Friday 17 November 2023

Lovecraft on Film:
Suitable Flesh
(Joe Lynch, 2023)

“..the place of utter blasphemy, the unholy pit where the black realm begins and the watcher guards the gate… I saw a shaggoth - it changed shape… I can’t stand it… I won’t stand it… I’ll kill her if she ever sends me there again…” 

- H.P. Lovecraft, ‘The Thing On The Doorstep’

Though it was apparently drafted as early as 1933, ‘The Thing On The Doorstep’ was actually the last of H.P. Lovecraft’s story to see publication during the author’s lifetime, appearing two months before his death, in the January 1937 issue of ‘Weird Tales’.

Employing a relatively direct and unadorned prose style, ‘..Doorstep’ opens not with, say, a dense and baroque description of the stunted trees growing around some rarely used pike off the road in the depths of the Miskatonic valley, but instead with a concise sentence more deliberately designed to draw in the casual pulp magazine reader. (“It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to show by this statement that I am not his murderer.”)

This has led some to speculate that this tale, chronicling decadent writer Edward Pickman Derby’s enslavement and bodily possession by his sinister wife Asenath, may have been concocted with a greater degree of commercial consideration than was usually the case with HPL’s work - possibly reflecting the occasional necessity of actually earning a buck or two from the coffers of his long-suffering editors. Perhaps as a result, it is rarely cited as a favourite by Lovecraft’s more ardent devotees, and remains a bit of an outlier within his canon of core ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ tales.

Nonetheless, I’ve always found it surprising that ‘Thing on the Doorstep’ hasn’t more frequently drawn the attention of those seeking to adapt the Lovecraft’s work for the screen, given that it features the only significant female character in the entirety of his fiction (well, sort of), and that the essence its core body transference plot-line remains pretty cinema-friendly, requiring no on-screen realisation of unearthly locales or sanity-shaking monstrosities.

And verily, the drought of ‘..Doorstep’ adaptations has finally come to an end in grand style this year, as some familiar faces have teamed up with some less familiar ones to bring us ‘Suitable Flesh’ - an acknowledged tribute to / continuation of the legacy of Lovecraftian cinema created by the late Stuart Gordon, and a far from unworthy one, if I’m any judge.

Birthed from a project which was apparently in the early stages of development when Gordon passed away in 2020, ‘..Flesh’ has subsequently been brought to fruition by producer/star Barbara Crampton and director Joe Lynch, and the resulting film benefits greatly from a classically well turned out script by Dennis Paoli (who, for the uninitiated amongst us, wrote all of Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptations).

Dragging the core conceit of Lovecraft’s tale into the 21st century by means of gender-switching both the narrator and the best friend character who forms the subject of the narration, Paoli has succeeded in whittling the story down into a highly effective, tightly-plotted modern horror movie (just as he did with Reanimator and From Beyond all those years ago), adding additional interest to the narrative by considerably complicating the nature of Dr Elizabeth Derby’s relationship to the unlikely sexual partner who drags her into a hellish predicament of body-switching black magickal terror.

Played by Heather Graham, Dr Derby was formerly an Arkham-based psychoanalyst, but when we meet her here, she is a resident in the dingy padded cell which Miskatonic Medical School have conveniently kept upstairs since the days of Dean Halsey’s incarceration.

Elizabeth’s friend and professional mentor, Dr Daniella Upton (Crampton), boldly steps through the bolted door, intent on subjecting her latest patient to a good ol’ “let’s go through it one more time” talking cure. And so, after Derby has obsessively reiterated her insistence that the corpse of one Asa Waite - a badly mutilated teenage boy currently residing downstairs in the morgue - be cremated immediately, we shift straight into Film Noir-approved flashback mode, taking us back to the day when awkward and inarticulate goth kid Asa (played by Judah Lewis) first burst unannounced through the door of Elizabeth’s private practice office, pleading for help, claiming he was being pursued and persecuted by his father, before suddenly undergoing a sudden, alarming shift in personality.

Patterned more after a thriller or noir than a gothic horror, Paoli’s script renders the assorted twists which follow with a precision that any ‘40s RKO or Columbia screenwriter would have been proud of, threading a wealth of verbal tics and visual motifs (a concentration on hands, the details of the various characters’ smoking habits, etc) through the narrative to help us glide through this potentially confusing yarn in smooth, exposition-free fashion, whilst allowing all the knotty inter-personal relationships to pay off just the way they should come the inevitable, bloody conclusion.

For Lovecraft fans approaching a ‘..Doorstep’ adaptation, the natural fear is that the generous dose of yogsothothery HPL gifted us with on paper could easily be jettisoned, allowing the central body-swap gimmick to be presented as a more easily digestible (and cheaper) science fiction conceit.

As such, I’m glad to report that ‘Suitable Flesh’ keeps at least a bit of Mythos mayhem in the mix, allowing Asa’s father (or at least, the malevolent entity inhabiting him) to remain a black magician and disciple of the Great Old Ones. In fact, his portrayal (by Bruce Davison, when in his ‘original’ body) as a foul-mouthed, narcissistic, lecherous old bastard  proves one of the movie’s highlights - both surprising and genuinely menacing.

(Could Davison’s character perhaps be read as a reflection of the evil wrought upon contemporary American culture by certain other predatory, self-obsessed baby boomers… or is that maybe a stretch too far, do you think?)

That aside though, we’ve still inevitably lost a lot in the transition to the screen. With the constraints of low budget filmmaking being what they are, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that there are no unspeakable rites in unhallowed caverns beneath the Maine woods to be enjoyed here, no - ahem - “shaggoths”, no hints of nameless cults sniffing around the Derby/Waites’ doors, and - sadly - no remnant of the original story’s Innsmouth angle (which effectively makes it a sequel of sorts to ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’).

There are some remaining hints that ‘..Flesh’s script may at one point have retained this connection (eg, some references to Elizabeth’s husband (Jonathan Schaech) catching and cooking fish, and the couple’s use of ocean footage when they're making love), but, unlike the rest of Paoli’s script, these little winks to the Lovecraft-literate viewer never really pay off.

As a result, we lose probably the single nastiest idea from Lovecraft’s story (that of the elderly sorcerer Ephraim Waite fathering his “weak-willed, half-human girl child” purely in order to take possession of her body, leaving her spirit screaming mad in the attic in his mouldering carcass), along with that persistant sense of a wider occult conspiracy which permeates Lovecraft’s mythos tales.

Making up for these absences however, ‘Suitable Flesh’ does give us, well… a hell of a lot of sex, to not put too fine a point on it.

Crowbarring sex and perverse eroticism into Lovecraft’s universe was already of course a key element of all of Paoli and Gordon’s collaborations, but even in the BDSM-drenched ‘From Beyond’, the beast-with-two-backs was never previously foregrounded to quite the extent it is here, as the development of ‘Suitable Flesh’s plot is increasingly driven forward through the multifarious couplings of of the bodies of the four primary characters, together which whichever combinations of the four (or five?) primary intelligences are ‘inhabiting’ them at any given point, as the body-swappin’ ritual initiated by the entity possessing Ephraim Waite becomes wilder and more instantaneous as things progress.

As some commentators have already noted, many of the sex scenes here have a bit of a ‘skinemax’ / cable TV vibe to them, and not necessarily in a good way, as tastefully shot, nudity-free kinky/vanilla encounters remain the order of the day, in spite of the outlandish circumstances surrounding them, making ‘Suitable Flesh’ perhaps the world’s first example of a fully-fledged Lovecraftian erotic thriller. (Fifty Shades of Great Old One, anyone? I’ll get my coat…) (1)

Moving away from such pastel-hued sweatiness however, the climactic body transfer / seduction scene between Heather Graham and Judah Lewis in the study of Waite house proves rather more disquieting - probably the closest ‘Suitable Flesh’ gets to the trademark moments of transgression which Gordon brought to nearly all his films, as the teenaged Asa - inhabited by the spirit formerly residing in his father - uses telepathic ooga-booga to force himself upon Elizabeth Derby, as the corpse of the old man - soon to be decapitated and flambéed - lays dead on the carpet behind them.

It’s a great, show-stopping scene all round, but, the curious disjuncture between ‘erotic thriller’ and ‘cosmic horror’ can still be felt here to some extent, in the sense that, whilst all this was going on, I kept finding myself wishing they’d give it a rest and check out those oh-so-tempting sorcerer’s bookshelves behind them instead. I mean, softcore sex films are ten a penny, but how often do you get a chance to have a good poke around in ‘Unaussprechlichen Kulten’, y’knowwhatImean?

(Admittedly, we do get a pretty good look at Waite’s ‘Necronomicon’ here, but sadly I fear the prop the design team came up with looks a bit naff. Bit of a niche gripe to put it mildly, but I do sometimes wish people could move past the look of the book as defined by ‘The Evil Dead’ and try a different approach…)

Anyway, ‘Suitable Flesh’s closing act, full of gory chaos in Miskatonic Medical School, functions as pure fan service for the ‘Reanimator’ / ‘From Beyond’ crowd... but I’m entirely fine with that, I must say. I especially enjoyed the little in-joke about the security guard sitting outside the morgue being the son of the guy who fulfilled the same function on ‘Reanimator’ , and as mentioned, I’m glad the hospital kept the padded cell upstairs, just for old time’s sake.

As always, Crampton is cool as ice here, and the male members of the cast (Lewis, Davison, Schaech) are all excellent, but really - in acting terms, this movie belongs to Heather Graham. I mean, I must confess, I’ve not exactly been following her career much over the past few decades, but I don’t recall seeing her in a role this full-on, since... I dunno, ‘Boogie Nights’, perhaps? She delivers a totally fearless, multi-faceted and appropriately unhinged performance here anyway, chewing up and spitting out some challenging material with ease, so - respect is due.

Could this be the start of a new career trajectory for her I wonder, joining Nick Cage as a former A-lister battling it out every couple of months in the realm of crazy, mid-budget horror movies? Here’s hoping.

Moving on to Joe Lynch’s direction meanwhile, it would be all too easy to say, “Stuart Gordon could have done this better”, but that would be an unfair comparison. Gordon, after all, was a much-loved horror director with a consistently strong body of work behind him, whereas, at the point I sat down to watch ‘Suitable Flesh’, Lynch was just... some guy, as far as I was concerned.

If I were feeling critical, I could take issue with a few bits of sub-par production design, a few goofy transitions (one ‘ceiling fan wipe’ in particular raised a few unintentional laughs in the cinema), the aforementioned blandness afflicting some of the sex scenes, and a reliance on the kind of modern effects (pointless gliding camera moves, rumbling “woosh/BANG!” sound design timed to the cutting, etc) which one would imagine Gordon, as a filmmaker of an older generation, would possibly not have embraced.

But, these are minor criticisms, and thankfully the film built up such a weight of good feeling elsewhere that I certainly wasn’t feeling critical when I left the screening. Lynch stepped into some big shoes by taking this project on and making it happen, and by-and-large he’s done pretty damn well with it. Good for him.

If not exactly a mind-blowing, game-changing triumph by any stretch of the imagination, ‘Suitable Flesh’ is solid, whether viewed as a more-than-decent 21st century horror film, a really weird-ass erotic thriller, or a noteworthy new addition to the tangled canon of Lovecraftian cinema. Perhaps most importantly though, it’s also a worthy continuation of the cinematic world Stuart Gordon created across his lifetime, and proof positive that that spirit can be still be taken forward, even though he’s no longer with us. Well done everybody. Any chance of another one, do you think..?


(1) In view of this, it was no surprise to hear director Joe Lynch popping up on the always entertaining The Movies That Made Me podcast last month, discussing his long-standing and unrepentant love for the erotic thriller genre.

Tuesday 31 October 2023

Happy Halloween!

I hope you’re all having a good one out there.

And so, yeah, sadly I didn’t manage to get as many posts up here this season as I’d hoped to - but I hope readers got something out of the ones which did make it to the finish-line nonetheless.

I do have a couple more good ‘uns in various states of completion however, so happily the Horror Express will be rattling on through November to some extent, and, perhaps more importantly, I’ve also managed to watch a lot of movies, and make a lot of notes, which will be fed into a bigger project or two just down the line, all being well.

For now though, let’s settle in for the evening, heed the words of Roky and let the spirits run free.

Thursday 26 October 2023

Horror Express:
The Vampire’s Ghost
(Lesley Selander, 1945)

I had a lot of fun with Lesley Selander’s The Catman of Paris earlier this month, so thought I’d make some time (only 58 minutes required) to check in on the other b-horror he directed for Republic Pictures in the mid ‘40s.

As with ‘Catman..’, the title is intriguingly silly, betraying an attempt to hang onto the coattails of Universal’s waning horror output (they’d released both ‘The Mummy’s Ghost’ and ‘The Ghost of Frankenstein’ in the proceeding years), but... mixed results here, I'd say.

From the outset, ‘The Vampire’s Ghost’ proves to be a rather inert and talky affair, set amid the confines of a pokey and generally uninspiring backlot version of darkest Africa, wherein a largely undistinguished cast of white colonial types trudge through their allotted paces with no great surfeit of enthusiasm.

On the plus side though, it sure has some interesting notions buried within it.

Though he’s certainly no ghost, our resident vampire here turns out to be a former member of Queen Elizabeth I’s court, who - perhaps uniquely in the annals of cinematic vampirism - now finds himself running a gin joint in a fictional central African state, fleecing sailors in dice games and ruing the weary burden of his immortal condition, like some cut-price, blood-drinking Rick Blaine.

An odd fit for the vampire role, John Abbott initially looks more like the kind of guy you’d cast as an accountant or an elevator operator. But, he has a deep, sonorous voice and Peter Lorre-worthy bug-eyes, and ultmately leans into his unusual characterisation very well.

There’s an absolutely sublime scene for instance where, after being wounded by a spear whilst out on ‘safari’, Abbott uses his powers of mental persuasion to command the film’s hero (Charles Gordon) to carry him to the summit of a nearby mountain, where he luxuriates in the healing light of the full moon, his head resting on the precious Elizabethan box containing the grave soil of his original resting place, presented to him by the Queen after the Armada. Great stuff.

At first, it seems as if the vampire is going to be characterised as a variation on the Wandering Jew/Wolfman archetype - condemned to walk the earth for all eternity whilst seeking an escape from his supernatural affliction, and trying to warn the other characters away from him, lest they fall victim to his curse.

Later on though, he seems to have lost this benevolent streak, and, having given fair warning, gets straight on with the business of dominating Gordon’s mind, reducing him to a brain-dead slave, whilst he claims the leading lady (Peggy Stewart) for himself, whisking her off to the remote, abandoned temple of a supposed “death cult”, where, inexplicably in view of the film’s geography, a four-armed Hindu idol awaits them. (I liked the way Abbott plays all this with  “another day, another dollar” resignation, as though he’s been through it all a hundred times before.)

Many of these interesting and unconventional story elements can presumably be traced back to legendary screenwriter and SF pioneer Leigh Brackett, who takes co-writer and original story credits here, the same year she worked for Howard Hawks on ‘The Big Sleep’. And, as I can’t locate any additional background on her involvement with this film... that’s about all I have to say about that.

Stylistically meanwhile, the movie seems to draw heavily from Val Lewton’s then-recent series of b-horror successes at RKO, even directly mimicking ‘I Walked With A Zombie’ (1943) during scenes in which the white folks sit nervously in their bamboo-shaded bungalows, muttering darkly about the jungle drums affecting the productivity of the natives down at the ol’ plantation and so on, whilst the presentation of the vampire’s killings seems to echo both ‘The Leopard Man’ (1943) and ‘Cat People’ (1942) in places.

Unfortunately though, Selander proves unable to muster even a fraction of the atmosphere Jacques Tourneur brought to those projects - largely through no fault of his own, I’m assuming, as a “first take, best take” policy clearly seems to have been in operation, whilst even the film’s best ‘horror’ moment (the vampire’s murder of the bar's sultry dancing girl Adele Mara, in a shadowed bedroom with the incessant pounding of the drums as a backdrop) is subjected to a disappointing early fade.

As ever with movies like this, I’m also obliged to note that events play out in what is very much the boilerplate “white man’s Africa” of the era’s pulp magazines and Jungle Jim serials. So, even if it can’t quite summon up the energy to be overtly racist about it, if you’re looking for sympathetic portrayals of indigenous African characters or veiled commentary on the vampiric nature of colonialism or somesuch, well, I’m afraid you won’t find it here, partner.

As usual with these things, the sight of African-American actors forced to play benign, half-witted tribespeople gabbling away in pidgin English also rather grates, especially in view of the film’s failure to conjure any of the gravitas or sense of place which Tourneur, or even Victor Halperin (‘White Zombie’), brought to their respective entries in the sub-genre. So, if you’re the sort of sensible viewer who doesn’t feel the need to tolerate this kind of crap when watching old movies - be forewarned.

Indeed, whilst dedicated scholars of pulp horror, vampire lore or off-beat poverty row programmers are sure to find enough intriguing content in ‘The Vampire’s Ghost’ to keep them occupied long after the credits have rolled, purely in terms of the film’s entertainment value, I’m going to have to close by suggesting that more general horror fans might want to think twice and/or keep their expectations in check when approaching this one.

Tuesday 24 October 2023

Hammer House of Horror:
Guardian of the Abyss
(Don Sharp, 1980)

The HHoH’s hot streak continues into episode # 10, as Don “Razor” Sharp (‘Kiss of the Vampire’, ‘Psychomania’) directs this positively ripping Wheatley-esque black magick yarn.

Like Children of the Full Moon, it’s a bit of a “does exactly what it says on the tin” kind of episode, but what can I say? It’s bloody good tin, and I’m happy to see them getting some more use out of it.

So, we’re treated here to some rousing adventures in the home counties antiques trade, as Tina (Caroline Langrishe), a shop owner and astrologically-minded associate of tweedy man-about-town Mike Roberts (Ray Lonnen), inadvertently takes possession of Dr John Dee’s original scrying glass, bought as part of a cut price job lot at an auction.

Soon thereafter, the pair both find themselves in the sights of the malevolent Chronozon Society, after Mike narrowly avoids running down one of their fleeing sacrificial victims, as he roars past the grounds of their high priest's stately home in his Mercedes convertible.

Like any good Englishman, Mike greets the sight of a distressed and disorientated young woman standing in the middle of the road with a spirited “WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?”, before immediately inviting her back to his gaff for a brandy, thus allowing her the opportunity to make off with the cursed mirror (which he has borrowed from Tina on the pretext of getting its value professionally appraised), at which point the game is very much afoot.

It must be said, this episode is not exactly over-blessed with gothic atmosphere, and its supernatural elements do get a bit silly in places, especially vis-a-vis the Chronozon cultists’ rather hackneyed use of voodoo dolls to target their enemies, and the highly questionable make up used to represent the manifestations of their bull-faced deity.

But, for the most part, the ritual scenes still hit the required clichés dead-on (Baphomet pentagrams, deconsecrated church, hooded celebrants, inverted crucifixes, infernal chanting, and a nice, neat cupboard where they keep their roosters), and they are considerably elevated by a superbly imperious performance from John Carson (‘Captain Kronos’, ‘Taste the Blood of Dracula’) as the cult’s aristocratic high priest Charles Randolph.

Meanwhile, Sharp keeps things fast-paced and eventful, as the story rattles onward with a good, pulpy velocity. For his part, screenwriter David Fisher clearly spent an enjoyable afternoon or two boning up on the best occult lore his local library had to offer, meaning that his script is chock full of at-least-distantly-truthful exposition concerning Dee & Kelley, Aleister Crowley, the Thule Society and the exacting detail of the notorious Chronozon Working, as historically attempted by at least some of those august gents - albeit, not exactly in the considerately TV friendly form depicted here, with the sacrificial victims given strips of anointed fabric to preserve their modesty.

Aside from the obvious Wheatley comparisons, ‘Guardian of the Abyss’ also reminded me of Ralph Comer’s absolutely fantastic 1969 occult novel The Mirror of Dionysus - not only with regard to the use of the mirror / scrying glass as a plot point, but also the conscious attempt to drag the aesthetic of Wheatley’s black magic tales kicking and screaming into the more socially liberal 1970s, and the tendency of both stories to take an ‘info dump’ approach to communicating the fruits of the writers’ occult research.

Did you know for instance, that if you invite a black magician into your home, you must NEVER allow them access to wine, bread and salt? Well, you do now!

This handy life tip reaches us via an absolutely splendid reinterpretation of the memorable ‘Mocata comes to visit’ / attempted hypnotism sequence from Hammer’s ‘The Devil Rides Out’, which constitutes the highlight both of the episode as a whole, and of Carson’s commanding performance. Though perhaps not quite equalling Charles Gray's inimitable take on this particular character-type, he definitely puts his own unique stamp on it.

Elsewhere, the slightly Kate Bush-like Rosalyn Landor makes for a very striking presence as the aforementioned sacrificial victim / love interest / willowy femme fatale type character - which is convenient, as IMDB reminds me that she actually played the little girl in ‘The Devil Rides Out’ twelve years earlier, at the age of ten! So, rest assured, someone was clearly putting some thought into this stuff.

And, I even rather liked Lonnen’s hero character too. Though he would have been considered a mere oik within the refined, aristocratic universe of Wheatley’s novels, we’re at the dawn of the socially mobile 1980s here chaps, and Mike Roberts represents a distinctly English, none-more-middle-class pulp protagonist of the kind you just don’t see anymore.

A dashing, clear-headed fellow who’s just as comfortable assessing the value of military brasses and undertaking genealogical research as he is with car chases, proffering brandy to stray young ladies and the occasional bit of fisticuffs, he could easily have come straight from the pages of a Brian Lumley or Guy N. Smith book, and is all the better for it in my view. (It’s a shame he doesn’t smoke a pipe, but - you can’t have everything.)

Actually, I was lying about the car chases and fisticuffs - sadly, both are notably absent from ‘Guardian of the Abyss’, despite multiple opportunities for their inclusion (although, I’m confident Mike Roberts could still have proved himself pretty handy in both scenarios, given half a chance).

This absence is a real shame given Sharp’s proven track record as an action director, and lord knows, this tale could surely have benefitted from at least a few scenes of hooded cultists getting walloped and tripping over their cassocks and so on. But, I fear this lack of choreographed action probably speaks to a regrettable degree of haste and budgetary constraint in this episode’s production, which is also very much evident in its ending.

With the best will in the world (which I certainly had by this point), the conclusion of ‘Guardian of the Abyss’ still feels rushed, sloppy and confusing, leaving things on a rather unsatisfactory note. But, no matter - I had such a grand old time on the way to it, I'm happy to let things slide.

Friday 20 October 2023

Exploito All’Italiana:
Black Magic Rites
(Renato Polselli, 1973)

 So, having managed to maintain this blog for the better part of fifteen years, it feels remiss of me not have dedicated at least a few paragraphs to discussing the indescribable cinematic singularity which is Renato Polselli’s ‘Riti, Magie Nere e Segrete Orge nel Trecento’ [‘Rites, Black Magic and Secret Orgies of the Fourteenth Century’], aka ‘The Reincarnation of Isobel’, allegedly aka ‘The Ghastly Orgies of Count Dracula’… but known to most of us (for the sake of brevity, if nothing else) simply as ‘Black Magic Rites’.

So, what with it being October, and having just spent some time luxuriating in the glow of Indicator’s never-thought-I’d-see-the-day 4k restoration… now would seem to be the time to take a deep breath and get on with it.

It must be admitted from the outset that this is a very difficult movie to try to review in any conventional sense, as those who have seen it will surely appreciate.

It is not only the film’s almost total lack of narrative which causes difficulties for the potential critic, but the seeming lack of any unifying pattern or purpose whatsoever. Faced with the onslaught of audio-visual anarchy found herein, the idea of understanding what Polselli’s intentions were in creating this thing, or of positing any framework against which his success may be assessed, seems nigh on impossible.

‘Black Magic Rites’ is, essentially, about as close as a piece of ostensibly commercial cinema has ever come to a state of utter, formless chaos, a celluloid equivalent of the mad piping of the servitors of Lovecraft’s blind idiot god crouching vacantly at the centre of the uncaring universe.

If you go in with enough determination, and pay close enough attention, you can identify discrete scenes and sections within the film, albeit generally interrupting and overlapping with each other to no clearly defined purpose. (This time around for instance, I was particularly taken by the whole funeral / premature burial sequence).

But, basically, this is a 100-minute hypnotic drone of a movie - no form, no progression. Most of the characters here are doing exactly the same thing at the end that they were doing at the start. The intermittent fragments of narrative which do creep in from time to time feel a bit like a heavy psychedelic rock band half-heartedly trying to add lyrics and song structure to their music, only for it to be totally drowned out by the roar of their amplifiers.

And what exactly, the uninitiated may ask, might that metaphorical roar consist of?

Well, you know - fire, screaming, gurning faces, crimson gore, kaleidoscopic psychedelic hoo-hah, awkwardly framed tableaux of female and male bodies squeezed into all kinds of outré costumes (both 14th and 20th century vintage), frantic time-and-space shredding jump cuts and cross-edits, lurid red and green disco lighting, erotic torture, breath-taking scenery and groovy castles, anonymous, drooling creeps lurking in shadows, more fire, more screaming faces, hypnotism, witch burnings, widescreen vistas of ritual depravity, pitchfork wielding mobs, chintzy birthday parties, frantic, awkward softcore sex, outbursts of alarming, screechy comic relief, and Count Dracula (apparently). 

The usual, basically - just a whole lot more of it. An all-you-can-eat buffet of all purpose, fumetti-style gothic horror/sleaze.

Within the pantheon of Italian genre directors who have become admired and/or infamous amongst the fans who have painstakingly unearthed their work over the decades, Polselli stands out as the kind of figure who, if he didn’t exist, someone would have had to invent him.

I mean, he had to be out there somewhere on the margins, didn’t he? The guy whose films were more extreme, more hysterical, more chaotic and senseless than anyone else’s, and who was stricken by censorship, public indifference and critical bafflement to such an extent that many of his films were barely even released at all, languishing in unfathomable obscurity for decades, and in some cases remaining almost impossible to see to this day.

And yet, despite these catastrophic set-backs, he kept dusting himself off and coming back to make more of the damned things, driven on by who knows what unfathomable personal demons. Certainly, the few public comments he made during his lifetime shed little light on why he persisted in ploughing his long-suffering financiers’ money into such grotesque, bizarre and (crucially) unprofitable productions. Indeed, reading the sparse interviews conducted with Polselli whilst he was still with us, his attempts to explain himself seem alternately gnomic, cynical and entirely irrelevant to the work at hand.

Suffice to say that, if you were putting together some ‘Berberian Sound Studio’-styled fiction based around the world of Italian cult cinema, you could scarcely hope to create such a fascinating, baffling and hilarious character - and yet, here he is, large as life, with ‘Black Magic Rites’ standing as his defining artistic statement.

Enthusiasts such as myself often tend to praise Euro-horror films for achieving passages of surrealistic delirium. In ‘Black Magic Rites’ though, Polselli begins in a state of surrealistic delirium and keeps his foot down hard on the accelerator right through to the closing ‘FINE’.

As a result, it stands as an example of a piece of pulpy, cynical exploitation assembled with such fevered intensity that it goes full circle on the artistic spectrum, swallowing its own tail and emerging as an experimental art piece; an overwhelming sensory experience that would probably sit better on a double bill next to ‘Flaming Creatures’ or ‘Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome’ than with a Paul Naschy or Sergio Martino movie.

To return to my earlier music metaphor, watching ‘Black Magic Rites’ for the first time as a fan of Euro-horror feels a bit like growing up listening to canonical ‘60s rock, loving the occasional moments of dissonance and feedback... then suddenly discovering Les Rallizes Denudes or Mainliner. Whoa. Too much, man.

Before we get too carried away though, it’s worth splashing our faces with cold water and remembering that, of the individual elements which make up the totality of ‘Black Magic Rites’, none are entirely unique within the Italio-cult context.

The voluminous output of that nation’s cinema during the early ‘70s did, after all, include low budget horror films which, whether by accident or design, were almost entirely incoherent (Angelo Pannacciò’s ‘Sex of the Witch’), or formally and tonally inexplicable (Francesco Mazzei’s The Weapon, The Hour, The Motive). 

There were films which simply pushed WAY TOO FAR to ever see widespread, uncut distribution at the time of their production (Fernando Di Leo’s ‘Slaughter Hotel’ aka ‘Cold Blooded Beast’), and other entries in the “sexy gothic” sub-genre which knowingly plunged over the precipice into full-blown parody and deliberately disjointed, rambling nonsense (Luigi Batzella’s ‘Nude For Satan’) - all trends redolent of a pre-porno film culture which routinely allowed questionably committed filmmakers to essentially go out and shoot whatever the hell they felt like, so long the requisite nudity and softcore groping was delivered on time.

‘Black Magic Rites’ though is the only film I’m aware of which managed to simultaneously cash in on ALL of these crazy possibilities, creating a maximalist overload of ‘70s witch-smut insanity which has never been equalled.

Trying to account for all this on a rational basis, I’m tempted to consider the suggestion floated by Stephen Thrower in his supplement to the Indicator release, that, perhaps, Polselli had intended to make a somewhat more structured, narrative film but (as per the Pannacciò film cited above) simply lost control of the production, discovering after the money had run out and the actors fled the set that he was missing whatever footage he needed to pull the whole thing together.

Hitting the editing room therefore, perhaps with only a few days to spare before delivering a rough cut, he simply panicked, resorting to the only tool available to a director of crazy horror movies in such circumstances - Art! Or, more specifically - jump cuts, and dreams-within-flashbacks-within-dreams, special / temporal disorientation, overlapping images and audio tracks and hypnotic repetition of footage - all cut to the beat of Franco Reverberi’s freaky, ritualistic score. Yeah!

In other circumstances, such an endeavour could have emerged as simply unwatchable (and many would no doubt claim ‘Black Magic Rites’ is just that), but, even for the less fanatical viewer, the film’s aesthetic pleasures and unexpected outbursts of beauty certainly help to sweeten the pill.

‘Black Magic Rites’ was shot in Italian weirdo horror’s home-from-home, the 15th century Castello Piccolomini in Balsorano, previously home to everyone from The Crimson Executioner to Lady Frankenstein, and it must be said, Polselli uses the castello’s potential quite brilliantly in places, especially when he breaks away from the suffocating, colour-saturated gloom of the interiors to stage scenes on the castle battlements, showcasing the astonishing vistas of snow-capped mountains which form the backdrop to the valley in which the castle stands. (1)

A necessary refresher amid all the madness going on down in the ballrooms and dungeons, you can almost smell the fresh air during these sequences, and a similar chill wind of melancholic atmos can also be felt during the funeral / burial sequence I mentioned above, which is really beautifully put together, acting both as a reference to the best scene in Polselli’s earlier The Vampire and the Ballerina, and indeed to its original inspiration, Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr.  

Though I prefer to avoid going into ‘consumer guide’ mode in these reviews, it must be said that the new transfer of the film really helps to highlight the beauty of some of the individual images Polselli and his collaborators conjured up here amidst all the carnage and peek-a-boo nudity and cheap special effects, perhaps helping to lend the whole thing a bit more of a sense of artistry than was really evident in earlier editions. God knows the travails Director of Photography Ugo Brunelli probably had to go through whilst shooting all this stuff, but he certainly delivered the goods in technical terms.

His work, together with Reverberi’s appropriately wigged out yet infernally catchy score (heavy on hand percussion, primitive electronics and reversed/echoed vocal weirdness), work to ensure the film remains an aesthetically intoxicating experience, as well as a simply overpowering one - with this intention often succeeding in spite of Polselli’s feverish, ADHD-afflicted editing and obsession with rubbing our noses in the most unpleasant imagery he can conjure up at any given point.

By far the funniest thing about the new transfer though is that it retains the grandly ornate interval cards from the movie’s original Italian cinema screenings, which I don't recall seeing before. What a hoot! I mean, can you imagine the poor, unsuspecting audience, staggering out into the sunlight for a smoke after 45 minutes of this shit? (“Say pal, whatcha think's gonna happen next?”) 

Simply amazing - as indeed is every aspect of this astounding, unrepeatable film’s genesis, existence and continued survival.

Check it out, please, before the thousand-faced messengers of Azathoth think better of letting it out in the wild, and pull remaining copies through some black trans-dimensional vortex, leaving no trace but a lingering, half-forgotten memory, ready to be shaken off with tomorrow morning’s much needed coffee.


(1) As I believe I noted in my ‘Lady Frankenstein’ review a few years ago, I’m intrigued by the fact that, of the four noteworthy Italian horror film Mickey Hargitay appeared in, three were shot in the Castello Piccolomini! I mean, was this just a coincidence, or did he live nearby, or know the owners of the castle or something..? Sadly the man himself is no longer with us to provide an answer, but - any insight welcomed.

Tuesday 17 October 2023

Horror Express:
The Catman of Paris
(Lesley Selander, 1946)

Forming one half of a rare horror double feature knocked out by western and serial specialists Republic Pictures in the mid 1940s, ‘The Catman of Paris’ was presumably born out of an attempt to capitalise on whatever pre-release publicity might have accompanied Universal’s woeful ‘She-Wolf of London’ (released one month later), cross-referenced with the widespread success enjoyed by Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s ‘Cat People’ just a few years earlier, and perhaps also a lingering memory of Guy Endore’s 1933 novel ‘Werewolf of Paris’.

Despite the attention-grabbing title and poster though, to be honest I was resigned to the fact that this would probably be pretty dull fare… so was pleasantly surprised when, for the first reel at least, it turned out to be absolutely bonkers.

For a start, the top hat and opera cape-clad ‘catman’ meows in the voice of a regular house cat, which is delightful, and, in his first (off-screen) appearance, he strikes in the form of a big, expressionist shadow with Nosferatu fingers, gliding across the walls of back lot 1890s Montmartre. Crikey!

The main character / chief catman suspect is a young author, Charles (played by Carl Esmond), who has just caused a sensation by publishing a novel entitled ‘Fraudulent Justice’, in which he recounts in accurate detail the proceedings at a scandalous closed trial, to which only a few select government ministers had been allowed access… yet he claims to know nothing of this, insisting that the whole thing came to him in a dream.

Additionally, he has just returned from ‘the tropics’, where he was struck down by an intense fever which seems to have left him suffering from bouts of amnesia... which of course neatly coincide with the ‘catman’ killings. The first victim of which, we should note, was a Ministry of Justice clerk carrying a confidential dossier containing details of the trial Charles is alleged to have forbidden knowledge of, whilst the second victim ends up being his vindictive ex-fiancée (a great turn by singer and b-movie stalwart Adele Mara).

So, all in all, you can see why the gendarmes (engagingly represented by believer / sceptic duo Gerald Mohr and Fritz Feld) soon want to have a few words with our defensive and bewildered protagonist - although of course they don’t attempt anything so vulgar as to throw him behind bars and see what happens when he next experiences one of his alleged periods of amnesia, because you can’t go around treating a gentleman like that, now can you?

Whenever Charles experiences one of his amnesiac attacks incidentally, we see the same series of images projected over footage of his agonised face, in the same order: some sheaves of wheat blowing in the wind, a fork of lightning striking across what looks like a solarised black sun, the face of a hissing cat, and - entirely inexplicably - a shot of a thing which looks like some kind of space capsule (but couldn't possibly be, in view of the film's production year), floating in a storm-tossed sea with icebergs in the background, spewing oil from its cone/nozzle.

If any living person has an explanation of what in the hell that’s all about, I’d certainly love to hear it.

There’s also a memorably bizarre moment when we see a very striking shot (repeated from the opening credits) of a black cat walking through a highly detailed miniature scale model of one of the street sets, appearing as a giant beast, until the camera pulls back, and Mohr shoos the pesky moggie out of the way, casually announcing, “this is a replica of the murder site I had made over night..”. (WHAT?!)

Similarly perplexing, there’s a great bit later on in which Fritz Feld outlines he wildly holistic rationale for believing a cat-demon is on the loose in Gay Paree, citing a volume of ‘Astrological Prognostications’ apparently compiled by his grandfather, in which “further evidence of planetary influence on transmutation” suggests a regular historical reoccurrence of were-cat phenomena which can be traced back to the reign of Ivan The Terrible. 

The were-cat under investigation in the current case, it seems, is in fact the ninth in the this astrologically defined series, thus making it the final reoccurrence, as per the scientifically recognised nine live of the cat. Any questions?

Meanwhile, pre-empting Glenn Danzig’s Verotika by 70+ years, the film’s entire cast consists of American actors ordered to adopt French accents of highly variable quality and consistency. (Perhaps the worst offender in this regard is leading lady Lenore Aubert, who largely sticks to yankee diction, with the exception of referring to her beloved as “Sharl” at all times.)

That questionable decision aside though, Parisian atmos is ‘The Catman of Paris’ is largely limited to finding space in its lean 62 minute run time for a genuinely entertaining, highly energetic can-can routine, taking place in the Café du Bois, the decadent, fin-de-siecle basement hang-out where Charles and his best pal / literary agent Henry (Douglass Dumbrille) meet to carouse away their evenings in the intoxicating social whirl of whichever sound stage Republic weren’t currently shooting a western on.

Indeed, director Selander had shot well over fifty(!) oaters for Republic by the time he changed tack to handle ‘The Catman..’, and whilst his style remains admirably pacey and fluid throughout, there is definitely still a persistent sense of he and his employers’ more usual day-to-day creeping in around the edges here.

In their commentary track on Imprint’s recent blu-ray release, Kim Newman and Stephen Jones have a whale of a time pointing out costumes which might previously have belonged to ranchers, riverboat gamblers or saloon girls, noting extras who look burlier and more heavily whiskered than habitués of the Parisian underworld really should, and observing that the night club set is clearly a slightly rejigged frontier saloon.

For the most part though, this odd cross-genre bleed actually plays very much in the movie’s favour, as the talky, set-bound boredom which inevitably begins to predominate once the details of the plot get underway is broken up by such unusual (and welcome) additions to the ‘40s b-horror formula as a furniture-smashing, ‘knock down drag out’ bar fight (complete with a leap off the bar from Esmond), and an elaborate, under-cranked stage-coach chase, taking place, one assumes, in some Gallic equivalent of Central Park.

In addition to the errant images and intriguingly odd plot details I outlined above, this all proved enough to keep me thoroughly hooked right up to the film’s finale, when the dreaded ‘catman’ finally makes an appearance, and boy, it’s a memorable one.

A spirited take on a furry-faced, ersatz Mr Hyde, the well-dressed fiend has a lot of fun chasing Lenore Aubert around like a slightly more menacing Benny Hill, until a barrage of police bullets knocks him on his arse, prompting a big reveal / wrap up scene which will remain unspoiled here, aside from noting that its proffered explanation of the event swhich have just transpired frankly makes no sense whatsoever.

So, that’s ‘The Catman of Paris’ folks - W, and indeed TF.

On the basis of this one, you’d better believe I’ll be making time to check out the other Republic horrors post-haste.

Thursday 12 October 2023

Hammer House of Horror:
Carpathian Eagle
(Francis Megahy, 1980)

So we’re up to episode #9 here, and, whilst there were undoubtedly a few clunkers earlier in the run of ‘Hammer House of Horror’, by damn, they’re really hitting their stride by this point! The two preceding episodes were perhaps my two favourites to date, and this one is definitely a strong contender too.

Largely ditching the ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ / “bad things upset the life of a blameless contemporary couple” formula used by most of the earlier episodes, this one (co-written by Bernie Cooper and director Megahy) plays out more like a spec script for a prospective Halloween episode of ‘The Sweeney’ which was ditched for being too weird. (And if that description’s not enough to reel you in… you’re probably reading the wrong weblog, to be honest.)

Anchored around a gritty police procedural framework, ‘Carpathian Eagle’ finds world weary / soft spoken Detective-Inspector Cliff (Anthony Valentine) investigating the exploits of an erotic murderess who, in true Jess Franco style, has been preying upon a succession of outrageously shabby would-be playboys in the dark hinterlands of the Home Counties commuter belt, harvesting their hearts with a curved ceremonial dagger.

A radio interview overheard whilst he’s making his tea n’ toast in the morning leads our detective-hero into the midst of a somewhat Bathory-inspired gothic horror back story, involving the legend of a heart-extracting Hungarian countess whose alleged last living descendant (played by Siân Phillips) is still hanging around in good ol’ blighty, and subsequently also the travails of her nephew, a haughty, Rudolf Nureyev-type character who has defected to the west in order to escape the persecution he faced behind the iron curtain whilst plying his trade as a renowned female impersonator. (1)

All of which you’d think would be more than enough to keep DI Cliff busy, but the lonely lad also finds time to cultivate a budding romance with the be-permed author (played by Suzanne Danielle, star of ‘Carry On Emmanuelle’) whose interview publicising her book on the heart-gouging countess led him to make the connection in the first place, and whose taste in pattern-framed glasses and garishly mis-matched print dresses proves more obscene than any of the kinky outfits donned by the murderess during her seductions.

Indeed, one of the great pleasures for me personally in going through these Hammer House of Horror episodes has come from noting the highly specific fragments of period detail, unique to that peculiar period in UK social history in which a hangover from the flares n’ sideburns ‘70s was gradually blending into the cruel dawn of the Thatcherite yuppie era - and, in addition to having a really odd, interesting story, it is here that ‘Carpathian Eagle’ really shines.

Just about every scene provides an absolute riot of horrendous fashion choices, exquisitely dated interior decor, flashy motors, sexist / homophobic attitudes, nostalgia-swathed branded products and shabby, deadzone suburban locations, the like of which fairly boggles the mind.

The sequences involving the succession of hapless murder victims prove especially remarkable in this regard, painting such a repulsively fascinating picture of life in these isles circa 1980, I could probably write an extended essay about each one.

The first victim is none other than Barry Stokes (the man-shaped alien from 
Norman J. Warren’s ‘Prey’, here sporting an unflattering pencil moustache), who is tooling around the country lanes in his vintage Jag when he picks up a provocatively dressed, rainbow-hued young lady and carts her straight back to the ‘secret’ bedroom he keeps hidden from his wife, where he lies, resplendent and smug, upon a bed of furs, awaiting his bloody comeuppance.

Then, perhaps most memorably, we have ‘Randy Andy’ (“Andy’s the name, and randy’s my game”), a loathsome, lime-green shirted middle-aged singles bar crawler who resembles a local radio breakfast show host, and who bombards his statuesque conquest with a whole pamphlet’s-worth of the world’s worst pick-up lines before dragging her back to a Stone Age Bachelor Pad which must be seen to be believed.
Even more direct in his approach though is no less a personage than Pierce Brosnan(!), who turns up as a tracksuited jogger, latching on to his pink nylon-clad prey in an overcast public park. “I fancy you, you fancy me… why mess about?”, he ventures, before creeping back to his bed-sit and attempting to smuggle his would-be shag-partner (whose luminous gear can probably be seen for miles around) past the eyes of his watchful landlady, who, revisiting a comedy cliché you’d hope would have died out at the end of the 1950s, “has got a bit of a thing about visitors”.
Though it’s difficult not to imagine him transmogrifying into Jon Thaw at times, Anthony Valentine certainly proves a sympathetic male lead in comparison to this lot, a worthy addition to the pantheon of down-at-heel British horror cops alongside Ian Hendry in ‘Theatre of Blood’ and Alfred Marks in ‘Scream and Scream Again’, and to the script’s credit, his character actually seems to grow and become more open-minded as the strange events of the story unfold.

During Valentine’s investigation of the first crime scene, we bear witness to a sterling example of ‘70s style police work. “Any sign the geezer was bent?,” he demands to know - the plod’s logic apparently being that the killing was clearly sexual in nature, but that no mere female would have had the physical strength to carry it out.

Later on though, once things have gotten a bit weirder, we start to see a different side of DI Cliff, as he sticks up for the effeminate nephew character, expressing apparently genuine admiration for his artistry, and cutting off his boorish colleague’s queer-baiting jibes, telling him, “you’re thinking in clichés old son - Tadek’s a hard lad, he’s just very nervous, that’s all”. Which is considerate of him, given that he’s talking about a bloke who’s ostensibly the prime suspect is series of brutal murders, but…. no spoilers here, readers.

Loosely plotted and rattling along at a fearsome clip ‘Carpathian Eagle’ represents a colossal improvement on Francis Megahy’s previous directorial outing in this series (the woeful Growing Pains). 

Throwing in more ideas and imagery along the way than it really knows what to do with, and packed with memorably off-the-wall performances from a host of lesser known character players and TV pros, it in fact constitutes an almost overpowering conjuration of the exact moment in British culture which saw my birth, refracted through a distorting mirror of sketchily-plotted, sex n' violence-drenched cross-genre weirdness.

And, needless to say, I loved every minute of it - just a staggeringly entertaining 50-something minutes of television, which I've not really fully recovered from or properly assembled my thoughts on yet, some 24 hours later. 


(1) As a curious side note, the nephew character is played by an actor named Jonathan Kent, whose only previous screen credit was in an impossible to see, quite possibly lost, 1976 BFI-financed adaptation of the Marquis De Sade’s ‘Justine’ by director/producer Stewart MacKinnon. Quite a thread for some inquisitive cultural historian to tug on there I suspect…

Tuesday 10 October 2023

Horror Express:
The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster
(Bonami J. Story, 2023)

So, yes, a word on the title. It’s a bit ‘on the nose’, isn’t it? Could probably stand to lose the ‘angry’ at least... not that I wish to question the character’s anger, you understand, but it just seems unnecessary to cram such descriptors into the title, and it would scan better without it. Also, then maybe they could’ve made it a reference to Bernard Shaw’s ‘The Black Girl in Search of God’ or something instead, who knows? (One for the kids there!)

Anyway - at first, I wasn’t really down with the movie the title is attached to either. In fact, through the opening half hour I was getting ready to give it to stern a lecture about how I’m all for genre movies exploring socio-political issues, but how it tends to work better when they naturally arise from the genre elements. Whereas, this seems to have approached things the other way around, presenting a well-intentioned but dispiritingly one-dimensional take on systemic racism, drugs, police brutality and social inequality (all of which are bad, dontcha know), with a featherweight take on the Frankenstein mythos overlaid on top.

Meanwhile, any narrative tension seemed liable to be nullified by the presence of a central character - Vicaria, played by Laya DeLeon Hayes - who appeared to be destined to spend the film being smarter than everyone else, right about everything all the time, and generally morally unimpeachable / intellectually undefeatable.

In particular, I just didn’t buy Vicaria’s whole “death is a curable disease” shtick as a message which is in any way positive or helpful for those dealing with grief - which is a problem, given that it’s the single rhetorical device upon which most of Bomani J. Story’s script rests. And, similarly, I found the decision to open the film with a succession of close up, slo mo familial deaths to be not so much harrowing (as was presumably intended), but simply emotionally manipulative, establishing a tone of grim self-seriousness which proves hard to shake through the opening act.

Thankfully though, I also felt that the film becomes a lot more interesting as it goes along, really kicking into gear during the second half, and winning me over in the process.

Though Story clearly has no interest whatsoever in delivering the all-black-cast version of ‘Reanimator’ or ‘Monster on Campus’ I suppose I was vaguely hoping for, he does give us a surprisingly faithful reinterpretation of ‘Frankenstein’, as taken straight from the novel, concentrating in particular upon the rarely filmed trope of the creator abandoning and losing track of his/her monster immediately after creating it, only to become engaged with its plight once it returns to threaten his/her loved ones.

Towering in the darkness, its face hidden by dangling, blood-caked dreads and a voluminous hoodie, Vicaria’s ‘monster’ (a reconstituted version of her brother Chris, who was slain in a gang shooting during the opening) proves a pretty menacing and memorable creation, capable of dishing out some reassuringly gruesome ultra-violence at various points in the film. (Although, the attempt to humanise him through the use of a generic, distorted ‘monster voice’ falls rather flat, it must be said.)

Once the monster is on the scene though, the film as a whole becomes more intense, more chaotic and more convincing across the board, questioning our heroine’s motives and means in appropriately Frankensteinian fashion, and incorporating enough moral ambiguity and emotional turbulence to more than justify its existence.

An improv-heavy set of performances from the supporting cast very much helps in this regard, as characters who initially seemed pretty one-note are allowed to come into their own and acquire some depth, lending a sense of authenticity to the avowedly realist setting, and achieving some genuinely powerful moments here and there.

A particular shout out in this regard must go out to Chad L. Coleman, playing Vicaria’s father, who, to not put too fine a point on it, is fucking brilliant. As a broken man struggling to keep it together in the face of grief and substance abuse, he has pathos to burn, and in the (sadly too few) scenes when he’s on screen, the movie really takes flight in dramatic terms.

In fact, it is Coleman who carries the weight of the movie’s most cathartic moment, when he stands his ground and refuses to unlock his surrogate family’s front door for the police who are outside carrying out a door-to-door search.

Amidst all the wide-ranging political point-making and generalised rage at the state of contemporary America crammed into Story’s script, it is this tangential detail, conveyed through Coleman’s all-too-convincing fear and determination, which perhaps made the deepest impression on me, prompting me to reflect on the sobering reality of the fact that, although the family in this case have nothing to hide from the law, black people in the USA (and by extension, members of similarly marginalised communities across the globe) have nothing to gain from allowing armed cops access to their living space, but a hell of a lot to lose.

Elsewhere, Denzel Whitaker is also very good as the housing project’s resident drug dealer, blurring our sympathies as he’s revealed to be just another frightened, overgrown kid once the threat from the monster takes hold, and delivering some of the film’s very few genuine laughs in the process. Child actor Amani Summer meanwhile does great work too, in one of the more interesting portrayals of the obligatory “little girl who befriends the monster” character I can recall seeing in Frankensteinian cinema.

Whilst avoiding spoilers, I’ll conclude simply by noting that the ending of ‘The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster’ is… significantly different from that of a standard Frankenstein narrative, let’s put it that way. By the time we get there though, it feels as if the film (and the characters) have earned it.

Saturday 7 October 2023

Hammer House of Horror:
Children of the Full Moon
(Tom Clegg, 1980)

Up to this point in the series, the otherwise disparate episodes of ‘Hammer House of Horror’ have been united by their complete avoidance of the kind of gothic horror tropes with which the titular studio had become synonymous over the preceding decades.

True, we’ve had a witch episode, and a haunted house episode, but both have taken a rigorously quotidian approach to their subject matter, emphasising their present day settings and prioritising attention-grabbing narrative twists and the disruption of everyday life over the pulpy, escapist grandeur which defined Hammer’s glory days.

Like those episodes (and most others in the series, to be honest), ‘Children of the Full Moon’ centres around the travails of a recently married, contemporary British couple - in this case, smarmy young corporate solicitor Tom (Christopher Cazenove) and his wife Sarah (Celia Gregory), a possessor of no other immediately obvious character traits.

Whilst roaring around the West Country in their BMW in search of a holiday home belonging to Tom’s even-smarmier boss (the great Robert Urquhart, a veteran of ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ (1956), no less), the young lovers fall victims to a supernatural joy-riding incident which leaves their swanky motor wrapped around a tree in what is, evidently, the middle of bloody nowhere.

This time around however, the fateful misadventures which befall our characters as they stomp off into the forest in search of help bring us such easy pleasures as creaking wrought iron gates surrounded by banks of spot-lit ground fog, dim lights burning in the windows of an imposing gothic revival manor house (Hampden House in Buckinghamshire, location fans may wish to note), shadowy cinematography, ominous howls in the night, axe-wielding folkloric woodcutters, creepy pale-skinned children in Victorian garb, and - as the episode’s title so subtly implies - some honest to goodness werewolves.

All of which proves a hell of a lot of fun, needless to say, even as Murray Smith’s knocked-off-in-a-weekend script remains sloppily predictable throughout.

In particular, it’s an absolute delight to see Diana Dors popping up here as the homely matriarch of the lycanthrope brood, giving it her all as usual, gradually dialling up the glassy-eyed malevolence behind her ingratiating smile and ‘Archers’-worthy Somerset drawl as things become increasingly hairy (pun intended) for our not-especially-likeable yuppie protagonists, perhaps adding a touch of ‘city vs country’ social tension to the thin subject matter in the process.

Sadly, we don’t get to see Diana experiencing a full-on werewolf transformation, but her opposite number (played by Jacob Witkin) eventually does the honours instead, and, in view of the TV drama level production budget and notorious difficulty of achieving decent werewolf effects, I think it must be acknowledged that the make up team here did a fair job.

Nonetheless, regular series director Tom Clegg was probably wise to minimise screen time for the werewolf, keeping the stalking beast safely confined to the darkened woods until the finale, whilst meanwhile allowing the bulk of the episode’s creepitude to instead fall upon the shoulders of wolf-family’s brood of creepy, carnivorous children.

Given that one of them plays the flute, that they have ‘suspicious’ foreign names like Tibor and Eloise, and that they wear incongruous Victorian costumes, M.R. James’ ‘Lost Hearts’ (or more likely, Lawrence Gordon Clark’s 1973 ‘Ghost Stories For Christmas’ adaptation thereof) would seem to be a prime influence here, which is certainly no bad thing.

As noted above, even casual horror fans will find very little to surprise them in the way this story pans out, but in a sense, the very predictability of Smith’s script serves to move the series away from the twist-heavy ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ type yarns which have tended to predominate in earlier episodes, and more towards something approaching good ol’, no nonsense gothic horror (albeit, a contemporary-set variation with a touch of ‘70s b-movie nastiness thrown in for good measure) - a change which I, for one, welcome with open arms.

In fact, if ‘Children of the Full Moon’ had been a segment of an Amicus anthology film from the preceding decade, it would have ranked as a pretty damn good one, which is high praise in this context. Definitely one of my favourite episodes so far in terms of pure entertainment value, even if its artistic merits may be questionable at best.

Wednesday 4 October 2023

Gothic Originals:
La Llamada del Vampiro
[‘Cry of the Vampires’]

(José María Elorrieta, 1972)

In view of the cult which has built up around Euro-horror cinema, I’m surprised that this prime-era Spanish vampire flick has remained so determinedly obscure over the years. Rarely acknowledged or discussed even amongst genre die-hards, José María Elorrieta’s film is still only accessible (insofar as I’m aware) as a murky, fan-subbed TV rip with a very intrusive station logo burned into the top right corner (channel 18, folks).

Telling the tale of a sexy doctor (Diana Sorel) and her even sexier assistant (Beatriz Elorrieta - any relation?) who travel to a remote town afflicted by an outbreak of vampirism and soon agree to move into the local castle to care for the bed-ridden Baron and hang out with his feckless, would-be Byronic son (Nicholas Ney in his only screen credit), it’s probably fair to say that ‘La Llamada del Vampiro’ often feels quite a lot like an early Paul Naschy movie, minus the unique sense of imagination and enthusiasm which the great man brought to his productions.

In fact, I’d go one further and humbly suggest that quite a lot of what goes on in ‘La Llamada..’ comprises a direct imitation of the preceding year’s smash hit ‘La Noche de Walpurgis’ [aka ‘Werewolf Shadow’, aka ‘The Werewolf vs The Vampire Woman’].

Qualified professionals who clearly don’t let their intellectual acumen prevent them from expressing their femininity and indulging their fondness for wearing baby doll nighties and/or hot pants, Sorel and Elorrieta’s characters are clearly modelled on the glamorous archaeological researchers at the centre of Naschy and León Klimovsky’s film, even to the extent that, in both cases, one half of the learned duo gets romantically involved with a moody, black-clad fellow who wonders the woods bemoaning his cursed lineage, whilst the other instead becomes enslaved by a predatory lady vampire.

Meanwhile, in the course of presenting Ney’s scraggle-haired, “moping teenager” type character as an extremely unconvincing stand-in for Naschy’s Waldemar Daninsky, the film even manages to bungle things by getting its vampire and werewolf mythos all mixed up, presenting Ney (and, by extension, the other vampires) as folks who are pretty normal most of the time, but freak out, grow fangs and set off against their will to seek the blood of the living whenever the moon is full.

As if all this didn’t constitute enough of a ‘homage’ to ‘La Noche de Walpurgis’, ‘Llamada..’s debt becomes blindly obvious later on, when we’re treated to slo-mo shots of the vampire women dancing around in flowing night gowns, showing off their fangs - an effect shamelessly cribbed from one of the more memorable images in the earlier film.

Furthermore I might add, ‘Llamada’ even has the gall to shoot in many of the same locations as ‘..Walpurgis’, with both the Castillo de la Coracera and the familiar Monasterio de Santa María de Valdeiglesias once again pressed into service.

(Very much hallowed ground for Spanish horror, the extraordinary ruins and imposing castillos in the province of San Martín de Valdeiglesias near Madrid have provided a home for everyone from The Blind Dead to The Blancheville Monster, making it difficult to imagine any fans being unfamiliar with them by the time they get around to a lower tier picture like this one.)

Even leaving aside the issue of plagiarism in early ‘70s Euro-gothic though, suffice to say that we’re looking here at a pretty run-of-the-mill example of the genre - but, the thing is, I like the genre, so still managed to have a lot of fun with it regardless.

Indifferently directed, blandly photographed and entirely lacking in originality though ‘La Llamada del Vampiro’ may be, the simple pleasures of looking at the pretty ladies in their groovy costumes, taking another tour of the spectacular locations, and hearing some way-out bits of canned music from the CAM archives provided my refined sensibilities with all the stimuli required to keep me happily enthralled through the film’s double bill friendly 84 minute run time.

Speaking of the pretty ladies meanwhile, it’s also worth noting that the version of the film screened by good ol’ Channel 18 appears to have been the international export cut, complete with a variety of easily snippable naughty bits clearly intended to entice us saucy foreigners into the (presumably very few) cinemas which played this thing in territories beyond the reach of the still highly censorious Franco regime.

For the first half hour or so in fact, I thought this was going to be a pretty chaste, old fashioned exercise in gothic horror, notwithstanding a few of our heroines’ fashion-forward costume choices. But then, without warning, we start to get a few surprising flashes of full frontal female nudity, before, during the final half hour, we’re suddenly hit with a pretty full-on softcore lesbian scene, followed by some extended kinky business with chains and feathers in the castle dungeons, as the ever-growing legion of vampire ladies titillate their victims in the lead up to the film’s agreeably action-packed and chaotic finale.

All of which serves, I suppose, to belatedly edge the film into the ‘erotic horror’ category, although viewers approaching it primarily for this reason will be in for a good long wait before getting their jollies, that’s for sure.

Commentators of a more cynical disposition may be apt to question exactly what else anyone might want to approach it for, but personally I’d advise shunning such cynicism and embracing the half-hearted vision of le fantastique sloppily conjured up here by Elorrieta and his time-pressed collaborators. As outlined above, I still found plenty to give me a warm glow within this almost reassuringly routine and unexceptional addition to the Euro-horror canon.

Though certainly not any kind of overlooked classic, ‘La Llamada del Vampiro’ is definitely worth seeking out and saving up for that moment when you find yourself jonesing for another dose of that very particular ‘70s Spanish horror vibe, but have already seen all the good ones too many times.