Z: Zeder (1983)

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Zeder has an odd, somewhat fractured reputation. It was released during the great VHS boom under the title Revenge of the Dead, which is a pretty accurate description, I suppose – but it was being sold as another gory Italian zombie flick – and it ain’t that.

You think it might be, with the opening – an elderly woman getting mangled by a shadowy figure outside an old mansion, “The third in two years!”, and a mysterious Dr. Meyer (Cesare Barbetti) forcing an obviously disturbed teenage psychic, Gabriella (Veronica Moriconi) to seek out a body buried in the cellar while all sorts of Amityville shit is going on upstairs. While Meyer brings the authorities downstairs, another shadowy figure mangles Gabriella’s leg. The body is dug up, a moldering skeleton – with Gabriella’s slipper in its bony hands.

Going over the few effects found with the bones, Meyers finds the skeleton’s wallet, with an ID card, revealing the corpse was once Dr. Paul Zeder. Meyer is astounded. “He found a K Zone!” he exclaims.

Enough about that, let’s go to the present day of 1983. (There aren’t a bunch of visual cues – at least to these American eyes – that reveal the opening was twenty or so years in the past, but we are also going to find that Zeder is that rare creature, a movie that expects its viewer to be smart enough to keep up with it) A young writer, Stefano (Gabriele Lavia) is given an anniversary present by his wife Alessandra (Anne Canovas): a dinosaur of an electric typewriter she bought at an auction. Stefano sets to writing, but the ribbon runs out quickly, and upon trying to change it, he notices he can read what was written before, by the previous owner. Something about “K Zones”.

roftd4Sensing a story, Stefano begins to trace the previous owner, and find out exactly what a K Zone might be; he visits his old college where his former professor (John Stacy) reveals that it was the theory of a Dr. Paul Zeder, who mysteriously disappeared years before. He felt that there are certain areas of the Earth where time periodically comes unglued, as it were. opening up the possibility that the dead could be communicated with at these times, and even come back to life. Absurd, obviously! Oddly, the professor’s copy of the articles laying that out seem to have vanished…

And thus, Stefano becomes more and more obsessed with solving this mystery, and overcoming the many obstacles thrown in his path. The prior owner of the typewriter was a priest who left the order when he discovered he had terminal lung cancer. The priest’s crypt is empty… because he has been buried in the grounds of that mansion, in a coffin wired with television cameras and motion sensors by a group headed up by the now grey-haired Dr. Meyers and an adult Gabriella (Paola Tanziani). The K Zone, as it turns out, is quite real, and the dead do come back – though not quite the way you’d want.

zeder-1So, as mentioned before, what we have here is not truly a zombie movie (except that the dead have a tendency to tear off throats and enough body parts for video boxes to make false claims), but a mystery more in tune with a giallo than an actual horror movie. You have an amateur sleuth, his lovely wife involved against her better judgement, and at least one remorseless killer – all that’s missing is the black leather gloves. One piece of oddness I have difficulty overcoming is why the group investigating the K Zones feel that information is worth killing to conceal. A little more information or motivation would have been nice, but perhaps that’s meant to be just one more enigma to hash over after viewing.

zeder4Pupi Avati directed somewhere around 50 movies and TV shows, but his fame in these parts rests mainly on this movie and another, The House of Laughing Windows, giving him a reputation for thoughtful horror. Zeder, as I said, is arranged as a mystery, where we know more than Stefano, but we aren’t sure of the why of things. Stefano’s gradual peeling back of the layers around the K Zone mystery keeps the viewer engaged, until the final act when the K Zone busts out The Weirdness in all its glory. A lot of low-budget horror movies do this, saving all the money for the close (appropriately so), but in the case of Zeder, it actually feels like that is earned.

It’s hard to find, but if you’re in the mood for a giallo-inflected movie with more than a bit of the supernatural in the mix, Zeder/Revenge of the Dead is worth the effort.

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Y: 28 Days Later… (2002)

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28-days-later-postersYes, it’s the second Blank Tile dropped in two days. I left this one until today so I could point out that it’s “20 DaYs Later” when the Twitter intelligentsia get tired of making rape and death threats and decide this is a good hill to die on.

Dystopic horror movies can put you in a really bad mood.

Some animal rights activists break into a lab, determined to free the chimpanzees that are confined there as test subjects. The trouble being that these chimps are all infected with something called the Rage virus, which is pretty much the primary symptom, it seems. They pay the price of their misguided altruism rather quickly and messily.

Then, as the movie helpfully informs us,  28 Days Later Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakes from a coma in a hospital. It seems Jim was a bike courier who was hit by a car, and as he wanders about a deserted London, he discovers he has slept through the Apocalypse. And then he finds out that London is not quite so deserted at night, which is when the Infected come out.

28-days-later-2002-image-3The Rage virus has spread far and wide, and Jim falls in with Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley). Jim is the first uninfected human they’ve seen in nearly a week. Eventually our heroes will meet up with Frank (Brendan Gleeson), a bluff taxi driver, and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns); Frank’s done his best in an abandoned tower flat, fortified it well. But there has been no rain in ten days, and they’re running out of water. Frank, however, has a hand-cranked radio, and has found a recorded, repeating message from a military base urging survivors to come to them.

Don't get used to it, folks.

Don’t get used to it, folks.

So we have a road trip during a zombie apocalypse: sometimes terrifying, sometimes lovely. The base is found, in an isolated mansion. A small garrison of troops, led by Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) has made full use of land mines, razorwire and generators to keep their version of civilization alive. West has a vision of rebuilding civilization from this base, and he has gone about organizing with that aim. The major problem for our heroes is that plan requires women, and they’ve just brought two of them. And these soldiers are more than willing to kill any obstructions to their Utopia.

I’d had 28 Days Later recommended to me as wondrous new twist on the zombie movie, the freshest concept in ages, a shot in the arm to the genre, blah blah blah because this was released right after I signed off on zombie movies for ten years, even the good ones. And make no mistake about it, 28 Days Later is a very good movie.

28-days-later-red-eyesWriter Alex Garland and director Danny Boyle set out to make a different kind of zombie movie, and in some ways succeeded: an argument can be made for this as one of the very first “fast zombie” movies, for one – before this, the Re-Animator movies and Return of the Living Dead seemed like outliers. The Infected aren’t interested in eating your guts or your brains. The Rage virus seems to be just that, a lot of people wandering around looking for people to hurt, to vomit blood on them and infect them. Even when they’re set on fire they don’t slow down. Ebola was used as a basis for the virus’ spread, but Ebola isn’t terribly successful as a virus: it tends to kill its victim before they can spread the disease. Rage is much more successful in that respect. Major West keeps one of his troops who got infected chained in a courtyard to a very grim purpose: he wants to find out how long it will take the Infected outside his walls to starve to death.


For attempting to carve out a novel approach to the zombie picture, it’s surprising that 20 Day Later still pays tribute to them very openly. Though it’s not a zombie picture, Jim’s awakening in the hospital is straight out of Day of the Triffids. The movie manages to encapsulate all three of Romero’s classic Dead trilogy: the improvised strongholds from Night, the scavenging from deserted stores and not-so-deserted building next to a source of gasoline from Dawn (right down to the child zombie), and the last half of the picture is a more pastoral yet venal riff on Day, right down to its own version of Bub the zombie. Garland and Boyle are extremely open about this, and the approach is different enough to make it appreciative homage rather than naked appropriation. We’ve seen way too much of that.

The Canon XL1: lean and mean.

The Canon XL1: lean and mean.

This is also one of the first feature films to be recorded digitally, which allowed Boyle to capture those eerie scenes of empty London far more quickly than using the standard film camera would have allowed (which probably made him very popular with the Police). That lends an intriguing look to the movie, especially where the Infected are concerned – their jittery movement caused by increasing the framerate in the camera. On film that would result in slow motion; in a digital camera, it seems to pull out frames.

So what you have here is a good-looking zombie movie with good actors and a good director, with a story that takes its characters through changes more complex than what’s on the inside suddenly coming outside. Yes, I should have gotten over myself in 2002 and watched it, but I am so much better equipped to appreciate it now, for what it is.

Good filmmaking.


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X: The 7th Victim (1943)

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seventh-victim-poster-2It may be unnecessary, but I feel I need to point out the Blank Tile Rules for Hubrisween, which was developed precisely for pesky letters like Q, Y… and X. One can substitute a movie from either of the letters bracketing the misbehaving majuscule, or a movie with a number in its title. Hence, tonight’s offering for X (and tomorrow’s for Y, but that would be telling).

 Young Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter, in her film debut) leaves her private girl’s school when she is told her last remaining relative, her older sister, has vanished. She journeys to New York City, where she finds that her sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks, eventually) sold her successful beauty company eight months before; she finds she had rented an apartment above an Italian restaurant, and when she convinces the restaurant owners to let her in that apartment, she finds only a single chair, sitting beneath a waiting hangman’s noose.

sv4There’s more: though there’s no sign of Jacqueline ever being at the City Morgue, it does lead her to handsome lawyer Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont!), who is also looking for her. Ward is then visited by a psychiatrist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) who knows where Jacqueline is, but refuses to tell anyone.

The 7th Victim has a twisty plot, even for a Val Lewton movie, and it is certainly the most noir-inflected of his eleven movies for RKO. Mary navigates the mean streets of the Village with a growing cadre of helpers: Ward and Judd, a failed poet (Erford Gage) who fancies himself Cyrano de Bergerac, and the owners of the restaurant (Margarita Sylva and the real-life Chef Milani). It has a rich cast of characters for a unexpectedly complex story.

seventhvictim2One of the people coming to our waifish heroine’s aid is a weasely private investigator (William Halligan), who takes up the case of the missing sister because he’s warned not to… a contrary urge that will cause his eventual death, in one of the most effective, tense sequences in the movie.

The 7th Victim is almost 75 years old, and has been written about by much smarter people than myself, so I don’t think I am giving anything away by revealing that Jacqueline – ever “the sensationalist”, according to Dr. Judd – joined a cult of “devil worshippers”, seeking excitement and happiness, and when those did not materialize, went to Judd for her depression – and the cult considers this revelation a betrayal to their secrecy, which demands her death.

seventhvictim1But. This cult is also (rather bewilderingly) sworn to non-violence, so they have to convince her to kill herself. This non-violence thing is certainly novel, and an odd choice; rather than making the cult evil and frightening, it makes them merely selfish and self-interested to an extreme, and this fifteen years before the publication of Atlas Shrugged. This one fairly outlandish detail perversely makes our devil cult seem more realistic.

Jaqueline, we will find out, spent several weeks imprisoned at her former beauty salon, and has been in hiding since her escape. Once Mary, Ward and the Poet convince Judd to finally reveal her hiding place, Jacqueline is convinced to go to the Police. Disastrously, our band of heroes decide to let her rest for a day, which is just enough time for the Satanists to find her. Honestly, the plotting of the movie so far, in an attempt to be misleading and surprising, is a bit of a mess, but its 70 minute running time doesn’t leave much opportunity for audience cries of “Now wait just a minute…”

seventh_victim__the_001_758_426_81_s_c1Jacqueline will resist the peer pressure to drink a glass of poison, leading to one of the Lewton standards: a tension-racked walk through shadowy streets, where any patch of darkness can hide doom – in this case, one of the Satanists who has been tasked with forsaking non-violence to end Jacqueline. It can’t be overstated that RKO had come close to closing its doors after the disastrous box office of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, but it had kept almost all the craftsmen who had worked on those pictures, to RKO’s ultimate benefit. After his successful string of low-budget features, it was felt that Lewton deserved a shot at an “A” picture, which was to be the original version of The 7th Victim (which apparently actually had 6 prior victims in its story). But to do this, he would have had to abandon director Mark Robson. Lewton was extremely loyal to his co-workers, and refused, relegating this movie back to a “B” budget – and this sequence alone, if nothing else, justifies why Lewton felt that way.

Lewton was also notoriously death-obsessed, and it shows in his movies; for so many of his characters, it is, to quote Hamlet, “a consummation devoutly to be wished.” In the closing minutes of The 7th Victim, Jacqueline meets a character we’ve seen only once, at the apartments over the restaurant – Mimi (Elizabeth Russell), a dying prostitute straight out of La Boheme. “I’m quiet and I rest and Death keeps coming closer, all the time.”

“And you don’t want to die, answers Jacqueline. “I’ve always wanted to die. Always.”

seventhvictimmorgueAnd there it is, right there, bang. Lewton’s health deteriorated steadily through the 40s – probably not aided a bit by the hellacious work hours he set for himself – and he passed away in 1951 at the age of 46. 46! He once said, perhaps jokingly, perhaps not, that the message of Isle of the Dead was “Death is good.” But that moment in this movie, that one line, is a moment that hits like a freight train… especially if you’ve ever felt that way. If you’ve felt too keenly the crushing weight of life, if you’ve listened to the lies of depression that tell you that you’d be better off, that everyone would be better off.

Don’t worry. I’m on medication now.

Mimi dresses up and goes out for one last fling before her demise. Jacqueline – quietly retires to her room, with the noose and the chair.

It is possibly one of the bleakest endings in all horror or noir, two genres not known for their uplifting qualities. And that is probably the true horror of The 7th Victim – that it touches so easily a darkened corner that lurks within us all.

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W: The VVitch (2015)

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thewitch_online_teaser_01_web_largeAs I said a lot earlier in this enterprise, I have watched a lot of horror movies over the years. A lot. I do enjoy a good horror movie. But therein lies the problem – I said a good horror movie, and because I love the genre, I am a lot tougher in my judgment of them. The last time a movie actually frightened me was Ringu, and that was back in ’99; I was writing these things for a goodly portion of a decade, and I am all too familiar with how they tick. I’ve torn them apart and put them back together again.

I’m not interested in the old cliches being rehashed, unless you can put a new slant on them. I appreciate movies that have some actual thought behind them. I’m a bad fanboy, I guess. Meh horror movies feel like a betrayal to me.

So I’m inclined to be friendly toward The Witch.

the-witch-2015-woods-witchesIn 1630s America, a family is cast out of a settlement for being the wrong kind of Puritan. They set up house near the edge of some woods and begin to scratch out a life for themselves, which doesn’t go well at all. Their farm is failing. The father trades his wife’s silver cup to some traveling traders for traps, which aren’t catching any animals. Then the family’s infant son is stolen away by – they think – a wolf, but it’s actually a witch, who grinds the baby up (offscreen, thankfully) to make an unguent so she can fly through the night sky.

Things go downhill from there.

the-witch-2015-4All of that is covered in about the first twenty minutes; the rest of the movie is an examination of how the isolation and increasing paranoia of the family causes it to turn on itself, as something in the woods – and it is not simply the title character – begins to prey on them. The bait for this subtle trap was already there – the teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy)’s burgeoning womanhood troubles them all – especially the eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), who’s hitting puberty. The father, William (Ralph Ineson) can’t bring himself to confess to the mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie) that he made off with her cherished silver cup. And the young twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Granger and Lucas Dawson) are six years old and monsters anyway. The fact that they keep talking to the ominous he-goat, Black Phillip – as if he can talk back – isn’t helping matters. This family was heading toward a crisis of some sort, even if an eldritch evil in those woods wasn’t actively resenting their intrusion.

The-Witch-5The Witch, as I said, is a fairly subtle matter that won praise at festivals but not a lot at theaters, where audiences were expecting Saw or something, not a “fucking art film”. I suspect that this lack of patience was exacerbated by the thick accents of the characters; after five minutes I gave up and turned on the subtitles, much like I had to do with Attack the Block. My ear attenuated to it eventually, but the theatrical experience didn’t have that resource.

THE-WITCHWriter-director Robert Eggers has tried to create a historically accurate picture of life in 1630s New England, up to a point (in the commentary track he’s quite forward about the times he had to fudge for the sake of the picture, and why). A movie like this has to rely on the talents of its actors, and it has to be admitted that in this case, Eggers hit a home run with each and every one. The level of emotional commitment is high, and the experience of Ineson and Dickie is evident; but special praise must be doled out to Taylor-Joy, who carries the weight of the story, and Scrimshaw, who is bewitched in one of the most harrowing scenes of the movie, which took three days out of a twenty-eight day schedule to shoot.

It is quite an achievement in many ways, this movie. Stephen King says it terrified him. I’m not willing to go quite that far, but in the realm of well-made, intelligent horror movies, it definitely stands tall. It’s not a movie to see if you’re looking for action and extreme FX, but if you’re in the mood for thoughtful horror, and willing to be open to the experience, it is impressive in both intent and execution.

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V: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

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valerie posterSuch an odd, strange, lovely movie. This feature by Jaromil Jireš was the last gasp of the Czech New Wave, an absurdist movement which also gave us animator Jan Švankmajer and Miloš Forman. I say “last gasp” because the Soviet government put the kibosh on arty-time films around the time of its release.

Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová) is a 13 year-old girl living with her grandmother (Helena Anýzová). Their village is, that week, playing host to both a company of actors and a group of missionaries, one of whom is Grandmother’s old flame, a predatory priest. That set-up is only the background for a hallucinatory, episodic fairy tale with vampires, were-weasels, witch hunts, and magical earrings.

968full-valerie-and-her-week-of-wonders-screenshotValerie has just experienced menarche (an initial image of red currant juice dripping on a snow white daisy is typical of the lush metaphors that run rampant), and much of what she encounters in the trim 77 minutes can be interpreted as a child’s view of adult desire – mysterious, bizarre, and not a little frightening. The arrival of Grandmother’s old boyfriend – the priest who attempts to molest Valerie – causes her to turn to yet another old boyfriend, the Polecat, who turns her into a youthful red-haired vampire. The priest will also try to silence Valerie on the matter of his attempted molestation by denouncing her as a witch and burning her at the stake, something our plucky heroine survives with aplomb and nose-thumbing.

valerie2Any attempt to take this literally is going to make your eyes cross and frustrate you. Just rest secure in the knowledge that as the threads of the fairy tale begin to come together at the end, the images that were so threatening and ominous before become more welcoming and even attractive as Valerie becomes more comfortable and understanding of her incipient womanhood. It is an unusual movie; the Soviet countries produced quite a few wonderful and gorgeous fairy tale movies in the 60s and 70s, simply because glorifying local folklore was seen as beneficial to nationalism, and such movies were less likely to encounter much in the way of censorship. Valerie, however, is trying to do something more than recount old stories.

jaroslavaschallerovalaska14The Criterion blu-ray has an alternate soundtrack, a “folk psych” score by a gathering of musicians calling themselves “The Valerie Project”. It’s score only, no dialogue – but I was reading subtitles anyway, and I thought “Sure, why not.” It’s an interesting addendum, but the most surprising thing is it allowed me to make an unusual connection: while I was watching Valerie and Her Week of Wonders with this newer music, I kept flashing back to the short films of Maya Deren I had encountered early on, back in high school, especially Meshes of the Afternoon. I still have my laserdisc of her shorts. The amazing, layered imagery, the dreamy, rather creepy, but undeniably lovely ambiance – that’s all here in Valerie. It made me feel that if she had made a feature in color, it might have looked and felt like this.

And if you know what I’m talking about, you know if you want to see this movie, or not.

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U: Uzumaki (2000)

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uzumakiposterAnd here we are at the second of our double dips this Hubrisween season: thanks to a lack of movies beginning with the letter U, Checkpoint Telstar and myself are taking on the J-horror flick Uzumaki. If you got here first, don’t forget to hop over to his version, which is likely way more complete than mine will ever be.

Uzumaki stakes its claim to horror movie-ness with its initial image: a slow spiraling-up camera climb, its center a broken body with its brains splattered across a spiral floor pattern, surrounded by a spiral staircase, with various people staring down at the corpse.

As a translation of uzumaki means spiral, you can be pretty sure that these won’t be the last spirals you’ll see.

dark and greenOur protagonist will be Kirie (Eriko Hatsune), a schoolgirl who is soon going to be dealing with a mass of problems in her small town. Her childhood friend Suichi (Fhi Fan) is studying hard to get into a good Tokyo university, but his father (Ren Osughi) is experiencing a sort of downward spiral (ha!). Kirie discovers him videotaping a snail, oblivious to the world; Suichi tells her he has quit his job and is currently stealing anything with a spiral on on it, and sits his room for hours, staring at these artifacts.

uzumaki_1Kirie’s father (Tarô Suwa) is a potter of some small reknown, and has been commissioned by the nutter to make a plate with spiral patterns for him. Suichi eventually throws out his spiral collection in hopes of shocking him back reality; it only results in his father’s bizarre suicide in a washing machine, transforming himself into a spiral.

uzumaki-frontThis would be enough to ruin a young girl’s life, but there’s more weirdness going on; the apparent suicide at the movie’s beginning, one of Kirie’s attention-obsessed classmates’ hair suddenly growing out in spirals, a boy who is seemingly transforming into a human snail. The cremation of Suichi’s father results in a massive spiral cloud of ash with one curly tendril dipping into a local pond (the pond where Kirie’s father gets the clay for his pottery, of course). Suichi’s mother descends into madness, so fearful of spirals that she slices off her fingertips with scissors because her fingerprints are too reminiscent of her husband’s geometric insanity – which is spreading throughout the town.

uzumaki-spiraleUzumaki is based on a highly successful horror manga series by writer/artist Ito Junji (who humorously makes an appearance on a wanted poster at the local police station). Spirals are usually used for humorous effect in Japanese comics, and Ito wanted to attempt to subvert that, making the symbols something to be dreaded instead of laughed at. The film, by Akihiro Higuchi under the nom de guerre Higuchinsky, was made before the series even ended, so this story has two differnet endings, depending on the medium. That’s probably a nice surprise for fans of the manga who come to the movie after reading it, but rest assured, neither version has a particularly happy ending.

uzumaki_5Despite having several horrific visuals, Uzumaki tends to be satisfied with simply being weird instead of actually frightening. There is an unsettling greenish tint to almost every scene, and there are at least two sequences that build impressive amounts of tension, but are never capitalized upon. Odd sections of the frame give themselves to digital spiralling effects, some obvious, some not – instead of building a sense of dread, it becomes more like looking for the hidden images of Mickey Mouse at Disneyworld while you’re waiting in line.

Higuchinsky’s actors are incredibly game, even in the most absurd moments, and add considerably to what impact the movie can claim. Folks coming to Uzumaki expecting the terror of something like Ringu are going to be disappointed, but if you are looking for something out of the ordinary, with a strangely Lovecraftian approach, Uzumaki can certainly fit that bill.

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T: Trog (1970)

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trog-posterA few people were amused when i admitted on Twitter that I had seen Trog when it was first released in 1970, on a double bill with Taste the Blood of Dracula. It is very probable that being stuck in a theater full of sugar-buzzed children who scream at everything was the ideal viewing circumstance for Trog.

Three amateur spelunkers find an unexpected cave hidden away in an English pasture, and that’s not the first extraordinary thing you are going to be asked to accept (ah, I miss those salad days of college, when my friends and I would loll about in fields, carrying all sorts of equipment, just hoping to happen upon a cave no one else had ever found). What they find in the cave, on the other side of a frigid underground stream, is Trog (Joe Cornelius), your typical missing link.



One dead and one injured spelunker later, the last spelunker standing (David Griffin) remembers that his old professor, Dr. Brockton (Joan Crawford) has a research clinic nearby, and gets his friend there. We’re never quite sure what research goes on there since Brockton is an anthropologist, but never mind, we have a monster to capture. Once safely in a cage at the Clinic, Brockton and her daughter (Kim Braden) set to trying to civilize the troglodyte, even going so far as to perform surgery to allow him to attempt speech.

trog-and-joanOf course, all this is going to be opposed by someone, and that someone, as is nearly traditional, is Michael Gough, England’s foremost portrayer of unrepentant dicks. He plays Sam Murdock, who is afraid the presence of Trog will jeopardize his planned housing project. One night, he releases Trog and trashes Brockton’s lab, knowing that if the man-ape is on the loose, the authorities will likely kill it. Murdock will also be the first of Trog’s victims, so ha ha dickweed.



There follows the usual rampage through the nearby village, with Trog lashing out with deadly effect to anyone who startles or attacks him (the butcher cutting Trog with his cleaver and getting hung on a meathook in return, four years before Texas Chainsaw, was a particular favorite of my kiddie crowd). Also, did you know if an ape man turns a Brit truck on its side – sorry, a lorry – it blows up? Good to know!

trog-7As one of the training aids Brockton used on Trog was a wind-up doll with blonde hair, Trog of course kidnaps a young girl with blonde hair at a playground, and takes her back to his cave. Brockton defies the police and military men outside to go into the cave and convince Trog to hand over the girl, hoping that this will prove that Trog can actually be reasoned with – no such luck, as there is a full assault and Trog winds up on the wrong end of machine gun fire and a handy stalagmite. The end.

Trog is a twist on your typical Frankenstein story, as Brockton tries to civilize the creature instead of abandoning it; in that respect, it gets interesting in its attempts to affect us emotionally, but never quite succeeding. Joe Cornelius does a very good job with the body language as Trog, and that ape head was reportedly left over from 2001. Its quality is quite manifest, as the movie never attempts to hide Trog from us, even at the beginning. Getting that head was either a stroke of luck or (more likely) the whole reason this movie was ever made.


It’s not the only thing Trog lifts from another movie; at one point after Trog’s operation, he is shown slides of dinosaur skeletons, triggering a flashback that, even at the tender age of 13, I knew was the work of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen, from The Animal World.  Perhaps the movie needed a few minute’s padding to reach a contractual length, perhaps it was the cagey Herman Cohen infusing a bit more production value at a minimal cost.

"I remember... I remember another movie entirely..."

“I remember… I remember another movie entirely…”

This is famously Joan Crawford’s last movie, and done largely as a favor to her old friend, producer Herman Cohen (she had done the same thing three years previous in another movie, the circus-set giallo called Berserk!). Crawford handles the pseudo-scientific claptrap like the pro she is, and even manages to brings some subtlety to the role. Michael Gough is terrific as usual, but the part of Murdock is written so cartoonishly that any attempt he might make to render the character in more than one dimension is useless.

trog-joe-cornelius-joan-crawford-1970So this re-watch of Trog some mumble mumble years later (oh, all right – forty-six!) was more entertaining than I expected. Not a great movie by any standard, but Herman Cohen was in the entertainment business, and he always delivered (on a budget). Director Freddie Francis was equally solid, and as a fantastic cinematographer in his own right, we can at least be sure the movie always looks as good as possible.

Trog is not a classic, but then, it doesn’t try to be, either. It’s a good way to spend 90 minutes, and if you can do it with a roomful of children willing to scream their heads off at the slightest jump, so much the better.

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S: The Sorcerers (1967)

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sorcerers_poster_04There were a few times, looking over this year’s Hubrisween list, that I panicked, because I didn’t see a Boris Karloff movie. Then I had to calm myself down because for some reason I was forgetting this is a Boris Karloff movie.

Karloff is Professor Marcus Monserrat, a medical hypnotist eking out a living in swinging ’67 London. There was a scandal in his past that ruined his reputation, and it was probably to linked the apparatus he is building in his spare room, with the help of his wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey). To test it, they need a human subject: Estelle proposes a drunk, but Monserrat avers it must a sober individual, with no connections to them: that is the only way to make certain the results of the experiment are pure. Thus he convinces Mike Roscoe (Ian Ogilvy), a handsome, bored young man, to return to his apartment for “something he’s never experienced.”

s05That “something” is an ill-explained psychedelic lightshow and annoying electronic tape loops, which puts Mike in a trance and somehow places Monserrat and Estelle in connection with his brain. Mike leaves under a post-hypnotic suggestion that he forget he was ever there, and the two elderly people find that they can, indeed, influence everything that Mike does, and moreover, experience whatever physical sensations he feels.

s03This is Monserrat’s life work: he feels that using this process, a foundation could be set up to send Mike Roscoes around the world, seeing and experiencing things the elderly and other shut-ins could not. Estelle, however, after years of deprivation and poverty, begins to give play to a darker side of her desires. She has Mike steal a fur from a store late one night, and she and Monserrat revel in the adrenalin rush of a police officer nearly discovering him. They also have cuts on their hands identical to a wound Mike received in the shop.

It goes on; Estelle sends Mike ripping around on a motorcycle, terrifying his girlfriend Nicole (Elizabeth Ercy), and beats up his best friend Alan (Victor Henry). To his horror, Monserrat finds Estelle’s will is much stronger than his, and he cannot stop her. When he tries physically, she knocks him over the head and ties him to the china cabinet, so she can continue to experience the dark side of life with no consequences.

sorcerers-the-1967_006This being a horror movie, there’s only one place it can go: Estelle uses Mike to commit murder twice in one night, and though the befuddled Mike remembers nothing, Nicole and Alan saw him with one of the victims, and know that he was friends with another (a very young Susan George, as it turns out), and the cops are not far behind Alan and Nicole. There is a low budget (but still pretty effective) car chase, and Monserrat gathers his will to overcome the drunken Estelle’s and cause Mike to crash his car, resulting in a fiery death for him …and the Monserrats, miles away.

Realize that this is a slow-burn psychological horror movie shot on a very low budget, so take a couple of shots of patience before pressing play. This was director Michael Reeves’ second feature, after the previous year’s The She-Beast, and his next – and last – would be Witchfinder General/The Conquerer Worm. He made uncommon horror movies about the darkness in men’s souls – he and Val Lewton would have gotten on together well – and who knows what he might have done, if not for an unfortunate combination of alcohol and barbituates while in pre-production for The Oblong Box. 

How can such a sweet old lady be so utterly frightening?

How can such a sweet old lady be so utterly frightening?

Reeves has a strong trio of actors doing the heavy lifting for him – there is Karloff, of course, entering the home stretch of his career and life. The next year he would make Targets and Curse of the Crimson Altar and a slew of lamentable foreign movies before he left us all in February of 1969. Catherine Lacey had a career stretching all the way back to The Lady Vanishes and beyond, and you have to hand it to someone who can actually out-chill Karloff on the silver screen. In fact, Estelle’s thoroughly believable descent into the abyss is probably the reason I kept forgetting this was theoretically a Karloff movie. Ian Olgilvy seemed to be Reeves’ good luck charm, appearing in all his movies, and is still active to this day.

The Sorcerers has a nice, if limited, snapshot of London youth culture in ’67, and a fairly unusual approach to its plot. But it does remain steadfastly a creature of its time, and its charms may be lost on the modern viewer, used to horror movies that evince thrill rides more than anything else.


Buy The Sorcerers on Amazon

R: The Rider of the Skulls (1965)

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rideroftheskullsI’ve been watching and reading about horror movies for a long, long time. So it’s really gratifying when I come across something I didn’t realize even existed, and what is more, is entertaining for all the wrong reasons. Of course, the flip side of that is information about such a thing is dreadfully hard to come by – almost as if the people involved wanted to pretend it never happened.

Such a thing is El Charro de las Calveras, or The Rider of the Skulls, as we gringos say. The Rider of the Skulls is an archetypal masked horseman, riding around with nothing better to do than fight monsters. He gets his name from his origin story: his parents were killed by bandits, and then one night a skull flew through the window. No, no, I’m kidding, he tracked the bandits down and wears a skull decal for each one he brought to justice. This “justice” is never defined, but since they’re skulls, I’m assuming due process was not involved.


This is Rider of the Skulls Mk.2, incidentally.

But wait, you’re saying, what is this about fighting monsters? Yes, that is apparently his mission statement. The Rider of the Skulls seems to be three episodes of a failed TV series stitched together without much art (“without much art” is a description which will hold for the entire movie). It is comprised of three stories, or episodes, and during its course we will find that The Rider of the Skulls is the worst possible choice for fighting monsters.

vlcsnap-2016-06-24-15h19m37s099In the first episode, The Rider of the Skulls takes on a werewolf with some pretty lamentable makeup. The Rider stays with a local family while he investigates by walking around while the werewolf is off killing somebody somewhere else. We know that the werewolf is the head of the family, which everybody should have realized since Pop never changes clothes between wolfing out and returning to normal. Luckily, there’s an old witch hanging around who resurrects a corpse to explain to the Rider who the werewolf is, and by that time the Mom has gotten killed because our hero is an idiot. Hell, the werewolf is killed by falling off a cliff! By the time the episode is over, the Rider is saddled with the orphan he caused, Perico (Gabriel Angrasanchez), and the worst Odious Comic Relief sidekick since Cheaplaffs Johnson, the dead family’s manservant, Cleofas (Pascual Garcia Pena).

The ever-subtle Cleofas.

The ever-subtle Cleofas.

The Rider removes his mask so the two will know his true identity, revealing handsome actor Dagoberto Rodriguez, who had a good career through the 70s. This is likely because I firmly suspect that Dagoberto cut and ran after this pilot episode.

This first part will more than serve to let you know what you’re in for: Exterior sets you’re going to see over and over again, shabby monsters (though the werewolf transformation actually shows some imagination: Pop turns into a skeleton and then into a werewolf. There is no real effort made to put the skeleton in the same spot or position as the two end points, until the very last time, when somebody seems to have gone oh yeaaah), and a resounding determination to not even attempt day-for-night. Not even the usual dodge of taking the lens down a couple of f-stops. Everything takes place in the noonday sun, with only dialogue to let us know it is supposed to be night. This gets really hilarious when they encounter their next monster, a vampire. “It will soon be dawn! I must return to my coffin!” Yeah, follow your lengthy shadow to it.

vlcsnap-2016-06-24-15h28m38s567The vampire is a rubber bat (I’m pretty sure I owned this particular model in 1965) who turns into a guy in a sad bat mask. If that wasn’t enough for you, it’s pretty obvious that The Rider of the Skulls is a new guy with a more concealing mask, and Dagoberto wasn’t the only actor who wised up, because Perico is “off at school”, so the Rider and Cleofas have picked up another orphan, Juanito (Alfonso Ortiz), because honestly, somebody has to be competent in this group. It won’t be Cleofas, who spends a full minute shrieking and running from a flapping rubber bat on a string.

vlcsnap-2016-06-26-23h17m29s624The Vampire is fixated on a pretty girl whose father he just killed, and, just to prove that the Rider is the worst hero ever, turns her into a vampire while he’s out walking around. (The Witch from the first episode also apparently declined to return, so he’s especially clueless now) The vampire takes her to an all-too-familiar graveyard, where he informs her “You have to die,” and puts her in a coffin beside his. The next “night”, she rises, and turns into a rubber bat to lure the Rider to his well-deserved doom. We finally have the obligatory fist-fight with the monster (the Rider loses. Again.) while Cleofas has a chance to run screaming from a woman in a nightgown. The rider does eventually spear the Vampire in the back because we’re running out of time, and fortunately the whole “You have to die” thing goes away if crap vampires in crap masks are killed.

Where can the Rider possibly take us now? What supernatural menace could he face and be worthless against? How about a headless horseman? Sure, why not!

This headless horseman rig is actually pretty good (I’d even rate it more effective than the one in The Night Stalker TV series), except that when the horse dramatically wheels about, the cape blows up, and for a second you can see the guy’s real head. Oh, well. Can’t have everything, especially in The Rider of the Skulls.

vlcsnap-2016-06-27-20h20m23s382So the horseman was a bandit who was executed for his crimes, but a scientist desecrated his grave, cutting off his head to study his criminal brain. The box containing the head has wound up in the possession of the doctor’s daughter, where it does anti-social things like yell “Re-attach me to my body!” and crop back up after it’s been buried. The Headless part of the bandit, of course, is roaming the countryside at night, killing people until its head shows up. The daughter takes the head to the village where the execution took place, and the Horseman reclaims his head, which does not put him to rest, like you thought it would.


Where the hell have you guys been?

This portion has the best efforts put into the effects (yeah, for this movie, they should be called “special efforts”), like that headless rig and the Horseman’s two accomplices, executed along with him, who keep creeping around in black monk robes and skull masks. They are the most effective thing in the whole movie. The Horseman’s actual head squanders all that good will, though.

The Rider, of course, screws up and gets captured, and at this point even God has had enough and intercedes. Yep, just like Indiana Jones, God has to strike down the two accomplices with lightning and have a shouting match with the Horseman while Juanito unties the Rider. The Rider can then have a clumsy swordfight with the Horseman with the single best-shot scene in the movie.

Oh, NOW you get effective.

Oh, NOW you get effective.

This whole lamentable exercise is the work of writer-director Alfredo Salazar, who was responsible for writing all the Aztec Mummy movies, and a score of others, including some El Santo flicks. Salazar had his heart in the right Halloween place, but it has to be admitted that his execution of this idea was a horrorshow all on its own. I’ve seen him described as “The Ed Wood of Mexico”, and I have to say… that comparison is not undeserved.

Buy The Rider of the Skulls on Amazon, you know you want to.


Q: Quatermass 2 (1957)

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quatermass_ii_quatermass_2-646929776-largeWhy, yes, I will be riding this Quatermass gravy train as long as I keep doing these A-Z challenges.

Last year we re-watched The Quatermass Xperiment, a superb thriller that was the prototype for a particular sub-genre of monster movies. And this year I find myself re-watching its sequel, once more adapted from a Nigel Kneale TV serial, and finding it both more and less than its progenitor.

Quatermass (Brian Donlevy), the American head of the British Rocket Group, has problems, and oddly, they aren’t because his last launch brought a monster back from outer space. His current model rocket has a nuclear engine, and it is so faulty that it can’t be safely launched, putting his whole Moon Base project in peril. Adding to this bad day is the near-accident that opens the movie, as a woman trying to get her injured and seemingly delirious boyfriend to a hospital, nearly runs him off the road. This boyfriend was burned by an apparent meteorite that broke open in his hands.

quatermass-ii-5Speaking of meteorites, the radar at the Group’s rocket base has been picking up strange swarms of small objects, except they’re moving too slowly to actually be meteorites – and they’re all falling at the same remote village where the man was injured. Quatermass takes a road trip there, ignoring various KEEP OUT signs, only to find a ruined village and… his Moon Base.

Much skullduggery and digging up details follows, as Quatermass eventually determines this facility – supposedly a top secret project developing “artificial food” – actually is a Moon Base of sorts – the pressure domes housing not astronauts, but the creatures traveling in the fake meteorites, which cannot exist in Earth’s atmosphere unless they invade and infect human beings. It’s a quiet invasion that’s been going on for several years, compromising even the higher reaches of government, and it’s up to Quatermass – and our old pal from the first movie, Inspector Lomax of Scotland Yard (John Longden, this time) to put a stop to it.

quatermassii1So the breadth of the story this time does not have the same lean, mean quality of Xperiment, and that is perfectly all right – that is what a sequel is supposed to be, and so rarely is – an expansion on the first movie, with new challenges for its heroes. The back-and-forth nature of the plot’s unfolding works against, it, though, and it’s going to take Quatermass three trips into the danger zone to find out what is going on. That’s likely more due to the compression of the original serial, which ran to six half-hour episodes, than any actual fault with the filmmakers.

Nigel Kneale and director Val Guest share screenwriting credit here; Kneale had renegotiated his contract to have more power, but he couldn’t override Donlevy’s return as the title character. Kneale hated Donlevy’s brusque, barking version of Quatermass, and claimed his alcoholism ruined everything (Guest vigorously denied this). Guest trimmed down Kneale’s philosophizing and tried, once more, to produce a movie as close to cinema verite as possible, rendering the fantastic real. There is at least one cast member carried over from the TV version: the Shell refinery at Stanford-le-Hope, Essex, doubling for the ersatz moon base, a tremendous amount of production value, right there, providing the sort of sets that the fledgling Hammer Films would not have been able to afford.

quatermass-2-23Oh, yes, it’s a Hammer Film. The Quatermass Xperiment was such a financial success for them, they had optioned Quatermass II (note the fancier Roman numeral) before the first page of script had passed through a typewriter. Hammer had, in fact, tried to make another Quatermass movie in the meantime, only to be stymied by Kneale’s refusal to license his character; the result was 1956’s X the Unknown, which is actually a pretty effective horror movie, even if it is faux Quatermass. Their anxiety over continuing this fruitful line of production would be forgotten later in 1957 when they released another little movie, Curse of Frankenstein.

Quatermass 2 is generally regarded as the least of the Quatermass movies, but look what it’s up against! Xperiment and Quatermass and the Pit are both superior horror/science-fiction, and dismissing the middle child here is doing it a disservice. It is a darned good tale, and if you want to dig a little deeper, you can even say it is an allegory for corruption in high places, or government being suborned by corporations. It shouldn’t be passed over, because it is, at the end of the day, good entertainment, even if it does feel langorous in pace and yet, somehow at the same time, somewhat rushed.

Of course we yanks wouldn’t go to some movie with a sissy name like Quatermass! We need a more manly title!

You can try to buy Quatermass 2 on Amazon – good luck!