“Terrror Creeps from the fringe of fear to the pit of panic! And horror piles upon suspense as evil plunges into…THE BLACK TORMENT.”
Sounds pretty trashy, right? Like the excessive hyperbole associated with some deservedly forgotten exploitation film from decades past. Well, that assessment is half right: THE BLACK TORMENT is almost forgotten but not deservedly so.
Though the title suggests 1960s Euro-trash (it sounds like a German film imitating an Italian film imitating a British film), this Gothic mystery-thriller is somewhat better than its name suggests, and it actually does hail from Great Britain, exhibiting many of the qualities we associate with Anglo-horror films from that era: solid production values, good actors, atmospheric locations, and a serviceable story line. If you are a fan of classic British horror, looking for something in the same line as Hammer Films (if not as good), then THE BLACK TORMENT is worth checking out.
After a prologue in which a young woman named Lucy (Edina Ronay) is seen desperately running from an unseen attacker, the story has Sir Richard Fordykie (John Turner) returning to his ancestral mansion with his new bride Elizabeth (Heather Sears of Hammer’s 1961 THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA). The homecoming is marred by accusations: witnesses claim to have seen Sir Richard pursued at night on horseback by the ghost of his previous wife, and the murdered Lucy died with his name on her lips.
Though hardly a happy homecoming, this opening effectively sets the stage for what follows. The various apparitions, murders, and bumps in the night that follow are mostly by-the-book stuff, but our interest in the plot actually hinges on the increasing tension wrought by the suspicions against Sir Richard. The viewer is continually wondering, “How much worse can his circumstances become?” And the answer is always “Much, much worse!” This engenders our sympathy for the protagonist, regardless of the mechanical plot twists. Yes, Sir Richard is a privileged member of the aristocracy, but all things considered he’s reasonably affable and fair-minded – especially under these trying circumstances – and all the poor guy wants to do is introduce his bride to her new home – but circumstances just won’t let him!
THE BLACK TORMENT eventually moves into Gothic territory when the apparent apparition of Sir Richard’s late wife appears – a white figure first glimpsed through an upper story window, from which she leaped to her death. The tension ratchets up as Sir Richard orders the haunted window barred – only to later find the bars rent asunder – after which the frustrated lord pursues the ghostly figure in a nifty midnight horse ride that nearly ends in Sir Richard lynching by the local superstitious populace.
As in most films of this type, the mystery is whether the supernatural element is real or faked. Early on there is a clue that might offer an explanation for the appearance of his ghostly wife, but the other issue – the witnesses who supposedly saw Sir Richard while he was actually miles away – leaves some room for doubt about exactly what is going on.
At least for a while. The pacing of THE BLACK TORMENT is just slow enough to give viewers time to put all the pieces together before the film actually delivers the big revelation. On the one hand, one has to give the script credit for playing fair, presenting the clues that tie together; however, if the film had only moved a little more quickly, it might have reached its conclusion a step ahead of the audience.
Nevertheless, the film sustains its mood even when the mystery dissipates. We never lose our concern for the predicament suffered by Richard and Elizabeth, and even if you can figure out the basic of the plot, there are one or two details that remain elusive until the end – which unfortunately gets a trifle silly in its effort to work a sword fight into the climax: several by-standers literally stand by during the entire fight – including officers of the law. Oh well, at least the villain(s) get what he/she/they deserve.
Besides Sears, fans of 1960s British horror will note such stalwart supporting players as Patrick Troughton (THE SCARS OF DRACULA, DOCTOR WHO) and Francis De Wolff (also seen in 1964’s DEVIL DOLL). THE BLACK TORMENT is a decent example of what was being produced in England at the time: the directorial style is straight-forward but effective, using the visual materials (costumes, sets, locations) without ostentatiously showing them off. The suspense builds effectively, and the spooky moments (the midnight ride, the discovery of the broken bars) are nicely realized – just enough to send a pleasant shiver down one’s spine.
So, BLACK TORMENT is no lost classic, but it is decent genre entertainment. The film is available on DVD from Redemption Video, a company that usually specializes in sleazy Euro-trash. THE BLACK TORMENT is much less lurid, which may decrease its perceived value among cult film enthusiasts, but fans of old-fashioned thrillers will enjoy a pleasant surprise.
THE BLACK TORMENT is generally overlooked in the usual reference guides and horror history books; in fact, your humble reviewer had never heard of it until embarking on a diligent search for 50th anniversary titles from 1964.* This obscurity is somewhat surprising: although the film does not have the most illustrious pedigree, it was produced by Tony Tenser, who would later give us such memorable horror efforts as Roman Polanski’s REPULSION (1961) and Michael Reeves’ WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968). THE BLACK TORMENT does not deserve the same exalted status, but neither is at an embarrassing skeleton in Tenser’s closet.
Except for Tenser, the behind-the-scenes talent did not go on to any great achievements. Director Robert-Hartford Davis does not have any other memorable genre credits. Co-writer Derek Ford ended up doing nudie comedies such as THE CASTING COUCH, though a year after THE BLACK TORMENT, he and his brother Donald did collaborate on the interesting screenplay for A STUDY IN TERRROR, which pitted Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper.
[rating=3] THE BLACK TORMENT (Compton Films and Tekli British Productions, 1964). Produced by Tony Tenser, Michael Klinger, and Robert Hartford-Davis. Directed by Robert Hartford-Davis. Written by Derek and Donald Ford. 85 minutes. Unrated. In color. Cast: John Turner, Heather Sears, Ann Lynn, Peter Arne, Norman Bird, Raymond Huntley, Annette Whiteley, Francis De Wolff, Joseph Tomelty, Patrick Troughton, Edina Ronay. FOOTNOTE:
THE BLACK TORMENT did not reach the U.S. until 1965. However, it debuted in its native England in 1964.
Would be more accurately titled “Dario Argento’s Whatever Popped into My Head.”
DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA (as the title appears on screen) is nowhere near as laughably ridiculous as his previous foray into costume bedecked Gothic Horror, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1998), but that is still a long way from good. Fans who take a look out of a misguided sense of loyalty may find a few drops of gory glory in Luciono Tovoli’s luscious cinematography, but like the titular character, the film itself presents a handsome appearance hiding a corrupt, empty soul – animated by blood but devoid of any true life.
The screenplay, loosely cobbled together from Bram Stoker’s novel, feels as if it were written by someone who had read the original text, then scribbled down some fragmentary notes while half awake after suffering a fever dream in which bits and pieces of the source were jumbled together with other adaptations. That may sound off-the-wall enough to be interesting; unfortunately, the finished film feels as if it did not go before the cameras until the fervid dreamer’s mental state had been counter-acted with a heavy dose of valium. Dario Argento’s DRACULA is not only insane; it’s insanely dull.
The story restricts itself to the environs surrounding Dracula’s castle, including a village that owes its prosperity to the Count (though at a terrible price). Jonathan Harker (an unimpressive Unax Ugalde) shows up to catalog Dracula’s library (a plot device lifted from 1958’s HORROR OF DRACULA), but it turns out that the vampire is not really interested in getting his books in order. What he is interested in does not emerge until various other stuff has happened, little of which shows Dracula acting in a way designed to bring about the goal he eventually reveals: getting Mina Harker to his castle because she is the reincarnation of his lost love.
That’s right: Argento re-roasts the old garlic-laced chestnut previously used in DARK SHADOWS; SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM; Dan Curtis’s 1974 telefilm version of DRACULA; and Francis Ford Coppola’s overwrought (and embarrassingly mis-titled) BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA. That, however, is not the real problem.
The real problem is the same one that plagued THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA: Argento randomly inserts a series of expository scenes and violent set pieces that overshadow the original narrative. You would think that a story about blood-drinking vampires that can be destroyed only be staking and decapitation would provide ample opportunity for sanguinary delights, but that is not enough for Argento, who takes time out to show Renfield splitting someone’s head open with a shovel and another Dracula acolyte hacking someone to death with an ax. As if that were not enough, Van Helsing (Rutger Hauer) is given a back story via flashback, in which he first learned about vampires when he witnessed Dracula attacking the patients of his mental hospital (um, why?); and later Dracula manifests as a giant praying mantis that impales a human victim on its pinchers before eating his head – a scene whose irrelevancy suggests the film should be retitled “Dario Argento’s Whatever Popped into My Head.”*
Consequently, when the scenes from Stoker’s Dracula do arrive (such as the staking of Lucy, played by Asia Argento) they are anti-climactic, their impact diluted by the gore that came before. At times, these bits seem simply shoe-horned into the film at random, as when the famous scene from the book of Dracula, scaling the castle wall like a lizard, flashes by for a second – just long enough for us to wonder why it’s in the film. (For dramatic effect, he pauses to hiss – at nothing in particular, unless perhaps it is the audience.)
It’s not only the onscreen blood that’s thinned by this approach; Stoker’s narrative beats are dulled as well, rendered as obligatory after-thoughts. A major element of the novel is Lucy’s transformation from innocent British lass to sultry vampiress. Argento’s DRACULA, however, begins with a local village girl, Tanya (Miriam Giovanelli) bitten by Dracula and turned into the vampire bride who greets Jonathan Harker when he reaches the castle. Since we have already seen this human-to-vampire transformation take place once, when Lucy’s turn arrives it has a been-there-done-that quality to it, with Argento tossing it off as quickly as possible.
It hardly helps that Argento goes out of his way to sexualize Dracula’s female victims before they fall under his spell: Tanya gets lusty sex scene with her married lover; Lucy and Mina Harker (Marta Gastini) get a nude bathing scene (yes, Dario films his daughter naked once again). With the women already sexy, there is no opportunity for a startling transformation from virginal innocence to voluptuous wantonness, further undermining the story. (This might have worked if Argento had deliberately inverted expectations, suggesting that the more sexually liberated characters are less likely to be seduced by Dracula’s erotic allure, but no such luck.)
All of this underlines one of the film’s major failings: the story has been ripped out of its original context, robbing scenes of their effectiveness, and little if anything substantial has been added to replace what was lost. Stoker’s Dracula is about an ancient evil that invades modern London, transforming everything it touches with a bloody version of the Midas Touch, spreading a contagion that could potentially sweep the entire country. Argento’s DRACULA is about some guy who wants to get back together with his old girlfriend and doesn’t mind who he has to kill to do it.
Unlike London in the novel, the European setting of the film, the village of Passburg, is mere background; Dracula’s impact on it barely registers. There is talk of a pact between the villagers and the Count – presumably a non-aggression pact, though what the villagers get out of it is not clear, and the idea seems to exist only so that there can be a scene wherein some villagers talk about breaking the pact, whereupon Dracula kills them all, providing another opportunity for carnage not related to the main story (including a grizzly throat-ripping and a nicely rendered though completely gratuitous scene of the Count telepathically inducing a victim to blow his own brains out with a gun).
I know what you’re saying: It’s a Dario Argento film – who cares about the plot? It’s the bravura visuals that count! Aye, there’s the rub. Argento’s DRACULA superficially simulates the look and approach of classic Hammer horror films, with a familiar narrative dressed up in colorful new accoutrements, erotically charged and splashed with blood, but the similarity ends there. The staging of the action is lethargic, lacking the gusto of director Terrence Fisher’s work in HORROR OF DRACULA (compare the Count’s interruption of Harker’s brief encounter with vampire bride in both films, and you’ll see what I mean).
In fact, with its more overt sex and nudity – not to mention directorial indulgence – Argento’s DRACULA more resembles a Ken Russell film, but the flamboyance here seems more scatter-shot than enjoyably excessive. The same pictorial beauty is there, the same unfettered urge to overthrow MASTERPIECE THEATRE-style reticence in favor of explicit eruptions of disreputable imagery that would be proscribed in more “respectable” fare. The difference is that, as wild as he was, Russell usually seemed to have a point, and unlike Argento, he knew when he had overstepped the boundary of outrageousness into deliberate camp, inviting the audience to laugh along with him at the material (e.g., THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM).
Argento, on the other hand, seems merely clueless. As a result, DRACULA feels like a more lavishly produced version of 1970s Euro-trash, or a more beautifully photographed version of a Paul Naschy film (think FRANKENSTEIN’S BLOODY TERROR) but without the joyful exploitation energy that made that kind of cinema fun, regardless of whether it was “good” by conventional standards.
Perhaps it’s needless to say that this approach drains the actors of any dramatic blood. Not only do the English-language vocal performances sound phoned in by bored thespians; the cast tends to act as if they never read a script but simply had it explained to them over the phone, after which they arrived on set and Argento simply said, “Do that thing we talked about.” If you hadn’t seen Thomas Krestschmann, Rutger Hauer, and Asia Argento doing better work elsewhere, you might think they were the most untalented actors on the planet. Krestschmann (who was frighteningly deranged in Argento’s THE STENDHAL SYNDROME) is most ill-served, rendering a static Dracula who lacks the hypnotic seductivness of Bela Lugosi, the predatory dynamism of Christopher Lee, and the romantic allure of Frank Langella; hell, he even makes Gary Oldman look good!
For all the film’s faults, DRACULA does feature Claudio Simonetti’s best non-Goblin score, an orchestral work that ditches the composer’s usual synthesizers in favor of theramin and violin solos; sadly, he squanders the dramatic effect of the background music by adding a goofy song over the closing credits, “Kiss Me, Dracula.” which borders on the embarrassing.
Also, there are a few nice old-fashioned effects – simple jump-cuts and dissolves, used to depict Dracula’s appearances and disappearances – mixed in with more modern computer-generated imagery that turns the count into an owl, a wolf, and an insect (but never a bat, strangely enough – guess that was too old hat). The computerized effects are variable, at times bad. Probably the best use of the digital process is that it allows Argento to fool around with the visual palette in a way we haven’t seen since the post-production Technicolor trickery of SUSPIRIA. On this level only – creating a surreal dreamscape of wooded forests worthy of an adult fairy tale – can Argento’s DRACULA be reckoned a success.
Argento’s career has been hit and miss since the mid 1980s (starting with PHENOMENON). After the dreary low-point of the 1990s, he at least somewhat returned to form in the new millennium, with SLEEPLESS (2001), THE CARD PLAYER (2004), and MOTHER OF TEARS (2007). If we can take any solace from this erratic trajectory, it is that a sharp downswing need not be permanent. If Argento could recover from THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, then perhaps he can recover from DRACULA.
[rating=1] On the CFQ scale of zero to five stars: a strong recommendation to avoid.
For those interested, here are some bloody bits that Argento’s DRACULA culls from other Dracula movies – not from Stoker’s text:
Dracula wears an outfit that suggests NOSFERATU (1922).
Jonathan Harker comes to Castle Dracula not to wrap up a real estate transaction but to catalog the Count’s library. This happened in HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).
Jonathan Harker is bitten by Dracula in Transylvania. This happened in HORROR OF DRACULA. Something similar happens in DRACULA (1931), but it is Renfield rather than Harker who travels to Castle Dracula.
Jonathan Harker is turned into a vampire who is destroyed by Van Helsing. This happened in HORROR OF DRACULA and in the 1974 telefilm DRACULA with Jack Palance.
Count Dracula has only one vampire bride instead of three. Taken from HORROR OF DRACULA.
Count Dracula is seeking the reincarnation of his lost love. This happened in the Jack Palance telefilm and in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992). The concept had previously been used in DARK SHADOWS and SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM. Its origin goes back to THE MUMMY (1932), a sort of unofficial remake of DRACULA, starring Boris Karloff.
The action never moves to England, instead remaining in Europe. Again, from HORROR OF DRACULA.
This is not entirely a joke. In my interview with Argento regarding MOTHER OF TEARS, he summed up his goal as a filmmaker by saying, “This is my purpose really. To [make] real my imagination, my fantasies.” As if his goal were simply to take what was in his mind and put it on the screen.
DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA (a.k.a., ARGENTO’S DRACULA, DRACULA 3D, 2012). U.S. Release theatrical release in October 2013, home video release on January 28, 2014; distributed by IFC Midnight. Directed by Dario Argento. Screenplay by Dario Argento, Enrique Cerezo, Stefano Piani, Antonio Tentori; based on the novel by Bram Stoker. Music by Claudio Simonetti. Cinematography by Luciano Tovoli. Cast: Thomas Krestschmann as Dracula; Marta Gastini as Mina Harker; Asia Argento as Lucy Kisslinger; Unax Ugalde as Jonathan Harker; Miriam Giovanelli as Tanya; Rutger Hauer as Van Helsing. 150 minutes. Not rated. In 3D.
Classic television show, hosted by Boris Karloff, finally comes to DVD
For fans of classic horror on television, this is big news: THRILLER, the spooky anthology series hosted by Boris Karloff (FRANKENSTEIN), finally arrives on home video, in a lovely DVD box set, this Tuesday, August 27 – almost exactly 50 years after its premier on NBC way back in September of 1960.
THRILLER ran for two seasons, offering up 67 hour-long episodes of macabre entertainment. (If that sounds like a lot of episodes for two seasons, this was back when television shows typically ran for nine months, taking only the summer off.) Although less well known than THE TWILIGHT ZONE or THE OUTER LIMITS, THRILLER offered similar high-quality episodes, with wonderfully atmospheric black-and-white photography; some great scripts based on classic horror literature, including episodes scripted by or based on Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, and others; a menagerie of familiar faces and guest stars, including William Shatner, Leslie Nielsen, Mary Tyler Moore, Elizabeth Montgomery, Rip Torn, Richard Chamberlain, Cloris Leachman, Robert Vaughn, Marlo Thomas, Ursula Andress, and more.
Like Rod Serling with THE TWILIGHT ZONE, Boris Karloff introduced each episode, but unlike Serling, he offered no wrap-up at the end. The intros are nicely done, often tongue in cheek (“Don’t be alarmed – the woman who screamed is perfectly quiet now,” he intones playfully in the familiar lisp. “After all, she’s been dead over 100 years.”) On top of his duties as host, Karloff himself starred in more than one episode, putting his familiar sinister-gentleman persona to good use.
As the title suggests, THRILLER began more in a mystery-thriller vein, a la ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, with lots of creepy skulduggery going on in old dark houses and the like; however, it soon morphed into more of a Gothic horror show, with ghosts and other supernatural beings making frequent appearances. The crime stories are nicely done, but the horror episodes stand out in memory, such as “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” (in which the infamous serial killer is revealed to be an immortal, still at work in the 20th Century) and “The Cheaters” (in which a mysterious pair of spectacles reveal the often ugly truth lurking behind every day reality).
The conflict between the two approaches left the show feeling a bit schizophrenic: if you wanted a monster of the week, you were not going to get it, and the main theme (heard prominently on the DVD’s menu) has a jazzy feel more appropriate to film noir than Gothic horror. However, the nice thing about the format was that, because THRILLER was not dedicated to supernatural explanations, the scripts could play with audience expectations (e.g., was the painting in “The Grim Reaper” episode really cursed, or was that a ruse used by a murder to conceal his crimes – or was it both?).
Image Entertainment’s box set collects all 67 episodes onto 14 discs , remastered and uncut. Bonus features include extensive galleries or production and promotion stills, promotional clips, isolated music and effects tracks for select episodes, and 27 new audio commentaries. (Since many of the people associated with the series are long gone, most of the commentaries are provided by fans, scholars, and filmmakers: Ernest Dickerson, David Schow, Tim Lucas, Gary Gerani, Marc Scott Zicree, etc.)
If the single screener disc we received is any indication of the overall quality, then the THRILLER box set is a must-have. The full-screen transfers are clear and sharp, perfectly capturing the low-key photography (which is even more impressive when you recall that these episodes were filmed at a time when most shows avoided high-contrast lighting because of the limitations of then-current television monitors, which might render dark areas of the screen as completely black).
The two episodes on the provided disc, “The Grim Reaper” and “Pigeons from Hell” (Episodes 36 and 37, the last of Season 1) offer mystery and suspense, bordering on horror, keeping the audience guess as to what is really happening. “Pigeons from Hell,” scripted by John Kneubuhl from the story by Robert E. Howard, and directed by John Newland (ONE STEP BEYOND) plays things a bit too close to the vest: although intriguing and eerie, with hints of voodoo, it comes to a conclusion that leaves one wondering exactly what was going on and just why were the pigeons from Hell?
“The Grim Reaper” is equally spooky but with a more satisfying twist ending, thanks to a script by Robert Bloch (PSYCHO) from a story by Harold Lawlor.William Shatner stars as a newphew who shows up at his aunt’s mansion to warn her about the eponymous painting she recently purchased, which has a reputation for bringing death to its owners. However, Aunt Beatric (Natalie Schafer, Mrs. Howell on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND) is a best-selling mystery author who believes the “curse” is good publicity – until she ends up dead.
Under Herschel Daugherty’s direction, the performances are so broadly melodramatic that “The Grim Reaper” borders on camp: watch Shatner as he extends his hand, after touching the painting, to reveal his blood-stained fingers, and then watch the equally overdone reactions of those watching him. (Shafer in particular matches Shatner note for note in the histrionics department.) Fortunately, the performances are thoroughly enjoyable, helping to set up the correct playful tone that justifies the blackly comic finale, in which villain finds himself hoist on his own petard. Also of note: genre faves Robert Cornthwaite (THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD) and Henry Daniel (THE BODY SNATCHER) show up in cameos.
The audio commentaries by Gary Gerani and/or Ernest Dickerson are informative and interesting. The photos galleries truly deserve the adjective “extensive,” stretching throughout the show’s run (not just the two episodes included on this disc). And the promotional clip is a truly novel bonus item: clearly designed not for audiences but for television station owners, the lengthy montage of scenes features Karloff both on-screen and narrating, extolling the virtues of the series that are guaranteed to attract audiences and guaranteeing thrills “natural, unnatural, and supernatural.”
1960 was a blood-red year for the vampire’s kith and kin, with over a half-dozen variations on the theme. There is an international flavor to these sanguine offerings, with blood-drinkers prowling crypts in England, France, Mexico, and Italy; at least one is ensconced inauspiciously in an American flower shop. Some are old-school nosferatu of the Gothic horror variety; others have a decidedly sexier style than seen in classic horror films of earlier eras; one or two are mutant science fiction off-shoots. Some are ugly; others are handsome or beautiful. Some favor old-fashioned black-and-white photography, emphasizing the spooky atmosphere of the crypt and cemetery; others are bold and beautiful in modern color. One or two are classics; others are camp; some might be dismissed as Euro-trash (or celebrated for their daring sexiness, depending on the critic). In short, there such a rich diversity of undead revenants and blood-drinking monsters that it is hard to generalize; you have to take each on on its own terms. Here then is a Photographic Retrospective of the Vampires of 1960.
ATOM AGE VAMPIRE (Seddok, l’erede di Satana)
Our first vampire title (alphabetically speaking) is more of Jekyll-and-Hyde mad scientist film, in which “vampirism” is of the most figurative sort: stealing glands of young victims in order to rejuvenate the beauty of a disfigured woman is a sort of modern variation on draining the life essence. The original Italian title is less misleading, translating roughly as “Seddok, the Heir of Satan.”
BLACK SUNDAY (a.k.a. THE MASK OF SATAN)
Italian director Mario Bava’s atmospheric masterpiece of black-and-white horror features two magnificent vampires: Barbara Steele as Princess Asa and Arturo Dominici as Ygor Yavutich (four if you count two of their victims who return from the dead). Burned alive as witches, Asa and Yavutich return from the grave to drain the blood and/or life force of Asa’s descendants. The result is one of the great horror films of all time.
BLOOD AND ROSES (Et Mourir de Plasir [“To Die with Pleasure”])
Next up is French filmmaker Roger Vadim’s ambiguous adaptation of Carmilla, the excellent Victorian vampire novel by J. Sheridan LeFanue. Vadim modernizes the setting and presents a dreamlike atmosphere that leaves the question of vampirism open to debate, yet the film contains memorable imagery that should satisfy fans of the undead.
THE BRIDES OF DRACULA
Hammer Films’ first sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA suffers from the absence of Christopher Lee as the Count, but there is an interesting alternative in the form of David Peel as a blond, boyish vampire named Baron Meinster. He also has some lovely brides to keep him company. This English film is one of the best of its kind, even if there is no Dracula in it.
THE CURSE OF NOSTRADAMUS
This interesting Mexican variation on the vampire motif presents the son of the famous oracular prophet, who rises from the grave intent on establishing a cult devoted to magic and the supernatural. So confident is he of his powers that he appears to a renowned scientist and declares his intention of killing thirteen victims, even naming the time and place, just to show how unstoppable he is. German Robles makes a fine, aristocratic vampire, even if bad dubbing undermines the effectiveness for English-speaking viewers.
THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS
Before graduating to eating body parts and/or whole human, Audrey the plant begins by drinking the willingly offered blood of Seymour Krelboin, the goofy would-be botanist who created her. Producer-director Roger Corman’s campy classic, written by Charles B. Griffith, is not quite as funny as intended, but it is so weird it has to be seen to believed.
THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE (L’Ultima Preda Del Vampire [“The Last Prey of the Vampire”])
Another Italian entry in the vampire genre, this one offers a sexier slant on the old blood-suckers.
THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA (a.k.a. L’amanti del Vampiro [“The Vampire’s Lover])
This off-beat Italian entry in the vampire sweepstakes is tame on its own terms, but it offers some of the first suggestions of the more explicitly sexual approaches to the theme that will emerge later in Continental vampire films (see THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE, above). Along with a couple of fetching female vamps, the film also features one of the ugliest undead this side of NOSFERATU’s Graf Orlock.
THE WORLD OF THE VAMPIRES (El Mundo de los Vamiros)
This eccentric Mexican vampire film features vampires that, for some reason, can be disabled by particular sound waves, leading to a dubious conclusion in which the villain is defeated by someone playing a tune on a pipe organ. Gotta give ’em credit for off-the-wall originality, if nothing else.
No new genre films hit theatres this weekend, but fear not: Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski once again rev of the time machine and take you five decades into the past, for a look at one of the greatest horror films of all time, director Mario Bava’s masterpiece of black-and-white Gothic horror, BLACK SUNDAY (a.k.a. THE MASK OF SATAN, 1960), starring the Queen of Horror, Barbara Steele. It’s all part of Cinefantastique’s on-going celebration of 1960’s Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Films. Also on the menu: a weekly round-up of news, upcoming events, and home video releases.
Although many younger television and movie fans may think that the 1970s represent an archaic time in entertainment, there were certain advantages to growing up during this period. One was that television was all about local markets, and this made it necessary for local stations to find programming that would keep the viewer’s attention. One reservoir often tapped during this period was horror films, not only as late night fare, but also as afternoon and weekend entertainment. This television broadcasting circumstance worked to my advantage as a young fan of the wondrous and horrific: it opened a world of horror cinema that is hard to find today, short of rare videos at specialty stores or online. One such film that holds a special place in my heart is HOUSE OF USHER, which I knew by its alternative title in the U.S. and U.K. (as well as on the DVD cover I hold in my hand as I write this article), THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER.
I first saw this film as a teenager, and it came with a sense of great anticipation. At an early age, I had gravitated toward all things fantastic and the horrific, and this included the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. I developed a habit of searching each week’s TV Guide and circling the fantasy, science fiction, and horror film, so that I could watch as many as my parents would allow me to see. In past programming searches, I had learned of a series of horror films based upon Poe’s writings. I had already seen THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964) and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961), and enjoyed those immensely. Now HOUSE OF USHER was soon to air, and I was sure it would deliver the same cinematic frights. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.
HOUSE OF USHER tells the story of Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon), who has traveled to the house owned by the Usher family in search of his fiancé, Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey). He is anxious for her to leave with him in order to be married, but Madeline’s brooding brother, Roderick Usher (Vincent Price), desperately desires that she stay in the home. He is convinced that she is tainted by the family curse, which Roderick feels he shares as well, as does the Usher house that is literally fracturing around them. After some conflict between these characters over Madeline’s fate, she apparently dies following an argument with her brother and is buried in the family crypt, located in the basement. Winthrop eventually discovers that Madeline was buried alive, with the full awareness of her brother, but has escaped her tomb to prowl the grounds as a mad woman intent on seeking vengeance for her death. Eventually, the last two remaining Ushers meet their tragic end, as does their house, fulfilling the alternative title of this film both metaphorically and literally.
Much critical analysis has been devoted to director Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, often to the neglect of his other films, but this is not without good reason. Corman had himself been inspired by Poe as a young person, and was able to adapt this source material for a popular audience of the period. Although the Poe films were produced on modest budgets, Corman was able to maximize the investment in order to produce atmospheric and frightening films without recourse to lavish special effects or gory makeup, which would become popular in the 1970s and which dominate contemporary trends in horror.
HOUSE OF USHER, and the other series of Poe films directed by Corman, have the distinction of being part of the brief revival of American gothic horror that had been fueled by television broadcasts of the Universal Studios horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, as well as the fresh interpretations of these classics by Britain’s Hammer Films. While this classification has some merit, HOUSE OF USHER may also be understood as a hybrid in keeping with another trend in horror from the period. HOUSE OF USHER is in a sense Gothic, in that it takes place against the backdrop of a mansion that appears at first glance to be a haunted house; however, it is not haunted in typical supernatural fashion by ghosts or poltergeists. Instead, the haunting of the Usher House takes place through the troubled psyches of the homeowners who wrestle with their family legacy. In this sense it is similar to another classic of 1960 cinema, PSYCHO, which signaled a shift from supernatural horror in the 1930s and 1940s, and the science-fiction-horror of the 1950s, to an internalization of horror (horror is not the supernatural other; it is us) that would later take a quantum leap forward with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
HOUSE OF USHER was well received by audiences in 1960. One of the “fun facts” included with the DVD release, as part of the MGM Presents Midnite Movies series, states that it “scored among the top 5 box office hits of 1960.” But how well does it hold up today? That depends upon what one is looking for in a horror film. If one is a fan of much of the drivel seen in contemporary horror cinema, then you are likely to find HOUSE OF USHER disappointing. Fortunately, if you have a broader appreciation for horror, you will likely find this film of continued value.
Beyond the rich atmosphere emodied by the Usher House, and the great performance of Vincent Price (who would continue to build on his work as the horror actor successor of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff), HOUSE OF USHER provides something for viewers who want to probe a little more deeply into horror. One of the film’s interesting facets is its treatment of the struggles of personal identity within the context of family legacy, particularly a dysfunctional one. Roderick Usher is convinced that he is doomed by the Usher curse, and that neither he nor his sister can escape. Rather than engaging in a flight of fancy and illusion by trying to flee, he has consigned not only himself but also his sister to what he sees as an inevitable outcome. Contemporary audiences are perhaps more aware of the dysfunctional nature of all families (to some degree) than were audiences of the 1960s, and this self-awareness – coupled with the realization that, despite a problematic family history, it may still be possible to transcend the “curse” of the lineage and the past – makes this film relevant for the present day, and an item for self-reflection.
If you are a horror fan who hails from my generation, then a new viewing of HOUSE OF USHER will provide a nice trip down memory lane. If you are a younger fan interested in considering a solid piece of horror filmmaking now celebrating its 50th anniversary, then this film is worth adding to your library.
The unrated director’s cut of THE WOLFMAN offers few improvements and creates a glaring continuity problem.
When this Gothic horror show howled into theatres this past February, it was with a certain amount of baggage, being a remake of one of Universal Pictures’ most fondly remembered monster movies from the 1940s. Over the past couple decades, Universal has shown an interest in mining their classic horror legacy (which dates back to the silent era) for new chills and/or revenue dollars, releasing restored prints of old titles to art houses in the ’90s under the “Universal Horror” banner and later packaging the titles into various DVD releases (“The Legacy Collection,” the “Classic Monsters Collection,” etc.), often loaded with lovely bonus features. Unfortunately, Universal’s previous attempts to resurrect their long dormant monsters for modern audiences, with THE MUMMY (1999), its sequels, and VAN HELSING (2000), turned out to be (financially successful) artistic disappointments that betrayed the Gothic horror legacy by opting for action-adventure heroics, hyped with lots of computer-generated effects but few real scares. THE WOLF MAN, it was devoutly to be wished, would correct this mistake, hewing closer to the source material. The remake does successfully recreate the template of the 1941 original; sadly, it does so in the wrong way. The DVD and Blu-ray release of an unrated director’s cut allows a second chance to assess the results; curious fans will want to check out the longer version, but it offers few if any improvements and creates a glaring continuity problem.
What the 2010 THE WOLFMAN has going for it is production value and atmosphere; what it lacks is a compelling, original vision. With contributions from production designer Rick Heinrichs, composer Danny Elfman, and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, all of whom worked on the similarly spooky SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999), THE WOLFMAN feels like an ersatz Tim Burton production, without the director’s unique eye to fashion these contributions into macabre visual poetry. Instead, we get the competent but prosaic work of Joe Johnston (JURASSIC PARK III); he knows how to get the story in the camera, but he doesn’t know how to imbue it with the uncanny resonance that will send shudders up your spine.
In this regard, THE WOLFMAN is a too faithful recreation of what Universal Pictures was doing in the 1940s: the 1930s’ Golden Age of Horror had past, and the company was recycling old ideas, with great technical achievements still in place (sets, special effects, makeup) but without distinctive directors (such as James Whale and Tod Browning), who could add a recognizable personal touch. THE WOLFMAN (1941) was very much of this mold, competently executed by producer-director George Waggner but not necessarily inspired. What saves the black-and-white film from mediocrity is the tragic trajectory of doomed protagonist Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), a likable, even ebullient man whose life goes to hell after he is bitten by a werewolf.
The WOLFMAN remake updates the atmospherics, replacing black-and-white photography with color but utilizing a muted, almost desaturated palate that captures a similar kind of almost Expressionistic atmosphere. The sets and costumes are marvelous. Rick Baker’s makeup is a worthy tribute to the Jack Pierce’s work in the old film, recognizably similar but updated and improved. The computer-generated imagery is not as out-of-place as it might have been (although the werewolves running on all fours are not particularly impressive.) For fans of old-fashioned Gothic horror, the movie looks like a dream come true – or rather, a deliciously delightful nightmare of fog-bound moors and ancestral manses, layered so thick with sinister ambiance that you can almost taste it.
And yet, THE WOLFMAN is a curiously hollow and unmoving experience. The screenplay is muddled in its attempt to expand upon the original, throwing in bits and pieces lifted not only from the 1941 film but also Universal’s earlier THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935) – which featured a conflict between two werewolves – and Hammer Films’ later CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961) – which had its lycanthrope running across rooftops while pursued by a mob at street level (not to mention the fact the WOLF MAN’s star Benicio Del Toro resembles CURSE’s Oliver Reed much more than Lon Chaney Jr). Even Inspector Abberline, the real-life detective previously played by Johnny Depp in FROM HELL, shows up.
Although a successful Shakespearean actor, Del Toro’s Lawrence Talbot is dour from the beginning, a far cry from the happy-go-lucky character portrayed by Chaney. This interpretation is dictated by the script (which gives Lawrence a childhood tragedy in the form of his mother’s death, followed by bad blood between him and his father, played by Anthony Hopkins), but it robs the story of any visible arc: things looks bad from the beginning, and they pretty much stay that way, with no ray of sunshine to offer any hope. Yes, this is supposed to be a tragedy about a doomed man, but you at least want the audience to feel the sense of a potentially happy life lost to unfortunate circumstances. Instead, the manifest inevitability robs the narrative of any suspense, warning us to never fully identify with Talbot and empathize with his plight. Without that dramatic involvement, the movie is just so many pretty moving pictures.
THE UNRATED CUT
When THE WOLF MAN was in theatres, word leaked that the film had been heavily re-edited (the original 2009 release date had been pushed back, giving more time for post-production tinkering). It was hoped that a more complete version would fill in the emotional gaps needed to make the story more compelling. Unfortunately, this proves not to be the case.
Now available on DVD and Blu-ray, the extended cut (called the “unrated version” on screen and the “unrated director’s cut” on the box art) restores a few expository scenes and several moments of bloodshed, but it does little to solve the problems inherent in the theatrical version. THE WOLFMAN remains a dour downer from beginning to end, one that never invites you into its world, forcing you to watch events at arm’s length, with the ironic result that it feels more distant from us than the 1941 film does decades after its release.
The extended version begins with a modern mockup of Universal’s 1940s black-and-white logo, instead of the contemporary color one seen in theatres. The first editorial change occurs during the prologue, which is extended past the point when Ben Talbot (Simon Merrells) flees in panic after being attacked by a briefly glimpsed creature. Whereas the theatrical version faded out on a wide angle shot of Ben running away in the background while a werewolf’s clawed hand filled the right hand side of the frame in foreground, the unrated cut shows Ben collapsing before the mausoleum and looking up in horror, followed by a reverse angle shot of a werewolf lunging at the camera. It’s a little too early in the running time to reveal the monster. Also the creature’s appearance has been fudged slightly: seen later, Rick Baker’s makeup for the monsters tries to suggest the human countenance underneath; what’s seen here is a more generic werewolf, in order to main the mystery of who is hiding beneath the fur.
As before, the prologue segues to the WOLFMAN’s opening title*, followed by a scene of Lawrence Talbot on stage. In the theatrical version, this was part of a montage that quickly set the story in motion, with Ben’s fiance Gwen (Emily Blunt) writing a letter to Lawrence, seeking help in finding out what happened to his brother. In the unrated cut, Gwen actually shows up back stage after the performance to see Lawrence in person. He demurs, because he is contracted for another thirty performances, but then changes his mind without any negative consequences (guess that contract wasn’t so iron-clad).
On the way back to the ancestral home, we see another restored scene, this time of Lawrence waking up in a train car to find himself in the presence of an old man (played in an unbilled cameo by the always wonderful Max Von Sydow), who insists on making a present of a wolf’s-headed cane. As intriguing as the scene is, it raises expectations that go unfulfilled: the almost magical presence of Sydow’s character (he appears and disappears while Talbot is asleep) suggests an angel bequeathing a special gift that will play a crucial part in the later proceedings; although the cane is used in the final werewolf battle, it doesn’t tip the scales one way or the other, so it’s easy to see why the set-up scene (figuratively loading a gun to be fired in the third act) was omitted.
From this point forward, the unrated cut of THE WOLFMAN more or less follows the theatrical version, with a few additional bits of dialogue here and there (the locals have more to say in the tavern, and we see more of the awkward domestic situation at Talbot hall). In London, Lawrence buys a boy’s entire stack of newspapers to prevent anyone from seeing his wanted picture on the front page. Plus, there is more blood spatter and somewhat more lingering takes during the scenes of graphic mayhem. Although it’s hard to fault a film about a savage monster for depicting that savagery upon screen, the gore feels a bit misplaced in this old-fashioned milieu, and it has a “neither here nor there” quality about it: too graphic for fans of classic horror, too mild for the hard-core gorehounds.
There is also a slightly generic quality about the mutilation. There is no particular reason for a werewolf to be knocking peoples heads off; it’s just an over-the-top monster moment. It would have been nice if someone had figured out something more specific: What does a werewolf want: the blood of its victims, or their flesh, or just carnage for its own sake? And how would a hybrid monster – half-man and half-wolf – go about achieving this? (There is a sly joke with makeup man Rick Baker appearing briefly as an armed villager killed by the werewolf; had the film resorted to gratuitously gory evisceration at this point, instead of a mere flash, the humor would have been magnified several fold.)
The the most glaring problem with the unrated cut is not carnage but continuity. The theatrical version cleverly used Gwen’s letter, delivered in voice over layered on top of a montage of Lawrence heading home, to compress the opening exposition into half a minute of screen time. The extended version adds unnecessary scenes that take over seven minutes to achieve the same results, and the inclusion of Gwen’s backstage scene with Lawrence creates an embarrassing gaffe: after Lawrence returns home, there remain at least two dialogue references to his having been summoned by Gwen’s letter, when we have clearly seen him summoned by her in person (and in fact the letter does not exist in this cut).
In the end, the unrated cut of THE WOLFMAN remains much the same as the theatrical cut: a glossy, good-looking production that never fully delivers on its promise of resurrecting one of the great movie monsters for a modern audience. Horror fans will find it worth watching, and even casual viewers may get a kick out of seeing Oscar winners Del Toro and Hopkins indulging in an old-fashioned genre piece. We just wish that the results had lived up to their potential, creating a new millennium version of an old monster that would reignite interest in the form and launch a whole new cycle of Gothic horror thrillers.
Universal’s DVD of THE WOLFMAN includes both the R-rated theatrical version (1 hour and 43 minutes) and the unrated version (1 hour and 59 minutes). Both fit on one side of a single disc, using branching technology (there is a warning that the unrated director’s cut may cause problems for older DVD players). Both versions are divided into the same 20 chapter stops with the same titles, offering no indication of where to look for restored footage.
The Anamorphic Widescreen transfer (1.85) captures THE WOLF MAN’s atmospheric beauty. The audio offers options in English for Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo; in French DOlby Digital 5.1 Surround; and in Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround. (There is also Descriptive Video Service on the Theatrical version only.) Subtitle options include Spanish, French, and English for the hearing-impaired.
In a deleted scene, Lawrence crashes a costume party
Much of THE WOLFMAN’s missing material shows up not in the unrated cut but in the Deleted and Extended Scenes section, which is the DVD’s only bonus features. This includes five sequences:
Lawrence Talks with Glen. This is a short dialogue between the two characters, which takes place before the villagers’ first (unsuccessful) attempt to seize Lawrence. Lawrence thanks Gwen for nursing him through his illness, and Gwen expresses concern that she is the cause of all that has gone wrong (which turns out to be true when we realize that Sir John killed Ben to keep him from marrying Gwen and taking her away).
Singh’s Story. Brief additional dialogue: in the scene wherein Lawrence finds Singh’s silver bullets, the servant explains his loyalty to Sir John by recounting the English’s lord’s saving his life.
Extended Mausoleaum Transformation. We get a longer look at Lawrence’s change from man to werewolf, including shots of him crawling up the stairs out of the mausoleum.
Extended London Chase. Lawrence Talbot’s escape and brief race across the rooftops of London is one of the film’s highlights. The longer version contains a silly interlude with the Wolf Man crashing a costume party; while he approaches a female singer (who is apparently blind), the guests fail to notice that he’s a real monster – until he bites one in the skull. The scene seems to be suggesting something about the Wolf Man (he is clearly interested in the singer but he does not immediately attack her) but what? That music soothes the savage breast? Perhaps this is supposed to offer a suggestion that, later in the film, Gwen may stand some chance of taming his wild impulses?
Extended Final Fight. Not much more action here; mostly, it’s more pauses between the action as the dueling werewolves catch their breath and/or size each other up.
ADDITIONAL BLU-RAY DETAILS & BONUS FEATURES
Universal’s Blu-ray disc offers a high-def transfer of the theatrical version and the unrated version, with English tracks in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and English DVS Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, plus the French and Spanish 5.1 Surround mixes heard on the DVD. In addition to the Deleted and Extended Scenes, there are several bonus features exclusive to the Blu-ray release:
Two alternate endings
Return of the Wolf Man: a featurette on remaking the classic
The Beast Maker: a profile of Rick Baker
Transformation Secrets: a look at the visual effects
The Wolfman Unleashed: the team behind the stunts and action
Take Control: Rick Baker, effects producer Karne Murphy-Mundel, and cinematographer Shelly Johnson reveal details of the filmmaking process.
Werewolf Legacy, Legend and Lore: a virtual tour through Universals’ Wolf Man films.
BD Live and Pocket Blu: access additional content and apps through an internet-connected player or your smartphones, including a high-def streaming version of the 1941 version of THE WOLF MAN
With a sticker emblazoned on the DVD box, touting the WOLFMAN’s availability on Blu-ray, it is clear that Universal Pictures is pushing the format. But was it necessary to release a DVD minus bonus features that would, not so long ago, have been no-brainers for inclusion? Yes, Blu-ray can do things that DVD cannot, but that is no reason to omit alternate endings and featurettes that could have been included. As in the days when Hollywood was phasing out the laserdisc, it seems that additional bonus features are being used as leverage to force consumers to adopt the new format, whether they like it or not. UPDATE: Apparently, there is an exclusive two-disc DVD available at Best Buy, which includes some (but not all) of the extra features from the Blu-ray. FOOTNOTE:
The WOLFMAN’s closing credits were clearly designed to go up front, right after the opening title: they tease us with animated imagery (such as medical-type drawings of hair growing out of folicles) that was meant to whet our appetite for the horrors to come. Seen at the end of the film, the imagery is anti-climactic.
THE WOLF MAN (February 2010 theatrical release; June 1 home video release ). Directed by Joe Johnston. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, based on the 1941 film “The Wolf Man,” written by Curt Siodmak. Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Art Malik, Geraldine Chaplin, Roger Frost, Simon Merrells, Max Von Sydow (unrated cut only).
Cinefantastique celebrates the horror stars’ birthdays with retrospective interviews regarding their work together on HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS, THE OBLONG BOX, and SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN.
Horror and fantasy acting legend Christopher Lee (the STAR WARS prequel trilogy, LORD OF THE RINGS) shares a May 27 birthday anniversary with the late “Merchant of Menace” Vincent Price (EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, HOUSE OF USHER); their frequent co-star, the late Peter Cushing, was born on May 26. To celebrate their 100th (Vincent), 98th (Peter) and 89th (Sir Christopher) birthdays, here are some of the comments that Lee and Price made in the mid-eighties about their last film together, THE HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS. The movie was something of a horror milestone as it also featured horror star John Carradine (HOUSE OF DRACULA); unfortunately, despite the teaming of these four horror greats, the picture was very poorly conceived and executed, so it was no big surprise that it was never released to theatres in America.
MGM recently made the film available as a bare bones DVD-on-demand through Amazon; apparently the quality of the transfer makes the film completely unwatchable. George Reis at DVD Drive-In calls it “probably the worst looking product ever to bare the MGM logo, with a far inferior transfer than the one used for the old VHS release!”
This is rather a shame, since the joy of seeing Price, Lee, Cushing and Carradine acting together in even a badly written and directed piece of claptrap like The House of Long Shadows would be a real delight for classic horror film fans. The DVD might also have been made more memorable if MGM had done the right thing and released it as one of their “Midnight Movie” DVD’s and included a few extras, such as the beautifully narrated Vincent Price trailer, the video press conference that Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and John Carradine held to promote the film at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, or even an audio commentary with Sir Christopher Lee!
Interestingly enough, when I talked to Christopher Lee on his birthday in 1984, he felt the film was “most entertaining.” Apparently he has drastically altered his opinion since then, as he wrote in the 2003 edition of his autiobiography, The Lord of Misrule, that “The House of the Long Shadowswas billed as the four masters of the macabre and there wasn’t a single marvelous speech to share between us. The direction was a blank and we agreed with the critics who shredded the film.” Perhaps, as Vincent Price told me, the film was ruined by a woman editor at MGM who apparently “took an axe to the film.”
CHRISTOPHER LEE on THE HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You haven’t done a Gothic thriller like The House of the Long Shadows for quite some time.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, my involvement is less and less these days. Until somebody comes up with a good story, whether it’s science fiction, fantasy or shocker. Whatever you want to call it. I’m just waiting for somebody to give me a film in that area, which is very worth doing.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What was it about The House of Long Shadows that tempted you back to making a terror film? Was it the chance to work with your three co-stars, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, it was primarily the cast. I’ve made pictures with Vincent, I’ve made a great many pictures with Peter, and I had done one picture, called Goliath Awaits, with John Carradine. I had never worked on a picture with all three of them. I don’t think any of us had worked together in the same picture before. This was a first. Hopefully, not a last, but certainly a first. When Vincent, John and I were being interviewed for television, at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, somebody asked Vincent if we would be doing more pictures together, all four of us. He said, “Yes, we’d be delighted to, but they better hurry up!” (Peter was not there, as he lives in England, and hates to travel). So it was the cast, then it was the story. I thought the story was most entertaining, most amusing, with its adequate share of thrills and chills, and there is a remarkable twist in the story, which nobody quite expects, that I think gives it its major value. The one thing about this picture that is of the utmost importance is that the audience should know before they see the film, what kind of picture they’re going to see. If they think they’re going to see a 100% terror movie, they aren’t and I think that should be made clear. If they think they’re going to see a 100% comedy, they aren’t, and I think that should also be made clear. I think, for lack of a better phrase, it should be described very clearly beforehand as a black comedy, which is exactly what it is. Audiences from my experience, don’t like to go and see films expecting one thing and then getting another. The film ran for a very short time at a theatre in London and was taken out because the theatre concerned was already booked with its next film. Apart from that very short run, it’s never been seen, except at film festivals. One in Spain, one in France, and I think one in Germany. In every case it has been extremely well received. The public enjoyed it immensely, because they knew what kind of picture they were going to see.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Were you aware of the reputation of director Pete Walker? His past films (such as House of Whipcord and Schizo) are not very good and are quite graphic and gory.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: No, I didn’t know this. Having not seen any of his previous films, I can’t comment on them. But I didn’t know that until some months afterwords, somebody told me that he had done some very violent pictures and even did some softcore films, or something in that area. However, that’s not quite the point. If you have a competent director, a good crew, and the crew was excellent, a cast which certainly knows what they’re doing in this particular area, as well as other actors, like Richard Todd and the very delightful ladies who are in the film, and everyone works together in a story that is amusing, exciting and, at times, very scary, I think you have the recipe for a very good film, which is what we ended up with. I saw it at a private screening in Rome, nearly two years ago and I thought it was most entertaining, and worked as well as I could possibly have hoped it to do. The people who have seen it at the festivals, knowing what they were going to see, a black comedy with an unexpected twist and the veterans at work, have been absolutely delighted with the picture. Why it isn’t being shown I have no idea. All I can tell you is that at the (1984) Cannes Film Festival my wife asked Yoram Globus, one of the heads at Cannon Films, what had happened to the picture and he said it was going to come out on cable TV in October.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: When I talked to Cannon’s publicity people in 1983, they told me the film was going through marketing tests.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: I’ve never been able to find out what a marketing test is! I mean do you get people who sit around a table with rows of figures in front of them, or strange mystic symbols, who then make obtuse calculation in a room, saying this film will appeal to this audience, and it won’t appeal to that audience, then come up with an answer and say, “yes, we will show it,” or “no, we won’t show it.” I understand the value of this, but there’s also that imponderable that really nobody knows until the public get a chance to make up its own mind. You cannot calculate the public’s reaction by sitting around a table and talking figures.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Apparently they put the figures they had into a computer which came up with a projected gross that wouldn’t justify the cost of releasing the film.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: A computer! That really just proves what I’ve been saying. I’m not going to take issue with these gentlemen, because it’s their job, and I know very little about it. I’m merely a creative person. Yet, when you say a computer makes the decision, you’re into the realms of fantasy. Real fantasy, as opposed to film fantasy! How can a machine possibly predict what a man and a woman, or a boy and a girl are going to like or not like? We’re talking about the reaction of the public watching a film. To me, the fact that this sort of thing is fed into a computer is a disastrous sign for the future of the film industry. It’s like the famous “Q” rating which exists in television, where they feed the names of actors and actresses into a computer, and the computer tells them whether that actor or actress is significantly popular to warrant putting them in a series. Ask the public, don’t ask a computer!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I would think that the combined value of your four star names alone would justify releasing the film.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, I quite agree. It’s a mystery. I firmly believe that if this film is given a proper promotion and representation to the public, it would do extremely well, because it’s a very entertaining movie. Together we have made a considerable number of pictures. We worked it out one day, and I’ve made over 150 now, Vincent’s done about 120, Peter’s done 110 and John said he’s made 430 pictures! That’s quite possible, because when he started out, you made two or three pictures a month. They were very quick in those day, jumping from one studio to another.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: During the filming of your death in the movie, Vincent was apparently watching and was quoted as saying, rather gleefully, “I just love to see Chris bleed.”
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, that’s typical of Vincent and his humor. Indeed, all of us would have said the same thing about each other. One must maintain a very relaxed attitude towards this kind of film. If you’re making a film with people whom you respect enormously as actors, and people whom you’re very, very fond of as individuals, then one is bound to have a lot of joshing and fun on the set. That’s the best way to make a picture of this kind. So he may very well have said that, it wouldn’t surprise me at all. If he did, I certainly go along with it, because I certainly would have thought of something similar to say at the time of his demise in the film. I think that’s a very funny line and very appropriate.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Of course, you did get to push Vincent into a vat of acid in Scream and Scream Again.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, that’s right and the yellow tinge of the acid made it look like Vincent had suffered some terrible natural mishap on a grand scale, so the first take we did was completely ruined by our both laughing as we fought to the death. The three of us were in that as well, but not in the same scenes. I played the head of British Intelligence, who was an alien.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You were supposed to be an alien? I didn’t realize that when I saw the film.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Oh yes, I am an alien. I have this very responsible job as the head of British Intelligence. Vincent’s character was an alien, as well. He is one, and I’m another. I’m really there to pay him off for all the mistakes he’s made with his experiments. If that wasn’t clear, it was either in the cutting or the story, because that indeed was meant to be the solution. It is a fault that lies, not with us, but elsewhere–in the way the film was put together.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It was made for Amicus and producer Milton Subotsky who always liked to tamper with his films in the cutting room. Later on, didn’t Milton Subotsky ask you to appear in The Monster Club?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, I got a message from my agent asking me if I would like to do a picture with Milton Subotsky and I said, “Yes, after all these years, what does he have planned?” So he told me he’s going to do a picture called The Monster Club. I said, “That’s enough. We need go no further!”
LAWRENCE FRENCH: That’s funny, because Peter Cushing also turned him down, but Vincent said he thought it was a funny script and decided to do it, as did John Carradine.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Well, people do what they want to do, or what they enjoy doing. If Vincent wanted to do it and it was a story which appealed to him, fine, then do it. It might have been, for all I know, a marvelous script, but a title like that would put me off immediately. I hated the title of a picture I did with Milton, called I, Monster. I thought it was a dreadful title, and I never stopped telling him that. It was an absolutely absurd title, because it was the story of Jekyll and Hyde. In that respect, it was very good, because what we did was very close to Stevenson’s story.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Except you were not called Dr Jekyll.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, they changed it to Dr. Marlowe and Mr. Blake, while everyone else had the correct names from the Stevenson story. Don’t ask me why. I’ve long since ceased trying to fathom the mysteries of why people do certain things in this business. But I thought it was an appalling title, and Milton, on the other hand, thought it was a very good one. He said it was a good marquee title, so we agreed to disagree.
VINCENT PRICE on THE HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You got to act with Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and John Carradine for the first time in The House of the Long Shadows, and although I felt it could have been a much better film, Christopher Lee told me he thought the film was quite entertaining.
VINCENT PRICE: I did too, we all thought it was good, until this woman took an ax to it! It has to be recut. I really don’t know what she was doing. She called me up and said, “will you go out and promote the film”, and I said, “If you show the film that we shot,” because it’s just not the same film. She cut out all of the comedy payoffs to everything. As you know, we were all hired actors to scare Desi Arnaz, Jr. out of the house, people who just came in to do a job. After everything that happens in the house, Chris Lee getting killed, and all the other things, suddenly we all come out and take a bow, and it is revealed to Desi that we are all actors. We had these marvelous comments on all the things that happened, and that was all cut out. They tried to turn it into a horror picture and destroyed it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: When I saw it the bows you all take at the end are still in the film. It reminded me of the Fritz Lang film, The Woman in the Window.
VINCENT PRICE: That’s the way it should have been done, so maybe they’ve put it back together. But I think there was way too much of Desi Arnaz in the beginning, and it does take too long to get into the story, so I don’t quite understand it. I don’t know if it was Golan and Globus (the producers) who wanted it to be a horror picture, or what. If they did, then why did they shoot it as a comedy?
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Is it true that you were watching Christopher Lee’s death scene, and said, “I just love to see Chris bleed.”
VINCENT PRICE: (laughing) Yes! We’re great friends you know. We both find each other hysterically funny. Before we met I heard he was very pompous, and I was really worried about meeting him. It was on The Oblong Box, the first film we did together. Well, we took one look at each other and started laughing. We spend our lives screaming and laughing at each other and having a wonderful time. I’m really devoted to him. I think he’s really one of my few very good friends in the business.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I imagine that’s one reason why you wanted to do the picture, even if it wasn’t first-rate material, because you got to work with Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and John Carradine.
VINCENT PRICE: Oh yes, absolutely. It was like a marvelous class reunion. John is an adorable character, who I’ve known for about 40 years now. Peter is unfortunately, a little gloomy, because of his wives death, but he’s still a sweet man.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s too bad about Peter Cushing, because Christopher Lee was telling me how’s he’s really just waiting to join his wife, Helen.
VINCENT PRICE: I know, it’s like, “are you kidding?” It’s very sad. He’s just waiting to die, but he’s going to have to wait a long time. He’s going to live to be 100 years old, but Peter and I have done a lot together.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What else, besides Madhouse?
VINCENT PRICE: We did a marvelous radio show in England called Aliens of the Mind (broadcast in six parts in January, 1977) and we were in a picture called Scream and Scream Again.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Yes, but you never appeared in any scenes with Peter Cushing in Scream and Scream Again. Peter Cushing was only on screen for about two minutes!
VINCENT PRICE: Yes, and Chris Lee was in that one, as well.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: One of things Christopher Lee fervently believes in, is the reality of evil and the dark forces. You’ve played several very evil characters, from the Satan-worshipping Prince Prospero, to Satan himself.
VINCENT PRICE: Satan is the ultimate hero.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: But do you believe in evil or the occult?
VINCENT PRICE: I don’t believe in the occult, but I do believe there is a power of evil. How do you read the Bible? It is divided equally between good and evil. You can’t have good without evil, because there’s no conflict. One of the lectures I do is basically that; trying to explain that the role of the villain has a definite part in the history of drama. He is the fellow who creates the suspense and the conflict. You can’t have drama without suspense.
This episodic horror-comedy, which appeared in a handful of art house engagements last year before arriving on home video this March, doesn’t quite hold together for its entire length, but its amiable approach will win you over with its good intentions, which include nostalgic nods to horror classics of yesteryear: atmospheric bits that echo Universal Pictures 1930s’ output are mashed up with Hammer Films-style gore, all of it mixed in with enough modern mayhem to create an amusing off-kilter vibe.
I SELL THE DEAD is structured around imprisoned grave-robber Arthur (Daniel Monaghan), telling the story of his long association with fellow grave-robber Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden) to the attentive Father Duffy (Ron Perlman). The result is less a feature-film narrative than a vaudeville-style series of comedy routines, with Arthur and Willie nervously encountering a series of supernatural complications during their illegal late-night activities.
Although the individual episodes are fairly amusing, the loose story structure never works up any narrative steam, leaving I SELL THE DEAD to coast along from one set-piece to the next. At least the script neatly weaves one continuing thread (a rivalry with other grave robbers) into the wrap-around story, tying it all up with a nice surprise twist or two.
The humor is fairly broad, but I SELL THE DEAD is not really a genre spoof. The familiar cliches are served up without contempt or camp, the laughter arising from the characters’ reactions to the vampires and zombies that cross their path. Monaghan and Fessenden make an enjoyable comedy team, their working-class protagonists grumbling and struggling to get by whatever weirdness they dig up. Although the obvious comparison is to Burke and Hare, the characters actually come off more like a pair of bit players in a Hammer horror classic, who somehow managed to wander into starring roles in their own film (a la ROSENKRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD).
The cast and crew of the low-budget production acquit themselveswell. It’s nice to see Angus Scrimm (PHANTASM’s Tall Man) back on screen, and Perlman is always a welcome presence. Atmospheric photography, enhanced by judicious digital work, captures a convincing flavor of old-school British horror (even though filming took place in America). The monster makeup and effects are deliver the requisite zombie attacks and severed heads with gruesome glee – and with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
Definitely worth a rental, especially for fans seeking a good-natured tribute to old-fashioned horror.
I SELL THE DEAD (2009). Written and directed by Glen McQuaid. Cast: Dominic Monaghan, Ron Perlman, Larry Fessenden, Angus Scrimm, John Speredakos, Eileen Colgan, Brenda Cooney.
Focus Features and BBC Flms have just announced that Mia Wasikowska (ALICE IN WONDERLAND) and Michael Fassbender (INGLORIOUS BASTERDS) will star in a new adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel, Jane Eyre, to be directed by Cary Fukunaga. Although it’s not exactly horror, Bronte’s story has more than its share of Gothic machinery, including a vulnerable orphan girl working as a governess in a dark and foribidding mansion, whose alluring owner, Rochester, has dark and troubling secrets locked away in a tower. (Famously, the basic scenario served as the plotline for Val Lewton’s classic 1940s horror film, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE.)
Read the complete press release below:
LONDON, March 18, 2010 Production begins next week in the U.K. on Focus Features and BBC Films romantic drama Jane Eyre, produced by Ruby Films and based on Charlotte Brontës classic novel. Cary Fukunaga, whose debut feature was Focus award-winning Sin Nombre, is directing Jane Eyre, to which Focus holds worldwide rights. Focus CEO James Schamus made the announcement today.
Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) and Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds) will star in the lead roles of the romantic drama. In the story, Jane Eyre (Ms. Wasikowska), flees Thornfield House, where she works as a governess for wealthy Edward Rochester (Mr. Fassbender). The isolated and imposing residence and Mr. Rochesters coldness have sorely tested the young womans resilience, forged years earlier when she was orphaned. As Jane reflects upon her past and recovers her natural curiosity, she will return to Mr. Rochester and the terrible secret that he is hiding
The screenplay adaptation is by Moira Buffini, who for Ruby and BBC Films adapted the upcoming Tamara Drewe. Rubys Alison Owen (an Academy Award nominee for Elizabeth) and Paul Trijbits (Fish Tank) are producing Jane Eyre. Christine Langan, Creative Director of BBC Films, is executive-producing for the BBC. Focus senior vice president, European production Teresa Moneo is supervising the project for president of production John Lyons.
The supporting cast includes Jamie Bell (of Focus September release The Eagle of the Ninth), Academy Award winner Judi Dench, Holliday Grainger (of the upcoming Bel Ami), Golden Globe Award winner Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky), Tamzin Merchant (of Focus Pride & Prejudice), and Imogen Poots (of the May release Solitary Man). The director of photography on Jane Eyre is Adriano Goldman, reteaming with Mr. Fukunaga following their acclaimed collaboration on Sin Nombre. Will Hughes-Jones (Survivors) is the production designer; Academy Award winner Michael OConnor (The Duchess) is the costume designer.
Mr. Schamus said, Cary is the ideal choice to realize this unforgettable story in its traditional setting, yet with contemporary vitality and spirit. With two of todays most promising new stars in Mia and Michael, plus an outstanding supporting cast, this will be a Jane Eyre for the ages.
Ms. Langan added, Were delighted to bring together two such fresh and impressive talents as director Cary Fukunaga and screenwriter Moira Buffini. Added to the gorgeous cast Cary has assembled, this is exactly the treatment Charlotte Brontës evergreen classic Jane Eyre deserves.
Ruby Films is currently completing the aforementioned Tamara Drewe, directed by Stephen Frears. The company last produced John Alexanders award-winning telefilm Small Island; and Oliver Hirschbiegels Five Minutes of Heaven, starring Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt. Ms. Owen also recently executive-produced the acclaimed telefilm Temple Grandin, directed by Mick Jackson and starring Claire Danes.