Friday, 30 October 2020

Horror Express 2020:
More Short Takes.

Three more shorter-than-usual takes on recently watched Horror films to glide us into the big day itself tomorrow. Including some actual positive comments this time around.

It Conquered the World 
(Roger Corman, 1956)

When AIP released The She-Creature (reviewed earlier this month) in 1956, it formed one half of a double-bill with this rather more widely remembered little number from Roger Corman. Quite a night out, by my estimation. For the sake of random cyclical completeness therefore, I thought I’d dig out ‘It Conquered The World’ and give it a quick going over, having not seen it for many a long year.

During the first half, I was surprised to note such a high incidence of clunky dialogue, painfully bad line-readings and general meandering tedium, which has no doubt done a lot to aid the film’s retrospective status as a more-or-less definitive cheap n’ cheesy b-movie. In view of the fact that the film's principal creatives were all smart and competent people however, I tend to suspect there was a certain amount of sniggering self-awareness creeping in here, which makes me sad.

As cynical as the production circumstances behind Roger Corman's movies may have been, when it comes to his directorial efforts, I've always appreciated his earnest dedication to making a straight-facedly decent movie out of whatever meagre resources were available to him. So, it’s disappointing to imagine him knowingly signing off on a load of sub-par crap at some points on this one, underestimating the intelligence of his audience in precisely the manner he usually so strenuously avoided. Perhaps Lou Rusoff’s script - just as shamelessly barmy as the one he provided for ‘The She-Creature’ - might to some extent be to blame?

Anyway, regardless, there is nonetheless a lot to enjoy here right from the outset. Surely no genre movie fan can fail to be moved by the sight of a (relatively) young Lee Van Cleef firing up his inter-planetary radio-set (hidden behind a curtain in the corner of the living room) to speak to his friend from Venus? 

Appearing just a few years after he played sneering, homosexual hitman Fante in Joseph H. Lewis’s classic ‘The Big Combo’, Van Cleef’s plummy, pointed-finger-aloft delivery of his dialogue here (“listen Paul - listen to the VOICE!”) must have become an acute embarrassment for him as he began settling into his more familiar taciturn cowboy persona over the next decade or so.

Meanwhile of course, the thunderously obvious nature of the obligatory anti-commie sub-text, expressed through Van Cleef’s interplanetary collaboration with a malign being who promises heaven on earth to mankind in exchange for their emotions and individuality, is so clearly comical that I’d like to believe that Corman - not to my knowledge a rabid McCarthyite - very much did have his tongue in his cheek in this regard.

And, once things get going in the second half, ol’ Jolly Roger really gives us our money’s worth. In fact, as soon as the Best Movie Monster Ever (accept no substitutes) shows up, conquering the fuck out of Bronson Canyon (if not quite the world) with his killer grin and adorable, residual-arm-waggling “just frontin’” moves, it’s all gravy for a surprisingly action-packed final act.

First we get the great Beverly Garland blasting away at the bugger with a shotgun (and, how often do we get see the heroine of a ‘50s sci-fi movie sneaking out from under her husband’s nose to give the monster hell, incidentally?), then the Dick Miller Commandos show up with their bazooka, and finally, an enraged Van Cleef getting up close and delivering the foam-melting coup de grace with an f-ing blowtorch, of all things! His final words: “I bid you welcome to this earth... you made it a CHARNEL HOUSE!”

For all the missteps and faffing about in the first half in fact, this is a thing of beauty and a joy forever - god bless you, Mr. Corman. 

Daughter of Darkness 
(Stuart Gordon, 1990)

Nothing to do with Harry Kumel or Delphine Seyrig, this is a made-for-TV vampire movie shot in Romania, directed by the late Stuart Gordon. In view of the info in the preceding sentence, I'd always assumed it must naturally be a Full Moon/Charles Band joint (some kind of spin off from their Eastern European ‘Sub-Species’ films perhaps?), but when I finally sat down to watch it this week, it immediately became clear that we’re dealing with a different kettle of fish entirely.

None of the usual suspects or company logos turned up on the straight-laced opening credits, and once things get underway, the tone is very different from yr usual Empire/Full Moon house style. It’s slicker for one thing, with somewhat higher production values, but also blander and more conventional, as if attempting to appeal to a mainstream TV audience, rather than rabid horror fans.

The plot sees a young American woman (Mia Sara) arriving in Bucharest in search of her long lost father, who turns out to be none other than Anthony Perkins. Along the way, she collides with variety of sinister and/or seductive characters, gets into a few scrapes involving the sinister dragon pendant she inherited from her Dad, has ominous bad dreams in which she traverses areas of the city she has never previously visited, and so on and so forth.

Thanks to Gordon’s brisk pacing and inventive direction, this is all fairly diverting, but unfortunately, once it gets down to brass tacks, vampire stuff in Andrew Laskos’ script is pretty hackneyed, much of the dialogue is fist-in-mouth terrible (the alleged “flirtatious banter” between Sara and U.S. embassy attaché Jack Coleman is especially painful) and the performances (with the exception of Perkins and a couple of the Romanian actors) are extremely poor. This latter point is especially disappointing, given that Gordon's theatrical background and good eye for casting usually helped his films to punch well above their weight in terms of acting and character stuff.

Meanwhile, the obvious requirement to stick to PG-level content also proves a stone drag. Although there are a few potentially memorable horror scenarios, and vampires’ manner of feeding proves a bit of an eye-opener, you can almost feel the director straining at the leash, wishing he could unleash some of the nastiness of his better-known work, but clearly under orders to keep things as mild as possible.

On the other hand though, the film is, as mentioned, very well directed, and the photography (by Romanian DP Iván Márk) is extremely good, making excellent use of the evocative and unusual urban locations. In fact, whereas many American horror films over the years have tried to hide the fact that they were made in Eastern Europe for budgetary reasons, this one makes a real virtue out of being shot under the nose of the Ceaușescu regime, which by my calculations must have been struggling through its final tempestuous final months at around the time ‘Daughter of Darkness’ was filmed.

As such, the film’s evocative and seemingly authentic Bucharest street footage carries an electric and fearful atmosphere, effectively conveying the idea of a city living under a cloud of intrigue and paranoia, and even incorporating a sub-plot about Sara being pursued by the dictator’s secret police.

With a stuttering electricity supply, gun-toting soldiers on every corner, and brief glimpses of breadlines and dishevelled streetwalkers visible as Sara roars through the streets in a broken down taxi, the film suggests an interesting contrast between these symptoms of late 20th century misery, and the older, more dust-shrouded European world represented by the shabby five star hotels, over-priced restaurants and subterranean craft workshops which both she and the vampires are obliged to frequent.

At times, I was even reminded of Zulawski’s use of East Berlin in ‘Possession’ (a comparison further suggested by the fact that this film’s main bad guy, British actor Robert Reynolds, is a dead ringer for a young Sam Neill), but... there the similarities end, unfortunately.

Overall, I’m not sure I’d recommend going to the trouble to track down ‘Daughter of Darkness’ unless you’re a Stuart Gordon completist (or an Anthony Perkins completist?), or unless you have a special interest in films shot in Romania, possibly. But, it is at least a sufficiently respectable effort for me to continue truthfully claiming that I’ve never seen a Gordon film I didn't enjoy. 

(Shinya Tsukamoto, 1999)

To be honest, I've never been much of a fan of director Shinya Tsukamoto, but I am a fan of films based on the writings of Edogawa Rampo, wild gel lighting and buying stuff from Mondo Macabro, so I thought I'd give this one a go.

Results proved…. mixed, shall we say. The basic Rampo-derived story, about a former battlefield surgeon (Masahiro Motoki) being terrorised by his doppelganger, remains very compelling, using an ostensibly simple horror conceit to explore a wide range of uncomfortable thematic territory, touching on the dehumanising effects of war, the collapse of family hierarchies and, most pointedly, the pernicious violence inflicted upon society by the rigid enforcement of socio-economic inequality.

Rest assured however, this is all treated by Tsukamoto more as a visceral, ero-guro tone poem than some high-minded political allegory, as he adapts his jarring, dissociative audio-visual style (often likened to the cinematic equivalent of a tape cut-up or extreme noise record) to the needs of a slightly more refined period setting, delivering some truly shocking and bizarre moments for us to, uh, ‘enjoy’, in the process.

Former pop idol Motoki does fine work too in what is a challenging pair of roles to put it mildly, with his portrayal of the ‘evil twin’ character in particular standing as easily the most unsettling display of skin-crawling evil I’ve encountered during this October season.

In many other respects though, I’m afraid I just didn’t dig the approach Tsukamoto takes to this material. Although there is some beautiful photography in places, the ‘extreme’ colour schemes used through much of the film are achieved through ugly-looking post-production filtering rather than actual, on-set lighting and production design, with the unfortunate effect of making a lot of the footage feel as if it’s been brutalised by the pre-sets on an arty teenager’s iPhone, whilst the director’s fixation with lo-o-ong sequences of people silently maintaining creepy/natural postures or just generally freaking out in front of the camera for minutes on end likewise got on my nerves.

Ultimately, these questionable aesthetic decisions served to distract me from the central narrative (which I was enjoying) to a sometimes catastrophic degree, ultimately making the whole venture feel a bit pretentious and uninvolving.

I’m also not really sure why the occupants of the film’s early 20th century “slums” all needed to be crazy, Noh-dancing neo-primitive cyberpunks, but hey, you hire the guy who made ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’, that's what you get I suppose.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Horror Express 2020:
Short Takes.

As regular readers may have noticed, I’ve been having trouble this year keeping up with my self-imposed marathon posting schedule for October, so to plug the gap a bit and make up the numbers, here a few short write-ups, pulled from notes I’ve made after viewings over the past couple of weeks. Spoiler: apparently I didn’t like any of these films very much.

La Bambola di Satana 
(Ferruccio Casapinta, 1969)

There are some surface level pleasures to enjoy in this one: the candy-coloured photography, the idyllic rural locations, the zany music score, haphazardly slapped together feel and general ‘contact high’ Euro-horror vibes. Such ambient appeal can only get you so far however, and once we get beyond that.... boy, what a stinker.

By rights, ‘La Bambola di Satana’ should at least prove interesting in genre history terms, representing a rare transitional entry in the Italian gothic horror cycle, bridging the gap between the more sombre, black & white era (roughly 1960-66) and the erotic / psychedelic wave of the early ‘70s. Unfortunately however, one-shot writer/director Ferruccio Casapinta seems uninterested in engaging with the conventions of either tradition, instead taking the most tedious gaslighting-the-heiress plotline imaginable and doggedly stringing it out for ninety minutes with no particular enthusiasm and few surprises.

I mean, the easily identified two-faced villains in this one don't even want to steal the castle heroine Erna Schurer has recently inherited from her wealthy uncle - they just want her to sell it to them. So, surely there are easier ways to go about this? Even if they can’t persuade Erna to sell, given that they're clearly rich enough to buy a castle, couldn't they just go and look at a different one? And, given that she seems perfectly happy for them to hang around the place indefinitely, what do they even stand to gain from owning the joint in the first place? Such are the thrilling, property market-based questions that ‘La Bambola di Satana’ forces us to contemplate. (1)

Also - NO SATAN. Schurer’s character is in no way a “doll of Satan”, and neither, except perhaps in the most nebulous sense of the term, is deceased-uncle’s-secretary / chief schemer Aurora Bautista. (2) There are no Satanists, no Satanism, no mention of Satan. I want my money back!

If you’re as obsessive a chronicler of early’70s Erotic Castle Movies as I am, ‘La Bambola di Satana’ might be worth seeing for the five-minute sequence in the middle in which it suddenly turns into a crazy / sexy horror movie, with Shurer writhing on her bed in a translucent nightie, dreaming that she’s being brutalised in the castle’s subterranean torture chamber by hooded inquisitors, complete with flashing disco lights. But, after that, it’s content to just go back to being the most boring giallo ever for another 40 minutes or so. Ho hum.


Invisible Ghost 
(Joseph H. Lewis, 1941)

Bela Lugosi’s first film for Monogram I believe, this one delivers... very little of anything, to be perfectly honest. Frankly, the script is so rambling, poorly constructed and lacking in interest that I’m amazed it got the go-ahead to enter production. I mean, I know that poverty row studios were cheap, but surely they also had a vested interest in actually putting things people wanted to see on the screen? Such as “invisible ghosts”, for instance.

Well, no dice here on that score, needless to say. Where the title came from is anyone’s guess. I kept waiting for the big reveal of whatever the story’s horror twist was going to be - is Lugosi secretly a mad scientist? Is he being telepathically controlled by his wife for some malign purpose? Is he being possessed by the spirit of a dead ancestor or something? - but it never came.

So, basically, it seems Bela is just an affable chap whose wife has left him to run off with another man. Unbeknownst to him however, the eloping lovers suffered a car crash whilst making their getaway, which, somehow, leaves the wife wandering around the grounds of Lugosi’s house in a kind of mindless / brain-damaged stupor. Whenever Bela sees her through the windows, he snaps into a hypnotic fugue state and heads off, zombie-like, to strangle the nearest servant. No attempt is ever made to explain why this happens. That's yr lot, plot-wise.

The cigar-chewing detective who turns up each morning to investigate this ongoing series of strangulation murders repeatedly fails to link the crimes to Lugosi, despite the fact that all of the killings take place in his house, and that he has no alibi and precisely the right shaped hands. Meanwhile, the heroine (Lugosi's daughter, played by Polly Ann Young) responds to such events as her fiancée being executed for a crime he didn't commit by putting a spirited “oh!” in front of her lines, but otherwise expresses no emotion on the matter.

The film's music score consists of a load of random needle-drops which run incessantly from beginning to end, with no attempt made whatsoever to match them to the on-screen events, giving the impression that someone just left a radio on in the background whilst the movie was shooting. (This causes confusion during a scene in which a murder victim actually DOES leave the radio on.)

Sadly, there’s not even much fun here for Lugosi completists, given that he flatly intones his lines when in “normal” mode, then just waggles his fingers around as someone shines a torch under his chin when in “mad strangler” mode. Not exactly one of the great man’s towering screen roles.

The only thing I’ve got in the ‘plus’ column in fact is that director Joseph H. Lewis pulls off some bold and unconventional shots here and there, anticipating the style he’d go on to develop in his later, better-known (and frankly just plain better) films.

That aside though, I declare ‘Invisible Ghost’ a total waste of everyone's time; a gift for trash-talking critics such as myself, the only thing I can imagine the inexplicable title actually referring to is the ghost of the reason this damn thing exists in the first place. Ah well - you live and learn, and at 63 minutes it didn't kill me.

Edge of the Axe 
(José Ramón Larraz, 1988)

If you're coming to this film as a fan of director José Ramón Larraz, well, the good news is that the car wash murder sequence which opens the film is quite sombre and stylishly done. After that however, you might be best advised to turn the damned thing off and fill the next 85 minutes of your life with something more rewarding, because the rest of the movie could basically have been directed by any old bozo with a basic understanding of how to keep things in focus.

If on the other hand though you’re approaching it as a fan of late-to-the-party, independently financed oddball slasher flicks, well.... more good news! It’s fairly watchable, which spells success in this benighted corner of cinema.

In fact, although this film is objectively bad in just about every respect, it has a certain misfit charm that made me quite like it. Mainly I think, this was due to English-as-a-second-language scripting which, though it never scales ‘Troll 2’-esque heights of surrealism, frequently has the poor cast members (primarily hired in Texas, where the film was shot) enunciating mouthfuls of garbled blather which no human being would ever actually say.

Meanwhile, there’s some retrospectively rather charming stuff about the film’s central teen couple plugging their delightfully bulky home computers into “the central terminal” so that they can talk to each other chatroom-style - an innovation that the film’s other characters treat as if it were akin to some form of Satanic brain-washing.

Elsewhere, some of the violence is reassuringly violent, momentarily reminding us that the guy who made ‘Vampyres’ is at the wheel, and it’s really nice to see iconic Spanish horror stars Jack Taylor and Patty Shepard popping up briefly in minor roles.

That aside though, about the only thing I could find to connect ‘Edge of the Axe’ to Larraz’s earlier work is an unusual subplot involving the young protagonist’s best friend, who has ill-advisedly married a woman many years his senior. Although the film is generally pretty sexless (unfortunately), this seems to speak perhaps to the director’s career-spanning interest in the sexuality of older women (albeit entirely off screen in this case).


(1) Born in Naples in 1942, Erna Schurer’s other credits include the similarly under-powered Erotic Castle Movie ‘Blood Castle’ (1970) and Andrea Bianchi’s ‘Strip Nude for your Killer’ (1975), as well as such choice titles as ‘Deported Women of the SS Special Section’ (1977), ‘Sex Life in a Women’s Prison’ (1974), ‘Carnal Revenge’ (’74), ‘Les Lesbiennes’ (’75), and - I kid you not - ‘Erotic Exploits of a Sexy Seducer’ (1978).

(2) A prolific Spanish-born actress, Aurora Bautista went on to appear in both Eugenio Martin’s ‘A Candle for the Devil’ (1973) and Larraz’s ‘El Mirón (1977).

Monday, 26 October 2020

Spells and Incantations:
Being Thee 10th Annual Stereo Sanctity/
Breakfast in the Ruins Halloween Mix CD.

 [Cross-posted with Stereo Sanctity.]

As we kick off Halloween week, here, as tradition demands, is a just-under-80-minute mix of ragin’, unholy audio to get you in the mood for whatever safely socially distanced blasphemous rites and abhorrent festivities yourself and your household support bubble/coven have planned this year.

Given that this is the tenth instalment in the series (research gleaned from the long-shuttered archives suggests that the first occurred back in 2008, but that I skipped both 2018 and 2019), you’ll appreciate that the back catalogues of the true greats of Horror-Rock have already been thoroughly tapped by this point, but, as so often in life, metal has stepped up to save the day.

Betwixt the riffage, we also dip a disfigured toe or two into the faddish yet undeniably appealing waters of ‘dungeon synth’, and explore a wide range of atavistic diabolism during the first half, before a brief diversion into lycanthropy ushers us into some unspeakable realms of cosmic terror, concluding with a nod to everyone’s favourite Obeah Man. Dare you stand before the altar and offer up your mortal soul? Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, a quick click on the mixcloud ‘play’ button is all it takes.

Alternatively though, if you miss the riskier business of getting naked and throwing questionable fluids around the place, the old school mp3 download link below the tracklist may prove more to your liking.

(As usual, bands and artists who are still a going concern and deserve your support have been linked below as appropriate.)


00:00 One’s blessing...
00:59 Debbie Lyndsey - Spells and Incantations 
03:46 Aggressive Perfector - Onward to the Cemetery 
09:06 Midnight - Rebirth by Blasphemy 
12:15 Blood Ceremony - Witchwood 
19:12 Dream Division - The Gateway of the Pit 
21:32 Witchfinder General - Witchfinder General 
25:20 Dream Division - The Ancient Sanctuary 
26:49 Shooting Guns - Silver Bullet Remix 
32:27 Horse - The Sacrifice 
38:39 Ennio Morricone - Magic and Ecstasy 
41:33 Ted Dicks - Virgin Witch # 9 
46:37 Eskaton - Dagon 
56:34 Ogre - Hillside Necropolis 
58:56 Candlemass - Demon’s Gate 
1:08:02 Sunn O))) - It Took The Night To Believe 
1:14:00 Exuma - Exuma’s Reincarnation 
    ((( Download link. )))

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Nippon Horrors / Horror Express 2020 #10:
Kaidan Hebi-Onna /
‘Snake Woman's Curse’

(Nobuo Nakagawa, 1968)

 A decade or so after he turned out a series of fairly wacky horror pictures like Ghost Cat Mansion and The Lady Vampire for Shintoho, Nobuo Nakagawa - who had largely retired from directing after directly contributing to the bankruptcy of the aforementioned studio with his 1960 epic ‘Jigoku’ [‘Hell’] - returned to the fray for this considerably more conventional kaidan effort, produced under the unlikely auspices of Toei.

I say ‘unlikely’, because, although they soon would soon go on to cut a bloody swathe across the early ‘70s with some of the most grotesquely violent and OTT genre movies ever made, supernatural horror was never really Toei’s ‘thing’, leaving Kaidan Hebi-Onna [‘Snake Woman’s Curse’] feeling like a bit of a curious one-off.

According to what little background info I can find on the film, the production seems to have originated with writer Fumio Kônami, who apparently told the producers that he would only allow the studio to film his script if Nakagawa (who had not worked in the industry for about five years at this point) was hired to direct. (1)Apparently keen to try to establish a viable kaidan/horror line at the time, Toei acquiesced to the writer’s request, and…. bob’s yr uncle, as we say over on this side of the globe. (2)

Plot-wise, ‘Kaidan Hebi-Onna’ is in most respects a pretty standard, run-of-the-mill kaidan picture - essentially a variation on the old bakeneko (ghost-cat) story, in which a wronged woman returns from the grave with the help of an animal spirit to take her vengeance on the hateful aristocrats who have destroyed her family, only with snakes used as the totem animal this time around instead of cats.

Set (and presumably filmed) somewhere in Japan’s remote far western region, the story opens with an elderly peasant farmer (the ubiquitous Ko Nishimura), practically throwing himself under the wheels of the local landlord’s coach, as he begs for leniency vis-à-vis the repayment of his debts. Needless to say, such mercy is not forthcoming from the venal plutocrat (Seizaburô Kawazu), but, on his death-bed, the farmer is still pleading deliriously for the chance to save his family’s small-holding, uttering the key phrase which will go on to become something of a catch-phrase for the film’s spectral avengers: “even if I have to eat dirt, I will pay you back”.

After the man’s death, the landlord decrees that his homestead will be demolished in order to clear space for the planting of mulberry trees (used in the production of silk), whilst his wife (Chiaki Tsukioka) and adult daughter (Asa, played by Yukiko Kuwahara) are cheerfully informed that they will be taken into service in the landlord’s household, there to ‘work off’ their late patriarch’s debts.

As you might imagine, this is far from an idyllic prospect for the two women. Set to work weaving silk in what basically amounts to a small scale Victorian sweatshop, Asa must work sixteen hour days under the supervision of the landlord’s thuggish, lecherous son (Toei yakuza/action regular and future Roman Porno director Shingo Yamashiro), whilst her mother meanwhile becomes a general domestic dogsbody, bullied and belittled at every turn by the landlord’s sadistic wife (Kurosawa regular and future ‘Female Prisoner: Scorpion’ / ‘Sex & Fury’ legend Akemi Negishi).

Although their fellow servants treat them with kindness, and although Asa still has steadfast fiancée Satematsu (Kunio Murai) waiting for her on the outside, the inhumane treatment doled out to the two women leads them, inevitably, to their sad and undignified deaths. Asa’s mother, significantly, has always made a habit of habit of helping unloved animals (she was nursing a pigeon back to health when the family lost their home), and she is struck down whilst attempting the prevent the killing of a snake which has intruded into the landlord’s house.

As anyone who knows the ‘rules’ of this genre will be well aware by this point, the Big Man and his horrid family had better watch the hell out, as Nakagawa and his crew prepare to get busy with the thunder crashes, gel lighting, stage blood, green-faced living corpses and double-exposed snake effects, for the riotous closing act of vengeance-from-beyond-the-grave.

To Western audiences, these films often play more like ritual re-enactments of familiar folk tales than exercises in contemporary story-telling, which perhaps to some extent accounts for their failure to gain much of an overseas following, as the lack of novelty within their narratives can soon become pretty dispiriting. Once you’ve seen a handful of ‘em, you’ll know exactly how things are going to play out, right from the outset. The only interest comes from seeing how efficiently the filmmakers will accomplish their task, in technical and dramatic terms.

For domestic audiences however, we must assume this would not have been so much of a problem. More accepting of the traditions behind the bakeneko form, and more able to appreciate the more subtle cultural resonances within it, one hopes they would have been able to view each addition to the cycle with fresh eyes. 

(By way of comparison, we can perhaps imagine how a viewer largely unfamiliar with American culture would feel after being sat down and told to watch 25 early ‘80s slasher films. We might love them all for their minor eccentricities and variation on the theme, but to the uninitiated, aren’t they all kind of the same, more or less?)

In some ways, ‘Snake Woman’s Curse’ feels like a case in point in this regard. As eye-rollingly over-familiar as the basic storyline may be, look deeper and some very specific points of departure from the norm begin to emerge. For a start, the film is set during the Meiji era (1868-1912), a time of dramatic change and modernisation for Japan, immediately differentiating it from the more historically static Edo or Tokugawa eras in which kaidan stories more traditionally take place.

Again, domestic audiences would likely have been keyed into this right from the start, as the landlord is seen roaring through his domain in a Western-style coach, whilst his son sports a bowler hat and other foreign accoutrements. The mechanised ‘sweat-shop’ in which Asa is put to work likewise represents a form of industry unknown in pre-Meiji Japan, but whilst the the adoption of these innovations by the film’s villainous aristocrats would seem to indicate an implicit support for the older, folk-based way of life favoured by the hard-done-by peasants, the approach taken by Kônami’s script is, as usual, a little more nuanced than that.

The ambiguous attitude to modernisation and/or Westernisation so frequently encountered in early ‘70s Japanese genre cinema is perfectly encapsulated here via a memorable one scene cameo from Tetsurô Tanba, playing a regional police chief dispatched to investigate the murderous goings on within the landlord’s domain.

Effectively acting as the very personification of modern, democratic state governance, Tanba reduces the landlord to a fit of spluttering disbelief as he calmly undercuts the local lord’s Shogunate-derived feudal authority, daring to suggest that the police may wish to investigate the death of one of his peasants, and that he might even dare to implicate members of the aristocrat’s own family in the process - an absolutely unthinkable prospect for a man born into the strict caste system of the Tokugawa era, and an amusing demonstration of that the way that, however keen the ruling classes may have been to enrich themselves using technological innovations offered by contact with Western capitalism, their understanding of the social and political implications of such development tended to lack somewhat behind.

As you will no doubt have gathered from the preceding paragraphs, ‘Kaidan Hebi-Onna’ is about as politically conscious a kaidan pictures as you could possibly hope to find, taking the age old fantasy of the rural peasantry exacting revenge against their cruel feudal overlords baked into all bakeneko stories, and hammering it home for strongly than ever, applying it to a more nuanced, more realistic and more historically recent setting in the process.

Some might be apt to suggest that the film’s success as a horror movie suffers as a result of this heavy emphasis on socio-economic angst, and indeed Nakagawa’s pacing here is glacially slow, whilst the atmosphere he builds is painstakingly sombre. The inevitable horror ‘effects’ which dominate the final act meanwhile, whilst inventive and fun, are strictly conventional within the genre.

So, we’re definitely not looking at a Friday night horror banger here I’m afraid, but, if you can approach the film in an appropriately sober, arthouse-y frame of mind, Nakagawa’s execution at least is absolutely top notch. Performances are excellent across the board (in addition to the aforementioned esteemed actors, there are also turns from such Toei notables as Yukie Kagawa and Hideo Murota), whilst Yoshikazu Yamazawa’s photography, highlighting the fertile-yet-foreboding topography of Japan’s mountainous Western coast, is beautiful, radiating an overpowering brown n’ green aura which seems to link the earth where the snakes crawl directly to the hallowed afterlife from whence the spectres emerge.

Shunsuke Kikuchi’s score meanwhile is richly evocative, and the carefully wrought production design includes a wealth of great “folky stuff” (songs, costumes, local festival customs) for Japanophiles to enjoy. Most importantly perhaps, Nakagawa manages to imbue the script’s off-the-peg structure with a handful of genuinely haunting, transcendental images which will live long in the viewer’s memory after viewing.

Born in 1905, the director was sixty-three years old as the time of this film’s production, and it would be all too easy to interpret the slower, more meditative direction Nakagawa takes here as the work of a filmmaker trying to establish himself as a more ‘serious’ voice in cinema during the twilight years of his career, after half a lifetime spent churning out rushed 60 minute programmers and battling the studios for budgets.

Unfortunately for us reviewers’ desperate need to try to impose a narrative onto everything however, Nakagawa rather kicked this idea in the nuts by immediately going on to make a brief but prolific comeback as a commercial director in 1969, directing five action/yakuza pictures for Toei in quick succession before, curiously, adopting the pseudonym “Ise Tsugio” in order to make what I presume to be a series of obscure, independently distributed pinku (erotic) titles (ubiquitous S&M / rope torture guru Oniroku Dan is credited as writer on at least one of them). All of these hit cinemas before the year was out, with the director’s anonymity surely somewhat undermined by the fact that they were all proudly produced by his own ‘Nakagawa Pro’.

So, once again, we return to the idea of ‘Kaidan Hebi-Onna’ seeming like a real one-off - an odd, inexplicable diversion in the paths followed by its director, writer and studio. It is what it is, I suppose - but thankfully for those with an interest in this particular overlooked corner of Japanese culture, what it is is very worthwhile indeed.


(1) An absolutely pivotal figure in the golden age of Toei exploitation, Kônami (1933-2012) went on to contribute to a huge number of the studio’s best and/or most outrageous films from the early ‘70s, including the entire ‘Female Prisoner: Scorpion’ series, Sonny Chiba’s Yakuza Deka movies, the extraordinary Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope, the horrifying Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs and Kinji Fukasaku’s ‘Sympathy for the Underdog’ and ‘Graveyard of Honour’, to name but a few. 

(2) CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE DEPT: All background info on the production of this film is taken directly from Jonathan M. Hall’s well-researched commentary track on the 2007 Synapse DVD release.

Thursday, 22 October 2020

Horror Express 2020 #9:
The Night Eats The World
(Dominique Rocher, 2018)

I was kind of in two minds about this one. On the one hand, it certainly starts off strong, as a well-directed and well-shot take on the ol’ zombie apocalypse formula (last-man-on-earth subdivision), with requisite nods to ‘I am Legend’, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘28 Days Later’ all present and correct, and that gut-wrenching “something dreadful is about to happen” feeling effectively established.

Protagonist Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie), sole survivor of a zombie-crashed house party at his ex-girlfriend’s Paris apartment, initially seems to have reassuringly good survival instincts too - scoping out his surroundings, stockpiling food and weapons and sizing up the abilities of his undead opponents, just as we’d all probably like to think we would in his situation. But, as the film transitions from the straight survival horror of its first act toward a more psychological study of long-term isolation and loneliness, it lost focus and began to annoy me.

Although on one level we’ve got to commend the filmmakers for having the foresight to essentially make a lockdown movie in 2018, their protagonist’s predicament never really rings true (see below), and, well… basically, as we spend more time with the man, and as his actions become more irrational and self-indulgent, we begin to realise that he's actually a bit of a dick. Not in a “the filmmakers are challenging us to accept an unsympathetic protagonist” sort of way either, I should specify, but more of a “this character is the fimmakers’ idea of a relatable, everyday guy, but frankly that guy is a tosser” situation. And when you’re watching a film with only one character, that’s kind of a problem.

Also, despite the film's painstakingly naturalistic, contemporary setting, the apocalyptic scenario it is asking us to accept begins to seem more ridiculous, the longer you stop to think about it.

By which I mean - a crucial element of this film is that its zombies are not capable of breaking through locked doors. Our protagonist survives the initial, nocturnal zombie attack because he is unconscious in a locked room. When subsequently reclaiming the apartment block, he simply secures the exterior doors and windows, and is safe for the duration.

So far so good, but, given that MOST people essentially spend their nights asleep behind a locked door or two, and probably tend to at least look out of the window in the morning before they step out for a stroll... surely there would be loads of survivors? The idea that everyone else in the city has been wiped out overnight by zombies with less agency than feral animals is patently absurd.

Likewise, despite the movie being set in the late 2010s present day, no one in this apartment building seems to have owned a computer, or a TV, or even a radio. Instead, like our painfully hip, DIY musician protagonist, the residents seem to have favoured cassette tapes (so retro and chic, y’know?). Conveniently, this allows him to bop around the empty rooms using up the batteries on a walkman he reclaimed from a ‘punk’ teenager’s bedroom (in 2018? really??), instead of, say, using his smartphone to try to contact the outside world. (You see what I mean about this whole ‘dick’ thing?)

In fact, he briefly checks his voice messages on his phone during the first morning, establishes that his nearest-and-dearest are dead, then abandons it. I get that “isolation” is the film’s watch-word, but the idea that he wouldn’t have at least tried to find out what was happening in the wider world whilst the electricity was still running is difficult to accept.

Of course, I don’t mind directors bending a film’s world to suit their own needs in a movie whose presentation is pulpier or more fantastical, but given this one’s absolute realist aesthetic, the failure to address these issues just seems like an insult to the viewer’s intelligence - a wilful refusal to provide us with the information we need to make this story work for us, on either an emotional level or a purely narrative one.

My wife, incidentally, has already christened ‘The Night Eats the World’ “that emo zombie movie”, and whilst I wouldn’t go that far in my criticism (I thought it had its moments), I get where she’s coming from.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Gothic Originals / Horror Express 2020 #8:
The Ghoul
(Freddie Francis, 1975)

 I make a point of trying to cover at least one previously unseen Peter Cushing film each October, and I've had this one lying around as a VHS-rip since god knows when, so here we go.

As anyone who has read up the history of British horror cinema will probably recall, Tyburn productions (named for the infamous site of London’s public gallows) was a short-lived outfit founded by Kevin Francis, son of Freddie, with the deliberate intention of reviving the more old-fashioned style of gothic horror filmmaking which had pretty much been driven to extinction in the UK by the mid-1970s.

(Precisely the kind of films the then 25-year-old Kevin had grown up watching his father work on in other words, although this is neither the time nor place to dwell upon the psychological motivations underpinning forty-five year old entrepreneurial ventures.)

Be that as it may, Tyburn was not a success. To put it bluntly, there were good reasons why production of traditional gothic horrors had flatlined in the preceding years, and the young Mr Francis had no ace up his sleeve to help overcome them. Greeted with almost total disdain by audiences and critics alike when they scraped into cinemas in ‘74-‘75, the three feature films Tyburn produced attracted little interest, and the company faded from existence shortly thereafter.

Released in June 1975, ‘The Ghoul’ was the last Tyburn film to see the inside of a projector, and, true to its producer’s intentions, it’s a sombre, slow-moving and ultimately pretty dispiriting attempt to revive the ‘stately’ (read: stuffy / Victorian) feel of classic-era Hammer.

Indeed, Hammer’s own Anthony Hinds (writing under his John Elder pseudonym) provided the script, a substantial portion of which is directly recycled from his work on 1966’s The Reptile - only, this time around, there’s no reptile, which gives you an immediate insight into what a bloody-mindedly uncommercial production we’re getting into here.

Dour as it may be though, ‘The Ghoul’ does have its charms - not least an excellent, late-era Cushing performance. As so often in this era, the actor seems to be drawing pretty heavily on his own well-publicised battle with grief, and I really hope that the scene in which his character cradles a photograph of his late wife, reflecting that they will “always be together” and so forth, was not added to the script simply to capitalise on the star’s personal circumstances. (1)

Either way though, Cushing handles it all with the grace and dignity we’d reasonably expect of him, whilst his character Dr Lawrence - a morally compromised former missionary, returned from India with a dark secret and henceforth dedicated to his solitary passion for building violins - incorporates enough psychological nooks and crannies for the actor to really get his teeth into (so to speak), irrespective of the relatively shoddy stuff which surrounds him.

It's a shame therefore that second-billed John Hurt pretty much phones it in as the simple-minded groundskeeper/hobo type character who skulks about Lawrence’s swampy, dilapidated country pile, luring young ladies back to the literal chicken-shack he calls home and falteringly attempting to abuse them. Despite being painfully uninteresting, this vacant numbskull is assigned an absolute ton of screen-time, and although he essentially representing the film’s only portrayal of a working class character, neither script nor actor bother to put in a very good showing.

Having already played leading roles in several higher profile films by this point, as well as being nominated for a BAFTA for his harrowing supporting performance in Richard Fleischer’s ‘10 Rillington Place’ (1971), it’s possible that Hurt simply felt this gig was beneath him - and indeed, with its Wurzel Gummidge costumery, moptop wig and clunking, remedial dialogue, it quite possibly was. But, he could still have taken a few tips from Cushing vis-à-vis counting one’s blessings and making the best of things, I would suggest.

Elsewhere, it's great to see Ian McCulloch (‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’, Zombi Holocaust) popping up a few years before his Italio-horror glory days (there’s some uneasy, class-based tension when, noticing that Hurt’s character is a former soldier, McCulloch’s young officer starts bossing him about in regimental fashion, igniting an awkward battle of wills), Whilst Veronica Carlson (‘Dracula Has Risen From The Grave’, ‘Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed’) makes for a far ballsier heroine than you normally encounter in this sort of thing, taking charge during the film’s opening car race, and generally lording it over her male co-stars in no uncertain terms.

Despite of ‘The Ghoul’s all-pervading atmosphere of nostalgic gloom in fact, some efforts have clearly been made here to bring a more contemporary feel into proceedings. The unusual 1920s setting for instance seems to have been introduced largely in order to facilitate some rambunctious, jazz-age merrymaking into the film’s opening scenes (retro ‘20s hi-jinks were, oddly, often a by-word for envelope-pushing modernism in ‘70s cinema, post-‘Bonnie & Clyde’), whilst the aforementioned nocturnal car race - in which the movie’s hateful young toffs recklessly roar around ill-lit country roads in their vintage motors - is both well-executed and quite exciting, surpassing the similar scenes featured in ‘The Devil Rides Out’ (1968).

Beyond ‘The Reptile’ meanwhile, Hinds’ script also seems to have borrowed at least some of its structure from ‘Psycho’, and the film’s scenes of violence, few and far between though they may be, are effectively gory and hard-hitting.

Indeed, given that it is inevitably being tagged as a boring, old fashioned throwback by British horror fans, it is ironic that ‘The Ghoul’s “bright young things find themselves at the mercy of doddering old weirdos” plotline entirely mirrors the far edgier films being made by directors like Pete Walker at around the same time, realigning the class-based conflicts underlying most of Hammer’s output to reflect the generational rifts more frequently explored by younger filmmakers during the ‘70s.

Conversely however, some viewers might be liable to find other elements of ‘The Ghoul’s script more retrogressive and objectionable - specifically, its apparent portrayal of Indian culture as an ‘exotic’, sinister sort of business which serves to undermine steadfast, Christian morality; a conduit for depraved, pagan beliefs which Cushing’s character has opened himself up to by “going native”, destroying his family in the process.

Embodied in the figure of Cushing’s taciturn housekeeper Ayah (a ‘browned up’ Gwen Watford), who rather unfairly emerges as the primary villain of the piece, this strain of pulp fiction-era racism was already present to some extent in ‘The Reptile’, but regrettably it becomes more emphatically pronounced here.

Whilst I certainly couldn’t argue with anyone who would wish to dismiss the film on this basis however, I personally found that the ambiguous atmosphere (Freddie) Francis and Cushing bring to the film help to steer the material in a more interesting direction than that of mere xenophobic scare-mongering.

Though the elder Francis’ talents as a horror director were often taken for granted, even his lesser efforts are usually characterised by their close attention to production design, lighting and camera-work, and the pungent atmospherics he summons up during the better passages of ‘The Ghoul’ are no exception. Thus, the idea of an “alien” Indian/Eastern culture subtly underlying the prosaic surface of a conventional English country house is given a great deal of play here, and actually becomes quite intriguing.

The house is kept sweltering by roaring fires in every room because “we’re used to the heat”, whilst the residents speak primarily in Ayah’s native tongue, awkwardly reverting to English for the benefit of their guests. Meanwhile, in a striking visual metaphor, the shrine of the black onyx Thuggee goddess worshipped by Ayah literally sits directly behind Dr Lawrence’s modestly adorned Anglican chapel, hidden from sight by a flimsy screen, as the compromised patriarch writhes in culturally conflicted mental agony before his impotent, gold-plated cross.

Imaginatively rendered through the film’s production design more-so than its writing, this all adds up, in its own way, to a curious sideways reflection on the ‘end of empire’ and the effects of the Indian experience upon upper-crust British identity, whilst Cushing, mindful no doubt of these sensitive themes, making a lingering sense of guilt and displacement the keynote of his performance.

In saying this, I realise I’m probably giving ‘The Ghoul’ more credit than it deserves. To the casual viewer, much of the movie will simply seem clumsy, boring and amateur-ish, in addition to its questionable racial political. This all comes home to roost when, after well over an hour’s painstaking build up, the climactic reveal of the titular ‘ghoul’ (played by prolific bit-part actor Don Henderson and a couple of buckets of blue paint) proves a crushing disappointment all round.

Filmed in perfunctory, one-take fashion amid a haze a Vaseline-lensed blurriness, it feels as if Francis was reluctant to even put this nonsense on camera (which is saying something, given that his recent directorial assignments had also included Herman Cohen’s ‘Craze’ and Ringo Starr & Harry Nilsson’s atrocious ‘Son of Dracula’). Just a hideous embarrassment for all concerned, the less said of this farrago of a finale, the better, to be honest.

Sad to say, these final scenes serve as an absurd and rather pathetic final pratfall for the traditional British gothic, of which this was, effectively, the final example. It feels especially fitting therefore that, with a thoughtfulness characteristic of the sub-genre’s most gifted and iconic performer, Cushing claws back some degree of dignity in the film’s last moments, furnishing it with an appropriately sombre grace note and a memorably doomed closing image. Nice work Pete - you earned your fee on this one, and then some.


(1)As per IMDB trivia; “according to Veronica Carlson, director Freddie Francis made Peter Cushing do multiple takes during the scene where he talks about his love for his wife. This caused Cushing great distress, and reduced him, and some of the crew, to tears.” So that would seem to confirm my worst suspicions then.

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Horror Express 2020 #7:
Doctor Blood’s Coffin
(Sidney J. Furie, 1961)

 Following a move to London at the dawn of the 1960s, the first project young Canadian director Sidney J. Furie got off the ground was the off-brand horror picture about the son of the local GP in a picturesque Cornish village performing Frankensteinian resurrection experiments in an abandoned tin mine.

Echoing the predicament faced by Furie himself to a certain extent, the film finds Dr Peter Blood (Keiron Moore) cheerily skipping back into the quiet life of his father Robert (Ian Hunter - not the Mott The Hoople guy, needless to say) after four years spent studying bio-chemistry in Vienna. 

Given that the re-appearance of Dr Blood Jr. neatly coincides with a rash of mysterious disappearances in the local area and repeated thefts of medical equipment from his father’s clinic, few viewers will be surprised to learn the it is the younger doctor’s ‘coffin’ we’ll soon be peering into, in spite Moore’s bland, leading man good looks.

There is a certain amount of promise here - not least the somewhat novel idea of wrapping up the romantic lead and the mad scientist within the same character. Unfortunately however, Nathan Juran’s script proves decidedly ropey throughout.

Full of excruciatingly poor dialogue (“Do you know that I had analysed the protein value of an acorn by the time I was six?”; “You want me to deny God and instead kneel down and worship a new God - science!”) and low level absurdities (why do a bunch of blokes who look as if they’ve never left the local area in their lives need to rely upon guy who’s just returned from four years overseas to lead them through the local caves?), Juran’s tale also, fatally, retains some long stretches of uneventful tedium in its first half, instantly consigning ‘Doctor Blood’s Coffin’ to the status of half-remembered ignominy within the Brit-horror canon.

Given that Juran was better known as the director of ‘The Deadly Mantis’ (1957) and ‘Attack of the 50 Foot Woman’ (1958), it makes sense that (according to Jonathan Rigby’s English Gothic, at least) his script originally took place on the other side of the Atlantic, in an Arizona mining town. Quite why Furie went to the trouble of importing and anglicising this unpromising potboiler though is another matter entirely.

The story’s American roots can perhaps be glimpsed through the actions of Kenneth J. Warren’s policeman character (it’s incongruous to see an English copper organising the occupants of the local pub into a posse on the slightest pretext, and yelling down the phone that he needs “twenty armed men” to form roadblocks), but for the most part it seems to have survived the Transatlantic crossing surprisingly well - which is a shame in a sense, as some out-of-place Americanisms might at least have livened things up a bit.

By the time he got around to directing ‘The Ipcress File’ a few years later, Furie had reinvented himself as a mod-ish, cinematic stylist, but unfortunately there’s little sign of that ambition here, as he approaches his craft with dogged, nailed-down-camera conventionality, seemingly imitating that static, old fashioned style which Hammer’s Terrence Fisher was often (rather unfairly) accused of perpetrating.

On the plus side however, the whole thing is at least handsomely realised despite its presumably low budget, utilising some absolutely splendid - very early '60s - colour photography to highlight the picture-postcard shooting locations. (I’m obliged to mention at this juncture that Nicholas Roeg served as camera operator under ‘Zulu’ DP Stephen Dade.) Meanwhile, the film also benefits from a propulsive, Hammer style orchestral score, courtesy of Buxton Orr and the ubiquitous Philip Martell, which helps considerably with the pacing issues.

Though the cast boasts no big names, a few of the supporting players will be familiar to more discerning British horror fans. You’ll recall the aforementioned Mr. Warren for instance for taking work which should rightly have gone to Milton Reid in the likes of ‘Demons of the Mind’ and The Creeping Flesh, whilst Fred Johnson - here playing a Hugh Griffiths-esque undertaker - also essayed “old geezer” roles in ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’, ‘City of the Dead’ and ‘Brides of Dracula’ amongst others.

Most significantly of course, our leading lady (indeed, the ONLY lady on the cast list) is Hazel Court. Playing widowed nurse / mad doctor love interest Linda, she brings a strong and radiant screen presence, but her noble efforts are probably best consigned to the “does her best with a thankless part” file.

The film’s horror content meanwhile is slow to make its presence felt, but, clearly inspired by Hammer’s success in the field of medical horror, there are a few bits of ‘Curse of Frankenstein’-inspired surgical grue, including some gruesome beating heart close-ups and so forth. This is all framed by Furie without a great deal of additional, atmospheric fuss, as if he believed that success within the genre was entirely predicated upon proximity to corpses and body parts.

This approach lends the film a rather morbid, unsavoury aura, despite its relative mildness, which reaches its apex during the conclusion, when, in a fit of spurned petulance, the younger Dr Blood digs up Hazel's dead husband, who's been mouldering in the grave for over a year, and actually sticks a new heart in what's left of him. Yuck!

As a horror film, I found ‘Doctor Blood’s Coffin’ to be entertaining enough in an undemanding sort of way, despite its myriad weaknesses - perfect for the Monday night on which I chose to watch it. What I enjoyed most of all about the film though was actually its extensive use of Cornish locations. 

[The evocatively named hamlet of Zennor, near St Ives, largely stood in for village, whilst the cliff-top ruins and abandoned mine workings were played by beauty spots near St Just and Botallack - a full breakdown and a wonderful set of ‘then and now’ photos can be enjoyed on the Reel Streets website.]

As well as looking absolutely beautiful in their own right under the nigh-on atomic glare of Dade and Roeg’s Eastman Colour lighting, the village exteriors provide a wealth of time capsule-worthy period detail, which I’m sure anyone who grew up in a similarly remote corner of the British Isles should be able to enjoy. (Athough this was of course considerably before my time, the Hillman touring cars, the curtain fabrics and Court’s costumes, even the occasional glimpses of the village shop, all provide a shudder of tribal recognition.)

Even during the film’s longueurs, there’s a certain pleasure to seeing familiar actors trudging about these out-of-the-way provincial locations, so rarely visited by British genre films, which is worth the entry price alone. (In this regard, I’m reminded of the even more mundane and uneventful ‘Night of the Big Heat’, filmed in Dorset and Buckinghamshire a few years later.)

In fact, I’m even go so far as to say that gazing upon the quiet cottages of Zennor circa 1961 gave me a real twinge of sadness, reminding me that I've not been able to make it out to the coast or the countryside at all this year. All the while, the memories of earlier days and older ways of life, fleeting captured on celluloid here as an incidental backdrop to the clumsy tale of Dr Blood gadding about with his chloroform and formaldehyde bothering Hazel Court, fade further out of sight with each turn of the season, buried deeper ‘neath the wheely-bins and people-carriers of the 21st century day-to-day.

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Horror Express 2020 #6:
Mas Alla Del Terror /
‘Further Than Fear’

(Tomás Aznar, 1980)

The more I learn about global genre cinema, the more I appreciate those increasingly rare opportunities to jump into something with absolutely no idea what to expect. As such, this remarkably obscure Spanish horror - available solely as an extremely smeary VHS-rip, insofar as I’m aware - proved a rare treat.

Going in, all I knew about Tomás Aznar’s film was:

1. It features some pretty great electro-rock music, which was once featured on an episode of El Diabolik’s Psychotronic Soundtracks.
2. It was released in Spain under the auspices of ‘Cinevisión’, the same company responsible for Escalofrío / Satan’s Blood a few years earlier.
3. It was advertised using the fairly awe-inspiring, Frazetta-plagiarising poster you see reproduced above. (1)

All in all then, the omens looked good.

Perhaps one of the things which has led to ‘Mas Alla Del Terror’ receiving so little attention from horror fans is the misleadingly mild pre-credits sequence, which sees a young woman (Lola, played by Raquel Ramírez) being picked up from a roadside café by an older man, with the couple’s earnest dialogue suggesting that they are engaged in some kind of long-term adulterous relationship.

Lola insists on taking her partner to some out of the way, rural idyll, where, in a matter of seconds, things go from second-rate Truffaut to full-on Ruggero Deodato, as she attempts to steal the man’s wallet, prompting him begin savagely beating her, before she in turn pulls a knife and remorselessly carves him up.

“Dirty fucker - this ain’t shit buddy,” she exclaims as she contemptuously pockets the measly few pesetas which comprised his roll, wiping her blade on his tie and leaving him bleeding out from multiple chest wounds as she sets out to hitchhike back to town. Yikes!

Post-credits, we re-join Lola in what seems to be her more natural habitat, rocking regulation leathers as she trades sneering, scatological insults with the other members of her equally amoral, drug-huffing misfit biker gang (“Fuck, you smell like camel shit - find yourself a good dentist”, she greets a dealer dishing out wraps of hash outside a nightclub).

From here, the movie kicks into gear as a kind of ‘Mad Foxes’-via-‘Last House..’ type psychotic youth-gone-wild gang movie, as these punk kids indulge in all kinds of gratuitous cruelty, exchanging dialogue that (if the fab-subs to be believed) consists largely of increasingly obscene sexual insults, which I won’t recount here lest they offend the sensibilities of the very internet itself.

After an attempt to rob a greasy spoon cafe (dig that low level of ambition) escalates into an impromptu killing spree, the gang - who now essentially comprise Lola plus leader Chema (Francisco Sánchez Grajera) and wingnut Nico (Emilio Siegrist) - briefly go on the road ‘Rabid Dogs’-style with a pair of hostages. So fucked up are our anti-social anti-heroes though, they can’t even keep this relatively straight-forward scenario on the road for more than five minutes of screen time, before internecine bickering leads to a roadside altercation soon leaves them lost in the depths of the countryside with a totalled car.

Spying lights as they trudge across the featureless nocturnal landscape, the gang come upon a well-appointed house, and, as you might well expect, get stuck straight into a dispiritingly gruelling home invasion scenario. After taking a tyre iron to the family dog (mercifully, VHS murk obscures this footage, but I REALLY hope the whines of canine distress on the soundtrack aren’t genuine), they proceed to remorselessly brutalise the elderly lady they find within, whilst her youthful grandson (we presume) hides terrified upstairs.

Mindlessly destructive brutes that they are, the gang have soon set the house alight, leaving the helpless residents to perish. But wait! As it turns out, the poor grandmother they've just left for dead was actually a high-ranking Satanic priestess of some kind, and she proceeds to curse them with her dying breaths, promising supernatural vengeance in the name of Astaroth, Beelzebub and the whole merry gang!

Shortly thereafter, the gang and their hostages once more find themselves shit-out-of-luck transport-wise, holed up in a remote, ruined church with eerie, skeleton-filled catacombs beneath it - by which point, we can probably get a handle on where things are heading next, I should think.

It’s a shame however that the pacing of this horror-themed second half of the film pretty much grinds to a halt in comparison to the frantic, action-packed stuff which has preceded it. Much aimless waiting and wandering fills up the remaining minutes of run-time, whilst I also found the idea of having the evil-doers’ victims return in spectral form to wreak their ironic vengeance - much in the manner of a Japanese kaidan - to be pretty old hat. I mean, couldn’t they have rustled up a few demons or zombies or something, instead of just going with the old EC Comics “b-but I saw you, you were dead - arg!” route?

Well, no matter - on the plus side, they certainly picked a great location for it - an arid, rustic set of ruins which just reek of poverty-stricken misery and menace. There's a lot of great Armando de Ossorio / ‘..Blind Dead’ type atmosphere to enjoy here, not least when the acrid, cobweb-shrouded skeletons in the catacombs are briefly unleashed to take care of the Stockholm Syndromed female hostage, whilst things are livened up considerably by intermittent outbursts of the aforementioned killer, Goblin-esque disco-rock (courtesy of one J.P. Decerf and the ever-reliable CAM library). (2)

Even beyond their penchant for senseless murder meanwhile, there’s something singularly warped and repulsive about the gang members here, as they fill their remaining hours with low level blasphemy and icky sexual perversity (at one point one of the guys aimlessly masturbates into the fire whilst shrieking an improvised litany in praise of “fornication”), sneering and drooling in the face of death like true no-hope punks.

As the remaining characters gradually meet their predestined demise, new elements are added to the medieval ‘triumph of death’ mural which takes pride of place on the church’s walls - a common ‘body count movie’ motif, but nicely done - heralding the eventually reappearance of the avenging witch, and a rather fine, high five-worthy ending which I won’t spoil for you here.

Whilst I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to hail it as a lost classic, ‘Mas Alla Del Terror’ is, as you may have gathered, wild as all hell - an off-the-map rampage of low rent sleaze, grime and amoral hell-raisin’ which gradually finds itself enveloped by a cloak of old school, Iberian gothic doom.

Production values are minimal, performances are perfunctory (aside from Ramirez, who is brilliant, and should clearly have wielded her flick knife in more movies) and Azner directs with no great amount of flair, but there is nonetheless a ton of fun to be had here for a certain, special audience. Indeed, I’m amazed that this film’s potential has remained largely untapped by all the late-era Euro-horror / video nasty fans out there.

It would certainly be lovely to see a restored version popping up at some point in the future, but for now, let’s just say that this one is well worth a trip down to the VHS/torrent catacombs if it sounds like your particular cup of rancid, spiked tea.


(1) Apparently originating on the cover of ‘Vampirella’ # 11 in 1971, this iconic Frank Frazetta witch illustration seems to have had a big impact on horror movie poster artists - it was also recycled just a blatantly for the remarkably misleading advertising which accompanied Matt Cimber’s perennially underappreciated The Witch Who Came From The Sea in 1976.

(2)Once again, thanks are due to the aforementioned El Diabolik podcast for filling me in on the soundtrack info and name of the composer. Check out Episode 46 of their fine programme to hear some of the music from this wild out in the wild.

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Horror Express 2020 #5:
The She-Creature
(Edward L. Cahn, 1956)

Though it was likely little more than another day, another dollar for ‘50s b-movie workhorse Edward L. Cahn (whom we last encountered on the way back from Mars with It! The Terror From Beyond Space earlier this year), this curious yarn is notable for running with a set of mismatched plot ideas so sketchy and ill-thought-out that they actually go full circle, resulting in a tale whose steadfast refusal to make any damn sense whatsoever leaves it feeling dream-like, inscrutable and obscurely haunting, emerging as one of the more bizarre monster movies mid-century America had to offer.

Seemingly in some kind of southern Californian beach community (although this is never explicitly made clear), ‘The She-Creature’ is able to exploit a range of settings which will to doubt remind modern viewers of such later, brine-soaked classics as Herk Harvey’s ‘Carnival of Souls’ (1962), Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz’ ‘Messiah of Evil’ (1973) and most of all, Curtis Harrington’s ‘Night Tide’ (1960).

First of all, there are the lonely, rocky beaches, where we initially find the mysterious Dr Carlo Lombardi (didn’t he build E.T.?) stalking through the sea-mist, making esoteric pronouncements to himself (“now, on this very night, I have called her from the unknown depths of time itself, she is here”) as he observes a set of sinister, triangular footprints leading up from the surf.

(Chester Morris, who plays Lombardi, had been Hollywood royalty in the era of the early talkies, but was clearly pretty down on his luck by this point - ‘The She Creature’ marks his last feature film appearance until 1970, the year of his death.)

Then, there are the isolated, wood-panelled beach houses in which most of the characters live, which seem to extend in a horizontal line along the beach-front, although we never see more than one of them at a time.

And, of course, there’s the carnival, wherein Lombardi conducts his strange shows, attempting to win converts to his quack transcendental doctrines whilst thrilling punters with live-on-stage past life regression sessions, featuring his psychically indentured hypnotic subject Andrea (Cahn regular Marla English), who seems to spend her non-performing hours reclining in a diaphanous gown upon the stage-set’s altar-like backdrop.

Whereas the films I referenced above though were all shot on real locations, carrying an authentic sense of place as a result, the imagined geography of ‘The She-Creature’s world by contrast feels entirely disconnected from any kind of reality. We see no cars or roads, no streets or infrastructure. The people live in the beach houses. The shore is a realm of mist and monsters. The crashing of the waves never ceases. If the people want to go anywhere, they go to the carnival.

When necessary, cops and detectives appear from somewhere to frown and crack wise, haul off the bodies and (eventually) take ineffectual pot-shots at the monster. But though the wider world is frequently referred to in dialogue, we never see it. To all intents and purposes, the film’s budgetary constraints trap us within a closed, goldfish bowl-like realm - a Malibu gothic ‘Truman Show’, or a Pacific analogue to ‘The Prisoner’s village.

Our hero within this disembodied realm - Ted, played by Lance Fuller - is that rarest of things, a serious, scientifically-minded parapsychologist who frowns upon quacks like Lombardi for bringing his profession into disrepute. I won’t trouble you with the ins and outs of Ted’s relationship with the beach-house dwelling Chappell family, but essentially he’s courting eligible daughter Dorothy (Cathy Downs).

Dorothy’s proto-new age, society wife mother Mrs Chappell (Frieda Inescort) has meanwhile become a devotee of Lombardi’s hypnotic revelations, whilst comically single-minded, amoral capitalist Mr Chappell (Tom Conway, brother of George Sanders, who was playing horror movie cads as far back as ‘Cat People’ and ‘I Walked with a Zombie’) reckons he can make big bucks exploiting Lombardi’s uncanny gift for predicting local murders. So, like it or not, the pencil-moustached man of mystery is a pretty inescapable topic of conversation at the family’s nightly soirees.

Like Roger Corman’s even weirder The Undead from the following year, ‘The She-Creature’ seems to tap into the mania for past life regression therapy which seemed to be sweeping the U.S.A. in the late 1950s (if the plots of b-movies are to be believed, at any rate). In attempting to graft this concept onto the bones of a common-or-garden monster movie, scriptwriter Lou Rusoff apparently gave little thought to even the most elementary notions of scientific understanding, resulting in leaps of theoretical logic which are truly dizzying.

Even leaving aside the notion of a hypnotic subject’s past selves being able to manifest as invisible spirts who can roam around the waking world causing mischief at the hypnotist’s command, by seeking a way to crow-bar a monster into proceedings, Rusoff’s script implicitly invites us to contemplate an entirely new theory of evolution (“..based on the authentic FACTS you've been reading about,” claimed the poster).

Rather than accepting the conventional assumption that primitive, amphibious life-forms moved from the sea to the land at a fairly early stage in their development, gradually developing over the millennia into reptiles, birds and mammals as we know them today, ‘The She-Creature’ instead casually confronts us with the possibility that humanity’s distant ancestors stayed in the water far longer, apparently evolving directly from some monstrous and heretofore unknown species of carnivorous, anthropoid lobster.

The ontological implications of this Nigel Kneale-like revelation are staggering, but naturally no one in ‘The She Creature’ seems to bat an eyelid as Lombardi babbles on to all and sundry about how he’s been able to summon a living, breathing example of this primordial monstrosity from deep within Andrea’s ancient, pre-human subconscious.

Perhaps understandably, most of our characters are more concerned with the more immediate matter of the people Lombardi’s creature keeps bumping off each time it hauls its atavistic, weed-encrusted carcass from the depths of the Pacific. After all, this is a goddamn Edward L. Cahn movie, not some navel-gazing, pinko beatnik speculative science seminar! This thing is eight feet tall, immune to conventional weaponry and can crush a man’s head like a walnut, forgoddsake! What are gonna do again it?!

Built (and indeed occupied) by Paul Blaisdell, the creature suit here may not quite be up to the standard of the one he built for ‘It!’, but ridiculous though it is, it sure makes an impression - those big, choppy claws are convincingly huge, and the insect-like compound eyes and segmented antenna are a nicely horrible touch, ready to give kiddie matinee audiences are serious case of the heebie-jeebies, even as the gnomic vagaries of the film’s script potentially played havoc with hard work their teachers had gone to providing them with a solid grounding in the whys-and-wherefores of life on earth.

Released by AIP, double-billed with Corman’s ‘It Conquered the World’ (also scripted by Rusoff), ‘The She-Creature’ subsequently drifted off into the late-night UHF ether from which one supposes it periodically emerged to pollute the impressionable minds of subsequent generations American youth, accidentally propagating the veneration of weird, primordial lobster gods which we see practiced so frequently on our cities’ streets today.

So, heed the word of Lombardi, and check out ‘The She-Creature’ today - it’s a mist-shrouded subliminal mind-bender for the ages, its wave-crashing, theremin-blasting echoes ringing out through time and space long after its director picked up his lunchbox and headed off to make ‘Runaway Daughters’ and ‘Shake, Rattle and Rock’ back-to-back.


Thursday, 8 October 2020

Horror Express 2020 #4:
The Exorcist III
(William Peter Blatty, 1990)

Within the realm of sequel-driven horror franchises, it’s fair to say that the Exorcist series has always been a bit of an outlier. Admittedly, it got off to an earlier start than most of them, and began from a far higher level of critical acclaim and self-serious artistic intent - but still.

In stark contrast to the “iconic/ground-breaking original followed by reams of (at best) entertaining crap” furrow ploughed by ‘Halloween’, ‘..Elm Street’, ‘Hellraiser’ et al, ‘The Exorcist’ seems to have attracted highly strung, artistically-minded filmmakers like moths to a flame, each determined to fight tooth and nail with the studios to bring their own unique visions to the screen. A strategy which, unfeasibly, multiple generations of studio execs actually seem to have encouraged, even after the ridicule unfairly heaped upon John Boorman’s commercially disastrous ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ back in ’77.

Boorman, William Peter Blatty and Paul Schrader may all in turn have lost their battles with the suits, ultimately delivering compromised, imperfect movies which they were never truly happy with, but, viewed with a few decades of hindsight, I believe that these sequels can be viewed as a disparate trilogy of wildly ambitious, unconventional films, each of which I personally find more rewarding than Friedkin’s original (which I’ve never really cared for, truth be told).

All of which is a long-winded way of getting around to the fact that I watched the theatrical release cut of Blatty’s ‘The Exorcist III’ [pedants will wish to note that it had not yet gained the ‘Legion’ sub-title applied to the later reconstruction of the writer/director’s preferred cut at this point] for the first time last month, and, though it can’t hold a candle to the weird majesty of ‘The Heretic’, I nonetheless enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than I was expecting to.

Although Blatty’s high-minded thematic concerns to some extent fall by the way-side here, that’s fine by me, as again, his particular brand of existential Catholic dualism has never really floated my boat. But, when it comes to the more down to earth matter of making a Bloody Good Horror Movie, it’s difficult to watch ‘Exorcist III’ and not conclude that this gentleman had the chops.

In purely audio-visual terms, the writer/director’s approach to this task basically seems to have consisted of throwing in way too much of everything. Every single thing in this movie is creepy and foreboding and upsetting and scary, and every time there's a chance to throw in a jump scare or a disembodied demon growl, you're damn well gonna get one.

Outside of some suitably evocative Washington DC location work, settings here run to lofty, shadow-haunted churches, forced perspective hospital corridors and sombre, steel-shuttered asylums - all photographed by DP Gerry Fisher in a drained, colourless palette which may be tediously familiar to us these days, but must have seemed a pretty fresh approach back in 1990.

(It’s interesting to note that Adrian Lyne’s ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, the other film which immediately springs to mind as a precursor to this now ubiquitous grim-dark, institutional aesthetic was also released in 1990.)

Barry De Vorzon’s score of course also deserves a big shout-out in this regard. Presumably asserting a huge influence upon post-2000 horror movie (and indeed video game) music, the composer’s relentless soundscape of treated, disembodied vocal textures, rusty gate shrieks and bowel-shaking rumbles pretty much defines the kind of thing which would become de rigour for straight-faced horror in the wake of Kenji Kawai’s soundtracks to Hideo Nakata’s ‘Ring’ films a decade later.

THAT hospital hallway scene (if you’ve looked up anything horror movie-related on Youtube in the past decade or so, you’ll know it) is of course the film’s unquestioned cinematic highlight, but viewed in context, it forms part of a steady succession of exquisitely nerve-jangling sequences spread across the opening two thirds of this picture, each executed with a seemingly impossible mixture of Lewton-esque restraint and utter, baroque excess.

In terms of plotting meanwhile, I’m happy that Blatty chose to entirely dispense with the old “possessed little girl” routine here, as the “occult crime story” angle extrapolated from his source novel is a lot more fun all round.

The movie-obsessed Lieutenant Kinderman (previously played by the late Lee J. Cobb) is my favourite character in Freidkin’s ‘Exorcist’, so it’s great to see him return as the protagonist here, and even greater that he seems in the interim to have transmuted into the gargantuan figure of George C. Scott.

As a life-long devotee of the ‘Go Big’ school of acting, Scott has always been a favourite of mine, and he here delivers what must surely count as one of his absolute best late-era performances, taking his usual ‘simmering human pressure cooker’ thing to a whole new level, playing it taut and low key during his character’s most emotionally trying moments, before boiling over and completely losing his shit when we least expect it. As a showcase of repressed rage, hardboiled, craggy compassion and a dogged determination to resist the rigours of age, it’s pretty awe-inspiring stuff.

Opposite Scott meanwhile, our resident demonically-inhabited, body-jumping psychopath The Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif, with a little bit of help from the first movie’s Jason Miller) boasts the most ridiculous collection of show-boating serial killer trademarks I've ever encountered pre-‘Silence of the Lambs’.

Not only does he only kill people whose names begins with ‘K’, but he uses an extremely obscure, specialist drug to paralyse his victims, cuts off a certain finger from each hand, draws astrological symbols on their backs, and replaces pieces of their bodies with vandalised religious paraphernalia! Man is certainly not short of ideas.

In fairness to Blatty though, I suppose this convoluted MO does indeed represent the kind of symbolic cluster-fuck which I suppose might occur should an already thoroughly coo coo killer end up bouncing around the same bonce with a host of demons and the restless spirit of a tormented priest.

As heavy-handed as some of these story elements may seem though - and as ‘on the nose’ as the director’s favoured imagery of mutilated statuary, demonic crucifixions and angelic visitations may be - this is all balanced out to some extent by Blatty’s deeply eccentric approach to screenwriting.

Drawing on his oft-forgotten background as a scripter of screwball comedies, he seems determined to leaven the metaphysical hand-wringing we’d expect of an Exorcist movie with frequent excursions into high stakes, oddball humour and touches of quasi-Lynchian surrealism which I’m surely the studio must have considered totally ‘off-brand’, as well as seeding the movie with a dense tapestry of synchronicitous inter-textural referencing, touching on everything from Conrad’s ‘Lord Jim’ to the Rider Waite Tarot deck to Powell & Pressburger’s ‘The Red Shoes’ and (believe it or not) Mel Brooks’ ‘Space Balls’.

We could perhaps glimpse this trait to a certain extent in the first film via Kinderman’s cinephile banter, and it was given free reign in his directorial debut ‘The Ninth Configuration’, but it’s really turned up to eleven in ‘Exorcist III’. 

The sheer density of Blatty’s dialogue can take a while to get used to, and I’ll freely admit that I was more or less instantly lost by the early scene in which Kinderman obliquely criticises his fellow officers for their racism and lethargy by angrily throwing passages from ‘Macbeth’ in their general direction. Once you get into the swing of it though, it brings a really unique feel to proceedings, adding spice and flavour to what might otherwise have become a pretty po-faced exercise in over-cooked, airport blockbuster bombast.

Speaking of which -- we probably need at this point to address the film’s final act. Shot under duress by Blatty and the principal cast after studio Morgan Creek rejected the anti-climactic conclusion of the director’s initial cut, instead demanding a bit more action and an actual, gosh-darned exorcism, it’s… a bit of a mess, to say the least.

I mean, of all the actors you could have hustled in to play a new character needed for a bunch of pick-up shots for a major studio film with the clock ticking down to release… the legendarily temperamental Nicol Williamson (google up yr own anecdotes) is probably not the man I would have chosen. But, his casting here as hastily parachuted-in bell, book & candle guy Father Morning seems reflective of the sheer level of graft, blundering and back office vanity involved in these reshoots.

Actually, Williamson does perfectly fine work here, adding a certain amount of gravitas to a part that basically amounts to cipher created to satisfy box office expectations, and Blatty directs his scenes with a conviction comparable to the main bulk of the film. Sadly though, neither of them are a match for the risible hullaballoo of snakes, flame-pits, elderly, levitating Oscar winners, glowing gateways to hell, spectral crucifixes, indoor hurricanes and general shrieking hysteria which the producers apparently deemed necessary to provide the punters with the requisite bang for their buck.

Kinderman, had he been able to peel himself off the special effects-drenched cell walls at some point during these proceedings, might well have returned to The Scottish Play and muttered something about “sound and fury” - and indeed, this whole ridiculous finale only serves to confirm my suspicion that, despite Blatty’s noble efforts, ‘Exorcist III’ doesn’t really succeed in saying anything terribly profound about anything (in this cut, at least).

Viewed purely as a horror movie though, for the most part it is absolutely cracking stuff. Imaginative, unconventional, viscerally effective and often brilliantly executed, it now also has the added advantage of feeling extremely prescient, vis-a-vis the ways in which the genre has developed in subsequent decades.

To not put too fine a point on it, prior to 1990 very few horror films looked or sounded like this one. After 2000, they pretty much all did. Coincidence? Just ask all those kids currently at film school who probably spent their formative years watching SCARIEST EVER MOVIE SCENE eight thousand times on Youtube, then consult with Blatty’s restless spirit re: thoughts on Playing The Long Game.