F: Forbidden Empire (2014)

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It was three years ago that I watched and reviewed the Russian movie Viy for Hubrisween. So, when I was casting about for this year’s movies and discovered a new version had been made, I was both delighted and surprised that I hadn’t heard about it. Perhaps that’s because in America it’s known as Forbidden Empire or Fobidden Kingdom, utterly generic titles that are presumably more marketable than Viy.

If you’re familiar with the Nikolai Gogol story, you’re going to be disoriented by the movie’s beginning involving an 18th century cartographer/scoundrel (Jason Flemyng) being discovered in the bed of the daughter of a nobleman (Charles Dance) before he lights off the continent to create the best map ever, traveling in a steampunk carriage dragging an enormous wheel to measure distances. He gets lost and finds himself in literally uncharted territory, and in the midst of Gogol’s short story.

Now, Gogol’s Viy is in there, and with considerably upgraded visual effects; it is revealed in stops and drabs, as Flemyng tries to unravel the mystery of what actually happened in the church, now considered off-limits, thanks to the local priest, who you just know is going to be trouble from the first time we see him. In the course of the movie it will be discovered that the details we know from Gogol’s story were fabrication, and it’s all a web of deceit and double-crossing.

Except for the stuff that was obviously supernatural and never gets explained. For instance, I’m pretty sure that Gogol is sad that he never thought of having his hero’s carriage pursued by zombie wolves. I am, however, certain that he is happy that he never came up with Flemyng’s fish-out-of-water cartographer, who reminds me of nothing so much as Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge-inflected Phileas Fogg in that regrettable Around the World in 80 Days remake. It’s an odd appropriation to make, even though I realize that an outsider character is necessary to have the rules of this universe explained – such as chalk being more precious than gold in this cursed village, because it can be used to make a protective circle.

The production design of Forbidden Empire is gorgeous, the effects flawless, and it really is quite entertaining. Its only drawback is that if you like to mull over a movie after viewing, there are quite a few “wait a minute…” moments. But as sheer entertainment, though, it is pretty appealing.

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E: Exorcismo (1975)

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So… a Paul Naschy Exorcist rip-off should be pretty sweet, huh?

Yeah… about that…

Leila (Mercedes Molina), your typical European heiress, is enjoying a typical evening of sex and drugs at a Satanic ritual with her dissolute boyfriend Richard (Roger Leveder). A near-fatal car crash later, things begin to go south for Leila’s state of mind. As things worsen, the family priest Father Adrian (Paul Naschy) is brought in to investigate, and four deaths later, he finally decides it’s time to throw down with the demon inhabiting Leila’s body.

1973’s The Exorcist still hadn’t opened in Spain, so what we have here is something like Luigi Cozzi trying to make a Star Wars rip-off without actually seeing it and coming up with Starcrash, a Barbarella rip-off. Director/screenwriter Juan Bosch probably had pictures, even the original novel to work with, and what he came up with is more giallo movie than anything, with Paul Naschy in the Tony Franciosa role. There’s a perverted chauffeur (Luis Induni) for a red herring, the usual ineffectual policeman who suspects Father Adrian, blah blah blah.

We have all the setpieces from the Friedkin movie: the freakout at the party, the levitating bed, the death by head-twisting – twice, just to one-up the original (the amateur occultist cop mentions this is a favorite murder method of Satan). But if you’re here for awesome exorcism action, be aware that it’s confined to the last five minutes of the movie, which may be a record for a title character not showing up (Spoiler: that record actually belongs to The Ice Cream Bunny) .

Maria Perschy is sadly wasted as the high-strung mother. I will admit that the possessed makeup on Leila is pretty good, especially the freakiest damn set of contact lenses I’ve ever seen. Too bad it’s limited to the last fifteen minutes or so. According to most of the synopses I’ve read, Leila is playing host to the spirit of her dead father, but I got no indication of that. To be honest. it may be there, I just didn’t care enough to notice. I generally hate giallo, and once I found out the movie’s true genre, I slipped into endurance mode.

Basically, if Paul Naschy had made this movie instead of just starring, there would have been 14 murders and a nude scene by the half-hour mark. And probably some zombies. Instead, what we have is an ill-informed cash-in that would have deservedly vanished were it not for the cult status of its star.

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D: The Dunwich Horror (2009)

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H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” is my favorite of his stories; at its heart I feel it’s the closest thing to a solid B-movie he ever wrote. Therefore, there have actually been several filmic versions. And yet each one I’ve seen so far has managed to miss the mark.

In the story, the Whateleys – an outcast New England family, one of Lovecraft’s standard cultists – has worked a ritual, the result of which is twins – Wilbur and his brother, who is never seen, imprisoned in a section of the family house. Wilbur manages to get himself killed trying to get one of the very few extant copies of the forbidden magic book, the Necronomicon, revealing that he is not entirely human. With no one left to feed his rapidly growing brother, it smashes out of the house and starts ravaging the countryside – Wilbur’s brother, you see, favored the father more. And the father was the exiled god, Yog-Sothoth.

The birth of the twins is shown at the beginning (there are tentacles involved), and the next thing we’re going to notice is that the movie is titled Witches: The Darkest Evil. And the changes won’t end there.

The one I bought at Kaybee didn’t do this.

Dr. Henry Armitage (Dean Stockwell, who played Wilbur in the 1970 version, the first instance of stunt casting) attends to the exorcism of a young lady (Natacha Itzel) who sprouts bat wings, among other things, and attacks his assistant Fay (Sarah Lieving). Armitage is even more adept at magic than his literary counterpart, shooting lightning from his fingers. The cause is a “Sumerian Ritual Pyramid” hidden under the floorboards (which I recognize as a knock-off from the Rubik’s Cube craze of the early 80s, re-painted). It’s a pretty good sequence, even with some iffy CGI, but has nothing to do with Lovecraft.

The locale has also been switched to Louisiana, we find. Armitage and Fay (Fay Morgan, incidentally. Cute) call on his old protege, Walter Rice (Griff Furst), Head of Antiquities at some university. The exorcism points to “a portal” being opened, and Armitage wants Rice to find the one page missing from all copies of the Necronomicon – page 751, which involves the rituals for opening and closing said portals. Rice departs to investigate a lead Armitage provides, accompanied by Fay – which is going to cause some problems, as the two are former lovers. Also, Rice may be steeped in the lore, but he does not believe. This will change.

The Whateleys, meantime, are also seeking out that page. Wilbur is played by Jeffrey Coombs, the other instance of stunt casting. He spends most of his time kidnapping hapless travellers to feed to the monster upstairs. All these plot threads will of course come together by the end, but getting there is, um, shall we say interesting.

Rice has a lunch meeting with a colleague, Dr. Ashley (writer-director Leigh Scott), who mentions a similar ritual that took place in Innsmouth (a brief flashback provides us with fairly effective glimpses of a Cthulhu-like figure). Armitage’s clue leads Rice and Fay to Olaius Wormius, a translator of the original Necronomicon, who is somehow still alive, and who directs the two to a house owned by a “Mr. Ward”…

Essentially, what this American/German co-production tries to do is act like a Unified Field Theory for the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and that is a double-edged sword. It’s a fun game for fans, but is going to seem needlessly complicated to the uninitiated. The wisest move the production made was casting Coombs, who gives the otherworldly Wilbur his all. The unwisest move was attempting the apocalyptic ending on a TV movie budget. Given my history, I tend to be forgiving of attempts to do Lovecraft on a budget, but even scrappy little outings like The Void are a more solid attempt.

Not terrible, but diffuse. I’m still looking forward to a movie version that has the power of the original story.

 

C: Carry On Screaming (1966)

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This is one of those situations where we could easily make life very difficult for ourselves by indulging our fetish for completeness. Carry On Screaming is only one of a series of movies in a franchise, and indulging that fetish would involve watching at least one or two more movies in that series, and yet I believe I can safely say nuh uh, no way.

We will instead rely upon the Wikipedia entry, which informs us that it is the most successful franchise in the history of British cinema, comprised of 31 movies, 4 Christmas specials, a TV series and three stage plays. The humor on display was “in the British comic tradition of the music hall and bawdy seaside postcards” (a fairly entertaining rabbit hole to fall down). In short, they are fairly crass, vulgar (inasmuch as the social mores of the time allowed), and cheap to produce so they made money hand over fist. And we are watching Carry On Screaming because it is the series’ parody of Hammer movies.

The fairly Byzantine plot involves the living dead-ish Doctor Watt (Kenneth Williams) who has a square-headed Frankensteinian monster named Oddbod (Tom Clegg) kidnap young women to be made into mannequins for the fashion trade. Complicating this odd scheme is the investigation of Detective Sergeant Bung (Harry H. Corbett), and the fact that pieces of Oddbod keep falling off. In this case, a finger, leading Bung and his assistant Slobotham (Peter Butterworth) to suspect something is amiss.

The medical examiner (a welcome cameo by pre-Doctor Who Jon Pertwee, who was better lknown as a comic actor at the time, and appeared in four of these) runs electricity through the dismembered finger, which, through the miracle of mad science, results in two Oddbods and one less medical examiner. Bung forces Slobotham to dress in drag in an effort to flush out the kidnapper, resulting in Bung’s harridan wife (Joan Sims) being convinced that he is having an affair.

Mixed in with all this is Dr. Watt’s continuing efforts to revive an ancient mummy named Rubbatiti (these are the jokes, folks), and – the high point for me – Watt’s sister Valeria (Fenella Fielding) an ultra-vamp who seems to be Elvira’s grandmother. Supernaturally sexy, and able to distract Bung by simply being in the room. Well, golly, me too.

I had seen photos of Carry On Screaming seemingly forever – Famous Monsters seemed to run pictures of Oddbod quite a bit, and those photos would also crop up in overviews of horror movies. There was a period around 1982 when my stress release on Friday evenings involved a hit of acid and viewing SCTV, followed by a delayed broadcast of ABC’s Fridays (this was about the only circumstances that rendered Fridays actually funny). And one evening after Fridays, there it was, at about 2am on one of the local UHF stations: Carry On Screaming. So this sober re-visit actually confirmed my opinion of that bizarre night: the humor is puerile and predictable, the movie is mostly harmless, and Fenella Fielding is sexy as hell.

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B: Brides of Blood (1968)

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If I have one personal failing (well, truthfully, I have many), it’s that I seem to approach movies in a backward fashion. I start in the middle, or toward the end, of director’s filmographies, and work my way backward. Sometimes, it’s happenstance, more often it’s due to simple ignorance. That’s the case here; in an unofficial trilogy that includes Mad Doctor of Blood Island and Beast of Blood, I had had for some reason thought that Brides of Blood was the last movie. It’s not – it’s the first.

Okay, to indulge another of my personal failings – the digression – it’s not actually the first, that honor falls to 1959’s Terror is a Man, aka Blood Creature, which is a surprisingly effective Dr. Moreau rip-off starring Francis Lederer. It is the first of co-directors Gerardo deLeon and Eddie Romero’s movies to use Blood Island as a setting, which must be the most screwed-up place on the planet to live, right up there with Voodoo Island and Skull Island. But this is almost a decade before Brides of Blood, it’s in black-and-white, and it is never marketed with its colorful, far more garish descendants. Rather a pity.

But we should start talking about Brides of Blood at some point, no?

The archetypal tramp freighter is making one of its infrequent stops at Blood Island, and it’s dropping off Jim (John Ashley), a Peace Corpsman, Dr. Paul Henderson (Kent Taylor) and his oversexed wife Carla (Beverly Hills, or Beverly Powers, depending on where you are in her filmography). Jim is there to do Peace Corps stuff, and Dr. Paul is studying the possible effects of radiation from bomb tests on the local fauna. Carla is largely there to set feminism back for decades, starting with an attempted rape by one of the sailors on the boat that she starts to enjoy and then become an active participant.

The white folk arrive just in time to witness a mournful funeral procession, which gets even darker when one of the palanquins is dropped and a bunch of dismembered body parts fall out. Past this, the natives are more than happy to welcome the outsiders, and they are greeted by the village elder (Andres Centenera) and his lovely daughter Alma (Eva Darren). Carla breaks the ice by immediately suggesting a threesome between herself, Jim and Alma, but that’s not the main reason the elder and Alma are so secretive about “returning to the ways of their ancestors”.

Most good horror movies weigh in at about 80-85 minutes, and Brides is a somewhat ponderous 97 minutes, so we will cut to the chase. Yes, the natives (not truly native, as they were transplanted from another island during the bomb tests) are dealing with things like man-eating plants, and more pressingly, this bizarre lumpy monster that they appease by choosing two girls by lottery every night, tying them to St. Andrews crosses, stripping them naked, and leaving them for the beast. That is some Spicy Adventure Stories pulp shit right there, and since those man-eating plants seem to change back to normal plants by day, it’s perfectly obvious to the audience that we’re dealing with an atomic werewolf, and our Larry Talbot is actually local rich toff Esteban (Mario Montenegro), whose manservant Goro (Bruno Punzalan) is facilitating his master’s deprivations. And it is going to be up to White Savior John Ashley to point out to the natives that they can gang up on the monster as they do the man-eating plants. The End.

Well, not really, as most of that extra seven minutes is devoted to Alma doing a seductive dance for Ashley, which is okay, as Eva Darren is pretty. Now, mercifully, the end.

Hemisphere Pictures was a small distribution company who had a surprise hit with the equally Philippine The Blood Drinkers in 1964 and started working seriously with Eddie Romero during the horror boom of the 60s. Brides of Blood is a pretty canny debut for that partnership – three American actors for the marquee value, to start with. John Ashley is coming off the Beach Party movies, and he liked the Phillippines so much he based the next phase of his career there. Kent Taylor had a long and solid career; if you don’t recognize his name, you’re certainly going to recognize his face. Ditto with Beverly Powers, who had enough movie and TV work under her belt that she actually manages to make Carla’s carnality work for the character, even if it is a stupid and exploitative character trait.

And this is the operative word here – “exploitative”. Sam Sherman, who was helping out in Hemisphere’s publicity department at the time, claims that Brides got out before the MPAA’s rating system went into full effect. Indeed, I seem to recall seeing Sherman’s well-worn trailer at a drive-in circa ’71 or ’72, probably for one of Hemisphere’s horror movie marathons. There was a surprising amount of skin in that trailer. There’s also some gore, and probably the worst decapitated head until the one that ended Kathy Griffin’s career.

So Brides of Blood is an entertaining enough if overly-windy piece of pulp. Unlike the later Eddie Romero movies, it stays firmly in horror movie territory, where Beast of Blood and Twilight People suddenly became action movies. Your enjoyment of it is going to depend on your tolerance for White Savior and/or Oversexed Blonde tropes.

Oh, look, here’s that trailer:

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A: Altered (2006)

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I really like Eduardo Sanchez’ work. One-half of the directing team who brought us The Blair Witch Project, he’s continued to create interesting takes on standard horror genres, and his first directoral effort after the movie that launched a thousand found footage films is Altered, which starts with a tense in media res sequence and then gives very little chance to relax during its trim 88 minutes.

That sequence involves three redneck dumbasses, Duke (Brad William Henke), Cody (Paul McCarthy-Boyington) and Otis (Michael C. Williams, the only holdover from Blair Witch) hunting at night with a bewildering (and worrisome) variety of weapons. What they’re hunting is fast, smart, and vicious. They do manage to catch it in a tiger pit, and Duke insists they take it to a friend named Wyatt, because “he knows about these things.”

Wyatt (Adam Kaufman) is living in a sort of survivalist compound in the middle of the woods, surrounded by bright lights, weapons of his own, and a workshop/garage. He is not happy to see his old friends, or what they’ve brought him, and his girlfriend who recently moved in (Catherine Mangan) is even less pleased. “Why did you bring it here?” demands Wyatt. “We never thought we would actually catch one!” answers Duke.

It seems that 15 years before, these four guys (plus one more) were on a similar beer-soaked hunting trip when they were abducted by aliens. Duke, Cody and Otis were released after a couple of day of torturous experiments. The aliens kept Wyatt and Timmy – Cody’s brother – for more extreme treatment. Timmy didn’t survive, but Wyatt did – after some, um, modifications. After his release, he performed meatball surgery on himself to remove a tracking implant in his guts, and he’s been hiding ever since. And he knows that if they kill the alien that has been brought to him, the rest of his race will simply exterminate mankind. “You know what happens to an animal after it kills a person.”

Everybody has scars other than physical from the experience; Cody was blamed for his brother’s death, Otis is afraid of everything and Wyatt is definitely suffering from PTSD, with night terrors and paralyzing panic attacks. The movie doesn’t shy away from the many ways trauma can twist your life for years afterward.

The budget of Altered is certainly low, but doesn’t look it; Sanchez spends the money exactly where it needs to go. A lot of your drama and tension is going to come from interaction between the human characters, and the director has always been spot-on with his casting. The effects work is 99% practical, nasty, and won’t age like a lot of CGI from the period.

Altered takes the zombie siege formula, turns it inside out – people are trapped inside a house with something – and certainly worth a look.

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Coming Distractions

As fellow sacrifice on the altar of movie blogging, Chad Plambeck has revealed, this year’s Hubrisween is nigh. It will spring on you this Friday, and then every day after that, over and over again, until Halloween night. Or until we run out of alphabet, whichever comes first.

As always, here’s a preview of what’s ahead:

See you Friday. Sleep well.