The Hubrisween That Wasn’t: G

This one gave me more difficulty than I generally expect with a consonant that isn’t Q or X.

Original plan was to watch the Empire flick Ghost Town, but had no luck finding my copy in the stacks. Turned up another one I’d never heard of, The Grey Knight, which turns out to be a re-titling of The Killing Box, a fairly interesting Civil War tale concerning voodoo and undead soldiers… though not interesting enough to make it past the halfway point. I still haven’t watched this now-ancient copy of Graveyard Shift, mainly because I find Stephen King adaptations – particularly in that era – hit or miss with a very large percentage landing in the miss box.

So, back to another movie I watched when I was wasn’t writing about them:

Grave Robbers (1989)

Sorry, but I don’t need an “L” movie. Not yet, anyway.

Let’s start with our standard renegade priest (Agustin Bernal) trying to birth the Antichrist by magical (and not-so-magical) means and getting caught by his fellow priests and stretched on the rack. This guy was the Church Executioner and the local Archbishop decides to play the irony card by burying the offending executioner’s axe deep in his chest. But, as is the way with these movies starting in bygone days, this means the priest will curse the Archbishop, saying that one day someone will pull the axe from his chest and then he’ll birth the Antichrist using one of the Archbishop’s descendants. As one does.

Skip to the modern day of 1989, where the Archbishop’s grand-grand-whatever is now the Police Captain (still Fernando Almada, though), who has a beautiful daughter, Olivia (Edna Bolkan), which you just know is going to be significant later.

But never mind that, we’re going to spend the next half hour with a group of teenage hooligans (led by Ernesto Laguardia and Erika Buenfil, who seems to be somewhat psychic) who are trying to strike it rich by, you guessed it, grave robbing. Their psychic leads them to a grave that conceals an entrance to an old catacomb housing a very familiar rack and lots of corpses who were interred with lots of gold and jewelry.

There’s also a heavy slab inscribed with Latin that doubtless says DO NOT OPEN THIS YOU IDIOTS, but our hooligans do not speak Latin, so they open it, find a corpse with an ornate battleax in its chest, so let’s take the axe too, eh? Resulting in a massive storm, both in the catacomb and on the surface.

And, oh, yeah, the corpse of the Executioner getting up and making with the killing spree.

If the plot sounds creaky and a bit generic, well it is, but welcome to the larger body of horror movies in general. A lot of these are like comfort food to the horror fan – the satisfying taste of the familiar along with the hopeful anticipation of something exotic and original in the execution to justify its existence (and the time being spent watching it). Too often, that justification is not found – when it does, though, it is cherished.

Grave Robbers plays like an 80s slasher for most of its running time, but it’s also five years after the first Nightmare on Elm Street, so the Executioner has magical powers, most obviously when he uses a floating dagger and a wind machine to threaten a local priest and a totally outrageous and gory method used to retrieve the amulet necessary for the Antichrist ritual, a kill scene that should rank with Johnny Depp’s in the aforementioned Nightmare.

It makes you wonder why the Executioner even bothers with the Jason Voorhees stuff. but then it’s also cheaper to shoot stuff with an axe that’s had a face-shaped hole cut in its blade than a shot involving a fake human chest and lots of entrails.

As ever, it doesn’t pay to take too close a look at our comfort food. Just enjoy the tension and the gore.

I had originally watched this after a viewing of director Ruben Galindo Jr’s first movie, Cemetery of Terror, and its a big jump in quality and coherence (small wonder, it’s his fourth). Cemetery was fine, if a bit scattered and a little too dependent on things playing out in real time to pad its length, none of which is evident in Grave Robbers. The compression of time still feels a bit out of whack, because this all seems to be happening in the longest night in creation, but hey, horror movie. I do appreciate the very genuine local flavor Galindo injects into the stories. These flicks obviously and unapologetically take place in Mexico, in the cusp between rural and urban areas. That’s enough of a lure for this particular gringo, especially one who spent much of his youth in heavily Latino communities.

Other extraordinary things: Police Captains have extraordinary leeway in doing their jobs, as he decides his department needs an Uzi, so he gets one; Olivia has the longest bout of hysteria in movie history (though holy shit does she have reason). And, there’s that little oddity, that story hiccup  that sticks in my craw with movies like Night of the Lepus and I Drink Your Blood – at the final fadeout, our two lead grave robbers are safe, sound and in possession of the gold they stole, which kicked off the events of the movie that killed all their friends and at least six others. This is supposed to be a heartwarming ending.

Yeah, nobody ever said horror movies were fair, either.

The Hubrisween That Wasn’t: D

D: The Dead Center (2018)

I hate the holidays.

I admit that I don’t hate the holiday itself, but for some reason the forces of fate keep making the run up to Christmas horrible for me. This year its workplace drama and, of course, the Arctic Blast coming through these parts in a couple of days. Houston, indeed, much of Texas, is not good about such things. I fully expect to lose power again, and people will die again, and Ted Cruz is probably already in Cancun. So bah and humbug and all that.

This was the second of the movies I watched I watched and never wrote about. The Letterboxd film diary says I watched it on August 28th. It made enough of an impression that I might only have to skip through my copy for some details, but just barely, and probably only because I knew I was going to be writing about it, no, really.

The movie opens with a body being wheeled into a hospital morgue. No sooner is the gurney placed in a refrigerated room and the light turned out than there is a animalistic growl and the body in the bag starts convulsing. Later we’ll see a dazed man (Jeremy Childs) walking through hospital corridors, shivering. He finds an empty bed, covers himself with a blanket, and passes out.

Next we’ll meet Dr. Daniel Forrester (Shane Carruth, yes, that Shane Carruth, Primer and Upstream Color Shane Carruth), a psychiatrist at that very same hospital who is having some problems of his own. After this mystery catatonic man – who we will learn is named Michael Clark – is discovered in the hospital bed, Forrester bends the rules yet again to get him put in the psych ward under his care. Clark snaps out of his catatonia but remembers nothing, so Forrester begins the process of trying to regain his memories.

Our last proactive cast member is Edward Graham (Bill Feeheely), an investigator with the Medical Examiner’s office. He finds the initial stage of his investigation into Clark’s apparent suicide is a bit hindered by the fact that the body disappeared from the morgue. He continues on, heading toward the scene of death, and finding a motel room covered in blood and a bathtub filled with same. Draining it yields the kitchen knife Clark used to slash his wrists (photos will show Clark did it the right way) – and a mysterious spiral cut into the bathtub’s floor. A similar spiral-shaped weal was on the corpse’s back.

Forrester tries hypnosis on Clark, who can still remember nothing, except that he did die.

” I died, and I came back, it wasn’t the first time. I can’t kill it, it came back with me in the fire. It wanted into this world, it’s inside of me now. It comes back at night, moves around inside of me. I kept cutting cutting until I was dead.”

Graham has backtracked Clark’s timeline to that aforementioned fire, which almost completely consumed the house. Continuing to the home of Clark’s parents, he (and we) find out that the fire killed his wife, but somehow spared Clark and their two children. The parents took them in and Clark’s mental state declined precipitously, until he ran away in the middle of the night, leaving his children behind. Clark’s room at this house has the traditional wall of newspaper clippings about unexplained mass deaths throughout history, and an engraving from an old book, with the caption “I am the Mouth of Death, none are beyond my reach”, which is also the suicide note Clark left behind, although Clark appended “Forgive me.”

I think you all know where this is all headed, and the fun is going to be had in getting there. Clark is going to beg Forrester to kill him again, because when he tried to do it himself, “I just made it stronger.” Clark is trying to hold back the Mouth of Death, but will lose control enough times to get some people in the ward killed. Clark’s actual identity will be determined, and his father will show up at the hospital demanding his release. Graham won’t get there in time to stop it, either, and all we can do is watch the tragedy take its course.

The Dead Center is not a bad movie, by any definition of that word. It is competently made, well-shot, and very well acted. I truly love it when methodic investigation slowly uncovers what is going on in any story, and when it’s in service of a horror story, I am ecstatic. It delivers on that aspect.

You may looking at the plot synopsis and thinking, this is a whole bunch of people talking in rooms, isn’t it? Sounds abysmally low budget and yes, you would be correct. It doesn’t look low-budget though, and it looks like most of the money was spent in the final act (where, according to Sam Fuller rules, it should have been), where a panic-stricken Forrester is running through a twilit neighborhood full of houses with the front door ripped off its hinges, full of fresh corpses harvested by the Mouth of Death.

There are several of The Mouth’s kill scenes in the ward where there were more explicit versions filmed, but writer/director Billy Senese felt that went against the “grounded approach” he wanted to take to the story. Unfortunately, that is likely where Senese will lose quite a bit of his audience, who look for such visceral thrills, and will just add to the complaints of low budgetry.

But it’s not a bad movie, not at all, especially if you’re kind of into lo-fi horror.

The Hubrisween That Wasn’t: C

C: Canaries (2017)

So this week we have a problem that will crop up again next week and more: Back when I was serious about participating in Hubrisween in 2022, I watched a few of those movies. Canaries, for example, I watched on July 9, according to Letterboxd. Did I write about it then? No, for reasons already discussed. Do I have time currently to dig it back up and re-watch it? Again, no. So this will likely be a pretty bare-boned post. At the very least, Canaries was memorable enough to allow this. Honestly, going through my Film Diary, there were several instances of I watched this? I don’t recall that at all.

So what we have here is a bunch of time-hopping aliens, who keep leaving behind corpses in areas, not to mention times, they do not belong. There’s a Department of Defense spook who’s chasing them around, but the only clue as to where they might appear next is a photo of a New Years Eve party that hasn’t happened yet.

Say that three times fast.

Which brings us to the Welsh community of Lower Cwmtwrch, where a DJ recently fired from his London station is hosting a New Years party (ooh, convenient!) in the hopes of impressing a rich bloke enough to finance a nightclub venture. Trouble is, his friends couldn’t scare up many people to attend the party, there’s a massive rain storm, and, oh yeah, an alien invasion.

As the DoD guy tells us, that’s not rain – it’s a device used by the aliens to create footsoldiers. The corpses they’ve been leaving behind were failures, as the rain kept killing them. It wasn’t until they abducted a fishing boat’s crew that they found their yellow slickers protected their victims long enough for the necessary mutation to take hold. So there’s a sudden influx of slicker-wearing murderers out and about.

You’re going to be getting a lot of Shaun of the Dead vibes over most of the movie, and that is totally justified. Don’t make the mistake of getting attached to any of the characters (like I did), because they’re going to be whittled down pretty quickly. What elevates Canaries beyond mere imitation is that it also tells the other side of the story; turns out the Depart of Defense made a deal with the aliens, as long as they stayed out of the bounds of America (like, say, Lower Cwmtwrch), but an actual invasion wasn’t supposed to happen, and our DoD guy is faced with losing his men on the ground or his job.

What I can’t fault Canaries for is its attempt at scope. The Defense and conspiracy stuff is what prevents me from dismissing it as a mere Shaun of the Dead rip-off. Its ambitions outstrip its means, but it tries, dammit. I have my doubts that a brief scene was actually shot in Viet Nam, as the credits allege, but hey. What do I know.

I also have to give kudos to the makers for finding a cost-effective way to create a lot of monsters – yellow slickers, finger extensions and some face makeup, voila! I’m a hard sell on comedy, but it actually made me laugh out loud a few times. Most importantly, after the movie ended, I felt a need to see more of some of the surviving characters. It may not be a great movie, but it is a surprisingly good one.

Especially since one of its alternate titles is Alien Party Crashers, under which, I can assure you, I never would have watched it.

The Hubrisween That Wasn’t: B

According to my master list, the letter B was going to be represented by The Body Snatcher (1945), because I have a personal tradition that each Hubrisween should include a Boris Karloff movie.

Instead, you’re going to get a movie I actually did watch.

B: Black Friday (2021)

First of all, do you now, or have you ever, worked retail?

Oh, God, I am so sorry.

There was a year or so, back in college, when I worked retail. At a small record store in a small college town. It was eventually obvious that for the sake of myself and the health of the commonweal, that I should not be in a position to interact with the public. Honestly, most people are fine. It’s just that the ones who are not are the ones that stick in your craw, or your memory’s craw, however that works. I’m not even sure what a craw is.

So Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving (or, as we shall see, the evening of), with ballyhooed bargains, first come, first served, seems engineered by capitalism to provide an excuse for gladiatorial games between consumers, giving rise to horrific spectacle and schadenfreude-laced news stories.

It’s really kind of amazing that it’s taken this long for a horror movie to use it as a backdrop.

So we have a toy store that has a staff trying to gird its loins for the doors to open at 9PM to a waiting line of potential combatants. What they don’t know (but we do, because we saw the movie’s prologue) is the recent spate of meteor showers are not space debris at all, but an invasion of fairly grotesque alien creatures that infect and absorb earthlings – think The Thing except it doesn’t care much for concealment, it goes for the gusto. Soon every shopper is a mutating beastie that wants to either kill or infect (sometimes both) everybody else, and our crew find themselves locked in a store that is not terribly secure and trying to survive the night, with varying degrees of luck (mostly bad) in the process.

First of all: as an alien invasion flick that takes most of its inspiration from the first third of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, it’s pretty good. Second of all, realize it’s a horror comedy, with all that entails. Unfortunately it seems to entail getting our characters from the Stereotype Rolodex, so I hope you asked Santa for some forbearance.

One of our main characters, Chris (Ryan Lee) is a germophobe, which gets really tedious. Ken (Devon Sawa) is a divorced dad and slacker who somehow wound up working in the store for ten years. Marnie (Ivana Barquero) …is a cipher, but it falls to her to be the voice of reason for most of the picture. And so it goes.

Your big marquee values are Bruce Campbell as Jonathan, the store manager, and for the most part manages to not play him as a version of Ash who made it to management, but he does use all the chops he’s been honing over the years to a fine edge, playing a guy who is always in way over his head. Also onboard is Michael Jai White as Archie, a maintenance guy, which means he’s always walking around with a bunch of tools that will come in handy. I mean, he’s Michael Jai White. Does that mean he’s going to be kicking some alien ass? What do you think? (Spoiler, though: not as much as you’d like)

Probably the actual best scene in the movie is when our core of survivors have boarded themselves up in a back room, and Marnie has found a pack of turkey cold cuts, allowing them to have what might be a final Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a scene that actually has some character development – bare as it may be – and felt like a welcome relief after the hectic preliminaries. Then things go to hell all over again.

I like Black Friday well enough – it’s entertaining all the way through, when you’re not rolling your eyes at Chris’ crippling germophobia being played for laughs. The effects are good, but a lot of horror fans are going to complain that they’re not gooey enough or sufficiently gross. It’s likely not going to be part of my regular holiday movie rotation. I could be wrong about that, and it’s certainly worth a look if you’re a fan of any of the actors or horror comedies in general – or especially if you work retail and would like to see some customers worked over with a nail gun.

As a PS, I will also add that the story’s Hot Toy of the Season is Dour Dennis – a plush Teddy Bear with a business shirt and tie, who says things like “I’m so tired” and “I’m not doing very well.” He’s being recalled because he has a tendency to burst into flames. Maybe he’s made by Tesla or something.

Filmmakers, it is pronounced “doer”, not “dower”. You made me yell at my TV and hurt its feelings.

O: Ooga Booga (2013)

If I could, I would like to take a moment at the start of this post to ask a question of this particular movie; to wit: “What the FUCK?!?” I would then like to go on to my follow-up question, “No, really, what the actual fucking FUCK?!?!

I fear these questions will remain rhetorical.

The movie starts with the last day of children’s TV show host Hambo (Chance A. Rearden), who will be fired for drinking on the job, cursing out his audience, and molesting the nubile co-host (Amber Strauser). But never mind that, let’s meet Devin (Wade F. Wilson), a young black man who just got admitted to medical school. After a phone call from a distraught Hambo, Devin begs off an evening with his girlfriend, Donna (Ciarra Carter), to meet with his childhood idol and longtime friend.

Hambo has plans for his post-TV life, he tells Devin. He has designed a line of figurines called Badass Dolls, which will have voice chips installed in mass production. He shows Devin his line, with figures like Joe Cracker, The Crack Whore, and the bucktoothed bespectacled Gook (“There’s a steering wheel, because you know those people can’t drive. And there’s a camera because you never see ’em without one.”). What he feels will be his biggest seller (especially in Asia) is Ooga Booga, basically every racist trope about Africans boiled down to one figure. Devin seems surprised that his longtime idol is a racist.

Good freakin’ grief

In gratitude for his support, Hambo gifts Devin the prototype for Ooga Booga, larger (and frankly better looking). Devin is still carrying it when he stops at a store to get Donna a promised Rhubarb Slushy, only to have three lowlife scumbags come to rob the store and shoot the cashier. Devin lies low, and after the scumbags leave, tries to administer first aid to the cashier, until the cops arrive and totally not-ironically-named Officer White (Gregory Niebel) shoots him for being black.

There are strange doings at the Circle K, though, as electricity from the malfunctioning Slushy machine arcs to Devin’s blood and the Ooga Booga package, resulting in Devin’s spirit being transferred to Ooga Booga.

All this takes up the first third of the movie, incidentally. The second third will be filled with Devin convincing Donna that he is actually more than a Zuni fetish doll rip-off (yeah, I saw Trilogy of Terror too, Band), and Donna trying to track down the scumbags. Turns out the scumbags are actually in the employ of amazingly racist Judge Marks (Stacy Keach), and Officer White is his main enforcer. So we get to see White also track down the scumbags so we can have a lengthy scene of him threatening the scumbags if they don’t get their numbers up. It is not only lengthy to take up some time, but because there is a topless prostitute involved.

Scumbags in their natural habitat.

So most all our Ooga Booga mayhem will be confined to the final third of the movie, which makes sense in a structural way. We are allowed a bit earlier on when a racist neighbor breaks into Donna’s apartment to say racist things (Ooga Booga is playing music too loud, it seems, while Donna is out) and get Ooga Booga-ed. What the little guy does with the body, we’ll never know.

Coming soon to a rally near you!

As you can imagine, something titled Ooga Booga (really, what the fuck?!?) is going to be problematic, even beyond Charles Band’s weird fetish for toys committing murder. The toy is at least presented as being created by an unrepentant racist, but this… look, it reminds me of a local lady who attends the annual School Board budget meeting, one of the things I cover for my day job. She gets up during the Public Comment section to say that she and her friend attended last year’s high school graduation, and her friend commented that it was sad that so few of the graduates were white. You see, she’s not racist, it’s her friend. That’s the kind of logic at play here, having your cake, crapping all over it, and eating it too.

I usually don’t criticize the acting in movies, because honestly, I usually feel I don’t have to. Online reviewers seem to feel it necessary 98% of the time, and 95% of the time it isn’t warranted. Is the actor doing something in a scene that drops me out of the movie-watching experience? No? Then that actor is doing his/her/their job, dammit. But the acting in Ooga Booga is so stereotype-driven and so one note, it draws attention to itself. I’m going to blame a rushed production schedule, because the acting is just good enough to churn out product. The only nuance needed for most of the characters is hatefulness, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to thoughtful character beats.

It also doesn’t explain how Donna becomes a vengeful Blaxploitation avenger, putting bullets between asshole’s eye without blinking hers. Keach’s scenes were likely shot in a day or less. But the real stunt casting – and the best acting job in the movie – is Karen Black, as the soap opera-obsessed Mrs. Allardyce, owner of the trailer park where the scumbags live. I’m grateful for any dab of difference in this exercise, but it turns out Mrs. Allardyce owns some racist statuettes of her own, so she will get Ooga-Booga-ed. Charles Band never got the note about the downfalls of reminding people of better movies.

And just to wrap things up in a racist fashion, it turns out that Hambo was right and he is now filthy rich, leaving a suitcase full of money to help Devin with his medical school expenses. Maybe this is just the ultimate nihilist movie, and I’m just too out of touch to get it – but I strongly doubt this is the case.

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.

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.

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.