N: The Night Walker (1964)

As I mentioned earlier in this busted-ass jalopy version of Hubrisween, you always hope to shed some light on some obscure flick from days gone by, something unjustly neglected, so you can aid in the betterment of mankind, or at least your strange clan who appreciate such things. So it is with The Night Walker, which I know I watched on TV as a kid, because it had pictures in Famous Monsters. Turner Classic Movies put out a DVD of it on a double bill with Dark Intruder, which I love, then Shout Factory split that double bill up into two blu-rays. So, not quite so obscure any more.

But I really didn’t remember a single thing from that long-ago viewing, so why not?

We will start once more with a mistreated woman, Irene Trent (Barbara Stanwyck), cooped up in a massive house with her blind husband, Howard (Hayden Rorke). Howard is obsessed with the notion that Irene is seeing another man, because she talks in her sleep at night about a wonderful lover. Howard is convinced it’s his attorney, Barry (Robert Taylor), an accusation both deny; and the truth of the matter is that Howard’s oppression is causing Irene’s dreams. After a particularly bitter argument, Irene runs from the house to spend the night at a hotel. Howard goes up to his mad scientist lab and blows himself up, and good riddance.

After the funeral, Irene has a nightmare about the explosion and seeing Howard’s horribly burned (for 1964) face. She then makes the decision to move back into the small apartment in the back of her hairdressing salon until she can sell the house. Changing locations doesn’t end the dreams, though; her imaginary lover (Lloyd Bochner) visits once more in the night, and every night thereafter. Then Burned Howard starts showing up, too, and soon people are dying in real life.

Uncle Forry says, Don’t ask! Just buy it!

Okay, let us once again indulge in SPOILERS FOR A FIFTY YEAR-OLD MOVIE and reveal that this is all part of a bizarrely elaborate plot to gaslight Irene, driving her insane so that Howard’s considerable estate can be divided up. Except that we’ve seen a few movies ourselves and we figured that out perhaps a half-hour into the movie, if not sooner. I will compliment director William Castle and writer Robert Bloch for keeping me in the dark about the extent of the conspiracy, until the last segment.

Past that, The Night Walker is pretty dull and toothless; it cribs from the aforementioned Gaslight, Midnight Lace, and others; Castle also lifts a pretty powerful image from The Man Who Knew Too Much, all to not much gain. It is painfully pedestrian, and could have easily been a TV movie. This is, in fact, Stanwyck’s last theatrical movie. After this she moved to exclusively TV roles, which usually presented her with a better showcase for her talents, at a difficult stage for movie actresses of her era (in fact the role was originally offered to Joan Crawford, going through a similar phase).

Not suspicious at all.

I know there’s a couple of online Halloween lists of “Movies That Aren’t Too Scary” and “Horror Movies With No Gore”, and I guess The Night Walker would fit into either of those – if your forbearance for “not particularly exciting” is also high.

I now know why I didn’t remember much from that original viewing, is what I’m saying.

The trailer below begins with excerpts from “Experiment in Nightmares”, a short Castle made with a professional hypnotist for ballyhoo purposes, segueing right into a bit of animation narrated by Paul Frees, which forms the first four minutes of the movie. This is the only place that extremely boss illustration from the poster, of the gargoyle perched on a woman, appears in the movie.

M: Malignant (2021)

What? I do watch recent movies, you know.

I was told I needed to go into Malignant cold, with as little knowledge as possible. That the plot started out batshit and only got more batshit from there. Now, I like James Wan as a horror director (and I absolutely loved his Aquaman), so I saw it before it could get spoiled for me. So I’m going to take the same tack in writing about it, trying to not give away too much, which is going to look absolutely quaint in a week or so when everybody knows everything about it.

First we have Madison (Annabelle Wallis), a troubled woman who is having a stretch of bad life; she’s pregnant again after three miscarriages, and her husband is an abusive asshole (Jake Abel doing a too-good job in the role). An argument culminates in him smashing her head into a drywall, apologizing copiously and running to get some ice. Madison, bleeding from the back of her head, locks the bedroom door behind him and collapses onto the bed.

That night, somebody comes into the house and murders the husband, leaving his body a twisted wreck. Madison discovers his body the next morning, and if you watch any true crime shows, you know she is instantly the prime suspect, although she doesn’t remember much from the previous night, just a dream about a mysterious black-clad figure doing the killing.

Of course, since we have a movie to fill, there will be more murders, and each time Madison finds herself paralyzed as she has a vision of the murder happening. The murders are connected to something in Madison’s past, and, as is traditional, Madison’s sister Sydney (Maddie Hanson) proves a better detective about this past connection than the cops assigned to her case (George Young and Michole Briana White).

There’s a nice little horror show prologue that gives you an important clue to the nature of this mysterious assassin (and more clues are even dropped in the opening credit), so although horror movie aficionados will be fairly certain that they know what’s going on, the actual mechanism and nature of the killer has to be unfolded throughout the story, and that’s where the fun lies – at least for me. And the movie certainly doesn’t lack for mayhem and action.

I will tell you the killer’s name is Gabriel (the trailer does that, anyway), and that I’ve seen it mentioned online that he should be the star of a new franchise, and I say naaaaaah to that. He’s an interesting character, truly bizarre to watch in motion, owing more to the Crooked Man in Wan’s Conjuring 2 than anything else; completely disturbing to the human eye. But not everything is franchise fodder, for the love of God. The Crooked Man is already getting his own movie, you should let Malignant be what it is: a decent giallo-adjacent horror movie that would be all the better for being a one-and-done.

Less than 500 words. And there is why I don’t usually do recent movies.

L: The Laughing Dead (1990)

I really have no idea how long this VHS copy of The Laughing Dead has been in my collection, unwatched and unloved. Since Vinegar Syndrome is putting this out on blu-ray (as far as I know, the first legitimate video of the movie domestically), I say it’s time to dust off that box and give it a watch. I also thought that the flick might benefit from a grainy VHS bootleg ambiance.

(I was wrong about that, incidentally. No film deserves a 4×3 image with slapdash video quality)

So you have the traditional priest who has lost his faith, Father O’Sullivan (Tim Sullivan), still soldiering on despite his lingering love for Tessie (Wendy Webb), a nun with whom he had an affair and a son, which caused her to be booted from the convent. O’Sullivan is also an amateur archeologist, who leads an annual bus tour of Mayan ruins during “The Festival of the Laughing Dead”. On this year’s tour is the usual bunch of stereotypes, along with Tessie and O’Sullivan’s son, who has turned into a figurative bastard to match his literal status.

“I may be evil, but I’m FABULOUS!!!”

Turns out all this has been set up by the villainous Dr. Um-tzec (writer/director/composer S.P. Somtow), to gain all the pieces and sacrifices he will need to become the living personification of the God of Death after whom he is named. Gore and carnage follow.

The Laughing Dead does provide you with an interesting case study: Somtow is an award-winning writer and accomplished musical composer. Branching out into movies probably seemed a savvy move, but is, in this case, an unfortunately over-reaching one. Dialogue that looks good on the printed page can sink leadenly when spoken aloud, especially when the writer and director are the same person and likely feels nothing needs to be changed, or doesn’t appear to have much experience working with actors.

Also not helping: when a lot of them aren’t actors, they’re fellow writers that were convinced to come along for the ride. Admittedly I didn’t spot most of them until the closing credits, but I’ll give Edward Bryant props for being memorable as the Southern Deadhead Bus Driver, who gets a great death.

Aaaaah, these guys again.

I also give Somtow credit for using a non-typical mythology to drive his story forward, though the lines between Aztec and Mayan gets crossed a few times. The FX work is practical, gooey in that late 1980s way, and mostly excellent – some of it downright nasty. Alas, most of the fun stuff is loaded into the second half of the story, with a whole lot of – well, not character building but cardboard dialogue that hopes it accomplishes the same thing (a truly amazing amount of people seem to know about that convent scandal). There are a number of characters you earnestly hope will die, and rather quickly, but you’re going to be disappointed. The crystal-worshipping New Age couple that informs us that “The Mayans invented the harmonic convergence!” among them. Okay, okay, they wind up being germane to the plot, but Odious Comic Relief is still Odious Comic Relief. At least the worst example is the first to die. (Yep, 3 OCRs for the price of one)

There are, incidentally, bigass monsters, if that helps.

Still, a lot of these criticisms can be leveled at a certain other low-budget movie with the initials F.E., so I can’t bring myself to hate it – it’s more like I sympathize with it, and I’m actually looking forward to Vinegar Syndrome’s cleaned-up version. It’s not truly a buried gem, but it has enough interesting stuff going on in the final act that I’d like to see it under better circumstances.

K: Know, Knothing (2021)

Please see this post to found out why this is only a semi-Hubrisween.

The answer, as always, is work.

J: Just Didn’t Happen (2021)

Please see this post to found out why this is only a semi-Hubrisween.

(The answer, as always, is work. Work work work workwork hello boys how are you I missed you)

I: Isle of the Dead (1945)

If you’ve been with me for any length of time (and why wouldn’t you be? I only vanish for months, sometimes years occasionally), you know I like to include at least one Karloff movie in Hubrisween. Here’s one I hadn’t seen, a Val Lewton movie I hadn’t seen, and most importantly, it starts with the letter I.

During the First Balkan War in 1912 (it seems that 2021 wants to school me in European conflicts glossed over by my World History classes), Karloff is General Pherides, so by-the-book that the movie opens with him overseeing the dishonorable discharge and execution-by-suicide of a commander for not getting his men to the battle quickly enough. Oliver (Marc Cramer), a war correspondent for the Boston Star, is shocked, but American, so he doesn’t really care.

The war has taken them near an island that houses a cemetery – in fact, where Pherides’ long-dead wife is entombed – and Pherides intends to visit his wife’s grave that night, Oliver tags along, eager to have something write about besides war and the septicemic plague stalking the Greek forces. Pherides is dismayed and angered to find his wife’s coffin – and others – smashed and the bodies missing. Seeking answers, the two men come upon a house owned by archeologist Albrecht (Jason Robards Sr.).

The desecration took place some years earlier, Albrecht tells them, and he blames himself; the locals knew he was paying top dollar for antiquities, and it was they who greedily disturbed the dead, searching for those antiquities. There are a number of refugees in his house, taking shelter from the recent battle; diplomat St Aubyn (Alan Napier), his wife Mary (Katherine Emery), her aide, the Greek girl Thea (Ellen Drew), and drunken marketeer Robbins (Skelton Knaggs).

But the person we’re going to have to watch is the housekeeper Kira (Elaine Thimig), an elderly woman who has become obsessed with the idea that Thea is a vorvolaka, a sort of vampiric evil spirit, because she is obviously young and healthy, while her employer daily grows weaker and paler. Kira tells the equally provincial Pherides of her suspicions, and he joins the rest of the household in tut-tutting this superstitious nonsense.

Well, it turns out Robbins was not just disagreeably drunk, he was suffering from -you guessed it – septicemic plague, and the entire household finds themselves quarantined on the island. The plague will claim one victim after another, while Pherides commands the quarantine the only way he knows how, through tyranny, even while Kira reawakens his beliefs in the Old Ways in her war against Thea.

Mrs. St Aubyn’s condition, you see, is catalepsy – the tendency to fall into a death-like trance. Now, you don’t suppose that will become important plot-wise, do you?

I’m going to give Isle of the Dead top marks for a different setting, different mythology, and giving Karloff curly hair. Past those, however, it is definitely a lesser entry in Lewton’s sterling run at RKO. Lewton and director Mark Robson made two movies inspired by art in 1945 – this one and the much better Bedlam, based on Burne Hogarth’s illustrations for A Rake’s Progress. Isle of the Dead is based on a painting by Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin, apparently very popular in European households in the early 20th century. Though Hogarth’s pictures were chaotic and presented numerous story hooks, Bocklin’s is more a mood piece, starkly melancholy yet beautiful.

Lewton and Robson try their usual set pieces – most notably lone women walking through dark spaces they shouldn’t – but the drama of the quarantined household becomes rather tedious and repetitive, committing the prime sin any movie should avoid: it gets boring.

Karloff is wonderful, as usual, managing to turn from menacing to apologetic at a moment’s notice; he was always able to find the human in the monsters he played. Jason Robards Sr. (yes, his father) is wonderfully kind and empathetic as Albrecht, a fine contrast to the driven Pherides. Ellen Drew is good as the prototypical Lewton tormented female protagonist, and I really loved Katherine Emery as the doomed Mary St Aubyn, especially since her roles usually cast her as a villain. Pity she didn’t do more movies.

So there are little gems to be found in the sullen morass that is Isle of the Dead. Your enjoyment of them may depend on your forbearance. But when has that never not been the case with movies?

H: Helltown (2017)

Searching through the Discovery+ stream for something strange to start my evening, I saw that I had picked Helltown as a possibility back when we first subscribed (My wife is addicted to those house-flipping shows and hey, the complete Mythbusters and Good Eats was much too tempting). The description reads “A former military member sheds light on the 1974 evacuation of Boston, OH.” Now I had never heard of this evacuation of an entire town , so clickedy click and off I go.

We start in 2016 with phone footage from 4 teenagers who were livestreaming their trespassing into abandoned Boston. This is broken up with text in an appropriately Blair Witch-style typeface, telling us that the town had been evacuated for a State Park in the early 70s. It will also tell us the kids went into a restricted part of the park, and that one of them did not make it out alive.

This brings us to a historian professor who has Boston Ohio, or as it is more popularly known, “Helltown”, in his curriculum. He goes through the government acquisition of the town through eminent domain for a state park by President Gerald Ford, backed up by some local TV coverage. The swiftness of the resulting ouster of the townspeople gave rise to many conspiracy theories, the professor tells us. Which brings us to the person we are going to spend much of our time with, conspiracy theorist and YouTuber Terry Greenbaum (Darren White).

Yes, the theorist is played by an actor. Didn’t I mention that the professor is also an actor? Which you probably figured out because the man is way too good on camera to be just any academic. Yep, this is a mockumentary based on the actual Helltown story.

Helltown is a real place, and apparently you can visit it (but stay away from the restricted area, oooOOOooh). It’s story is more prosaic and sad than spooky, but as the professor says, it’s become a magnet for conspiracy theories and urban legends.

Greenbaum will tell us of the many strange tales about Helltown, but the most significant one is an incident just after the evacuation, when an altercation between the military and some recalcitrant Bostonians erupt in violence, leaving all but one dead – Everett MacMahon (Terry Brandon), who has kept silent about his experience – until now.

With the death of the teenage girl in that party (not by a bear attack, Greenbaum assures us, citing Jaws) and his own incipient dementia, MacMahon has decided that the truth must come out, and his narration will be supported by reenactment. A lot of reenactment, if you were still on the fence about this being real. MacMahon was part of a small Signal Corps team sent into the area after the evacuation to record and inventory what was left. But the real kicker for me is that as MacMahon continues his story and Greenbaum his investigation, the story starts veering into folk horror territory, and the reasons for Helltown’s evacuation and restriction are far more terrible and outlandish than originally thought.

That’s all I’m going to tell you. Starting what I thought to be a documentary and finding myself in folk horror, almost Lovecraftian territory, was a lovely surprise.

Not everyone had the same experience, though.

Going through the IMDb and a Google search finds this movie derided and hated, mostly because it’s fake; I see some local historians whose outrage is understandable, but a whole lot more of them seem angry that they got fooled for a while. Hey, I was also fooled for a while, though my willing participation in my own fooling was more hopeful than anything else, that such eldritch weirdness really could be possible in this world. So my reaction was more “Haha, good one, you got me!” than outright anger. The fact that this was originally presented on the show Destination America and is still hosted on the Trvl Channel doesn’t help dispel that anger.

The fact I love folk horror probably helped, in my case. No, it definitely helped. So, sorry Boston OH purists, but I really enjoyed it, and I know some others that might, as well. It was a nice little trick’r’treat surprise.

G: The Giant Claw (1957)

When you’re trying to do something like an A to Z horror movie binge, it pays to lob yourself a softball every now and then. Ideally, you like to find some semi-obscure stuff that no one’s ever heard of, not a universally-derided feature that doesn’t really need another thousand words dropped on its misshapen head, but here we are.

Besides, I hadn’t watched it in years, and when I mentioned it to a fellow Crapfest devotee, the response was “The what?” so maybe this is a good* choice after all. (*good not guaranteed)

For those of you in the “what?” category: Jeff Morrow is two-fisted electrical engineer Mitch MacAfee, who sights an enormous fast-traveling UFO while calibrating a new radar system. Military brass continue to poo-poo his sighting even after numerous planes start disappearing. Eventually it is confirmed that the UFO is actually an enormous bird from outer space, and conventional weapons are useless against it because it is surrounded by a field of anti-matter (like a lot of late 50s sci-fi monster movies, it is best to not ponder the “science” part overmuch).

MacAfee, being a two-fisted electrical engineer, quickly masters theoretical physics and creates a gun that will fire mu-mesons at the anti-matter field, rendering the bird vulnerable to rockets and plunking it’s dead ass in the sea. The end.

Mara Corday is on hand as MacAfee’s love interest Sally Caldwell, a mathematician he meets while testing that radar system. Like Morrow, she had already cemented her genre bona-fides with movies like Tarantula and The Black Scorpion. Morrow and Corday have some good chemistry when they’re allowed to, as when they are wading through some sub-Hawksian banter. Except for the fact that she actually responds favorably to MacAfee’s abrupt and rather uncomfortable two-fisted electrical engineer romancing, Caldwell is a fairly progressive character; she’s the only one that realizes the reason why the Claw has come to Earth is more important than the how to get rid of it, doesn’t hesitate to pick up and use a high-powered rifle (“I was born in Montana.”), and is essential in the rapid development of the mu-meson gun. Hell, the mu-meson gun was probably her idea.

So there’s the building block of a perfectly good late 50s sci-fi monster flick – good grief, it even has Morris Ankrum as a general! The script, however, seems more interested in the sub-Hawksian banter than in actual storytelling – it falls back on the crutch of narration too often. But where the movie runs off the rails and starts plowing through populated areas with no sign of stopping is in the production itself, courtesy of semi-infamous producer Sam Katzman.

Legend has it that the original plan was have Ray Harryhausen provide a stop-motion Claw, which proved too expensive for Katzman’s taste. He outsourced the work instead to a Mexican puppet maker for the lordly sum of 50 bucks, and there was ever an illustration for You Get What You Pay For, this monster is it. (also didn’t stop Katzman from lifting clips from Harryhausen’s Earth vs the Flying Saucers)

Jeff Morrow was famously mortified when he finally saw the finished version of the movie, slinking out before it ended to avoid facing anyone. I can only imagine what that felt like, being told told during shooting that he was reacting to something absolutely horrible, only to later find out it was the wrong kind of horrible.

“Hey! Look at my strings!

I long held that the failure of The Giant Claw was exclusively due to this cartoon turkey buzzard, and one of my Lottery-winning fantasies was to pay, say, WETA Workshop to produce better, scarier bird sequences and restore Claw to its rightful glory. My rewatch, however, proved that movie itself is too flawed for even that to help. There are several legitimately excellent sequences (the bit with the Claw scooping up helpless parachutists with a loud crunch! properly horrified me at ten years of age), but so, so much drivel propping them up it is, alas, a lost cause.

Which is why I love it.

F: Followed (2018)

Found footage movies! You love ’em or you hate ’em, and I seem to see a lot more of the latter emotion online. I regard it as another sub-genre, with entries worthy of respect, and some that should be tossed on YouTube and completely forgotten about. I found Followed to be pretty good, actually.

So what we are given is a up-and-coming video blogger named Mike (Matthew Solomon) who calls his vlog “Drop the Mike”. It’s about all sorts of unsavory subjects – suicides, gruesome murders. He’s gotten popular enough that a goth clothing line is willing to sponsor him to the tune of a quarter million if he can get his subscriber count to 50,000 by Halloween. He conducts a poll of his current subscribers and the almost-unanimous choice is the Lennox Hotel.

The Lennox is pretty transparently based on the Cecil Hotel, a skid row pile built in 1924 with a pretty horrifying history, including one time resident Richard Ramirez, “The Night Stalker”, and the disappearance of Elisa Lam – both of whom will referred to by different names, of course.

So Mike books two rooms for the Halloween weekend, one for himself and his camera crew, the adjoining one for his long-suffering editor, Nic (Caitlin Grace). The crew is his childhood friend and longtime cameraman on the vlog, Chris (Tim Drier) and sound op Dani (Sam Valentine). The manipulative Mike has booked Dani because Chris is sweet on her, and Chris wants nothing to do with this weekend. Did I mention the room booked is the one where the Lennox’s most notorious serial killer lived and cut up some of his victims?

Another of the found footage movies I really liked, Found Footage 3-D, did a very nice Scream-style breakdown of the rules for found footage movies, one of which is “Why do they keep shooting when everything is going to hell?” Mike’s been a vlogger for a long time, and almost automatically puts his cameras down where he can record conversations, often much to the ire of his friends. One of the things which will drive Nic slowly to a breakdown (not the only reason, given the surroundings) is that she’s having to run through multiple video cards a night to keep the vlogstream going.

Also in the cast is John Savage, giving the movie some needed gravitas as a local writer and expert on the Lennox. giving us the obligatory “Wait you’re not going to actually stay there?” and providing some clues as the weekend from hell wears on.

There are some things a found footage flick like this won’t be able to follow through on, and one of those is a truly coherent climax to all the spooky hotel weirdness, but it does have a quite effective ending. It’s interesting to me that we’re still using the “electronics start glitching out when something unnatural approaches” from Marble Hornets (and Silent Hill), but I admit that effect still gets my pulse racing.

Besides, you knew in the first sentence of this post if you were going to watch it or not.

E: Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil (2017)

It’s not every movie that causes me to look up some history. Well, that’s not exactly true, I’m always trying to find info on the history of the movie itself, but this time I’m talking about History with a capital H. To be exact, the prologue tells us it takes place during “The First Carlist War”, an event about which I am woefully uninformed. Anyway, here is the Wikipedia entry on the subject if you have a similar hole in your education.

So we’re in the late 1830’s in the Basque region of Spain, and some Carlists are about to be shot for attempting to smuggle Tsarist gold for the cause. One of the Carlists manages to survive the firing squad and murder all the liberal (hey, history’s label, not mine) soldiers. A devil’s silhouette is briefly seen in the havoc.

Eight years pass, and a representative from the government arrives in a small rustic Basque village. He’s looking for that gold, and some of the greedy villagers are all too willing to help him. The primary suspect is a blacksmith, Patxi (Kandido Uranga) who returned from the wars eight years before and has turned his smithy into a fortress, festooned with iron spikes, crosses and bear traps. Patxi is, in short, the local boogyman, feared by children and spoken of only in whispers.

The other major character will be Usue (Uma Bracaglia), an orphan girl with a burn scar on one side of her face. Circumstances – by which I mean the casual cruelty of the other village children – cause her to venture into Patxi’s domain, where we will find out that the blacksmith has a literal devil held prisoner in an iron cage.

As you surmised, Patxi is the survivor of that firing squad at the beginning, and his survival is due to a deal made with that devil that he could go back home to his wife. The deal, of course, goes sour as such diabolical contracts do, and Patxi is determined to put off his part of the bargain as long as possible. He captured his devil (who shows himself to be something of a klutz, so small wonder) and has fortified the smithy against other devils coming to his prisoner’s rescue.

This revelation comes fairly early, and the rest of the movie picks up the threads and weaves them into a complete fable. There are many discussions with the captive devil, Sartael (Eneko Sagardoy), who proves to be a joy, if a venal, abrasive one.

Things come to a head when the village, thinking they are rescuing Usue, form the traditional torch-bearing mob to storm the smithy and discover Sartael. Even then, things do not quite work out as expected.

Errementari (which is Basque for blacksmith) is one of Netflix’s foreign imports, and I have to say I’ve been impressed with each one I’ve seen. Production values are rich, and the whole thing has the feel of a story handed down in the oral tradition – the pieces all fit together like an old, comfortable hand-carved wooden puzzle. The makeup on Sartael is excellent – it has to be, we see it so much – and when we do finally visit Hell, it is based on woodcuts and paintings of the infernal region and its denizens, quite something to see.

Modern Spanish horror has a definite feel about it; I think I would have placed its origin correctly without even knowing. The language, incidentally, is Basque (even for the Spanish officials), and that is particularly satisfying, considering it was forbidden under another dictatorship, Franco’s. I found the whole thing quite delightful and have no hesitation recommending it.