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Welcome to the Crypt!

Enter the Crypt as John "The Unimonster" Stevenson and his merry band of ghouls rants and raves about the current state of Horror, as well as reviews Movies, Books, DVD's and more, both old and new.

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From the Desk of the Unimonster...

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23 February, 2008

GOOD-BYE TO A GILL-MAN


Ben Chapman died this past Thursday, at the age of 79. That name might not mean much to the average horror fan, but to those with a passion for the classic Monster movies of fifty, sixty, and seventy years past, those for whom the phrase “It’s a UNIVERSAL Picture…” still holds much significance, it means that another icon of youth is gone. The Gill-Man is dead.

To be accurate, I should say that a Gill-Man has died. Chapman is one of four actors who played the role officially, the others being Tom Hennesy, Don Megowan, and, of course, Ricou Browning. Hennesy and Megowan played the Creature while on land, in the two sequels to CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. Browning played the Gill-Man during his underwater scenes in all three films. And Chapman was the first, the actor who portrayed the Creature during out of the water scenes in the first film in this legendary series. Browning was the one who swam along with Julie Adams as she shimmered her way into the Creature’s heart, as well as those of thousands of adolescent boys; but it was Chapman who was lucky enough to carry her off in his arms.

Don Megowan has been dead for many years now, Tom Hennesy seems to have dropped out of sight, and Chapman has been in poor health since falling ill at last year’s Monster Bash, where he was a regular guest. Still this comes as something of a shock to those who are fans of these actors; this realization that, as fresh as the images of their on-screen exploits may seem to us, they are still images that were captured more than half a century ago. The Gill-Man’s grace and power, Kay’s youth and beauty… all just memories preserved on celluloid.

The first generation of horror icons, Chaney, Lugosi, Karloff, and their contemporaries, are long gone… most before we were old enough to be aware of the fact. The second generation too has passed… Chaney (quite literally a second-generation icon…), Rathbone, Price. Now, the third generation is fading away, and in many ways, this hits much harder.

It as though we were leafing through old picture albums full of family snapshots. The first generation is our distant ancestors, the ones who came over from the old country, or settled the West. We know the names and can sort of recognize the faces, but they remain almost mythic heroes to us, passed down from elder to youth and on again, in an unbreaking chain.

The second generation is similar to our grandparents, mostly inhabitants of our memories, but good, warm memories. Memories of simpler days and simpler joys, of nights spent curled up in front of a television set with a cabinet three times bigger than the screen, watching a middle-aged man in monster make-up do a bad Bela imitation as he introduced the evening’s movie.

But this third generation, they are the aunts and uncles, the parents of our MonsterKid selves. We grew up with them always there, always around. They’re the foundation our love of Horror was built upon, as familiar to us as our own, real families, in many ways.

Though we have always had the work of earlier generations to enjoy and admire, this third generation is the one we grew up with, the one we felt was ours. John Agar, Richard Denning, Richard Carlson, Peter Cushing, Malia Nurmi… Ben Chapman. So many gone already. So few remaining. So little time left to appreciate them while they’re with us; instead of, like this column, after they’ve gone.





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The Worst Movie Ever Made?

I’ve often heard, as have many of you, that there is a movie out there so incredibly bad, so incompetently filmed, so horribly acted, that it deserves the appellation “Worst Movie Ever!” A film by a director whose ineptitude has become legendary. A film by the name of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.

But conventional wisdom, as it so often is, just may be wrong in this case. Is PLAN 9 a bad movie? Yes, no doubt about it. Is it the worst movie ever made? Not hardly.

First, let me say that I do have some experience with bad movies. As a Horror Film-Fan with a moderately large collection of genre films, (@ 1,800 or so…) it’s not surprising that perhaps as many as 60% don’t really qualify as “good” movies. For every FRANKENSTEIN, EXORCIST, or SIXTH SENSE I own, there’s two or more movies the likes of MURDER IN THE ZOO, HOUSE ON SKULL MOUNTAIN, or THE ITEM. That’s natural; good movies are few and far between, and in a random sampling you’d be doing very well to come up with four out of ten winners.

But films such as PLAN 9 fall into a special category. These movies aren’t just bad; they approach the status of legend. They’re often described as “…so bad they’re good”, and PLAN 9 is the movie that is most often damned with such faint praise.

However, while Ed Wood’s putative masterpiece is without a doubt a truly ripe wedge of stinky cheese, compared to some of the films in my possession it comes out smelling like a rose. I would go so far as to state that PLAN 9 isn’t even Wood’s worst film, instead granting that title to the extraordinarily bad GLEN OR GLENDA.

Please allow me to suggest these three over-ripe pieces of Limburger for your consideration for the title of Worst Movie Ever. You may agree, you may disagree. But if you’ve had the misfortune to sit through any of these stinkfests, then you truly have my sympathy. And if, like me, you sat through all three?

Then you have my deepest respect and admiration.

1.) A*P*E—(1976): Perhaps inspired by Paramount’s remake of KING KONG, or at least by the size of it’s Box-Office take, a joint South Korean-American copy was rushed into production as rapidly as they could round up the largest collection of no-talent hacks ever to grace a film set; at least, one that didn’t have the words “DEBBIE DOES…” featured prominently in the title. Paul Leder took the Director’s credit; he should really give it back. If there was ever a movie worthy of having Alan Smithee’s name attached, this is it. (If that name sounds familiar, check it out on IMDb.com sometime…) Picture a film so horrifically atrocious that the cast (the only recognizable member of which is future “Growing Pains” mom Joanna Kerns…) actually looks embarrassed to be seen in it, and you have A*P*E. From the scene of the giant ape wrestling what appears to be the carcass of a dead shark, to one of the Ape throwing a terribly out-of-scale Huey helicopter into a cliff, then flipping it the ‘bird’, this film is one incredibly long, incredibly boring blooper reel. Though the Ape is repeatedly cited as being 36 feet tall, he routinely towers over four and five story buildings; effortlessly bats helicopters that should be larger than he out of the air; and chucks rocks with such force that they destroy 40-ton Main Battle Tanks. There simply is no redeeming quality to this celluloid crapfest.
2.) DEMON HUNTER ~aka~ LEGEND OF BLOOD MOUNTAIN—(1965): Chances are good that, if you weren’t born or raised in the deep South, then you’ve probably not been exposed to this rancid piece of regional filmmaking, and if that’s the case, then count yourself lucky. Starring George Ellis, using his horror-host identity of Bestoink (no, that’s not a typo…) Dooley, and featuring what is perhaps the lamest creature design this side of a Scooby-Doo cartoon, this film has long been the single worst movie in my collection. Ellis, who’s oddly-named character hosted The Big Movie Shocker on WAGA in Atlanta from the late ‘50’s to the late ‘60’s-early ‘70’s, was apparently the ONLY actor (and I use the term loosely…) to show up for the audition. We are treated to long scenes of Bestoink walking, Bestoink driving, Bestoink eating, Bestoink sitting up in bed… well, let’s just say we see a LOT of Bestoink. What we don’t see much of is: Plot; good acting; decent Special Effects; believable dialogue; sharp photography; and any reason whatsoever to care. It does appear that there is a complete reel of the film (approximately 11 minutes worth…) missing from the VHS prints that were available several years ago. That must have been the ‘good’ reel, because the others are garbage. I would usually recommend you see a bad film at least once, just to experience it. Not with this one—instead, just bang your head against the nearest wall for 65 minutes… the effect is the same, only more entertaining.


3.) FURANKENSHUTAIN TAI CHITEI KAIJÛ BARAGON ~aka~ FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD—(1965): I know people that love this movie; that swear that it’s a great film. I also know people who believe Elvis is currently touring the galaxy with little gray alien roadies. Neither group is correct. No, this is NOT a great film, and yes people, Elvis is really dead. I wish I could say that the premise of this movie is the most absurd thing about it, but that would be wishful thinking. In the waning days of World War II, the Nazis attempt to smuggle their greatest secret out of the country to their last remaining ally, Japan. What was this great secret? Germany’s Atomic research? Their latest jet engine? No. The disembodied, but still beating, heart of Frankenstein’s Monster. Seems the scientists in charge of it are planning to resurrect the Monster to do battle with Der Fuhrer’s enemies. And just where does this Teutonic superweapon wind up? You guessed it—Hiroshima, just before the big bang. I’ll spare you the various plot twists and turns; (there are many…) suffice it to say that this film couldn’t be more of an incomprehensible mess if it were directed by Uwe Boll. (Oh God, now I’ve given him the idea for a remake…) The truly sad part is that the sequel to this movie, WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, is actually a very good film, far superior to this garbage. If only they could’ve made the sequel first!

Well, there you have them… your contenders for Worst Horror film ever made. Could I list more? You can bet the house AND the dog on that. But why bother? If those three cinematic floaters haven’t convinced you that PLAN 9 might not be that bad after all, then just keep watching the skies.

Oh, you might want to bring a lawn chair… I hear there might be a concert.







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DVD Review: HALLOWEEN (2007) Unrated Director's Cut

Title: HALLOWEEN (2007) Unrated Director’s Cut

Year of Release—Film: 2007

Year of Release—DVD: 2007

DVD Label: Dimension Home Entertainment


THE MOVIE

Rob Zombie is one of the most promising of the new generation of Gore-masters, directors who are following in the footsteps of Hooper, Craven, and Romero. 2003’s HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, his directorial debut, was easily my choice as Movie of the Year, against some very good competition. While the follow-up, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS (2005), wasn’t quite as good, it still exceeded most of what Hollywood churned out that year in terms of both quality and gore. This stunning 1-2 punch cemented Zombie’s reputation as a rising star in Horror, and led him to tread into deeper, more dangerous waters.

Thus it was that the Horror community greeted the news that Rob Zombie would be helming the remake of the greatest Slasher film ever, John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, with a mix of emotions. For those who were too young to have memories of watching that landmark film in a crowded theater, or for whom Carpenter’s trademark theme music holds no special meaning, the reactions were fairly positive; they knew Zombie, and liked his work.

But for those like the Unimonster, who still harbors vivid memories of seeing this film for the first time on the big screen, or whose cell phone ringtone is that haunting theme, the news of a remake, no matter who was directing it, was much less welcome. There are some films, wonderfully conceived but poorly executed, that should be remade; that are ripe candidates for improvement. HALLOWEEN was not one of these. John Carpenter’s masterpiece was a perfect execution of a perfect conception, and no remake could ever hope to exceed perfection.

Zombie did approach it in the right way, however. Rather than simply reshoot Carpenter’s original script, as a less imaginative filmmaker might, he started from scratch with the basic storyline, then fleshed it out in ways that Carpenter had not. The result was perhaps a better story, but without the elements that had made the original so effective.

Where in the 1978 film Michael Myers had been an enigma, a cipher, (he was even listed as “The Shape” in the credits…) here Zombie gives depth and humanity, albeit flawed, to Michael by exploring in great detail his troubled childhood and incarceration. What was only alluded to in the original is played out over the entire first act here, bringing us into Michael’s world, and letting us get to know him. It is not an equitable trade.

Part of what has made the original HALLOWEEN such a classic of the genre was that mystery, that air of the unknown that cloaked Michael Myers. When Donald Pleasance, as Dr. Loomis, describes Michael as a being of pure evil, it’s easy to understand, and believe, the good doctor. When Malcolm McDowell says the same thing in his performance as Loomis, the words sound hollow and overwrought, and we wonder whom he’s trying to convince.

I wanted so very much to dislike this movie, lest I should feel unfaithful to one of my favorite films… but I can’t. Not totally.

It’s hard to point to one specific change Zombie has made and say, “That’s wrong” or “That’s no good.” The cast, mostly Zombie regulars and B-Movie veterans, turns in excellent performances all around, with the possible exception of Malcolm McDowell. Especially noteworthy is Daeg Faerch, who plays the young Michael, and Scout Taylor-Compton, who plays Laurie Stroud, the role that made Jamie Lee Curtis a household name. Also worth mentioning is Danielle Harris, who continues her long-running association with the franchise here. The thirty-something Harris, who began her relationship with Michael Myers as Jamie, Laurie’s daughter (and Michael’s niece…) in HALLOWEEN 5: THE REVENGE OF MICHAEL MYERS (1989) is now playing 17-year old Annie, best friend of Laurie.

The rest of the production is realized just as well, and with Zombie in charge, there was never any doubt the gorehounds would be happy with it. I have heard complaints about the level of violence and gore present in the film; all I can say is… It’s Rob Zombie! What else would you expect? You wouldn’t hire Tarantino to direct and expect not to see women’s bare feet, would you?



THE DISC

I’ll say this much for Dimension, they do know how to put out a quality DVD, and this is no exception. Beautifully packaged and designed, with a full range of audio options and subtitles, this is the standard that DVD buyers have come to expect from the major distributors.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

As has become the norm for DVD releases of Zombie’s films, this disc is well stocked with bonus features, including deleted scenes, an alternate ending, behind-the-scenes documentaries, and other fascinating tidbits from the twisted minds of Zombie & Co. Though there are too many of these peeks inside the production to list them all, a few do stand out.

One of these is “The Many Masks of Michael Myers”, a look at the efforts that went into recreating the iconic mask from the original film, as well as the scores of masks Michael creates while incarcerated, and the clown mask he wears while a child. It is truly amazing to see the effort that went into the clown mask, for example. The Production Designer found the perfect mask on eBay, but when they received it, it was in far too fragile a condition to use. They had to make molds of the mask, cast duplicates, and hand-paint each to match. Another describes the differing camera styles used to set the varying moods of the film, such as using a hand-held camera to convey the disorder and chaos of Michael’s home life. These touches are subtle but effective, and demonstrate Zombie’s growth as a director.

Another feature worth discussing is the alternate ending. While slightly more faithful to the ending of the original, Zombie decided to scrap it in favor of getting the character of Laurie more involved in the story. Though the alternate works, there’s no doubt that it’s weaker than the ending used, and the finished movie is better off for the change.



IN CONCLUSION

As I mentioned earlier, I truly wanted to dislike this movie, yet I couldn’t… at least, not completely. Nor can I enthusiastically recommend it. It is a well-acted, well-directed Horror Film, with just about all the ingredients that Horror fans look for in a movie. It also fails miserably to stand up next to it’s namesake for comparison.

Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN was, and is, one of the most effective Horror Films ever made. I have sat through that film at least fifty times, and every time I’m left with the same questions… because the film gives you no answers. At the end, you’re left with the same question that Laurie asks Dr. Loomis—“Was that the Boogey-Man?” Every time, you can’t help but agree with his response—“Yes… I believe that it was.”

Zombie’s version, however, leaves no questions behind… because they’re all answered before the movie really begins. No matter what the characters on the screen may say, you know it’s not the “Boogey-Man”… because that creature of the night surely never had a childhood, no matter how abnormal or dysfunctional. In Carpenter’s version, our first view of Michael comes after he’s brutally murdered his sister; we’re not allowed to form a concept of Michael as a child, even a disturbed one. He’s already made the transformation to monster before we meet him. Nor does anything appear out of the ordinary in the Myers household. From all we can see, it appears to be a clean, well-kept, normal American home… which makes Michael’s actions all the more horrific.

In the Myers home as envisioned by Zombie it’s easy to understand how Michael became what he did. It’s not shocking, or surprising. It engenders no sense of Horror, only one of despair. We meet Michael, and are even made to feel sympathy for him, as we follow him along the textbook path to becoming a spree killer. Zombie makes sure he ticks off every box along the way: Abusive father-figure; broken home; sexually promiscuous mother and sister; delights in hurting animals, bullied in school… we see them all.

I guess, by way of recommendation, all I can say is that this is not a bad movie. It’s even a pretty good movie.

But that’s not Michael Myers, and it’s not HALLOWEEN.







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16 February, 2008

Horror and Sci-Fi: Two of a Kind?

A couple of years ago, Sean Kotz, CreatureScape’s editor, asked if I could write something examining the relationship between Horror and Science-Fiction in film. Not having anything more pressing on my schedule, and wanting to keep my former editor happy, I said “Sure!” Then I thought to myself, “Just how big a can of worms am I opening here?” After all, not everyone has the same ideas of just what is Horror and what is Science-Fiction. Even the great Ackermonster himself considers the greatest Horror film of all time, FRANKENSTEIN (1931), to be more of a Sci-Fi film—not entirely surprising, when you remember who coined the phrase “Sci-Fi.”

Still, Sean did ask, and I did say yes… and this was the result. These are MY opinions on just what Horror is, what Science-Fiction is, and how they’re really two sides of the same coin.

Horror may be the oldest form of storytelling known to man. It certainly is one of the most enduring. Some of the earliest recorded tales are, in essence, horror stories.

The gorgons and the Minotaur in Greek legends, the eater of souls in Egyptian mythology, and countless other examples served much the same role in ancient society as Jason Voorhees and Bloody Mary do today: To frighten us out of our wits, and to warn us about possible consequences to our actions. Science-Fiction may be nearly as old, with roots also going back to the legends of Ancient Greece, such as Icarus & Daedalus; or to the Norse sagas, with tales of Valkyries and Valhalla. Superman, it can be argued, is little more than Hercules in red and blue spandex. Certainly, modern superhero groups such as the Justice League of America and the X-Men can trace their ancestry back to the heroes of Homer’s epics, the Odyssey and the Iliad.

People, especially in times of strife or war, love to be frightened, and love to be excited. It was true in the 1940’s, and it’s true today. Horror movies, thrill rides, extreme sports—whatever pushes our senses to the edge, however vicariously, seems almost addictive. We are constantly in search of a bigger and better thrill; more realistic, more frightening. And for many of us, we choose to get our thrills from Horror and Sci-Fi Films.

Horror comes in many forms, but most of those wouldn’t fit a strict definition of it commonly used when discussing genre films. War is definitely horror, especially for those called to fight in one. But that doesn’t make THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961), or SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1997) Horror Films. They abundantly illustrate the horrors of war, but there is no connection to the Horror Film in them.

Also, simply because a film is violent doesn’t qualify it for genre status. There are countless examples of violence in cinema, films such as THE GODFATHER (1972) or TAXI DRIVER (1976), or, more recently, films by such directors as Quentin Tarantino or John Woo. Arguably, SCARFACE is one of the most violent films ever made, but it no more belongs in a collection of horror than any other Crime picture.

But one genre is so closely associated with Horror that often they are indistinguishable from one another, and that sibling genre is of course Science-Fiction. This is a case where two very similar genres often blend into one. Naturally, not all Sci-Fi is Horror, and vice-versa. Films such as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1969) and WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951), are pure Sci-Fi, with no (or very few) elements of Horror. Conversely, WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953), and ALIEN (1979), are perhaps the best examples of Sci-Fi as Horror: They have the sense of unreality that true Horror creates. So what, for the purposes of this column, defines Horror, and how does it differ from its fraternal twin, Science-Fiction?

Great Horror Films draw the viewer into the worlds they create; we experience the terror and excitement as though we were on-screen. We feel Chris McNeil’s anguish and confusion at what’s happening to her daughter Regan; we can easily sympathize with Chief Brody’s fear of the water as he heads out to sea on-board the Orca. We are as shocked as Malcolm Crowe is to find out that one of the ‘dead people’ that Cole is speaking of is the good doctor himself.

Similarly, great Science-Fiction, even more than Horror, creates worlds for the viewer to inhabit, worlds that often take on a reality of their own. Anyone who doubts this is invited to attend the nearest Star Trek convention and see for themselves. Sci-Fi more than any other genre is subject to this intense fandom, perhaps because the worlds of the Federation, the Rebel Alliance, or Middle Earth are in many ways better than the boring, ho-hum existence of life in the real world. But where does the dividing line between Horror and Science-Fiction lie, if indeed there is one?

Earth’s armies fighting back against the invading Martians; or a small group of people trapped with an alien monster, are in a situation outside their normal frame of reference; it inspires fear unlike the normal, expected fears of men in battle. The viewer shares in this, knowing that these aren’t conflicts in the conventional sense of the word. Otherwise, it would be no different than the Federation Starships battling Klingon Battlecruisers in Star Trek, or for that matter, the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor in TORA, TORA, TORA.

Horror is that which has an element of the unreal to it. Horror is not you finding a dead body; horror is a dead body finding YOU. A good Horror Film places the victim in a situation that shouldn’t be, something not within the realm of possibility.

Take for example the FRIDAY THE 13TH series of films (it really doesn’t matter which one, does it?): An attractive group of kids; pleasant, comfortable surroundings; good times being had by all.

Into this, an unexpected element is introduced, something that is completely surreal: An unstoppable killing machine, with absolutely no humanity whatsoever. No motive, no remorse, nothing to moderate the pure… EVIL of the monster. Jason Voorhees isn’t some crackhead knocking off a liquor store to get his next fix; he’s not a mobster killing for profit. His only motivation is to kill. No food, sex, or rest. Just… Kill. That makes it Horror.

Great Horror, again like great Science-Fiction, envelopes it’s fans in a world where disbelief is suspended, and all things not only seem possible, but ARE possible. We don’t question how Michael Myers keeps coming back to carve his way through Haddonfield, we simply accept that he has, the same way that we accept the fact that when Scotty slides those three levers on his console, the transporter will work. The same goes for Jason and Freddy; Phasers and Lightsabers; Frankenstein’s Monster and a shark named Bruce. We don’t question the how; and seldom the why; we just accept that it IS. Genre Films are a visceral, emotional experience for those who love them, and great ones are able to pull us into their realities, even if only for the duration of a movie.

Horror and Sci-Fi Films aren’t everyone’s chosen genres; that’s fine. Not everyone likes Gilbert & Sullivan, either. However, for those of us who cut our fangs on the Universal classics; or thrilled to the exploits of Kirk, Luke, and Frodo; or simply love a good scare now and then, don’t worry about whether it’s Horror, Science-Fiction, or a little of both. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy.





















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DVD Review: TO THE DEVIL... A DAUGHTER

Title: TO THE DEVIL… A DAUGHTER

Year of Release—Film: 1976

Year of Release—DVD: 2002

DVD Label: Anchor Bay





THE MOVIE

This movie has the distinction of being Hammer Studios last Horror Film, and perhaps it’s most controversial. Directed by Peter Sykes, it’s a fairly average post-ROSEMARY’S BABY plot, dressed up by Hammer’s usually good production values; and made enjoyable by a superb cast, featuring Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee, Denholm Elliott, and Nastassja Kinski in her first major role. It was Miss Kinski who was the source of the controversy, as there was some question as to her true age at the time of production. Ordinarily this would be a minor matter; however, the fact that she appears fully nude in a rather significant scene precipitated the scandal. The question was settled to the satisfaction of those concerned, thus we are free to enjoy this unusual entry into Hammer’s filmography.

The plot is simple and familiar to fans of the mid to late ‘70’s, and was based (ostensibly…) on the novel of the same name by Dennis Wheatley, though totally disavowed by him as bearing no resemblance to his work. It features Widmark as an American author and, in today’s terms, parapsychologist, who’s in London for a book signing. He’s approached by Elliott, the father of a young novitiate who’s returning from a convent in Germany. He’s asked to intercept her at the airport and bring her safely to her father’s home. What seems to be a fairly routine task soon plunges Widmark into direct confrontation with a satanic cult, led by Lee.

The cast, as befits the great Hammer’s swan song, is excellent. Lee had a personal stake in the production, having been given the rights to the novel by Wheatley himself, and he turned in his usually deft performance. Widmark, by all accounts a terror on the set, nevertheless proved worth all the trouble… it would be hard to imagine the picture without him. Denholm Elliott chews his way through the scenery with appropriate energy and histronics; and Honor Blackman, as Widmark’s agent, gives a credible and workmanlike performance. But the young Miss Kinski definitely makes the biggest impact as Catherine, the nun fated to be the Devil’s Bride.

As I previously mentioned, this film was Hammer’s last, though that had little to do with the film’s controversy, Box-Office take, or anything at all involving the movie itself. In fact, it was hugely successful in Britain. However, the British film industry was completely moribund by this time, staggering towards the grave. Hammer, never able to mount much in the way of financial clout, depended on financing from other studios, especially American studios, to produce their pictures. In exchange, these American studios received the right to distribute the films in the U.S.

The problem lay in the fact that, while Horror had changed since Cushing and Lee first brought Hammer to the forefront of the Genre, Hammer itself had not. The studio was still making essentially the same type of films that it was in 1957, when THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN premiered. But American audiences were watching films the likes of ROSEMARY’S BABY; NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD; THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE; LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT; and THE EXORCIST. Hammer’s product was seen as old-fashioned, and the addition of a little more blood and some female nudity wasn’t enough to change that impression. This film, despite having more gore and sex than any other Hammer film (with the possible exception of 1970’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS…) was still tame in comparison to the average American drive-in fare of 1976. American audiences simply didn’t want Hammer movies anymore, and American financing soon evaporated. When it did, the legendary Hammer Films died on the vine.



THE DISC

The Anchor Bay DVD release is nice, as is the norm for the company’s offerings. Anchor Bay knows Horror fans, particularly classic horror fans, want the movies they love treated with the respect they deserve, and for the most part, they do an excellent job at that. This disc is no different.

The print used for the transfer is beautiful, as fans have come to expect from this company, and overall the design is good. The lack of subtitles is a real hindrance for me personally, but otherwise the disc is excellent.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

Once again, the special features are where Anchor Bay really shines. Chief among these is the documentary TO THE DEVIL… THE DEATH OF HAMMER. Featuring interviews with Lee, Sykes, and Blackman, screenwriters Christopher Wicking and Gerald Vaughan-Hughes, and Producer Roy Skeggs, this is one of the best “making-of…” documentaries I’ve had the pleasure to watch. Not only do they discuss, in great detail, the making of this picture, they provide a fascinating look at the end of the Hammer era, and the virtual death of the British film industry. Also included, as is standard on most Anchor Bay offerings, is a comprehensive set of stills and publicity photos, a talent bio section, and the theatrical trailer.

The only complaint I really have about the DVD is the lack of a commentary track or two. With as many of the principals still alive; indeed, interviewed for the above documentary, this seems like a truly significant oversight.



IN CONCLUSION

Anchor Bay, well known for resurrecting classic horror, delivers the goods again in this disc, and I was certainly happy to add it to my collection when it came out. It’s not Hammer’s best; but it is their last, and as such, just as significant. With a list price under ten dollars, (as low as $5.99 at DeepDiscount DVD…) there’s no good reason for this not to be in your collection.









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09 February, 2008

“The Best Euro-Horror Movies You’ve Probably Never Seen”

For fans of European Horror Films, Amando De Ossorio is one of the legendary directors of the sub-genre. Not as well-known as Fulci or Argento, not as prolific as Franco or as talented as Bava, he nonetheless is remembered as one of the greatest European film-makers ever, based solely on his iconic creations, the Knights Templars of the BLIND DEAD series of films.

Beginning in 1971, with the release of LA NOCHE DEL TERROR CIEGO ~aka~ TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD, a unique form of undead menace graced the screens of theaters and Drive-Ins in Europe and North America. While similar in style to the Romero Zombie-Verse of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, De Ossorio’s Satan-worshipping, blood-drinking, flesh-eating Knights of the Egyptian Cross were in a class all alone. Evil in life, they became even more so after death, chasing down victims on gray-black spectral chargers, hunting them down by the sound of their beating hearts.

Based on the historical Crusaders known as Knights Templars, De Ossorio’s version, to put it mildly, deviates significantly from the historical record. These Knights are a cult of Devil-worshippers, executed for their crimes, blinded so they could not threaten people, even after death. But neither killing nor blinding them kept them from seeking out fresh prey through a series of four films from 1971 to 1975, continuing from the first with EL ATAQUE DE LOS MUERTOS SIN OJOS ~aka~ RETURN OF THE BLIND DEAD; EL BUQUE MALDITO ~aka~ THE GHOST GALLEON; and LA NOCHE DE LAS GAVIOTAS ~aka~ NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS.

While the quality of the series varied from film to film, hitting it’s nadir with the very weak EL BUQUE MALDITO in 1974, it was always stylish and atmospheric, highlighting De Ossorio’s talent as a director and photographer if not as a screenwriter. The best of the series, at least in my opinion, was 1972’s EL ATAQUE DE LOS MUERTOS SIN OJOS. Not only does it retain the stylistic elegance of the first film, but throws in some of the best action scenes of the series, including a suspenseful scene where the survivors of the initial Templar massacre struggle to rescue a young child caught outside with the dead knights.

Now those of you who are regular readers of this column know that I’m a big fan of Euro-Horror, and you probably know why. The answer is a simple one: Innovation.

Let’s examine one year, a year that featured the release of several landmark Horror Films—1960. While Hollywood was churning out such blockbusters as THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN and THE LEECH WOMAN, European film-makers were producing bona-fide classics like ET MOURIR DE PLASIR ~aka~ BLOOD AND ROSES and LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO ~aka~ BLACK SUNDAY. Does that mean there were no good American Horror Films produced that year? Hardly. Am I trying to imply that Hollywood was totally incapable of original, innovative Horror? No, though that statement’s not far from the truth. One of the greatest, most innovative Horror Films ever made, Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, came out in 1960. THE TIME MACHINE and THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER were also excellent 1960 releases, though neither was exceptionally innovative or original.

Innovation, though, is something that Hollywood finds itself unwilling to do. Whether from fear of failure, or lack of imagination, Hollywood simply cannot get its collective thumb out long enough to come up with an original thought. While this syndrome has become more pronounced of late, it’s hardly a recent phenomenon, as demonstrated by our look at 1960.

However, European directors felt no such constraints… or if they did, they didn’t let them affect the quality of their work. Directors like Bava, Argento, Fulci, Rollin, and Franco may not have always been successful, but they made movies that were unmistakably their own, films that stood apart from the common herd. You may not have liked their work, but you damn sure recognized it as theirs.

De Ossorio was that type of director. Though his movies have their share of detractors, and his themes left him open to personal attack, (most often describing him as “misogynistic”…) he made the films that he wanted to make, and they were unlike anything else. From the history he constructed for the Templars, to the distinctive design of their reanimated corpses, even to the unique method of filming the Blind Dead Knights in slow-motion that so effectively imparted a sense of the unreal, an air of supernatural, to the Templars, these films were different. The combination of these factors, and others, have made these films some of the best of European Horror, even though few Americans are, or rather, were, familiar with them. And those who have seen them probably saw a heavily edited VHS release, which could hardly convey the true quality of De Ossorio’s work.

That hopefully changed in 2005, when Blue Underground released an absolutely breath-taking boxed set, The Blind Dead Collection. Beautifully restored to their original release condition, with the original language tracks in place, it’s easy to see just why these films were so highly thought of when they first hit the screens of European cinemas. By the time they reached the American Drive-Ins and Grindhouses, cuts had already been made that reduced the films’ effectiveness. The movies were each cut further in order to fit into broadcast slots, as well as making them Television friendly. Along the way, De Ossorio’s original concepts became so muddied and disguised that in direct comparison, they seem like different films.

And thanks to Blue Underground, that direct comparison, at least for LA NOCHE DEL TERROR CIEGO, is easily accomplished. In addition to the original wide-screen Spanish release of De Ossorio’s masterpiece, they’ve included the edited, dubbed, pan-and-scan U.S. video release in its entirety. Watching them back-to-back, as I did recently, only made me appreciate the original all the more. The plot, which seems to make little sense in the edited version, jumps into crystal clarity in the original. Though I speak not a word of Spanish, the dialogue between the principal characters became far more comprehensible in the original, sub-titled version than in the one where I could actually understand what the actors were saying.

When I say that these are the best Euro-Horror films you’ve never seen, I’m fully aware that many of you probably have seen them; may even have the beat-up, fading VHS’s in your collection, just as I did. You might even now be composing angry e-mails, ready to inform me just how big a fathead I am. Fine. But unless you’ve seen these movies the way they were meant to be seen, the way De Ossorio wanted them to be seen, then just hit that delete button.

Because, unless you have seen them in their original form, they are the best Euro-Horror movies you’ve never seen.


















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Horror-Host Review: The Mortician's HOUSE OF FEAR

Program: The Mortician’s HOUSE OF FEAR

Host: The Mortician

Location: Brunswick, OH

Carrier: Brunswick Area Television; http://www.the-mortician.com/


[Ed. Note: If you happen to host such a program, and would like to see it reviewed here, please contact me at: unimonster64@gmail.com.]

If Heavy-Metal lovin’ Headbangers need a Horror-Host to call their own, they need look no further than the Mortician, the grimmest, most gruesome Host ever to broadcast low-budget B-movies to an unsuspecting audience.

Eschewing the humor that is the usual stock in trade of such programs, the Mortician goes straight for the jugular, with a look and style that’s straight from 1970’s Grindhouse movies. With a distinctive skull mask and long dreadlocks, he resembles an unmasked Predator, looking for an Alien Queen with which to do battle. His backwoods mortuary, where all his interstitial scenes are set, is also where he embalms his clients (victims?) as he discusses the evening’s entertainment.

This episode’s feature was HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, the heavily-edited American release of Lucio Fulci’s QUELLA VILLA ACCANTO AL CIMITERO, released in 1981. This movie fits very well into the Mortician’s dark theme, in addition to being a very good film in its own rights.

As I stated before, there’s no humor inherent in this program, but it works—very well—given the Mortician’s distinctive style. The interstitials, shot on video then aged to resemble old 8mm footage with sepia tones, scratches, and dust spots, are visually very appealing to those with an eye for horror. The one flaw that does prove bothersome, at least to those with hearing difficulties, is the occasionally poor audio.

The Mortician, when he is describing his current activities with his ‘client’, or discussing what has transpired in the movie since the last break, speaks in a low, grumbling monotone… which is fine, as it fits his character perfectly. However, it does make him difficult to hear, and harder to understand.

Another aspect of The Mortician’s House of Fear that is unique is the occasional inclusion of a musical performance video by area Metal bands. Other than to inform the reader that these segments appear to be very well done, I am in no way qualified to review that portion of the program… my musical tastes end in 1989. Also on an occasional basis, episodes of the early ‘60’s TV series ONE STEP BEYOND are included. Both these and the musical segments are used to balance out the excessively short runtimes of some of these films.

DVD’s of The House of Fear episodes are available on the Mortician’s web-site, at http://www.the-mortician.com/. The cost is very reasonable, and worth it to check out this unique, and entertaining, host. The program might not be for everyone, and youngsters should probably steer clear, but true Horror fans will love it. I sure did.














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02 February, 2008

The Joys of Dollar Store DVD’s

February 1st was my birthday, and the day before, I arrived home to find a large box sitting on my front porch, from a very good friend who shares my love of Horror films. Now, I’ve never been known for patience when it comes to gifts; as children, my little brother and I would sometimes unwrap our Christmas gifts to see what we were getting, then re-wrap them. So it was that, finding myself with such a box filled with wrapped packages, I didn’t calmly set them aside to be opened the next day. I ripped into them like Oprah with a box of Ho-Ho’s. Inside, wrapped in bundles of three or four, were DVD’s. Not just any DVD’s, but Dollar Store DVD’s.

Now, for those of you who haven’t availed yourselves of the joys of shopping at Dollar Stores, just think back to the days of five and dimes; anything you could think of, and a lot you wouldn’t, at bargain prices. These were the places that defined generic long before we had ever heard the word used.

Sure, it might not have been the highest quality stuff, and you might not have wanted to do all your shopping there, but what treasures you could find! A flashlight with a squeeze-trigger, so you never needed batteries. A package of comic books, never the popular ones, and they always had big round stickers plastered on the front (which we would discover, years later, made them worthless to collectors…) but still, comic books. The candy that always tasted just a little different than what you’d get in the better stores. You never quite knew what you’d find, what you’d buy, or what you’d think of it once you bought it.

Well, Dollar Stores, those shops and emporiums that advertise everything in the store sells for one dollar, are today’s version of the 5¢ & 10¢ stores of my childhood memories. While some of the mystique is gone, and for most items I’m content to head to Wal-Mart or Kroger’s, the one thing that dollar stores excel in now is their DVD’s.

Now, I’m not talking first-run, blockbuster fresh off the press DVD releases, and you won’t find the Universal Monster Legacy sets on the shelf here. What you will find, however, is in many ways better. The DVD racks in these stores are filled with keep cases and cardboard sleeves, printed boldly with film titles you may have never heard before. INVISIBLE AVENGER; ATTACK OF THE MONSTERS; NIGHTMARE CASTLE; ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS… lurid, daring titles, telling you everything important about the movie contained therein.

And much like the prize in the box of Cracker Jacks used to be, (back when they actually put prizes in boxes of Cracker Jacks…) you’re never sure of what you’re going to get when you open the package. It may very well be the worst movie you’ve ever seen. It may be a rare gem that you never knew existed. But you don’t know until you get that movie home and pop it into the player.

As a long-time fan of the dollar store DVD’s, I’ve experienced both the highs and the lows of buying the cheap discs. Some of the most horrendously unwatchable films in my collection were Dollar Store DVD’s, such as I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 2: SAVAGE VENGEANCE, (as though the original needed a sequel…) A*P*E, (a South Korean King Kong wannabe that was, for a surprisingly long time, the single worst movie I owned…) and GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN comprise, in part, the very dregs of my collection. But for these films I paid a grand total of three dollars; less, when you consider that they were accompanied by other, somewhat better movies. Would I have bought them had I known what I’d be getting? Maybe not, but where’s the fun in that? This way, I’m out almost nothing, and I can say I’ve had the dubious pleasure of watching the same three guys walking past a camera repeatedly, firing caps from obviously fake rifles at a Korean dude in an equally fake monkey-suit.

Sometimes though, you hit a winner. You put that disc in your player, and discover that you’ve found that classic you’ve hunted for years, or some movie fondly remembered from childhood, only you long ago forgot the title. Once in a while, you’re surprised by a movie that’s been retitled, perhaps something you’ve been looking for only to find you’ve acquired it by accident. That’s what happened when I watched ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS for the first time. I was expecting, at best, a Fulci-like copy of the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and at worst, some mildly inoffensive Voodoo tale. What I got was a curiously retitled EL BUQUE MALDITO, aka THE GHOST GALLEON, the third installment in Amando de Ossorio’s brilliant BLIND DEAD quadrilogy.

While it is obviously a direct transfer from the videotape, this was long before Blue Underground presented us with their definitive boxed set, and the videotape had proven impossible for me to track down. To have this film to watch and enjoy made up for all the dreck that was contained on the same disc.

Thus it was with this shipment of Birthday Videos. While there were some that I had, that’s usually the case; I’ve often had to buy a Dollar Store set that had three movies I already owned to get one I didn’t. And yes, there were some definite dogs in the bunch, movies such as THEY CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA, and REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES.

But inside that box were some true gems, as well. Koji Shima’s Uchûjin Tokyo ni arawaru, aka WARNING FROM SPACE, which was the first Japanese Sci-Fi Special Effects film, or Tokusatsu, shot in color. From Italy came SEDDOK, l'erede di Satana, better known here as ATOM-AGE VAMPIRE. And the prize of the bunch, an eight-episode collection of ONE STEP BEYOND, a series that ran on ABC from 1959-1961. Something like Kolchak meets the TWILIGHT ZONE, this long-forgotten classic was superb, frightening, and impressively enjoyable.

My point is simple. For what probably amounted to less than $20, someone was able to give me, not only one of the best birthday gifts I’ve gotten in a long while, but also the joys of wading into a big stack of DVD’s, not quite sure what I’d find. You can’t do that with something you’ve paid $29.99 for. Let’s say you buy the latest Collector’s Special Director’s Cut Boxed Edition of the newest Hollywood blockbuster, get it home, and discover it reeks. You have no choice; you’re pissed off, and want to throw the DVD across the room like a Frisbee®. Only the damn thing cost you $30… so you stick it back in its case and toss it on a shelf to gather dust.But with Dollar Store DVD's, you don’t care if you get a clunker. Even at their worst, you’re only out a dollar. And, at their best, you’ve gained so much more.














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DVD Review: SPIDER BABY

Title: SPIDER BABY Director’s Cut

Year of Release—Film: 1968

Year of Release—DVD: 2007

DVD Label: Dark Sky Entertainment/MPI Entertainment




THE MOVIE

Jack Hill’s quirky masterpiece is definitely one of the oddest films you’re likely to see, but it’s also one of the most entertaining, too. Shot in 1964 but held in limbo until four years later, SPIDER BABY or, THE MADDEST STORY EVER TOLD to use its proper title, stars Lon Chaney Jr. and Carol Ohmart amidst a cast of lesser-known actors, including a very young Sid “Captain Spaulding” Haig. The story revolves around the Merrye family, the descendants of which develop an incurable mental regression as they enter puberty. This regression causes them to become mentally deranged, psychotic, and cannibalistic. This is one of Chaney’s best performances from late in life, and his job as Bruno is matched by several equally impressive performances from the rest of the cast. Chief among these are the aforementioned Haig, as Ralph, the oldest of the Merrye children; the gorgeous Jill Banner as his sister, Virginia; and Quinn Redeker as their distant relative.

This film, which came so close to being lost forever, has become a cult favorite since the advent of home video. Finally, after twenty plus years of fading VHS tapes and poor quality bootleg DVD-R’s, Dark Sky Entertainment/MPI Entertainment, working directly with Hill, has put out the definitive SPIDER BABY disc.

For those who’ve not had the pleasure of watching this movie yet, there’s very little I can say to describe it without revealing too much of the plot. Suffice it to say that it is a unique film for it’s period, both in subject matter and in quality, especially in view of the limited resources available to Hill. It’s very reminiscent of Mario Bava’s early work, particularly when comparing Hill’s skillful use of camera angles to cover-up the obvious shortfalls in the available location, the subject of one of the many special features. [see below]

This is one of my favorite films of the ‘60’s, and I’m glad that it’s finally getting the attention it’s long deserved.


THE DISC

While Dark Sky Entertainment/MPI Entertainment does a credible job on this disc, the packaging leaves something to be desired. This company’s efforts usually come off looking bargain-basement, though I’ve always found the quality to be superior. This disc is no exception… to either rule.

Both the audio and video quality is far superior to the worn-out VHS in my collection, and the addition of subtitles, as always, is greatly appreciated. While I wish that Dark Sky invested a little more effort into the package design, I sure as hell can’t fault the product inside.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

As befits this long-awaited disc, Dark Sky has loaded it down with special features, the best of which is the documentary THE HATCHING OF SPIDER BABY, a look at the making of this movie. The genesis of this film, and the difficult path it took to it’s ultimate recognition as such a terrific little movie, is a fascinating story, especially when told by those most intimately involved with it. Who better to tell it than Jack Hill himself, along with the surviving cast members?

Also included is SPIDER STRAVINSKY: THE CINEMA SOUNDS OF RONALD STEIN. One of this great composer’s many scores was the unique music of SPIDER BABY, and this biographical piece is informative and interesting. The third documentary included is THE MERRYE HOUSE REVISITED, a trip back to the house used for location shooting of the film. Contrary to appearances, the house was far from isolated; instead it is located in a busy residential neighborhood of Los Angeles. Hill’s direction, and the beautiful camera work by Alfred Taylor, combined to photographically isolate the house from it’s surroundings.

Add in the excellent commentary track, featuring both Jack Hill and Sid Haig, an extended and alternate scene section, and a still gallery, and you have a truly superb collection of features for an equally superior DVD.


IN CONCLUSION

Not a cheap disc, the SPIDER BABY Director’s Cut nonetheless earns a definite Buy recommendation from me… in fact, it came within a tarantula hair of beating out THE MONSTER SQUAD for my DVD Release of the Year award. If having a pristine print of one of my favorite films wasn’t enough to guarantee that, then the wealth of behind the scenes information on the film’s production certainly does.

This is the type of DVD release that fans want to see for the films they love, and Dark Sky did not disappoint us. At a list price of $29.99, it’s well outside the range of what I consider impulse buying… that’s ok, though. This is one you should plan to add to your collection—and soon.











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