Christopher Lee – Horror Movie Month

Christopher Lee is the last living horror legend (acting-wise at least). It is unfortunate that he now disdains the genre that made him famous and especially despises talking about his Dracula years. He has been an incredibly prolific actor and while much of his output is of questionable quality, he still has some great signature roles (Dracula, Saruman, Scaramanga, Rochefort, Fu Manchu).

To the Devil…a Daughter (1976) – Rated R

A heretic priest (Christopher Lee) plots to use a teenage nun (Nastassja Kinski) in a depraved sexual pact with the forces of darkness. But when an American occult novelist (Richard Widmark) uncovers the conspiracy, he must battle an international cabal of evil for the body and soul of the Devil’s child-bride. Can this black magic marriage be stopped before an innocent girl is defiled and becomes the womb of Satan?

This was the last film released by Hammer theatrically. This one is actually pretty good except the ending which is unbelievably anticlimactic. I’d love to discuss that ending but I hate spoilers. It just seems to me that they ran out of funding and felt they had to wrap things up.

If you wondered whatever happened to Honor Blackman after Goldfinger, she has a fairly significant role here as does character actor Denholm Elliott. Nastassja Kinski is quite good in her English language debut as the child bride.

The Resident (2011) – Rated R for violence, language and brief sexuality/nudity

A young doctor moves into a Brooklyn loft and realizes she isn’t alone in her new abode. Now she’s struggling to survive as she attempts to disentangle herself from her landlord, who has a key to her home and a growing obsession for his tenant.

Christopher Lee starring in a brand new Hammer film? with Jeffrey Dean Morgan (John Winchester of Supernatural)? and double Oscar-winner Hilary Swank? Sign me up! Oh wait Christopher Lee has only a small part. And the script is tedious. And the directing is pedestrian.

This movie is a little bit creepy but is filled with giant plotholes and never generates much excitement. If you want to see a new Hammer film, go watch Let Me In

The Bloody Judge (1970) – Rated PG (? seriously? well that’s what Netflix says)

In 1685 England, Alicia Gray (Margaret Lee) is convicted of witchcraft and promptly burned at the stake. Meanwhile, her sister, Mary (Maria Rohm), foolishly falls for Harry Selton (Hans Hass Jr.), who’s critical of the king. When evil Chief Justice Jeffreys (Christopher Lee) learns of the romance, he sends his men to capture Mary, who tries to save her beau from the judge’s wrath by surrendering to his licentious advances. Will her plan work?

Wow! I love Christopher Lee but I actually could not bring myself to like this film. It is directed by Jesus (Jess) Franco, who is an absolutely atrocious director. He directed the last two of Christopher Lee’s Fu Manchu films and I enjoyed those because of Christopher Lee and Tsai Chin and because they are train-wreck fascinating.

The Bloody Judge however is just awful – an incoherent mess of 70s blood and breasts, religion, law, torture, witch hunts, and Christopher Lee the only saving grace in the whole movie. In fact he appears most of the time to be in an entirely different movie.

Peter Cushing – Horror Movie Month

Peter Cushing is my favorite horror actor. He is the only actor I have seen who properly captures the arrogance of Baron Frankenstein (which is good since he portrays Frankenstein six times for Hammer).

Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

Ominous prophet Dr. Schreck (Peter Cushing) informs five train passengers — including art critic Franklyn Marsh (Christopher Lee) and physician Bob Carroll (Donald Sutherland) — about the grisly details of their imminent deaths in this anthology of eerie vignettes. Schreck tells Marsh that he will be maimed; that Carroll’s new bride has a supernatural secret life; and that architect Jim Dawson (Neil McCallum) will be attacked by a werewolf.

Of all of Cushing’s films, this is the one I’d most recommend watching. Not because it’s the best but because it has never had a U.S. DVD or Blu-Ray release. While this appears to be sourced from a videotape transfer, the quality isn’t too bad and once it leaves Netflix you won’t be able to catch it anywhere.

Having said this, Dr. Terror is pretty standard fare for a portmanteau film. Cushing and Christopher Lee are wonderful and a very young Donald Sutherland is fun to watch. The movie is enjoyable but nothing special.

 

Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (1969)

After a drunk wanders into and disrupts his secret lab, Dr. Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) decides he must find a new place to set up shop. Conveniently, he finds an innocent young girl (Veronica Carlson) who happens to have a boyfriend (Simon Ward) employed by the local hospital. Seeing his opportunity, Dr. Frankenstein kidnaps the couple and forces them to take part in a dangerous brain-swapping experiment.

Cushing takes center stage here and this iteration of Frankenstein is his most ruthless. Gone are the almost paternal qualities he had in Frankenstein Created Woman and with one notable exception, his icy performance here is marvelous. The exception is that for some odd reason, there is an implied rape subplot shoehorned into the movie. Judging from character reactions after the incident, it appears as though this was added after normal filming.

The Vampire Lovers (1970) – Rated R

Fanged femme fatale Mircalla Karnstein (Ingrid Pitt) slakes her bloodlust for mortals of girlish figures in this Hammer horror story that has the 19th-century noblewoman stalking the Austrian countryside, bewitching young daughters at every turn. Appearing first as Marcilla, then as Carmilla, the insatiable siren steals women’s hearts and leaves ruin in her wake, but in grieving General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing), she may have met her match.

The Vampire Lovers is definitely an acquired taste. Here Hammer films reaches the 1970s and says goodbye to cleavage and hello to nudity! This is where they also play with the “exotic” concept of lesbianism. Peter Cushing is in fine form but is not in much of the film. Ingrid Pitt is the star here and is quite engaging as Mircalla/Marcilla/Carmilla as is Madeline Smith as Emma. The movie is quaint and often comes across as soft porn with the sex scenes removed.

Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) – Rated PG

Devil-worshipping hippies revive Dracula (Christopher Lee) in this groovy 1970s Hammer Studios horror flick set in London. Thinking Dracula’s one cool cat, Johnny (Christopher Neame) and his psychedelic gang resurrect the count. The powerful creature of the night awakens with a mission: to destroy his archnemesis Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). It’s good vs. evil as Van Helsing faces Dracula in a thrilling final showdown.

Hammer realized after five period Draculas and countless period horror films that audiences wanted modern scares. The idea of bringing Dracula to a modern setting is not a bad one and the opening scene set in 1872 is pretty exciting. Having Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing reprise their roles as Dracula and Van Helsing was a no-brainer so why is this movie not a classic?

The script is hilarious and appears to be written by someone middle-aged who fears what the younger generation is up to. The counterculture is depicted in a mind-boggling fashion and a band is featured in an extended sequence that serves no purpose in the film. Christopher Lee is barely in the film but at least has some dialogue this time out. The fashions are marvelous – too bad the film isn’t.

Price without Poe – Horror Movie Month

The prolific and fun Vincent Price did not always star in Poe adaptations. I’ve previously discussed his performance in the delightful Theater of Blood as well as The Fly and House on Haunted Hill (all still on instant Netflix and recommended).

Madhouse (1974) – Rated PG

Down on his luck and trying to keep a grip on his precarious mental health, has-been horror-film icon Paul Toombes (Vincent Price) takes a stab at revitalizing his career by starring in a television series based on his famous silver screen persona, Dr. Death. But when people start dying in gruesome ways that resemble Dr. Death’s handiwork, Toombes suspects the evil character has completely taken over his mind. Jim Clark directs this thriller.

Madhouse isn’t bad and makes good use of some Price stock footage from the Poe movies. It is a bit heavy-handed and obvious but guest-stars a gracious Peter Cushing. Robert Quarry is here as well. Quarry was groomed to be a new horror star but his Count Yorga films never really caught on. Madhouse is a mixed bag – fun but not nearly as fun as Dr. Phibes Rises Again, which features much of the same cast.

Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) – Rated PG

The eminent Dr. Phibes (Vincent Price) awakens from several years of suspended animation and heads to Egypt with his mute assistant (Valli Kemp) and the corpse of his dead wife, determined to track down the stolen papyrus scrolls he needs to bring his spouse back to life. In this sequel to The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Phibes is up to his usual tricks, murdering people in strange and heinous ways; meanwhile, a team of inspectors is hot on his heels.

Both Dr. Phibes movies are fun with a capital F. The beautiful art deco set design, clockwork contraptions that would have been considered steampunk if they hadn’t predated the term, Campy, quirky deaths, and a wonderful turn by Vincent Price add up to fun, fun, fun. Peter Cushing has what amounts to a cameo here as do several other 60s stars. Robert Quarry is not as good as Joseph Cotten from the first movie but is adequate.

Witchfinder General (1968)

Set in 17th-century England, this chilling tale follows corrupt official Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), who claims an ability to discover witches. But he uses his power to gain money and favors from people he’s fingered in return for declaring them innocent. When he arrests and tortures Father Lowes (Rupert Davies), Lowes’s niece’s fiancĂ© (Ian Ogilvy) decides to put an end to Hopkins’s sleazy practices and goes on a quest to seek vengeance.

Witchfinder General is a bit odd. It tries to say some important things about a particular era in English history while flirting with exploitation. This is actually Vincent Price’s best performance but I need to warn you that the film is not fun – it actually comes across as quite ugly, especially for the era. The other actors aren’t bad but this is another Price showpiece.

Last Man on Earth (1964)

A plague has wiped out most of mankind, and those who survived have become bloodthirsty vampires. The only “normal” human left on earth, Dr. Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) — who was spared by a twist of fate — spends his days methodically hunting down the undead mutants and his nights barricaded against their attacks. But when he meets the beautiful but contaminated Ruth, he discovers a secret that will unravel what’s left of his existence.

If this plot description sounds familiar, it is because it is based on Richard Matheson’s I am Legend and was later filmed as The Omega Man (also on instant) and I am Legend and I am Omega. Will Smith is great in I am Legend but the CGI is pretty goofy, Charlton Heston is good in The Omega Man but the movie is bizarrely groovy, and I am Omega is just plain bad.

Last Man on Earth is an Italian production and is very atmospheric. It is in black and white and Price gives a somewhat restrained performance as the titular character.

Poe & Corman & Price – Horror Movie Month

Edgar Allan Poe was one of the first adult authors I read and I loved how gloomy, scary and depressing his stories were. I was particularly frightened by the thought of being bricked into a wall a la The Cask of Amontillado. Where I saw gloom, guilt and despair, Roger Corman apparently saw fun. All of the below films are available on instant Netflix.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Francis (John Kerr) visits the gloomy Spanish castle of his late sister Elizabeth’s husband, Nicholas (Vincent Price), to learn the reason for her death. Nicholas fears his wife isn’t really dead and that her spirit wanders the halls at night. Seems Nicholas’s father was a feared leader of the Spanish Inquisition; as a child, Nicholas saw his father torture his mother and bury her alive, and he’s convinced Elizabeth has suffered a similar fate.

Oddly Corman’s first Poe adaptation, House of Usher (or Fall of the House of Usher) has no Netflix listing. This is a shame because it is the most faithful of Corman’s Poe adaptations in both plot and mood.

The Pit and the Pendulum is his second effort and is less serious. Most of Corman’s Poe films exist solely to showcase the talents of Vincent Price and this one is no exception.

Tales of Terror (1962)

It’s a triple threat of terror from the master of the genre: Edgar Allan Poe. This collection of three films — The Black Cat, Morella and The Case of M. Valdemar — offers everything horror fans can’t get enough of, from murder and dementia to live burials, open tombs, resurrection and zombies. And with three of horrordom’s greatest villains (Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone) in the lead roles, the chills are guaranteed.

The Black Cat is an adaptation of my favorite The Cask of Amontillado. Unfortunately it’s played for laughs and the ending is from another story altogether but don’t let that stop you from watching. Vincent Price is always a hoot and here he is joined by Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone in their waning years. The other two stories are taken a bit more seriously even if the effects in Valdemar are a bit on the goofy side.

 

The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)

From director Roger Corman comes this supernatural tale of undying love set in the early 19th century. After the death of his wife, Ligeia, eccentric Verdon Fell (Vincent Price) will do anything to replace her, even if he must sacrifice his new wife, Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd). Plagued by eerie events in her new home, the terrified Rowena seeks help from former suitor Christopher (John Westbrook), but can he thwart Fell’s plan to revive Ligeia?

Ligeia evokes a nice sense of dread and Price is quite subdued. The atmosphere is appropriately moody as Rowena finds herself in way over her head. Not much actually happens in the film but it is still entertaining.

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

At a 12th-century masked ball from hell, dissolute satanist Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) torments his guests, forcing them to participate in a variety of gruesome lethal games in this Roger Corman-directed horror flick based on two stories by Edgar Allen Poe. While most of the games end in someone’s death, those who survive Prospero’s amusements must endure the nightmare of torture and unthinkable depravity.

Masque is one of my favorites. Vincent Price hams it up (a bad thing for other actors but Price is the ham master) and Hazel Court has a lot of fun as Juliana, taking increasingly desperate measures to keep Prospero.

The costuming is wonderful. Masque has an expensive sumptuous feel in part because Corman was able to use the sets left over from Becket. Corman even manages to squeeze the short story “Hop Frog” in as a small subplot to the overall story. If you pick one of these to watch, this is probably the best one.

TV Anthologies – Horror Month

 

Twilight Zone (1959-1963)

Hosted by unflappable creator Rod Serling, each episode of this groundbreaking series stands alone as a complete story, relating humor-tinged tales that touch on supernatural subjects such as alien invasions, xenophobia, time travel and dream logic. This classic show, with its superb writing and haunting music, brought science fiction to the masses and was a forerunner of genre-bending favorites such as “The X Files” and “Lost.”

I’m not sure why but currently seasons 1, 2, 3, and 5 are available on instant Netflix but not season 4. There is a wealth of classic horror and science fiction here – “Monsters are Due on Maple Street” being a particular favorite of mine. The theme music is classic and Rod Serling’s narration is wonderful.

Thriller (1960-1961)

The legendary Boris Karloff serves as host for this vintage television series, which began as an anthology of crime dramas and mysteries but later morphed into chilling tales of the supernatural and gothic horror. With episodes based on novels and short stories, the show features a roster of guests ranging from big-screen veterans such as John Carradine and Mary Astor to soon-to-be-stars such as Cloris Leachman and William Shatner.

If you have run through all of Twilight Zone or the episodes are too familiar then give Thriller a try. Boris Karloff makes almost as good a host as Rod Serling. Thriller is not the classic that Twilight Zone is but has some very good episodes. The early episodes lean more towards Alfred Hitchcock Presents but later ones often have a supernatural element.

Since none of the episodes connect to each other, please start your Thriller viewing with Pigeons from Hell, episode 36.

The X-Files (1993-2001)

Tracing both their personal and professional lives, this award-winning Fox series centers on FBI agents Scully (Gillian Anderson), a skeptic, and Mulder (David Duchovny), a believer, and their efforts to uncover a government conspiracy to hide evidence of extraterrestrial activity. From voodoo curses to bodies found in California that are missing various internal organs, the chilling show also stars Mitch Pileggi and Robert Patrick.

All nine seasons of The X-Files are available on instant Netflix. While the main focus of The X-Files was science fiction, there are a large number of ‘spooky’ episodes. The influence of Kolchak on The X-Files is obvious and is even acknowledged when Darren McGavin guest-stars as an early X-Files investigator.

The quality of the writing began to be uneven after the first four seasons. The last two seasons are monumentally disappointing as Duchovny left to pursue a movie career (how’s that working out for you David?) and Anderson takes on a much reduced role due in part to her pregnancy.

TV Vampires – Horror Movie Month

Okay perhaps I’ve misnamed Horror Movie Month as my first topic is TV series. For non-anthology horror TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is easily the best on instant Netflix.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2002) – Rated TV-PG

Despite her deep desire to live a normal life, tough-as-nails teenager Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) fulfills her mystical calling to protect humankind from all sorts of supernatural creatures, including vampires, demons and werewolves. Blending fantasy, drama and comedy, Joss Wheadon’s cult favorite surrounds its brave heroine with trusted allies like Willow (Alyson Hannigan), Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Giles (Anthony Head).

This show, while an obvious pick, is quite a rarity. It is a TV show based on a movie where the TV series is awesome and the movie wasn’t very good. The ensemble cast is excellent and almost all of the episodes are quite good with a few amazing ones such as the musical Once More with Feeling from Season 6.

In fact the only problem with the show was that apparently the network insisted that monster deaths occur in every episode which undercut a few of the more “serious” episodes. Witty and inventive from the first episode, Buffy only deepens in emotional intensity with each season.

All of the Buffy episodes are available on instant Netflix as are all the episodes of the spinoff series Angel. Angel is enjoyable but is not the classic that Buffy is. All the season ending episodes of Buffy are epic conflicts but Angel’s episodes are often indistinguishable from each other. Angel’s ensemble cast is good but not nearly as good the Buffy ensemble.

Set in an old mansion off the coast of Maine, this cult classic television series follows the bizarre exploits of the Collins family, who cross paths with ghosts, werewolves, witches and other supernatural beings over the course of several centuries. Originally conceived as a moody melodrama, this groundbreaking gothic soap found success following the introduction of tormented vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid).

Dark Shadows (1966-1971) – The original Dark Shadows has 160 episodes available on instant play. The series ran for far longer than that but this will give you a sampling of the show. Jonathan Frid is a lot of fun as the vampire Barnabas Collins but the show itself does not hold up very well and, being a soap opera, moves at a glacial pace.

The 1991 remake, Dark Shadows: The Revival Series is also available on instant Netflix. It only runs 12 episodes and I haven’t had the opportunity to watch it but as I’d never heard of it until now, I’m pretty doubtful of its quality. Tim Burton’s movie version should be out next year with the quirky Johnny Depp as Barnabas and Burton’s films are always visually stunning.

My oft-recommended Kolchak the Night Stalker is also still available (and still campy as ever).

October is Horror Movie Month

I LOVE HORROR MOVIES!

I try to restrict the number of horror movies I blog about because, given my druthers, I might write about nothing but horror movies. In October I tend to go nuts (in fact I have Scream running in the background in HD while I type this). This year instead of covering individual movies, I want to cover the actors, directors and subjects of the horror movies available on instant Netflix (mostly because there are way more than 30 horror movies to cover).

I must be psychologically damaged because Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. Oddly there aren’t many horror movies starting in theaters this month. I’m very much looking forward to The Thing on October 14th, prequel to John Carpenter’s classic The Thing (1982). On the other hand they were unable to come up with an original title and I’m afraid that the CGI will be weak and/or overused.

The only other theater horror movie this month seems to be Paranormal Activity 3 which appears to be the Halloween replacement for the annual Saw installment. Oh well maybe I’ll get lucky like last year when Cinebarre in Asheville played John Carpenter’s The Thing.