Un horrible cauchemar (1902)

aka A Horrible Nightmare
Article 5150 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-8-2016
Directed by Ferdinand Zecca
Cast unknown
Country: France
What it is: A bad dream

An opium smoker has a nightmare in which he is in an inescapable prison and tormented by a disappearing devil.

If this is the kind of experience you have when smoking opium, it’s just as well I never took up the habit. It’s your basic bare-bones Melies imitation; even the elaborate background painting smacks of Melies’s style, and the devil is like a variation on Melies’s ubiquitous tumbling imps. And if the ending is any indication, then your Teddy Bear is going to get the worst of the experience. At any rate, it’s a fairly amusing early trick short.

On a side note, when I first conceived of this project, my first strategy was to watch all of the movies in a strict chronological order. I abandoned this approach as it would have been a logistical nightmare; the silent era is full of difficult-to-find obscurities, and research on the era is full of so much misinformation that I would have rapidly gotten mired in the project and it would have never gotten off the ground. Instead, I chose a much looser approach (which has a chronological edge to it) that would allow me to start with movies much easier to find, and I’m glad I did. Still, the silent era fascinates me, and even this late in the game, some of these elusive titles pop up and I can still cover them.

However, I really do owe a debt of thanks to all of those who have taken an interest in my project and have pointed me in the direction of finding some of the rarities I’ve seen, especially those who have helped me negotiate the pitfalls of the silent era. This movie initially ended up on my “ones that got away” list with a LOST status, but then doctor kiss at the Classic Horror Film Board revealed that he had located the movie in a streaming file of unidentified Pathe shorts, giving me a chance to catch a movie I might otherwise have never seen. I dedicate this review to all of those who have been generous in their help; this project wouldn’t be the same without their help.

The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

Article 5144 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 4-30-2016
Directed by Leonard Kastle and Donald Volkman
Featuring Shirley Stoler, Tony Lo Bianco, Mary Jane Higby
Country: USA
What it is: Crime / romance

A lonely, overweight and miserable nurse meets and falls in love with a Spanish man through a lonely hearts club. She discovers he is a gigolo who romances women for their money, but she loves him enough that she decides to stay with him and aid him in his schemes. But she’s a jealous woman, and when pushed, she begins using murder to eliminate her lover’s marks.

Most of my sources do not list this as a horror movie, and though it does to some extent deal with serial killing, it is very marginal in that regard. Plotwise, it’s something of a cross between MONSIEUR VERDOUX and PRETTY POISON, but the emotional center of the movie is a love story; most of the pivotal events in the movie are the result of the characters’ love for each other. Because of that emotional center, you do become somewhat attached to these characters and you care about them, even though they engage in some heinous activities. One of the most interesting aspects about the movie is that the two lovers look nothing like your usual Hollywood love interest, and because of this, you keep expecting that the love will ultimately fail or that someone is merely using the other person. The movie is fascinating, though it isn’t perfect; things get rather slow in the middle of the movie when it spends too much time with the attempt to bilk a somewhat paranoid older woman of her money. The ending is, however, truly memorable, and is one of my favorite parts of the movie. This one is worth catching, even if it remains marginal in a genre sense.

The Henderson Monster (1980)

Article 5124 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 4-4-2016
Directed by Waris Hussein
Featuring Christine Lahti, Jason Miller, Stephen Collins
Country: USA
What it is: TV-Movie drama

An ambitious Nobel-prize winning scientist’s experiments with recombinant DNA at a local college raise issues about the safety of the experiments, and the mayor decides to hold a hearing on the matter.

Some movies need a warning attached to them. This is not because they are necessarily bad; it’s because for one reason or another they get advertised as something they are assuredly not. Take this one, for example; it has the word “monster” in the title, and IMDB classifies it as both horror and science fiction. Yet I suspect anyone going into this one with their hearts set on the movie delivering on the type of actions these promise will emerge from it profoundly disappointed. In short, the monster is nothing but a theoretical possibility, it only marginally edges up against science fiction, and it is definitely not a horror movie. it is, in fact, a drama about scientific development and the attendant fears if what experimentation may unleash. It is, in fact, a social issue drama.

This is not to say that the movie doesn’t have its worth. It actually manages to take a complex view of the subject, peoples its story with characters who have complex motivations and flaws, gives us varying points of view, and comes to no simple conclusions. The script is also extremely literate, though this isn’t always a positive thing; there are moments where the dialogue feels artificial and forced, especially when the characters become a little too enamored with analyzing their personal motivations for their actions. By the end of the movie, it could be argued that very little has actually happened, but it does provide some food for thought, and this could prove a valuable movie for the right person. However, if you’re searching for a horror/science fiction thriller, this is not the place to go.

Haunted Ranch (1943)

Article 5123 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 4-1-2016
Directed by Robert Emmett Tansey
Featuring John ‘Dusty’ King, David Sharpe, Max Terhune
Country: USA
What it is: Weird Western

When a bank robber dies without revealing the location of a stash of gold bullion, the other members of his gang fake a haunting of his ranch to drive people away while they search. Can the Range Busters solve this case?

It’s nice to get back to the black-and-white era every once in a while and watch something like this. It’s the twentieth picture in the Range Busters series, and the haunting of the ranch is the obvious fantastic content, though we find out at the outset that the haunting is being faked. Oddly enough, there are also two other touches of fantastic content here. One is in the realm of gadgetry with an organ that is also a combination safe, with the choice of stops serving as the key to unlock it. The other is that Elmer, Max Terhune’s ventriloquist dummy, does a mind-reading act. The movie itself isn’t particularly good, but it is fitfully entertaining. There’s a couple of odd touches here; I can’t help but notice that the heroes are basically playing themselves; their character names are the same as their real ones. The second is that there is an odd transition in the middle of the movie where one of the Range Busters leaves to join the military (as he did in real life), and is replaced in midstream by Rex Lease. There’s a song sung by John ‘Dusty’ King, and the obligatory scared black servant.

House on Straw Hill (1976)

aka Expose
Article 5107 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 3-13-2016
Directed by James Kenelm Clarke
Featuring Udo Kier, Linda Hayden, Fiona Richmond
Country: UK
What it is: Erotic thriller

A paranoid and somewhat disturbed writer hires a female typist to help him write his second novel. Then the murders start…

In the early eighties, the forces that be in the UK banned a number of videos that had fallen through the cracks of censorship and were deemed to be a threat to young video-watchers. This movie ended up on the list, and the comments on the back of the Blu-Ray disc jacket make a big deal of its “banned” status and emphasize the movie’s depravity and controversial nature. This may make the movie a cause celebre for those against censorship, but it doesn’t necessarily make it a great or even a good movie. I’m thinking it was mostly banned for the sex; it is more explicit in that regard than other non-porn movies of the period (though it seems rather mild when compared to some Eurosleaze movies). As for the blood and gore, the nastiest scene is just a slightly more explicit version of the shower scene in PSYCHO; there’s a bit more blood and more nudity. My problem is that all the sex and gore seems to be nothing more than gratuitous filler to pad out a plot that is threadbare, uninspired, and a little obvious. Furthermore, it ends with a final twist which (if you’re paying any attention at all to the timeline of the story) is incredibly ludicrous. And, when all is said and done, in comparison to some of the other titles on the Video Nasties list, this one is relatively tame. The curious may want to give it a watch, but it’s hardly essential viewing.

Hospital Massacre (1981)

aka X-Ray
Article 5096 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 3-2-2016
Directed by Boaz Davidson
Featuring Barbi Benton, Charles Lucia, Jon Van Ness
Country: USA
What it is: Slasher film

On Valentine’s Day, I woman goes to the hospital to get the results of some tests, but when a sinister killer switches her test results, she finds herself held captive there to await further tests. What does the killer have in mind for her?

Like MY BLOODY VALENTINE, this one takes place on Valentine’s Day. Like HALLOWEEN II, almost all of the action takes place in a hospital. About half of the movie is made up of the usual slasher cliches; you’ll know them when you see them. It’s the other half of the movie that perks my interest up. It’s one of the rare slashers where the murders don’t seem indiscriminate; the killer has a specific reason he targets every one he does. The movie also has some unexpected quirky touches, such as the way that practically every character you encounter is at least a little bit creepy, or the way that a sense of humor permeates the proceedings; one of my favorite moments has our heroine looking for help in a room populated only with three men in complete body traction. It’s also one of those movies where the fake scares are actually a bit fun.
All in all, this is a mixed bag, but I have to admit I liked this one a bit better than I do most slasher films.

Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971)

Article 5049 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-13-2016
Directed by Mark Robson
Featuring Rod Steiger, Susannah York, George Grizzard
Country: USA
What it is: Comedy/drama

After having been missing in the jungle for eight years, a macho hunter/soldier of fortune returns home to his wife and son, who have to adjust to the changes in their lives.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. wrote the screenplay for this, adapted from his own stage play. I’ve encountered Vonnegut before in this series, having seen SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (a better movie) and SLAPSTICK (OF ANOTHER KIND) (a much worse movie). Most of Vonnegut’s work falls within the bounds of science fiction, but this is one of the exceptions. Most of it plays a like a straight comedy-drama, but a few scenes take place in heaven, a place where everyone plays shuffleboard and which apparently doesn’t exclude certain individuals for reasons of morality (Adolf Hitler and Jack the Ripper are there, for example). I’d read the play many years ago and didn’t feel it was one of Vonnegut’s best efforts, though I think it plays better once you match up actors to the characters. This one has an excellent cast, with fine performances from Steiger, York and William Hickey. It’s a meditation on life, death, heroism, cultural changes, and anything else that crosses Vonnegut’s mind. It’s an interesting movie, though I’m not sure it’s a great one; it’s one I may have to think about and revisit before I really know how I feel about it.

Human Experiments (1979)

Article 5025 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-21-2015
Directed by Gregory Goodell
Featuring Linda Haynes, Geoffrey Lewis, Ellen Travolta
Country: USA
What it is: Mad scientist, WIP style

A singer is mistakenly sentenced for the mass murder of a family, and is sent to prison. There she becomes the target of a psychiatrist who is experimenting with an extreme therapy technique designed to make her a decent citizen…but which has only brought death to its subjects so far.

Most of the movie plays like a depressing, dreary women-in-prison film, somewhat less exploitative than others of its ilk. The rest of the movie is mostly concerned with the woman undergoing the therapy technique, the implementation of which strikes me as pretty unbelievable on any level. This movie is one of many which ended up on a “video nasty” list of movies that were banned in Britain. I’ve seen most of the others on this list, and this is easily the mildest of the bunch; in fact, I would imagine anyone drawn to this one for the gore and nastiness would go away very disappointed. The most grotesque scene has our heroine trapped in a cell with a lot of creepy-crawly insects, a scene which is rather disgusting but it also strains credibility, given the situation. Throw in one of those ambiguous endings, and you have just one more thing not to like about the movie. In some ways, the movie is watchable enough, largely because there’s a certain in curiosity value in finding out what is going to happen, but overall it’s a very unsatisfying experience.

The Hitcher (1986)

Article 4995 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 11-21-2015
Directed by Robert Harmon
Featuring Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Country: USA
What it is: A nightmare

A man driving a car through Texas picks up a hitch-hiker in the hopes that the latter will keep him awake on his drive. When the hitch-hiker proves to be a homicidal maniac, the driver manages to escape, only to find him stalked by the former passenger. When he tries to contact the police, he discovers that he is the one wanted for the string of murders…

Reportedly, some people find this movie fascinating, while others find it merely repellent. I place myself in the earlier category this time; there’s something positively other-worldly about this strange cross between a psycho killer movie and DUEL, and there seem to be some mystic overtones to the story. To me, there’s clearly some sort of bizarre psychic link between the hitch-hiker and the driver here, and this goes a long way towards explaining why I’m willing to buy into a usually unbelievable set of coincidences. That’s why the hitch-hiker knows what the driver is going to do and where he’s going to be, and towards the end I sense that the link starts to run both ways. There is some gore, but most of the really horrific stuff is left to our imagination, which is somehow more effective. Furthermore, it all seems to take place in a world of deserts, truck stops, diners and police stations that doesn’t seem quite real; in some ways, the movie even feels like a western of sorts. All in all, I found the movie harrowing and moody, and much of the horror is less about dying than what an experience like this can do to you on the inside. I found it very effective and very sad.

Heavy Metal (1981)

Article 4994 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 11-19-2015
Directed by Gerald Potterton
Featuring the voices of Don Francks, Caroline Semple, Richard Romanus
Country: Canada
What it is: Animated SF anthology

A glowing globe of evil tells tales of the evil it brings.

This animated SF anthology was apparently modeled off of a graphic science fiction magazine of the same name. I’ve never read the magazine, so I can’t say whether this movie is true to its spirit or not, but if this movie does so, than I wouldn’t have really enjoyed it. The movie definitely tries to be an “adult” work of science fiction, which means it’s heavy on the gore, nudity and sex; however, the stories that support the gore, nudity and sex aren’t particularly engaging. I like the futuristic noir pastiche about a cabbie the best; for one thing, it actually feels like it’s more or less telling a complete story. The two epic fantasies come across as rushed and cramped (the second one would have worked better if it had been developed into a full length movie), the zombie story feels more like an undeveloped idea, the first comic story (about a man on trial who has an “angle”) has a disappointing ending, and the second one (which feels influenced by underground comix and drug humor) is a mess, though it does feature the voices of several SCTV alumni. There’s lots of rock music on the soundtrack, and from what I gather, it was getting the rights to all this music that kept the movie off the DVD market for ages. Overall, I admire the movie’s ambitions, but I can’t say I found it satisfying.