Saturday, April 27, 2013

Broomsticks and All That: Night of the Demon (1957)




One of the many things I love about this late 50s shocker is how unapologetic it is about its belief in demonology and the supernatural. Dr. Holden may not believe in witchcraft, but the film – and all the other characters in it – do. Right from the beginning, a somber voice over tells us, “It has been written since the beginning of time, even unto these ancient stones, that evil supernatural creatures exist in a world of darkness. And it is also said man using the magic power of the ancient runic symbols can call forth these powers of darkness, the demons of Hell.” 



Intrepid psychologist John Holden (the stoic Dana Andrews) travels in England to attend a convention investigating international reports of paranormal psychology, with plans to debunk the Karswell Devil Cult as the product of mass psychosis. Upon his arrival he learns that one of his British compatriots, Professor Harrington, has met a grisly end by being electrocuted when his car crashes into a telephone pole. What the audience knows from the beginning is that Harrington was pursued to his death by a monstrous fire demon, summoned by satanic madman Julian Karswell via a pesky parchment scribed with runic symbols, a parchment that seems to have a mind of its own, bringing terror and death to every hand it touches. Night of the Demon was quite daring in its day, presenting lurid elements of devil worship and demonology to international audiences.


Thanks to outstanding black and white cinematography and the direction of Jacques Tourneur who filmed the Val Lewton classics Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, Night of the Demon builds suspense through a series of brilliantly staged sequences that thrill simply through the power of suggestion alone – menacing hallways, a trip to misty Stonehenge, drawing room séances and hypnotic trances – and our hero’s pursuit by an unseen force through the forest surrounding Karswell Hall. As if the plot isn’t heady enough with its talk of devil cults, fire demons, “broomsticks and all that”, the soundtrack music is deliciously bombastic 50s horror movie cheese – crank it up loud enough and your neighbors will wonder what kind of devil’s business you’re up to.



Some detractors of the movie say its downfall is the full frontal viewing of the demon itself. It’s a garish, stop-motion puppet not unlike the beasts Ray Harryhausen modeled for the old Sinbad movies. There are varying accounts of whether Tourneur planned to include the demon all along, or if he was forced by the studio against his well. But to those who say its appearance is corny and ruins the film I would like to point out the rubber dummy in The Exorcist that cranks its head around and plays hide and go seek with a crucifix. For my money, the only downfall of the movie is the rather wooden performance of Dana Andrews as John Holden. Andrews’s brand of stoic American hero doesn’t merge well with the outstanding performances of the otherwise all-British cast. But even if someone of Charlton Heston’s caliber had played the role, the incongruous effect would probably have been much the same.

I don’t remember seeing this one when I was a kid, but I picked up a VHS copy in a video bargain bin in the early 80s, one complete with an artist’s full color rendition of the fire demon, thinking I was in for some silly bit of ‘50s schlock. Night of the Demon has been a favorite ever since. It is still readily available on DVD in two versions, the original 95 minute British version, and the slightly cut 82 minute American release print under the title Curse of the Demon. Either way, you’re in for a hell of a good time!






Thursday, April 18, 2013

Yawn of the Devil: Eye of the Devil (1966)



The reputation of Eye of the Devil came to me via books on classic horror movies years before I saw the movie. To my knowledge it was never released on VHS, and it was not until TCM acquired the rights to MGM’s film library that it began to show up on cable TV in the wee hours of the morning, usually as part of a David Niven or Deborah Kerr film festival. A DVD format was not available until a few years ago as part of the Warner’s Manufacture on Demand collection


Eye of the Devil is purportedly an occult shocker complete with witches, warlocks, and human sacrifice. Add to the subject matter the presence of the beguiling Sharon Tate who was to be killed several years later by the Manson cult, and you’ve got a film ripe for a bad reputation. The DVD slipcase cover featuring the original poster art trumpets the tag-line, “This is the climax in mind-chilling terror.” Too bad the film doesn’t make good on that promise.


Depending on your tolerance for moldy oldies like Eye of the Devil, film fans seem to love it or hate it. I love the black and white cinematography, the constantly moving camera, and rapid fire edits. I love looking at Sharon Tate, sinister and seductive with her blond hair and black turtlenecks. I love the grim, joyless faces of British cinema royalty – Flora Robson, Edward Mulhare, Donald Pleasence, and David Niven – but I can’t say the same for Deborah Kerr. She enters the plot as an emotionally overwrought housewife with a nervous tremor in her voice and within ten minutes of screen time her performance accelerates to a fever pitch. Kerr is not entirely to blame. The majority of film footage was shot with Kim Novak in the role of Catherine de Montfaucon. Novak was thrown from a horse while filming the scene where Catherine visits the family crypt in the forest. Kerr was her replacement. All footage with Novak was reshot, leaving Kerr little time to create a nuanced performance.


Eye of the Devil, originally titled 13, came from an uninspired Gothic horror novel by Phillip Loraine, Day of the Arrow – which would have made a better title for the movie. I guess have issues with a Gothic horror film with the Devil in the title but not in the actual story line.


Paperback reprint cover art by Lou Marchetti

The plot follows the standard template, but it’s more a tepid exercise in slow-burn Gothic suspense than full blown occult horror. Phillippe (Niven), the Marquise de Montfaucon, is called home to the ancestral chateau, Bellenac, deep in French vineyard country. It seems the crops have failed, and Phillippe has an obligation to fulfill.  His wife, Catherine, ignores his warning for her to remain in Paris, packs up the kiddies and arrives at Bellenac in time to scamper around like a nervous kitten wondering what all the fuss is about. It’s pretty obvious from the get-go – obvious to everyone except Catherine.  Catherine whimpers and whines but all that Phillippe and the rest of the relatives and morose family retainers will say is, “You don’t understand.”


The idea of human sacrifice to ensure the abundance of the crop has been done better, and in more horrifying manner, in tales such as The Wicker Man and (The Dark Secret of) Harvest Home. Eye of the Devil presents its occult “shocks” rather timidly. Odile de Cary (Sharon Tate) and her brother Christian de Cary (David Hemmings) are some sort of witch and warlock brother/sister act who serve little purpose other than to stand around looking blond and pretty; hooded figures stalk our perpetually frightened heroine, voices chant in Latin…there’s even a mad relative locked away in a tower who only confirms what the audience has figured out well ahead of time.


From the looks of the film and the all-star cast, it seems MGM was intent on making a classy thriller, but the whole thing is too tame to be horrifying. Imagine how diabolical and lurid the film could have been if Roger Corman had been behind the camera.

But it rocks the Gothic eye-candy scale, and earns its place in the Midnight Room.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Psycho Stinker Qu'est-ce que c'est: Bates Motel


Folks at my day job love to talk about TV shows and give me stink-eye when I tell them I don’t watch TV. Sorry I can't discuss last night's episode around the water cooler - I have books to write. I can squeeze in Downton Abbey once a year, but I’ve pretty much lost interest in True Blood. Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire just aren’t my thing.

Then along comes Bates Motel, and a trusted, Gothic-wired friend who has been following it encouraged me to watch. I’m not exactly opposed to exploring the back story of Norman and his mother, and I like the fact that they live in the correct house complete to its period furnishings, but Bates Motel fails to work for me on a number of levels.

First and foremost is the predictability of the script. From the moment the creepy relative of the former motel owner shows up, I knew he was coming back after dark to cause havoc. From the moment the sheriff and his deputy show up, I knew the suspicious one would put Norma through the ringer, and Norma and the pretty one would get the hook up. From the moment the girl with CF showed up, I knew Norman was going to go for her and not the daddies’ girls with straightened blond hair. The success of nearly every TV series that has captured viewer’s interest en masse over the past decade has been grounded in unpredictability. Bates Motel plays like a retread of every bad 80s horror movie. Here, that’s not a good thing.

To add salt to the wound of bad writing, I found the graphic rape scene in extremely poor taste. But I was more offended by Norman and Norma’s lack of emotional response and subsequent psychological fall out. The post-rape scenes as written, as well as the actors’ performance, were appallingly underplayed. In the world of Bates Motel, a violent sexual assault and subsequent murder is taken in stride, just another day on the job, just another dead body to wrap in carpet and dump in the swamp.

I made it through the second episode, but it was only more of the same. I won’t be watching more. With the level of quality competition in cable TV series these days, I expect a show to hit the ground running. Bates Motel doesn’t seem to know what genre it is. Is it murder mystery? Is it horror? Is it paranormal? It’s certainly not psychological thriller, which is what it should be. Bates Motel should take a cue from a show like The Killing, a relentlessly grim psychological thriller/murder mystery. Obviously, the Bloch estate sold the rights to the characters, but nothing in this series’ exploration of the insidious relationship between a savage killer with MPD and his sexually repressed, religious fanatic of a mother does any justice to the Robert Bloch characters we know and love via the Hitchcock film.

In the words of the late Roger Ebert, two thumbs down.



Saturday, March 16, 2013

"She's downstairs." The Mysteries of "The Awakening" (2011)


With my fondness for the late Victorian/Edwardian period of British history, I’m as addicted to Downton Abbey as the next guy. I fairly inhaled the Season Three DVD set in one snort. Weeks later, I am still feeling the after burn. It helps that I brought new lambs to the fold at my day job and get to relive the first two seasons vicariously through their excitement of discovery. But being a melancholic at heart, I can’t help but yearn for a ghost, a séance, or simply a Byronic hero with a juicy facial scar. Lady Edith would make such a Gothic heroine, n’cest pas?


Hot on the heels of the release of Downton Season Three stateside, along comes Nick Murphy’s tidy Gothic ghost thriller, The Awakening. There are no lords and ladies here, no scheming lady’s maid or vicious gay footman – this is the life as it was in post War England: 1921. The War has ruined the lives of the poor and nobleman alike. Class distinctions are quickly becoming a thing of the past. The pain of the Great War looms over The Awakening like a miserable gray pall. No one is unaffected.

The Spiritualist movement may have peaked in the late Victorian era, but anytime there a people are overwhelmed by the casualties of war they are prone to turning to others for spiritual guidance. Some find solace in the church. Others seek more specific contact with the dearly departed.


The Awakening opens with such a scene – querents gathered in a darkened London parlor hoping to speak to their loved ones one last time. Within minutes of the film’s opening, the séance is disrupted by a dramatic exposure of the mechanics used by the medium and her compatriots by one Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), ghost debunker extraordinaire. If you think you’ve seen this scene before in Haunted (1995), you are correct. The Awakening knows its lineage and liberally pays homage to any number of films and fictions from The Sixth Sense and Don’t Look Now to Turn of the Screw and The Haunting of Hill House.

I’m always on the lookout for stories that take traditional Gothic templates and infuse new life into them. Florence Cathcart is a true neo-Gothic heroine for the 21st century. Cathcart is arrogant and skeptical, confident in her scientific apparatus and in her analytical conclusions. She is invited to a remote boy’s boarding school in Cumbria where a child has died, apparently the victim of a ghost that haunts the school from the days when it was a residential house. The first half of the plot follows Cathcart as she pulls off feats of deductive reasoning worthy of Sherlock Holmes. The mystery is sewn up, the school closes for half-term…


And the fun begins. The second half of The Awakening spins the film into unpredictable territory. On first viewing I was swept away by the images on the screen, the visual elements that helped both to build and underscore the story. Just before the big reveal at the start of the third act I said to myself, “Whatever the answer is, it’s been right under my nose all along.”


It was – and it wasn’t. The Awakening is quiet, mysterious, cryptic, ambiguous – and when it needs to rely on a story cheat, it does so without apology. Like Don’t Look Now there are strong visual elements that support the denouement of the story, but even as the answers are spelled out during the final act, other questions arise. That, for me, is what makes The Awakening a powerful contribution to the pantheon of great Gothic tales. A stroll around the internet will turn up a number of angry customer reviews, mostly targeted at an open-ended final scene. I sat though the movie twice in one week. The second time I marveled at its complexities and the hints and clues which are buried in the film from the opening scene onward. I’ll admit the dialogue in the final scene is a bit of a head-scratcher, but I think the screenwriters are encouraging the audience to question the nature of subjective reality.

The real puzzle for me, though, was a line of dialogue uttered by Robert Mallory (Dominic West) from behind a closed door in an apparently empty room: “She’s downstairs.”


Watch The Awakening. Then, let’s talk.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

I Heart the Dead: The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962)



When fans and scholars of classic 60s horror films mention the Italian Gothic strain, two names invariably surface: Mario Bava, the director who spearheaded the Italian movement with the 1960 film, Black Sunday, and its star, the black-eyed goddess, Barbara Steele who also starred in Black Sunday. Even beyond the horror genre, Black Sunday is hailed as a classic. But to me, Black Sunday is not the definitive Italian Gothic. That honor goes to 1962’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock.


Bava actually owes much of his claim to fame to Hichcock’s director, Riccardo Freda. Bava was cinematographer on the earlier Freda film, I Vampiri. From Black Sunday to Whip and the Body and later films such as Kill, Baby, Kill and Bay of Blood (all of which, by the way, are worth tracking down and viewing) Bava’s greatest strength as a director are his overwrought visuals which give his films, rather than story and performance, their power.


Freda’s ghoulish valentine to necrophilia (written for the screen by Ernesto Gastaldi) draws a more nuanced performance from Robert Flemyng as the titular doctor, especially when compared to the hammy performance of the leads in the similar films Nightmare Castle and Castle of Blood.


The Horrible Dr Hichcock opens in a London cemetery in 1885 where an unseen figure dispatches the gravedigger in order to purloin the body from its coffin. Within the next few minutes we learn that the brilliant surgeon, Bernard Hichcock, has a penchant for putting his lovely wife into a drug-induced death-like trance in order to satisfy his peculiar sexual proclivity. One night, things go horribly awry and Dr. Hichcock discovers he has accidentally murdered his wife.


Enter Barbara Steele, ever the new bride and target for Hichcock’s death lust. From this point on the film borrows liberally from everything from  Jane Eyre to Rebecca, with a few references to various Alfred Hitchcock films thrown in for good measure (hence the title) as the good doctor tries everything in his power to introduce Cynthia to his sordid little sex games. Hichcock is filled with the requisite billowing curtains, cobwebbed corridors, and candelabras held aloft, but you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen Steele trapped in coffin with a glass window in its lid.


Like most of the films from the Italian Gothic period, a decent American print has remained elusive. There is still no official release in the US, but several weeks ago I acquired a DVD from this dealer one eBay. The letterboxing and color blows away my old Sinister Cinema VHS tape as well as a DVD purchased from another dealer several years ago. The screenshots here are direct from this DVD version. Whether you are a collector or curiosity seeker, if you love pure Gothic cinema, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock comes with my highest recommendation. If I could take only one film representing Italian Gothic to a desert island, this is it.





Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Spaghetti Gothic 101: Nightmare Castle



Not my favorite Barbara Steele movie (that would be The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, coming to The Midnight Room next week), but any way you slice it Nightmare Castle packs an awful lot of bang for your buck. This is another one I originally purchased on VHS from Sinister Cinema years ago. The censored version as originally released in the US is in public domain, so there are numerous DVD editions floating around at various price ranges.

In 2009, Severin Films acquired the rights from the European copyright holder and presented Nightmare Castle in as near to a perfect print as we will probably ever see, restoring close to fourteen minutes of footage along with the rest of the original music score by Ennio Morricone. Morricone is well known to Spaghetti Western fans as the composer of the scores for For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Sad to say his idea of a Gothic soundtrack is mostly overblown organ music and ridiculously over-the-top romantic themes that swell at inappropriate moments.


The story itself is a garish mishmash of Gothic tropes beginning with mad scientist Dr. Steven Arroway’s discovery that his wife is having an affair with the hunky gardener. Arroway systematically tortures the young lovers with whips and chains before dousing them with acid and electrocuting them. I guess if you’re going to dispatch adulterers you may as well do it in style.

Greedy Dr. Arroway thought he was going to inherit his wife’s money, but before her death, Muriel left her fortune to her half-sister Jenny, a blonde dead-ringer for Muriel incarcerated at the local insane asylum. But wait – it gets better.


After coaxing Jenny into leaving her money to him in her will, Arroway breaks her out of the asylum only to attempt to drive her mad all over again. What he doesn’t count on are Jenny’s psychic dreams in which she learns that someone murdered her sister in the greenhouse. There’s some other weird stuff about the mad scientist’s experiments – he restores the wrinkly housekeeper’s youth and raises plants that drip blood, and there’s a handsome love interest for Jenny in the form of her former psychiatrist who makes house calls.

The plot is lurid and as Grand Guignol as the soundtrack. The star of the show is, of course, Barbara Steele, demonstrating her acting chops as both Muriel and Jenny. (She plays duel roles in Black Sunday and An Angel for Satan as well). Many reviewers of her films around the internet have commented that she is put to best use when the camera makes a fetish of her face and body. Ultimately, she is as pure a 1960s sex symbol as Bridget Bardot and Raquel Welch.


As I mentioned earlier there are numerous DVD versions to choose from, but the Severin release is the only one worth purchasing, not only for presenting the most complete version for American audiences, but also for the outstanding thirty minute interview with the dark goddess herself.

I’m not much of a film critic, just a lifelong fan of these creaky old horror shows. If you’d like to know just how revered some of these Spaghetti Gothics are among collectors and horror fans, check out what some of the experts have to say at the links below.