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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Gruesome Twosome — A grindhouse film to scalp you



By Steve D. Stones

This 1967 Herschell Gordon Lewis feature has the unique distinction of having one of the most bizarre openings in low-budget horror cinema history. After editing, the film was short in length. As filler, Lewis added two wig blocks with construction paper faces talking to each other during the opening. One of the wig blocks is stabbed as blood gushes out everywhere. Even after inserting this opening sequence, the film only runs 72 minutes.

Crazy Mrs. Pringle and her mentally challenged son Rodney run a wig shop near a Florida college campus. The wigs are advertised as 100 percent real human hair. The shop also rents vacant rooms to college co-eds. The renting of rooms is only a disguise for Pringle to lure young women to the shop so Rodney can scalp and murder them. Pringle often talks to her stuffed cat named Napoleon, adding to her craziness. \

A college girl arrives at Pringle’s wig shop to inquire about a room for rent. She is lured into a back room to be scalped by Rodney. The girl’s friend, Kathy Baker, investigates to try and find the murdered girl. During her investigation, other girls are scalped and murdered. Kathy follows a janitor home who buries bones in his backyard from a campus garbage can. She suspects he has something to do with the murders, but discovers the bones are for his dog.

A number of scenes pad out the length of the film with shots that last too long and don’t tribute to the plot of the film. An unrelated sequence of spectators watching a car race is one example. Another example is a scene of college girls in their dorm room dancing on beds in pajamas and see-through nighties while eating Kentucky Fried Chicken — an attempt at product placement. Colonel Sanders would make an appearance in Lewis’ next film — Blast Off Girls (1967).

The police eventually catch up to Mrs. Pringle and Rodney, and arrest them both. A trailer for the film shows Pringle hamming it up for the camera as the police carry her away in handcuffs.

Director Lewis often combined dark humor and horror in an attempt to make gore and over-the-top violence look silly and unsophisticated. His early “Blood Trilogy” films — Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) and Color Me Blood Red (1965) are all good examples of this. Too extreme for most mainstream theatres, these films played on 42nd street grindhouses in New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Blood Feast changed motion picture history forever as being the first film to introduce extreme violence and gore to the movie screen. Anyone with a weak stomach is not encouraged to view these films. See them at your own risk.

Happy viewing and Happy Halloween.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Honeymoon Killers an arty wannabe that played the grindhouses


                                                                       By Doug Gibson

“The Honeymoon Killers,” director Leonard Kastle’s 1970 black-and-white look at the exploits of real-life “lonely hearts” killers Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck, is a sleazy film, but it’s arty too. For a brief while, it captured the fancy of critics and earned back its cheap $200,000 budget. The film’s acclaim, however, did not extend to suburbia, and “The Honeymoon Killers” eventually found a home in the grindhouse cinemas of 42nd Street in NYC.

This is a really good film, a must for film fans who want to see how effectively a film’s mission can be accomplished so cheaply. The plot: Lonely nurse, Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler) works at a southern hospital and takes care of her whiny, ill mother. Through a lonely hearts club, she hooks up with Ray Fernandez, (Tony LoBianco) an attractive lothario. Critic Danny Peary, in the book “Cult Movies,” nails the sleazy charm of Ray as “slimy Charles Boyer” and describes his teasing talk as “Spanish penny-ante confidence man.” Both leads are fantastic in this film. Stoler should have received an Oscar nomination for her stoic determination to have love at the expense of destroyed lives. Despite that callousness, her character can elicit our sympathy. After Ray gets to close to a woman he’s scamming, Martha attempts suicide. Ray saves her and swears his love and fidelity to her.

To get back to the plot, Beck abandons her job and her mother to follow Ray, even accepting his confession that he’s a confidence man that swoops in on loveless women, takes their money, and leaves. Beck agrees to go with him and play his “sister” in these confidence charades. There is an interesting scene where the idea that Ray can live with Martha — who will stay at the hospital — is broached. Ray, in an ironic definition of machismo, declares that he will not live off a woman. Of course, that’s exactly what he does for a living.

The inclusion of Martha in Ray’s confidence schemes is the trigger that leads to murders. She is incapable of sticking to that role. Watching the women make intimate gestures to Ray, as well as Ray’s own weakness with the more attractive women, drives Martha to be the instigator of murder. Ray, a far weaker individual than Martha, becomes an accomplice in the killings. Perhaps the most terrifying — and one I imagine that pleased grindhouse audiences — is the killing of elderly Janet Fay (Mary Jane Higbee). Ray is supposed to marry her and then do the usual fade. The grouchy Janet, offended by Martha’s bulk and hostility, gets suspicious and wants to contact her children. Her murder is drawn out, as Martha placidly tells Ray she has to die in front of a terrified, pleading, Janet. Ray finally joins Martha in the murder. Martha hits her with a hammer and Ray strangles her. The cramped room, the three persons, with Martha being so big, and the black and white simplicity, really provides a punch to the audience.

I won’t give away any more of this excellent film. As Peary has noted in “Cult Movies,” “A sense of claustrophobia is meant to dominate the film.” Sets are small, the women usually complaining and everywhere is the very large, hostile, unattractive Martha, doing her best to stifle any intimacy between Ray and the women he is fleecing.

Director and script writer Kastle — who never made another film — created a crude but effective, clinical, documentary-feel film of a couple who fed off each others’ warped definition of love. That they can elicit the audience’s sympathy even while being so amoral is helped by the fact that the majority of their victims, even Martha’s mother, are generally poor specimens of humanity. In the film, Ray always signed his letters to his confederate, “Dear Martha.” Near the end of the film, Martha, in prison, awaiting execution, receives a letter from Ray, also in prison, awaiting execution. It’s a fitting finale that after all the carnage, the pair’s warped love is still strong. The films IMDB web page is at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064437/.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Our annual seasonal salute to John Carpenter's 'Halloween'



By Steve D. Stones

John Carpenter’s classic 1978 film – Halloween is the standard by which every schlocky slasher film that followed aspired to be but failed miserably. It manages to scare the pants right off you without showing one drop of blood. Author Stephen King once said that the best killers in horror are the ones who give us no explanation for their killing. Michael Meyers fits this description well. He is a killing machine who will stop at nothing to kill. The viewer is never given any specific reason for Meyers’ desire to kill, making him all the more effective and Halloween all the more scary.

Lori Strode, played by 19 year old Jamie Lee Curtis, is more interested in hitting the books after school than hitting on boys. Her friends tease her about studying too much and not chasing boys. Her friend Annie, played by Nancy Loomis, tries to set Lori up with a boy at school she has a crush on. Both girls are babysitting on Halloween night when a psychotic killer, Michael Meyers, escapes from an Illinois State mental institution and comes to their town. Meyers stabbed to death his teenage sister some fifteen years earlier in 1963. He returns to the scene of the crime in Haddonfield, Illinois on the night of Halloween 1978.

Carpenter successfully creates impending fear in the viewer by never fully showing Meyer’s face. He relies greatly on shots that show Meyer’s shoulder in the frame of a shot, or by showing his silhouette in dark, shadowy environments.  Other shots show Meyers stepping briefly into the shot, only to be quickly consumed by shadows in the background. This is effective and creepy film-making, worthy of techniques used in the silent German-Expressionist masterpiece – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

I respect the Rob Zombie 2007 remake-homage to Halloween, but it is not nearly the classic of Carpenter’s 1978 film. Zombie spends too much screen time giving us a back story of how Meyers evolved into a killer and his obsession with creating masks in his mental institution cell. Like many children in 1983 who saw Return of The Jedi, I was greatly disappointed to see the man behind Darth Vader’s mask at the end when Luke Skywalker reveals his identity. I feel the same with Michael Meyers. Meyers is much more evil and mysterious when the viewer is not aware of his past and what he looks like behind the mask. I really don’t care why he kills, or what motivates him to kill. The fear a viewer experiences in Halloween is better felt by not knowing his identity.

One ridiculous criticism that Halloween received when it premiered in 1978 is that Carpenter was trying to make a moral statement about pre-marital sex and teenagers, since some of the victims killed by Meyers are teenagers having sex on Halloween night. Lori Strode, the smart girl who avoids boys and refuses to engage in sex, is the person who survives Meyers’ attacks. Carpenter’s town of Haddonfield, Illinois is not a town like Andy of Mayberry. This critique is complete nonsense. Carpenter actually adds a great sense of realism to his film by showing teenagers being sexually active. Is it safe to say that many teenagers do get together on Halloween night and engage in sexual activity? I think it is safe to say that they do, therefore Carpenter shows us a side of Middle America teens that is accurate.

Carpenter was smart not to get involved in any of the sequels to Halloween, at least in terms of directing them. Halloween II picks up where the first Halloween film ends, but it is a disappointing effort mostly because it takes place in a dimly lit hospital. Halloween III blacklists the Meyers character and instead concerns a plot to kill children with rigged Halloween masks.

This Halloween Season, enjoy a great classic by viewing John Carpenter’s 1978 classic – Halloween. You might get your pants scared off you, but you won’t be disappointed. Happy Viewing!!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Terror Creatures From The Grave – Great Low-Budget Italian Horror

Lovely, raven-haired British beauty Barbara Steele stars in this 1965 Italian production. The 1960s marked a decade in which Steele starred in dozens of low budget horror films, such as Castle of Blood, The Long Hair of Death, The She Beast,  Nightmare Castle and The Pit & The Pendulum - just to name a few.
Steele plays the widow of a murdered occultist - Jeronimus Hoff, who helped to have her husband killed. The ghost of Hoff is seen in various places around the family mansion by his daughter. The mansion was once a hospital for plague victims of the Middle-Ages.  A curse of plague victims surrounds the mansion. 

A lawyer arrives at Hoff’s estate to check over his will after receiving a letter from the dead man. Steele and the family are confused at the lawyer’s arrival and the letter, since Hoff has been dead for a year. Steele tells the lawyer that Hoff was killed when he was drunk one night and fell down stairs in the mansion. It is later revealed that this statement is a lie.

One by one, members of a group that condemned Hoff’s occult practices begin to be murdered. One man is trampled by a horse in an opening sequence. Another man in a wheelchair impales himself on a sword. A third is found lying dead next to a table with acid pouring on his face.

To find out if Hoff is still alive, his grave is exhumed and found empty. This confirms his daughter’s fears that he is still alive.

In a flashback sequence, Hoff confronts the group of former friends who condemned him for his occult practices. He is struck in the back of the head and killed by one of the men in the group.

Plague victims rise from their graves around the family mansion and are killed again by pouring rain. This also ends the life of Hoff.

Actress Steele is considered one of the greatest “scream queens” in cinema history. Today, she enjoys a strong cult following of dedicated fans all over the world. Her beauty is timeless, contributing to her longstanding icon status as a horror actress.

Terror Creatures From The Grave was also marketed as The Tombs of Horror, Coffin of Terror and Five Graves For A Medium. Happy viewing!
Steve D. Stones

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Lon Chaney Jr. as the Frankenstein monster ... on early TV



By Doug Gibson

The Frankenstein episode of early TV show Tales of Tomorrow is a historical curio. It's an example of TV in its infancy. There's nothing spectacular about the 1952 24-minute TV teleplay drama, filmed live. Its fortunate existence today is more teaching tool than art.

Lon Chaney Jr. plays the Monster. He's the only good thing about the plodding show. It has Ed Woodian bargain basement sets and props, as well as overtheatrical wooden acting by indistinguished TV actors of the time. The plot involves Dr. Victor Frankenstein (John Newland) living in a castle on the sea with his husband and wife servants and, for some reason, his young nephew (Michael Mann) is there. Also hanging around but not living in the castle is Mrs. Frankenstein (Mary Alice Moore) and her dad, who is also Dr. Frankenstein's mentor (Raymond Bramley).

Nothing much happens until Dr. Frankenstein unveils his monster (Chaney Jr.). He lumbers around the house, killing the maid and scaring the nephew and butler. This is all rather leaden sans much drama although Dr. Frankenstein offers quite a few long-winded laments. Eventually, the principals plot to do away with the Monster.

Chaney looks nothing like his 1942 performance as the Monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein, but he's an old horror hand and he knows how to roar and generally give a menacing performance.

Now, here's the most interesting part of this creaky curio of a TV show. Apparently, Chaney Jr., a severe alcoholic most of his life, was very intoxicated when the live shoot was being don. In fact, he was so intoxicated that he thought it was the dress rehearsal and refused to throw furniture to the floor. It is true that Chaney, in two scenes, gently places furniture back on the floor that is obviously meant to be tossed! You can also hear him mumble once "save it" as he places the furniture down. Otherwise, his role is mute with grunts. Clearly, he thought it was a rehearsal.

As mentioned, an interesting curio, directed by TV director Don Medford. It is often in discount DVD packs, the kind sold via oldies.com or in dollar stores. It is free to watch on the Web or you can buy it on amazon.com also.

Horror fans will enjoy it, completists will want it. It's a chance to see Chaney Jr. in a TV setting. Despite his drinking, he stayed active in films until his death in the early 70s.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Day of The Triffids – A Good Popcorn Movie


By Steve D. Stones

Every so once in a while when I feel in the mood for viewing “The Day of The Triffids (1963)”, I can’t help but want to pop popcorn. This end-of-the-world film has been featured a number of times on the UEN (Utah Education Network) Sci-Fi Friday program, Fridays at 9 p.m.

A lonely sailor, played by Howard Keel, wakes one morning in a London hospital bed after having eye surgery. He discovers the hospital is abandoned while yelling for the nurse and removing the bandages from his eyes. His blind doctor explains to him that a meteor shower in the sky the night before blinded the entire earth’s population. The doctor jumps out of his office window, committing suicide.

The sailor walks the streets of London looking for a train station. As he wanders the streets and later finds the station, he discovers citizens wandering around aimlessly after being blinded by the meteor shower. Complete chaos and anarchy is happening all over the world.  The meteor shower has also caused triffid plants to grow large, uproot and attack people.

At the train station, he meets a twelve year old girl named Susan who still has her sight. The two find their way to an orphanage in France. The orphanage is later overtaken by a group of drunk loiters and by giant triffid plants that have uprooted from the ground.

Eventually the sailor, Susan and a beautiful French woman make their way to Spain, and use a pied piper routine to lead the giant triffids out to sea while playing music from an ice cream truck.

A subplot has a marine biologist and his much younger wife trapped in a lighthouse. The two isolate themselves in the lighthouse to conduct experiments on marine life, but end up trapped as giant triffid plants attack them. 

The film is based on a novel by John Wyndham, and was also marketed as “Revolt of The Triffids” and “Invasion of The Triffids.” Hammer Studios director Freddie Francis also served as a co- director. Happy viewing!!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

For Halloween, our top 10 horror flicks -- Plan9Crunch re-run


(I hold these films in high esteem for many reasons. Don’t assume the first I mention is the most frightening I have ever seen. Today that honor goes to the original Halloween, but tomorrow it may be the original Psycho, and the next day it might be the original The Haunting. … Note the inclusion of “the original,” which tells us something about the ubiquity of crappy remakes out here.) And as the viewer can clearly see above, there has never been a monster as scary as Lon Chaney's Phantom!
-- Doug Gibson
      Frankenstein, 1931: Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the monster produced sympathy from audiences. After he left the series, the monster turned into a stumbling, grunting animal.
      Dracula, 1931: Bela Lugosi’s portrayal forever defines how a vampire should behave. Dark, aristocratic courtesy, slow, deliberate movements and speech, befit a creature who has existed for almost an eternity.
      Phantom of the Opera, 1925: Lon Chaney created the most repulsive, horrifying monster ever.
    Night of the Living Dead, 1968: George A. Romero’s decision to turn the dead into flesh-eating zombies created a thriving horror genre that has yet to reach its peak.
5     The Haunting, 1963: The best of the haunted house horror films. This Robert Wise film scares the hell out of viewers with atmosphere, imagination and a few knocks on a door.
      The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974: This film merits inclusion because it spawned a genre that has yet to abate – the “slasher” genre of nihilistic, giggling, drooling maniacs. Watching this film is akin to screaming for an entire day.
     Psycho, 1960: A classic of suspense, and one of the first films to provide a shock ending most audiences won’t see coming.
     Halloween, 1978: John Carpenter’s masterpiece is perhaps the scariest film ever. He takes the time to develop characters the audience cares about, and then has them dispatched in suspenseful scenes involving the now-stereotypical soulless killer. Carpenter also heightens the terror with skillful use of foreground shots.
      The Blair Witch Project, 1999: This film launched the genre of horror films that are comprised of found video or experienced in a secondary medium. The Paranormal series is an example. “Blair Witch…” is also very scary, claustrophobic, and unsettling with its jerky cinematography.
    The Sadist, 1963: This film represents the ignored low-budget film that is so good that it slowly merits attention and gains acclaim. Arch W. Hall Jr. is frightening as a merciless teen psychopath, accompanied by a moronic girlfriend, who terrifies some teachers at an abandoned roadside inn just outside Los Angeles.  The chatter of the Dodger pre-game show on the car radio as the horror ensues is unsettling.
       Honorable mention: Them, 1954: The post-World War II and Cold War era moved viewers from traditional monsters to new, nuclear-initiated monsters and mutations at home and in outer space. My favorite is this tale of mutant ants that need to be stopped before they realize they can take over the world.

My Top 10 horror films, By Steve D. Stones

1)      Dawn of the Dead (1978 version)
2)      Nosferatu (1921 version)
3)      The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919 silent)
4)      Hellraiser (1987)
5)      Night of the Living Dead (1968 version)
6)      The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974 version, not that crappy 2003 version)
7)      Black Sunday (1960 Mario Bava film, not the 1970s football movie)
8)      Carnival of Souls (1962 version)
9)      The Evil Dead (1983)
10)   Shock Waves (1976)
So here are our Plan 9 Crunch favorite horror films, courtesy of Doug and Steve. Most, if not all, are reviewed on this site. Read the reviews, watch all 19 mentioned. We’ve seen them all, more than once.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Karloff as the ominous captor -- Isle of the Dead


By Doug Gibson

Isle of the Dead, 1945, RKO Radio Pictures, 71 minutes, black and white. Directed by Mark Robson, Produced by Val Lewton. Starring Boris Karloff as General Nikolas Pherides; Ellen Drew as Thea; Marc Cramer as Oliver Davis; and Katherine Emery as Mrs. St. Aubyn. Schlock-Meter rating: 8 stars out of 10.

The mid 1940s was the beginning of a transition period for thrillers. The great Universal monsters were now B pictures, and soon to be relegated as fodder for comedy teams. The terrors of the nuclear age to come would bring a new type of horror star, Godzilla and various over-sized insects crawling across movie screens. But in between that change came several great horror films from Val Lewton, who knew how to exploit the supernatural and make the spines of World War II movie-goers chill.

Isle of the Dead is about our worst fears, death, the plague and being buried alive. Producer Lawton and director Mark Robson are old hands at slowly building a story, creating unease, and then slamming the viewer with a terrifying climax. There is a scene, about two-thirds of the way through, that takes this film from suspense to terror. An invalid woman (Katherine Emery) fears being buried alive. It's a legitimate fear since she suffers from spells where she appears dead. She suffers a spell and is presumed dead and put in a coffin. In a crypt, the camera pans to her coffin. She screams, and desperate clawing is heard inside. It's a scary payoff to a well-made chiller.

The plot involves a dour Greek general (Karloff) and an American reporter (Cramer) who visit an isolated island near the front of a war. They spend the night with an anthropologist and his several guests (all of whom have been forced to the island to avoid the war). A British guest (veteran cult actor Skelton Knaggs) is discovered dead. A doctor decrees it to be the plague. The general orders everyone confined to the house. One by one the plague starts to claim its victims.

As mentioned, the film drips in atmosphere. The first scenes show Karloff and the reporter walking through a battlefield strewn with the bodies of dead soldiers. There's a creepy sight of suffering soldiers hauling away wagons full of the dead for disposal. As Karloff explains, it must be done immediately to avoid the plague. The house on the island has a claustrophobic feel, none of the rooms are too large. The island is dark, foggy and creepy, the crypt dark and forbidding.

Karloff does a very capable job as a villain who can still inspire some sympathy. The heartless, but courtly Greek general who places "rule of law" over mercy is a study of extremism from two sides. When the plague starts, Karloff's general scorns the superstitions of an elderly Greek maid, preferring to put his trust in the doctor. But when the plague claims the doctor, a disillusioned Karloff switches beliefs. Still the extremist, he allies with the maid, and with frightening intensity, believes a young woman named Thea (Ellen Drew) is possessed with an evil spirit. They plot to kill Thea.

Today very few horror films rely on atmosphere to turn suspense into horror. Most try to use foreground shots (like John Carpenter's Halloween) to create tension. Some succeed. Most don't. Too many filmmakers err by throwing away characterization, thinking that a quick knife killing serves as a payoff to a lazy viewer. Val Newton's Isle of the Dead is a reminder that creating a scary film is a gradual process that takes time and care. (Isle of the Dead is on Turner Classic Movies tonight, Oct. 11, 2013, at 7:30 p.m. MST)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Gallery of Horrors -- 60s schlock with Carradine, Chaney Jr.





 By Doug Gibson

Dr. Terror's Gallery of Horrors, 1966, Color, 82 minutes, American General Pictures. Directed by David L. Hewitt. Starring John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr., Rochelle Hudson, Roger Gentry, Ron Doyle, Karen Joy, Vic Magee and Mitch Evans. Schlockmeter rating: Four stars out of 10.

This David Hewitt cheapie anthology of horror tales of questionable scariness is legendary for the panning it has received from critics of the genre. The critics are right; this a poor film, with an incredibly low budget. For the entire five tales, I counted only two sound stages. In one case, to save money I suppose, a sound stage was darkened in an unsuccesful effort to make it appear to be a London slum.

Dr. Terror's Gallery of Horrors was essentially an attempt to cash in on the horror anthology craze of the mid 1960s; two better films of that genre that come to mind are Dr. Terror's House of Horrors and Black Sabbath. According to reviewer Tom Weaver in Cult Movies 17, Gallery of Horrors was shot for either $60,000 (that seems too high) or $20,000, or even $15,000! The narrator for the five tales is the ubiquitious John Carradine. He stands in front of (I kid you not) a rigid screen mat of a castle and shoreline. The mat only takes up half the screen, so the producers filled the other half with a blue background.

The acting, except for Carradine, is atrocious from all the performers, including, unfortunately, Chaney Jr. Actress Karen Joy is at least beautiful. The tales are poorly developed. Reviewer John Stanley in Creature Features Movie Guide Strikes Again described the tales as the "scrapings of the horror barrel." There are "twist endings" but the lazy screenwriting (or perhaps it's the low budget) never allow the "payoff climax" to develop. A viewer will wait for the telegraphed twist at the end but just as it starts, the segment ends without exploring the consequences of the plot.

Like any low-budget poverty issue, the film is full of stock footage. According to Weaver's review, stock footage of castles and background music was lifted from the popular Edgar Allen Poe films of that era and other American International pictures. The special effects are laughable. Animated blood sweeps over the screen clumsily in an effort to end segments, and "fires" dance around stock footage of castles.

None of the five tales is particularly interesting, but some are less mediocre than others. The first concerns a couple (Gentry and Joy) who buy an old house in Salem. They find an old, supposedly 17th century clock (that type of clock did not exist in that era), re-set it, and an old man (Carradine, in the film's best performance, which isn't saying much)appears. He asks for an old family. The husband learns the family contained a witch (who never appears on screen by the way), and that Carradine and the witch are likely back from the dead because the haunted clock was re-started. The husband stops the clock, and Carradine burns up. The twist ending has another couple buying the house, setting the clock, and "presto," Carradine reappears.

The second tale is the worst. It concerns a vampire-like creature marauding London slum residents in the 18th century. The twist ending is embarrassing. The third tale may be the best. It had potential. A cuckolded living dead zombie doctor, murdered by his wife and corrupt colleague, returns with his faithful servant to exact revenge. Again, the low budget destroys any potential for surprise, and there is a laughably long far away stock shot of a carriage racing to the doctor's castle that seems to go on forever.

The fourth tale stars Lon Chaney Jr, as a former colleague of Dr. Frankenstein. Chaney's character is now a respected medical professor. With the help of two students, he resurrects a murderer. It's sad to watch the bloated semi-drunk, elderly Chaney stumble through his role. As Weaver points out, Chaney neither looks nor acts like a doctor and should have played the revived corpse (played by Vic Magee). Also, though it seems a colleague of Dr. Baron Von Frankenstein would be living in the 19th century, Chaney's character checks his wristwatch and answers a ringing 1960s-model phone in this episode. The final episode is a poor twist on the Dracula legend that ends with Jonathan Harker (Gentry)turning into a werewolf and turning on Count Alucard, played by Mitch Evans, hands-down the worst Dracula in screen history. Despite the poor quality of Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, it's worth a rental if it can be found. It's an example of the kind of low-budget, harmless, sometimes fun schlock that played drive-ins and on Chiller Theater on TV in the 1960s and 1970s.

Notes: According to Weaver, Carradine received $3,000 and Chaney Jr. $1,500. Also, Weaver said Carradine was supposed to play Count Alucard, but had to leave to fulfill another acting commitment. Gallery of Horrors was the last speaking role Chaney Jr. had. Like many low-budget films, the film had many titles. Others include The Blood Suckers, Gallery of Horrors, Return From the Past (it's TV title) and even Alien Massacre! In 1981 it was released to video as Gallery of Horror by Academy Home Entertainment. How disappointed many teens must have been after renting this "unrated" title with a misleading cover, thinking it was a very gory horror flick, and discovering a hokey, tame unscary G-rated film! Today the film can be purchased via www.moviesunlimited.com and is often available at ebay for auction.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

American Movie: Coven on a micro-budget


American Movie: The Making of Northwestern, color, 107 minutes, Northwest Films. Directed by Chris Smith. Starring Mark Borchadt, Mike Schank and Bill Borchadt. Rating: Nine stars out of 10.

American Movie: The Making of Northwestern is the most original slice of Americana captured on film since Michael Moore chronicled the corporate-caused decay of Flint, Mich. in Roger and Me more than a decade ago. Judged top documentary film at Sundance a few years ago, it’s the best of its genre since Waco: The Rules of Engagement managed to snag an Oscar nomination several years ago.

It’s the story of Mark Borchardt a wannabe film-maker, who redefines the word persistence. He lives in Wisconsin. Mark is, by most definitions, a loser. He failed to finish high school. He’s unmarried but has three children. He’s under-employed. He’s a border-line alcoholic. He owes several thousand dollars in child support and thousands more in other debts. He lives at home with his mom, sleeping on a thin mattress. His best friend is a dazed ex-stoner musician named Mike who’s addicted to scratch lottery. His family scorns his goals, suggesting that he’s fit at best to be a factory worker.

Mark has no prospects, but he has a goal. To be a feature film-maker. His almost-obsessive pursuit of that dream and his infectious optimism is captured by director Chris Smith. You want to see reality on film? Ignore the “Big Brother’ and “Survivor” garbage heaped onto television screens recently. American Movie is a primer on micro-budget film making and the fragile dreams of its creators.

Mark’s been making short films with his friends since he was a teen. Horror is his preferred genre. He counts The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a major influence in his life. Mark wants to make a feature film called Northwestern. The first part of the film focuses on Mark and his team’s fruitless effort to get the production off the ground. Kitchen-table production meetings provide only pessimism and finally the project is shelved for lack of funds.

Not deterred, the rest of the film concerns Mark’s efforts to finish and release Coven, a 40-minute psychological horror drama that he started years earlier. Despite setback after setback, the film gets finished, thanks largely to Mark’s dying, lonely Uncle Bill, who lives in a trailer park and has $280,000 in the bank. The scenes between Mark and his curmudgeon uncle are touching. Mark exploits him to be sure, but he’s not fooling Bill, who knows Mark has pipe dreams but is nourished from the attention Mark pays to him.

There are priceless scenes in American Movie. They include a desperate Mark pleading with his mom to put on a costume and play an extra in Coven. “But I need to go shopping today,” she protests. There’s the 30-plus take scene of Uncle Bill delivering a few lines in Coven. Another is Mark’s glee at unexpectedly receiving a credit card offer in the mail. There’s Mark’s “office,” the front seat of his car parked at the airport. Another is the poverty-inspired panic which results in post production when a few seconds of film are discovered missing. Also, there’s a hilarious scene from the filming of Coven where several takes are required to smash a hard-headed actor’s skull through a kitchen cabinet.

A serious side to this film adds to its strength. Film-maker Smith provides viewers a peek in Mark’s personal life. It’s dysfunctional. While watching the Super Bowl with his family, a drunken Mark allows some of the bitterness he usually hides to come out in the surface. It’s tough to watch, but important as it rounds out his character and offers a peek into inner demons that have kept him from success.

Besides Uncle Bill, Mike Schank, Mark’s best friend, is an asset to American Movie. His blank stare, accompanied by monotone voice, might lead viewers to think he’s suffering from an acid flashback. However, Mike grows on you, and before the end of the film he’s shown to be a talented musician.

Despite no formal training, Mark is a talented self-taught film-maker, and you can’t help cheering for him once he finally finishes Coven and stands outside the theater, amidst a long line of people waiting to see his film. He may not have a home of his own, but he’s a director with a film under his belt, a colleague of Steven Spielburg. He has triumphed. Note: The DVD version of American Movie contains Mark’s film Coven. I have seen it and it's not too bad. Very low budget but with a cold, dark nihilism feel. Watch "Coven" below.

Doug Gibson



Saturday, October 5, 2013

Billy the Kid Versus Dracula is on TCM Underground late tonight



Billy the Kid versus Dracula

Billy the Kid versus Dracula, directed by William Beaudine, Circle Films, 1961. Starring John Carradine as Count Dracula, Chuck Courtney as Billy the Kid, Melinda Plowman as Betty Bentley. Others in cast include Harry Carey, Jr., Roy Barcroft, and Olive Carey. 1966, Color, 73 minutes. Schlock-meter rating: 6 stars out of 10. This film is on TCM Underground around midnight (MST) as Oct. 6, 2013 begins!

I have a soft spot for this movie, which puts me at odds with just about every other film critic. Okay, I know that the plot is feeble, the acting poor, the special effects a joke. And it's a fraud to vampire lore, since Carradine spends a lot of his time out in broad daylight.

Nevertheless, it's a fun little film if not taken seriously and the offbeat plot (Hero Billy the Kid matching wits with Dracula) is unique enough to merit a few stars. The plot: Dracula (on vacation?) is in the Old West. He provokes Indians into killing everyone on a stagecoach, then assumes the identity of a rich Eastern banker whose niece (who Dracula has the hots for) is about to marry a reformed Billy the Kid. THAT IS a bizarre plot -- even Ed Wood may not have come up with something that unique. Virginia Christine, the future Folger Coffee lady, is great as the real vampire-hunter in the film, and Olive Carey is feisty and likable as an elderly lady doctor. There is one semi-chilling scene in the film, where a collection of stagecoach riders lie dead, murdered by Indians in a plot hatched by Dracula.

This is definitely not Carradine at his best; in fact he seems many times to just walk through his role (he considered it his worst film, but it's not), but the old vampire master has a few good scenes, and manages to be quite sinister at times. Billy The Kid versus Dracula was made with Jesse James meets Frankenstein's Daughter (not quite as good). Both were directed by Beaudine and played primarily Saturday kiddie matinees together. The film can be seen occasionally late at night on TCM.

I will add, upon repeat viewings, this film improves. At its heart, it's more western than horror, a fond nod to this hour-long oaters of the 1930s and 1940s from C movie studios. Carey, I believe, was in the classic film "The Grapes of Wrath," which included Carradine in its cast as well.

-- Doug Gibson

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Haunted Palace is better-than-average Vincent Price




The Haunted Palace, 1963, 85 minutes, American International, directed by Roger Corman. Starring Vincent Price as Charles Dexter Ward/Joseph Curwen, Debra Paget as Ana Ward, Frank Maxwell as Ian/Dr. Willett, Lon Chaney Jr. as Simon Orne, Leo Gordon as Edgar Weeden/Ezra Weeden and Cathie Merchant as Hester Tillinghast. Schlock-Meter rating: 7 stars out of 10.

By Doug Gibson

This is a better-than-average Vincent Price AIP 1960s offering. It offers chills, atmosphere and good direction from movie legend Corman. The story concerns a mild mannered man (Price), who moves to the mysterious town of Arkham with his wife (Paget) to inhabit a creepy castle, or palace. The townspeople, a forbidding, brooding, suspicious group except for one doctor (Maxwell), react in panic after they discover Price's character (Charles Dexter Ward) resembles an evil ancestor (Joseph Curwen) who was executed by Arkham residents long ago.

It isn't long before Price begins to take on the personality of his evil ancestor, much to the terror of his lovely wife, whom he begins to treat very roughly. With some assistance, the now evil Price (possessed by Curwen) spends much of the film extracting revenge from the descendents of the townspeople who killed him, and trying to resurrect to life a long-dead love (Merchent).
The film boasts a lot of atmosphere. Including aging horror great Lon Chaney Jr. was a casting coup for Corman. As an evil henchman of Price, he doesn't have much to do, but he lends a spooky credibility to the film just with his presence.

The title The Haunted Palace is from Edgar Allen Poe, but there's no resemblance to the story. Indeed the plot is from an H.P. Lovecraft short novel, The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but even then, the story only touches briefly on Lovecraft's plot. As is often with a Lovecraft tale, the sinister town of Arkham is the setting. Fans of Price will really enjoy this film. He's at his best. Others will find it an excellent sample of AIP's 60s horror offerings.