If you’re not getting enough televised horror from your cable and streaming outlets (THE WALKING DEAD, PENNY DREADFUL, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, AMERICAN HORROR STORY, SALEM, etc), broadcast network NBC has something for you: following GRIMM on Friday nights, CONSTANTINE is an adaptation of DC’s Hellblazer comic series, starring Matt Ryan as John Constantine – a scruffy Irish scrapper who dabbles in the dark arts, rescuing victims from malicious supernatural entities and perhaps rescuing mankind as a whole (though this remains to be seen).
Midway through the show’s initial slate of thirteen episodes (no more have been ordered, though the show may yet be renewed for a second season), CONSTANTINE has established itself as engaging and reasonably entertaining, if uneven and frequently confused about its direction. Its strength lies primarily in the basic premise and the conception of its titular character, a world and somewhat cynical man, possibly damned, whose skills have made him a somewhat reluctant warrior in a battle against Evil – a battle that may save his soul not only from eternal damnation but also from the personal guilt he feels over a past failure.
From episode to episode, regardless of the strength of the stories, Ryan inhabits the role as if he were born to play it. His John Constantine walks a fine line – just enough cynicism to give the character a believable edge, just enough hint of empathy to humanize him without dulling that edge. His performance has been more than enough to hold attention while the show finds its legs, which have been a bit wobbly so far – partly because of producer uncertainty, partly because of network interference.
To date, we have seen a major supporting character introduced, dispatched, and replaced, leaving behind a plot device (a map indicating future confrontations) that figures into the stories so infinitesimally that it could easily be discarded. We have also seen some fiddling around with episode air dates, resulting in minor but regrettable continuity problems.
The only continuing story arc is the “Rising Darkness” – a suggestion that weekly phenomenon are part of build-up toward some kind of apocalyptic confrontation. So far, this idea has seen little development, coming across more like a lip-service attempt to suggest a connection between otherwise disparate story lines. It does not help that, since this is the first season, we have no baseline comparison to make between Constantine’s past opponents and his current foes – who, we have to accept on faith, are suddenly much stronger than expected.
There are a few hints that the arc is heading somewhere, including a bombshell prediction at the end of Episode 5. Unfortunately, because NBC aired at least one episode out of order (Episode 6, the Halloween-themed “Rage of Caliban,” was clearly supposed to air the month before its November 28 debut), the development seems erratic; the show seems to be treading water when Constantine causally mentions the Rising Darkness at the end of the episode, without any of the concern one would expect in light of previous events.
We have to give the producers credit for trying to craft a show that stands or falls on the strength of its individual episodes. Unlike shows (such as THE WALKING DEAD) that adopt the soap opera format to hook audiences into tuning in each week to see what happens next, regardless of whether what happened before actually warrants a further look, CONSTANTINE’s stories are largely self-contained. Though not all have been compelling, “A Feast of Friends” (Episode 4, November 14) and “Danse Vaudou” (Episode 5, November 21) have proven that CONSTANTINE has can at least occasionally reach its full potential.
CONSTANTINE is not squeamish about about delivering its weekly quotient of horror. The computer-generated special effects are nicely done, and the impact is surprisingly powerful, even visceral, for a network show. (Ironically, the character’s chain-smoking is far more circumspect, and his bi-sexuality is so far completely submerged.) We also rather enjoy the way the show’s archetypal battle of Good vs. Evil plays out in relatively human terms, lending a sort of streetwise credibility to the otherwise incredible events.
The supporting cast and guest stars have yet to make a memorable impression, except for Michael James Shaw as Papa Midnight (a voudoun priest who is alternately an antagonist and an ally to Constantine) and Emmett J. Scanlan as police detective Jim Corrigan (who all DC fans know is destined to become The Spectre, should the show last long enough).
Overall, we get the impression that CONSTANTINE is attempting something along the lines of what has been seen in PENNY DREADFUL, pitting highly flawed and tormented human characters against demons both literal and personal. It has to be said that the writing seldom if ever reaches the heights achieved by John August in the Showtime series. We should also note that, although fans may be pleased by the television show’s more faithful depiction of the comic character, the movie version of CONSTANTINE (2005) with Keanu Reeves was actually more effective screen version of the material. Still, once one wipes these comparisons from the slate, CONSTANTINE is good enough to survive on its own terms, and we hope to see it return next season.
As part of the SpectreFest film festival at the Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles, the Cinefamily and SpectraVision present the Los Angeles premiere of DEAD SNOW 2: RED VS DEAD on the second half of a double bill with the original DEAD SNOW – the amusing horror-comedy about Nazi Zombies. Director Tommy Wirkola returns to the directing chair, presumably a sadder and a wiser man after his Hollywood experience with HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS.
The trailer for DEAD SNOW 2: RED VS. DEAD is a real hoot, suggesting that the sequel may be even more fun than the original.
The double bill begins at 7:30pm on October 9. Tickets are free for Cinefamily members, $14 for non-members. The Silent Movie Theatre is located 611 N. Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90036. Click here for more information.
If you are a fan of classic horror films and you are lucky enough to live in the Los Angeles area, then you have ample opportunity to sample your favorite titles on the big screen, surrounded by an appreciative audience. Sure, you probably own most of the films on Blu-ray disc, but there’s nothing like seeing a movie in a theatre – especially a scary movie.
Listed below are most of the major horror film festivals taking place in and around Los Angeles this October. For more screenings, check out the film listings at our sister site, Hollywood Gothique.
American Cinematheque’s Dusk-to-Dawn Horrorthon
Location: The Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90403
Date: October 25, starting at 7:30pm
More Info: Click here
Description: The American Cinematheque celebrates Halloween 2014 with its 9th annual Dust-To-Dawn Horrorthon, featuring seven films running one after the other: CREEPSHOW, GARGOYLES, THE THING (1982), THE NIGHT OF A THOUSAND CATS, THE DEADLY SPAWN, BASKET CASE, and ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST (a.k.a. DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D.) Guests will spend the entire evening and much of the next morning within the Aero Theatre. There will be trailers, short subjects, free food, prizes and give-aways, plus coffee (courtesy of Pete’s Coffee) to help keep your eyelids open.
Horrorthon ticket prices (includes all-night snacks and coffee):
- General $20
- Student/Senior $18
- Members $15.
- No vouchers
Arclight Beach Cities Halloween Horror Screenings
Location: The Arclight Beach Cities, 831 S. Nash Street, El Segundo, CA 90245
Arclight Presents Calendar: Click here
Description: Starting on October 5, the Arclight Beach Cities offers a month of horror films for Halloween 2014, including Psycho, Edward Scissorhands, and The Bride of Frankenstein.
The full schedule is below:
- Gremlins on October 12 at 7:30pm
- The Silence of the Lambs on October 13 at 7:30pm
- An American Werewolf in London on October 14 at 7:30pm
- Little Shop of Horrors on October 19 at 7:30pm
- John Carpenter’s The Thing on October 21 at 7:30pm
- Beetlejuice on October 26 at 7:30pm
- Psycho on October 27 at 7:30pm
- Edward Scissorhands on October 28 at 7:30pm
Arclight Hollywood Halloween Horror Screenings
Location: The Arclight Hollywood, 6360 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood CA
Arclight Presents Calendar: Click here
Description: Starting on Wednesday, October 1, Arclight Cinemas celebrates Halloween in Los Angeles with a month-long series of horror movies at their Hollywood location, including such classic and cult titles as The Exorcist, The Shining, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Gremlins, Beetlejuice, Shaun of the Dead, Let the Right One In, and An American Werewolf in London.
Arclight Cinemas’s other locations will offer a different selection of horror titles for Halloween 2014.
Complete schedule for Arclight Hollywood is:
- Beetlejuice on October 12 at 3:30pm
- Shaun of the Dead on October 10 at midnight
- Videodrome on October 13 at 8pm
- Poltergeist on October 17 at midnight
- From Dusk Till Dawn on October 18 at midnight
- Gremlins on October 19 at 3:30pm
- Let The Right One In on October 20 at 8pm
- John Carpenter’s The Thing on October 24 at midnight
- An American Werewolf In London on October 25 at midnight
- The Shining on October 26 at 3pm
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on October 29 at 8pm
- The Evil Dead on October 31 at 11:30pm
Arclight Pasadena Halloween Horror Screenings
Location: The Arclight Pasadena, 336 E. Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena, CA 91101
Link out: Click here
Description: The Arclight Pasadena presents a month-long series of horror films for Halloween 2014, including Ju-On: The Grudge, Dracula, Night of the Creeps, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Fright Night.
The complete schedule is below:
- Fright Night (1985) on October 9 at 7:45pm
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer on October 12 at 7:30pm
- Alien (the director’s cut) on October 13 at 8pm
- The Shining on October 14 at 7:30pm
- Psycho on October 19 at 8pm
- Edward Scissorhands on October 20 at 7:30pm
- Ju-0n: The Grudge on October 21 at 7:45pm
- The Exorcist on October 26 at 8pm
- The Silence of the Lambs on October 27 at 7:45pm
- Night of the Creeps on October 28 at 7:30pm
- Videodrome on October 30 at 8pm
Arclight Sherman Oaks Halloween Horror Screenings
Location: The Arclight Sherman Oaks, 15301 Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks, CA 91403
Arclight Presents Calendar: Click here
Description: Starting on October 5, the Arclight Sherman Oaks offers a month-long series of horror films for Halloween 2014, including Carrie, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Monster Squad.
- A Nightmare on Elm Street on October 12 at 7:45pm
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on October 13 at 7:45pm
- The Creature from the Black Lagoon on October 14 at 7:45pm
- Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride on October 19 at 7:45pm
- The Fearless Vampire Killers on October 20 at 7:45pm
- The Shining on October 21 at 7:45pm
- American Psycho on October 22 at 7:45pm
- The Bride of Frankenstein on October 26 at 7:45pm
- Rosemary’s Baby on October 27 at 7:45pm
- The Monster Squad on October 28 at 7:45pm
Cinefamily’s Heavy Midnights: The Witching Hour
Location: The Silent Movie Theatre, 611 N. Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90036
Link out: Click here
Description: Saturdays in October, the Cinefamily’s weekly Heavy Midnights series is transformed into The Witching Hour, offering a trio of wicked midnight screenings: The Witches, Troll, and Teen Witch.
The latter two are minor cult items at best, but The Witches is a brilliant piece of cinema. Taking a break from his usual art house work, director Nicolas Roeg brought Roald Dahl’s wickedly amusing children’s story to the screen with the help of some great makeup and effects by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Anjelica Huston stars as the Grand High Witch, who has hatched a plot to dispose of all the children in England by turning them into mice. She opposed by a young orphan and his sweet (but knowledgeable) grandmother. Though nominally a “kids” film, The Witches is amusing and scary, though not too disturbing for young viewers. Recommended.
The schedule is:
- The Witches on October 11
- Troll on October 18
- Teen Witch on October 25
Haunted Screenings at LACMA
Location: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90036
Link out: Click here
Description: As part of Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in conjunction with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, presents a series of Halloween horror movie screenings during the month of October, including Nosferatu, Faust, and Edward Scissorhands.
In a neat big of programming, several evenings will feature double bills or original films and their remakes, illustrating the continuing influence of German Expressionist Cinema from the 1920s, the style of which is still apparent in such later work as Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow.
Screenings take place at LACMA’s Bing Theatre. Tickets are $3 for LACMA members, $5 for general public.
The complete schedule of horror-related screenings is below:
- October 10, 2014 | 7:30pm
- Nosferatu the Vampyre
- October 10, 2014 | 9:00pm
- An American Werewolf in London
- October 11, 2014 | 7:30pm
- Faust (1926)
- October 17, 2014 | 7:30pm
- Faust (1994)
- October 17, 2014 | 9:30pm
- October 24, 2014 | 7:30pm
- Sleepy Hollow
- October 25, 2014 | 5:00pm
- Edward Scissorhands
- October 25, 2014 | 7:30pm
Old Town Music Hall Halloween Horror Screenings
Location: Old Town Music Hall, Richmond Street, El Segundo, CA 90245
Link out: Click here
Description: The Old Town Music Hall launches its month-long Old Town Music Haunt with THE INVISIBLE MAN, the 1932 black-and-white classic and based on the H.G. Wells novel, and starring Claude Rains. The special effects still hold up today, and director James Whale’s sly sense of humor keeps the film from feeling dates. Co-starring Gloria Stuart (Titanic).
In celebration of the Halloween season, Old Town Music Hall will be screening horror classics every weekend in October, all of them from Universal Studios, the company that specialized in old-school Gothic chillers in the 1930 and 1940s. The theater will be all decked out with spooky decor, so have fun!
The complete schedule includes:
- Frankenstein (1931) on October 10, 11 & 12
- The Mummy (1932) on October 17, 18 & 19
- The Phantom of the Opera (1925) on October 24, 25 & 26 (with live musical accompaniment on the Old Town Music Hall’s Mighty Wurlitzer organ)
- Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) on October 31, November 1 & 2
Screenings are on Friday at 8:15pm; Saturday at 2:30pm and 8:15pm; and Sunday 2:30pm. Every show begins with music played on the pipe organ, an audience sing along, and a comedy short. There is a 15-minute intermission, followed by the feature film.
Tickets are $10.00 ($8.00 for seniors 62+) Tickets go on sale at the door thirty minutes before show time. No advance sales.
Location: The Silent Movie Theatre, 611 N. Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90036
More info: Click here
Description: The Cinefamily and SpectraVision presents a two-month festival of horror, science fiction, and cult films, including several west coast premieres and some in-person guests. Titles include Kevin Smith’s TUSK; DEAD SNOW 2; THE GOLEM; METROPOLIS; and GREMLINS.
SpectreFest promises “a hand-picked look at the latest and greatest in progressive genre films and forward-thinking music from around the world.” According to the official website, the festival is “a collaboration between Cinefamily and SpectreVision (the new production company founded/partnered by Elijah Wood, Daniel Noah and Josh C. Waller).”
The complete schedule is below:
- Thurs, 10/9, 7:30pm: Dead Snow & Dead Snow 2: Red Vs. Dead (L.A. premiere, cast members in person!)
- Fri, 10/10, 7:30pm: The Creeping Garden (L.A. premiere!)
- Thurs, 10/16, 7:30pm ($18/$10 for members): Show & Tell w/ Clive Barker & Nightbreed: Director’s Cut
- Thurs, 10/23, 7:30pm: Metropolis (w/ live score by Chrome Canyon!)
- Sat 10/25, 5:00pm: Jerry Beck’s Cartoon Spooktacular!
- Wed, 10/29, 7:30pm ($15/free for members): Tales From Beyond The Pale: LIVE!
- Thurs, 10/30, 7:30pm: Gremlins (30th Anniversary screening!) & “The History of PG-13″ Panel
- Fri, 10/31: special Halloween night event
Street Food Cinema Screenings
Link out: Click here
Description: Street Food Cinema, which screens movies in outdoor venues around Los Angeles, offers a series of classic horror films for Halloween 2014, featuring live music, food, and special guests. Titles include Gremlins, The Exoricst, and The Shining. Guests include Zach Galligan and Linda Blair.
The schedule of screenings is:
- October 11: Gremlins with Zach Galligan at Victory Park, Pasadena
- October 18: The Conjuring at Syd Kronenthal Park, Culver City
- October 18: The Exorcist at Eagle Rock Recreation Center, Los Angeles (benfiting Linda Blair’s World Heart Foundation)
- October 25: The Shining at Exposition Park, Los Angeles
General Admission prices are $6 for children and $12 for adults. Reserved seating is $11 for children and $17 for adults. Children under 5 are free. A limited number of tickets will be available at the door; entrance priority is given to advance ticket holders.
Doors open at 5:30pm. Live music begins at 6:30pm. Movie screens at approximately 8pm.
Street Food Cinema is Fido Friendly. Bring a blanket, snuggle up, and get scared!
Like its titular zombie, this film makes a good first impression, but before long you can tell the neurons are not quite firing correctly.
If your girlfriend died after you had been having problems, leaving you morose and regretful because you never got to say you were sorry, you might think the greatest good fortune would be her returning to life to give you a shot at reconciliation. Well, you might think that, but you would be wrong. Oh sure, at first everything would seem wonderful, but then the inevitable consequences of post-mortality would emerge: the “rash” suggesting decay, the rank breath, the hunger for raw food of the human variety. Before you knew it, you might find yourself with a rather uncomfortable personal situation on your hands, as you struggled to find a politic manner of informing your memory-challenged beloved of her undead status. As if that were not enough, you might additionally have to deal with a citywide outbreak of zombies – because, as important as you think your romance is, there is no reason to think your girlfriend is the only zombie in town.
In a nutshell, that is the dilemma delineated in Life After Beth – which might not quite be what you were expecting. Gazing at the beaming countenance of Beth on the posters, you might have anticipated a romantic comedy – that is, if the title had not clued you in to expect a mournful drama. What you get instead is a little bit of all of the above, a rom-com-zom-drama that provokes a tear here, a chuckle there, and perhaps the beginning of a scream. It’s an interesting mix, but the ingredients are applied too thinly; by the time the film is over, you may feel as if you have been drinking a watered-down Bloody Mary.
Dane DeHaan (THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2) plays Zach, who is in deep depression after Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza) dies from a snakebite while hiking alone; he feels guilty (we later learn) because he never wanted to go on hikes with her. Beth’s parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) are understanding and sympathetic – more so than Zach’s own family, which includes Paul Reiser as an ineffectual father and Matthew Gray Gubler as a gun-nut brother. But suddenly, the Slocums cut Zach off, refusing to even answer the door when he arrives. It turns out that Beth is back from the grave, and her parents are keeping it secret. Zach’s qualms over Beth’s “resurrection” (as her father calls it, mistakenly referring to the Old Testament) are initially squelched by the resumption of their relationship, which benefits from an interesting side effect: Beth remembers neither having died nor having broken up with Zach.
Life After Beth is, surprisingly, at its best before getting to what horror fans would consider “the good stuff” – the “zom” in this zom-com-rom. The first act, depicting Zach’s relationship with Beth’s parents (he and Mr. Slocum commiserate while smoking pot and playing chess till 3am), plays like a heartfelt indie drama. When Beth reappears, we are initially thrown off by our uncertain expectations: is this going to be a comedy about love’s triumph over the grave or a tragedy about the impossibility of cheating death?
At first, Life After Beth seems to be avoiding the obvious. Though Zach expresses some half-joking concerns the potential for Beth to become a flesh-eating zombie, she appears physically normal. However, there is definitely something wrong: although it is summer vacation, she worries constantly about a test she is taking “tomorrow”; she seems to have trouble remembering things happened only moments ago; and at one point she panics when Zach is out of her field of vision for a few seconds. Amusingly, insipid smooth jazz seems to calm her down (perhaps the film is suggesting that everyone who likes this music is already a zombie, more or less?).
Unfortunately, these intriguing ideas never develop into anything new; they turn out to be simply a long prologue toward what we expected from the beginning: Beth turns into a flesh-eating zombie. Apparently aware that this predictable turn of events is anti-climactic, writer director Jeff Baena juices the third act up with an outbreak of the walking dead: dead relatives and even former homeowners turn up – the ultimate unwanted guests.
At this point, Life After Beth starts to feel like spoof of the French TV series THE RETURNED: the dead are less overtly horrifying than embarrassingly out of place among those who have learned to live on without them. I wish I could say that “hilarity ensues,” but it doesn’t – it’s more like mild amusement.
At least the film gets points for not bothering to explain this small-scale zombie apocalypse. Zach’s one theory (it must have something to do with a maid seen briefly near the beginning) turns out to be a red herring that plays on our stereotyped expectations (she’s Haitian, so she must know voodoo, right?).
As the story moves toward its climax, it regains some of its initial pathos. Zach’s brother urges him to simply put a bullet in Beth’s head, but Zach cannot bring himself to accept the abrupt termination. Zach has never really apologized for the breakup, because it’s a painful memory that Beth left behind in the grave. But with inevitable death looming, Zach finally goes on a hike with her (enhanced by a sight gag that has Beth strapped to stove that was supposed to immobilize her) and says everything he needed to say.
Here, LIFE AFTER BETH comes closest to synthesizing its disparate elements. Beth’s bloody, decayed features are horrific; Zach’s words are poignant; the juxtaposition is comic, without undermining either the emotional impact. Too bad the rest of the film is, more often than not, a case of “either this or that but not enough of either.”
I almost want to say LIFE AFTER BETH is a good half-hour short unwisely expanded to feature length, but the film is slightly better than that. It’s more a matter of unrealized potential than excess length. In fact, the movie is a little bit like the resurrected Beth: it looks good at first, raising your hopes, but gradually you realize that, beneath the surface, some part of the personality is missing.
Can’t really recommend it, but there are some redeeming qualities.
Life After Beth (2014). Distributed by A24. Production Companies: Abbolita Productions, American Zoetrope, Starstream Entertainment. Rated R. 91 minutes. Written and directed by Jeff Baena. Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Matthew Gray Gubler, Anna Kendrick, Eva La Dare.
“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.
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.
- THE BLACK TORMENT did not reach the U.S. until 1965. However, it debuted in its native England in 1964.
A movie about a sinister ventriloquist and his even more sinister dummy – think there might be something strange, even supernatural, at work? You guessed right! But this time there’s a twist: the ventriloquist is also a mystical mesmerist, and the dummy is not some projection of his fragmented personality; it is actually…well, we’ll get into that. For now, let’s just say that, though not truly good, DEVIL DOLL is certainly strange and interesting.
Set in England, the story follows an American journalist by the name of Mark English (William Sylvester). The weirdness of the film becomes immediately apparent: an American named English – working in England? Is there a point, or was that simply the screenwriter’s idea of a joke (get it – he’s American but he’s English!)? Anyway, Mark English is unhappy with his latest, trivial assignment: covering the act of a ventriloquist known as the Great Vorelli (Bryant Haliday). At least Mark is unhappy until he sees the act: rather than the usual comedy high jinks, Vorelli and his dummy, Hugo, engage in an antagonist banter whose tension seems palpable – as if ready to explode into violence at any minute.
Eager to learn more, Mark talks girlfriend Marianne Horn (Yvonne Romain, of Hammer Films’ THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF) into inviting Vorelli to entertain at a party her family is giving. That night, Mark is awakened by Hugo, who mutters, “Help me.” Unsure whether this was dream or reality, Mark nevertheless checks out Vorelli’s background and learns that years ago he had an assistant named Hugo, who died on stage during their act. Meanwhile, Vorelli has set his eyes on Marianne; after Magda, Vorelli’s current assistant, objects, Hugo kills her. Seeking to unravel Vorelli’s secret and hopefully put a stop to his designs on Marianne, Mark eventually concludes that transferred Hugo’s soul into the dummy, where it remains under Vorelli’s control. If Hugo were ever to regain his free will – say, while Vorelli were distracted or asleep – there would be hell to pay…
Although deliberately created to replicate the eerie quality of the ventriloquist’s dummy episode from DEAD OF NIGHT (1945), this black-and-white English production works tolerably well as a crude rip-off, thanks to a creepy dummy and an even creepier performance from Haliday as The Great Vorelli. The innovation here is that Vorelli is not only a ventriloquist but also a hypnotist who casts a spell over Marianne. Unfortunately, this Svengali-esque subplot sends the narrative down a detour that ultimately leads nowhere, since the real story is about the mystery of Hugo.
Fortunately, the story eventually gets back on track for a reasonably exciting climax, which is nonetheless marred by completely side-lining nominal protagonist Mark, who doesn’t really do anything to resolve the story. Yes, Hugo must have his revenge, but couldn’t Mark lend a hand – perhaps unlock the cage in which Vorelli imprisons Hugo while sleeping? (And while we’re on the subject: when Hugo gets out of his cage to ask for Mark’s help, why didn’t he take that opportunity to get even with Vorelli?)
DEVIL DOLL suffers from a problem that sometimes appears in these ventriloquist dummy movies: the Great Vorelli’s act is not that great. Sure, we in the film audience enjoy the tension between the ventriloquist and his dummy, but there is not much humor to amuse the stage audience we see on screen. Vorelli’s hypnotism shtick is not much better: when he presses Marianne into dancing on stage, we are supposed to be amazed at what his mesmeric influence has achieved, but her dance moves are – to put it diplomatically – not at all impressive.
Haliday does not bring much subtlety to the role, no attempt to humanize Vorelli or generate any sympathy; instead, he goes full-on sinister, somewhat in the vein of Todd Slaughter, though without the mirthless humor. In one eccentric touch, Vorelli’s Svengali-like appearance is enhanced by a not entirely convincing beard. Except for a few flashbacks to his younger days, he is always seen wearing it, whether performing or not, suggesting it is not part of his stage makeup. But in his back stage scene with Magda, we see him applying the beard in a mirror – finally justifying its phony appearance. (Since this seen is missing from the Continental version, that cut of the film asks viewers to accept the facial hair as genuine – which strains credibility almost as much as believing in a talking dummy.)
There is a sleazy aura to the film – not only in the Continental version, which adds gratuitous nudity, but also in the original narrative, which has English more or less date-rape his reluctant girlfriend in a car (she clearly resists, but he presses on regardless) and then pimp her off to Vorelli in the hope getting a good newspaper article about the famous entertainer.
Fortunately, the on-stage tension between Vorelli and Hugo lends an interesting edge to the proceedings, and the bizarre climax (a physical fight between the two opponents) is both laughably funny and oddly disturbing, leading to a final fade out in which the villain gets what he deserves: Vorelli, now speaking in Hugo’s voice, tell Mark, “The tables have turned,” while the dummy, in Vorelli’s voice, begs, “Mr. English, don’t let him get away with it! I am the Great Vorelli!”
By now we know that expecting Mark English to actually do anything is hopelessly optimistic, so the film simply freeze-frames on the dummy. As far as we know, Mark doesn’t get the girl, which is only fair, since he did nothing to save her, and she really is better off without him.
The Continental version of DEVIL DOLL, available on DVD, is even worse, short-changing the narrative to shoe-horn in a nude scene: The dialogue exchange in which Magda threatens to expose Vorelli is deleted, removing his motivation to have Hugo murder her. Instead, we see another performance by Vorelli, in which he mesmerizes a female audience member into doing a strip-tease (though dressed in a modest business suit, she is wearing lingerie appropriate for a nude dance). Otherwise, the differences between the original version and the Continental version are minimal: the credits are different (William Sylvester receives top billing instead of Bryant Haliday), and two scenes are reshot to include topless views of actresses who were covered up in the original. In the first, Magda’s breast is briefly exposed before Hugo attacks her. In the second, a colleague of Mark’s is seen in talking to him on the phone, while a woman (presumably his lover) hoovers in the background; for the Continental version, her bra is removed.
Though our usual inclination is to assume that the version with the most footage is the preferred version, in this case producer Richard Gordon (in a DVD audio commentary) confirms that the original British version – sometimes called the International version – is the official cut. The extra and alternate footage in Continental version was added just for those territories whose distributors required nudity to sell a horror picture.
Lindsay Shonteff directed DEVIL DOLL for producer Richard Gordon, who was responsible for several productions of this type during this era (CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, ISLAND OF TERROR). Ronald Kinnoch and Charles F. Vetter (under the pen names George Barclay and Lance Z. Hargreaves) wrote the screenplay, based on a short story by Frederick E. Smith. Star William Sylvester went on to appear in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968).
DEVIL DOLL earned the dubious honor of appearing on an episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, for which it was well suited. Good-looking enough to be interesting but absurd enough to deserve derision, the film was a perfect foil for the crew of the Satellite of Love. If you are on the fence about whether or not to see the film, MST3K version should end your indecisiveness.
Note: DEVIL DOLL is not to be confused with the Tod Browning film THE DEVIL DOLL (1939), starring Lionel Barrymore.
DEVIL DOLL (Gordon Films and Galaworld Film Productions, 1964). Produced by Richard Gordon and Kenneth Rive. Directed by Lindsay Shonteff. Screenplay by Ronald Kinnoch and Charles F. Vetter, based on a story by Frederick E. Smith. Richard Gordon. Cast: Bryant Haliday, William Sylvester, Yvonne Romain, Sandra Dorne, Nora Nicholson, Alan Gifford, Karel Stepanek, Francis De Wolff.
Demons are trying to break on through into our world – and they enjoy The Doors! Listen in as Cinefantastique podcasters Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski explore the horrors of DELIVER US FROM EVIL, an interesting amalgam of THE EXORCIST and SEVEN, from the team behind THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE. Eric Bana stars as a cop pursuing criminals whose evil deeds may be inspired by hellish forces, in a tale loosely inspired by the real-life account, Beware the Night, by former officer Ralph Sarchie.
Cinefantastique celebrates the good, the bad, and the ugly from five decades ago.
1964 is a transitional year for horror, fantasy, and science fiction films. In the wake of the new wave of Technicolor horror that started in the 1950s, old-fashioned black-and-white atmosphere is seeing its last gasp, with titles such as CASTLE OF BLOOD and THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH. Ringing the death knell, Mario Bava abandons the period setting and moody monochrome of BLACK SUNDAY (a.k.a. THE MASK OF SATAN, 1960) for the lurid hues and modern-day mayhem of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (a.k.a. SIX WOMEN FOR THE ASSASSIN). The foremost proponent of graphic Gothic horror, with an emphasis on bright red blood, Britain’s Hammer Films is recycling old ideas (THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB) but also experimenting with a new monster movie, THE GORGON, which emphasizes tragic romance instead of horror. Meanwhile, the fear of the unknown dramatized so well in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1961) is replaced by the more nuanced view of CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED.
In the world of spy-fi, Bond is back, but the gritty Cold War melodrama of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE is extinguished by the over-the-top antics of GOLDFINGER, whose incredible gadgets and laser beams point the way toward the superspy’s eventual entrance into full-blown science fiction a few years later. Although 007 will not leave the stratosphere for a while, the space race is altering science fiction cinema, turning out attention toward the stars more than ever before. Ray Harryhausne leaves the earthbound Greek legends of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) to explore our nearest neighbor in the solar system with THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON. Likewise, Toho Studios, which has been moving away from grim black-and-white science fiction of GODZILLA (1954) toward colorful fantasy, begins offering monsters from outer space, with DOGARA and GHIDORAH: THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER.
Speaking of Japan, though the country has been making wonderful ghost stories for decades (e.g. YOTSUYA KAIDAN in 1959), these films make their first impression on the international market this year, thanks to the one-two punch of ONIBABA and KWAIDAN. The latter, an anthology, includes an episode titled “The Black Hair,” whose imagery will return decades later in the J-Horror wave of the 1990s and early 2000s.
There is an increasingly international feel to cinefantastique. American producer-director Roger Corman moves his series of Poe adaptations to England, where bigger budgets and better supporting casts yield two of his best efforts, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and THE TOMB OF LIGIEA. Corman’s U.S. distributor, American International Pictures, will follow his example, mounting many of their subsequent productions in the U.K.; they will also release an alternate version of GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (under the title GODZILLA VS. THE THING) that was specifically designed by Toho for international release, with additional scenes of English-speaking actors and American warships.
As usual with genres that depend on satisfying popular taste, many of the films are churned out with little artistry; nevertheless, even some of the lesser efforts show hints of imagination, with enough lively energy to make interesting viewing. Moreover, great titles abound – classics that live on, delighting our Sense of Wonder five decades later: George Pal’s THE 7 FACES OF DR. LAO; Robert Aldrich’s HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE; Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE, OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB, to name a few.
Here, then, is a rundown of what the year 1964 has to offer those willing to take a trip in the Way Back Machine. Explore at your own risk. There is exploitation aplenty, lurid and shocking, but tempting nonetheless – and not nearly intimidating enough to dissuade brave viewers willing to sift through the sleaze in search of gems.
7 Faces of Dr. Lao
George Pal produced and directed this fantasy film, from a screenplay by Charles Beaumont and Ben Hecht, based on the novel The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney. Tony Randall stars as the enigmatic Chinese magician, who rides into an old western town and changes the lives of the inhabitants with the lessons learned from the magic wonders inside his circus. William Tuttle won an honorary Oscar for his makeup work, which transformed Randall into the titular seven faces (well, one of them is actually a stop-motion puppet voiced by Randall, and another is pretty much a stunt man in a suit). Jim Danforth’s special effects, which also included a fanciful Loch Ness Monster, were nominated by the Academy as well.
Pal is more well known for his apocalyptic science fiction epics, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951) and WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953), but 7 FACES OF DR. LAO is equally memorable, its charms lovingly recalled by a generation of children now grown to adulthood. With Babara Eden and Arthur O’Connell.
This is a black-and-white silent film, made by artist Andy Warhol without approval from DC Comics. Taking a campy approach to the character years before the Adam West television series, BATMAN DRACULA was shown only at Warhol’s art exhibits. Jack Smith starred as Batman.
The Black Torment
The title of this unfairly neglected Gothic thriller suggests Euro-Horror – German, maybe Italian – but it is in fact a colorful British production about a wealthy gentleman, Sir Richard Fordyke (John Turner) returning to his ancestral home with his new bride, only to be met with accusations of murder. During his long absence, his dead wife has been wandering the countryside, suggesting she rests uneasy in her grave – perhaps because Sir Richard killed her? Also, Richard himself has supposedly been seen stalking and killing a victim during his absence from home.
The script (by Derek and Donald Ford) and the direction (by Robert Hartford-Davis) are perhaps more workmanlike than inspired, but the competent craftsmanship is more than enough to wring several spooky chills out of the premise of an innocent man, who merely wants to settle down to a quiet life with his wife, bedeviled by rumors, innuendo, a ghost, and possibly a doppleganger. Fans of Hammer horror will spot a few familiar faces in THE BLACK TORMENT, including Heather Sears (THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA).
Blood and Black Lace
Known as Sei Donne per L’assassino (“Six Women for the Assassin) in its native country, the mystery-thriller from director Mario Bava pushes the violence to horrific levels, essentially creating a new sub-genre, the giallo (named after the yellow covers of mystery novels in Italy). Set in the world of high fashion, the story in a programmatic, Ten-Little-Indians kind of way, depicts the death of six beautiful models, each of whom has come in contact with a diary that includes some kind of incriminating evidence that the killer (or killers) wants to keep hidden.
The ultimate explanation of the motivation appears too weak to justify the on-screen carnage, which seems more like the work of a maniac (as the police in the film assume it to be). However, questioning the plot developments is beside the point in this film, which works as a series of gruesomely stylish set-pieces, showing off Bava’s visual artistry. Never has murder been realized with such beauty; the heightened use of color (as when one victim’s face is pushed closer and closer to a red-hot stove) rendered the imagery in almost abstract terms – until you hear the screams of pain. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is must-see viewing.
The Brass Bottle
Tony Randall and Barbara Eden, seen in 7 FACES OF DR. LAO, are together in this fantasy film as well. Randall plays an architect who purchases the titular antique, from which emerges a djinn (like a genie but different, according to the F. Anstey source novel). The joke is that, having been locked inside the brass bottle for many years, this ancient supernatural being (played by Burl Ives) is ill-equipped to deal with the modern world, and his granting of wishes inevitably goes wrong, causing trouble for the architect. Harry Killer directed from a screenplay by Oscar Brodney.
“…one of the duller fantasies dreamed up by Hollywood’s necromancers,” opined the New York Times’ A. H. Weiler upon the initial release of THE BRASS BOTTLE. Little has happened over the ensuing decades to alter that judgement.
A Carol for Another Christmas
This 90-minute made-for-television update of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was scripted by Rod Serling (THE TWILIGHT ZONE) and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. Sterling Hayden plays an industrial tycoon embittered by the loss of his son on Christmas Eve in World War II, until he has a change of attitude thanks to the intercession of the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Steve Lawrence), Christmas Present (Pat Hingle), and Christmas Future (Robert Shaw).
Broadcast on December 28, without commercial interruption, A CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS was the first in a series of special promoting the United Nations. As such, Serling’s adaptation was themed as a plea for cooperation between nations. The “all-star cast” included Britt Ekland, Ben Gazzara, Eva Marie Saint, James Shigeta, and Peter Sellers (Hayden’s co-star from DR. STRANGELOVE).
Never released on home video, the film has been screened in recent years by Turner Classic Movies, and is available through UCLA’s Film and Television Archive.
Castle of Blood
This splendidly atmospheric Italian ghost story features a contrived plot in which English journalist Alan Foster (Georges Riviere) tracks down Edgar Allan Poe ( Silvano Tranquilli) for an interview, only to end up accepting a challenge from Poe’s acquaintance, Lord Blackwell, whose ancestral castle is supposedly so haunted that no one can survive All Souls Night within its walls. Inside, Foster encounters various spectres from beyond the grave, including Elisabeth Blackwood (Barbara Steele) and Dr. Carmus (Arturo Dominic), the latter of whom theorizes about the distinction between the Death of the Body and the Death of the Spirit (apparently, a violent demise kills the body but leaves the spirit restless and wandering on this earthly plane).
The castle setting, beautifully captured in black-and-white, lends just the right atmosphere for this horror film, which is much enhanced by the presence of Steele as an alluring phantom. The screenplay by Sergio Corbucci and Giovanni Grimaldi has some interesting ideas and pulls off a nice, ambiguous twist ending that is both morbid and romantic. Director Antonio Margheriti (working under his Anthony Dawson pseudonym) handles the material with unobtrusive expertise – he doesn’t have the visual flash of Bava, but he knows how to get the job done in an entertaining fashion.
CASTLE OF BLOOD is known as Danza Macabra (“Macabre Dance”) in Italian. The credits claim the screenplay is based on a story of that name by Poe, though the author bibliography includes no such title. The film was released to American television, in a shortened version, as CASTLE OF TERROR. The longer version, available on DVD, includes dialogue in which the character of Poe recites passages from his work – truly the only Poe material included in the script.
Castle of the Living Dead
This is a relatively minor black-and-white thriller from Italy, whose historical interest lies mostly in the presence of Michael Reeves, who would go on to direct WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968, a.k.a. THE CONQUEROR WORM) before his untimely death a few years later. Though the direction is officially credited to Warren Kiefer and Luciano Ricci (working as “Herbert Wise”), second-unit director Reeves impressed the producers so much that he was allowed to write and direct additional material (apparently focusing on supporting character rather than the main cast).
Christopher Lee (HORROR OF DRACULA) plays another Count, this one named Drago, who mummifies his victims with a secret formula that leaves them frozen, looking exactly as they did at the moment of death. Donald Sutherland plays a comic-relief gendarme who does little to solve the situation but takes credit nonetheless. One of Reeves’ additions to CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (Il Castello dei Morti Vivi) was to give Sutherland a second role, as a witch in drag – a sight that truly must be seen to be believed.
No one is doing his best work here, but Lee’s fans may want to check this out after they have seen everything better. Reeves’ work (mostly on non-dialogue action scenes) are nice but not enough to save the film. The biggest attraction is probably Sutherland’s eccentric performance(s).
Cave of the Living Dead
This little German opus is too much a jumble of conflicting elements to be fully satisfying, but at the same time the mixture is just weird enough to be interesting. Known as Der Fluch Der Gruenen Augen (“The Girl with the Green Eyes”), CAVE OF THE LIVING DEAD begins like a James Bond movie, with hip agent Frank Dorin (Adrian Hoven) hanging out in a nightclub, listening to jazz, and eyeing a hot chick while contemplating a well-deserved vacation. Unfortunately, his idyll is interrupted by a call from headquarters, asking him to investigate a rash of mysterious deaths (though not necessarily murders) in a small town. The modern flavor of the opening scenes morphs into a more traditional flavor as Dorin reaches the stricken villa, which hasn’t moved much out of the 19th century. It becomes clear pretty quickly that the problem is vampires and almost as quickly that the source of the problem lives in the local castle, though Dorin takes his time about figuring this out.
The locations, filmed in black-and-white, lend an appropriate atmosphere to the proceedings, even when the narrative is taking its time about getting anywhere, and Dorin’s transformation from modern-day skeptic to believer is nicely underplayed. There are a few visual moments that evoke the glory days of German expressionism, such as the shadow of a vampire cast upon a wall, suggesting the monster’s presence without revealing its true identity. Perhaps the most remarkable moment reveals how the old “he was right behind me but now he’s gone” moment works, the vampiric Professor Adelsberg (Wolfgang Preiss) quickly stepping through a doorway when Dorin is not looking.
Akos Rathonyi directed from a script he co-wrote with Kurt Roecken. and Erika Remberg co-star. Also known as NIGHT OF THE VAMPIRES.
Children of the Damned
This truly remarkable follow-up to VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) deserves credit for being one of the few sequels to truly re-think the material, creating a new story that is less a continuation of its predecessor than a complete inversion. The only link is the concept of children, gifted with psychic powers and glowing eyes that make them an (apparent) threat to the normal, human world. Though there is an ominous black-and-white atmosphere similar to VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, which depicted the children as an alien menace that needed to be exterminated, CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED presents mankind as the true monsters, afraid of this new breed of humanity without trying to truly understand it.
The original screenplay by John Briley (GANDHI) is fairly clever about serving up its liberal message in an exciting science fiction story. One of the sly jokes is that the two male leads (played by Ian Hendry and Alan Badel) are, respectively, a psychologist and a geneticist, neatly embodying the old “nurture versus nature” debate regarding human development – though in this case, neither one has an answer for why there are suddenly a half a dozen special children from around the world, who may be the next step in human evolution (unlike the previous film, in which the children were implied to be the result of alien invasion). Even the title makes metaphoric sense: the children are not “damned;” they are the children of the “damned” – i.e., the human world that is too paranoid to accept these new beings, whose virgin births and ability to resurrect the dead make them blatant Christ-figures.
Anton M. Leader directed. Barbara Ferris, Alfred Burke, and Patrick Wymark arein the supporting cast.
The Comedy of Terrors
Though not based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe, this tongue-in-cheek spoof from American International Pictures is clearly a follow-up to their previous efforts, TALES OF TERROR and THE RAVEN, both of which had injected the old horror formula with doses of humor. Richard Matheson, who had scripted those two efforts, recycled and revised motifs, inverting character relationships to come up with something recognizable but new. The love triangle from TALES OF TERROR’s middle episode, “The Black Cat,” is back, in the form of Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Joyce Jameson, but this time Lorre rather than Price is the third wheel. The story has Price and Lorre as undertakers who save money by reusing the same coffin over and over again, dumping out the body and buring it after mourners have left. The plan goes bad when their latest customer, Mr. Black (Basil Rathbone) is placed to rest above ground, inside a tomb, where the coffin will be visible. Things get worse when Mr. Black returns from the grave to menace the undertakers, who contributed to his “death” when he was trying to collect a debt from them.
Unfortunately, AIP’s resident horror producer-director, Roger Corman was not involved, and his absence is telling. Though THE COMEDY OF TERRORS features a similar look to Corman’s Poe films, right down to exteriors rendered with stylized matte paintings, the result feels like an uninspired forgery, despite the presence of director Jacques Tourneur, who had helmed the excellent CAT PEOPLE (1941) and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1942) for producer Val Lewton. The film’s greatest virtue is its cast of classic horror stars, who seem to be having a good time – much better than the audience, unfortunately – delivering lines like “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that thing” (in reference to an attempt to build a replacement coffin). Boris Karloff (FRANKENSTEIN) is on hand as the decrepit former owner of the funeral business (now owned by his son-in-law); he is given little to do, but his funeral eulogy (in which the senile old man cannot recall the name of the dearly departed) is worth a few laughs.
THE COMEDY OF TERRORS actually had its premiere on December 25, 1963 in Detroit, Michigan, but its major release did not take place until the following year, so we included it here among the films of 1964. The film was not a success, and a planned follow-up was abandoned. Matheson ceased writing the Poe films, leaving Corman to find other collaborators for the two that he completed in 1964.
The Creeping Terror
Prepare to have your mind blown by one of the most aggressively awful films ever created – a movie that truly knows no shame as it assaults the viewer with mindless stupidity from beginning to end, justifiably earning a reputation a for unintentional camp that helped make it one of the best episodes of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 ever. Produced, directed, edited by, and starring Arthur Nelson White (who billed himself as “Vic Savage” in front of the camera and “A.J. Nelson” behind), THE CREEPING TERROR is the one with the walking carpet monster – surely cinema’s most hilarious inept example of a slow-moving threat that miraculously manages to overtakes its victims (who more or less have to throw themselves into its maw, because despite the alien’s dangling appendages, it has no functioning claws or tentacles to grab its prey).
This is also the film with no soundtrack. Well, there is canned music and narration; however, there is no live sound recorded while filming. Explanations vary: either the director lost the soundtrack, or he shot silently with the intention of over-dubbing later, only to find the post-production process too time consuming. The result is that the “story” is conveyed by an annoying narrator, who spends most of the time telling us what the characters are saying and explaining action that is self-evident to any viewers who manage to remain non-comatose throughout the proceedings.
The highlight is a dance party invaded by the monster, who eats men and women indiscriminately – though the director’s gaze lingers far more lovingly on the latter, who go in head first and ass-up, kicking and screaming as they crawl inside, pretending to be eaten. In at least one case, the woman’s male companion clearly pushes her toward the monster. (Chivalry is dead – it’s time to look out for Numero Uno!)
Screenwriter Robert Silliphant was the brother of Sterling Silliphant, a successful film and television writer. Though uncredited, Robert’s younger brother Allan is said to have written the original story. Apparently, Sterling’s talent was not genetically transmitted to his siblings: Robert went on to co-script the equally awful THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES; Allan wrote and directed the 3D softcore film THE STEWARDESSES, under the pseudonym “Alf Sillman Jr.
Reportedly hiding from creditors, Vic Savage never made another movie. His story is told in the documentary THE CREEP BEHIND THE CAMERA (2014), which includes dramatic recreations and interviews with the cast of THE CREEPING TERROR.
Crypt of the Vampire
Camillo Mastrocinque, who later directed Barbara Steele in AN ANGEL FOR SATAN (1965), helmed this unofficial adaptation of J. Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla. Christopher Lee once again plays a Count, though this time he is protecting his family from vampirism. The screenplay by Tonino Valerii & Ernesto Gastaldi (writing as Robert Bohr and Julian Berry) has Count Karnstein’s innocent daughter, Laura (Adriana Ambesi) befriending Ljuba (Ursula Davis) after the latter’s coach crashes outside the castle. Ljuba turns out to be the witch Scirra, who has been plaguing the Karnstein family for decades.
Release in England as CRYPT OF HORROR, and shown on American television as TERROR IN THE CRYPT, CRYPT OF THE VAMPIRE (originally La Cripta e L’Incubo) has never earned much of a reputation, even among fans of black-and-white ’60s Euro-horror. There is some nice black-and-white photography in this Italian-Spanish co-production, but the pacing is slow (even though the basic outline of LeFanu’s fine tale is still recognizable).
The Curse of the Living Corpse
Stop me if you have heard this one: a bunch of greedy relatives, gathered at an old house for the reading of a will, die in mysterious ways. Even by 1964, this story was older than Dracula’s castle, but that didn’t stop one-man creative team Del Tenny (director, writer, and co-producer) from dusting off the cobwebs for another attempt. The interesting wrinkle here is that the dearly departed had a morbid fear of being buried alive, and his will left specific instructions to prevent this from happening – instructions which the relative ignore in their haste to get their hands on the estate, thus sealing their fate.
This film marks the feature film debut of Roy Scheider, who would essay the iconic role of Chief Brody in JAWS a decade later. Cult movie fans will also note the presence of Candace Hilligoss (CARNIVAL OF SOULS).
Shot in Stamford, Connecticut, on an estate owned by Tenny’s father-in-law, THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE was released on a double bill with THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH, another Del Tenny production, filmed around the same time.
Critic Dennis Schwartz advises: “If you love bad films, this one is irresistible.”
The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb
Though not a direct sequel, this second mummy movie from Hammer Films is a rehash of its predecessor, THE MUMMY (1959). To its credit, the scenario (credited to “Henry Younger” – a pen name for producer-director Michael Carreras) offers a few interesting twists on the familiar elements; for instance, actor George Patel is back, playing another Egyptian, but this time instead of aiding the mummy, he turns out to be a good guy.
A very proper British expedition of dedicated archaeologists discovers yet another entombed mummy, but their backer and crass American showman Alexander King (Fred Clark) exploits the discovery for fun and profit – at least until the Mummy revives and kills him. It looks like yet another example of an ancient curse decimating the desecrators of a tomb, but there is something more going on here, something to do with the Mummy’s brother, who may also be walking the Earth as an immortal…
The story is an entertaining mis-mash of forgotten plot threads and neglected motivations; at first, scenes seem to make sense (such as an attempted robbery of Egyptian artifacts), and only later do you realize that we never learn who the robbers were or whether the attempt was not just a set-up, allowing a stranger, Adam Beecham (Terence Morgan) to intervene heroically and gain the trust of the expedition.
Typical for Hammer, the sets and photography are beautiful, and the modest budget goes a long way toward making this look like a lavish production. Unfortunately, stunt man Eddie Powell, his face buried beneath the bandages, brings little personality to the Mummy – which might not normally be a big drawback in a mummy movie, but this one gives the character a back story and a dramatic conflict based on a character conflict with his brother.
Carreras pulls off several nice horror scenes. The attempted capture of the Mummy by the police, after the bandaged juggernaut has crashed through a window into a study, plays like a direct lift from THE MUMMY, once again juxtaposing the decaying ancient figure with brightly colored, modern surroundings, but one attack upon a helpless victim, whose skull is bashed repeatedly with a paperweight, is memorably brutal, without being explicit; the almost methodical way the Mummy raises the weapon for one more blow is just slow enough to give viewers time to gasp, “Oh no, not again!”
All in all, this is a good “Horror Pinch Hitter” – not as good as THE MUMMY, but a good substitute when you tire of repeatedly viewing the original.
Death on the Fourposter
This is another modern-day Euro-thriller that affects a Gothic atmosphere, insofar as much of the action is set inside an old castle and filmed in black-and-white. Mostly the film is about a group of young, hip, swinging ’60s kids, deciding who will sleep with whom. However, the most provocative member of the group starts a little game, in which her allegedly psychic boyfriend predicts horrible demises for the participants.
Originally titled Delitto allo Specchio, and sometimes known as SEX PARTY in England, this little-seen Italian production includes some elements that would later bloom into the giallo genre, but here they play a subordinate role in the narrative (which doesn’t get to the first murder till after the halfway mark). Fans who have tracked it down tend to be modest in their appraisal (the film’s appeal seems to rest more with its attractive female cast than with the thriller elements); however, Johan Melle of Euro-Fever Blogspot writes that DEATH ON THE FOUR POSTER offers “is a superlative early giallo that provides sexy, campy fun from beginning to end.”
Jean Josipovici and Ambrogio Molteni directed, from a script Josipovici co-wrote with Giorgio Stegani. The cast includes John Drew Barrymore (the missing link between John Barrymore and Drew Barrymore), Gloria Milland, Luisa Rivelli, and Antonella Lualdi.
The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse
This is the sixth and final entry in a ’60s-era series of films based on the character previously seen in Fritz Lang’s THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE. Unlike its predecessors. THE DEATH RAY OF DR. MABUSE (Die Todesstrahlen des Dr. Mabuse) supplants the krimi (“crime”) film elements with a more high-tech, science fiction approach, akin to the James Bond films – most notably with the titular death ray.
Working from a screenplay by Ladislas Fodor, Hugo Fregonese directed the German-Italian-French co-production, which features an international cast, including Peter Van Eyck, Yvonne Furneaux (of Hammer Films’ THE MUMMY), Walter Rilla, O.E. Hasse, Rika Dialina, and Robert Beatty. Wolfgang Preiss, who had played Mabuse in the previous films, appears only in re-used footage; the character, apparently now in spirit form, is dubbed by another actor, as he influences a professor to complete the death ray.
The Lexicon of International Film dismissed the movie as “rude and crude.” Poor box office returns doomed plans for further sequels, though the character was revived years later.
Demon in the Blood
This ultra-obscure title apparently hails from Argentina (though IMDB lists it as Mexcian in origin). A three-part anthology, DEMON IN THE BLOOD (El Demonio en la Sangre) showcases tales of ordinary people turning to murder: a black boxer is hypnotized, turning him into a murderer; a married couple is haunted by the ghost of the man’s first wife; a mysterious stranger torments a couple travelling by train.
Rene Mugica directed. The script was co-written by Tomas Eloy Martinez, Augusto Roa Bastos, and Mugica. The cast includes Rosita Quintana, Ubaldo Martinez, Ernesto Bianco, and Wolf Ruvinskis (who starred as Neutron in a series of Mexican masked wrestler movies).
Phil Hardy’s Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror called DEMON IN THE BLOOD “technically competent” but “disappointing” and accused the cast of giving “hammy” performances.
A movie about a ventriloquist and his dummy – think there might be something strange, even supernatural, going on? You guessed right! Although deliberately created to replicate the eerie quality of the ventriloquist’s dummy episode from DEAD OF NIGHT (1945), this black-and-white English production works tolerably well as a crude rip-off, thanks to a creepy dummy and an even creepier performance from Bryant Haliday as The Great Vorelli. The innovation here is that Vorelli is not only a ventriloquist but also a mystic who casts a mesmeric spell over leading lady Marianne Horn (Yvonne Romain, of Hammer’s THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF). William Sylvester (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) plays American journalist Mark English (??), who seeks to unravel the secret of Vorelli’s ambulatory dummy Hugo and hopefully put a stop to Vorelli’s designs on Marianne.
There is a sleazy aura to the film – not only in the Continental version, which adds gratuitous nudity, but also in the original narrative, which has English more or less rape his reluctant girlfriend in a car (she clearly resists, but he presses on regardless) and then pimp her off to Vorelli in the hope getting a good newspaper article about the famous entertainer. Fortunately, the on-stage tension between Vorelli and Hugo is palpable, lending an interesting edge to the proceedings, and the bizarre climax (a physical fight between the two opponents) is both laughably funny and oddly disturbing, leading to a conclusion that is almost satisfying (the villain gets what he deserves, but no thanks to our hero Mark, who was off-screen at the decisive moment).
Lindsay Shonteff directed for producer Richard Gordon, who was responsible for several productions of this type during this era (CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, ISLAND OF TERROR). Ronald Kinnoch and Charles F. Vetter (under the pen names George Barclay and Lance Z. Hargreaves) wrote the screenplay, based on a short story by Frederick E. Smith.
If you like this kind of thing, DEVIL DOLL is worth seeing, especially if you can catch the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 version.
You ever get tired of giant monsters attacking Tokyo? So did the filmmakers, or at least that’s the way it seems when you look at DOGORA (Uchū Daikaijū Dogora – i.e., “Giant Space Monster Dogora”), which conspicuously splices a cops-and-robbers story line involving international jewel theives into the usual kaiju scenario. The intersection between the two plot elements is that the titular monster feeds on coal, including diamonds, the mysterious disapperance of which leads the local diamond ring to be blamed for more robberies than they actually committed; consequently, they set out to discover who’s poaching their territory, and finger Mark Jackson (Robert Dunham), who turns out to be an international agent posing as a criminal.
In between the police procedural elements, the monster attacks just often enough to remind you that this is a monster movie, though the initial special effects sequences are played somewhat tongue-in-cheek (e.g., a sleeping man levitating without waking). Later, there is a fairly spectacular sequence in which Dogora finally materializes – a giant jellyfish floating above the city, its tentacles destroy a bridge like matchsticks. Abandoning the usual man-in-a-suit approach, effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya created a startling, amorphous creature unlike any other in his lengthy filmography (which includes Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra and more). Unfortunately, the creature mutates into a less impressive form for the rest of the film, which leaves viewers feeling the climax took place at the film’s midpoint.
The usual crew from Toho Productions was involved here: producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, director Ishiro Honda, screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa, composer Akira Ifukube. The cast included Yosuke Natsuki, Yoko Fujiyama, Hirohsi Koizumi, Nobuo Nakamura, Jun Tazaki, and Akiko Wakabayashi as a sultry gangsters moll.
Though DOGORA does not really add up to much, there are some exciting scenes, including a nail-biter in which Mark Jackson and his Japanese police counterpart are tied up and left in a room with a lit stick of dynamite. The effectiveness suggests that director Honda was eager to prove he could handle a more conventional form of suspense that did not require toppling buildings to generate thrills.
Dr. Orloff’s Monster
This is an early effort from cult auteur Jess Franco, whose exploitation excesses have earned him a following among fans of Euro-trash. The story involves a Dr. Fisherman (renamed Dr. Jekyll in some languages), who kills his brother Andros (Hugo BLanco) for cuckolding him, then resurrects him as a mindless zombie that kills on command; plot complications ensue when Fisherman’s niece (Agnes Spaak) arrives for a visit and finds out what happened to her father.
DR. ORLOFF’S MONSTER is the second a series of films named after mad scientist who first appeared in THE AWFUL DR. ORLOFF 1962). However, the connection is tenuous at best: there is an early scene of a dying old man (presumably Orloff, though not played by the actor from the previous film) passing on his secrets to Fisherman (Marcelo Arroita-Jauregui), who carries on from there.
Also, it is easy to loose track of exactly where this film comes in the Orloff saga, thanks to confusion over the title. Shot as El Secreto Del Dr. Orloff (“The Secret of Dr. Orloff”) in its native Spain, the film was released as THE MISTRESSES OF DR. JEKYLL in some territories, and did not become known as DR. ORLOFF’S MONSTER until much later – after a subsequent sequel named DR. ORLOFF’S INVISIBLE MONSTER (1971).
Franco’s combination of pretension and sleaze (arty black-and-white approach mingled with gratuitous nudity) has its advocates, but DR. ORLOFF’S MONSTER is not highly regarded, even by fans (thanks at least in part to the absence of the title character).
Long available only in an edited TV version, the Spanish production can now be seen in its uncut European incarnation (taken from a French print, dubbed into English), which is available on DVD and instant streaming.
Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Fifty years after its release, it is more than a little bit redundant to rank producer-director Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy apocalypse among the greatest achievements in the history of cinema; the film is a masterpiece that transcends genre. The science fiction element is small (limited to a Doomsday Device that brings about the end of the world regardless of the effectiveness of enemy attack); nevertheless, DR. STRANGELOVE, OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB stands as a superb example of speculative fiction: What if a general went made and ordered his B-52s to attack the Soviet Union with nuclear warheads?
The premise plays out in a surreal context that juxtaposes the petty foibles of individual humans against the horrifying backdrop of potential human extinction, and the comic absurdity is all the more effective because the grim logic of the narrative seems absolutely convincing. Credit this to the fact that Kubrick based his screenplay, co-written with Terry Sothern, on a serious novel, Red Alert, by Peter George.
If there is anything we can extract from the film today that was not apparent in 1964, it is perhaps the moral imperative of civil and military leaders to ensure that their actions are justified when they send soldiers in their command to war. The various faction we see in the film all perform heroically when seen from their own vantage point: the air force personnel defending their base (not knowing their commander is launching an unprovoked war); the soldiers who are attacking the base to get the recall code from the general, which requires them to fire upon fellow Americans; and most especially, the crew of the B-52 that defies all odds to deliver its payload, in the belief that they are defending friends and family back home from a Soviet attack. The plane’s captain, Major Kong (Slim Pickens, playing to perfection) deserves a medal of valor, and in a weird way it’s a good thing that he ends up vaporized, having sacrificed his life to dislodged a bomb a stuck H-Bomb – and thus never learning the truth that his action triggers the Doomsday Device.
Unlike other Kubrick films, DR. STRANGELOVE is mostly free of elaborate tracking shots; the emphasis is on montage, with exaggerated camera angles, expressionistic black-and-white photography, and stylized performances that emphasize the nightmare nature of the demented comedy. Peter Sellers shines in three roles, particularly the title character – a mad German scientist who seems like a living embodiment of the Death Wish driving mankind to nuclear annihilation. Sterling Hayden is equally memorable as the insane General Ripper, and George C. Scott chews the scenery with gusto (though in fact his performance is the result of Kubrick pushing him further than he wanted to go).
What else can we say about DR. STRANGELOVE, five decades after its debut? Well, apparently the U.S. Air Force reviewed and revised its protocols to prevent this scenario from playing out in real life. There are many films that can lay claim to great artistic achievement; how many can plausibly claim to have helped prevent the end of mankind?
To be continued…
It’s a wrestling movie! It’s a vampire movie! It’s two movies randomly cut together!
Some movies defy expectations, good or bad, in a way that makes them surprising enough to be interesting. SANTO VS. LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO (1962, dubbed into English as SAMSON VS THE VAMPIRE WOMEN) certainly qualifies. Half masked wrestler movie, half vampire movie, this Mexican import is such a jumble of conflicting elements that the absurdity becomes quite entertaining. Which is not to say the entertainment value is entirely camp in nature; one surprise in store for interested viewers is that SANTO VS LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO is, at times, an effective horror film. Though it will never be regarded as a classic, the film’s recent availability on Hulu, in its original, Spanish-language form, offers a welcome opportunity for a new appraisal.
If you are reading this, you probably know that Santo (actual name: Rodolfo Guzman Huerta) was a real-life Mexican wrestler whose gimmick was that he never appeared in public without his signature silver mask. In the 1950s the character became a superhero in a series of comic books, which eventually lead to several films, such as SANTO VS THE ZOMBIES (1961).
With that history, you might expect SANTO VS. LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO to be a second-rate hack job designed to showcase its star at the expense of everything else. However, much as with the recent GODZILLA (2014), Santo remains somewhat in the background of this film, which focuses instead on the Vampire Women and their plan to kidnap a young woman, Diana Orlof (Maria Duval) to replace their Vampire Queen, Thorina (Lorena Velazquez).
Consequently, for the first half-hour or so SANTO VS. LAS MUERAS VAMPIRO plays like a traditional, old-fashioned horror film, hokey but atmospheric, with lovely black-and-white photography showcasing the sinister sets. There is little innovative here – the film is clearly aping the classic Universal Pictures horror films of the 1930s and 1940s – but there is enough local Mexican flavor to spice the proceedings up a bit.
In particular, the opening sequence, mostly silent, with the camera wandering through an old mansion, is wonderfully evocative, revealing the Vampire Women emerging from their coffins as old hags, before transforming into supernatural seductresses. The slow and stately pace may lay the atmosphere on a bit thick, but the imagery is almost good enough to stand beside the best Italian horror films of the period. One might even call it “Bava-esque” – though not quite on par with BLACK SUNDAY, nor does it fall embarrassingly short, instead standing on its own as enjoyably spooky horror, served up straight, without the camp.
After that, the plot kicks in, and things get weird, which is definitely fun but also quite a bit goofier than what the opening would lead you to expect.
First off, the Vampire Women have not only a Queen but also a Priestess, Tandra (Ofelia Montesco). Why there should be two leaders is a question the screenwriters really do not bother to answer; instead, we get to see lots of shots of the two vixens standing around in curvaceous white gowns, slit to the hip, while we have time to ponder which is the more alluring of the two (answer: the Queen!).
The convoluted premise is that after a 200 year hibernation, the Vampire Women are rising from their coffins to find a replacement for Thorina, so that she can descend into Hell to join her betrothed, the Devil himself (who makes a cameo appearance or two – a horned shadow cast on the wall). The last time the vampires tried this, they were thwarted by a masked hero (presumably an ancestor of Santo); apparently, frustration over their failure sent them into a two-century slumber. Or perhaps we are to assume that the vampire life cycle consists of resurrecting every 200 years to find a new Queen and then immediately returning to their coffins for another 200 years? Whatever…
Professor Orloff, Diana’s father (played by Augusto Benedico) is an academic who has deciphered just enough ancient hieroglyphics to know that his daughter is to be targeted on her 21st birthday, which is rapidly approaching. Although he manages to enlist the aid of the police, but troubled by their skepticism about the nature of the threat (they don’t believe in vampires), he also seeks help from Santo for help. I guess Orloff doesn’t believe in keeping all his eggs in one basket. In a delightfully absurd conceit, Orloff has an electronic gizmo in his study that acts as a direct-line videophone to Santo’s lair – his equivalent of the bat cave – which we briefly glimpse when Orloff calls for assistance. Unfortunately, Santo is not home – a recurring them of the movie.
Meanwhile, the Vampire Women are seeking blood, and making moves on tracking down Dianna. In this, they are aided by a trio of vampire henchmen, portrayed by bare-chested wrestlers wearing capes (because any vampire worthy of the term wore a cape back in these days). Fashion sense aside, the henchmen come across more like conventional thugs than supernatural threats from beyond the grave, but they get the job done, more or less.
We finally get to see Santo in an extended wrestling sequence, and by extended, I mean one that will have you reaching for the fast-forward button like Han Solo pressing the warp speed drive button to outrun the Empire. The gratuitous and obligatory nature of the scene is exceeded only by the baffling notion that Santo, a superhero capable of battling the undead with relative ease, has a rather hard time dispatching a mortal opponent in the ring.
Eventually, Santo puts his wrestling career on hold long enough to engage with the plot of the film in which he is allegedly starring, and the action moves along well enough from there, though it sometimes plays more like a conventional crime movie: in the grand tradition of movie villainy, Priest Tandra repeatedly tries and fails to kidnap Diana; Queen Thorina berates her but gives her one more chance; and eventually, Tandra succeeds.
Amusingly, part of the reason for Tandra’s eventual success is that Santo is back in the ring: during an ill-conceived attempt to use Diana as bait (which ultimately results in her being kidnapped), police chief recalls casually notes that Santo is busy wrestling; he seems not the least nonplussed that the superhero prioritizes his fight career over guarding an innocent victim from blood-drinking hell-spawn. Fortunately for Santo, he does end up confronting the vampires, who seems to consider him a threat despite his frequently being AWOL: one of the vampire henchmen sneaks into the arena before the match, kills Santo’s opponent in the opponent’s dressing room, and puts on his mask, then fights Santo in the ring. (Why not skip a step and try to kill Santo in his dressing room? Don’t ask.)
I’m not sure this second wrestling match is any more exciting than the previous one, but at least it merges the two elements that the film has so far kept isolated from each other: vampires and wrestling. Santo has a pretty rough time of it (though not particularly rougher than when he was fighting humans), eventually unmasking his opponent to reveal…a werewolf!
WTF? The briefly scene, face-only makeup is the only hint that this henchmen is anything other than a vampire; the revelation is completely pointless except as a visual shock – and almost immediately forgotten. As Santo and the police swarm over the “werewolf,” they find themselves gripping empty air; the culprit escapes in the form of a bat, flapping away to safety.
Or not so much. Santo pursue in his sports car (it’s not the Batmobile, but it does have an invisible camera mounted on the hood – or at least we have to believe so, because Professor Orloff is able to view and speak with Santo via his videophone contraption). The vampire muscleman runs down the street, grasping his cape like wings, as if he cannot quite achieve liftoff in bat from, and comes up short when he finds himself face to face with a large cross, which reduces him to ashes.
This scene underlines another odd point about SANTO VS LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO: Santo does not do much to dispatch the vampires, who instead fall prey to their own miscalculations. More of this will follow in the climax.
Anyway, Professor Orloff finally deciphers more ancient writings and learns where the Vampire Woman have taken his daughter: to a miniature castle on the outskirts of the city. (It’s actually a mansion rather than a castle, but it has a dungeon, so there. And it’s not such a bad miniature really, but it looked better when it was partially hidden beneath the opening credits.) Santo races over and is immediately captured. Tandra begins the ritual to vampirize Diana into the new queen, but the rising sun peeks through a window and ignites the vampire priestess.
That’s right: Santo doesn’t save the day; the sun does. Giving our masked hero the benefit of the doubt, we can perhaps credit his intrusion for delaying Tandra and distracting her from the approaching dawn (she wastes time ordering her henchmen to unmask Santo instead of completing the ritual to turn Diana into the new vampire queen), but this is being overly charitable. Santo does manage to break free of some chains and fight the two remaining vampire thugs, but all he does is knock them down. Like Tandra, they burst into flames as if touched by the sun – thought the lighting of the scene is a bit sketchy about showing exactly which parts of the dungeon set are illuminated by sunbeams.
The remaining Vampire Women relapse into their hag-like appearance and retreat to their coffins, where Santo finally does something tangible, igniting their undead bodies with a torch (like George Romero’s ghouls a six years later in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, they “go up pretty good”). Curiously, the women seem so helpless at this point that Santo’s action seems more appalling than heroic.
And that’s about it. The police and Professor Orloff arrive too late to lend assistance. Santo delivers Diana to her father (not to her ineffectual fiance, who has been standing on the sidelines the whole movie) and drives off like the Lone Ranger, while the professor delivers a heartfelt paean of admiration to the masked hero.
SANTA VS LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO cannot be taken seriously, but it is fun. Although the vampire henchmen are goofy at best, their female overlords cut a striking figure, particularly the regal queen. Pitting seductive female blood-suckers against the uber-macho Santo represents conservative gender politics taken to their nth degree, but it’s amusing to see that the wily women are almost a match for the masked wrestler.
Along the way, there are some interesting variations on vampire lore. For example, these vampires do cast reflections, but the mirror reveals their true countenances – ancient hags hiding beneath the illusion of young flesh.
Santo himself is an odd superhero, to say the least. He’s strong, but he doesn’t have any particular superpowers. He can survive vicious beatings delivered by the undead, yet he is unable to easily overwhelm human opponents in the wrestling ring. He’s also rather stocky and beefy – a far cry from the muscled physique of an archetypal Frank Frazetta protagonist. Presumably he has a secret identify, but the film never reveals it, nor even address it; we simply assume he runs around in that silver mask all day, alternating between wrestling and crime-fighting. And as mentioned above, he has a real problem with prioritizing these two activities.
The production is a bit hit-and-miss. The sets and photography establish atmosphere worthy of a classic film, and some of the special effects work well enough (such as the simple lap dissolves to transform vampires into flaming heaps), but the flying bats are typical for the time – obvious props swung on wires. Also, the editing makes occasional missteps, such as having different scenes reuse the same closeup of Tandra eyeing her target from outside a window (you don’t even need to be an anal-retentive DVD-rewinder to notice this one).
Whatever its flaws, SANTO VS. LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO is seldom boring (except for the wrestling scenes). Fans of Mexican horror and/or wrestling consider this one of Santo’s best on-screen efforts, and even more general old-school monster movie aficionados should have a good time.
HOW TO WATCH
Long available in the U.S. only in a badly dubbed English-language version, SANTO VS. LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO can now be seen in its original Spanish-language version on Hulu Plus. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles (this is part of the new Hulu Latino programming, intended for Spanish-speaking audiences); fortunately, you can probably follow most of the plot if you took high-school Spanish. If your language skills are not up to par, do what I did: run the Hulu version in synch with one of the English-language versions on YouTube. There are no editorial differences between the two, so the run times are virtually the same.
Why not just watch the English-language version? Because the picture quality of the Spanish-language version is pristine, highlighting the atmospheric detail that is the film’s main strength. Also, as weird as it may seem, hearing the original Spanish voices in the background helps distract from poor quality of the English dubbing, for which the voice actors seemed most concerned with spitting the dialogue out in time with the the lip movements, not with giving a dramatic performance.
If you do not subscribe to Hulu Plus, you will not be able to view SANTO VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN through your Roku box on your widescreen high-def television. Fortunately, the film is also available for free viewing on your computer through Hulu.com, and it is on YouTube as well. Picture quality is not bad as long as you watch in small size on your computer; nevertheless, HuluPlus is the preferred method.
The sound-booth quality of the English dub, along with the faded, pockmarked picture quality, renders SAMSON VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN in terms that make it almost impossible to regard as anything more than a piece of junk, a campy artifact of a bygone age, worthy only of derision. Though the original Spanish cast were never going to win any awards, their dialogue delivery at least sounds appropriate and in-character; the superior soundtrack and image raise SANTO VS. LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO to a level of watchability that allows viewers to enjoy the strengths without being overwhelmed by the absurdities (which are enjoyable in their own way).
If you would rather watch the English-language SAMSON VS THE VAMPIRE WOMEN, you might as well check out the version that appeared on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, which is also available, free, on YouTube.
SANTO VS LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO (“Santo vs the Vampire Women,” 1962). Alternate titles: SANTO CONTRA LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO, SAMSON VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN. 89 minutes. Unrated. Black and white. Directed by Alfonso Corona Blake. Produced by Alberto Lopez. Written by Rafael Garcia Travesi; story by Antonio Orellana & Fernando Oses and Rafael Garcia Travesi; screenplay consultant, Alfonso Coronoa Blake. Cast: Santo, Lorena Velazquez, Maria Duval, Jaime Fernandez, Augusto Benedico, Xavier Loya, Ofelia Montesco, Fernando Oses, Guillermo Hernandez, Nathaneal Leon. Caernario Galindo, Ray Mendoza, Alejandro Cruz, Bobby Bonales.
SALEM, WGN America’s historical horror television series, comes across in its initial episodes as an unholy hybrid of THE CRUCIBLE and THE SCARLET LETTER, lacking the sophistication of either, but with just enough dramatic interest to hold attention. Moody and sinister, with eruptions of sex and gore (apparently obligatory on cable series these days), SALEM is effectively horrifying at times and occasionally compelling soap opera entertainment, if one can overlook the egregious liberties it takes with the historical record it pretends to depict. However, those disturbed by the show’s assault on the truth, which often plays like pandering to the fever dreams of the religious right, will find much to fuel their outrage.
As envisioned by creators and executive producers Brannona Braga (STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION) and Adam Simon (THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT), the Salem Witch Trials were not merely the product of superstition, ignorance, and Puritan fanaticism; there really were witches, seeking to get a toehold in the New World and make it their own. Religious ravings about a Satanic war for the soul of Salem turn out to be accurate, though the fanatics espousing the views are corrupt and vile in their own right. Meanwhile, the secret coven members, far from persecuted innocents, are devious conspirators, manipulating the witch hunts to advance their own agenda, using their powers to target victims who stand in their way.
With this “plague on both your houses” setup, there would be little rooting interest if not for the presence of John Alden (Shane West), a soldier return from war to find Salem in the midst of hysteria and hangings. Agnostic, at least initially, on the subject of witches, Alden is tagged as the good guy by virtue of a sensibility that sounds more appropriate to the 21st century than to 1692 Salem.
On the other side of the aisle is Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery), who was in love with Alden before he left for war. Since then, she aborted his unborn child with the aide of her Mephistophelean servant girl Tituba (Ashley Madekwe); in exchange for the rendered service, Mary has surrendered her soul and now presides as the head of the coven. Also, she has married former nemesis George Sibley, who is now a mute and paralyzed wreck of a man, involuntarily allowing Mary to wield his considerable political power to her own ends.
SALEM’s dramatic tension flows from the relationship between Mary Sibley and John Alden, who still love each other but now find themselves antagonists (though Alden is initially unaware of this). Though eager to crush her enemies and see her coven take over Salem, Mary yearns for John and sometimes contorts her plans to avoid hurting him. Alden, meanwhile, seeks her help because of the power she wields, gradually realizing that her intervention is counter-productive.
Also on hand is witch hunter Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel), who resolutely believes in his purpose, though occasionally he doubts whether those he has hanged were truly guilty. In a sense, Mather and Mary are the true warring parties in SALEM, with Alden caught in the middle, at various times forming alliances with either of them as he tries to stop the rising hysteria.
The problem with SALEM lies in its confused point of view on the subject of witchcraft and witch-hunting. Witch-hunters, whom we should rightly regard as at least misguided, turn out to be correct in their basic belief, even if their methods are faulty. The witches are even worse, if not in an absolute moral sense, then at least in their ability to do harm.
To some extent we are supposed to sympathize with Mary Sibley, because she was driven to her fateful decision by the patriarchal social order that would have condemned her, had she brought her unwed pregnancy to term. We can almost see witchcraft as the shadowy alter ego to the Puritanism of the Salem elders – an outgrowth they have unwittingly brought into existence by their belief in it. Unfortunately, the existence of Tituba and other witches, even before Mary went to the Dark Side, undermines this interpretation, validating the fears of the Puritans.
Typical for contemporary horror, Evil is portrayed as a real, supernatural force, but there is no counteracting supernatural force for Good. (As Chris MacNeil noted in THE EXORCIST, it seems the Devil keeps a higher profile.) SALEM is somewhat cagey about the exact nature of the sorcery on display; some of it could be hypnosis or hallucinations, perhaps psychic power erroneously designated as Satanic. Whatever the source, it is definitely used as Black Magic, resulting in the deaths of innocent victims.
There is an unpleasantly reactionary attitude in the show’s depiction of “Evil,” which often seems to be associated with lesbian sexuality. Mary’s abortion, with Tituba rubbing oil on her skin and lips, plays out with orgasmic intensity; shots and staging often emphasize the intimacy between the two women, and a later ritual involves a large black phallus. Charitably, one might assume that these images are intended to tweak viewer sensibility, to make us identify with the sensuous females as opposed to the uptight males running Salem. More likely, they included as gratuitous exploitation, serving to excite prurient interest while simultaneous conforming to a conservative view that non-traditional gender roles lead inevitably to damnation.
Unlike Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which understood both the benefits and harm in Puritanism, SALEM is one-dimensional in its depiction. Even the occasional apparent voice of reason turns out to be a hypocrite or, worse, an agent of the Devil. The result pushes the show in the exact opposite direction of Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE, which sought to condemn witch-hunting hysteria. Here, the message seems to be: all those not for us are against us, and someone expressing an interest in finding the middle ground is probably an enemy in sheep’s clothing.
Fortunately, the show manages to maintain interest thanks to its depiction of innocents caught in the crossfire. The situation is not dissimilar from that seen in Hammer Films’ TWINS OF EVIL (1971), which also showcased religious fanatics in a spiritual war with genuine supernatural evil. That film resolved its dilemma thanks to an agnostic but educated protagonist, who managed to find a middle ground that exonerated the innocent while dispatching the guilty. John Alden has been set up in a similar role. Hopefully, as the show progresses, he can rise to the occasion and find some way out of the sordid sorcery and morbid melodrama plaguing SALEM.
SALEM (WGN America, debut on April 20, 2014). Created by Executive Producers Adam Simon and Brannon Braga. Cast: Joanet Montgomery, Shane West, Seth Gabel, Tamzin Merchant, Ashley Madekwe, Elise Eberle, Xander Berkeley, Iddo Goldberg, Stephen Lang.