Though Flawed, Thriller’s Second Season Remains Frightful
An Excursion in Poe
by Kristin Battestella
A little bit of Edgar can be found in anywhere – if you know where to look.
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Oval Portrait – Stormy nights, carriages, red velvet, and antiques accent this loose 1972 adaptation alongside candles, staircases, ominous housekeepers, late relatives, and ghostly piano playing. The titular painting, apparitions, and haunted house atmosphere come early with eerie music, lovelorn letters, and fainting ladies. However the inaccurate Civil War costumes, shabby uniforms, off kilter voices, and dark print make it difficult to tell who’s Union or Confederate. The echoing overlays, visions of past couples, and angry artist can’t overcome the lookalike characters, soap opera stylings, and rip off plots. Sure Poe’s tale is thin, but here the new wife shocks everyone by coming down the stairs in Rebecca’s clothes – and yes that’s the late subject’s name. More people keep arriving, but the ghostly possessions are put on hold for flashbacks with rally calls, cavalry, and a soldier on the lamb that look borrowed from another picture. If this scandal is where the story starts, why not begin there? Of course, there’s also confusion between this movie and another with the same cast called One Minute Before Death, and the bookends make it seem like the two movies are combined into one on top of weak scripting, fly by night production, and jumpy flash cuts between the back and forth that never lets the forbidden love build. The muddled dialogue and stalling gothic romance feel like part of the story is missing – compromising the illicit, funerals, and grave robbing before more hysterics, wills, and tacked on ghosts. Though watchable – bemusing even thanks to the overlong, nonsensical dancing with the corpse finale that’s probably followed by some good old fashioned necrophilia – this could have been a better, faithful adaptation of Poe’s story instead of some kind of two for the price of one messy that doesn’t go together.
The Fall of the House of Usher – There’s not a lot of information available on this elusive 1949 British adaptation of Poe’s famously flawed siblings. The opening here is weird, with Brit pimps in their boys club chatting up their Poe favorites. When the story moves into the tale itself, however, solid dialogue from the book, lovely period décor, and bizarre designs put on the right demented atmosphere. Piano interludes, candlelight, unique photography, and one very creepy crazy mama add to the fun. Yes, today’s audiences may feel the plot meanders a bit with seeming slow or quiet scenes. Fortunately, the fade-in editing, ticking clocks, and slow-burning wicks encapsulate the tomb-like mood. This actually does what an adaptation should do- I want to go read the source again! It’s a bit dry, but this one is worth the Poe study or classroom comparison for the scares and macabre it gets right.
The Raven – He’s hamming it up and quoting death as his talisman – Bela Lugosi is creepy as ever behind his doctor’s mask and a suave god complex for this 1935 Poe based hour. The bearded, raspy, demented looking Boris Karloff (also of the unrelated 1963 mash-up of the same name with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre) is trying to reform his criminal ways, but Lugosi’s twisted doctoring wrenches that! This quick plot wastes no time thanks to car accidents, desperate medicine, titular quotes, mad love, and torture gear. Though not a full-on, proper adaptation of the famed poem, great shadows, interiors, organ music, furs, fedoras, and screams accent the obsessed with Poe layers and madcap style. A large ensemble can make it tough to tell who is who, and we don’t see much of the Poe-esque devices or their violence compared to the torture porn we expect today. However, the time here is steeped in an entertaining interwar gothic atmosphere – the wild contraptions are fun yet there are poignant moments and comeuppance amid the haunted house attraction mayhem. Edgar aficionados and fans of the cast will enjoy the uncanny charm here.
Spirits of the Dead – I’m not really a Jane Fonda fan, but she looks superb in this colorful 1968 Italian anthology with designs from Edgar Allan Poe. Perfect locales, music, horses, castles, and foggy coasts set an ethereal, dreamy mood for the first tale here. The period costumes and sixties fusion might be a bit too Barbarella, and some will be put off by the spoken French and reading subtitles. Yet Fonda fans will enjoy the suggested kinky and ménage taunts- even if it’s her brother Peter (Easy Rider) sparking the obsessions. ‘Metzengerstein’ is more sauce than scares, but it might have made a nice fantasy movie by itself. By contrast, ‘William Wilson’ adds Italian occupation and religious motifs for the second installment. Iffy kid acting, look a likes, and flashbacks can be confusing to start and some of the butchery won’t be for everyone. However great fashions, sweet cadavers, autopsy educations, and historical brutalities are scary good- not to mention a dark-haired, poker playing Brigitte Bardot (And God Created Woman) to keep the questions on one’s conscious and duality from getting too dry. Terrence Stamp (Billy Budd) is a wonderful drunkard in the almost too trippy ‘Toby Dammit’ finale, but cool Roman amusement, bizarre locations, and weird play within a play production keep the plot from being too nonsensical. Though the final ten minutes get tough, the well-edited and intense driving scenes make for a fitting overall conclusion. Not all will enjoy the near-psychedelic period and foreign sensibilities, but this is some twisted fun for fans of the players and all involved.
Tale of a Vampire – A delicious Julian Sands (Warlock, people, Warlock) leads this 1992 brooding character study brimming with “Annabel Lee” and Poe references to match the bleak back alleys, dark morgues, abandoned blue buildings, and dreary British mood. Despite the underlying urge to bite, predatory love, black cats, creepy vampire beds, and sucking on some bloody fingers, this isn’t a gorefest thanks to multilayered social awkwardness, melancholy, loss, and conflict. This lovelorn vampire spends his time in the rare books section of a sweet old library – you use that card catalog! The plot is unfortunately very slow, the isolated characters have no sounding board, and confusing flashbacks of lookalike women and lost bliss don’t explain much. The centuries ago golden patinas are well shot, however the uneven pacing and flawed constructs interfere with the storytelling. We should have seen the past to start, using that previous to accent the current torment and slightly unreal, demented fairy tale tone. Why is the audience more sad than creeped by this thirsty stalker? Fine performances carry the drama once the characters actually interact by quoting history and poets in insightful two-handers. “’Tis better to have loved and lost” and all that. Lighting and shadow schemes add to the mysterious rivals, for good love or ill pain possibilities, and strange seductions. Can it really be love if a vampire’s idea of romance is to consume the life of his lover? It’s oddly pleasing to see this kind of twisted vampire bite symbolism rather than teenage moon eyes, and this simmer builds to a fine finale with some interesting surprises. While not scary, the Gothic romanticism and Victorian waxing on forever and death not being the end of love provide a solid helping of morbid and memento mori.
Kristin Battestella aka Kbatz discusses what type of affordable, family friendly, or full on scary Frightening Flix to give this Holiday season included Bela Lugosi and Universal Horror, Tales from the Crypt versus Tales from the Darkside, and more!
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Unwrapping a Mummy or Two!
By Kristin Battestella
Seen any good mummy movies lately?
Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb – Based upon Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars novel, this 1971 Hammer outing gets right to the saucy, sexy mummies, colorful jewels, tombs, and classic Egyptian designs not through spectacle of production but via subdued lighting, firelight, soft music, foreboding curses, and a silent, dreamy start. The intriguing father and daughter dynamic between Valerie Leon (The Spy Who Loved Me) and Andrew Kier (Quartermass and the Pit) is both endearing and suspicious – straight jackets, psychics, ominous constellations, cluttered museums, and sinister relics likewise contribute to the visual mixing of old, Egyptology styles and early seventies designs. Pleasing hysterical fears, snake scares, uneasy reunions, and power struggles unravel the reincarnation tale nicely. It is tough, however, to see some of the night sky transitions, and the simmering 94 minutes may be too quiet or dry for today’s speedy audiences. Subtitles would help with the exposition as well – especially for the fun homage character names like Tod Browning that may be missed otherwise. Brief nudity, one by one deaths, the collecting of killer artifacts, and a resurrection countdown also feel somewhat rudimentary at times, predictable before snappy and missing some Hammer panache in cast or direction. Considering the on set death of director Seth Holt (Taste of Fear) and the departure of Peter Cushing – both briefly discussed in the DVD’s features – the film’s flaws are certainly understandable. Besides, this is still most definitely watchable with an enjoyably moody atmosphere and fun, subjective finish.
The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb – Hammer producer Michael Carreras (Maniac) wrote and directed this 1964 sequel to The Mummy, and it’s a well shot piece with plenty of Egyptian color, tombs, flashbacks, artifacts, humor, and film within a film carnival spectacles. The 1900 designs are also period fine, but some scenes are obviously on-set small scale and lacking the expected all out Hammer values, making this follow up feel like some one else’s beat for beat B knock off rather than an authorized continuation. Opening blood and violence, characters at each other’s throats in fear of the eponymous threat, brief debates on traveling sideshow exhibitions, and scandalous belly dancing can’t overcome the slow, meandering pace while we await the well wrapped and perfectly lumbering Mummy violence. Jeanne Roland (You Only Live Twice) is very poorly dubbed, and beyond the over the top, annoying, love to hate Fred Clark (How to Marry A Millionaire) as a sell out American financier, the rest of the cast is interchangeably bland with no chemistry. The somewhat undynamic writing is uneven, with twists and mysteries either out of the blue, too tough to follow, or all too apparent. Though the sinister deaths aren’t scary, it’s all somehow enjoyably predictable because we’ve seen so many rinse and repeat Mummy films. This isn’t a bad movie, but it takes most of its time getting to the Mummy scenes we want to see – and we can see a lot of fact or fiction Egyptology programming today. It’s not quite solid on its own and feels sub par compared to its predecessor, yet this one will suffice Mummy fans and fits in perfectly with a pastiche viewing or marathon.
The Mummy – Karloff, Karloff, Karloff! The drawn, crusty, and dry opening makeup and mummification designs looks dynamite- accenting OMK’s tall, imposing, sullen, and stilted presence. His silent up close shots are indeed hypnotic and powerful- even if modern audiences might find this one more fanciful fantasy than truly frightful. Even though there is some tell, not shown off-screen action, the plot is well paced, with nice dialogue and support from Zita Johann (Tiger Shark) and Edward Van Sloan (Dracula). Some of the 1932 style or mannerisms, foreign languages, and customs of the time might be strange to us now, but the mysteries and iconography of Ancient Egypt look delightful. An action packed pseudo silent styled flashback also works wonders. The CGI spoiled may of course find things here slow and dated compared to the 1999 The Mummy, but seeing a film done when Egyptology was arguably at its height allows a little more of all that onscreen glamour and gold to shine through. Actually, I am usually completely against it, but I’d love to see this in color- at least once anyway. Sweetness!
The Mummy (1959) – Hammer perennials Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee team again for this well paced if somewhat familiar plot. Though he looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon in some scenes and is styled more like a Bond henchman doing the evil deeds of late Victorian villain George Pastell (also of The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb); Lee’s reanimated and mummified priest Kharis is dang menacing but no less tragic in his violence and lost love. His overbearing stature works wonders against the intelligent and suave archaeology gentleman Cushing- whether he’s in the dirty wraps or decked out in great Egyptian costumes, color, and brightness. The sets, however, could use some work, as the exteriors are a bit, well, plastic looking instead of mighty stonework monolith. Yvonne Furneaux (Repulsion) is also a lovely but slightly lightweight façade that’s a little out of place with Cushing’s take action and dueling wit. Fortunately, the musical charms accent the Egyptian suspense and cap off the scares beautifully. Toss in some humor and great fun and this version equals total entertainment.
The Mummy’s Curse – Stay with me now – this 1944 hour long Universal sequel marks the final appearance by Lon Chaney Jr. as Kharis after The Mummy’s Tomb and The Mummy’s Ghost, which follow the 1932 original and The Mummy’s Hand. Got that? Of course, the timeline and locales are all over the place at this point anyway! We open with a French sing along to set the inexplicably changed Louisiana setting here before getting to the expected accursed mummy swamp recovery, investigating archaeology professors, and screaming dames. It’s amusing to see all the fearful and faux French accented locals, and reused stock footage from prior Mummy films creates further humor. But why is this exact same story being told to us again? Again but in a Louisiana swamp? A swamp that lies below a conveniently abandoned chapel where the Mummy hides? Fortunately, once the audience takes these leaps, Chaney’s resurrected and deadly, limbering monster can be enjoyed thanks to well done shadows, lighting, and crisp black and white photography. Virginia Christine (Tales of Wells Fargo) also has an excellent entrance as the revived Ananka, with eerie music, stilted movement, and great horror editing. Despite the spooky bayou atmosphere, this isn’t as scary movie as it should be – somehow Chaney’s crippled, dragging Mummy seems sad and used more than frightening. Poor thing misses a victim or two thanks to them, you know, walking away from him! Thankfully, the quick fun here is still watchable for fans, especially in a Mummy or Chaney viewing marathon.
The Mummy’s Hand – Be he curse protector or resurrection accomplice, George Zucco (Dead Men Walk) is slick as ever in this 67 minute 1940 Universal sort of sequel that’s otherwise lacking in the expected Mummy stars such as Karloff or Lon Chaney, Jr. These different characters create more remake than follow up feelings, and after awhile, these Mummy films do seem somewhat the same anyway. There’s a little too much humor and bumbling rivalries away from the titular action for this installment to be scary, too. Who has the money for the expedition? Who doesn’t want the archaeology to happen? What’s pretty daughter Peggy Moran (King of the Cowboys) doing pointing a gun at folks? Wallace Ford (The Rogue’s Tavern) is also an unnecessarily fast talking swindler sidekick for by the numbers Dick Foran (The Petrified Forest), and the then-modern Cairo pre-war styles and colloquialisms slow the plot down when there’s no time to waste. Fortunately, despite the black and white photography, the opening Egyptian flashback provides the expected regalia and spooky curses. Perhaps this entry is typical or nondescript in itself, but its fun for a classic marathon. When we finally do get to the tomb robbing action and Tom Tyler (The Adventures of Captain Marvel) as the murderously lurking about Kharis, this becomes a pleasant little viewing with a wild finish.
Boris Karloff’s The Veil a Pleasant Paranormal Discovery
by Kristin Battestella
Behind the scenes troubles and production turmoil put an abrupt halt to the 1958 supernatural anthology series The Veil, leaving host Boris Karloff and twelve in the can episodes of surprisingly quality unaired and on the shelf – until recently that is. Who knew?
Eerie music and Gothic castle arches lead to a grand fireplace complete with Mr. Karloff introducing these tales of supposedly true but unexplainable stories, and “Vision of Crime” provides a shipbound moment of clairvoyance and murder between brothers. The hackneyed old ladies fall a little flat, however Karloff and a pre-Avengers Patrick Macnee have some fun with the incompetent constabulary. In addition to hosting, Karloff acts in all but one episode of The Veil, and deduction on derringers, opportunity, and motive with a whiff of the fantastic help solve the case. “Girl on the Road” may seem then-contemporary slow to start with fifties innocence and a dame having car trouble in need of a man to fix all. Thankfully, roadside drinks, suspicious phone calls, and looking over her shoulder fears hook the audience into waiting for Karloff’s mysterious arrival and the paranormal plot turn. While the trail leads to where we already suspected, the simmering mood keeps The Veil entertaining. Likewise, ship captain Boris serves up some deadly seafaring adventures with a side of poisonous snakes to his wife in “Food on the Table.” The disposal is for a pretty barmaid recently come into wealth – and of course, supernatural consequences follow. Again, the story may be familiar but the characters and performances see the viewer through the twenty odd minutes. An Italian setting adds flair in “The Doctor” alongside aging physician Karloff and his prodigal son. Stubborn superstitions versus new medical treatments leave a sick child’s life in the balance, and I actually didn’t see this twist coming.
Ironically, the French accents are iffy rather than flavorful in “Crystal Ball,” but hey, when your upward mobile lady friend-zones you for your boss at least you get the eponymous gift, right? The foretelling effects are really quite nice with smoky swirls, upside down visuals, and distorted reflections. Moulin Rouge meetin’ Uncle Boris adds to the saucy scandals, and naturally, our two timing mademoiselle gets what she deserves. Rival brothers, contesting wills, lawyer Karloff, family violence, and ghostly biblical warnings anchor “Genesis,” however “Destination Nightmare” has a different opening and introduction before its dreams and mysterious pilot sightings. Crashes, parachute errors, and propeller sputters add to the fears, fine flying effects, and wild toppers while rising temperatures and New York bustle make for some murderous window views in “Summer Heat.” The crime may not be what it seems, yet silence during the observations add to the helpless feelings. It’s nice to see such fifties coppers confronted with the unexplained in their investigation, too. Despite the unique India 1928 setting and Eastern philosophies, “Return of Madame Vernoy” feels western fake thanks to bad casting. I mean, sure he likes to tan, but George Hamilton?! Fortunately, remembering past lives and reincarnations remain an interesting concept. Do you go back to the living the life before and contact family from the past? Can you move forward knowing what was or is there some other purpose for such memories?
“Jack the Ripper” is the lone episode of The Veil with Karloff featuring in the bookends only, and the production differences are apparent. However, Victorian spiritualism and professional clairvoyants make for an interesting spin on the Whitechapel theme with brief flashbacks accentuating the predictions and dreamy, eerie quality. The violence is unseen, but reading the scandalous newspaper reports on the crimes create reaction and believability. While the viewing order of the episodes is irrelevant, random VHS or video releases and an elusive two disc DVD version billed as Tales of the Unexplained can make watching The Veil in its entirety a tough, frustrating hunt. Fortunately, it’s also fun to discover new old television thanks to today’s technology, and The Veil is available on Amazon Prime – complete with subtitles! The transposed episodes and mislabeled descriptions, however, are confusing without a third party list, and Amazon is also missing two more episodes of The Veil which can be found on Youtube. The Veil’s original pilot “The Vestris” aired as an episode from another anthology series Telephone Time, and wow, that show has some fifties hallmarks complete with a housewife dreaming of dancing to her new dial tone! Thankfully, sailor songs, fog, phantom coordinates, and ominous quarter bells give “The Vestris” a proper shipbound atmosphere. A lady on board bodes of misfortune, and Karloff’s appearance doesn’t disappoint. “Whatever Happened to Peggy” has familiar people, places, and young lady not who she seems to be. Her memory difficulties and escalating coincidence make for a creepy and unexpected cap on The Veil.
The mid-century cars and fashions look sweet, and The Veil uses period settings and Victorian panache to fit the time as needed. Somehow, big skirts, bowler hats, and cravats always add to the spooky mood along with candles, gas lamps, and tea sets. Well done music accents the supernatural sophistication, strong characters, and sly drama. The Veil would seem to use its morality before the twist plotting to set itself apart from other anthologies of the era, however Karloff’s unseen series predates One Step Beyond, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits – only the earlier Tales of Tomorrow or Alfred Hitchcock Presents provided competition. Each half hour moves fast, knowing how to be eerie enough to fill the time but not over stay its welcome once we know the twist. Although the introductions could be worded better and Karloff gives a postscript telling what happens next rather than showing it, The Veil admits up front that there will be no explanations. If not for a somewhat limited availability, this much shorter six hours is certainly easier to marathon than Karloff’s own later Thriller series. Where Thriller struggles to fill its sixty minute time with crime or suspense plots and never quite goes full on horror as it could, The Veil uses murder and scandal for a paranormal punchline just like it promises.
Now similar anthology tales of premonitions, ghosts, astral projection, or psychic phenomena will make The Veil obvious for wise speculative viewers – the unfortunate result of it’s previously unviewed shelf life. The small number of episodes leaves The Veil feeling too brief to be of real substance, and its quick run through may leave one lacking or wanting more. Fortunately, the possibilities were here alongside Karloff’s macabre charm, fun mini twists, and surprising paranormal guesses. The Veil may not look like much, but its black and white mood, well told stories, and fantastic toppers are more than enough for a spooky, rainy afternoon marathon anytime of year.
Madhouse and Theatre of Blood A Twisted Good Time!
By Kristin Battestella
Give me an excuse to watch some more Vincent Price!
In the 1974 murder and mayhem tale Madhouse, Price is Paul Toombes, the aging star of the Dr. Death horror movies penned by Toombes’ longtime friend and former actor Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing). Flay has coaxed Toombes out of semi retirement for a new television show produced by the sleazy Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry). Unfortunately, the suspicious murder of Toombes’ young fiancée and the time he spent institutionalized thereafter continues to haunt ‘Dr. Death’. Cast and crewmembers on his new series are soon found dead in copycat crimes styled from the Dr. Death films, and Toombs slowly succumbs to a returning mental instability. Can he solve the crafty murders nonetheless? Is he the killer or Dr. Death’s next victim?
Oscar winning editor turned director Jim Clark (The Killing Fields, The Innocents) opens Madhouse with a fun use of footage from The Haunted Palace, solid pre-title festivities, and a juicy crime. In many ways, Clark’s crafty editing experience is perfect for the task at hand. The visual blending of Price’s earlier AIP films, old production photos, nods to other film work, and their intercutting use for this Amicus co-production wonderfully establishes Madhouse’s neat premise. Where does the actor Toombes’ reality end and the fictional killer persona of Dr. Death begin? Are we watching a film about Toombs or the Dr. Death TV show? Did these two great titans of horror “need the work” onscreen and off perhaps? This sly touch of dark comedy and ability to laugh at one’s genre comes across beautifully, and the intermingling with killer viewpoints, seventies zooms, and extreme angles keeps the lines between actuality and stability appropriately askew. It’s not overdone as we lay it on today- there’s just the right amount of stylized play within a play identities, illusions, and good fun. After all, we’re seeing a horror show within a horror film supported by clips of other horror movies like The Raven, Tales of Terror, and The Pit and the Pendulum. Madhouse doesn’t take itself so seriously, and neither should we. One should probably be a fan of Big V’s film catalog to appreciate such shrewd killer use of stock footage, yes. The seventies mixing and sixties styles will seem dated- even obvious in revealing the killer as the picture goes on. The more that you think about the scenes of the crimes; plot holes and confusions become apparent, indeed. Fortunately, the traditional horror film design, tight photography, and simple smoke and mirrors work their best. The death scenes are first-rate, with creative uses of the set within set themes. The film splicing, fade ins and outs, and great uses of sounds effects and screams from both within the used footage and the film itself create a complete drive-in or late night film experience. I’m not sure that the title has to do with anything, and the logistics of Madhouse’s inept Scotland Yard men will make your head hurt if you think too hard on it, but who cares?
Naturally, Our Man Price is the classy old pimp we expect, oh yes. He begins Madhouse as a suave Hugh Hefner-esque silver fox with young Bond Girl blonds abound. Today we might expect this sexy mismatch in horror, but it’s a true guilty pleasure to see Toombes taking down the dames here. Although Price plays the degrading sanity seriously, there are hints of that over the top innuendo and tongue planted firmly in cheek design. Certain scenes are both personal parody and honest homage to his earlier scaries, and we’re meant to enjoy the self-reverent ride. It’s as if the character of Dr. Death is more alive that the aptly named Toombs. He’s older, sympathetic- we feel for this terrorized former star- yet the Dr. Death scenery is no less suspicious or sinister in quality. Besides, many viewers would presume Price himself was spooky onscreen and off, creating another blur between the actors and personas within Madhouse. These dual imageries and creepy soliloquies create quite a haunting portrayal indeed.
At only ninety minutes, fellow horror mavens Peter Cushing (must I?) and Robert Quarry (Count Yorga, Vampire) don’t get too much time to steal the show, but their spooky support is spot on nonetheless. Cushing is so suave, a slick, classy ex-actor turned writer that’s almost too good a friend to be true. Likewise, Quarry is the perfect greasy television executive looking for dames and dollars. Both men also wear vampire costumes at a celebrity party- again playing on the theme with Quarry’s Yorga and Cushing’s Helsing personas. Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff are credited for their stock footage uses, which is kind of strange but also a fitting tip of the hat for the bent reality that is Madhouse. Natasha Pyne (Father Dear Father) is also an interesting and unexpected touch as TV assistant Julia. Blonde and seemingly insignificant like the other ladies, but again, nothing in Madhouse is what it seems.
Adrienne Corri (A Clockwork Orange) is also wonderfully disturbed and loads of fun. Those spiders of hers, shudder! Madhouse looks both swanky with modern mid-century design and Old Hollywood with fallen graces and decrepit sets. The creepy British locales add on lots of candles, statues, and spooky gardens. Old film projectors, flat phonographs, eerie sixties scoring, ironic music cues sang by Price himself, and a few scary storms layer the frame within a frame nostalgia nicely. Hip London cars, debonair accents, mod turtlenecks and ascots add some flair, too. Not to be outdone of course, 1973’s Theatre of Blood sets its scene with demented and dirty vintage London locations. Believed dead after his suicide attempt, Edward Lionheart uses thespian facades and Shakespearean inspiration to seek revenge on the critics association who denied him ongoing review praise and their top year-end award. Inspector Boot (Milo O’Shea, Romeo and Juliet) and the police question Lionheart’s daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg) as one by one Horace Sprout (Arthur Lowe), Chloe Moon (Coral Browne), and the rest of their circle meet their theatrical ends. Will critic Peregrin Devlin (Ian Hendry) be able to stop the deranged actor and his meth drinking street troupe before he’s Lionheart’s next victim?
Unfortunately, the low and uneven voices- it seems like no one’s microphones worked- create a poor and dated feeling for Theatre of Blood. If you’re expecting high horror production, the wasted, worn, and depressing dressings can look like a sub par play made on the cheap. Compared to the whimsical homage of Madhouse, Theatre of Blood appears more like a straight crime thriller; and in some ways, I wish it did have some deserving, grandiose, even gaudy psychedelic Corman color. Longer at almost 1 hour 45 minutes, director Doug Hickox (Brannigan) works with the similar themes of fallen actors, stage facades, play within a play styling, and flashback frameworks. The fun, ye olde silent film opening credits montage suggests the dark humor that is to come, too. However, Theatre of Blood feels slow to start, with standard stuffy Brit types and more bungling policemen who shockingly don’t realize the Shakespearean connections to the crimes. Some of the foreboding is obvious as well, and revenge kinship to The Abominable Dr. Phibes is evident. The editing and cutting styles do build suspense, but some of the early death scenes aren’t as theatrical as they could be. The first hour’s melodrama lacks creativity, and these deadly theatre politics can seem too pompous and dry to be believed. All this just because they gave him a few bad reviews and no trophy?
Theatre of Blood isn’t that scary and feels hollow enough for those expecting a major horror film to turn out. We always see Lionheart in character and don’t get the essential pieces to his motivation until flashback exposition later in the picture. Frankly, these lovely over the top establishments should have been the opening to Theatre of Blood, and the poor choice to stick character importance so late can even create some player confusion. Thankfully, there’s a great ironic use of classic music, and what may appear to be a bland and dark tale slowly builds into a farcical delight. The fun here is in guessing who is going to die next and in what Shakespearean method. The abnormal build up to the humor, farce, and intentionally exaggerated theatrics increase masterfully as Theatre of Blood goes on, complete with wit, panache, and a hysterical Othello twist. The low values and weak start may seem like a faulty execution not worth the viewing, yes. Theatre of Blood does take half of the picture to get to it, indeed. Fortunately, once it does step up the mayhem, Theatre of Blood does so wholeheartedly- literally!
I would say these reduced budget faults necessitate a proper nuHammer remake- if not for the simply irreplaceable Vincent Price that is! Lionheart begins white haired and crazy- an entertaining, once upon a time high thespian with a marked disconnection from reality. Some of the makeup is iffy, but most of the disguises are great genius. Price’s voice, position, and stature may give him away, but the joy is in seeing what warped Bard plan he has next. The demented Shakespearean soliloquies are- I must pun- Priceless. We shouldn’t doubt that Big V could do a straight high-class film by any means, but his pseudo Shakespeare intensity steps up as Theatre of Blood goes on. The multi-layered performance is laced with wit, sadness, class, and sociopathic grace. Oh, the sweeping music and forehead dabs as the faux doctor goes to work! Price is clearly having fun with this man of a thousand faces gone awry, and you can see why this is one of his personal favorite performances. Love it or hate it, Theatre of Blood is almost worth the ‘Price of admission’ just for the kinky Othello scene! I mean, he even sports a fake afro- Bob Ross meets Carrot Top, anyone? Yes, I’ll say it- that burgundy velvet pimp suit is to die for! Price’s nuanced and well faceted portrayal is both spot on and perfectly ironic. I love the Inspector’s “It’s not a comedy!” claim right before an Austin Powers-esque inept police pursuit and the simply exceptional Titus serve-uppance. Oh, yes.
She’s up to the challenge and Diana Rigg (The Avengers) looks good, of course; but we don’t see her prettied up much for Theatre of Blood. Her “amateur actress” Edwina begins dry as well, with some seemingly unimportant playful seduction. Fortunately, her position as the good daughter becomes more ingenious as Lionheart’s plans unfold. There’s not a lot of the famous Emma Peel innuendo to bounce off, naturally, as we have no overt attempt for a sexy young thang here. Rigg fans, however, will certainly enjoy her almost see through white mini skirt and sans bra potential. The victimized cast- including future Mrs. Price Coral Browne (Auntie Mame), Arthur Lowe (Dad’s Army), Ian Hendry (Get Carter), Robert Morley (The African Queen), and the rest of the somewhat interchangeable critics – create a very uptight, pompous, and annoying board, indeed. That is partly the point of their latent villainy- they’re asses- but not all of their motivations are explained. We can hate them one by one or enjoy their deaths because we are bemused by Price as Lionheart. Otherwise, the critics aren’t that interesting in themselves, and the audience isn’t given much reason to care. Perhaps there’s supposed to be another level of sinful humor or irony at work- that would be the opposite of the meaningless, unending buffet of blondes and bosoms usually being diced up in horror film today. However, the secondary support in Theatre of Blood just comes off as too lightweight and underdeveloped. The be-furred meth drinking hepcats working with Lionheart are also just too stupid and weird; the flashback explaining their presence comes too late. Although, I do confess, I did fall for one of Theatre of Blood’s now fairly obvious twists on my first viewing!
Uninhibited Shakespeare fans can have a jolly good tongue in cheek viewing with Theatre of Blood, indeed. Study how the seventies deaths mirror the plays, or test up on Bard Quotes and Know Your Will games. It may see meandering to start and too low quality for anything to matter, but this one is definitely worth the viewing investment. The Netflix streaming subtitles are absolutely necessary in catching all of Price’s stage glory, and a dual DVD edition of Madhouse and Theatre of Blood is available for further warped comparisons. Yes, longtime horror viewers will spot the errors in Madhouse and some predictable twists in Theatre of Blood- some audiences may even be confused by the witty, double play finale in Madhouse or Blood’s OTT ending. Nevertheless, classic horror and kitschy Price fans can delight in the solid mystery fun and thespian mayhem in both Madhouse and Theatre of Blood.
Super Mario Bava Special!
By Kristin Battestella
What’s not to love for the classic horror viewer when it comes to the stylish scares, tempting thrills, and colorful chills of that giallo master Mario Bava?
Baron Blood – Joseph Cotten (Citizen Kane) and Elke Sommer (more on her in a bit) star in this often unloved 1972 tale of family curses, and the mix of centuries old torture, witches, hidden treasure, and vengeance does indeed need some polish and clarification. Is this about the past cruelty, the raised baron, or the contemporary haunted hotel? Why do these clearly out of their depth people go messing with these past horrors anyway? Despite a bright, swanky, jet setting, and cliché start – an American coming back to his spooky ancestral Austrian castle complete with outfitted dungeon – the titular ghost talk, tolling bells, and incantations build suspense. The accents, poor script, and exposition scenes may be tough, but the dark, murderous actions counter the lack of motivation or room to maneuver from the cast. How is the viewer to like them when the resurrected baron is their fault? Thankfully, the country locales and estates look lovely – the partially restored castle is both dreary as needed or lit with just the right ambiance and fog. Perspective kills, scary zooms, angles, shocks, chases, and kids in peril continue the creepy, and the sickening makeup is burned and nasty effective. The wheelchair bound Cotten does add some slick and twisted layers, however, we don’t see him enough to enjoy his nuances. The picture is off on the wrong foot and hampers itself under a muddled story because it doesn’t focus on the eponymous character. This is rougher around the edges than Bava’s usual style, charisma, and mood, granted, yet the look and players remain just watchable enough thanks to an entertaining finale.
A Bay of Blood – Signor Bava directs this 1971 plot of heiresses, real estate, and murder – you know, the usual – with his expected mix of upscale cinematography and unsettling panache. Storms and classical melodies create a sadness to start as nasty deaths disrupt a would be old-time gentility. There’s no dialogue for the first ten minutes, but the silently designed kills are tantalizing nonetheless. Add swanky affairs, alluring secretaries, and skinny dipping run afoul to the zany fortune tellers and partying teens, and all today’s quintessential horror ingredients pack these eighty-four minutes. Pretty outdoor designs give way to blue nighttime hues and noir lit interiors add mood while red accents ominously treat the eye. Eerily framed bodies, hallways, and faux suicide notes add layers as those seventies zooms mirror the characters’ swoons and fears. Although this is more bloody than Bava’s earlier works – which some may like and others may not – the bodies here are normal compared to contemporary bimbos. The gory chase, squeamish squidworks, and nasty hatchet slices are artistically juxtaposed with sunshine, birds chirping, and that Bava delicacy. Of course, the weak script is certainly not perfect, the English audio is too low, the subtitles don’t quite sync, and who is who or double-crossing whom can be very confusing. Thankfully, the inheritance battles, illegitimate mysteries, and one by one eliminations mix well with the sex and violence. The bodies pile up in unique ways, and Friday the 13th certainly copied a kill or two! Some scenes may feel slasher for slasher’s sake, but the stylish, somewhat melancholy tone remains strong. Everyone is fighting over this lovely land whilst also ruining it with ghoulish mayhem, and this deadly mystery is still an exciting grandpappy for the slasher genre.
Black Sabbath – Boris Karloff hosts this 1963 AIP/Italian trilogy production also starring Mark Damon (House of Usher) and Michele Mercier (Angelique, the Marquise of the Angels). ‘A Drop of Water’ leads off the English version here with lovely period charm and freaky questions regarding fright, spiritualism, and the moments immediately before and after death. Seriously, one should never, ever steal from the dearly departed! The great mix of solitary scares, what you don’t see approaching, and the shocker smoke and mirrors effects seal the deal. Hot damn, it got me! Plot two ‘The Telephone’ shines with the then contemporary sixties goodness and lots of suspense. There’s a sexy anticipation, a voyeuristic vibe, and predatory fear adding to the juice. Karloff’s introduction sequences are a lot of fun, too- serious and latently psychedelic in style but humorous at the same time. In his final story, a Russian vampire tale called ‘The Wurdalak’, all the mood, culture, and creepy come across wonderfully. The K’s makeup and approach is so angry and suspicious, even disturbing as familial angles come into play. Completists may go for the alternate Italian version for the full effect of director Mario Bava’s (Black Sunday) vision, but despite studio interference and changes that might upset purists; the scares are loud and clear here.
Black Sunday – We’ve seen other anniversary curses and execution revenge pictures beyond this 1960 black and white so-called Bava directing debut, originally edited and released by AIP stateside without its proper Mask of Satan title. Every cliché is here, complete with a coach breaking down in front of a derelict mansion, scholars turned grave robbers, and a few drops of blood releasing a ghoulish mistake, but we’ve never seen such lurid family history, look a like damsels, and undead doctors like this. The stereotypical hysterias, Old World mysticism, Eastern European staples, and Moldavia vibes not only work, but the opening 17th century fire and brimstone narration is darn effective with excellent wind and thunder to match. Sudden movements add surreal jump scares, but fog, phantom carriages, and creepy forests know when to be still. Artfully, posed scenes are filmed thru branches, shadows, cobwebs, and smoke – almost like a silent movie. Sure, this was probably done to conceal the on the cheap but no less crafty period flair or assorted set flaws, but the design looks damn scary and perfectly atmospheric. I wouldn’t go out alone at night and milk the cow either! Though the English delivery and vocals are very well done, it is unfortunate Barbara Steele (The Pit and the Pendulum) is dubbed. Nonetheless, her dual role as the ingénue princess and the not-so-well-to-do witch is ethereal and captivating – the classic lighting and photography captures her stunning beauty as well as the totally creepy corpse effects and ghouly makeup. Of course, the blood necessities, servants dead in the day but alive at night, bodily possessions, and witch or vampire and Satanist terms are all somehow used wrongfully or interchangeably as needed; yet the science versus occult talk is also well thought out, even ahead of its time. Thankfully, the complete 87 minute European version has all the simmering pace and swelling music intact, and one can see why so many other films followed this model. Why did we forget how to make pictures like this?
Blood and Black Lace – Sweet, jazzy rhythms, classy titles, and a suspicious tone open this 1964 ninety minutes – one of Bava’s earlier saucies full of secret diaries, scandal, drugs, hysterical dames, and murder. Though a little slow to get going thanks to confusing lookalike women, uneven or hampered dubbing, and misogynistic “I don’t believe in permanent, exclusive relationships” two-timing men; the violence here is carefully styled and well filmed whilst also being rough, haphazard, congested, and disturbingly intimate as such horror risque should be. It is chilling and uncomfortable to watch as these women are attacked, abused, and tortured – this is real world scary violence not the fantastic or fake monsters. Ripped garments and blood marring the pretty faces add enough skin and gore suggestions alongside a vivid palette of flashing lights, shadow schemes in multiple colors, and symbolic reds matching the illicit. Rome exteriors, layered décor, and fancy frocks accent the mid-century behind the scenes fashion drama, and delightful editing, interesting camera framing, and multi action intercutting raise the tension. The viewer side eyes these naughty women going off alone at night with obsessed, lusty men, yet it’s fun to suspect as the screams and crazy turns add surprises. Who is this fedora wearing masked killer so desperate to keep the off the time racy hidden? Sure, the lethal planning and police investigation are a little sloppy; the subtitles don’t match and thus send some of the details amiss. However, the deadly vignettes progress into an intriguing mystery rooted in a realistic setting and simmering schemes – making this little thriller a wild, must see precursor to slice and dice horror as we know it.
5 Dolls for an August Moon – A swanky, sunny, coastal start with groovy records, spinning beds, and heady parties full of glitz and glamour quickly leads to bad business deals, isolated island danger, and mysterious science experiments in this 1970 thriller. Jokes about virgin sacrifices and saucy torture make way for kinky seductions, skimpy skin, juicy gold digging dames, and shady millionaires. No price – such as a life or two – is too much for this elusive formula, and smartly used darkness, silhouettes, and flickering lights accent the fine editing and carefully placed zooms. Though perhaps dated, now period flair and colorful Bava style don’t look budget, and early genre staples add panache. From a false scary start to a scantily clad running beauty and a group of people trapped with a high stakes killer, the eighty minute suspense moves quickly as the players fall. Some of the back and forth money double talk might get lost in translation amid the Italian audio and English subtitles and too many Jacks and/or Jacques do make it tough to tell who is who. However, the dead piling up in the freezer adds a touch of humor, and it’s amusing how the money and formula are more important to these people than finding the killer! Interesting lady leaning innuendo, character turnabouts, missing money, and finger-pointing accusations accent the deadly competition, and red herrings lead to some excellent ante ups for the final twenty minutes. No, there isn’t a lot of outright slice and dice scary or gore as may be expected, and calling this horror feels slightly mislabeled. Fortunately, there is a lot of entertaining tension here to match the interconnecting intrigue, and it’s fun to guess who’s behind the ‘formulaic’ foul play.
Hatchet for the Honeymoon – Romantic scoring and stylish red designs over the opening credits of this eighty-eight minute 1970 slasher deflect the killer scares to come, but arty, distorted deaths and dreamlike swirls are edited in time with the eponymous slices, shiny blades, symbolic wedding night blood, and bridal voyeurism. Unique camera shots and frames filmed through the mirrors or the internal fashion photo shoot lenses add to the quality, non herky jerky camera movements, and creepy mannequins, seances, secret rooms, askew sexuality, marital dysfunction, and beautiful roses create heaps of atmosphere along with lovely locales, lush interiors, and a spooky speeding train. The killer narration is also bemusingly honest – this psychopath nonchalantly admits where the tallied and once pretty bodies are buried and how he hates his brow beating but unaware spiritualist wife Laura Betti, also of A Bay of Blood. The struggle against the urge to kill escalates as painful memories and seductive, tempting models help piece together this deadly psyche and the murderous source. Brief mentions of a faltering business and rocky inheritance, however, seem of little importance, and the police investigation feels too weak, even easy. Obviously, there are also perhaps too many motherly roots and Psycho parallels, but strangely, partway through the time here, the murdering mayhem turns into something more paranormal. The audience is intrigued by the killer and the surrounding twistedness, but this seemingly rushed double plot tries to do too much. Thankfully, there is a wacky, whimsical mood and internal wink to the deathly love and saucy subtext without the need for excessive skin or gore. There are some fun spins here to keep the bridal butchery entertaining, and I’m surprised this one seems a little unloved.
Kill, Baby, Kill – From the period start with bloody spikes, evil child laughter, and coffins to he superb crumbling locales, bleak landscapes, and foggy cemetery – Maestro Bava invokes the total gothic formula for a macabre, dreadful mood in this 1966 mystery. Horrendous deaths, a foreign doctor’s arrival, the mysterious baroness on the continent, suspicious townsfolk, village curses, and carriages complete with fearful drivers blossom amid an impeded investigation, reluctant autopsies, scared girls, and scary ladies. Eerie rituals and specters tapping at the window escalate the suspense while a dizzying spiral staircase and carefully placed zooms increase anxiousness – be they fast, hectic ascents or slow, simmering tracking shots. The print would show its age and low-budget, but there are no faded visuals here thanks to the intentionally lush dimension, well-lit design, smart shadows, strategic cobwebs, and spooky chic interiors. The hazy dream sequence isn’t over the top yet remains disturbing alongside an orchestra of scary sounds, cat meows, and tolling bells topping off the atmosphere. While those familiar with the gothic Hammer productions or our recent American in another country versus juvenile phantom trends may find some elements predictable or the expositions convenient; skin suggestions and hints of blood do enough without the need for excessive nudity or gore. The English audio and subtitles are pretty good, too, and the players are quite fine over the fast-moving eighty-three minute duration. Whichever of the assorted distribution titles you find this one under, there’s no reason not to like the creepy mysteries, spooky revelations, paranormal fun, and sorcery shocks here.
Lisa and the Devil – The dubbing is off, the spoken volumes low and the music too loud and over the top for this dreamy, stylized, and somewhat confusing 1974 Bava bent. Subtitles are definitely a must to help explain the mysterious men, macabre apparitions, bizarre guests, and Spanish flair. The maze like city streets, weird statues, cluttered Old World feelings and eerie estate, however, are perfectly atmospheric and match the almost elegant filmmaking. Fresh color and blood add to the scandals and up close, erratic violence while reflections, zooms, and angled camerawork anchor the photography and parallel the multi dimensional players and their affairs, secrets, and crimes. This ensemble is aware of their spooky circumstances, even when the script is uneven with superfluous soliloquies and silence. Wispy flashbacks take too much time to explain all the past connections, yet the tale also seems overlong like a 85 minute supersized anthology segment. The nasty implications will be tough to watch, too, but the unique saucy and peculiar sensuality is smartly obscured what we think we see sex and nudity. Telly Savalas (Kojak) is likewise creepy yet charismatic with the svelte ingénue Elke Sommer, and this crisscrossing mix of Doppelgangers, demons, and the dead is a bizarrely entertaining, twisted little ride.
House of Exorcism – Stay with me now, for this re-edited version of Lisa and the Devil from producer Alfredo Leone adds new possession themes, exorcism footage, and Robert Alda (Rhapsody in Blue) as the titular performing priest in an attempt to mainstream Bava’s Euro-fashioned uncut edition. From different opening titles and the re-christened Mickey Lion aka Leone directing to more blood, violence, and intercut medical scenes, it’s apparent this is not the same film. Sommer’s grunting and demonic scenes are embarrassing and somehow seem more exploitative than her nasty sex scene in Lisa and the Devil. Not that this is a bad performance by Elke, but the crass sex, extra boob shots, and full frontal nudity just seems so classless – sex and priests just don’t feel right then or now. All the exorcism clichés seem trashy, and the language is so unnecessarily foul it’s almost funny: “Where do you come from?” “A cunt, you jerk!” Wtf? “Don’t break my balls, Priest!” Granted, Bava’s tale is confusing, but this Lisa being possessed has nothing to do with the doubly flashback scandals and makes even less sense. Would I have liked to see an exorcism or possession drama from Bava? Sure. Is this it? No. Die-hard fans may like to watch and compare, but otherwise, don’t bother with this rehash.