Brides of Dracula (1960) – Horror Film Review

The Brides of Dracula (1960) horizontal posterThis is Hammer Films’ first sequel to their 1958 classic, HORROR OF DRACULA. Made at the height of the studio’s success, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA features the familiar elements (beautiful color cinematography, lavish sets, solid writing, strong performances), making this a worthy heir to its predecessor. However, it is perhaps most notable for the obvious absence of the king of vampires, Count Dracula, who never appears.
Instead, taking a cue from RETURN OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958), which ditched Christopher Lee’s creature from CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and made Peter Cushing’s Baron the returning figure, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA ditches Lee’s Count and makes Cushing’s Doctor Van Helsing the returning figure. In the new story, Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur), a beautiful young woman on her way to a girls school, accepts the hospitality of Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt) and finds that the old woman is keeping her son locked up in the family castle. Marianne frees the blond, handsome Baron Meinster (David Peel), but he turns out to be a vampire — and attacks his mother. Van Helsing shows up and gets Marianne to her school safely. Having destroyed Dracula in the previous film, the good doctor now seems to be mopping up the “little fish” of the vampire world. He dispatches the Baroness (who has been vampirized by her son), but the Baron shows up at Marianne’s school and proposes to her. Van Helsing puts a stop to the undead wedding but not before Baron Meinster puts the bite on him — the doctor purges the vampire bite on his neck with a red hot poker and some holy water, then finishes the vampire off by leaping onto the arm of a windmill, so that it spins until the shadow lines up to form a giant cross that pins Meinster down.

Freda Jackson resurrects a new-born vampire.
Freda Jackson resurrects a new-born vampire.

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is lavish and beautiful, and it is filled with interesting ideas and memorable scenes. One of the best occurs when the Meinster’s maid Greta (Freda Jackson, doing a good Mrs. Danvers impersonation) scrabbles on the soil over a recently buried victim, offering soothing encouragement for the newborn vampire to climb out of her coffin and rise. Van Helsing’s self-cure after being bitten by Meinster packs a wallop, and the climactic use of the windmill’s shadow to dispatch the vampire is a great image.
Unfortunately, the script for THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is a bit of a patchwork, credited to three different writers, and it sometimes seems as if the different sequences do not quite fit together. The long first act, before Van Helsing appears, is almost a self-contained mini-movie, featuring a typical misogynistic twist by Jimmy Sangster (the ignorant girl wants to help, but she only unleashes the monster). The all-girls school setting seems to be a personal fantasy of the screenwriter (it recurs in his later writing-directing effort LUST FOR A VAMPIRE), but thankfully director Terence Fisher keeps the sniggering to a minimum.
Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) fends off Baron Meinster (David Peel) with holy water.
Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) fends off Baron Meinster (David Peel) with holy water.

David Peel — blond, handsome, and innocent-looking — makes a nice visual contrast to Lee’s Dracula, and the actor gives a good erotically charged performance, hinting at incest during his attack on his mother and at homosexuality when he bites Van Helsing. Cushing is, as always, excellent as the single-minded vampire hunter, and he seems more than capable of carrying the film on his own shoulders.
In the end, however, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA cannot surmount the absence of Count Dracula, which seriously undermines the suspense. Having dispatched the Vampire King in the previous film, Van Helsing is the Gothic equivalent of the fastest gun in town, and it is impossible to think that any other vampire could outdraw him in any graveyard showdown. As a result, Baron Meinster’s defeat feels like a foregone conclusion from the very beginning.
This is not enough to ruin a fine horror film, but it does drag it down a notch from the exalted status of HORROR OF DRACULA. Hammer Films apparently realized this, as their next major vampire film, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, was a stand-alone effort from which both Van Helsing and Dracula were absent.
L to r: Marie Devereux, Andree Melly, Freda Jackson

TRIVIA

This project began life as “Disciple of Dracula.” The original concept was that Christopher Lee would play a cameo as Count Dracula, arising at the end to destroy his rogue disciple, Baron Meinster.
THE BRIDES OF DRACULA breaks with HORROR OF DRACULA in more ways than by simply omitting the Count. HORROR OF DRACULA removed most of the supernatural elements of vampirism; for example, Dracula could not turn into a bat. In BRIDES, however, Baron Meinster does turn into a bat (the prop, though not terrible, does prove the wisdom of avoiding such effects in HORROR). There is also a weird little spooky scene in which the locks on a coffin (meant to keep a vampire trapped inside) mysteriously drop off, without opening or breaking.
Although Katherine Ramsland’s otherwise authoritative The Vampire Companion (a companion book to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles) cites other sources of inspiration for Rice’s blond vampire anti-hero Lestat de Lioncourt, and in fact Ramsland does not even mention THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, it is abundantly clear that David Peel’s appearance as the boyishly handsome Baron Meinster was a major influence, not only for Lestat’s appearance but also for his homo-erotic undertones.

DVD DETAILS

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As of 2006, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA had never had a discrete Region 1 DVD release in the United States; however, it was available on the Hammer Horror Series Box set, which includes seven other early 1960s films from the British Studio (such as CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF and THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN). These titles were distributed in the U.S. by Univeral Pictures, which in some cases tampered with the films heavily, not only re-editing them but sometimes adding additional footage as well. The box set features the original versions of all the films. Like all the film in the set, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is transferred at the correct aspect ratio of 1.66 (unlike some Region 2 releases) with an anamorphic squeeze to take advantage of widescreen television sets. Picture and sound quality are fine, but there are no extras, not even trailers.
Brides of Dracula (1960). Directed by Terence Fisher. Screenplay by Jimmy Sangster, Edward Percy, Peter Bryan. Cast: Peter Cushing, Martita Hunt, Yvonne Monlaur, Freda Jackson, David Peel, Miles Malleson.
The Brides of Dracula: Yvonne Monlaur The Brides of Dracula: Andree Melly The Brides of Dracula: David Peel The Brides of Dracula: Peter Cushing
[serialposts]

Psycho (1960) – Horror Film Review

psycho_1960.jpgThis low-budget black-and-white shocker is one of the great achievements in the horror genre, although it eschews the monsters and supernatural trappings usually associated with the genre at that time, in favor of a psychologically based approach to terror. As producer Howard Hawks had done with THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, producer-director Alfred Hitchcock took the familiar horror movie clichés and reused them in a new, contemporary setting. Although a realistic tale (loosely—very loosely—inspired by actual events), the approach to filming is full-blown Gothic. The lonely road and the rain the drives a victim to seek shelter where there is only danger—this is the stuff of classic horror movies, as is the spooky house, a fine 20th Century stand-in for Dracula’s castle. And of course, the lurking menace hiding in the attic or the basement—what more could you ask of a horror movie? Read More

Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960) – Hammer Horror Review

This imaginative and original take on the old Robert Louise Stevenson tale is one of the best and most underrated efforts from Hammer Films, the English company that had previously produced updated versions of Mary Shelly CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1957) and Bram Stoker (HORROR OF DRACULA in 1958). Bold and colorful, THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL (like Hammer’s version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, one year later) comes from an era when the company, having scored major box office success with horror, was pushing the boundaries of the genre, emphasizing the drama, characterization, and even philosophic undertones, wrapped up in lavish, widescreen production values that suggest an opulent costume drama rather than a tawdry terror show. Unfortunately, the film (like PHANTOM) was not a success, and subsequent Hammer horrors would retreat to more conventional territory.
The screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz more or less turns Stevenson’s story “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” inside out. Dr. Jekyll (Paul Massie) here becomes a bearded, somewhat anti-social recluse, more at home in his lab than in his home, who (per Nietzsche) dreams of going beyond Good and Evil, not of separating the two. When he transforms it is not into a misshapen monster or a Darwinian throwback (as in the 1932 version with Frederick March) but into a dapper, handsome devil, eager to enjoy all the delights the seedier side of London has to offer. This is a decidedly amoral (as opposed to immoral) Hyde, only interested (at least initially) in the pursuit of pleasure; there is almost a touch of Oscar Wilde about him – which should not be a big surprise, since screenwriters have been using Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray to pad out the details of Stevenson’s slim story at least since the 1920 silent DR. JEKYL AND MR HYDE with John Barrymore.
After seducing a lady snake charmer, Hyde soon grows bored with conventional debauchery.After seducing a lady snake charmer, Hyde soon grows bored with conventional debauchery, but in the meantime he has learned that Jekyll’s best friend Paul (Christopher Lee) is having an affair with Jekyll’s flirtatious wife Kitty (Dawn Addams), so he sets his sights on her. When neither seduction nor bribery works, he resorts to rape and murder, then frames Jekyll for the crimes. However, after an inquest clears Hyde, Jekyll reasserts himself, transforming in front of the police, who arrest (and presumably go on to try and convict) him for the murders, insuring that Hyde will never be unleashed again.
Hammer horror owed much of its success to brilliant color photography (often by Jack Asher), lavish production design (usually by Bernard Robinson), and clever casting (often with Peter Cushing and/or Christopher Lee), but their best efforts featured solid scripting as well (often by Jimmy Sangster). This is nowhere more true than in TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, which features probably the best screenplay of any Hammer film, written by Wolf Mankowitz (a successful playwright who also co-scripted Val Guests DAY THE WORLD CAUGHT FIRE). The film is filled with witty dialogue and clever characterization that breaks down the usual Good-Evil dichotomy seen in most Hammer movies, which often resembled fairy tales scripted for adults.


To some extent, Jekyll is an unsympathetic personality who (we can infer) drove his wife into an affair because of his inattention to her. Kitty may not be a faithful wife, but she genuinely loves Paul and wants to end the hypocrisy of her marriage; she also has the good sense to find Edward Hyde completely repulsive. Paul is somewhat of a rogue and a scoundrel, but he is also guilt-ridden and remorseful over his betrayal of his friend; he’s just too weak to terminate the love triangle by taking Kitty away from Jekyll. As for Hyde, as the film’s title implies, he really is Jekyll’s alter ego; much of what he does (such as the revenge against Paul and Kitty) makes sense only if we understand that he is simply acting out Jekyll’s repressed impulses – impulses that Jekyll knowingly and deliberately unleashed with his experiments. The result is a highly charged drama, punctuated with mere moments of horror, that plays out like a tragedy, leading to the inevitable moment when Jekyll publicly reveals himself as the man behind the monster.
Director Terence Fisher seizes upon the opportunities in the script, to brilliant effect. Fisher always seemed more interested in the emotional underpinnings of his Gothic films than in the mechanics of suspense: his horror scenes were seldom of the Hitchcockian variety, using multiple camera angles and editing to build tension; instead, he preferred long takes in which the movements of the actors, complimented by subtle movements of the camera, created the dynamic. Shot in widescreen, TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL offers a perfect showcase for this directorial approach, providing a large canvas on which Fisher can project all the gaudy elements at his disposal, which fill the frame like a colorful pageant.
Fisher mostly eschews traditional horror elements in favor of emphasizing the moral horror of a conscienceless hedonist completely indifferent to the suffering he inflicts on others. The formerly de rigueur transformation from Jekyll to Hyde is never explicitly shown, taking place mostly off-camera; the only horror comes from Jekyll’s increasing helplessness at stopping the process. Fisher also plays clever little games to underline Mankowitz’s point about hypocritical Victorian distinctions between respectable and non-respectable society. He conveys a certain lusty glory while indulging in depictions of the less respectable entertainments available in London. The film is filled with colorfully costumed extras, including numerous dancing girls in flowery skirts, all captured in an enticing fashion that makes them seem vibrant and exciting. Again, this seems to be a deliberate attempt to undermine Stevenson’s story, wherein Hyde’s Soho shenanigans (implied but not detailed) were clearly meant to symbolize nothing but sin and degradation.
Perhaps the highlight of this approach is the snake charmer’s dance. In an era when explicit depictions of sexuality were not allowed, Fisher managed to give this sequence, laden with innuendo, a galvanic charge as powerful as anything seen in later, more permissive eras. The erotic gyrations, accompanied by exotic music (composed by David Heneker and Monty Norman, the later the creator of the famous James Bond theme) are at once tawdry and refined, sophisticated and suggestive, culminating in a climax wherein the dancer actually takes the constrictor’s phallic head into her mouth (a trick Alice Cooper would adopt in his demented stage show over a decade later)!
David Kossoff is sincere and touching as Dr. Ernst Littauer, an old colleague who warns Jekyll against his experiments and later laments his downfallThe performances are first-rate. David Kossoff is sincere and touching as Dr. Ernst Littauer, an old colleague who warns Jekyll against his experiments and later laments his downfall. Dawn Addams is sharp and seductive as Kitty. Paul Massie does an excellent job in the dual role, capturing the stolid Jekyll with a low voice (aided by a beard and contact lenses to hide his good looks), then bursting forth with vibrancy and gusto as the unleashed Hyde. As the film goes on, his acting strategy becomes perhaps a bit transparent (Jekyll’s strained voice starts to sound artificial), but in the end Massie nonetheless emerges triumphant as the actor who has done perhaps the best job of blurring the lines between Jekyll and Hyde.
But the true scene-stealer here is Lee as Jekyll’s faithless friend, Paul, whose function in the film is to act as a sort of yardstick for Hyde’s debauchery. Paul initially seems like a hopeless reprobate, but his moral failings pale to insignificance when placed against Hyde’s – Lee perfectly captures the sudden sense of moral indignation when Hyde offers to pay off his gambling debts in exchange for an opportunity to sleep with Kitty. Lee was most often give roles (like Dracula) that emphasized his height and his screen presence, often using him more like a prop than an actor, but here he gets to convey a wide range of emotions (love, laughter, lust, and more), ultimately making Paul a sympathetic if fatally flawed human being. This is the one role, perhaps more than any other, that shows Lee capable of giving a genuine character performance, as opposed to being a horror star or a heavy.
When the movie flopped during its initial release, Hammer tried retitling it as “Jekyll’s Inferno” and “House of Fright,” but for some reason the movie never caught on. Perhaps it was too clever, and audiences could not accept the portrayal of a dashing young handsome Hyde (even though this approach was perfectly in line with Hammer’s other success stories, such as turning Lee’s Count Dracula into a seductive sexual predator). In any case, THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL faded from screens and memories, never attaining the cult-classic status of Hammer’s Dracula and Frankenstein films. This is unfortunate, as the film at least equals those previous efforts in production value – and exceeds them in its screenplay. This is a masterpiece in its own right – and not merely a genre masterpiece. As a horror film, TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL barely ranks on the scare-meter; those looking for shocks and suspense had best seek them elsewhere. But as an exploration of two-faced hypocrisy and the mystery of identity, this ranks as one of the genre’s finest achievements.

TRIVIA

A few lines of dialogue have been looped in post-production, apparently in an attempt to please the censors. For example, when Hyde is confronted by a night club bouncer, he says, “Go to the Devil.” The audio recording quality is clearly different from the rest of the dialogue, and the words do not match the lip movements. (Presumably, he originally said, “Go to hell.”)
The film features a very young Oliver Reed as the night club bouncer who tries to shake down Edward Hyde for a little cash.

Paul Massie as the film's handsome Hyde

THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL(1960). Directed by Terence Fisher. Screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz, based on “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson. Cast: Paul Massie, Dawn Addams, Christopher Lee, David Kossoff, Francis De Wolff, Norma Marla, Magda Miller, Oliver Reed.
[serialposts]

Black Sunday (1960): A Retrospective


Widely regarded by fans as a genre masterpiece, BLACK SUNDAY is a magnificent work of black-and-white horror, filled with wonderfully atmospheric effects and punctuated by moments of brutality quite grizzly for their time. Also known as “The Mask of Satan,” “Mask of the Demon,” or “Revenge of the Vampire” (depending on the country of release), the film simultaneously harkins back to the Universal classics of the 1930s and emulates the then-contemporary verve and dynamism of Hammer Films productions like HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). The result is a unique piece of Gothic visual poetry that retains its power to thrill and entertain with all the tenacious vivacity of its centuries-dead vampire-witch, who refuses to lie quietly in her grave.

In 17th century Moldavia, Princess Asa (Barbara Steele), along with her servant Igor Yavutich (Arturo Dominici), is sentenced to death for practicing witchcraft—by having a spiked mask nailed onto her face. Two hundred years later, Dr. Gorobec (John Richardson) and Dr. Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) stumble into her crypt when their coach breaks down on the way to a convention. Kruvajan cuts his hand while defending himself from a bat. On their way out, they meet Asa’s descendant, Princess Katia (also Steele), whose father (Ivo Garrani) lives in fear that the witch’s curse will claim the life of his daughter.

Later that night, Kruvajan’s blood revives Asa. Now an undead but immobile vampire, Asa summons Yavutich from the grave; her servant lures Kruvajan back to the crypt, where Asa drains the rest of his blood. Sought to help Katia’s ailing father, the vampirized Kruvajan kills him instead, then disappears.

Dr. Gorobec, who has fallen in love with the young princess, offers to clear up the mystery, with the help of a local priest (Antonio Pierfederici). They trace Kruvajan to the cemetery and destroy him by driving a wooden stake through his eye. Meanwhile, Yavutich has abducted Katia, bringing her to Asa’s tomb, where the vampire-witch drains off her lifeforce—the last ingredient she needs to become fully mobile. Returning to the crypt, Gorobec almost stakes the unconscious Katia—until he sees the cross around her neck. When the priest arrives with a throng of villagers, Gorobec uses the cross to reveal Asa’s true identity. The mob burns her at the stake; as she dies, her lifeforce drains back into Katia, reviving her for the happy ending.

The script, loosely based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol called “The Vij,” has a plot hole or two; for example, why does Asa need Katia’s life-force to become mobile, while Yavutich is fully functional from the beginning? Fortunately, the carefully crafted mise-en-scene sweeps away any reservations, providing numerous memorable images: the stone coffin that explodes to reveal Asa’s revived body; the pockmarked face of the witch after the spiked Mask of Satan has been removed; the eerie, slow-motion coach ride, with secondary vampire Igor Javutich lashing the horses forward (an obvious visual quote from DRACULA’s coach ride, yet in many ways superior). Director Mario Bava (who also photographed) uses trick photography and lighting effects to create a stark Gothic atmosphere, then injects decidedly adult elements of violence and eroticism. More than anything, the film is an exercise in visual style, demonstrating that camera movement, composition, and lighting can combine to create a splendidly cinematic work that far outshines any narrative weaknesses.

TIME CAPSULE

To a large extent, BLACK SUNDAY’s reputation rests on the convergence of two cult figures: Mario Bava and Barbara Steele. Bava was a talented cinematographer making his directorial debut, and Steele was a British actress who had moved to Italy after a career in Hollywood failed to work out. Bava went on to become a prolific director of horror, science fiction and fantasy films, and Steele became the reigning Queen of Horror (at least in Italy)—the closest cinema has ever produced to a distaff version of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee.

At the time BLACK SUNDAY was shot in late 1959 (under the title La Maschera Del Demonioin Italy), the traditional horror film had only recently come back in vogue after a decade dominated by science fiction monster movies. Having completed two films left unfinished by director Ricardo Freda, I VAMPIRI (1956) and CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER (1959), Bava finally was given an opportunity to direct an entire feature film by himself when CALTIKI’s executive producer, Lionello Santi, showed his appreciation by offering Bava his choice of projects. Bava selected Nikolai Gogol’s “The Vij,” which was then adapted into a screenplay by Ennio De Concini and Mario Serandrei. About the only story element that survives in the film is the concept of a beautiful vampire-witch who emerges explosively from her coffin.

For the dual role of Asa/Katia, Bava selected British actress Barbara Steele, who had previously appeared with her co-star John Richardson in BACHELOR OF HEARTS (1958) while the two were under contract with J. Arthur Rank Productions in England. “It’s very odd that we both ended up being in the film,” she says. “I couldn’t understand why I was there. I had a little spread in Life magazine, and I think Mario Bava saw one of these photos. Anyway, he invited me to go to Rome, where I’d never been, and I must say I’ve never recovered. It’s a very small city, but it had such an optimistic and rich energy. It was an incredibly vibrant and voluptuous period: sunshine and jasmine and gorgeous men! So it was like a love fest really—especially coming from a repressed English environment.”

No doubt part of the reason for the casting decision was the Italian film industry’s concern with international market appeal. The casting of British actors in the leads would make his film seem more in the vein of recent Hammer productions like HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). And of course, shooting the film in English would make it easier to export to the United Kingdom and the United States. As Clint Eastwood would later do in his Westerns for director Sergio Leone, both Steele and Richardson spoke English while filming an Italian movie in Italy—a fact that is clearly visible when watching the film, even though both actors (unlike Eastwood) have been dubbed with other voices.

The Galatea-Jolly production then shot on the Titanus Studios in Rome, where Freda and Bava had worked on I VAMPIRI. “It was strange to go from this incredible Italian energy to this very dark, tomb-like set—which was totally monochromatic,” Steele recalls. “It’s supposed to take place in Russia, because it’s taken from a story by Gogol, but I must say, the film feels incredibly Nordic. It was very familiar, this landscape Mario Bava drew, because it reminded me of where I grew up in Scotland and Wales, a wild Gothic environment with wild storms. Looking at it, it’s just impossible to imagine that this film was shot in Italy! It’s extraordinary. It’s just inspired, really.”

Bava exploited Steele’s physique for the remarkable scene wherein the prostrate Asa seduces Kruvajan, her chest heaving erotically beneath her black gown while her voice urges him to approach. “They were so frantic that people wouldn’t notice,” she laughs. “I mean, I hadn’t had to breathe like that since I saw the doctor when I was five: Inhale! Exhale!”

Once filming was completed, different versions were prepared in the editing room for domestic release and for export. The Italian language prints contain one scene not present in any other version, a brief dialogue between Katia and her father by a fountain, wherein he expresses concern for her state of mind and promises to take her away from the family’s gloomy ancestral castle. Apparently, the dialogue is a remnant from an earlier script draft that was dropped from other cuts of the picture because it no longer fit; in the Italian version, this daylight scene is awkwardly intercut with the nighttime sequence of Igor Javutich’s resurrection!

An “international” version of THE MASK OF SATAN (as it was called) was then completed for export to English-speaking territories like the U.S. and England, with dubbing credited to George Higgens III. As was often the case in Italian film from this period,  the original actors had their voices replaced even in their own language; neither Steele nor Richardson can be heard in any version.

“The dubbing ended up as a plus for him and a minus for me, because in actual fact he has a much lighter voice,” says Steele of her co-star. “The deeper voice gave him a great presence, I thought.” Fortunately, the dubbing process could dim but not destroy the effectiveness of Bava’s visuals.

The international version of MASK OF THE DEMON was eventually released in Britain in 1968 under the title REVENGE OF THE VAMPIRE. Prior to that, Americans saw a slightly different version in 1961, when American International Pictures released the film as BLACK SUNDAY. AIP co-founders Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson had seen the film in an Italian screening room during the spring of 1960. Arkoff thought it was “one of the best horror pictures I had ever seen.”2 Nevertheless, AIP edited, redubbed, and rescored the film for its U.S. release.

It is a testament both to the power of Bava’s original film and to AIP’s handling of the American release MASK OF THE DEMON survived its transformation in BLACK SUNDAY. The U.S. version is not a complete hatchet job but a reasonably careful revision that removes a few sentimental moments, improves the lip synchronization of the vocal performances, and substitutes new music by the late ultra-lounge composer Les Baxter. The most serious flaw is an overabundance of caution that led to the trimming of several crucial moments of horror.

The result was fairly effective. The new dialogue actually follows the original English-language script more closely, and the voices are relatively indistinguishable from those in the international version—except for that of Constantine, Katia’s younger brother, who now speaks with the unmistakable voice of Peter Fernandez, who later dubbed the title character in the Japanese animated series SPEED RACER. Baxter’s score is too insistent upon emphasizing the suspenseful moments, but his romantic theme for Katia is a bit more subtle than Roberto Nicolosi’s: while using a similar arrangement of piano and strings, Baxter tones down the excess, with a few simple chords on the keyboard creating a suspended feeling somewhat less hokey than the original.4

The result became a big success not only in the United States but also around the world, and helped raise interest in releasing subsequent Italian horror efforts. “I don’t know who it made money for,” says Steele. “All I know is that several years ago I was in a screening room watching a private screening, and some distributor came up to me and said, ‘I just adore you.’ I asked him why, and he said, ‘We distributed BLACK SUNDAY in England, and it made eight to ten million dollars.’”

Despite its success, BLACK SUNDAY never generated a sequel. However, it was remade in 1989 by Bava’s son Lamberto, who had established his own career as a horror director with films like DEMONS (1985) and DEMONS 2 (1986).

DVD DETAILS

Image Entertainments 2000 DVD Release

Although clearly a product of its era, BLACK SUNDAY has not dated badly. The truncated AIP version, known to American fans, remains a powerful work, marred only slightly by the inevitable problems that arise in the process of dubbing and recutting a foreign import. Thanks to Image Entertainment’s DVD release, the film is now available in all its original glory, with its missing footage and original music intact. This international version of the film (bearing the original title THE MASK OF SATAN) restores a certain punch that increases the film’s effectiveness by contemporary standards.

The execution of Princes Asa has far more impact thanks to two shots that are allowed to run longer than in the American print. In the first, the witch has the mark of the devil branded into her flesh (actually a wax stand-in), and instead of cutting away as the brand is applied, the camera lingers until we can see the result. In the second restored shot, one of cinema’s great moments of brutality is rendered even more horrific: as the Mask of Satan is hammered onto the witch’s face with a mallet large enough to knock a mule unconscious, the shot no longer quickly fades to black but instead shows a fleeting moment of blood spewing from beneath the mask, driven forth by the impact. The credits that immediately follow are effectively superimposed over a medium shot of the titular Mask of Satan (instead of being seen merely against some nondescript flames), and we can see that the witch is still alive and breathing, with blood running down her neck.

The true highlight of the international version emerges after Asa has been reawakened in her tomb. Alive but still immobile, she draws her first victim to her prostate body with the mesmeric influence of her eyes. Steele’s heavy breathing in this scene is almost orgasmic, but the American print faded out on a close up of her face before she made contact with her intended victim. In THE MASK OF SATAN, at last you can see the lingering kiss that climaxed the scene.

Still later, there is an additional brief romantic interlude between Katia and Dr. Gorobec, who tries to convince the young princess not to give in to despair despite the horrible events occurring around her. The final restored moments occur near the climax, when Gorobec speaks several more lines of dialogue lamenting the apparent death of Katia, after her life-force has been drained by her vampiric ancestor. This helps to make Katia’s revival, as Asa is burned at the stake, seem like more of a surprise and less of a foregone conclusion.

The print used for the DVD transfer is in great shape, with only an occasional scratch here and there; the image, letterboxed to a 1:66 ratio, is clear and sharp, as is the Dolby Digital, monaural soundtrack. The special features are impressive as well: a brief Mario Bava biography, filmographies for both Bava and Steele, a theatrical trailer, and a gallery of photos and posters. The latter includes rare behind-the-scene shot of Bava being strangled by Arturo Dominici, who plays Javutich. Also of interest is a shot of Dominic modeling his vampire fangs, which are nowhere seen in the film. The disc also contains a transcript of the dialogue (translated by Christopher S. Dietrich and Lucas) from the missing scene between Katia and her father. Of course, it would have been nice to see the footage as a supplemental scene, but the transcript is an adequate substitute.

Tim Lucas’s audio commentary is a highlight of the DVD. He spews out trivia and behind-the-scenes anecdotes almost faster than you can keep track of, yet somehow, he never bores you with his expertise. He even does some interesting second-guessing about how some scenes in the final cut may have survived from previous drafts of the script; for example, Lucas suspects that the original intent may have been to have Asa replace and impersonate Katia at a much earlier point in the narrative. Unfortunately, Lucas does tend to overlook the film’s minor flaws, which mostly consist of a few risible moments in the dubbing. (My personal favorite: Dr. Gorobec advises the torch-bearing villagers on how to distinguish Asa from Katia: “She’s the witch. Don’t’ be deceived by her face—look at her body!”)

Overall, Image’s DVD is about the best presentation imaginable of the original version of the late Mario Bava’s masterpiece, short of getting an audio commentary from Barbara Steele herself. Unfortunately, this we are likely never to get, as Steele claims that trying to remember details of the filming is as hopeless as trying to remember the details of her high school prom. Nevertheless, in recent years she has come to acknowledge the film’s greatness in a way that she seldom did when while fighting the typecasting that resulted from her performance in it: “As an actress, it’s not exactly something that lets you do any tour-de-forcing,” she explained years ago. After reviewing the film, however, she has a more balanced view:
“Mario Bava made a brilliant, brilliant film, and I’m deeply grateful,” she says. “BLACK SUNDAY looks so exquisite to me as a film, today; frame for frame, it looks so beautiful. It’s like a Rembrandt. Visually, it is stunning, and that’s what cinema is: visuals and atmosphere. Really, it could be an incredible Silent Film—you could take the soundtrack right off, because it’s such a visual masterpiece.”

BLACK SUNDAY (a.k.a. La Maschera del Demonio [“Mask of the Demon”], 1960). Directed and photographed by Mario Bava. Screenplay by Ennio De Concini and Mario Serandrei, based on “The Vij” by Nikolai Gogol; English dialogue by George Higgins. Cast: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici, Enrico Olivieri, Antonio Piefederici, Tino Bianchi, Ciara BIndi, Mario Passante, Renato Terra.
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Horror Hotel/City of the Dead: Film & DVD Review

The film was retitled HORROR HOTEL for US releaseTonight, as part of their 7th Annual Festival of Fantasy, Horror and Science-Fiction, the American Cinematheque will screen HORROR HOTEL at the Egyptian theatre in Hollywood. This film was known under the somewhat more atmospheric title of CITY OF THE DEAD in its native England (it really should have been called THE THIRTEENTH HOUR, but no one asked me); unfortunately, the Cinematheque seems to be screening the U.S. version, which not only changed the title but also deleted two minutes of footage. Still, any excuse to discuss this excelelnt exercise in atmosphere is good enough for me. It freaked me out when I first saw it as a kid on TV, and subsequent opportunities to enjoy it n the big screen (thanks to previous Cinematheque screenings) have proven that it holds up to adult scrutiny. It may not be a complete masterpiece, but as a cult item it certainly is a gem worth discovering for yourself.

The orginal title was CITY OF THE DEADThe film — about a New England town ruled by a coven of witches — falls just short of greatness thanks to an excessive reliance on horror movie cliches (e.g., sinister residents of said town staring ominously at the hapless protagonists). Although the lack of subtlety and refinement relegate the film to the ranks of entertaining spook shows (rather than genre classics), the four-star level of weirdness earns HORROR HOTE/CITY OF THE DEAD a place alongside the most memorable horror movies. On top of that, it sports what may be the best, most terrifying (happy) ending ever seen in a genre fear fest – a genuine tour-de-force so powerful in its imagery that it almost single-handedly erases any reservations one has about the rest of the movie.
Borrowing a page from Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY, the story begins with the execution of a witch, Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel), around the time of the Salem Witch trials. Centuries later, Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is a college student taking a course in witchcraft by Professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee). In order to do some research for a term paper, she takes the professor’s advice and visits a Whitewood, the town where Selwyn was executed, and checks into the Raven’s Inn, which is operated by Mrs. Newless (also Jessel). Shortly thereafter, poor Nan finds herself abducted into the catacombs below the hotel, where she is the victim of a ritual sacrifice; among the hooded faces looming over her are Mrs. Newless and Professor Driscoll. Nan’s brother Richard (Dennis Lotis) and her boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor) grow worried when she fails to return from Whitewood, so they investigate; Bill gets in an auto accident on the way and remains mostly on the sidelines, while Richard talks with Patricia (Betta St. John), the daughter of the aging local Reverend (Norman Macowan), who claims that Whitewood is under a curse: the executed witch Elizabeth Selwyn now presides over a coven that maintains immortality by performing sacrifices when the clock strikes thirteen. The only way to stop them is with the shadow of the cross. Richard is skeptical until Patricia is abducted to be the next sacrifice; he tries to save her, but the cult members restrain him. Bill revives from his stupor as the clock begins to strike midnight. The cult cannot flee without completing the ritual, and Mrs. Newless cannot strike the lethal blow (with a knife) until the thirteenth tolling. Following shouted orders from Richard, Bill uproots a cross from the graveyard and stumbles weakly toward the scene of the intended sacrifice; as the shadow of the cross falls upon the cult members, they burst into flames. Finally, Bill collapses, dead. Patricia and Richard go searching for Mrs. Newless, who got away. They find her in the hotel, her corpse withered and aged as if she had been dead hundreds of years.
As a piece of storytelling, HORROR HOTEL lifts several obvious motifs from Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. Most notably, there is the hotel set in an isolated area that is now almost forgotten. The ostensible lead is a young blond woman who is murdered with a knife midway through. And the final revelation of Mrs. Newless in her decomposed state recalls the withered corpse of Norman’s mother in the cellar of the Bates mansion.
Despite the obviously derivative elements, HORROR HOTEL works on its own terms as a sinister piece of supernatural horror. The New England setting, the witchcraft rituals, and the twist with Professor Driscoll being part of the coven — all of these tie in nicely, creating a solid storyline the pulls the viewer along into the movie’s strange world.
And it is strange. HORROR HOTEL is one of those lucky films (“accidental art,” as I like to call it) whose missteps and limitations somehow magically fall into place, creating a weird alternative universe — a sort of Twilight Zone in which the incredible seems completely natural. To begin with, there are no actual exterior location shots anywhere in the movie, which was filmed entirely on studio sets, creating a claustrophobic sense of being cut off from the world at large. The “normal” world of college and homes is depicted only in interiors, mostly brightly lit and cheerful. Whitewood, on the other hand, has numerous “exterior” scenes that were actually filmed inside a sound stage. Filled with fog, this obviously artificial town comes across like something out of a demented dream, the unreality adding to, rather than undermining, the unease in the audience.
The film’s second major lucky break lies in the fact that it is an English production set in New England. The British cast strives with varying degrees of success (Lee best among them) to affect mid-Atlantic accents, and the result is a stilted artificiality that almost makes the film sound dubbed. However, as with the unreal (or surreal) exteriors, the strange vocal inflections only increase the off-balance sense of being set apart from the real world, adding another layer to the perception that we are trapped in a dreamy, imaginary landscape.
Where the film falls short is in knowing when to back off the spook show theatrics. The townsfolk of Whitewood are given to hushed whispers and threatening glances, underlined with lingering tight shots and music meant to instill fear. Not only is this effect so overdone that you are tempted to laugh, there is also a mysterious “Elder” (Fred Johnson), who shows up to hitch a ride with each intended victim, and then inexplicably disappears from the car upon arriving in Whitewood – a piece of hokum that is more amusing that frightening. It’s not bad exactly, but it does seem to scream, “Ooo, scary!” in a manner that recalls SCTV’s Count Floyd.
Whatever the missteps, the film hits its stride during the climax, which is one of the greatest horror sequences ever filmed. The black-and-white photography lends the shadowy images an Expressionist power that goes far beyond anything conjured up by the narrative. Nan’s dying boyfriend Bill, ostensibly the hero, resembles a shuffling zombie, seen only in silhouette as he wields the cross like a child using a magnifying lens to focus the rays of the sun into a flash-point that ignites the target in a burst of flame. There is something uncanny in the character’s movements, as if he were a puppet animated by an external supernatural force (rather like the revived sailors in Coleridge’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”), and cloaking his face adds to the perception that Bill may already be dead, his body nothing more than a vessel for some kind of divine retribution meted out against Elizabeth Selwyn’s cult. Never has the power of a righteous God been portrayed with such unnerving force; even the plagues visited upon Egypt in THE TEN COMMANDEMENTS seem tame by comparison.

Divine vengeance is meted out by the half-dead hero.

The entire film may not work at this exalted level, but it is more than suspenseful enough to hold your attention until the climax. Although his is truly a supporting role, horror star Lee turns in a solid performance, nicely bridging the gap between stern professor and demented cultist without undue histrionics. Despite the awkward accents, the rest of the cast mostly handle their roles well, even if the villains overdo their spooky routine a bit. The slightly hammy approach to horror during the early sequences guarantees that HORROR HOTEL will never achieve the same high critical reputation as, for example, DIABOLIQUES, but like that much-praised French thriller, HORROR HOTEL saves the best for last, serving up a devastating denouement that induces a level of fear few films ever achieve. 

TRIVIA

Although the names “Selwyn” and “Newless” are not anagrams, they are the phonetic equivalent of palindromes (that is, “Selwyn” pronounced backwards sounds like “Newless”), indicating that that the Mrs. Newless who presides over the hotel is indeed the same person as the witch Elizabeth Selwyn, who was executed centuries ago.
This is the first horror film from the producer team of Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg (although the latter is uncredited). Later, the duo would form Amicus, a film company responsible for numerous horror titles in the 1960s and 1970s, including DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS, TORTURE GARDEN, and THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD.
Director John Llewellyn Moxey later directed 1973’s THE NIGHT STALKER (about a vampire in Las Vegas), which became the most-watched made-for-television movie up to that time.
In one scene, Professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) is seen sacrificing a small bird in his office; he is almost interrupted by the doorbell, forcing the visibly annoyed professor to put on a happy face and receive an unwanted visitor. The scene seems to have inspired a similar one in Ken Russell’s adaptation of LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM. In the latter film, Amanda Donahoe’s pagan priestess is on the verge of sacrificing a young virgin she has lured to her mansion, when she is interrupted by the doorbell and snarls, “Oh, shit!”

 DVD DETAILS

HORROR HOTEL has been released several times on DVD, but the only version currently available is under the title CITY OF THE DEAD. This “Widescreen Undead Collector’s Edition” from VCI offers the original English cut of the film, plus numerous bonus features:

  • Audio commentary and interview with star Christopher Lee
  • Audio commentary and interview with director John Moxey
  • Interview with actress Venetia Stevenson
  • Theatrical trailer, photos, and talent bios

The widescreen presentation is clean, clear, and beautiful, especially if you are watching on a 16×9 television. Unfortunately, VCI’s initial pressing of the disc presented problems for regular televisions; it was difficult if not impossible to set the aspect ratio for pan-and-scan or letterbox, so you ended up watching the film squeezed. (Hopefully, the current pressing, which has redesigned cover art [shown below] has fixed this.)
The interview with Christopher Lee is informative, though occasionally marred by the actor’s tendancy to lapse into pompous pronouncements about the state of the British film industry. Lee also trots out his standard complaint about being typecast by the press (who still see him as Dracula over thirty years since he last played th role), but when he gets down to business he actually has a lot to say – about the film and his career in genre pictures. (Most interesting for fans of Lee’s Hammer horror films is his statement that director Terence Fisher ” knew what he want – when he saw it,” meaning that Fisher made the cast rehearse the scene until they showed him something he liked.)
Unfortunately, Lee’s audio commentary suggests that he said everything he had to say during the video interview. Most of his comments consist of describing the action on screen while remarking that he is not quite sure what is happening because he cannot hear the sound. The few bright points occur when he extolls the virtues of the film’s atmospheric black-and-white cinematography and when he briefly mocks his own performance for laying on the sinister angle too thick early on. As if aware of the shortcomings, toward the end he asks, “Do you think people are really going to watch this film, listen to the dialogue, and listen to me? […] I imagine you’ll cut a great deal of what I’m saying.”

Patricia Jessell and Christopher Lee preside over the sacrifice of Betta St. John

Director John Moxey’s interview is also worth checking out. Although not a genre specialist (his only other major genre credit is the tele-film THE NIGHT STALKER), he speaks knowledgeably about the techniques necessary to generate mood and suspense. He seems particularly fond of one technique he used to convey a sense of the uncanny: early in the film, a character walks down the street of the haunted city and sees numerous, ominous townspeople; when another character follows the same path later in the film, we see the same townspeople in pretty much the same order, creating a dream-like feeling of repetition.
Actress Venetia Stevenson’s interview is breezy and fun but less informative; because she was on the film for such a short time, she has less to say about it, focusing instead on the rest of her career (which included a switch to working behind the camera). Trivia buffs, however, will delight in learning that Stevenson’s mother, Anna Lee, co-starred with Boris Karloff in the classic 1945 horror film BEDLAM, before going on to play the role of Lyla Quatermain (named after the hero of KING SOLOMON’S MINES) in a long-running afternoon soap opera.
The so-called “Original American Trailer” looks vintage in terms of the footage, but it has video-generated titles that display the film’s English title CITY OF THE DEAD; there is also a 2001 copyright date, suggesting that this version of the trailer was created for the DVD release. It’s one of those trailers that gives away too much (including the final image), and the melodramatic narration lays things on a bit too thick.
The photo gallery is actually a slideshow containing nearly three dozen images: publicity shots, behind-the-scenes photographs, posters, lobby cards, and home video cover art. Unfortunately, the images are not accompanied by a music cue from the film’s soundtrack.
The talent bios, ccntrary to standard DVD form, are not static; the text scrolls up the frame like the opening crawl in STARS WARS; fortunately, you can use you pause button if you want to peruse the filmographies included at the end of each. The information is thin. In the case of Moxey, Lee, and Stevenson, this hardly matters, since we learn details in their video interviews elsewhere on the disc; however, it would have been nice to include something more substantial about Patricia Jessell, Dennis Lotis, and Betta St. John; otherwise, why bother including them at all? The worst example is for Lotis, who played Richard Barlow, the brother of the missing Nan. His bio reads simply:

In THE CITY OF THE DEAD, Dennis Lotis plays Richard Barlow, the concerned brother of the adventurous Nan Barlow, who has gone ‘missing.’

As if you couldn’t have figured that out from watching the movie!
CITY OF THE DEAD (a.k.a. HORROR HOTEL, 1960). Directed by John Moxey. Written by George Baxt, story by Milton Subotsky. Cast: Christopher Lee, Patricia Jessel, Dennis Lotis, Tom Maylor, Betta St. John, Venetia Stevenson, Valentine Dyall, Ann Beach.
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