feelings remain thanks to the desolate roads, car crashes, and gunshots outside.

There are rules to the home, too: they eat together, always travel in pairs, and never go out at night.The families bond over chores and even laugh when reminiscing about desserts or liquor, but barking, noises in the woods, and sleepwalking encounters keep everyone on edge. Testy accusations lead to separations and putting others at risk to save one’s own family. No one here is a bad person, but such extreme situations make good people do terrible things.

This claustrophobic parable remains tense and doesn’t overstay its welcome – but it didn’t need the extra horrors or double dream fake outs as the social examination scares and siege stress are enough. Although the unexplained elements continue the debate after the picture ends, it also seems like important staples go unclarified. Were they sick all along? Is there something supernatural at work or not? Some audiences may find the lack of answers a waste, but the subdued chills and bleak statements remain intriguing.

The Passion of Darkly NoonThe titular Brendan Fraser stumbles injured upon the unwittingly tempting Ashley Judd and her mute but charming boyfriend Viggo Mortensen in a surreal wood for this 1995 psychological thriller. While the DVD has low volume and an odd aspect ratio, there’s a golden glow and crisp country white to match the pretty outdoors and should be quaint cottage. Minimal music parallels the natural cricket sounds and rainstorms – but the idyllic springs and hidden grotto are no match for ostracized Judd’s tight tops, tiny dresses, and sweaty mellow.

“Extremist Ma and Pa picked my name from the Bible,” Fraser stutters over past cult persecutions. We don’t see the trauma he recounts but immediately sense the disturbed attraction and late blooming Oedipal complex as “Lee” remains buttoned up in the heat and standoffish, not hearing the notion to leave strict religious groveling for not necessarily sinful ideals.

There’s much to explore, a fresh start on a new homestead, but he’s too distracted by the nineties Skinamax. The naughty atmosphere rises with obsession turning into mea culpa harm, but Viggo (“He is Vigo! You are like the buzzing of flies to him!”) does well with no dialogue as the tensions mount. Backwoods colloquialisms add to the kooky yet friendly characters, but what’s with the literally flaming, giant, glittering shoe floating down the river? A Circus, elephants, apples, religious stewing – viewers must be in the right mood to digest this slow burn symbolism.

Hear tell of who’s crazy; a witch, or the monster of the woods adds to the secrets and rival testimonies. Is it an evil bewitchment when your husband has a heart attack over a tempting woman appearing in the forest? Fear mongering, curses for one’s sins, justice, punishment – where’s the happy medium beyond the escalating blood, barbed wire, and bizarre visions?

The brooding drama becomes increasingly unreliable as this purgatory cycle repeats, for each fanatical person entering this Eden-like grove ruins it a little more. A savage siege leads to red warpaint, hellish flames, and howling in a fine performance from Fraser, who is perhaps more known for his comedies rather than dramas. While this could have been totally horror or straight steamy, some serious, tender, or scary scenes are dated, laughable, and bemusingly infantile. Fortunately, this character study on passion as both sex and sacrifice is an interesting in limbo morality play with saucy fun and tempting extremes perfect for a late night trippy.

Pyewacket – Playing the daughter, Nicole Munoz (Defiance) invokes the eponymous evil to kill mom, Laurie Holden (The Walking Dead) in this 2017 Canadian parable featuring creaking forests, goth rebels, and can’t take it back terrors. Our widowed mother is doing her best to keep it together and wants a fresh start, but moving is the worst thing for a teen with awkward crushes and an inseparable BFF.

Relatable conversations on support versus instability, transferring schools, driving, and bad influences endear both ladies to the audience – even her friends insist parents are just as screwed up as teenagers. Music is in the background rather than overwhelming viewers, a realistic rather than Hollywood choice. As the camera follows this goth gang through the school hallways. We’re the fifth member of the group and caught in the middle from the backseat as the vengeful spell casting looms.

Pizza, a relatively small cabin, mom needing a weekend job, and say hey, a Latina lead, yes please – it’s as if writer and director Adam MacDonald (Backcountry) had a list of horror cliches and insists on how not to incorporate them. Although it’s not expressly said to be Halloween, fallen leaves, pumpkins, cawing crows, sage, chants, binding rituals, and blood bowls and owl motifs accent the occult primer. Despite the careful preparation and craft materials, there’s an underlying sense of a not listening teen doing something she shouldn’t – especially when mom apologizes and the gals bond over memories of the deceased. Her friends think this is all just acting out for attention, but soon enough indeed our daughter regrets the ritual. Unfortunately, a locked door can’t keep out Pyewacket. Ominous knocks and creepy attic access escalate to vehicular frights, and innocuous shots – shadows about the house, rustling in the woods – become suspect while we wait for the subtly disturbing entity.

Overhead slow spins and gradual zooms build unease as friends disappear before the camera shakes with unreliable delirium thanks to unfinished rituals, unexplained appearances, and darkness. Is this evil trickery mounting or is a scared teen roaming in the disorienting woods? Are forgiveness and reverse spells enough to put everything right when this festering horror was summoned in spite of, “be careful what you wish for,” warnings? Visions of the dead, distorted vocal inflections, rattling doorknobs, and pleas to be let in provide terror as this freaky manifestation is revealed. Some may not like the quick finale, but knives, gasoline, fiery mistakes, and a bitter comeuppance create a creepy atmosphere that does what it is says on the tin. Those skinny pants, however, are not going to look good in a few years.

FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: Thriller Season 2

Though Flawed, Thriller’s Second Season Remains Frightful

By Kristin Battestella
In 1961, Boris Karloff returned as host for Year Two of the spooky and suspenseful anthology series Thriller. With 30 episodes a season, the mixed focus on scares and scandal runs thin at times. However, several thrilling and frightful gems –with a few from Big K himself – keep this season entertaining.
Disc One of Thriller’s Second Year opens with an ill wife, an easy to suspect a husband, and pretty younger sister in “What Beckoning Ghost?” Directed by Ida Lupino (The Hitch-Hiker), the suspense, coffins, premonitions, wills, and funerary wreaths escalate the gaslighting versus supernatural possibilities. Smart shadow placement and quality editing on the toppers combine for a nice mix of both scary and crime – a positive blend in the identity crisis that will continually hamper Thriller. Also directed by Lupino and adapted by Charles Beaumont (The Twilight Zone), “Guillotine” sets the French flavor with slicing practice, dark prisons, and jingling shackles. The delicious intro from Karloff, crimes of passion, simmering pace, and seduction anchor the sinister poisons versus ticking clock executions. Although the plot boils down to a straightforward crime, the unique period piece tone and final twists make up the difference, and “The Premature Burial” ups Thriller in full on, macabre Poe fashion. Boris himself is involved with this dreary Victorian tale, its elaborate tombs, questionable deaths, and catalepsy – and this episode aired before the release of the 1962 Roger Corman film adaptation. The larger than usual cast, great costumes, and fancy sets add to the deceit, unfaithfulness, and obsession while the black and white accents the morbid fail safes, bells, turnabouts, and demented performances. More statues and fortune tellers highlight “The Weird Tailor,” written by Robert Bloch (Psycho) and also later adapted in the 1972 Amicus anthology film Asylum. The deadly sorcery mistakes here can’t be amended, but the special eponymous request leads to marital dysfunction, one unusual sewing dummy, and fine social drama amid the occult intensity.
Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched), Tom Poston (Newhart), and John Carradine (Bluebeard) start off Disc Two with the lighthearted, perfect for Halloween farce “Masquerade.” From a writer on a honeymoon and a stormy night breakdown to ominous music, the Psycho house setting the scene, and rumors of vampires afoot – even Karloff’s introduction is unabashedly in on the spooky winks, tongue in cheek tone, and self aware repartee. Maybe the vampire cliches are too hammy for some viewers expecting true scares, but fortunately, the haunted house kooky and maze like bizarre contribute to a delightful kicker! “The Last of the Sommervilles” – again directed and also written by that oft Thriller gal Ida Lupino – has hastily buried bodies as garden fertilizer as well as Karloff once again making a slick appearance alongside Martita Hunt (Anastasia). This greedy family has plenty of crazy aunts and hidden relations with inheritance double crosses and Victorian irony. The actual murder how tos are a little loose, but sinister bathtub suggestions and fine interplay raise the suspense. Intense silhouettes, a bemusing score, card game puns, and old ladies with binoculars make the crimes in “A Third for Pinochle” all seem so quaint in this quid pro quo social etiquette meets hatchets tale. The belittling frumpy wives and unassuming killer neighbors ala The ‘Burbs is perhaps too similar to Season One’s “A Good Imagination” also starring Edward Andrews (Sixteen Candles), however, there’s enough whimsy to accent the hi-jinks while thunderstorms, slamming windows, a spooky castle, dungeon cobwebs, and great costumes up the scares in “The Closed Cabinet.” The medieval riddles sound like nonsensical hyperbole, but the 1880 flair, disbelieving lineage, and a superb black and white mood add to the ghostly beckoning, gothic dressings, and ye olde medieval harmonies.
For Disc Three of this Second Season, Thriller finally caught on with the need for more in on the game Karloff and serves up two tales both featuring Boris in different roles for “Dialogues with Death.” Morgue slabs, afterlife questions, skeptical reporters mocking the idea of asking the departed who killed them – and that’s the first half before more American Gothic swamps, flooded mausoleums, and catalepsy. Thriller can seems redundant or as if its running out of content with too many family scares in a row, especially so if every episode had been this kind of multi-plot variety, but writer Richard Matheson (The Twilight Zone) picks up the slack with a crazy uncle and his unusual internment requests in “The Return of Andrew Bentley.” The shrill sounds effects are terrible, indeed, however, familiars, necromancy, and occult warnings on tampering with the perimeters of death add to the moody marital discord. Wow, Jo Van Fleet (Wild River) looks so beautiful and evil alongside pup Bruce Dern (The ‘Burbs) and the again suspicious John Carradine in “The Remarkable Mrs. Hawk.” The quaint farm, cute piglets, weird whimsy, and county fair gentility belies the ruthless thieves and deadly rural. This toes the too goofy line, but there are some fun chess battles had here. More creepy voices, shadows, nightmares, and a noose start “An Attractive Family” before Leo G. Carroll (Spellbound) and Robert Long (The Big Valley) duel over crafty but thwarted spousal accidents that keep the audience guessing to the end.
“Waxworks” leads Disc Four with uncomfortably realistic designs and what you think you see tricks setting the mood for another Robert Bloch tale. The cops are trite, however French flavor adds to the Old World atmosphere, double take scares, unexpected violence, and noir style – making for another pleasing combination of the crime and paranormal parents on Thriller. Ursula Andress (Dr. No) looks divine for “La Strega,” making the viewer care for the peasantry even if the Italian setting is slightly stereotypical and somewhat Spanish thanks to Ramon Novarro (Mata Hari) and Alejandro Rey (The Flying Nun). Once again director Ida Lupino builds an Old Country and foreign horror feeling with witches, familiars, and a dangerous mix of beauty, curses, and superstitions. Operatic orchestration accents the romantic tragedy and inevitable pursuits that can’t be outrun while creepy crones ascend toward the camera with their dread uninterrupted. More screams, black cats, and solitary perils elevate the standard premise, understandable fears, and expected suspicions in “The Storm.” Pesky cabbies and unheeded warnings escalate toward frightful power outages, deadly downpours, animal knee jerks, natural scares, and a fine topper. “A Wig for Miss Devore” begins with past executions and fatal beauties before film within a film aging starlets and movie magic deceptions featuring John Fiedler (The Bob Newhart Show). It’s interesting to have seemingly contemporary talk of parts for 25 year old fresh red heads only and a 38 year old has been who was finished at 32 – a swift social commentary on desperate charms and Hollywood extremes. Thriller is on point when the crimes are supernatural, period set, or elevated with more cultural dimension as in “The Hollow Watcher.” Backwoods murder and Irish mail order brides lead nosy but fearful townsfolk, local legends, and phantom vengeance with scandalous touches and schemes compensating for anything that may appear comical now. Besides, scarecrows are already disturbing enough, right? The series peaks here with what may be the single best disc in the complete Thriller collection.
Karloff’s final in character appearance in “The Incredible Doktor Markesan” leads Disc Five with excellent slow, stilted moves and a sunken, deathly veneer. Suspicious medical university secrets, a kitchen with food so old its turned to dust, and inquisitive nephew Dick York (Bewitched) accent the no trespassing signs, old newspapers, and eerie meetings. Terrifically terrifying makeup and music ala The Gentleman from Buffy highlight this mix of murder and science, going for the scares as Thriller should have done all along. “Flowers of Evil” brings yet more ghoulishness with skeletal props and Victorian flavor. How does one come into the business of procuring bad luck bones to sell, anyway? coughmurdercough. Though overlong in some spots, budding forensics, cadavers, and dissection keep the gruesome mood afloat. Robert Bloch pens the western set “Til Death Do Us Part” with a fortune hunting undertaker in a town where the dead body business isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. The comedic music is overdone, but the unique setting, murderous intentions, and eloping in a horse drawn Hearst are much more fun when played for the macabre bigamy gone bad. “The Bride Who Died Twice” has torture, creepy Mexican generals, and unwilling marital alliances with a wonderfully different setting, epic music, and lovely costumes accenting the star crossed lovers and corruption from director Ida Lupino. Despite the horrors of revolution, fine cinematic flair, and all around period delightful, ironically this strictly dramatic hour doesn’t seem like it belongs on Thriller. Fortunately, Mary Tyler Moore sings Cole Porter in “Man of Mystery,” setting a swanky, urbane feeling for this whodunit full of playboys, money, secrets, and escalating obsessions, and Ida Lupino bows out her Thriller directing on Disc Six with sulfuric acid, animal trophies, timid librarians, iron fisted new bosses, and play within a play winks for the dual femmes in “The Lethal Ladies.”
Since it took so long for Thriller to get its full on horror, it’s tempting to give several pedestrian episodes a free pass. As the spelling suggests, “God Grante that She Lye Stille” serves up ye olde burning at the stake declarations before more familiar moonlight curses almost pull off all the horror stops. Unfortunately, the odd, interchangeable combination of witches and vampires doesn’t quite fire on all cylinders. The room to room opening and closing doors in “Letter to a Lover” feel like an old Scooby Doo montage, complete with repetitive, nondescript country manor suspicions, subservient minorities, subterfuge, and murder. Someone even nearly says, “And I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you kids!” “Portrait without a Face” has a neat premise, but John Newland (One Step Beyond) starts with a hammy Vincent Price imitation before one annoying, cackling old lady and a slow double talk investigation that can’t fill up the 50 minute runtime. “Cousin Tundifer” repeats the Edward Andrews humor and comical music, missing the teleportation and topsy turvy time irony and opportunity on laughter and yet another nephew trying to get rich while “Kill My Love” also rinse repeats murder, adultery, and gas leaks. Young George Kennedy (Dallas) can’t save the obvious and disposable Burke and Hare plots of “The Innocent Bystanders,” and as to the crooks and cops of “The Specialists”…yawn. For such a short run, Thriller over relies on too many of the same witches, suspicious couples, amoral families, murderers, and profiteers, and in retrospect, the series seems reluctant to fully embrace its built in horror mantle. I suppose mystery and adultery of the week were simply cheaper to film than weekly macabre. That doesn’t mean that the suspense and crime episodes aren’t entertaining – Thriller provides a little something for everyone across the spectrum from witty to scary and everything in between. Through today’s lense, however, Thriller appears to play it safe more often than it should.
Thankfully, mid century furs, pearls, old technology, fedoras, cool cars, and classy interiors add charm alongside somewhat simplistic but atmospheric and fitting ghost effects – which were probably pretty elaborate for a time when $3, a cup of coffee, or 20 cents a mile paid the cab driver and real operators connected the phone line. Thunder, lightning, fire, mirrors, and black and white ambiance accent the 17th century through Victorian times. Again, it probably wasn’t cost prohibitive to always be period set, but more mood and effort seems to grace the historical pieces, and those well dressed interiors and gothic feelings carry Thriller regardless of the time period onscreen. The series may not be as immediately recognizable as The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, however, Thriller does have a universally spooky atmosphere. Part of that may be Karloff’s lure, but he’s still having a good time doing the introductions, even occasionally getting into it with more spunk on the weaker episodes – popping in amid the sets more like Serling this season and quoting Shakespeare in the cemetery! Although the soft voices and sometimes bombastic sounds on this Complete Thriller series set are still obnoxious, more fine Jerry Goldsmith scores add ambiance and can be isolated on select episodes alongside commentaries and other treats.
This second season lags across the middle discs, and a shorter season with more Karloff would have been so sweet, but I’m happy Thriller righted itself this year with a more scary focus. I’d love to see the earlier Karloff series The Veil for comparison, but unfortunately, those sets appear incomplete, elusive, and unavailable on Netflix. Today, a show like Thriller would have been continuously tweaked into its short ruin with all half horror horrors reaching for stunt casting guests and anything and everything shocking in a desperate grab for ratings. Overall, Thriller’s attempt at a suspenseful and scary middle ground is uneven and divisive, leaving audiences to skip around the scary or pick and choose the scandal. However, I’m glad the series didn’t cater to the lowest audience with cheap horror, and thus, Thriller remains sophisticated fun be it murder or macabre.

Kbatz is Going to NJ Horror Con!

 

Yes it’s true! Your Friendly Neighborhood Kbatz is going to the New Jersey Horror Con and Film Festival March 29-31. 

 

All local macabre folk are invited to join us and book your tickets at Newjerseyhorrorcon.com!

However, if you are one of our far away Horror Addicts, you can still take part in all the con shenanigans in several ways:

Chat long form about the NJ Horror Con with us on our HorrorAddicts.net Online Writers Conference Thread or follow along in our Horror Addicts Facebook Group. Remember to bookmark NJ Horror Con on Facebook too for instant photos and celeb announcements!

During Con weekend, look for raw videos on my Kbatz youtube and check in on our HorrorAddicts.net blog for photos and post write ups. We can talk about all our NJ Horror Con treats come Podcast Season, too!

See you soon!