M: Malignant (2021)

What? I do watch recent movies, you know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L: The Laughing Dead (1990)

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

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

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

“I may be evil, but I’m FABULOUS!!!”

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

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

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

Aaaaah, these guys again.

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

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

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

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?

G: The Giant Claw (1957)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey! Look at my strings!

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

Which is why I love it.

F: Followed (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D: Demon Wind (1990)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but… awwwww crap I used that lede for Assignment Terror didn’t I?

Well, you have heard this one before, because what you have here is the classic setup for what Joe Bob Briggs famously dubbed a “Spam in a cabin movie”. Not that there’s anything wrong with spam in a cabin movies. Hell, I wrote one. But I am also pleased to report that in this case, we have a movie that is determined to not just be another spam in a cabin movie.

We have a guy, Cory (Eric Larson) who is driving to the Middle of Nowhere with his girlfriend Elaine (Francine Lapensee) to a deserted farm somewhere just past the Middle of Nowhere. Cory had found his estranged father just two weeks before – his dad had disappeared after checking into the mysterious deaths of his parents at that farm – and after the subsequent suicide of Estranged Dad, Cory is going to find out what’s what. And since this is a spam in a cabin movie, Cory has invited along a bunch of friends who will serve as the potted meat product.

First, though we have to stop at the Middle of Nowhere Gas Station and Diner, to be menaced by this movie’s Harbinger (Rufus Norris), who bluntly tells them there is no farm and to go away. (Honestly, this guy might have served as a model for the character in Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods) As more friends arrive and gather in the diner (which oddly seems to be much bigger on the inside than out), the Harbinger ramps up his menace, finally pulling a gun and threatening them if they don’t leave and go back home. This leads to a cathartic confession from the Harbinger about the night that Cory’s grandparents died, after which the Harbinger admits the gun isn’t even loaded and becomes downright human.

This deviation from the spam in a cabin template, the humanizing of a traditionally one-note character is the first indication that Demon Wind might have a few more tricks up its sleeve than your typical Evil Dead cash-in.

We already know how the grandparents died because we watched the beginning of the movie, and it wasn’t good, so its time for our 8-pack of Spam to finally find what’s left of the farm. Only the ruined facades of the cabin and barn (that blowed up real good) still stand. Oh, and a skeleton tied to a cross.

The cabin’s facade holds the next interesting twist: basically just a wall and a doorframe, looking through the door lets you see and even enter an intact cabin, apparently maintained by the magic of Cory’s grandmother. This will become important since the cars will no longer start, and attempting to leave on foot results in a mysterious fog that transports our cast to different locations, ending back up at the farm.

So we have a bunch of people boarding up a cabin that does not exactly exist, and we get to winnowing down our chopping list. This all has something to do with Cory’s lineage – that plotline gets pretty berserk – there’s a zombie siege (of course) and oddly enough, two of the Daggers of Megiddo from The Omen. Even odder, they seem to be single-use weapons.

I love Spam! I’m having Spam Spam Spam Spam actress and Spam!”

There are parts of Demon Wind that play out like the sizzle reel to raise funding – the whole spam in a cabin thing, the zombie siege (“kids love zombies!”), the stuff modeled on obvious, profitable hits. Then there are the parts where writer/director Charles Philip Moore wants to show he can stretch the envelope on these things. Talking about those times any further would rob you of the fun of discovering them on your own. And you knew if you were going to watch this movie by the second paragraph of this review.

The movie comes so close to being a hidden gem. There are drawbacks, of course, most of them budgetary (oy that animation); the script deals in stereotypes, sort of a stylistic necessity in a story that deals in wall-to-wall murders, but the women seem particularly underwritten. Still, it’s a very good attempt to not exactly transcend the genre, but stretch it out in interesting directions. I’ll take interesting variations over rote repetition any day.

C: Catacomba (2016)

This is an anthology movie inspired by Italian erotic horror comics from the 70s. If you are familiar with those, you know what to expect. If not, I’ll try to ease you into it as best I can. The movie’s poster, which is also the cover of the eponymous comic book that will serve as the delivery mechanism for our stories, serves only the slightest initimation of what went on in these books.

It’s a movie poster AND a comic book!

Examples of the stories are not that hard to find on the Interwebs – try Googling “Lorenzo Lapori comics” since he provided the comic art used throughout the flick. (This is also the name of one of the directors, so don’t get waylaid) Doing this netted me two complete stories, and allow me to say holy shit. I feel physically abused by those stories, while still being amazed by the utter perversity of the creativity being displayed. Posting any art from them to give you, in one image, a demonstration of the genre would be like posting straight up porn. Snuff porn. This is amazingly transgressive stuff – or maybe I’m finally getting old? A close mixture of sex and violent horror has always been off-putting to me, which is why I can’t enjoy the films of Jean Rollin as do so many.

So, thus fortified, let’s deal with the movie.

The mandatory framing device involves a young man seeking a haircut so he can have an evening of bouncy-bouncy with a girlfriend. Finding his usual hairdresser closed for a funeral, he happens on a flyer for “A Devil for Every Hair” salon (not a red flag, no siree). he makes his way there, and while waiting, peruses a comic book. This is, of course Catacomba, which will yield four story sequences, each beginning and ending with line art by the aforementioned Lapori.

The first involves a horror writer lolling about under a tree that, legend has it, was used to hang witches. He needs inspiration, you see, and is a bit put out when two gothy women arrive on motorcycle, but then thinks perhaps his inspiration is going to take a much more sexual form. They do indeed accost him, but then proceed to torture him in a graphic manner (including emasculation), pulling his arms off with a motorcycle, and then cutting off his head. They eat parts of his corpse, and that night Satan comes and screws them (Satan appears to be on loan from The Devil’s Rejects). Then the dead author gets reanimated as a tree monster and kills them. The end.

What? You were expecting more of an EC-style twist, with a moral or something? Ha! Forget that nonsense, this is Catacomba! Enjoy your atrocities!

The second story is going to jettison the economy of the first by presenting us with a number of threads: There is a killer in a Halloween mask stabbing people for no good reason; an unemployed scumbag raves to his friends that his wife is cheating on him; the wife insists that it is an alien who made love to her; and the scumbag’s friends decide to have some “fun” with the wife. This fun will involve rape and the murder of the scumbag, who was getting on everybody’s nerves anyway. The cops are chasing the maniac through the nearby woods, resulting in one cop dead and another wounded. The wounded cop, the murderous friends and the alien lover all wind up in the same place, where everybody dies except the alien and his lover. The maniac gets away, I guess. The end.

Incidentally, the guy waiting for the haircut is waiting so long because the hairdresser keeps taking people in back to kill them. Oops!

Third story lifts the central concept of Robert Bloch’s The Man Who Collected Poe, substituting Paganini for Poe. A noted Paganini scholar and collector has actually raised the composer from the dead and forced him to write new music for a highly anticipated anthology. The collector’s wife and her lover conspire to kill him, but the Paganini-obsessed lover just has to speak to the revenant and find out what fueled Paganini’s virtuosity. Turns out it was Satanism and stringing his violin with human guts. Go figure.

Our hero finally winds up in the barber chair, and reads the final story at the behest of the hairdresser. This one is more a chaotic tone poem than anything else, involving a Satanist seeking the spirit of his old lover, who either committed suicide or he murdered, and following yet another gothy seductress through rooms of a house with a different sex act in each room, and finally he winds up screwing the body of his former lover until the goth chick cuts him in half with a machete. Slowly.

And then the hairdresser feeds our hapless hero to the zombies in back of his shop. The end.

The Paganini story is the most handsomely mounted of the four (five, counting the framer), and is worth watching. The others are hindered by the usual mundane roadblocks of such fare – budget mainly, some corners cut story-wise (especially the alien lover story) – and some of those are no doubt due to the vicissitudes of filmmaking, where if anything can go wrong, it will.

I’ve already stated that these sorts of stories aren’t really for me. There will be some folk who are familiar with the source material and might want to check this out, though. I just hope that after the last three movies, my next one will at least feature some coherent story telling. Then again, we are also aware of who I am and what I do, so confidence is not high.

B: Blood of Ghastly Horror (1973)

I think we all know there is a movie called Blood of Ghastly Horror. We saw the video cases, the ad mats in genre magazines. And somehow I had passed it up all these years. Let me emphasize that: I used to run a movie review site called The Bad Movie Report and I had spent my entire life not watching something called Blood of Ghastly Horror.

Well, I’ve taken care of that. Go me.


Blood of Ghastly Horror opens with the murder spree of a disfigured green-faced guy who goes around crushing people, racking up five kills in a few minutes, and two of them are cops. (Budget-minded viewers will note that the cops all drive the same car, and they all park in the same alley for the entire movie) Homicide detective Cross (Tommy Kirk!) is on the job, especially after he is delivered a box containing the head of one of the dead cops. A note enclosed with the head leads him to opening an old case file about a killer named Corey (Roy Morton), and so begins our first flashback to another movie entirely.


Let’s see if we can manage better detective work than Cross in untangling this Gordian Knot of a movie. This flashback is excerpted from Adamson’s first movie, Echo of Terror, which is actually a pretty decent low-budget suspense flick about a failed jewel heist. An unwitting everyman (Kirk Duncan) gets involved when a doctor’s bag (did I mention the robbers are dressed as surgeons in full gear? Walking around an office building?) containing the jewels is hurriedly dropped in the back of his pickup truck when the heist goes sour. His daughter finds the bag and hides the jewels in her doll, which would charitably be called a Golliwog by our British readers. Thus supplied with a MacGuffin, she leaves for a tour with her nightclub star mother, supplying us with the basis for the rest of that movie.

In order to make this movie more commercial, Director Al Adamson and Producer Sam Sherman added go-go dancing and more murder for a version called Psycho A-Go-Go. Corey was already a sadist in Echo, but here blossoms into full-bore psychopathy. Now, one of the jewel robbers (played by Adamson himself) got killed in the heist (by Corey), and the cops find his fingerprints all over Adamson’s apartment – but Corey was declared dead two years before! The investigation leads to Dr. Howard Vanard (John Carradine!), who signed the death certificate. Vanard will eventually confess that Corey was one of the first casualties of Vietnam, so brain-damaged he was doomed to life as a vegetable – until Vanard installed a device in his brain that would take over from the damaged parts. The result: Corey was functional again, but was also a psycho.

My father wore this helmet to work for years.

We are, incidentally, into yet another movie, The Fiend with the Synthetic Brain, an effort to turn Psycho A-Go-Go into a science fiction movie, as the go-go dancing fad was over by the time that version was finished. It also means that Vanard engages in a flashback-within-a-flashback, which I believe is illegal by international law.

Meanwhile, back in Blood of Ghastly Horror Vanard’s estranged daughter Nancy (Regina Carroll!) shows up because she’s been receiving bizarre psychic messages to come to the city. This because Corey’s father Dr. Elton Corey (Kent Taylor!) who spent many years in Jamaica studying voodoo, is the one using the green-faced zombie (Richard Smedley) to kill everyone involved in his son’s decline and eventual death. Dr. Corey will then take us through the remainder of Psycho A-Go-Go (with a brief sidetrip to The Fiend with the Synthetic Brain for Corey the Younger to kill Carradine). Then damn near everybody dies and Tommy Kirk arrives too late, as usual. The end.

The major reason to watch/survive a movie like Blood of Ghastly Horror (besides the fact that it’s named Blood of Ghastly Horror) is to pick out the various sources, which is how I’ve survived a number of Godfrey Ho ninja stitch jobs. This is made infinitely easier here due to the fact that Psycho A-Go-Go was shot by the recently-immigrated Vilmos Zsigmond and looks gorgeous, especially those final chase scenes in mountainous wilderness. You can’t really say those sequences stand out like a sore thumb, it’s more like they stick out like a healthy thumb on a diseased hand.

I’d say that Blood of Ghastly Horror‘s value – if it truly has any – is educational as concerns the actual movie business. Unable to find distribution for a low-budget crime film with no bankable stars, it was turned into a more violent, sexy film, then a science fiction movie, then a bare-bones horror flick. It’s a fascinating process to watch, but ugly.

A: Assignment Terror (1970)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: aliens from a dying world plan to invade the Earth, and decide to start raising the dead to conquer our supposedly inferior race. Except this time the dead being raised are classic monsters, and the aliens are once again represented by Michael Rennie, in his last film role as “Doctor Warnoff”.

To aid him, Warnoff has two more of his alien pals inhabiting recently dead Earthers who have skills he requires: Maleva (Karin Dor), a biochemist, and Kerian (Angel del Pozzo), a soldier. It took me two viewings to figure out that particular part of the plot, thinking during the first runthrough that his two henchmen were simply raised from the dead. And, eventually that Warnoff himself is seemingly an alien in a Earth suit. I think.

This is not the least confusing part of the plot, either.

Warnoff starts off by pulling the wooden stake out of the skeleton of Count Janos (Manuel de Blas), a nod to the classic Universal monster mashes of the 40s, specifically House of Frankenstein. There will be enough of these nods to wear out your neck gimbal as the movie progresses. Warnoff’s plan is to infect humanity with vampire blood, which, like a lot of Warnoff’s plans, will not come to anything. Count Janos will occasionally wander around unsupervised and cause problems.

Next up, and the real reason we are all here, is the infamous lycanthrope Waldemar Daninsky (Paul Naschy), whom they revivify by surgically removing the silver bullets from his still-beating heart (real open heart surgery footage – the 70s, everybody!), while Warnoff explains that the idiots back in Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror did it wrong, and helpfully informing the aide who will eventually betray him the proper way to go about killing a werewolf.

Not-Drac’s feeling much better.

Oh yeah, that’s right: Warnoff is kidnapping local women and brainwashing them with his Super Annoying Sound MachineTM. This sort of thing brings the attention of the police in the person of Inspector Toberman (Craig Hill), who seems to be the sole person in the employ of the Commissioner… no, wait, there’s a guy who brings in a file folder. So Toberman is the other cop in whatever strange land this takes place. As is traditional in these flicks, the Police are a hapless lot.

A treasure trove of information!

While Toberman meanders through his investigation, Warnoff also racks up a living mummy (George Reyes) and the Monster of um, Farancksalan. Naturally, all these personages will gather at the local creepy castle owned by Warnoff, so there will be more unrealized plans and more importantly, inter-monster carnage, while the Commissioner shows up with the Army just in time to see the castle blow up.

This is actually Paul Naschy’s second outing as Daninsky (it was supposed to be his third, but a French co-production never happened). Assignment Terror exists mainly because his first, Las Noches del Hombre Loco, was an enormous hit. Promised a healthy budget, Naschy (under his given name of Jacinto Molina) wrote a script that drew heavily on his love of the Classic Universal monsters (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man being a particular favorite of his). Then the budget did not materialize, a whole lot of plot got dropped (including the Golem of Prague and some flying saucers), production stopped several times, and there were at least three directors involved over time.

Waldemar has looked better…

Naschy himself was not very kind to the flick, being especially disappointed in the makeup effects by Francisco Ferrer. Given that Assignment Terror bends over backwards to avoid any possible legal problems with Universal (Farancksalan? Really?), I was surprised to see that the makeup for the Farancksalan Monster is a direct quote of Universal’s, kind of like a comic book simplification. Though I also note that it looks like the Monster is blind, only directed by Warnoff’s psychic guidance, which continues a thread from Ghost of Frankenstein on through Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

I mean, you remember that, right? Ygor had his brain put in the Monster’s body, but the blood types didn’t match, so he went blind? And the Monster was still blind in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man? Naschy sure did. How the hell Naschy managed to become such a serious Monster Kid in Franco’s repressive Spain is probably a fascinating story.

This really is a confusing jumble of a movie (small wonder). The timeline is twisted, unknowable, and extremely elastic. Although we see the beginning of his plan, Warnoff will later take credit for actually creating the monsters over thousands of years. Which is a really long time to figure out that human emotions will eventually resurface in the aliens occupying Earthly bodies, causing Plan 10 from Outer Space to ultimately fail. Warnoff’s terrible management skills must also take some of the blame.

Assignment Terror is surprisingly restrained for a Naschy script – this could have easily been shown as part of a monster double or triple feature where all the movies were rated PG at most – I could really imagine it on a bill with The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant and Twilight People. There is little blood, no sex (Count Janos will paw Maleva’s boob, in a bit that could have been easily cut)… it’s all pretty mild stuff. And yet, because of the heavy nostalgia riffs, I found myself quite enjoying it. There are several instances of lovely, moody cinematography, particularly when a tomb is involved, which is at least three times.

Despite its shortcomings – and there are many – it’s just so darned eager to please. I can see Naschy cackling because Universal never got the Mummy into their monster mash movies, and he was going to rectify that matter! And he got to do his Farancksalan vs the Wolf Man fight. That’s not nothing.