It’s amazing some researchers haven’t figured out a way of determining personalities based on what aspect of Frank Oz’s career one is impressed with. Of course there’s Yoda — Frank voiced the beloved, and powerful, Jedi master, operated the puppet for most of the STAR WARS films, and for many helped form the heart and soul of the franchise. For me, it’s both the time he spent with Jim Henson — developing characters such as Miss Piggy and Grover and innovating puppetry in that surprisingly visionary company — and his work in the director’s chair for LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, taking the musical stage adaptation of the Roger Corman’s dark comedy and creating a rich and wondrous, albeit murderous, film world. I was able to talk with Oz on the occasion of the Blu-ray release of the film, which restores the original, apocalyptic Don’t Feed the Plants finale that was cut from the theatrical release. We also got to talk Muppets, STAR WARS, and the mysterious allure of sequel rumors. Click on the player to hear the show.
1960 was a blood-red year for the vampire’s kith and kin, with over a half-dozen variations on the theme. There is an international flavor to these sanguine offerings, with blood-drinkers prowling crypts in England, France, Mexico, and Italy; at least one is ensconced inauspiciously in an American flower shop. Some are old-school nosferatu of the Gothic horror variety; others have a decidedly sexier style than seen in classic horror films of earlier eras; one or two are mutant science fiction off-shoots. Some are ugly; others are handsome or beautiful. Some favor old-fashioned black-and-white photography, emphasizing the spooky atmosphere of the crypt and cemetery; others are bold and beautiful in modern color. One or two are classics; others are camp; some might be dismissed as Euro-trash (or celebrated for their daring sexiness, depending on the critic). In short, there such a rich diversity of undead revenants and blood-drinking monsters that it is hard to generalize; you have to take each on on its own terms. Here then is a Photographic Retrospective of the Vampires of 1960.
ATOM AGE VAMPIRE (Seddok, l’erede di Satana)
Our first vampire title (alphabetically speaking) is more of Jekyll-and-Hyde mad scientist film, in which “vampirism” is of the most figurative sort: stealing glands of young victims in order to rejuvenate the beauty of a disfigured woman is a sort of modern variation on draining the life essence. The original Italian title is less misleading, translating roughly as “Seddok, the Heir of Satan.”
BLACK SUNDAY (a.k.a. THE MASK OF SATAN)
Italian director Mario Bava’s atmospheric masterpiece of black-and-white horror features two magnificent vampires: Barbara Steele as Princess Asa and Arturo Dominici as Ygor Yavutich (four if you count two of their victims who return from the dead). Burned alive as witches, Asa and Yavutich return from the grave to drain the blood and/or life force of Asa’s descendants. The result is one of the great horror films of all time.
BLOOD AND ROSES (Et Mourir de Plasir [“To Die with Pleasure”])
Next up is French filmmaker Roger Vadim’s ambiguous adaptation of Carmilla, the excellent Victorian vampire novel by J. Sheridan LeFanue. Vadim modernizes the setting and presents a dreamlike atmosphere that leaves the question of vampirism open to debate, yet the film contains memorable imagery that should satisfy fans of the undead.
THE BRIDES OF DRACULA
Hammer Films’ first sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA suffers from the absence of Christopher Lee as the Count, but there is an interesting alternative in the form of David Peel as a blond, boyish vampire named Baron Meinster. He also has some lovely brides to keep him company. This English film is one of the best of its kind, even if there is no Dracula in it.
THE CURSE OF NOSTRADAMUS
This interesting Mexican variation on the vampire motif presents the son of the famous oracular prophet, who rises from the grave intent on establishing a cult devoted to magic and the supernatural. So confident is he of his powers that he appears to a renowned scientist and declares his intention of killing thirteen victims, even naming the time and place, just to show how unstoppable he is. German Robles makes a fine, aristocratic vampire, even if bad dubbing undermines the effectiveness for English-speaking viewers.
THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS
Before graduating to eating body parts and/or whole human, Audrey the plant begins by drinking the willingly offered blood of Seymour Krelboin, the goofy would-be botanist who created her. Producer-director Roger Corman’s campy classic, written by Charles B. Griffith, is not quite as funny as intended, but it is so weird it has to be seen to believed.
THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE (L’Ultima Preda Del Vampire [“The Last Prey of the Vampire”])
Another Italian entry in the vampire genre, this one offers a sexier slant on the old blood-suckers.
THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA (a.k.a. L’amanti del Vampiro [“The Vampire’s Lover])
This off-beat Italian entry in the vampire sweepstakes is tame on its own terms, but it offers some of the first suggestions of the more explicitly sexual approaches to the theme that will emerge later in Continental vampire films (see THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE, above). Along with a couple of fetching female vamps, the film also features one of the ugliest undead this side of NOSFERATU’s Graf Orlock.
THE WORLD OF THE VAMPIRES (El Mundo de los Vamiros)
This eccentric Mexican vampire film features vampires that, for some reason, can be disabled by particular sound waves, leading to a dubious conclusion in which the villain is defeated by someone playing a tune on a pipe organ. Gotta give ’em credit for off-the-wall originality, if nothing else.
THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is an eccentric horror-comedy whose very premise almost single-handedly guarantees cult status: it’s about a goofy guy who becomes a homicidal outlaw after accidentally cross-breeding a carnivorous plant that not only craves humans for food but also talks, demanding in a ridiculously insistent voice: “Feed me! Feed meeeeeeee.”). The concept is so crazy that you have to laugh – in disbelief, if nothing else. Whether the film fully lives up to its reputation is another matter, but there is no doubt that THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS has earned its small place in cult movie history.
My own reactions to the film have waxed and waned over the years. As a young fan of classic horror movies, particularly those from Universal Pictures, I saw THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS as just another bad monster movie that showed up on the local Creature Features show instead of something good like like DRACULA (1931) or FRANKENSTEIN (1931). THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS looked cheap to me; the talking plant was not scary; and the ending was too abrupt, leaving me with a “is that all?” feeling.
In grade school, I first realized I had missed the joke: after a weekend airing of the film, I returned to class on Monday and heard some other student talking about “the funniest movie I have ever seen.” He seemed particularly amused by the voice of the talking plant, whose plaintive demands of “Feed me!” he did his best to imitate for the rest of the class. The next time the film aired, I watched again, thinking of it as a comedy, and indeed found myself laughing.
Later, as I started reading books and magazines about films, horror films in particular, I came across the hitherto alien concept of camp – of enjoying a bad movie by laughing at it. I think it started to occur to me that films like THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS beat audiences to the punch, deliberately embracing their low-budget origins and inviting viewers to giggle at their shoddy production values.
I put the theory to the test during various television airings over the years and eventually at theatrical screening on the campus of the University of Southern California, during a weekend long festival of horror, fantasy, and science fiction films. The weird humor of the film went over even better with an appreciative audience,* and there was the additional bonus of an after-screening panel with the cast and crew.
Mostly what I remember from the question-and-answer session is producer-director Roger Corman explaining that the voice of Audrey, the talking plant, was delivered by screenwriter Charles B. Griffith on set; Corman had planned to loop in his own voice during post-production but then decided to save a buck by leaving in the sound recorded live. Also, actress Jackie Joseph (who played Audrey, the woman after whom the plant is named) expressed her amazement at the film’s longevity, noting that from time to time she would hear people quoting the talking plant, most recently at a fast-food drive-in, where she approached a man she heard calling out, “Feed me!” as he waited impatiently for his food to be delivered. His awestruck response to seeing Joseph in person was: “You – you were in…that movie!”
That long-ago screening – a 20th anniversary screening, if memory serves, back in 1980 – was probably the pinnacle of my enjoyment of THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. Since then, the humor has begun to wear a little thin, especially because much of it is too far broad when it should be droll and deadpan. Except for a couple of cops doing a dead-on DRAGNET impersonation, the performances tend to be very broad, almost to the point of elbowing you in the ribs. Fortunately, the film is so off-the-wall and eager to please that you have to sort of like it – you simply can’t totally knock a film that so joyfully embraces its own absurdity.
Audrey the carnivorous carnation is still fun, but the real satirical highlight of THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is her half-witted creator, Seymour Krelboin, played with pathetic sincerity by Jonathan Haze. Seymour is a nobody who wants to be somebody; he gets his wish when Audrey attracts crowds of paying customers to Mushnik’s flower shop, but fames comes with a price that must be paid in blood. As Audrey grows bigger and hungrier, Seymour must satisfy the plant’s demands more food, leading him – reluctantly and mostly accidentally – to kill a handful of victims.
The idea of the unassuming schnook going rogue is priceless comedy gold, but it is essentially a retread of Corman’s earlier production, BUCKET OF BLOOD, also scripted by Charles B. Griffith. Although LITTLE SHOP has gained greater fame because of its talking plant (leading to an off-Broadway musical that was turned into a 1986 movie), it is the lesser of the two films; its skid-row setting (indicative of the poverty row production values) offers some comic potential, but it is no match for the Beatnik coffee house of BUCKET OF BLOOD.
Still, THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS has a few good things going for it, like the character of Burson Fouch, who casually purchases flowers not to look at them but to eat them; Dick Miller’s matter of fact approach to the character’s eccentricity hits just the right note. (Miller was offered the lead role but turned it down because it was too much like the lead role he had just played in BUCKET OF BLOOD.) There is also a good bit wherein store owner Gravis Mushnick (Mel Welles), who suspects the truth about Audrey, stays late to prevent the plant from eating anyone else – only to wind up saving his own neck by fooling an armed robber into searching for hidden loot inside the maw of the killer vegetable. And of course there is the memorable cameo by a young Jack Nicholson, as a masochist who comes to the dentist in search of pain – not knowing the Krellboin has killed the dentist and taken his place.
Of course, you cannot discuss THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS without discussing the legend of its creation. This little low-budget film was pumped out at high-speed even by the lightening-paced standards of Corman, who was known for knocking off an entire film in a week; reputedly, the shooting for THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS was completed within two days. Like many legends, this one is not completely true, although there is an element of truth to it. The interior scenes were apparently shot in the stated time; however, several exterior scenes were shot later, under the direction of screenwriter Griffiths.
(In a retrospective article on the making of the film, which appeared in an issue of Cinefantastique magazine devoted to the 1986 remake, Dennis Fischer credits Griffith with being the unsung genius behind THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS; though Griffith deserves credit for the screenplay, the exterior footage he directed is mostly lacking in interest, especially a lackluster attempt at a slapstick chase near the end, with Krellboin outrunning Detectives Fink and Stoolie. The one exception is Krellboin’s accidental killing of a drunk, who stumbles in front of a train after being hit in the head by a rock intended to hit an empty bottle; there is something both ghastly and darkly amusing about the sudden shocking realization that Seymour has become a killer. Of course, it all works out conveniently, because he can dispose of the evidence by feeding the body parts to Audrey.)
I’m not sure I will be revisiting THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS often in the future (I’m more likely to review BUCKET OF BLOOD). But it continues to hold a fond place in my heart. The broad caricatures (Seymour’s drunken mother, the dentist who challenges Seymour to a duel with his drill) will probably elicit more groan than chuckles from modern audiences. Nevertheless, the low-budget ambiance adds its own vitality to the film, which I think of as the cinematic equivalent of a garage band: it’s not up to the professional standards we usually expect from our entertainment, but it’s just so much fun to see so much raw enthusiasm reach the screen in a form unpasteurized by the slick and often soulless stylings seen in many big-budget productions. In a sense, THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS creates its own standards; you can take ’em or leave ’em, but you have to give the film at least a small measure of respect on its own terms.
THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960). Produced and directed by Roger Corman; additional scenes directed by Charles B. Griffith. Written by Charles B. Griffith. Cast: Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, Dick Miller, Myrtle Vail, Tammy Windsor, Toby Michaels. Leola Wendorff, Lynn Storey, Wally Campo, Jack Warford, Meri Welles, John Herman Shaner, Jack Nicholson. FOOTNOTE:
Note everyone was appreciative at the screening. Some of the crew responsible for SHOGUN ASSASSIN, the re-edited and dubbed version of the Japanese Lone Wolf movies that was also screening at the fest, were nothing but contemptuous of THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS’s camp humor. Considering that their big achievement was to take a great Japanese original, cut out all the plot, leave in all the violence, and add a new soundtrack (with bad synth music, unnecessary narration, and lame attempts at deadpan camp), you would think they would act a bit less high and mighty.
1960. The beginning of a turbulent decade: civil rights, riots, sit-ins. On screen, however – at least as far as mainstream Hollywood is concerned, it is still business as usual, with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handing out an unprecedented number of Oscar to the overblown historical epic, BEN-HUR. If you are searching cinema for hints of the societal tensions that will explode over the course of the next few years, you will have to look elsewhere, to genres that allow buried fears to surface in disguised forms. You have to look to cinefantastique.
What did 1960 have to offer in terms of horror, fantasy, and science fiction films? Essentially, the year was part of a transitional period. Science fiction, which had dominated genre film-making throughout most of the 1950s – with fears of communism disguised as enlarged insects, other-worldly creatures, and various atomic mutations and monsters – waned toward the end of the decade, replaced by a resurrected horror genre, which focused on visceral, bodily fears. While England’s Hammer Films, who had revived the Gothic tradition with new incarnations of Dracula and Frankenstein, continued their successful streak, filmmakers in America and Italy sought to cash in on their success. Japan – long a supplier of giant monsters – showed that they could scale their terrors down to size. Horror was becoming international in scope. But unlike the classic horror of yesteryear, the new films hit closer to home, with stories hinting that the bastions of normality, far from being impervious strongholds, might, in fact, be the source of horror.
PSYCHO and HOUSE OF USHER – even BLACK SUNDAY, to some extent – trace the etiology of terror back to the family, once a sacrosanct institution. Playing to the target teen audience, USHER’s depiction of horror is closely aligned with age: the white-haired Roderick (Vincent Price) stands between the film’s two young lovers. Though technically the brother of Madeline Usher, he exhibits all the signs of parental authority, and one of the illicit thrills of the film is seeing the old authority figure go down in flames along with his house.
Also, in 1960 it is hard to identify the “monster” by mere looks; now he – or she – may walk among us, unnoticed until it is too late. Norman Bates seems to be a nice, shy boy. PEEPING TOM’s Mark Lewis is likewise likable. The new Mr. Hyde, in Hammer Films’ version of the familiar tale, is a handsome bon vivant, not a deformed maniac. The bottom line is this: the safety zone is smaller, if it exists at all; watching the skies for alien invaders is pointless, when the attack is more likely to come from within one’s own neighborhood or household, perhaps even one’s own self.
Although 1960 saw horror exploding on screens around the world, science fiction and fantasy were not entirely absent; they continued, sometimes offering an optimistic counterpoint, sometimes including monsters menacing enough to populate a full-blown horror film. Producer George Pal took us into a future populated by subterranean Morlocks. Stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen, who had switched from science fiction (EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS) to fantasy (THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD) sent Gulliver to Lilliput. The great Ingmar Bergman took time out from his more serious work to send Don Juan back to Earth from Hell.
Another sign of the times was the trend toward color photography. The low-budget black-and-white science fiction – which had once proliferated like pod people in a green house – withered away to almost nothing. Not every genre film had a hefty budget, but even modest productions like HOUSE OF USHER and DINOSAURUS made the effort to look lavish and glossy, thanks to widescreen and/or color – and if not more lavish, then at least more lurid, thanks to the occasional flash of blood, which registered with much greater impact when viewers could see the deep crimson dripping on the screen.
Exactly how many horror, fantasy, and science fiction films were released in 1960? That depends on how you define the genres, and whether you include foreign titles that might not have reached our shores until later. Below we do our best to round up the relevant titles. Read on to get a taste of what the genre had to offer fifty years ago…
-1960 SCIENCE FICTION FILMS-
THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN. The career of the talented Edgar G. Ulmer (1934’s THE BLACK CAT) seemed on a downhill slide with this low-budget effort, scripted by Jack Lewis, about a mad scientist who intends to use an invisibility formula to create an army of invisible zombies. ATOMIC WAR BRIDE. This 84-minute Yugoslavian film (known as Rat in its native land) is an alleged satire on the insanity of nuclear warfare. BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN (Nebo zovyot). Russian film about a race to land the first rocket ship on Mars. Directed by Mikhail Karzhukov and Sleksandr Kozyr, from a script Karzhukov co-wrote with Yevgeni Pomeschchikov and Aleksei Sazanov. Francis Ford Coppola (working under the pseudonym Thomas Colchart) re-edited the film and shot new footage for the U.S. release. BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER. Another film from director Edgar G. Ulmer, this one from a script by Arthur C. Pierce, about a test pilot who inadvertently rockets into a future time, when the ruler wants him to procreate because the male population has gone sterile. THE CAPE CANAVERAL MONSTERS. Phil Tucker, producer of the infamous ROBOT MONSTER, wrote and directed this dismal little ditty, a 69-minute stinker about aliens from outer space who possess the bodies of a man and a woman who died in a car accident. The disembodied aliens are visualized as simple white circles of animation floating across a black screen, an effect reprised at the end to suggest the defeated extraterrestrials will be back for more mayhem – a fate that, fortunately cinema audiences were spared. DINOSAURUS. This sci-fi effort from the team that gave us THE BLOB (1958) is built around a great premise for a cool action-thriller: an island resort is menaced by a pair of prehistoric reptiles accidentally dredged up from the harbor; the brontosaurus turns out to be friendly enough, but the Tyrannosaurus Rex is hungry! The isolated setting forces the characters to defend themselves without help from the army or even much in the way of firepower; they have to rely on whatever is available, leading to a clever confrontation between the Rex and a steam shovel at the climax. The script throws in a cave man as well, who is used mostly for comic relief. In general, the writing, directing, and acting are competent but not outstanding. The stop-motion miniature dinosaur effects may amuse fans for the technique, but only very young viewers will be convinced by them. All in all, this is a pleasant popcorn experience, but it is easy to imagine a better film being made from the central idea. NOTE: Producer Jack H. Harris had hoped that this would be his “forever movie,” the one that lasted in people’s imaginations, because it had more lavish production values than THE BLOB, and it was distributed by a major studio. Although the film turned a profit, it did not become a classic; meanwhile, memories of THE BLOB live on. THE HUMAN VAPOR. Director Ishiro Honda and special effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya, the team behind such Toho productions as GODZILLA and RODAN, focus on a human-sized monster for a change: a librarian (Yoshio Tsuchiya) who gains the ability, courtesy of a scientific experiment, to turn himself into a vapor. Cross-breeding science fiction with cop-and-robbers, the script by Takeshi Kimura has the titular human vapor use his abilities to rob banks. The original Japanese titles literally translates at “First Gas Person.” THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH. Odd-ball effort from producer-director Roger Corman, starring Betsy Jones-Moreland, Antony Carbone, and Robert Towne (who wrote the script) as the last three people left alive on Earth, leading to the ultimate love triangle as the two men vie for the affections of the sole remaining woman. Although shot in color and widescreen, this little movie is a low-budget affair, too slowly paced (in spite of its 71-minute running time) to stand up even as a solid cult film; fortunately, it does have a few things going for it, such as the effective depiction of a depopulated world, realized on location in Puerto Rico with streets full of empty cars abandoned in the middle of the road. The ending even works up a little genuine interest, refusing to cop out with a happy resolution. THE LEECH WOMAN. This black-and-white B-movie from Universal Pictures is too cheap and shoddy to be really good, but like THE WASP WOMAN (see below), it offers some interesting insights on the 1960 male attitudes toward women and aging. It’s about some anthropologists who accompany an old crone back to her village in the jungle, where she reveals a secret that restores her youth; the catch is that the process requires a human victim to work. June Talbot (Coleen Gray) appropriates the secret for her own personal use, more than wiling to have men pay the price for extending her youthful appearance indefinitely. Although June is clearly the villain, the film offers her some measure of sympathy: her first victim is a two-timer who gets what he deserves, and the dialogue explicitly notes the double standards that apply to men and women as they grow older (men earn greater respect, while women are cast aside as worn out and useless). THE LOST WORLD. Irwin Allen’s remake of the 1925 silent classic substitutes live-action lizards for stop-motion dinosaurs. There is a decently sweaty atmosphere to the jungle scenes as Professor Challenger (Claude Rains) leads a team in search of surviving prehistoric reptiles. Michael Rennie (THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL), Jill St. John (DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER), and David Hedison (THE FLY) fill out the cast, but the humans cannot make up for the fact that we don’t get to see convincing dinosaurs. Charles Bennet wrote the script, based on the fine adventure novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. MAN IN THE MOON. This British comedy, directed by Basil Deardon from a screenplay by Bryan Forbes and Michale Relph, stars Kenneth Moore as a man chosen to be the first to make a flight to the moon. The premise is that Moore’s character is a professional medical test subject who has proven to be highly resistant to disease, so scientists preparing a moon mission decide to use him as a guinea pig, sending him to the moon before any real astronauts go. SHIP OF MONSTERS. 81-minute black-and-white Mexican film about women from Venus who coming looking for male breeding stock. When the hero refuses to comply, the Venusians unleash monsters. The ploy does not work, and they return home, defeated. THE SILENT STAR (Der Schweigende Stern). Based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem (SOLARIS), this German-Polish film from DEFA (East Germany’s state-run Deutsche Filmaktiengesellschaft) was intended as serious science fiction effort, with a high-class production values, including color, widescreen, and four-track stereo. However, when it reached American shores in 1962 as FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS, the English-dubbed, re-edited version was unimpressive indeed, providing well-deserved fodder for an episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Fortunately, the original version is now available on DVD and VOD. It’s still not great, but it is better. SPACE MEN (a.k.a. ASSIGNMENT: OUTER SPACE). Italian film directed by Antonio Margheriti (CASTLE OF BLOOD), about a reporter, assigned to a beat aboard a space station, who must disable the photon generators of an errant space ship, the radiation from which is threatening Earth. THE TIME MACHINE. George Pal, who had produced THE WAR OF THE WORLDS in 1953, returns with another adaptation of H.G. Wells, and this time Pal steps into the director’s chair. The story has time traveler Rod Taylor heading to the future, when society has been divided into two segments: one weak and passive, living on the surface; the other strong and cannibalistic, living underground. Wells’ original was a sort of satiric imagination of the direction in which society might be evolving: it’s the bourgeoisie and proletariat taken to extremes; Pal substitutes the idea that things got this way because of nuclear war. This was quite a lavish production for its time; although some of the special effects trickery is visible at the seams, the work is colorful and engaging enough so that you want to forgive the flaws. Overall, this is an enjoyable effort, though not quite as astounding as WAR OF THE WORLDS. VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. Excellent, suspenseful science fiction film about the misadventures of a small English town, where the residents wake up after a mysterious bout of narcolepsy, and nine months later the women give birth to children with strange powers (including Martin Stephens of THE INNOCENTS). The always entertaining George Sanders plays the man who first tries to teach the children (who have a nasty habit of using their telepathic powers to bump off those who offend them) and later tries to destroy them, putting his own life at risk. VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET. Jerry Lewis stars in this film version of the Gore Vidal Broadway play (which had made its debut as a television drama). Lewis plays an alien who comes to Earth and falls in love. Unfortunately, along with love, come less pleasant emotions, which may not be worth the price. Vidal’s original was a satire about an alien who wanted to study the Civil War; when he arrives too late – in the 20th century – he decides to start a new war. THE WASP WOMAN. This little black-and-white movie, produced and directed by Roger Corman, casts the striking Susan Cabot as Janice, head of a large cosmetics firm, who resorts to wasp enzymes in order to arrest the aging process. The treatment works; unfortunately, it also morphs her into the titular Wasp Woman from time to time. It is hard to take this thread-bare production seriously; its monster is obviously a riff on THE FLY (1958), but the makeup and production values are no real competition for the earlier film. Still, THE WASP WOMAN retains a flash of interest. It’s a male, sexist depiction of how beautiful women handle aging, going to such desperate lengths that they turn themselves into monsters. ALSO OF NOTE: In order to get the running time up to the minimum length needed for a television sale, Jack Hill added a prologue sequence. (NOTE: THE WASP WOMAN was shot in 1959, and some sources list it as having been released in October of that year; others list the release date as February 12, 1960.) WORLD WAR II BREAKS OUT (Dai-sanji sekai taisen: Yonju-ichi jikan no kyofu). This Japanese film from writer-director Shigeaki Hidaka (with a directorial assist from William Ross) portrays the tragic consequences for Japan when a nuclear war erupts between the USA and the Soviet bloc.
-1960 FANTASY FILMS-
THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER. The men behind THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1957) – producer Charles H. Schneer, actor Kerwin Matthews, and (most importantly) special effects supervisor Ray Harryhausen – reteamed for this film version of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Although much of the Swiftian satire is lost in the screenplay by Arthur A. Ross and director Jack Sher, the film emerges as another colorful showcase for Harryhausen’s visual effects. Without much in the way of monsters to animate, Harryhausen focuses on the miniature and composite effects necessary to make Matthews look either larger or smaller than everyone else (depending on which of the three worlds he is in at the time). The result is an adequately entertaining fantasy for children. Swift fans will probably prefer the original novel. Harryhausen fans will probably prefer anything with more monsters. THE DEVIL’S EYE. Writer-director Ingmar Bergman’s fantasy-comedy is based around the folk saying that a woman’s virtue is like a stye in the Devil’s Eye. In this case, Satan (Stig Jarrel) sends Don Juan (Jarl Kulle) up from hell in order to seduce a virtuous vicar’s daughter (Bibi Andersson). Bergman’s comedies (such as SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT) are not so much “funny” as they are light-hearted counterpoints to his more serious work. Unfortunately, this film has never been released on Region 1 DVD. FAUST. A German film version of Goethe’s play, starring Will Quadflieg as Dr. Faust and Gustaf Grundgens as Mephistopholes. Unavailable on Region 1 DVD, the color, 128-minute film has a decent rating on IMDB. GOLIATH AND THE DRAGON (La vendetta di Ercole [“The Vendetta of Hercules”]). This is one of many Italian beefcake epics from the era; many were simply muscle-men movies, but others included fantasy elements, often borrowed from Greek mythology. In this film, Goliath/Hercules (Mark Forest) battles giant bats, a three-headed dog, and a dragon. Broderick Crawford (from the 1941 version of THE BLACK CAT and, later, television’s HIGHWAY PATROL) provides a little American name value as King Eurystheus. LA TESTAMENT D’OPHEE. The last film from the highly regarded surrealistic filmmaker Jean Cocteau (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) portrays an 18th century poet who travels through time seeking divine inspiration. THE WILD BEAST OF CRETE. Inspired by Greek mythology, this Italian peplum film is about an evil ruler in Crete, who keeps the dangerous man-monster hybrid the Minotaur at bay by sacrificing island virgins. THE WIZARD OF BAGHDAD. Dick Shawn and Diane Baker star in this comedy spin on THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD, written by Jesse Lasky Jr. and directed by George Sherman.
-1960 HORROR FILMS-
13 GHOSTS. Gimmicky William Castle film, written by Robb White, for which audience members were given special tinted glasses that allowed them to see the ghosts on screen. ATOM AGE VAMPIRE. Italian rip-off of EYES WITHOUT A FACE (see below), with a mad doctor who is able to turn himself into a monster, so that he can abduct women in order to use their skin to restore the face of his disfigured daughter. THE AVENGER. Germanpsycho-thriller set in England, about a killer who decapitates his victims and sends the heads through the mail. Based on an Edgar Wallace novel. BLACK SUNDAY. Widely regarded by fans as a genre masterpiece, BLACK SUNDAY is a magnificent work of black-and-white horror, filled with wonderfully atmospheric effects and punctuated by moments of brutality quite grizzly for their time. Also known as “The Mask of Satan,” ”Mask of the Demon,” or “Revenge of the Vampire” (depending on the country of release), the film simultaneously harkins back to the Universal classics of the 1930s and emulates the then-contemporary verve and dynamism of Hammer Films productions like HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). The result is a unique piece of Gothic visual poetry that retains its power to thrill and entertain with all the tenacious vivacity of its centuries-dead vampire-witch, who refuses to lie quietly in her grave. This marks the official directorial debut of cinematographer Mario Bava, who would craft several excellent horror and science fiction films over the course of the next two decades. BLOOD AND ROSES. French director Roger Vadim’s adaptation of J. Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla has its defenders, but the Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror faults it for “stilted performances…bathetic dialogue, and direction too prosaic to achieve the necessary intensity.” THE BRIDES OF DRACULA. This is Hammer Films’ first sequel to their 1958 classic, HORROR OF DRACULA. Made at the height of the studio’s success, BRIDES OF DRACULA features the familiar elements (beautiful color cinematography, lavish sets, solid writing, strong performances), making this a worthy heir to its predecessor. However, it is perhaps most notable for the obvious absence of the king of vampires, Count Dracula; instead, we get a blond, youthful vampire named Baron Meinster (David Peel). Directed with assurance by Terence Fisher, BRIDES is lavish and beautiful, filled with interesting ideas and memorable scenes. In the end, however, this sequel cannot surmount the absence of Count Dracula. Having dispatched the Vampire King in the previous film, Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is the Gothic equivalent of the world’s heavyweight champ, and Baron Meinster is a comparative light-weight, making his defeat feel like a foregone conclusion from the very beginning. CIRCUS OF HORRORS. Anton Diffring gives a fine performance in this lurid film directed by Sidney Hayers, from a script by George Baxt about a crooked plastic surgeon who evades the police by assuming a new identity as the proprietor of a travelling circus – which soon becomes famous (or infamous) for a series of tragic accidents, which seem only to increase tickets sales. Besides the visceral kick of trapeze artists falling to their deaths, or lion tamers mauled by the big cats, the film gets its biggest charge from Diffring’s character – essentially a tempermental artist who fashions his female patients to suit his classical ideas of beauty, and then destroys them when no longer satisfied with his own results. Not exactly reputable, but fascinating to watch. Donald Pleasence (YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) appears early on, as the previous circus owner, mauled to death in a drunken stupor by his favorite performing bear. CITYOF THE DEAD (a.k.a. HORROR HOTEL). This excellent spookfest – about student who gets more than she bargained for when she goes to a small New England town to do research on belief in witches – stops just short of being one of the all-time great horror films. It is drenched in black-and-white atmosphere, and things that should be wrong actually end up helping: the budget-dictated lack of exteriors location shooting, plus the English actors trying to sound American, combine to create a limbo-like feeling, as if the film is set in its own weird little universe. The only drawback is that director Moxie lays it on so thick that sometimes you have to giggle. Fortunately, he redeems the misstep with the wonderful finale – one of the greatest endings you will ever see in a horror film. CREATURES OF THE WALKING DEAD. A mostly forgotten Mexican horror film about a mad doctor’s great grandson, who inherits the family castle and revives his ancestor. THE CURSE OF NOSTRADAMUS. Entertaining opening salvo in Mexico’s series of films about the vampiric son of the famous prophet. Nostradamus fils (Germain Robles) is as much super-villain as vampire, revealing his existence to a professor and challenging him to prevent a series of 13 murders that blood-sucker proposes to commit (all of this is to prove that the powers of darkness and the supernatural are far stronger than those of modern science). The clever concept is somewhat marred by bad dubbing in the U.S. versions, but the film is richly atmospheric, with nice Gothic sets benefiting from some fine photography, and Robles is impressive in the title role. Three sequels followed. THE CURSE OF THE DOLL PEOPLE. Mexican horror film on the voodoo theme. DOCTOR BLOOD’S COFFIN. A surgeon exhume the body of his receptionist’s husband and attempts to implant a living heart. The wonderful Hazel Court is the receptionist – perhaps the only point of interest to this obscure flick. EYES WITHOUT A FACE (Les Yeux sans Visage, 1960). This brilliant film from director Georges Franju is a compelling and clinically brilliant combination of French art film and shock horror. The plot reads like little more than conventional B-movie schlock: Doctor Genessier, driven by guilt for disfiguring his daughter in a car accident, is the archetypal mad scientist who will stop at nothing to restore her face – even murder. What raises the film to the level of a masterpiece is the thorough conviction with which the story is treated, at all levels: the performances, direction, photography, and art direction – all combine to create a world in which fragile, poetic beauty is periodically shattered by clinical horror. The juxtaposition of the contrasting imagery is, in some miraculous fashion, entirely seamless, all part and parcel of the same picture, never feeling gratuitously grafted on. The result is not merely frightening but also genuinely disturbing – and thoroughly engrossing from start to finish. This is the first “art” horror film, and it’s cross-over appeal between the art house and the grindhouse should not be overestimated. THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS. Black-and-white British horror movie, written and directed by John Gilling (THE REPTILE, PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, THE GORGON), based on the true-life story of Burke and Hare. Peter Cushing stars as Dr. Knox, the surgeon-teacher who pays the grave robbers to provide corpses for his anatomy students. Donald Pleasence co-stars. THE HANDS OF ORLAC. Mel Ferrer stars in this film, one of several adaptations of the Maurice Renard novel about a pianist who loses his hands in an accident and has the hands of a murderer grafted on in their place. Christopher Lee co-stars. HOUSEOF USHER. With this thick slice of atmospheric horror, producer-director Roger Corman (mentioned only a few paragraphs ago in reference to THE WASP WOMAN) finally got a chance to prove that he could handle a relatively lavish and respectable film. Though still working on a small budget, Corman put together an excellent team that provided lots of bang for the buck, including cinematographer Floyd Crosby and production designer Daniel Haller. Based on Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the screenplay by Richard Matheson has a bit of trouble expanding the story to 80 minutes, but it manages to convey the gist of the original, while providing an excellent vehicle for star Vincent Price, who became this generation’s heir to the throne of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Corman and Price would go on to collaborate on numerous, even better Poe-based movies, but this is the Big Bang that started it all. HOUSE OF TERROR (La Casa Del Terror). Infamous patchwork Mexican film featuring comic star Tin Tan, which is known in the U.S. in a radically altered form as FACE OF THE SCREAMING WEREWOLF. Lon Chaney Jr. is on hand as resurrected mummy who turns out to be a werewolf. Wow! THE INVISIBLE CREATURE. Innocuous variation on the familiar story of a scheming adulterous couple out to kill the man’s wife. This twist is that their plot is foiled by the titular invisible creature, a poltergeist. Also known as THE HOUSE IN MARSH ROAD.
JIGOKU. That’s Japanese for “Hell” – in the Buddhist sense. Nobuo Nakagawa, who had previously helmed GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA (1959), directed and co-wrote this bizarre movie about damnation. Nakagawa is sort of the Japanese equivalent of Terence Fisher or Roger Corman, who were active in England and America, respectively, around the same time, and this is probably his most impressive effort. JIGOKU is divided into two sections. The first two-thirds focuses on a grad-school student led into temptation by his Mephistopholean friend, although in this case, temptation consists mostly of passively not doing the right thing, as opposed to actively performing evil actions. This portion of the film goes on a bit long, as we encounter numerous other characters performing actions that will send their souls into perdition; fortunately, it is redeemed by some eccentric stylistic flourishes: the tempter friend is never shown entering a scene; his arrival is heralded by off-screen sound effects (e.g., a train), and then the camera angle shifts to reveal his sudden presence. The film really takes off when everyone dies and goes to hell, at which point, Nakagawa more or less drops the usual tropes of narrative cinema in favor of aiming the horror straight out of the screen at the viewer. In what amounts to an early form of torture porn, we witnesses the various punishments inflicted on the damned (such as having limbs hacked off) for all eternity. Definitely a must-see. GHOST CAT OF OTAMA POND. Writer Yoshihiro Ishikawa, who had contributed to the script’s for Nakgawa’s GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA and BLACK CAT MANSION (1958), takes a place in the director’s chair for this Japanese horror effort, one of many “ghost cat” movies that were popular around this time. The fairly typical story is filled with intrigue and murder; as usual for this type of tale, the unjustly dead extract vengeance in the form of a cat. THE HAUNTED CASTLE. A German comedy in which the ghosts of a gang of thieves help a financially strapped Countess to overcome her money problems. THE HELL OF FRANKENSTEIN. Mexico’s stab at the Frankenstein story features a body snatcher who gains control of Frankenstein’s creation and uses it to carry out his revenge against those who imprisoned him. THE LAST VICTIM OF THE VAMPIRE. This is the second of two Italian vampires films starring Walter Brandi released in this year. The story has five show girls taking refuge in a castle, where Brandi plays both a friendly count and his vicious vampire ancestor. From available descriptions, it sounds as if the focus is less on horror than on the skin revealed by the showgirls. Also known as THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE.
THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. Roger Corman certainly deserves some recognition for being the only film-maker with three titles on this list. LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is a cult horror-comedy about a goofy guy who accidentally cross-breeds a carnivorous plant – which not only craves humans for food, but also talks. (“Feed me!”). Except for a couple of cops doing a dead-pan DRAGNET impersonation, the performances tend to be broad, and not everything works, but the film is so off-the-wall ithat you have to sort of like it anyway. Essentially, this is a remake of Corman’s earlier BUCKET OF BLOOD: both films, scripted by Charles B. Griffith, feature lonely losers who accidentally become murderers while seeking fame and success. Although LITTLE SHOP has gained greater fame because of its talking plant (leading to an off-Broadway musical that was turned into a 1986 movie), it is the lesser of the two films; its skid-row setting (indicative of the poverty row production values) offers some comic potential, but it is no match for the Beatnik coffee house of BUCKET. Still, you can’t totally knock a film that so joyfully embraces its own absurdity. THE MASTER OF HORROR. Argentinian anthology featuring episodes based on three Poe tales: “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN. Italian horror film, dedicated to Hammer director Terence Fisher, about a professor who drains blood from beautiful women so that he can inject it into his daughter. The victims are turned into statues, which attract the attention of an art student. MY FRIEND JEKYLL. Italian spoof, about a professor who transfers his personality into the body of a teacher at a girl’s school, where he tries to organize orgies with the students. PEEPING TOM. Michael Powell – a renowned director known for such wonderful films as STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN (a.k.a. A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, 1946) – more or less destroyed his career with this impressive study in voyeuristic horror. It’s about Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a crazy camera operator who has a strange compulsion: he likes to kill beautiful women while recording their deaths on film. Steeped in Freudian psychology, the screenplay by Leo Marks has several parallels with Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (both feature likable young men who turn out to be serial killers), but Powell’s film is in some way the more disturbing of the two, perhaps because Mark is more self-aware than Norman, lacking a split personality to keep the likable side of himself separated from his murderous impulses. There is also something about the obvious seriousness of intent that gets under you skin: if you go to PEEPING TOM just looking for a thrill ride, you may be disappointed, but if you allow yourself to be drawn into its world, it will creep you out.
PSYCHO. This low-budget black-and-white shocker is one of the great achievements in the horror genre, although it eschews the monsters and supernatural trappings usually associated with the genre at that time, in favor of a psychologically based approach to terror. As producer Howard Hawks had done with THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, producer-director Alfred Hitchcock took the familiar horror movie clichés and reused them in a new, contemporary setting. Although a realistic tale (loosely—very loosely—inspired by actual events), the approach to filming is full-blown Gothic. The lonely road and the rain the drives a victim to seek shelter where there is only danger—this is the stuff of classic horror movies, as is the spooky house, a fine 20th Century stand-in for Dracula’s castle. And of course, the lurking menace hiding in the attic or the basement—what more could you ask of a horror movie? THE SNAKE WOMAN. Another film from the team behind DR. BLOOD’S COFFIN, about a mad doctor whose injections inadvertently turn his daughter into a cobra. THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY. Although loosely based on the real-life Thuggee cult, whose members killed travelers during the British occupation of India, this Hammer Film earns its place in the horror genre thanks to the fine effort by director Terence Fisher, working from a script by David Zelag Goodman. The story has Captain Harry Lewis (Guy Rolfe) eager to investigate the disappearances of numerous locals. Although the film does not apologize for colonialism, it is smart enough to cast a cynical eye on Lewis’s superiors in the army, whodismiss his concerns, claiming that the Indian populace have a tendency to wander off simply because don’t have the same ties to family and home that the superior English do. Lewis’s pursuit of the truth loses him his job and puts his own life at risk, leading to a confrontation with the cult of Kali, in the form of a high priest played by George Pastel (THE MUMMY). Here, the film enters horror territory, played out in the form of a battle between Lewis’s pet mongoose and the cult’s cobra. In a startling moment, the life-or-death struggle becomes more than two animals fighting, taking on a larger symbolic significance as the creatures embody the opposing forces of light and dark, good and evil. Although not as famous as other Hammer films, this ranks very highly. THE TELL-TALE HEART. A short but fairly well regarded British feature-length treatment of Poe’s story, with a screenplay co-written by Brian Clemens (THE AVENGERS). TERROR OF THE TONGS. Like THE STRANGERLS OF BOMBAY, this is not exactly a horror film; it’s more of a crime melodrama, but the association with Hammer Films, the British House of Horrors, drags it into the horror genre. It’s about a British sea captain (Geoffrey Toone), who runs afoul of the “Red Dragon Tong” while in Hong Kong. Christopher Lee (who deserves credit for being the only actor to show up three times on this list, with appearances in CITY OF THE DEAD, HANDS OF ORLAC, and TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL) plays the Tong’s evil leader, Chung King (yes, he wears slant-eyed makeup). This is not one of Hammer’s best efforts, but the captain’s pursuit of the Tong, no matter the odds against him, generates considerable interest. And the film features one of cinema’s most diabolical lines of dialogue when Chung King, preparing to torture our hero, asks him, “Have you ever had your bones scraped?” TORMENTED. Producer-director Bert I. Gordon, more known for sci-fi flicks like THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, tries his hand at a supernatural thriller, scripted by George Worthing Yates. Richard Carlson (THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) plays a jazz pianist, whose engagement to a wealthy heiress is jeopardized by his mistress – until said mistress conveniently falls from the top of a lighthouse. However, the spirit of the dead woman, whose body is never found, returns to torment her lover; the haunting is visualized with special effects of crawling hands and ghostly footprints. The film aims for a fatalistic tone by focusing on a protagonist who deserves – and eventually succumbs to – the terror being visited on him, but it doesn’t quite come off. The film was spoofed on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL. Bold and colorful, this imaginative and original take on the old Robert Louise Stevenson tale, smartly scripted by Wolf Mankowitz, is one of the best and most underrated efforts from Hammer Films. After the box office success of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1957 and HORROR OF DRACULA in 1958, THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL sees Hammer pushing the boundaries of the horror genre, emphasizing the drama, characterization, and even philosophic undertones. Director Terence Fisher eschews the usual suspense set pieces in favor of lavish, widescreen production values that suggest an opulent costume drama rather than a tawdry terror tale; with a few exceptions, the horror on display is moral rather than visceral. Unfortunately, this sophisticated approach was not a success, and after another ambitious failure a year later (with THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA), Hammer horrors would retreat to more conventional territory. THE WITCH’S MIRROR. A fairly well regarded Mexican horror film about a witch who enables her murdered god-daughter to extract vengeance against the faithless husband who murdered her. WORLD OF THE VAMPIRES. An eccentric Mexican variation on the vampire theme, in which for some reason the undead can be disabled by particular sound waves, leading to a dubious conclusion in which the villain is defeated by someone playing a tune on a pipe organ. THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA. Also known as THE VAMPIRE’S LOVER, this Italian production stars Walter Brandi in an attempt to cash in on the recent success of the Hammer Dracula films. It was followed later the same year by THE LAST VICTIM OF THE VAMPIRE (see above). THE VIRGIN SPRING. Director Ingmar Bergman’s film (one of the few he did not write himself) is not really horror, but its story, based on a legend of a father (Max Von Sydow) taking revenge for his daughter’s murder, earned a place in horror history when it served as the basis for Wes Craven’s THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972), which was subsequently remade in 2009.
Originally published on July 2, this article has been updated with subsequent entries.
In the pantheon of memorable movie monsters, pestiferous plantlife has to rank just about last. Vampires, werewolves, zombies, mummies, mad scientists and their creations, golems and other artificial men – all of these can lay claim to having appeared in numerous classic films. Yet how many horror movies featuring frightful flora and fiendish fungi achieve cult – let alone classic – status? 1960’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS comes to mind, along with its 1986 musical remake. Both feature a giant, talking man-eating marigold that is played as much for laughs as frights, but at least the blood-thirsty bush is the star of the show. Other than that, one might cite the 1962 science fiction thriller DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (in which Earth is overrun by sinister sprouts from outer space), but for the most part wicked weeds, violent vines, and savage shrubbery have been consigned to co-starring status, showing up for a scene or two in lost worlds, dark jungles, and strange islands, or making cameos in the laboratories of various mad scientists. With THE RUINS, the latest tale of heinous herbs, currently in theatres, we take a look at some of the more memorably malignant mutations of the vegetable world, and find that by stretching the distinction between flora and fauna, we can come up with two or three creepy classics. ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES (1978). This silly spoof takes takes an intentionally ridiculous concept and milks it for joke after joke; whether they are funny or not is almost irrelevant, because the concept itself demands laughter. On the other hand, some viewers see this simply as another bad film, no better than the ones it spoofs. In retrospect, it comes across as a poor man’s AIRPLANE; a parody of sci-fi flicks in general, it just happens to have a killer plant as its monster. AT THE EARTH’S CORE (1976). In this enjoyably unrealistic depiction of prehistoric life inside the Earth, a man-eating plant makes a brief appearance, interrupting a fight scene between the hero and an adversary. Needless to say, even though the two men had been trying to kill each other only minutes before, the hero saves his opponent from the clutches of the carnivorous creeping vine, and the two become fast friends, joining forces to defeat the evil Mahars that rule the underground world. Lost worlds and prehistoric civilizations seem to be disproportionately populated with pestilent plant life; similar shrubbery sprouts up in the 1960 version of THE LOST WORLD and in two Hammer Film productions, THE LOST CONTINET (1968) and WHEN DINOSAURS RULES THE EARTH (1971). CREEPSHOW (1982). One episode of this five-part anthology film features a virulent form plant life: in “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” Stephen King stars as the titular country bumpkin who cracks open a meteor and soon finds himself infected by some kind of fearful fungus. Unable to cure himself, Verrill commits suicide, but the plant life lives on, presumably spreading over the rest of the world. DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1962). This interesting movie, based on the novel by John Wyndham, portrays what left of life in England after a meteor shower leaves the majority of the population blind. It turns out that’s not the real problem; the real problems is that the meteorites have brought spores to Earth that sprout into ambulatory poisonous plants that threaten to take over the whole world. Fortunately for humanity, it turns out that the apparently invincible flora are actually susceptible to sea water – which proves as effectve on them as on the Wicked Witch of the West. There is also a 1981 TV series, which had the luxury of being more faithful to the source material. DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965). This early anthology from Amicus films contains five short stories that run the gamut of classic movie monster cliches: a werewolf, a vampire, voodoo, a crawling hand, and yes – a killer plant. There is little or no explanation for the vicious vine; it is simply noticed growing around an isolated house. Soon, it is snipping phone lines, strangling a hapless victim, and trapping the survivors in the house – until they learn that the wicked weed is afraid of fire, enabling them to escape. The final shot, of the vine batting out the flames left behind by the humans, leaves open the question of whether the plant is truly defeated. THE EVIL DEAD (1982)/EVIL DEAD II(1987). The 1982 originally features an almost deliberately offensive sexist scene wherein a female victim is – for all intents and purposes – raped by a sexually aggressive piece of shrubbery (imagery that may have inspired the “tentacle rape” sub-genre of Japanese anime). The 1987 “sequel” (which is more of a black comedy remake) features a milder version of the scene in which another female victim finds herself in the uncomfortable embrace of vicious woodland vegetation. This time, the sexual innuendo remains mostly innuendo (a few shots of torn clothing and a brief glimpse of a tiny tree limb inserting itself into the girl’s mouth). Progress of a kind, one supposes. GODZILLA VS. BIOLANTE (1989). In the colorful piece of Japanese fantasy film-making, the famous radioactive dinosaur comes into conflict with a genetically mutated version of himself: a giant flower that resulted from a scientist’s efforts to resurrect his dead daughter, combining her DNA with that of Godzilla and a rose. Biolante (who, along with Audrey, is one of the few killer plants to earn a proper name) is one of Godzilla’s most fearsome foes, a mountain-sized poisonous plant, with numerous teeth and tendrils, that uproots itself for the climactic confrontation. The “science” of this science-fiction film is completely incredible, but the film hits the right fantasy note that makes its over-the-top ideas fun to watch. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956, 1978). Jack Finney’s 1954 novel tells the tale of a small town called Santa Mira, where all the residents are gradually replaced by emotionless duplicates. It turns out that the replacements are grown from plant-like alien spores. The 1956 black-and-white classic, directed by Don Siegel (DIRTY HARRY), best captures the paranoia of the book, including a wonderfully eerie scene in which the spores are scene hatching duplicate bodies. The 1978 remake is good update of the idea, transplanting the story to a modern metropolis instead of small town America. A 1993 version, titled simply BODY SNATCHERS, less interesting, and the 2007 version THE INVASION does not qualify here, because it changes the menace from spores to a virus. KONGA (1961). This 1961 English rip-off of KING KONG features a mad professor (Michael Gough) who invents some kind of serum that enlarges an ordinary chimp, first into a man-size gorilla and finally into a Kong-size monster. Working on the theory that that was not enough to keep an English audience properly horrified, the film also has the professor growing some sort of mutant Venus Flytrap in his hot house. While Konga runs amok at the climax, one of the professor’s female students has the misfortune of getting her arm trapped – a difficult thing to do, since the carnivorous cauliflower has no tendrils to draw her in. The film cuts away, leaving her fate uncertain but implying that she was devoured. Why she could not simply pull her arm free is unclear. LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960 and 1986). Producer-director Roger Corman’s cult film, written by Charles B. Griffith, is famous for having completed principal photography in two days (actually, second unit work extended the schedule to nearly a week). It also gave the world Audrey, a talking blood-thirsty bulb created by Seymour (Jonathan Haze) and named after the girl he loves (Jackie Joseph). Seymour feeds Audrey drops of blood from his fingers, but when the plant grows too big, it ends up devouring whole humans. In one of the film’s funnier scenes, Seymour’s employer Mushnick (Mel Wells) fools an armed robber into searching for loot inside Audrey, with predictably lethal results. The whole film is too ridiculous for Audrey to be truly scary, but man-eating marigold is certainly quite a character, memorably demanding in an impatient, outraged voice, “Feed me! FEED ME!” The 1986 remake adds songs and bigger, better production values; it’s glossy and fun, but it lacks that low-budget independent charm that worked so well in the original.
MATANGO (a.k.a. ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE, 1963). This horror movie from Japan eschews the usual giant monster formula in favor of presenting a fascinating portrait of human de-evolution. In a set-up that prefigures the American TV show GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, seven people on a boating tour end up castaway on an uncharted island: there’s the skipper, the mate, the millionaire, the professor, and two women – one an sexy entertainer, the other a cute small-town girl; the only character not carried over to the show is a male journalist. With little other food available, they succumb to eating a radiated mushroom known as matango, the unfortunate side effect of which is that they begin mutating into fungus themselves. Inspired by William Hope Hodgson’s classic short story “A Voice in the Night,” the film uses the literal loss of humanity as a metaphor for what is happening to the characters: cut off from civilization and its constraints, they regress to more primitive, barbaric behavior. The mushroom makeup is probably scary only to very young viewers, but director Ishiro Honda keeps it mostly in shadows till the end; the real horror comes from watching the characters LORD OF THE FLIES-style descent. THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951). This classic alien invasion film features a walking, hulking, blood-drinking vampire-creature from outer space with a squared-off head vaguely reminiscent of Frankenstein’s Monster – and yet the dialogue leaves us in no doubt that the alien is vegetable, not animal (“an intellectual carrot,” as one character observes). With its claustrophobic, isolated setting, this remains one of the greatest fright films ever, thanks to rapid-fire dialogue and a crafty approach to the alien, who is only briefly glimpsed, usually in shadowy light. The barely seen menace thus becomes that much more frightening when left mostly to the imagination. The man beneath the make-up was James Arness, who went on to star in the long-running TV Western, GUNSMOKE. VOODOO ISLAND (1957). This low-budget opus offers up Boris Karloff as a scientist leading an expedition to the titular island. Somewhere during the expedition, anthropologist Claire Winters (Jean Engstrom) goes off on her own and decides it’s time for a swim. Never mind that for all she knows the jungle waters might be infested with poisonous snakes, crocodiles, or other predators. Well, she gets far worse than that when she finds herself enwrapped by the tendrils of a prehistoric man-eating plant. According to the Turner Classic Movies website, there is an alternate European version of the film that features Engstrom swimming in the nude (she wears a leotard in the U.S. version). In any case, the unlucky lass suffers the fate of expendable characters in movies like this, although she is at least spared the indignity of overt sexual molestation that would be inflicted on figurative descendant decades later in THE EVIL DEAD.