U: The Uncanny (1977)

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Another anthology already?

The first thing you’re going to ask is, “Is this an Amicus Film?” Which is fair, since the name Milton Subotsky is right there in the credits. But no, at this point Amicus’ grave wasn’t even cold yet, after The People That Time Forgot. Subotsky relocated to Canada, and tried to get the ol’ anthology (“portmanteau”, if you want to get fancy) mojo workin’ again with this and The Monster Club. That didn’t work out so well, alas.

Our two big stars for the framing device are Ray Milland (yay!) and Peter Cushing (double yay!). Cushing is a very high-strung writer (his previous books were on flying saucers and ESP), who has made his way to Milland’s house with a thick binder. He’s Cushing’s publisher, you see, and he’s doubtful about the new book. Cushing responds that he has proof going back years that cats are horrible monsters that actually control the world.

Most of us who live with cats will shrug “well, duh”, but we already bought the ticket so let’s see what Peter has to say.

In 1912 London, a rich old matron (Joan Greenwood, rather wasted here but still managing to steal the show) dictates her new will, cutting out her wastrel nephew (Simon Williams) and leaving her vast estate to her multiple cats. Our snoopy maid (Susan Penhaligon) however, is also the lover of that nephew, and they hatch a plan to steal the old lady’s copy of the will. When she surprises the maid during the theft, there’s an employer murder, bringing down the wrath of all those kitties. I liked this story better when it was called Eye of the Cat and starred Michael Sarrazin, but that movie didn’t have the murderer trapped in a pantry for days, living on cat food, or the gruesome discovery that the hungry cats figured out the old lady was made of meat (Joan Greenwood, ladies and gentlemen – even dead, still upstaging everybody).

Oh, that’s never a good sign.

Then, in 1975 Quebec, the Blakes (Alexandra Stewart and Donald Pilon) take in their young niece Lucy (Katrina Holden Bronson) when her parents die in a car wreck. She brings with her dead mommy’s black cat, Wellington. Mrs. Blake doesn’t particularly like this, and she definitely hates the cat. Their daughter, Angela (Chloe Franks) is a nasty little shit who proceeds to make Lucy’s life hell. Mom finally steals Wellington away to have it euthanized, and burns Lucy’s mother’s book on black magic. Not all of them, though, and the euthanasia doesn’t take, and Angela is about to be in a lot of trouble.

Lastly, in 1936 Hollywood, a tragedy happens on the set of Valentine De’ath (Donald Pleasance)’s latest horror movie, when somehow the Poe-inspired pendulum over his co-star – his wife Madeliene (Catherine Bégin) – turns out to be quite real. Luckily for the desperate producer (John Vernon sporting a really weird accent), Madeliene’s stand-in Edina (Samantha Eggar) is willing to step into the role. As I’m sure you’ve figured out, Edina is Valentine’s mistress, the accident was murder, and Madeliene’s cat is going to be tossed out as soon as possible. Just to make sure you know Valentine is a cad, the cat has kittens and he drowns them. Well, that doesn’t go over well at all, and not only does the wily cat evade every trap Valentine sets out for it, it starts engineering on-set accidents to avenge its mistress.

Back at the framing device, I’m sure you can figure out how things shake out. Cushing is murdered by a mob of cats on his way home, and Milland burns his book while giving his cat nice dish of milk. The end.

Most of Subotsky’s anthology movies had four or even five stories, and cutting them down to three isn’t justified by the stories, which get so padded out that your wristwatch arm will get lots of exercise as you check how much time is left. The only story that doesn’t have this problem is the third one, where everybody – especially Donald Pleasance – seems to be having a lot of fun. Sure, Bram Stoker should have gotten a writer’s credit because it rather shamelessly rips off “The Squaw”, but, we take our entertainment where we may. I pondered if my reaction to The Uncanny was due to its close proximity to the more feral and kinetic Tears of Kali, but no… this one creaks in the wrong places. Oh, it’s a fair use of 90 minutes, the actors and game and uniformly good, but some patience will definitely be called for.

M: Madhouse (1974)

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madhouseIf there was one thing – one thing – I have taken away from 70s horror movies, it’s that “monster rallies” almost inevitably suck. I’m not talking about actual monster rallies, but movies that gathered together the gray eminences of horror stars in the same flick. Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, Peter Cushing, John Carradine, any combination of the above should be marvelous. What they are, usually, is quite tedious. This may be a problem with the horror genre overall in the 70s, desperately trying to re-invent itself in a new era with real-life horror vomiting forth from living room TVs every night. Watch Bogdanovich’s Targets again and realize in how many ways it was a prophetic piece of work, not only cinematically, but in the real world.

Well, sometimes they’re not too terrible, perhaps in spite of themselves. Madhouse falls into this category.

madhouse

That is, however, some very nice makeup.

Vincent Price plays Pete Toombs, an actor who has made his fortune playing a character named Dr. Death in a very successful series of movies (which always seem to look a lot like movies made by co-producers AIP in the 60s, hmmmmm…). During a fairly fractious New Years party “five years ago”, Toombs has a falling-out with his young bride-to-be, and later finds her decapitated body. It’s possible that he killed her in some sort of fugue state, and he spends several years in a mental institution.

In present day, he is called to England by his old friend, Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing), a former actor himself and writer of the Dr. Death flicks. Flay has joined with producer Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry) – who caused the falling-out five years ago – to produce a Dr. Death TV series. Toombs resists at first, still unquiet over his fiancee’s death, and above all, fearful of Dr. Death. “He frightens me. I’m frightened of what he can do.”

eviltimesmovieb1Well, needless to say, being a horror movie and all, it’s not long before the bodies start stacking up like cordwood. Toombs gets stressed out, closes his eyes, we see hands donning black gloves, and someone wearing Dr. Death’s costume kills someone else in ways reminiscent of the movies. A very real problem is that whoever the killer is wears a skull mask, so it’s obviously not Toombs committing the murders (if it was, why bother with the mask?). In fact, the culprit is pretty transparent from the get-go, though the movie tries to obscure this over the next 90 minutes or so. When the last line of  a flick is, “It’s your favorite dish… sour cream and red herrings” that notice has been noisily nailed to the wall.

Yes, this is famously (and obviously) one of those movies where the script was being written even as scenes were being shot. Supposedly based on a novel by Angus Hall, Devilday, about the only things left over are the main character’s name and the fact that he was a horror star. Everything else was in an improvisational muddle right up to the end, which is just as confusing and unlikely as anything else preceding it. There is a reason this was the final collaboration between AIP and Amicus.

madhouse2But another thing I learned from watching allllll these British horror movies from the 60 and 70s: even in the worst of them, the actors can be relied upon on to take the whole thing seriously. They do not camp or mince about, unless the material explicitly calls for it; even Christopher Lee, when he refused to say his lines as Dracula because he found them too gawdawful, once that camera was rolling and “Action” was called, hit his mark and made with the scary.

Every actor in Madhouse gives it his or her all, even though the script does not particularly reward them for it. Price is especially good, Cushing is sadly wasted, for the most part. Robert Quarry was obviously being groomed to replace Price as AIP’s horror guy, but increasingly it became obvious they had no idea how to facilitate that, which is too bad: he’s always solid. I was also pleased that I recognized Linda Hayden from Blood on Satan’s Claw.

The conceit of using footage from Price’s earlier movies as previous Dr. Death flicks allows us to enjoy sequences with Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone – and to ballyhoo their names in the opening credits as “Special Participation by…”

Leave it to AIP to find a way to exploit you after your death. It’s a device lifted from that earlier mentioned, Corman-produced Targets. Too bad AIP learned the wrong lesson from Corman, or, rather, badly misinterpreted it.

Buy Madhouse on Amazon

C: Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

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1957-UK-The-Curse-of-FrankensteinWhy yes, it has taken me an inordinately long time to watch this movie – Hammer’s first gothic horror, and a film that arguably kicked off the horror boom that would blossom in the 60s. During my younger years, this was understandable, since the local TV channels seemed to have no problems showing Horror of Dracula (and especially Brides of Dracula) over and over again, but the Hammer Frankensteins seemed to rarely crop up. In Curse‘s case, never. So, when it was finally released on DVD  in 2002, I snatched it up – and proceeded to ignore it for 12 years.

Don’t judge me, ye’ve not had my life.

curse_of_frankenstein_poster_03Rather famously, Universal threatened to sue this upstart British company if they dared to imitate their 1931 tentpole, and this was actually a good thing. I’ve read accounts that claim that the initial concept was to do a black-and-white movie with Karloff as the Monster – hell, Hammer even calls it “The Creature” so they couldn’t be accused of ripping that off – and the threat of litigation forced them to create something unmistakably their own.

First of all, the movie is in color – a semi-big deal in 1957. It starts the Hammer look of a subdued color palette against which any bright color – especially blood red – really pops off the screen. Costume designer Molly Arbuthnot has a ball with some amazingly textured fabrics. There are no lab coats and rubber gloves in this milieu,  our mad scientist does his bloody work in frock coats and cravats, white cotton gloves.

The movie begins with a desperate Baron von Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) telling a priest his tale on the eve of the Baron’s execution; the extended flashback which forms the movie proper takes its time, beginning with Victor Frankenstein as a young man, the last of his family, inheriting a vast fortune and hiring a brilliant science tutor, Paul (Robert Urquhart) who eventually becomes his collaborator in fringe science. After successfully bringing a dead puppy back to life, Paul is ready to publish, but Victor wants to go even further – to create life itself, using pieces of corpses as a framework.

648112Now, that is a hell of a leap, and if anyone doubts Peter Cushing’s skills as an actor (PS, if you do, you’re an idiot), the fact that Cushing actually pulls this off should provide more than adequate proof. His Frankenstein is quite the amazing portrayal, in fact – a rich nobleman used to getting his way, capable of great charm but so cocooned within his wealth and privilege that he can’t see the potential harm in anything he does, and in the pursuit of his ultimate goal, it becomes no surprise that murder becomes just another tool.

Paul, at first uneasy about his former student’s new experiments, eventually refuses to have anything to do with this horror, but Victor forges on, even when Paul deliberately tries to sabotage the process by damaging the brain of a brilliant, aged scientist Frankenstein has killed so that his creation can have the brain of a genius. Frankenstein’s first attempt to animate the Creature fails because his equipment – a riot of pre-Victorian galvanism and colored bubbling liquids – was built to be operated by two people. While he tries to convince Paul to help him, a lucky lightning strike surges through the equipment, and a surprised Victor Frankenstein is soon confronted by his own success – which instantly tries to murder him.

MCDCUOF EC019This is also one of the best fruits of the threatened lawsuit from Universal: the creation of a new visage for the Monster. Apparently in complete desperation, makeup artist Phil Leakey created this new version directly on Christopher Lee’s face at the last minute, using traditional supplies like cotton and spirit gum, very much in the tradition of the classic Universal monsters. Striking, horrifying and completely its own… creature.

Christopher Lee was cast as the Creature largely due to his impressive height (they almost cast another actor, Bernard Bresslaw, who was two inches taller than Lee). Now, I have the utmost respect for Christopher Lee: he has led an amazing life, recently turned what? 92? And is still kicking ass. But. I have always considered him an actor of limited range, but undeniable and truly impressive presence, That is a quality which must not be underestimated. And sadly, this role would not have given him an adequate showcase anyway: that lawsuit again, and though Lee’s Creature does have its moments of pathos, it falls to him to simply be murderous – there is no trace of Karloff’s incredible, often sensitive performance in 1931.

curse_of_frankenstein_23The story does get a bit meandering: the Creature escapes, kills a couple of people (the first one being a blind man, the polar opposite of a similar sequence in Bride of Frankenstein – take that, Universal!), and Paul shoots it through the head. This is no obstacle to Frankenstein, however, who simply resurrects it again after, once more, repairing the brain Paul had damaged. Victor uses the monster to rid himself of a troublesome maid attempting to blackmail him into marriage; it is for that murder that Frankenstein will be remanded to the guillotine at movie’s end, the monster having escaped once more, attempting to murder Victor’s bride, and finally winding up in the scientist’s convenient acid vat, erasing all evidence of the brute who actually killed the maid. Paul keeps quiet about the Creature, too, realizing death is the only way to stop the obsessed Victor.

hazel-court-in-the-curse-of-frankenstein-1957Having mentioned Victor’s bride, I should take a moment for Hazel Court, who plays Elizabeth. Lovely and talented, Court appears in several gothic horror movies, and she is, sadly, particularly wasted here; Elizabeth exists only as a reason to keep Paul in Castle Frankenstein, hoping to protect her from the horror of Victor’s experiments. Like Lee and Cushing, she was a veteran actor at this point, and probably used to such things. Check out her filmography at the IMDb – her talent was recognized, at least.

Speaking of Cushing and Lee – this is the movie that kicked off a close friendship that would last the rest of their lives, reportedly sparked into existence when Lee complained he had no lines and Cushing responded, “You’re lucky. I’ve read the script.” They had appeared in the same movie at least twice before, but never on the same set on the same day. Both were devoted fans of Looney Tunes, and I don’t know about you, but the idea of these two men imitating Sylvester J. Cat and Tweety-Pie between takes is something that keeps me warm on cold winter nights.

curse of frankenstein headerThe last thing that sets Curse of Frankenstein apart from its Universal forefather is an interesting reversal: both spawned many sequels, but in the Universal series, it was the Monster that remained the same, while the doctors around it changed. It was the exact opposite in the Hammer series: the monster would change, but the doctor (with one notable exception) was the constant: Peter Cushing, building on this complex, nuanced performance over the course of the next fifteen years.

Buy Curse of Frankenstein on Amazon