CineSlice

A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: October, 2013

A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #15: “Night of Dark Shadows” (1971)

"Night of Dark Shadows" poster

 

Boy, the Dark Shadows franchise just can’t make me care about it, can it? Okay, so the Tim Burton flick wasn’t the best introduction, but I look at the original soap opera’s gigantic box set the same way Pee-Wee Herman regards snakes. That’s too much TV for me to crack anytime soon, and others must have felt the same way, because series creator Dan Curtis wheeled out 1970’s feature film House of Dark Shadows to summarize certain story threads for people who missed out. The only hitch was that it was a borderline-incomprehensible movie, so what could be the next course of action in appealing to non-fans? The following year’s Night of Dark Shadows seemed like a good start, but even this stand-alone creepshow that requires no prior knowledge of the program makes getting into it an incredibly plodding exercise.

Life is pretty good for Quentin Collins (David Selby). Not only does the young painter have beautiful new bride Tracy (Kate Jackson) at his side, he’s inherited the sprawling Collinwood estate. But right from the chilly reception that resident housekeeper Carlotta (Grayson Hall) gives Tracy, Quentin suspects strange things are afoot at his new digs. After a handful of bizarre, inexplicable visions, he finally prods Carlotta into telling the truth, revealing the Collins family’s connections to the supernatural. She claims that Quentin is the reincarnation of an ancestor whose lover Angelique (Lara Parker) was burned as a witch and that her ghost still haunts Collinwood, waiting for her man to return. Our hero refuses to believe such a preposterous notion, but Carlotta has other plans, scheming to ensure that the spirits of the past possess Quentin and deliver him once more into her mistress’ arms.

Although inspired by a story arc from the show, one doesn’t need to have seen it before popping in Night of Dark Shadows. The set-up is simple and familiar enough for first-timers to understand what’s happening…and that’s one of the main reasons why it sort of stinks. The entire enterprise is so predictable from the start, offering no distractions or red herrings throughout to even try and convince us otherwise; it ends exactly how you think it will, so hunker down for 90 minutes of inevitable-delaying. Without a huge roster of characters and references to keep track of, it’s easier for Night of Dark Shadows to warm us up to its protagonist’s plight, but even then, his succumbing to evil forces is handled rather expediently. He’s barely learned about his ancestors’ dirty deeds before he goes full George Lutz on Tracy, who gets cast aside as a weeping wreck too dim to do much about saving her husband. This lack of coherence (which includes a subplot about a mystery-writing couple that just sort of hangs around Collinwood) could be explained by Curtis having to excise over a half-hour of footage, but with this franchise’s track record, one has a sinking feeling that even more padding ended up on the cutting room floor.

Night of Dark Shadows is a marked improvement over its predecessor, since I didn’t spend the majority of this wanting to beat my head against a tombstone. Griping aside, Curtis’ eye for atmosphere is in full form here, and Hall delivers a creepy and understated performance as Carlotta. Night of Dark Shadows isn’t terrible, just uninteresting, a completely by-the-numbers ghost story that won’t win the series many new admirers.

A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #14: “From Beyond the Grave” (1974)

From Beyond the Grave

 

As I mentioned the other day whilst griping about Tales That Witness Madness, getting an anthology horror feature just right is nigh impossible. Even Amicus, the British production house that popularized the omnibus format in the ’60s and ’70s, had their shortcomings, cranking out a Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors for every Asylum. As the last film Amicus made of this kind before bowing out completely with 1981’s The Monster Club, From Beyond the Grave is sort of stranded in the middle. It’s not a successful picture by a long shot, but it takes a step in the right direction by cutting out a good deal of the corny filler that plagued its predecessors and ratcheting up the doom and gloom.

Welcome to Temptations Limited, a den of antiquities dedicated to weeding out society’s bastards. Anyone who dares try to cheat the kindly old shopkeeper (Peter Cushing) gets their just desserts in the most macabre of fashions, and it’s four such rat finks on whom this film focuses. We begin with David Warner as a man who haggles his way home with a mirror that houses a horrible being who beckons him to kill. Our second story follows a beleaguered nobody (Ian Bannen) whose tall tales of serving in the military cause him to cross paths with a voodoo practitioner. One fellow (Ian Carmichael) picks up not only a snuff box but also an invisible demon bent on destroying his life. The last tale centers around a young chap (Ian Ogilvy) who nabs himself a strange door that turns his supply closet into a portal to a nightmarish dimension.

Earlier Amicus anthologies were always rife with haphazard instances of humorous levity that basically killed whatever fearful atmosphere they’d been building up. But right from the ominous opening credits, you can sense that From Beyond the Grave will contain no such silliness. Aside from an over-the-top psychic figuring prominently into the demon story, the film as a whole means serious business and keeps a straight face throughout the proceedings. Nowhere is this more true than in the first and best segment of the bunch, in which Time After Time‘s Warner is driven to insanity by a bloodthirsty apparition. We also have the benefit of a framing story that co-exists swimmingly with the vignettes, with Cushing’s character flashing a knowing smirk every time a customer gives him a bum deal. Unfortunately, From Beyond the Grave sinks into ridiculousness pretty soon after its doozy of an opening act. The remaining shorts are either mired in convention and cliché or — in the case of Bannen’s tale — almost irritatingly confusing.

From Beyond the Grave has a killer mood going for it, but the consistency of its segments is on par with Amicus’ most uneven portmanteau productions. Although there’s stuff to treasure about it (Cushing’s performance is delightfully devilish), nagging nitpicks pile up too quickly to be excused away by effective lighting or the like. From Beyond the Grave promises to satisfy the appetites of horror hounds, but think of it as a four-course meal where only the salad tastes any good.

(Note: this review refers to the DVD-R version manufactured and sold by the Warner Archive Collection.)

A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #13: “The Cat and the Canary” (1978)

"The Cat and the Canary" poster

For old dark house aficionados and community theatre groups who need a cheap show to put on, The Cat and the Canary is a godsend. John Willard’s 1922 stage play lasted a modest 148 performances, but it established the standard against which all murder mysteries set on a dark and stormy night to come would be judged. A number of movie adaptations followed in its wake (including The Cat Creeps, one of the most famous lost films), but the most curious of the lot has to be the one that came about in 1978. Written and directed by erotica auteur Radley Metzger, The Cat and the Canary presents neither an overly-traditional or -contemporized take on the material; it’s just your average thriller, with enough oddities built into the script to prevent you from tuning out.

After a long life of spreading misery and woe, wealthy old weirdo Cyrus West (Wilfrid Hyde-White) has finally kicked the bucket. But not even death can stop him from screwing around with people, particularly the greedy relatives gathered for the reading of his will. From a bunch that includes a flying ace (Peter McEnery) and an American songwriter (Michael Callan), it’s innocent young Annabelle (Carol Lynley) who’s pronounced sole heir to the West fortune. However, her newfound riches come with some suspicious stipulations. Before any dough is doled out, the entire group must spend the night in Cyrus’ mansion, after which Annabelle gets nothing if she’s found to be either insane…or dead. But if it wasn’t enough to be on the lookout for her own kin, an escaped lunatic who fancies himself a cat makes Annabelle’s hopes of claiming her inheritance even trickier to accomplish.

The show having been mined for more direct laughs in previous adaptations (especially in 1939’s Bob Hope vehicle), Metzger’s The Cat and the Canary adopts a decidedly more subdued stance. The humor is dry as dry can be, to the point that many of the jokes and one-liners are rattled off with next to no added inflection. In that respect, you might assume the flick to be old-fashioned and defiantly British, but there are a few offbeat elements that say otherwise. While still set during the 1930s, The Cat and the Canary comes with traces of modernization that add to its wicked streak. Here, Cyrus West messes with his family from beyond the grave by way of a filmed will, allowing for a playful sequence in which the maid (Beatrix Lehmann) walks behind the screen while emerging on it. Moments like these are refreshing in their oddness, but they end up coming so few and far between, they’re actually kind of jolting when they take place. You can tell Metzger wants to pay tribute to a classic mystery fiction formula while making his own hip mark on the genre, but the film begs for a better balance of the two mindsets than what it gets.

Excusing these tonal hiccups, The Cat and the Canary is still the prototypical drawing room chiller. If anything, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of the play’s other big-screen renditions, so keeping me in the dark as to which of the sizable pool of suspects was the culprit was no problem. Metzger establishes a foreboding atmosphere and is obviously proud of the huge estate in which the film is almost entirely set, but perhaps a few excised shots that linger a little too long on mile-long corridors would have made for a less languid pace. As for the actors, most of their lips are affirmed in the stiff and upper position, but only because the script forces them so often to be wry without cracking the slightest smirk. They’re just fine for the most part, a handsome mixture of youngbloods like Olivia Hussey and veterans like Wendy Hiller holding their own against one another. Hyde-White’s Cyrus steals the show with little effort, and Lynley does alright for herself in a take on the source material that actually positions her as the lead, as opposed to previous versions focusing on her eventual love interest.

With its release sandwiched between the giallo boom and looming renaissance of American slashers, The Cat and the Canary comes across as pretty damn quaint. It’s not an entirely successful throwback to the golden age of cinematic killers stalking about huge old mansions, but the film has the right look down pat and at least has respect for its roots. Though it easily could’ve made itself of more divertingly devious distinction, The Cat and the Canary is a harmless genre jaunt that knows the value of a thunderclap’s lullaby.

A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #12: “Tales That Witness Madness” (1973)

"Tales That Witness Madness" poster

 

Anthology horror flicks are easy to make but excruciating to get right. It’s rare that one of these endeavors ever comes across as anything but a 90-minute clearing house for paper-thin campfire stories that couldn’t make it as feature films. So often do these movies make folks go, “That’s it?” — and Tales That Witness Madness is no different. It’s one of the sloppiest examples of its kind that I’ve seen yet, with a weak line-up of vignettes that don’t come close to leaving a frightful impression and an even lazier conceit that tries in vain to tie them all together. There really is nothing to Tales That Witness Madness, a product content to coast by on clichés and without imparting any wicked flourishes with which viewers can delight themselves.

Somewhere in England lies an ultra-modern, chrome-encrusted asylum, where a curious doctor (Donald Pleasence) presides over a rather strange roster of patients. Four of them have especially bizarre incidents to recount, which the doc attempts to convince a colleague (Jack Hawkins) are completely true. First up to bat is Paul (Russell Lewis), a little boy whose imaginary tiger friend is more real than his quarreling parents think. Next is an antique store owner (Peter McEnery) who inherits a treasure trove of old joke, only to be forced by a strange old painting to travel back in time. Joan Collins stars in the third segment as a woman who finds herself battling a humanoid tree stump for her husband’s affections (just roll with it). Last up is top-billed Kim Novak, who plays a publicity agent dead set on wooing her dashing client…unaware of his nefarious designs on her daughter.

The problem with Tales That Witness Madness is that everything’s been way too compacted, starting with the framing story. Remember how Tales from the Crypt had condemned souls being shown their past misdeeds, or how Asylum had the added mystery of which raving lunatic had once ran the hospital? Well, this movie literally has Pleasence’s character talking to some other guy about some crazy people — that’s all. Let this set the tone for the amount of ambition you can expect out of Tales That Witness Madness. It isn’t enough that each of the segments can be sufficiently summarized in a single sentence; they also put forth the bare minimum of effort towards being unique and original. Okay, the one with the guy who falls for a tree is pretty out-there, but like the other stories, its conclusion is painfully foregone, having nothing to offer but a “shocking” ending that even the least savvy of horror buffs can anticipate a mile away.

Before I lay into Tales That Witness Madness any further, let me accentuate what positives the film can claim. Though all the shorts are empty and disappointing to some degree, the highlight would probably have to be the one that kicks things off, with the boy and the incorporeal carnivore he calls pal. It comes the closest to escaping the confines of its brief running time, playing out as a tragic domestic drama that results in supernatural consequences. Again, the tree love triangle story gets bonus points for originality, and Kim Novak has a ball hamming it up as an aging beauty in the final vignette. Other than that, all of our tales are pretty much in the same boat, featuring mostly forgettable acting and predictable finales borrowed from whatever Amicus didn’t want. Memorably macabre imagery is scarce (if you’re waiting to see what happens in that poster in the movie, don’t hold your breath), replaced by lame stabs at humor and the pulse-quickening capabilities of a 4-H Halloween lock-in.

I have to admit that coming up with five paragraphs of material in which to kvetch about Tales That Witness Madness was an unexpected challenge. One is almost infected by the film’s own laziness, seeing the lack of imagination put into making it and being compelled to reply with an equally apathetic, shoulder-shrugging response. I guess I don’t totally hate the flick (if anything, it at least looks really good), but Tales That Witness Madness is still one of the most sluggish tomes of deadtime stories I’ve ever flipped through.

A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #11: “Dr. Phibes Rises Again” (1972)

"Dr. Phibes Rises Again" poster

 

The worst thing that the creators of The Abominable Dr. Phibes could have done is make another one. It was such a one-of-a-kind experience, a pulsating slice of uniquely retro macabre, any stab at a follow-up would never escape its shadow. Thus, it comes to pass that Dr. Phibes Rises Again just doesn’t cut it, with the weak plotting, death scenes, and humor all evidence of an obviously-rushed production schedule. Some may have no issue embracing this sequel’s weirdness, but in 90 minutes, it doesn’t quite carve out its own identity or find new ways to liven up its old tricks.

When we last saw the demented and disfigured Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price), he had himself put into suspended animation, presumably to sleep forever beside his ailing wife. But three years later, the moon has shimmied into the right position, waking Phibes once more to carry on the next step in resurrecting his beloved. His sights are firmly set on the River of Life, a bubbling brook whose waters may cure the missus for good. It’s set to flow through Egypt in a matter of days, but there’s one hitch in the plan: Phibes’s map has been stolen by Biederbeck (Robert Quarry), a hundred-year-old rival who wishes to prolong his own life even further. The race to immortality is on, and Phibes isn’t about to give up, ready and willing to wreak violent vengeance on anyone who gets in his way.

Dr. Phibes Rises Again is the yin to its predecessor’s yang, extremely similar in tone and story, yet maddening where the other was entertaining. At the forefront is the eponymous character’s flamboyant nature, which at least made a little sense in the first movie’s abominable hands. Phibes’s game wasn’t merely to punish those he held responsible for his wife’s fate, but to make them suffer on a biblical scale. He had a goal and a reason for us to root on his rampage, but there’s no such motivation to be found in Dr. Phibes Rises Again. Not only are the majority of his victims random henchmen who didn’t know Phibes even existed — let alone harbor a grudge against the guy — the entire River of Life subplot makes his scheme beyond convoluted. Why would he have killed all those people in the last film if a few short years is all he needed to wait before bringing his bride back to life? And if Phibes is prepared to the point of concocting insanely elaborate murders for people he barely knows on the fly, then how did he let the map slip away so easily to begin with?

Even for quickie cash-in excuses for sequels, Dr. Phibes Rises Again is thin stuff. You can tell the filmmakers hadn’t a moment to think before the studio whip cracked them into production, especially in how lackluster the killings are in comparison to the original’s. One guy gets pecked to death by crows, another is sand-blasted down to his skeleton, and one guy’s ornate demise is executed with the help of — I kid you not — a gigantic fan. Combined with the fact that most of these poor souls are nobodies who did nothing to directly earn the doctor’s ire, this really stretches Vincent Price’s ability to charm you into sympathizing with villainous ilk. Price’s gaunt features and disembodied voice still make an unsettling impression, but the film never gets you in the mood to cheer him on. The remaining actors don’t fare any better; Quarry is a boring antagonist (who, despite apparently having a past history with Phibes, only meets him for the first time at the end), the inspectors chasing Phibes contribute groan-worthy comic relief, and split-second cameos from Terry-Thomas and Peter Cushing amount to nothing but head-scratching distractions.

Where The Abominable Dr. Phibes was distinctive, stylish, and funky, Dr. Phibes Rises Again is a dumb bore. Although we do see a couple deserving baddies get a grimly-creative nudge into the grave, the flick’s heart just isn’t in it, often coming across as unwilling and unprepared to follow in its predecessor’s footsteps. And when you have someone as colorful and over-the-top as Dr. Phibes Rises Again‘s titular madman, any sign of hesitance is tantamount to Kryptonite.

A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #10: “I, Monster” (1971)

"I, Monster" poster

 

Creating a new adaptation of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is like writing a book report on “The Great Gatsby.” The Robert Louis Stevenson novel has been explored so often in so many permutations on film, television, and the stage, there’s virtually no way to say anything new. You can have Jekyll be young or old, and Hyde can be man or woman, but it still all boils down to one well-intentioned scientist and the personification of all repressed desires getting the best of him/her. I, Monster, a product of Hammer contemporary Amicus Productions, is a humble horror jaunt that’s maybe a little too quick in resigning itself to making any difference. The movie barely even tries sometimes, but some atmospheric slivers thankfully manage to peer through the cracks.

While I, Monster never utters the names “Jekyll” or “Hyde” once, Stevenson is still credited, and the set-up is the same. Christopher Lee plays Dr. Charles Marlowe, a psychologist on the verge of a major breakthrough. He’s developed a drug that allows his patients to unlock personalities within themselves that they’ve suppressed (a well-to-do waif becomes a sensual vixen, a bullish businessman becomes meek and mild, etc.). But of course, Marlowe can’t resist knowing just what his concoction can really do, eventually injecting himself with the strange brew. Thus, Edward Blake is born, an alternate persona who’s prone to mischief, murder, and all that the button-downed Marlowe stands against. It isn’t long before Blake’s influence grows stronger and stronger, pushing out the good doctor’s mentality and replacing it with pure, unrestrained anarchy.

It’s worth noting that I, Monster deviates from the traditional Jekyll/Hyde formula in a few particular areas. For one, there’s no romantic subplot, so that’s one mountain of cliches the film need not concern itself with ascending, but the most obvious difference is in Marlowe’s potion. Rather than turn anyone who partakes of it into a raging douche-canoe, it merely swaps their default personality, with how weak or evil they become depending on how they normally act. Blake isn’t a total monster from the get-go, acting as a child would and fiddling around with lab equipment after his first emergence. It’s only on each subsequent change that his acts and physical appearance get uglier, which might’ve had more of an impact, had the movie been kind enough to show us what drove Marlowe to bring on his transformations to begin with.

I, Monster is a little stingy when it comes to the whole motivation thing. Be it out of spite against skeptical colleagues or an addiction to indulging in his dark side, there’s no fleshed-out reasoning behind why Marlowe willingly summons Blake throughout the film. It gets to a point that the only conclusion one can drawn is that there’d simply be no movie if the doc didn’t go bad. Upon reflection, this sort of ties into how I, Monster doesn’t actually have much sympathy for Marlowe at all. As was the attitude of the 1931 and 1941 Jekyll/Hyde titles, the film ends up sitting back and letting the man wallow in the failures of his scientific pursuits, stopping short of literally saying, “I told you so!” That’s certainly how it plays out, what with the little insight into Marlowe’s psyche we get and the overly-stiff manner in which Lee portrays him. This is more of a criticism of Stephen Weeks’s passionless directing than of Lee, who’s not all bad and takes Blake from prankster to killer with startling effectiveness. It’s too bad the supporting cast amounts to so little, with Peter Cushing especially wasted in a minor part as Marlowe’s concerned compatriot.

Lee’s performance and solid period production values to rival those of Hammer’s notwithstanding, I, Monster is really unexciting. It sure seems poised to be a more dramatic and soul-baring take on the material than is often shown, but the script lacks the drive to take make it all come to pass. It’s a good thing I have The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll on standby, because it’ll be a while before I’ll be compelled to pay I, Monster a return visit.

A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #9: “Scream, Blacula, Scream” (1973)

"Scream, Blacula, Scream" poster

If you take away what’s among the most genius titles of all time, 1972’s Blacula is left looking like a pretty mixed bag. As the forerunner of blaxploitation cinema’s horror sub-genre, it fed into as many of the stereotypes it helped inspire as it blazed new ground. Blacula had its highs and lows, ending up an uneven pseudo-parody that didn’t leave a lasting impression on yours truly. Now I’m sure I won’t be able to recall a lot about its sequel — Scream, Blacula, Scream — in the coming weeks, but during my inaugural viewing, it struck me as being a good deal more focused than its predecessor. The humor and horror flow much better in this film, emerging when all’s said and done as a pretty badass fright flick where the laughs are part of the plan.

So where does this story of the funkiest vampire to ever stalk the earth begin? Why, at a voodoo funeral, of course. The high priestess of a modern-day cult has just passed on, leaving her son Willis (Richard Lawson) beyond pissed that he wasn’t selected as her successor. As a means of getting revenge on those who wronged him, Willis comes upon an old bag of bones, performs a sinister ceremony, and within a few moments, Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) has risen from the grave once more. Transformed into a blood-sucking brother by Count Dracula himself centuries ago, Mamuwalde resumes the rampage that got quashed in the last flick, putting the bite on Willis as the first stop in amassing new undead followers. But the fanged one has grown a bit weary of being a creature of the night lately, seeking out the voodoo cult’s new leader, Lisa (Pam Grier), to perform a ritual that might remove his horrible curse for good.

Scream, Blacula, Scream is visibly more confident than the first movie. It’s well aware of what a silly premise it’s based upon, but it’s still determined to leave viewers with some legit chills. Taking over the directing reins from William Crain, Count Yorga‘s Bob Kelljan makes it his mission to let the scares and snickers come naturally, at which he mostly succeeds. Surprisingly, it doesn’t rely on fish-out-of-water humor much at all, instead mining many gags from Mamuwalde’s relationship with Willis (who finds not being able to admire his looks in the mirror as the biggest drawback to being a vampire). But Mamuwalde himself and the soulless slaves he produces are depicted with the utmost seriousness; Kelljan knows people will be coming in giggling just from the title, so when he blindsides us with one genuinely creepy set piece after the next, the effect is doubly startling because of it.

But — as was the case in the previous picture — the glue holding Scream, Blacula, Scream together is Marshall. The man who would be King of Cartoons exudes presence like a champ, his booming voice leaving no doubt as to his capacity for commanding a vacant-eyed legion of the damned. It’s too bad the script doesn’t always know what to do with him, since the subplot about him wanting his humanity back really comes out of nowhere; he doesn’t seem too conflicted when he’s lunging at necks for a good hour beforehand. Plus, Marshall so dominates every scene he’s in, the other actors don’t stand a chance and don’t contribute anything that memorable, performancewise. Grier is fine as a voodoo mistress who’s still scared stiff when faced with Mamuwalde’s minions, and as I mentioned before, Lawson has a few funny bits as a saner, more fashion-conscious riff on the Renfield type. The rest are divided between skeptical supporting mortals or the pancake makeup-laden ghouls chasing them, culminating in a kill-or-be-killed showdown of the living dead that’s admittedly a really fun sequence.

Scream, Blacula, Scream is a touch rough around the edges, but I definitely preferred the time I had watching this over the original. While the narrative sometimes spins its wheels and doesn’t make a lick of sense (specifically that ending), it’s paced well and plays up either its jokey or spooky side at the right times often enough for you to pay little mind. Scream, Blacula, Scream wasn’t the hit that its predecessor was, but it makes quick work of proving itself as the funnier and freakier of the pair.

A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #8: “Crescendo” (1970)

"Crescendo" poster

Crescendo is the rare Hammer film that’s not so easy to pin down on first glance. With no sign of Christopher Lee, becobwebbed castles, or buxom blood-nymphs, one would have some difficulty pegging what it’d be about. As it turns out, Crescendo is a rather romantically-inclined thriller with aspirations of Alfred Hitchcock in mind. Its violence is subdued, its horrors are psychological, and the tone skews somber over sensational, a surprise coming from the same production house that released button-pushers like Never Take Candy from a Stranger and These Are the Damned just a decade earlier. I certainly perked up at the prospect of a classier Hammer chiller than usual, but in the case of Crescendo, “classier” gradually devolved into “duller,” “sloppier,” and “good lord, just kill something already.”

Susan Roberts (Stefanie Powers) is a music student who’s one thesis from walking away a graduate. For her topic, she’s chosen a famous composer whose final piece was left unfinished before his death. Thankfully, Susan has gotten hold of the man’s family, who are kind enough to let her stay at their fancy villa while she finishes up her paper. At first, nothing seems too peculiar, aside from the composer’s wife, Danielle (Margaretta Scott), seeming a tad too eager to hook Susan up with her disabled son, Georges (James Olson). But wicked forces are afoot on the grounds, terrible secrets from the family’s past that have risen once again and are intent on dragging Susan into a neverending nightmare.

Although Crescendo wasn’t one of Hammer’s prestige titles (having opened in the UK on a double bill with Taste the Blood of Dracula), efforts to help it stand out stylistically are abound. The opening credits introduce a soft jazz score that carries on throughout the movie, bolstering the dreamlike atmosphere that director Alan Gibson had in mind. Also popping up often are hallucinatory sequences in which Georges has nightmares of withered cadavers and a shotgun-wielding doppelganger. Crescendo does a pretty impressive job of making you wonder what the hell is going on, but its most gaping fault lies in the frankly piss-poor job of explaining what everyone’s deal is. The script writes itself into a corner on a number of occasions, with no other means of driving things forward than inventing some crazy red herring to distract us and forget about within a couple scenes.

Crescendo is a big fan of the “because they’re crazy” excuse to justify character motivations. It’s hard to mention why without trekking into Spoiler Country, but the reasons we’re given for why certain players act the way they do are some of the most weakly-detailed you’ll ever come across. People being arbitrarily spooky in horror movies is nothing new, but Crescendo pulls this often enough to cripple any mysterious effect it hoped to achieve. It makes the entire turn of events look half-assed, with the stuff about the unfinished composition, Danielle’s bizarre behavior, and how come Georges is a tortured soul one second and a creeper the next feeling added in as afterthoughts. Stefanie Powers’ Susan is the worst casualty of this narrative clustercuss, written so passively as to not only be totally oblivious to all the suspicious stuff going down at the villa but to even fall in love with Georges with nothing driving her to do so.

I can admire Crescendo‘s restraint in terms of violence (the few on-screen murders aren’t very graphic to begin with), and when the script isn’t casting the actors as spastic idiots, you’ll come across an effective performance or two. But even with Hammer vet Jimmy Sangster credited as co-author, the film has both a hard time making sense and making you care about it making sense. Britain’s famous house of horrors has plenty of great, low-key thrillers to its name, but perhaps Crescendo is better left chained up in the basement.

(Note: This review refers to the uncut international version available to purchase via the Warner Archive Collection.)

A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #7: “Deranged” (1974)

"Deranged" poster

 

Growing up in Wisconsin makes it hard to escape the shadow of Ed Gein. Fortunately, I wasn’t filled in on all the gory details of Gein’s grave-robbing exploits, but it was at a tender age that I was made aware of who the fella was. Much of the world knows of him as well, through movies including Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Silence of the Lambs that were inspired by the case. Each of these pictures used Gein as a jumping-off point for their own respective narratives, but 1974’s Deranged is quite possibly the truest to life that any of them got. Liberties are certainly taken, but it’s fueled by an authenticity, a pitch-black sense of humor, and a powerful sadness that make it as captivating a depiction of the real story as we’ll ever get.

As a title card assures us, Deranged is based on true events — only the names and corpses have been changed to protect the innocent. A newspaper columnist (Leslie Carlson) narrates to us viewers the life and times of Ezra Cobb (Roberts Blossom), whom you’d swear could never hurt even a fly. Having spent a large part of his life caring for and bonding closely with his religious fanatic mother (Cosette Lee), Ezra’s world is absolutely shattered when she passes away. Life just isn’t the same without Ma Cobb around…so after a year of loneliness, her faithful boy just digs up her coffin and carries her decayed body back to the old homestead. With his mama back where she “belongs,” Ezra finds his attentions turning to the town’s women, whom he is soon inspired to abduct and bring home to join Mrs. Cobb in a ghoulish (and growing) menagerie.

It hit theaters the same year as the original Texas Chainsaw, but Deranged gets barely a fraction of the press these days. If you know me, you’ve probably heard me vent myself hoarse about how I’m no fan of Tobe Hooper’s grungy horror favorite; it’s disturbing, yes, but it’s also 90 minutes of repetitive screeching that dulled me into indifference. The shocks in Hooper’s film seldom broke the surface, worn thin somewhere into the dozenth cackling hillbilly, but Deranged operates on a different and much more somber level. It’s not something that goes for cheap thrills or merely presents the concept of a creepy old dude defiling gravesites and finding unspeakable uses for human skin to be reviled, without actually doing anything interesting with it. The flick aims to hypothesize what makes someone like Ezra Cobb tick, an endeavor with miles of unsettling ground to tread that co-directors Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby are well-equipped to execute.

Deranged doesn’t excuse Cobb’s crimes for a second, but by the end, you understand perfectly what inspired his sickness in the first place. We’re introduced to the man as he lives in virtual isolation on a snow-covered farm, tending to his mother on her deathbed. A few short moments is all it takes for us to empathize with his sorrow, to witness his psyche break to the point of being unable to comprehend just how horrendous the acts he’s committing are. The stark photography certainly sets the right mood for Cobb’s bleak existence, but the real reason he’s such an enthralling character is Blossom’s performance. There’s no other way to put it other than that the man is perfect; when the occasion calls for him to be intimidating, tortured, and amusingly puzzled during the few instances of gallows humor, Blossom is up to the task and then some. There are other elements at play that keep the movie’s respectability in check, but Blossom is what secures the whole thing from ever being taken for shallow exploitation crud.

It’s as cold, dreary, and uninviting as the Cobb residence itself, but Deranged is fascinating all the same. This is the sort of lurid that I can appreciate, as it doesn’t rest at giving me a swirlie in the toilet of the macabre but adds in thought and an emotional center for my troubles, as well. Though it’s not the pulse-pounding, gag-inducing freak show some viewers might demand of it, the lingering unease Deranged leaves behind is all thanks to it taking the slow and steady approach.

A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #6: “Chosen Survivors” (1974)

"Chosen Survivors" poster

 

Chosen Survivors is one of the stranger incidents of cinematic overkill that I’ve come across. Like 2007’s Primeval, which thought a tale of African civil unrest could do with a giant crocodile, this disaster-style thriller takes an already intense setting and throws in a ridiculous B-story for added heebie jeebies. Oftentimes, this means the filmmakers wanted a back-up plan in case audiences got bored with the chief goings-on, which isn’t always the wisest move. But while it’s not exactly a prize, Chosen Survivors does pretty well for itself, mostly due to its reliance on good, old-fashioned paranoia over convenient idiocy to drive the plot.

The day we’ve been fearing for decades has finally arrived. Nuclear war is underway, with the earth’s nations having let loose their entire arsenals on one another. But before the worst can come to pass, a select group of individuals are spirited away to a top-secret compound buried two miles under the desert in who knows where. Comprised of a corporate bigwig (Jackie Cooper), an athlete (Lincoln Kilpatrick), and a handful of others, these folks are told that it’s now their duty to band together and ensure that mankind continues. But they’ve barely gotten a grasp on the situation before further danger arises. Seeing as how their new digs were fashioned out of cavens, the survivors find out that their next-door neighbors are a colony of vampire bats, who soon set their sights on the bunker as their new food source.

Chosen Survivors is what it would’ve been like if Irwin Allen got The Swarm right. This movie gets right to the horror and dedicates no screen time to dwelling on the minutae of characters who are gonna bite the big one in five minutes anyway. However, this streamlining doesn’t always work in the film’s favor. The eleven souls trapped below are divided between Jackie Cooper as the resident jerkward (who instantly tries buying his way out of the apocalypse, because capitalism is bad, m’kay?) and…everyone else. Yeah, keeeping tabs on who’s who is a trying task, what with everyone freaking out to some degree. But on the other hand, their reactions come across as surprisingly authentic; faced with the burden of carrying on the human race, the entire group cracks almost instantly. No one embraces the task that’s been hoisted upon them, making their frustration easier to accept and requiring little contrived influence to prod the tension along.

If, by now, you’re wondering why Chosen Survivors even needs bats if its characters are their own worst enemies, then…you’d be totally right. These fleets of winged death don’t necessarily harm the movie, but their presence is played up to a strangely conspicuous degree. It’s as if they’d be better off just being one of many threats to be faced in the bunker, instead of being the one thing for the characters to concern themselves with when they’re not at each others’ throats. They’re used to their most suspenseful effect in the final act, when one of the group makes a desperate escape attempt, but overall, the little buggers don’t detract that much from the final product. The flick has plenty of other surprises up its sleeve, ones that actually tie into the plot and its highly cynical themes of overestimating man’s capacity for goodness. The acting is serviceable, with Bug‘s Bradford Dillman excelling in another unhinged role and Cooper as the baddest apple in the barrel, who turns out to be the most observant of the survivors.

There’s not much else one can say about Chosen Survivors, save for that it got the job done with greater success than I anticipated. It’s a humble creature feature, contributing nothing of note to horror at large but working well as a claustrophobic thriller on its own. As post-apocalyptic sci-fi movies filled with rabies-ridden bats go, Chosen Survivors is one of the best.