Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)

Article 2781 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-18-2008
Posting Date: 3-25-2009
Directed by Terence Fisher
Featuring Peter Cushing, Shane Briant, Madeline Smith
Country: UK

A young doctor is committed to an insane asylum for his experiments with corpses. There he encounters Baron Frankenstein, who enlists him as an assistant in his latest project; creating a new man from parts taken from the inmates.

This was Hammer’s final movie in the Frankenstein series, as well as Terence Fisher’s last movie. It’s generally considered one of the weakest of the series, but I quite liked it, at least partially because Peter Cushing is in top form; he makes full use of every bit of dialogue and is fascinating to watch. It is a bit disappointing in some ways; I thought it was a little lazy scriptwise to have him going back to the monster-creating business after the variety of tasks he undertook in the other sequels of the series, and the movie is sometimes unnecessarily lurid, especially at the disappointing climax. I also can’t help but give a little credit to David Prowse as the monster; despite the elaborate makeup and costume, he manages to use his body language to give a marked change to the monster after his brain transplant. The movie also successfully engenders our sympathy for him; when the two doctors and the mute female assistant celebrate the success of the operation, we are painfully aware that the monster (the fruit of their labors) is not to partake of the celebration. The story rehashes certain elements of other movies from the series, but Cushing keeps us interested. The movie has an odd ending, with Frankenstein still alive and looking with hope towards the future, whereas most of the other movies in the series at least gave the semblance of him being punished for his crimes, and it’s ironic that despite his looking forward into the future, this was the end of the line for the series.

First Men in the Moon (1964)

Article 2780 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-17-2008
Posting Date: 3-24-2009
Directed by Nathan Juran
Featuring Edward Judd, Martha Hyer, Lionel Jeffries
Country: UK

At the end of the nineteenth century, a scientist creates a substance which can cut off the force of gravity. He decides to use the substance to hurtle himself in a sphere he has built to the moon.

I have distinct memories of seeing parts of this movie when I was a kid, with the sequence in which Dr. Cavor speaks to the head Selenite the one that remained most distinctly in my memory. For some reason, I never took the opportunity to see it again until now some forty years later, and I was really curious to see the movie as a whole and see how it stood up.

I was initially impressed to see Nigel Kneale’s name in the credits, but was wary when I saw that he shared the screenplay credit with another writer. After having watched the movie, I would love to know just how much of it was Kneale’s work, though I suspect that the scene with the Head Selenite above is his. I’m not happy with many aspects of this movie. I don’t mind the framing device of the modern-day moon landing leading us to the main part of the story as a flashback; I think it’s a clever touch. However, I’m really annoyed with the portrayal of Cavor during the first half of the movie; he belabors the dotty eccentricity to the point that I think I’m watching something like THOSE FANTASTIC FLYING FOOLS. Things settle down once they get to the moon. Ray Harryhausen’s animation here is mostly intent on giving a sense of life to some of the bizarre moon creatures; only the battle with the giant moon caterpillar comes across as a typical Harryhausen centerpiece. The story itself is a little unfocused, much of the action is too obvious, but I still love the scene with the head Selenite, and I suspect a much better movie is lurking around in here somewhere. All in all, I found this one a disappointment, though only a mild one.

The Queen’s Swordsman (1961)

aka Los Espadachines de la reina
Article 2779 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-16-2008
Posting Date: 3-23-2009
Directed by Roberto Rodriguez
Featuring Ofelio Guilmain, Xavier Loya, Miguel Manzano
Country: Mexico

A wolf and a skunk find a human child lost in the woods, and raise her as their own. They soon decide that the woods are too dangerous for her, so they decide to take her to human civilization, and so they leave their cave and become swordsmen. They become involved with a princess who has become the target of an evil queen.

I went into this one blind, knowing only that it was a foreign movie. Just from the title, I suspected it was going to be an Italian swashbuckler with slight fantastic elements (and if I had known that the movie features a scene of a beautiful woman being tortured, my suspicion that it was an Italian movie would have only been stronger). But instead, I found out it was Mexican; furthermore, it came to us via K. Gordon Murray and features two characters I remember from LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD; namely, the Wolf and the Skunk (the closest I can come to a Mexican equivalent to Franco and Ciccio). I knew there was a series of sequels to LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD, but I didn’t know these two characters went on to anything else. So, given that it’s a Mexican children’s fantasy, I fully expected high weirdness, and the beginning of the movie (in which we discover that little girl has a pet alligator she likes to sleep with and has a fondness for amphibians and reptiles of all kinds) certainly delivers. Oddly enough, it settles down after that; it actually seems like a fairly straightforward swashbuckler, with the only the gimmick that the heroic swordsmen are animals to give it that weirdness. Oh, yes, the Wolf and the Skunk sing (and they’re no better at it than they were in LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD), and there’s plenty of slapstick silliness, but I have to admit to being slightly disappointed at this one; after all, most Mexican children’s fantasies I’ve seen go way off the deep end. The oddest touch is that the ending is even a little downbeat.

Marooned (1969)

Article 2778 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-15-2008
Posting Date: 3-22-2009
Directed by John Sturges
Featuring Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna, David Janssen
Country: USA

Three astronauts find themselves stranded in their spacecraft when the retro rockets fail. NASA must engage in a race against time in order to rescue them.

The cast is impressive (Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna, David Janssen, James Franciscus and Gene Hackman) and the special effects are indeed special. But unless you find NASA engineers speaking endless jargon through microphones hypnotically compelling, or are fascinated by the space technology the camera lovingly caresses, you will probably find this overlong science fiction thriller to be really tough going. Though the lack of music (other than a kind of ambient outer space hum) does give the movie an interesting texture, it also leaves the viewer on his own to try to pick up any emotional resonances and to find the excitement therein. It also doesn’t help that the three astronauts, to save oxygen, must try their best to keep calm, a situation not conducive the building excitement. Hackman, as the astronaut who has trouble keeping calm, has the only really interesting role here; Peck plays a standard authority figure, Janssen plays Janssen, and Crenna and Franciscus are stalwart, stoic and little else. It gets more interesting towards the end, but it’s all too low-key, and many of the scenes go on way too long. A better script, livelier direction, and more merciless editing would have helped immensely here.

Maniac (1963)

MANIAC (1963)
Article 2777 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-14-2008
Posting Date: 3-21-2009
Directed by Michael Carreras
Featuring Kerwin Mathews, Nadia Gray, Donald Houston
Country: UK

An American artist finds himself stranded in a small town in France, and ends up striking up a romance with the married owner of a restaurant. The owner’s husband is in an insane asylum after having killed a man with an acetylene blowtorch years earlier. The husband agrees to give up his wife if she and her lover help him to escape the asylum and depart the country. However, these plans are a cover for something else….

Generally, I like Hammer’s black-and-white thrillers, but this one really tests my patience during the first half; after the opening murder, the story bogs down in a long sequence that sets up a fairly obvious love affair; it takes forever for the story to even get around to mentioning the insane husband. Things do pick up once the escape gets underway, and there are a goodly number of surprising plot twists in the story. However, I’m not sure all of the plot twists were strictly necessary, and some of the sequences (the need to dispose of a dead body) are good for the moment, but don’t really lead anywhere satisfactory in the long run. It holds the interest, all right, but don’t look at it too close afterwards, as it begins to look pretty far-fetched. At least the method of murder isn’t one of those that’s overused in horror movies.

Lifespan (1976)

Article 2776 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-13-2008
Posting Date: 3-20-2009
Directed by Sandy Whitelaw
Featuring Hiram Keller, Tina Aumont, Klaus Kinski
Country: USA/UK/Netherlands/Belgium

An American scientist comes to Amsterdam to work with another scientist on developing a serum for immortality. When the second scientist commits suicide, the American moves into his apartment and tries to piece together the research he did. He discovers that the dead scientist did come up with a solution, but crucial research information has disappeared. The American tries to trace the other scientist’s research, unaware that he is being led into a trap…

This is an odd but engaging science fiction mystery with noirish overtones. It takes a very low-key approach to the proceedings, and there are moments where the science fiction elements of the movie threaten to move into the territory of the Gizmo Maguffin, but that doesn’t quite happen. Rather, it becomes a meditation on one of the classic horror themes – just how much is one willing to play with human lives for the sake of science? I’d be almost tempted to retitle the movie “How I Became a Mad Scientist”. The movie manages to pull off certain tricks which might hurt other movies; the constant narration actually serves a purpose by giving us an insight into the scientist’s mind, which becomes crucial towards the end of the movie. The sex and nudity also feels relevant rather than merely exploitative, since it’s all part of the web of conspiracy that is being woven around the man. The movie ends with a decision being made and a plan for the future, but it does leave you speculating as to whether the scientist will indeed succeed with his plans, or whether the web is woven too tight around him. This movie seems to only have an average reputation, but I found it quite engaging.

House of Mortal Sin (1976)

aka The Confessional
Article 2775 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-12-2008
Posting Date: 3-19-2009
Directed by Pete Walker
Featuring Anthony Sharp, Susan Penhaligon, Stephanie Beacham
Country: UK

A distraught young woman finds herself confessing her sins to a priest who becomes obsessed with her, and who undertakes drastic measures (including murder) to save her soul.

Having just read “English Gothic”, a history of the British horror film, I got a chance to gain a perspective of what Pete Walker’s horror movies were trying to accomplish and the climate in which they were made. As a result, I found myself going into this movie with a more sympathetic outlook than I might otherwise have had. I ended up being quite impressed with this one; it’s one of those horror movies that tries to be about something more than just scaring people. On one level, it’s about how a madman can avoid suspicion by dint of his being in a profession that is supposedly above suspicion (the priesthood, in this case) and by proving to be a consummate liar; whenever the priest starts to lie, it’s easy to see why practically everyone believes him. It’s also one of the saddest horror movies I’ve ever seen; practically every character has had a traumatically unhappy life or will have one by the end of the movie. The acting is strong throughout, and the script does an excellent job of fleshing out the characters; you end up having strong feelings about every character, and seemingly one dimensional characters (such as the one-eyed housekeeper) turn out to have histories that make you understand (if not approve) their actions. For me, the only time the film really fumbles is when it stoops to horror cliches; in particular, having the thunderstorm raging outside smacks of a certain overbearing convenience. Anthony Sharp plays the psychotic priest, and he does a fine job, but I’ll always wonder what it would have been like had Peter Cushing (who was originally approached for the role but had other film commitments) had played it.

Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973)

aka Lemora, the Lady Dracula
Article 2774 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-11-2008
Posting Date: 3-18-2009
Directed by Richard Blackburn
Featuring Lesley Gilb, Cheryl Smith, William Whitton
Country: USA

A 13-year old singer in a church receives a letter from her father claiming that he is about to die and wishes her forgiveness. She goes to him, unaware that he has been captured by a vampiress with her own designs on the girl…

Just because the title of the movie describes it as a “child’s tale” doesn’t mean it’s for children. The opening scene features the bloody murder by a gangster of his wife and her lover, and the first leg of the 13-year old’s journey to her father has her encountering any number of potentially abusive child molesters. Yet, the “child’s tale” description is apt; despite the depravity and sickness, the movie has the definite air of a fairy tale. There’s something truly creepy about the girl’s encounter with Lemora, who subtly but effectively seeks to initiate her in the ways of vampirism. Despite the repellent undertones of the movie (which no doubt contributed to it being condemned by the Catholic film board), it’s entrancing and fascinating. It stumbles towards the end, however; once the girl discovers the nature of her captor, we get an extended and rather dull chase sequence, followed by an overdose of the artiness with which the movie has flirted up to that point. The ending is logical enough, but it may leave you feeling rather queasy. At any rate, this seems to be the week for offbeat and bizarre horror movies for me.

The Devil’s Men (1976)

aka Land of the Minotaur
Article 2773 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-10-2008
Posting Date: 3-17-2009
Directed by Kostas Karagiannis
Featuring Donald Pleasence, Peter Cushing, Luan Peters
Country: UK/USA/Greece

Pagans are sacrificing people to a statue of the minotaur. A priest sets out to stop them.

It’s got Peter Cushing. It’s got Donald Pleasence. It’s got some lovely Greek scenery. It’s got a score by rock/ambient music star Brian Eno (though I suspect he’s in no way responsible for the horrible song at the end of the movie). But, thanks to lifeless direction and a ludicrous script infected with cliches, it doesn’t help. But then, what do you expect of a movie whose title emerges from the nose of a minotaur? Pleasence uses a crucifix to defeat the evil Minoan pagans after having made a comment that these methods must have been used to prevent them from taking over the world in ancient days, but given that Minoan civilization predates the crucifixion (and presumably the sacredness of the crucifix)… but let’s not go on, as I suspect that logic wasn’t on anybody’s mind when they made this one. Both the stars are wasted in tired roles that give them nothing good to work with. The movie is also padded with gratuitous nudity.

Charms (1973)

CHARMS (1973)
aka Hex
Article 2772 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-9-2008
Posting Date: 3-16-2009
Directed by Leo Garen
Featuring Keith Carradine, Scott Glenn, Hilary Thompson
Country: USA

Sometime after the first World War, a motorcycle gang, chased by a posse from a small Nebraska town, takes refuge on a farm inhabited by two sisters. However, one of the sisters seems to have special powers, and those that cross her must feel her wrath…

In its way, this odd period horror piece is as eccentric and unique as yesterday’s movie, DARK FORCES; however, unlike yesterday’s movie, I emerge annoyed rather than fascinated. I don’t think this movie knows what it wants to be. Is it a horror movie? A mystic love story? A comedy? A slice of life character movie? All of the above? None of the above? I just don’t know, but I do know it doesn’t succeed on any of those levels. I have several particular problems with it. First of all, the characters seem unbelievable and in the wrong time period. Also, every time the characters break into regional dialects, the end result sounds forced and awkward rather than quaint and authentic. And then there’s the simple fact that I find it impossible to take seriously any movie that prominently features a mouth harp on the score. None of the characters seem to react realistically to the strange events that go on around them; when one of the characters finally says that there’s “something strange going on”, it’s so late in the movie that it became the biggest laugh line in it for me (and a lot funnier than the intentional comedy). In the end, it feels like a somewhat arty mess. Recommended only to the extremely curious.