Flights of Mimsy

A freakish giallo/horror hybrid (think The Case of the Bloody Iris/Death Walks in High Heels meets Rosemary’s Baby/Repulsion/The Tenant, or any other Roman holiday), Francesco Barilli’s 1974  tour de force THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK (aka, Il Profumo della Signora in Nero) makes its triumphant American Blu-Ray debut, thanks to the gang at Kino-Lorber/Raro Video.

First off, I need to discuss the pic’s star, without whose tailor-made participation this movie would be bupkis.  The lead is American expat Mimsy Farmer, an actress with whom I’ve been admittedly infatuated since the 1960s.  Mims, of the strange, icy beauty and easily contorted face, briefly became (and deservedly so) the darling of the AIP exploitation camp (and I DO mean camp).  After work in some big-budget Hollywood fare (Spencer’s Mountain) and a lot of TV (most memorably the Outer Limits episode Second Chance), Farmer gave John Cassavetes a run for his money as an airhead teen beauty-contest babe yearning to be a biker groupie in 1967’s The Devil’s Angels.  Her iconic U.S. role was unquestionably as the would-be hippie daughter of police chief Aldo Ray in the Sam Katzman psychotronic smash Riot on Sunset Strip (also 1967).  It was in this movie that Mimsy, given an LSD mickey, goes tripping like nobody’s business, culminating in an elongated pop-eyed, twitchy dance segment that likely still wows ’em in Haight-Ashbury.

Farmer saw that there was little more to be gained on American soil, so she shed her waist-length hair, kissed Uncle Sam goodbye and high-tailed it for Europe, where she remains to this day.  Her 1969 turn in Barbet Schroeder’s classic More cemented her rep as a modern femme fatale – a performance misunderstood at the time (and truly, in my biased opinion, Oscar-worthy).  Playing a slew of nymphos, lunatics and various other oddballs followed in a barrage of Italian and French thrillers and chillers, most prominently The Road to Salina (as Rita Hayworth’s demented progeny), Les Suspects, Deux Hommes dans le Ville (opposite Alain Delon and Jean Gabin) and Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet.  It is, however, her appearance in this movie, co-written (with Massimo D’Avack) and directed by Barilli that is, butcher cleaver hands down, the actress’s masterpiece (and Barilli has as much as said so; it was Mimsy or no one).  I had a short but telling professional relationship with the actress, ca. 1981, via a little pastiche entitled Disco ‘Round the Clock, an homage to her and Katzman – an all-star rock ‘n’ roll/sci-fi/comedy that would (at least temporarily) bring her back to American shores.  That the vehicle crashed and burned due to skeevy, corrupt background politics (the scurviest of producers I’ve ever come across, and let THAT sink in, folks) is one of my saddest in a long line of unhappy never-to-be adventures.  But it did offer me a half-hour transatlantic phone conversation with Ms. Farmer that is one of the fondest memories of my generally unimpressive life.  Suffice to say, Mimsy Farmer turned out NOT to be the jittery nutjob she so magnificently portrayed in the flickers (which still would have been okay by me), but a genuinely lovely person (which was even better).  Oh, well – what could have been.  Sigh.

PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK is a woman’s paranoid nightmare.  To say that scientist Silvia Hacherman (Farmer) is disturbed (her mother was killed by a psychotic lover) is an understatement.  Facing adulthood alone hasn’t been easy, and the super-intelligent researcher has really moved and shaken her life in a positive direction.  Living in a small but trendy town, Silvia has become head of the chemical plant, doing important work that could soon bring about some landmark breakthroughs.  The former loner, living in a strange, gothic apartment complex (populated by strange, gothic neighbors) now has a BFF (Donna Jordan) and a lover (Maurizio Bonuglia).  Things are, at last, happening for her.  All of this drastically changes when, in rapid succession, her frequently absent boyfriend exposes her to a group of African emigres and spiritually-obsessed denizens.  A visit to a creepy blind seer (The Devil Rides Out‘s beguiling Nike Arrighi) unveils a foreboding message to the young woman, whose world is already starting to unravel.  Hacherman’s one memory of her mother (Renata Zamengo) encompasses the stunning parent, garbed in black, and wearing a particularly addictive scent of perfume.  Increasingly, Silvia is haunted by images of the mother in her mirror – and of her mother’s killer.

Hacherman’s universe continues to spiral downward when her bestie mysteriously dies and a frightening child (Lara Wendel), dressed like Lewis Carroll’s Alice (perhaps a Barilli in-joke/tribute to Farmer’s “Mimsy” forename, a nod to Carroll’s Jabberwocky), appears out of nowhere.

Silvia’s aversion to children grows into fear as the child begins to take over her life, even threatening to move in with her.   Soon “Alice” has gone complete Rhoda Penmark on Silvia, and the rattled scientist is at odds regarding a retaliation strategy, as she is now convinced that the sprout is herself, returned as demonic entity.

Troubled about her escalating unhinged state, Silvia’s every attempt to seek logical answers are met with horrific conclusions.  Is it possible that the entire town has ganged up against her?  That they’re all part of some vast conspiracy?  And why would they bother?  After all, what has she got to offer?

Seeing her mother’s killer in a curiosity shop sends her over the edge; now convinced that the murderer is stalking her, Silvia is lured into a deserted building (holding a terrifying secret).  The stalker appears, and what follows is the most harrowing rape scene I’ve ever witnessed in any movie.  Farmer is amazing in this gruesome montage, kicking and screaming, fighting back with all her strength – her face registering every negative emotion a woman might experience (a rape counselor-friend once told me that for this sequence alone “that actress should have won major awards…”).  It’s certainly the worst traumatic episode that Silvia or any woman could ever possibly fathom.

Except that it isn’t.

The above riveting ordeal (and its retribution) is but a preamble to the final grisly capper.  Now, earlier I indicated the Rosemary’s Baby connection, so many of you are likely saying to yourselves, “Oh, yeah, I know what’s coming.”  Oh, no, you don’t.  The climactic shocker will leave you gob-smacked, double-take’d, jaw-dropped and WTF breathless.

The Blu-Ray of THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK is excellent, stemming from a new High-Definition digital transfer.  The colors in d.p. Mario Masini’s cinematic palette pop with rich, velvety precision.  The audio, accessible in either the original Italian with newly legible English subtitles, or in the English dub, is decent-plus.  I have to say that I prefer the English dub for a couple of reasons.  One, the actors are all speaking English (if phonetically), and the English language allows one to appreciate Farmer’s unique verbalizing, which is always a main factor required for the full appreciation of her work.  The minor tradeoff is slight sibilance, but really is of little consequence.  A luxurious score (a giallo staple) by Nicola Piovani perfectly appends the visuals, so stylishly and suspensefully directed by Barilli.

Extras are plentiful, including a recent interview with Barilli, in addition to the director’s Il Cavaliere Errantel (The Wandering Knight), a 23-minute short.  A fully illustrated booklet rounds out the package that also includes the original trailer.

THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK is a gem of 1970s Italian cinema.  Long story short, I reiterate my previous statement that it is Mimsy Farmer’s finest moment.  If you’re a Farmer fan, then this should be more than enough to have you riffling for your credit card; if you’re not (possibly because you are unfamiliar with the actress and her work), you WILL be.  Big time.

THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK.  Color.  Widescreen [1.84:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber/Raro Video.  CAT # BRRVD 095.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Blair’s Witch Project

One of the most underrated horror pics of the 1960s (or any other decade), Sidney Hayers’ eerie 1962 BURN, WITCH, BURN ignites its power via a fantastic recent Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber/Scorpion Releasing/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.

A chilling examination of modern-day witchcraft and how it rocks a small, suburban British town, BWB excels by way of a number of factors, notably an intelligent script, tense direction, stark black-and-white photography and a superb cast.

The Halloween-friendly plot crackles like autumnal leaves under a pair of boots.  Newly-ensconced couple Norman and Tansy Taylor are enjoying the quiet and successful life in their community.  Taylor is a psych professor at the local college, whose growing reputation stems from his debunking ancient pagan myths and cure-alls in contemporary society.  Uh-oh.  His beauteous American wife tends to sway in another direction.  A sabbatical in the Caribbean immersed the open-minded woman into the world of voodoo and witchery, becoming obsessed to the verge of a breakdown.  The relocation to the UK (and Taylor’s new job) seems to be rerouting them toward a normal and positive plain.  At first.

Norman’s discovery of Tansy’s hidden spell-inducing artifacts – all devoted to his success (he’s up for a top, coveted managerial staff gig at the learning institution) sends him into a rage, to the point of threatening to dissolve their marriage.  Things go rapidly south from there; and, by south we’re talking fire and brimstone.  Has Tansy gone over the edge, now seeking out revenge on her once beloved spouse?  Or is someone else in the village dabbling in the black arts?

BURN, WITCH, BURN is the kind of movie that grips you from its “I don’t believe” beginning and holds you until the unforgettable climax.  There are no false notes, everything about it is spot-on.

I always considered the picture the perfect companion piece to Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon, another British classic about revered skeptics who learn the “truth” in a horrifying way.  I was subsequently delighted to discover that Curse‘s UK title is Night of the Demon, and BURN, WITCH, BURN‘s was Night of the Eagle (for narrative reasons I won’t explain).  So, there!

The admittedly more exploitative BURN, WITCH, BURN came from (where else?) American distributor AIP, who also added a corny Paul Frees pre-credit mumbo-jumbo Orson Welles impression/narration.  Suffice to say, that although this is the BURN, WITCH, BURN version, it is also the complete UK/Eagle cut.  Should also mention that BWB has an amazing overall title history, having been filmed once before in 1944 as one of those Lon Chaney, Jr./Inner Sanctum B-movies for Universal.  It was then entitled Weird Woman, yet one more great moniker; however, the best title for the tale came from its original source work, a story by author/actor Fritz Leiber, christened Conjure Wife – one of my favorite titles ever!

The script to BURN, WITCH, BURN comes by virtue of the always-reliable quills of Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man, I am Legend, The Legend of Hell House, the Corman/Price/Poe pics Pit and the Pendulum and Tales of Terror, and the unforgettable Karen Black TV flick Trilogy of Terror) and Charles Beaumont (TV scripter for One Step Beyond, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, plus Corman/Poe adaptations of The Premature Burial and The Haunted Palace), with uncredited assist from George Baxt (Horror Hotel and contributor to Hammer’s Vampire Circus); it remains one of their finest works.

The key element to BWB‘s potent punch is the suspenseful direction by Sidney Hayers, perhaps one Britain’s most unsung post-war heroes.  Hayers helmed every horror fan’s guilty pleasure, the outrageous (and often brilliant) 1960 nightmarish fantasy Circus of Horrors (scripted by the aforementioned Baxt).  The plot, which MUST be shouted from the rooftops, encompassed a mad, ex-Nazi plastic surgeon who turns scarred prostitutes (and other anti-social women) into spectacular beauties for his all-female traveling circus.  Never before has there been a horror film with such an overt take on the connection between sex, violence, and bad-girl addiction (it must have spilled over from the production, as Hayers married star Erika Remberg).  Hayers later gave us Payroll, destined to share a space in the pantheon Great UK Noirs, alongside The Criminal, Brighton Rock, Hell Drivers and The Good Die Young.  How great was Payroll?  In its edited U.S. release, it played bottom-half with Day of the Triffids.  I went with my dad to see it in 1962, and, to this day, recall parts of the crime drama with far more affection than I do the plant-from-outer-space main attraction.

Of course, all of the above are meaningless unless they have a major cast to enact it.  Again, BURN, WITCH, BURN crosses the finish line ahead of the throngs.  The Taylors are wonderfully realized by Peter Wyngarde and Janet Blair.  Wyngarde, who first grabbed international audience attention as the debauched Quint in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, later became a Brit superstar, due to his appearance in the TV series Department S.  He’s absolutely believable as the non-believer Taylor.  But it’s costar Blair who rates the plethora of accolades.  A gorgeous former 1940s Columbia starlet/actress (Ros Russell’s fetching younger sib in the first filming of My Sister Eileen), Blair matured into nuanced thesp on 1950s TV, often playing strong yet vulnerable characters, ideal for the role required in BWB.  Rumors that the pair had a torrid affair during the shoot is actually a cine-watcher plus, as, even when their characters exhibit acrimony, there’s still an unbridled chemical attraction of determined devotion.

Wonderful British supporting players round out the movie’s success/synonym, specifically Margaret Johnstone, Colin Gordon, Reginald Beckwith, Norman Bird and the great Kathleen (kwazy Black Narcissus Nun) Byron.

The atmospheric Lewtonesque photography is by Reginald Wyer (whose work comprised everything from Hammer and Prisoner TV episodes to Carry On pics) while the spine-tingling score is a triumph for acclaimed composer William Alwyn.

Aside from some infrequent sibilants, the Kino Blu-Ray presents a near-perfect rendering of the audio and visual elements.   The crystal clarity of the widescreen images defines the format and elevates the title to heights not experienced since the pic’s 1962 debut.

There are some amazing extras, including a new onscreen interview with Wyngarde and fascinating audio commentary by cowriter Matheson.

A sensual, freaky trip into the unknown, BURN, WITCH, BURN offers the rarely discussed downside of Elizabeth Montgomery’s mixed marriage.   Furthermore, it is guaranteed to have even the most snarky viewer question being a disbeliever.  I also predict that it will be one of the most repeated platters you’ll every spin out of your collection.  And that you CAN believe!

BURN, WITCH, BURN.  Black and white.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber/Scorpion Releasing/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # K1655.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Silent Screams

I apologize to my neighbors.  That uncontrolled yelling you heard recently wasn’t me and my crew merely shrieking in terror, but rather shouting for joy at the sight of the magnificent restoration of the 1925 THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, now on spectacular Blu-Ray from Kino Classics (in association with Blackhawk Films/Lobster Films and the Library of Congress).

How many classic movie fans and/or horror buffs have suffered through mimeograph-quality dupes (from 8MM-VHS) throughout the past half-century?  No need to actually ponder this query, it’s rhetorical.  But the answer is:  lots!  True, I’ve seen decent, even impressive, restorations at revival houses and on laserdisc and then DVD, but never ANYTHING approaching the level of this definitive 2-platter edition.  Folks, I can’t praise this essential David Shephard-coproduced edition enough.  Silent movie collectors/horror aficionados/Lon Chaney admirers – drop everything and add this to your library today.

I really needn’t go into the story of this oft-told tale of terror, based on the eerie 1910 Gaston Leroux novel.  I mean, it’s been filmed like a ga-zillion times, but with nowhere near the impact of this version (although I do maintain an affectionate liking for the sad, rather moving 1962 Terence Fisher/Hammer production).  And, yeah, I know, it’s a Broadway musical blockbuster.  Once again, the original has Lon Chaney – so game, set, over!  Look, it’s the most identifiable of the guy’s 1000 faces…and with good reason.  The movie is milestone for its attention to makeup effects, art and set design, lighting, and for the sheer fact that after more than 90 years since its release, PHANTOM still has the ability to freak the crap out of you. There’s even more than a hint of overt eroticism.  ([Your purity] “arouses me,” pants Chaney to his chosen young diva, as he indicates a gondola bed (Fun Fact: later Norma Desmond’s in Sunset Boulevard).

For Universal, the movie was the definition of “super-production,” but, even for Paramount or Metro (where Chaney had just been signed), the enormity of this pic would have been a massive undertaking.

The writers on PHANTOM comprise enough scribblers to practically qualify for a minyan.  The initial adaptation was by Elliott J. Clawson and Raymond L. Schrock; this was followed by the first of several treatments, penned by Jasper Spearing and Bernard McConville.  Frank M. McCormack was brought in for subsequent uncredited touch-ups.  Walter Anthony turned in the scenario, with Tom Reed assigned to titles.  Universal suits were a bit unnerved by the movie’s fright factor, and, for good or ill, brought in Richard Wallace to create some comedy relief relegated to the Larry Semon-esque Snitz Edwards character (but initially for a hastily-added Chester Conklin sidebar, later completely excised).

The director’s chair was likewise rather overcrowded.  Credited supervisor was actor-turned-megaphone maestro Rupert Julian.  Julian’s love of himself (coupled with his tendency to plod like a Clydesdale) merited bringing in the rapid-paced Edward Sedgwick, who shot a new horse-and-carriage escape ending, replacing an abrupt climax where Chaney’s body is found sprawled on his pipe organ.  That said, it has now been generally acknowledged that Julian’s malfunctions precipitated Chaney himself from grabbing the directorial reins for the majority of the production.  If his superlative efforts don’t rate another face, they certainly do another hat. Things became so strained that the two stopped speaking to each other all together.  In his terrific Chaney biography, Lon Chaney: The Man of a Thousand Faces, author Michael F. Blake recounts cinematographer Charles Van Enger’s additional role as a go-between: “Julian would explain to me what he wanted Lon to do, and then I’d go over to Lon and tell him what he had said.  Then Lon would tell him to ‘go to hell.’”  In any event, by filming’s end, Julian had been officially removed.

The reason Chaney had such power at Universal was the smash success of their previous 1923 Lon-super pic The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Determined to top the grotesque makeup of Quasimodo, Chaney pored through Leroux’s novel, sketching outlines of what a deformed escaped Devil’s Island homicidal maniac (or Erik) might look like at his worst (the upshot being one of great movie title cards of all-time, to say nothing of a guaranteed ice-breaker, suitable of any occasion:  “Feast your eyes!  Glut your soul on my accursed ugliness”).

To this end, Chaney didn’t disappoint; the Phantom is one of the most recognizable movie monsters of all-time (right alongside other iconic Universal ghouls, including Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolfman and, ironically, the Invisible Man).  To help build up the horror, Chaney demanded that no stills of the Phantom be issued to the press or be illustrated in the posters.  He also tested the results on the crew, memorably calling in d.p. Van Enger to ask him what he thought, then spinning around flashing the Erik skull-like grimace.  Van Enger, to put it mildly, just about lost his lunch, requiring an immediate change of scenery, if not underwear.  Chaney couldn’t have been more delighted. Actress/ingénue Mary Philbin didn’t fare much better.  She hadn’t seen the gruesome face until the famous unmasking scene.  The bug-eyed look of terror on her face ain’t acting (one of my most prized possessions is a still of this sequence, signed to me by Philbin).

There are other notables in the cast, many well-known to 1920s audiences, including the great Gibson Gowland (star of von Stroheim’s Greed), Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe, John St. Polis, Cesare Gravina; as evidence of the studio’s notoriety for nepotism (“Uncle Carl Laemmle had a big faemmle” was a snarky Ogden Nash pun) 15-year-old Carla Laemmle (the mogul’s niece) appears as one of the ballerinas.  Future famed producer Joe Pasternak (not a relative) worked on the movie as an a.d.  Aforementioned d.p. Van Enger, too, had some uncredited assist (and quite a backup unit – no less than Virgil Miller and Milton Bridenbecker).

But, once again, you can’t seriously discuss this movie without citing the built-to-scale fantastic sets by Ben Carre, so impressive that they remained a staple at Universal for decades (still standing in tattered remains on Stage 28, if, for no other reason, than to wow the studio’s throngs of annual tourists and rumored to be haunted by Chaney’s ghost).  Being the cynical bastard that I am, I suspect Universal started the horror craze JUST to wring every penny out of those sets (the period opera house, the labyrinth of sewers, the Phantom lair, etc.  Seeing these wondrous cinematic constructions is tantamount to catching glimpse of a beloved character actor; the first time I joyously recall eyeing a piece of those sets post-PHANTOM was in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (“broom closet”).

Of course, in a movie almost 100 years old, there are some musty narrative elements that unintentionally replace jitters with titters (and without the aid of Richard Wallace or Snitz Edwards).  For instance, that goofy dude in the fez (who turns out to be…well, if you’ve never seen it, I won’t spoil it for you)…and some of Philbin’s responses to the events at hand.  After the monumental unmasking, her character, Christine Daae, pensively emotes, “You – You are the Phantom!”  Christine Daae may be beautiful and talented, but she ain’t exactly perceptive.

But why quibble?

The movie has so much going for it, and, aside from still being unabashedly creepy, is a non-stop royal entertainment from fade-in to fade-out.

And now, more than ever.

Kino’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA‘s two-discs offer a plethora of viewing options.  Disc One, the streamlined 1929 reissue (which we recommend as the prime choice for novices and Bijou veterans), constitutes the most perfect transfer of this movie that I have EVER seen.  A splendid 35MM 1080p restoration (yeah, some of that unmasking still has the blotches) that blows every other copy out of the water (or, sewer, if you’re in full Erik mode).  Never have I viewed such detail, clarity, contrast – all of which visually punctuates the atmosphere so necessary to the complete enjoyment.

Aside from the fabulous black-and-white photography, this edition, of course, also incorporates the two-strip Technicolor Bal Masque sequence (again, never looking better than it does here), and a reconstruction of many of the movie’s original hand-colored Handschliegal Color Process segments.

Furthermore, the movie is accessible in two projected speeds (both historically accurate), each accompanied by a separate score (either the Alloy Orchestra or a Gaylord Carter organ composition); a 1990 musical setting by Gabriel Thibaudeau beautifully sets the scene for the operatic moments’ thrilling suspense.  Supplemental audio commentary by John C. Mirsalis additionally offers encyclopedic insight into the flick’s background.

And that’s just Disc One!

Disc Two contains the complete 1925 release with a score by Frederick Hodges, plus hefty chunks from the 1930 “talkie” re-release (partially directed by Ernst Laemmle, proving that Universal’s theory of relativity survived the transition to sound.  All the music is in dynamic 2.0 stereo (except for the ‘30 version, in its authentic recorded mono).

Other extras include the 1925 trailer, an interview with Thibaudeau, the screenplay, and, my favorites, two vintage 1920s Burton Holmes travelogues, Paris From a Motor and A Trip on the Seine.

If none of this has provided incentive for you to become personally acquainted with the most famous sewer-dweller since Ed Norton, then I give up!  But methinks many a collector’s attention has been piqued.  So what are you waiting for – a chandelier to fall on you?

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.  Black and white w/Technicolor sequence.  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definiton]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino Classics/Blackhawk Films/Lobster Films/The Library of Congress.  CAT # K20139.  SRP:  $39.95.

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Goodbye, Dolly

In the tradition of Laird Cregar and Raymond Burr trod (and not lightly) the sinister footsteps of Victor Buono, and there’s no better example of his corpse-strewn trail than the actor’s first starring vehicle, THE STRANGLER, a 1964 horror thriller, now on made-to-order DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection.

Buono kinda achieved the impossible – he copped some limelight from costars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the 1962 smash What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (for which he received a Best Supporting Actor nomination) His brooding, overpowering appearance (particularly those deep-set eyes) practically guaranteed that Hollywood would come a-calling with a terror follow-up.  And so they did.

A low-budget though nonetheless tense item, THE STRANGLER was the brainchild of Bill S. Ballinger (Richard Quine’s excellent 1954 noir Pushover was based on Ballinger’s novel Rafferty); it was directed by exploitation maven Burt Topper (Diary of a High School Bride, The Devil’s 8, Soul Hustler) and produced by the psychotronic dream team Sam Bischoff (A Bullet for Joey, King of the Roaring 20’s, Operation Eichmann) and David Diamond (The Raven, Revolt in the Big House, The Giant Behemoth).  The story, an unsavory mix of junk psychology and contemporary fright culture, carefully stalks the murky [socio]path paved by Hitchcock.  Leo Kroll (Buono), a super-intelligent medical research technician, has more secrets than than a D.C. brothel.  For example, he’s a mother-fixated introvert (or, perhaps, more precisely mother-smothered), living with and caring for a vicious, diminutive, verbally abusive single parent; succinctly, his quiet demeanor masks a raging misogynist.  This contradicts Leo’s curiosity of being in a sexual relationship with a woman, but despising them for what he concludes would be rejection.  Oh, yeah, and finally, he’s the maniac strangling women left and right, plunging the city into fear (mostly nurses, who, after all, are the ones helping keep his invalid mater alive and kicking).  His unique calling card: a tiny effigy doll placed at the scene of the crime.

Had they not just gone for the cheap thrill crowd, THE STRANGLER could have been a genuine classic horror flick.  Certainly, Buono’s performance as the serial killer is top-line, as is Ellen Corby’s turn as the hideous mother from hell.  But the cardboard police investigation and its practitioners (the lousy sub-Dragnet emoting of David McLean and Baynes Barron) bring it down to a near laughable level.  Yet, whenever Buono and his lady victims occupy the screen (which, fortunately, is quite often), this pic’s a creepy souvenir of 1960s modern horror.

It’s no accident that in a post-Psycho universe, the cinematic floodgates had been ripped off its hinges to unleash all sorts of monsters plagued by (now marketable) mental illness.  Homicidal, Maniac, Fanatic, Paranoiac, Berserk!, Strait-Jacket, Pyro are merely a sampling of some of the titles that graced theaters between 1961-1967.  The m.o. of THE STRANGLER went a bit farther, having gone into pre-production during the reign of Massachusetts’ serial killer Albert de Salvo, aka The Boston Strangler.  All Topper, Bischoff and Diamond did was leave off the “Boston” (which wasn’t the case outside America).  One look at the credits, and Hollywood studio buffs will immediately glom the fact that virtually the entire crew hails from Paramount.  I suspect (and, again, this is wholly my theory) that the project originally was greenlit by the company that started the Psycho ball rolling, but was eventually put off by the sleazy tie-in to an ongoing slew of murders.  Trying to avoid any controversy, I believe they optioned THE STRANGLER out to anyone willing to bite, and before the Paramount suits could start to sweat, Allied Artists chomped on the bait.  Rather than remove themselves from notoriety, AA took the picture one step further, reviving it throughout the grindhouse and drive-in circuit two years later when Richard Speck tortured, raped and slaughtered eight nurses (ironically, by this time Paramount had The Psychopath in wide release, a Robert Bloch-authored Amicus entry that also a utilized doll plot points).  Nothing like taste in showmanship.

When it comes to sleazy ballyhoo and psychotronic expertise, THE STRANGLER doesn’t miss a trick.  It’s got it all – beautiful nurses in peril, horrific sex crimes, carny ambiance (it’s where Leo picks up his dolls, and where he becomes obsessed with lusty lady barker Davey Davison).  I know it’s over fifty years old, but the sexist dialog absolutely made me cringe.  When the chain-smoking detectives get the autopsy results of the victims, they are a taken aback by the negative rape kit findings “[If he doesn’t rape them], what does he get out of it?” Aforementioned tongue-lashing monster-mom Corby’s words comprise a barrage of evilspeak that is almost painful to endure.  With Cruella de Vil precision, she cuts down the near-weeping/near-seething Buono with “poor, not good-looking, fat…” epithets, crowning the drubbing with and “funny,” mid-20th-century coded language for queer.  Truth be told, both male and female viewers in my living room wanted to whack her.  The linchpin that finally sets Leo on his worses-for-nurses purge is when he overhears mother telling her favorite RN home worker “If it weren’t for you, I’d be dead now.”

There’s actually one unsung hero performance that desperately needs mentioning.  The smart portrayal of Leo’s medical associate (Mimi Dillard), a savvy mistrusting professional, increasingly suspicious of her coworker.  That this character is a female and an African-American is remarkable for this type of a movie at that time in history.

The Warner Archive DVD-R of THE STRANGLER is aces, an almost pristine 35MM widescreen transfer (with some crisp, striking monochrome camerawork by Jacques Marquette); the excellent audio is punctuated by a post-production score by AA resident Marlin Skiles.

Buono, who became an integral part of the Robert Aldrich stock company, as well as one of the favorites of the Sinatra Rat Pack, rarely had his own movie (his next lead would be in 1971’s The Mad Butcher).  Thus, for his many fans, as well as Sixties horror enthusiasts, collaring THE STRANGLER for your movie library is a no-brainer.

THE STRANGLER.  Black and white.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic].  Mono audio.  Warner Archive Collection.  CAT # 1000577509.  SRP:  $21.99.

Available exclusively from the Warner Archive Collection:  www.warnerarchive.com.

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Beast Blanket Bingo

With great trepidation I approached my old “friend” THE MONSTER FROM PIEDRAS BLANCAS, a 1959 horror flick that haunted me through the early part of my misspent youth, which is now on Blu-Ray from the non-discriminating folks at Olive Films/Paramount Home Video.

When I say “haunted,” I’m not kidding – but more on that later.  THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS was an extremely graphic ghoul entry for its time.  The reason being that the titular cretin wasn’t satisfied with carrying babes off to some hidden grotto; he simply ripped the heads off his vics, male or female.  Why so anti-social?  Simple.  He’s hungry.  Monster Piedras Blancas (or MPB, for short) is the physical embodiment of a terrifying curse stemming from a California natural disaster (far worse than any lethal earthquake, but nowhere near as frightening as Pauly Shore).  MPB must be fed, or he goes on the rampage – and no head is safe.

The keeper of this secret is a surly old bastard of a lighthouse guardian (John Harmon) who tosses the freakish prehistoric link between reptile and man (a Diplovertebron, to be exact) his favorite vittles of liver and bacon…or else.  When the greedy local butcher (Frank Arvidson) sells off the yummy, tasty bits to some other fool, MPB rears his (literally) ugly head.

Fortunately for the small coastal town, two renowned eggheads (fossil Les Tremayne and facile Don Sullivan) have moved in to study the effects of…something.  Equally fortunate is the return of the mean ol’ lighthouse dude’s buxom daughter Lucille (Jeanne Carmen), back from college, where she apparently has been majoring in pole dancing (fortunate, because she seems to be the only female in the community under fifty). Two seconds after daddy warns her about steering clear of the beach, the rebellious vixen jogs down to the shore to go skinny-dipping.

With headless corpses piling up, it soon becomes obvious to local law enforcement that these murders may be connected.  Examining the latest half-munched headless torso, Tremayne and Sullivan, after much consulting (with the town’s local quack), determine that “Death was instantaneous.”

When the aforementioned butcher disappears, the curse is finally revealed in a gruesome follow-the-bouncing-cranium finale.

I’d like to say that this 71-minute indy pic moves like lightening, but I would be lying.  Truth be told, save a couple of juicy MPB moments, the movie remains a constipated homage to any 1928 talkie (but still infinitely superior to The Horror of Party Beach).  Sullivan, in particular, saddled with scientific jargon, doesn’t seem to know what the hell he’s talking about and that’s fine.  Why?  Because at least he’s not singing Christian rock – the most horrific aspect of his other “classic,” The Giant Gila Monster (where his boppin’ to the Lord took up approximately three hours of the movie’s 74-minute duration).  Tremayne is more fun, and fans of this ubiquitous character actor can rejoice in the fact that PIEDRAS BLANCAS is his only bona fide top-billed role.  Speaking of top-billed, we can’t refrain from mentioning the bodacious presence of the amazing Carmen.  True, PIEDRAS BLANCAS plunges her into some fantastic situations, but they’re nowhere near as weird as her life off-screen.  Carmen, infamously, was impregnated by The Monster of Viejos Ojos Azules, that’s Frank Sinatra, to you.  “Coerced” into having an abortion, Carmen soon gravitated toward the A-list crowd, soon becoming, she claimed, BFF with Marilyn Monroe.  It was Carmen (according to the starlet) who received Monroe’s last phone call – and on the night she died in August of 1962.  Till her death in 2007, Carmen claimed she knew the “truth.”  To most wags in the know, the only things missing in Jeanne’s Monroe Doctrine were spaceships and Elvis.

PIEDRA BLANCAS‘s origin is far more interesting than the actual narrative.  Director, writer and producer (Irvin Berwick, H. Halie Chace and Jack Kevan) were all employed at Universal-International in the mid-1950s.  There, they saw the sensation that became known as The Creature from the Black Lagoon.  And there they hatched their diabolical plan to make their own monster flick, using the Creature as their template.  The title is as close to The Creature from the White Lagoon as possible, translated as The Monster from White Rocks; luckily no one at the ginger-ale concern took high-school Spanish (although Piedras Blancas, I am told, is a real place).

The rubber suit comprising MPB is fairly close to the Creature with some fearsome alterations; in effect, it resembles a cross between the gill man and screen heavy Jack Lambert.  I incorrectly assumed for years that the creation was the work of the brilliant Paul Blaisdell (there is a slight resemblance to the alien from his It! The Terror from Beyond Space design); MPB was actually the work of Creature plagiarist Kevan.  That the success of PIEDRAS BLANCAS was assured is what race-track touts call “a sure thing”:  the picture’s final cost was under $30,000 – a ridiculous sum, even for 1959.

For all the “creators” allegiance to Black Lagoon, PIEDRAS BLANCAS owes more to Howard Hawks’ The Thing, especially in its most scarifyin’ sequence.  Remember in the Hawks pic when the group of Arctic soldiers/scientists open the greenhouse door?  It’s a scene that still makes first-time viewers jump.  And it’s swiped almost verbatim in this offering.  Here, it’s the townsfolk investigating the butcher’s disappearance.  They open his meat locker and out springs MPB, carrying the shopkeeper’s bloody severed head.  This and a claustrophobic encounter on the winding lighthouse stairway are genuinely harrowing, but these brief moments are overshadowed by the pic’s violation of the Val Lewton Act of 1942, that is, NEVER languish on showing the monster/demon/ghost.  It’s what you DON’T see.  Once the audience gets an extensive peek at the rubbery, zipper-up-the-back concoction (and in broad daylight, no less) all bets are off.  Watching him struggle along the shore with the grace of Wallace Beery on a toot takes the suspense down another peg.  MPB (or latexis joke-is, to refer to its Jurassic Latin term) remains nothing more than Jan-Michael Vincent with a Botox job gone bad. Worse is when Sullivan bops MPB on the melon with a projectile.  At Columbia, this would have been a Curly Howard moment, audibly accompanied by “It was an accident, Moe!”  Sadly, MPB isn’t allowed the luxury of speech, so we can’t even give him the expected response of “I’ll moiderize you!”  Sigh.

Why this movie haunted me is obvious.  At seven years old, watching it on Chiller Theater was a goosebump-raising experience.  The endless palaver was trimmed down for air time, and what remained were the head-rips.  I would sleep with the blankets over my mercifully secured head for weeks.  PIEDRAS BLANCAS was one of a handful of constantly-run 1960s-TV shockers that guaranteed me a plethora of nightmarish dreams.  It occupied a dark corner in my mind, alongside Frankenstein’s Daughter, It! The Terror from Beyond Space, Giant from the Unknown, The Giant Behemoth, The Crawling Eye and Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (I still find the latter three rather creepy and remain fondly attached to them).

Are there any redeeming 2016 reasons for owning a badly directed, written and (for the most part) acted no-budget horror flick?  Of course, and for all of the above.  Is there any genuine artistic rationale for embracing this kitschy fast-buckeroo?  Actually, yes.  The cinematography.  No, you read right.  Despite some unintentionally hilarious speeded-up Fractured Flickers footage, the movie is gorgeously shot in and around Cayucos and Lompoc, CA, by Philip Lathrop, one of our greatest d.p.s (Experiment in Terror, The Pink Panther, The Americanization of Emily, Point Blank, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, etc., etc.) in his salad days (and spectacularly realized in the beautiful widescreen Olive Films blu-ray).

A psychotronic riot, THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS is prime-rib cinematic junk food served with extra cheesy bread and a hefty side of mumbo jumbo.

THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS.  Black and white.  Widescreen [1.78”1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT# OF1262.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Sin God We Trust

A perfect mix for horror/Brit TV fans, the acclaimed 2015 three-part series MIDWINTER OF THE SPIRIT has been conjured up on American DVD from Acorn/RJL Entertainment/ITV Studios.  Based on the unnerving novel by Phil Rickman, this spooky, richly-mined character study revolves around Merrily Watkins (The Bletchley Circle’s Anna Maxwell Martin in a terrific performance), a newly single-parent country vicar, in training as a “deliverance minister” (that’s exorcist, to you).  Her amusing time spent in her Max von Sydow class (headed by a sarcastic Rev. Huw Owen, an equally fine display of acting by David Threfall) finds Merrily making merry with the head-spinning jokes before things take a decidedly dark…turn.

A crucified, mutilated corpse is found in the nearby woods, and before you can say “sacrificial rites,” Merrily is called in as a consultant to the police investigation (led by Kate Dickie and Simon Trinder).  Concurrent is the hospice patient Denzel Joy (Oengus MacNamara), a devout Satanist, who Watkins reluctantly visits.  Her fear of him is justified, as he performs his final act of blasphemy – jumping up and giving Watkins the old stigmata hearty hand-clasp.  Merrily, we learn, is bit unhinged to begin with; key to the woman’s increasing fragile mental state are the strange circumstances surrounding her husband’s recent death (in their quasi-sham marriage), her growing doubts about faith, and her rebellious daughter Jane (Sally Messham), who’s getting ready to ditch mom for a mysterious new friend, Rowenna (Leila Mimmack, labeled by all “as damaged goods”).  Add a Bishop (Nicholas Pinnock) whose controversial ideas about religion may be too progressive, a suspicious social worker (Doc Brown) determined to uncover the truth about Rowenna’s past, Angela, a publican a bit too well-versed in the black arts (Siobhan Finneran), an aged Canon in perpetual mortal terror (David Sterne), and a smarmy about-to-be-confirmed Boy-Bishop (Will Attenborough).  Wow, it’s been a busy week!

With rituals, cult gatherings, the discovery of a centuries-old ancient curse, and growing paranoia in the community, Merrily begins to wonder if it’s all really happening, or, if she is indeed plummeting into the abyss of insanity (red flag clue: that handshake residual ain’t getting any better).

Soon the village is agog with rumors of pedophilia, incest, possession and human sacrifices.  When Angela reveals the spirit of Jane’s father, she learns that he is not rooting for his ex (and, for Watkin’s sake, that “ex” better also mean exorcist graduate, because unless Merrily regains her faith before the Boy-Bishop’s crowning, all Hell will break loose).

Aside from the aforementioned acting, MIDWINTER OF THE SPIRIT doesn’t miss a trick (or treat).  Stephen Volk’s writing is tense, the tight direction (by Richard Clark) top-notch, the somber, haunting Herefordshire location photography (by Matt Gray) superb, and the score by Edmund Butt is appropriately spine-tingling.  Picture and sound are beautifully rendered via the terrific widescreen, stereo-surround DVD offered up by Acorn Media.

A thoroughly creepy, immensely intelligent foray into the supernatural (imagine a mini-series produced by Val Lewton), MIDWINTER OF THE SPIRIT is sure to be an item collectors will want to trot out every Halloween.  What better way to entertain friends and loved ones than by scaring the bejesus out of them!

MIDWINTER OF THE SPIRIT.  Color.  Widescreen [1.75: 1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 stereo-surround.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/ITV Studios.  CAT # AMP-2478.  SRP:  $34.99.

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Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman’s Porn

The Holy Grail for Japanimation fans, 1973’s BELLADONNA OF SADNESS was one of the most-anticipated U.S. releases for its legions of buffs last year.  Now, collectors can throw out those murky VHS bootlegs and rejoice with libidinous glee at the spectacular new 4K restored Blu-ray from Cineliciouspics/Cinefamily/Spectrevision.

The final and most famous (or infamous, if you shop at Hobby Lobby) part of a trilogy by renowned director Eiichi Yamamoto, in collaboration with his oft-producer/animator Osamu Tezuka (their long association goes back to the iconic 1960s kiddie fare Astroboy and Kimba the White Lion).  BELLADONNA is a graphic feature-length adaptation of the brown-wrapper 1862 novel La Sorciere by 19th-century French author Jules Michelet (scripted by Yamamoto and Yoshiyuki Fukuda).  It’s a raw, rough, rapacious journey of a determined heroine who literally goes through hell and triumphs…sort of.  It defines the power and plight of women, and, understandably, many cine-feminists claim it as a major 1970s work.

Okay, so what’s the plot?  Medieval peasant couple Jeanne and Jean (Katsuyuki Ito, Aiko Nagayama) seek their Lord’s permission to marry (the old Fornication Under the Command of the King wheeze).  Lasciviously eyeing the fetching Jeanne, the nasty ruler (Masaya Takahashi) demands an exorbitant cow tax before the ceremony can be consummated.  Jean is financially strapped, so the Lord decrees, with delirious approval from the equally repulsive Lord’s mistress (Shigako Shimegi), that for wasting his time, the degenerate royal must enforce his right for him and his royal minions to gang rape the crap out of Jeanne.

Jeanne’s vagina responds with torrents of blood not seen since The Shining trailer, and she is tossed out with the rest of the trash.  Scumbag Jean, now leery of damaged goods, deserts his fiancée, and wanders aimlessly like the a-hole he is.  Jeanne, too, wanders…and wonders.  And swears vengeance.  Jean accepts a tax-collector position at the palace, pushing another kind of rape – the monetary bleeding of his own people.  Jeanne, taken to romping naked throughout the desolate countryside, is visited by a meek penis-shaped entity who is obsessed with her breasts.  She has vicious nightmares and reveals her fantasy of wreaking havoc upon the community.  The entity elicits a verbal bond (“What do you want?”  “Anything…so long as it’s bad!”), grows in size, and voice, and soon, Jeanne, embracing sorcery (“…touching me, exciting me into…hell…”), has become the mistress of the black arts…and a very wealthy one (as a money-lender), too (threatening all who defy her).

Jean, now a hopeless drunk who has squeezed the last penny out of the villagers, is chastised by the Lord for not living up to the proverb about blood from a stone, and by “chastised,” we mean having one of his collecting hands chopped off.

Jeanne spreads an epidemic across the kingdom because, let’s face it, what’s the Middle Ages without a plague?  Called upon to remedy the situation, she replaces the one disease with another – eternal horniness.  Soon the entire land is coupling with one another:  men with women, men with men, women with women…many of them with farm animals…the likes of which haven’t been seen since my college days at NYU.  Of course, this can’t end well, and, big surprise – the now almighty entity reveals his true self as Satan.  “Whatever,” says Jeanne.  Satan wants Jeanne for his eternal love slave, and tells her of his great plan for her.  Jeanne, now SO powerful that she makes the Devil needy, has other plans, chiefly involving the Lord and the Lord’s Mistress.  In her last stand, the woman takes the corrupt government down prick by prick.

And the townspeople being…well, people, respond like all humans afraid of what they can’t fathom (to say nothing of women, in general):  they burn her at the stake (oh, the fate of those French “Jeannes”).

As one might glean, BELLADONNA isn’t your normal family animated movie-night pick (unless your family includes Uncle Caligula).  As mentioned above, the movie never played America until 2015, taunting those aware of its existence with tantalizing stills.

I will say that it certainly isn’t for everyone, and encompasses an audience that, ironically, comprises a critical threesome.  You’ll either love it, hate it or be car-wreck fascinated by it.  The picture raises many questions, primarily, cinematically speaking, is it a gum or a candy?  Many (likely those who never saw it) pegged it as anime.  It really isn’t, as it’s not truly animated.  Yes, there are some full-animated sequences (including a weird psychedelic montage depicting women treated as trash through the ages), but BELLADONNA mostly tells its debauched tale via paintings, tapestries and drawings (all well-executed, some striking and explicit).  The imagery is often mallet-to-the-head unsubtle (schools of fish pouring out of a vagina).  Is it porn?  Is it feminism? I have friends in both camps who emphatically say “Yes.”

Okay, so where do I stand?  Earlier, I divided the viewer base into thirds.  I am firmly entrenched in the last triad, but with an asterisk leaning toward the positive first.  Why?  Simple.  Because of the “acting.”  The vocal accomplishments of all involved are exemplary, but one towers above the rest (and, thus, influences my vote immensely).  The actor voicing the role of Satan (from mild-mannered entity to evil deity of the underworld to randy would-be lover – indeed, putting the “horny” on horns) is none other than the great Tatsuya Nakadai, in my opinion, our finest living actor.  He approaches the material like he would one of his mighty Kurosawa roles – and he’s magnificent (if I understood Japanese, I would close my eyes and listen to the soundtrack as I would a radio play).

The Cineliciouspics Blu-Ray is terrific, with crystal-clear visuals and strong, buoyant audio.  The English subtitles are excellently translated, mercifully legible and eminently quotable.  No foolin’, Cineliciouspics has really gone the distance to give collectors what they want.  In addition to the fine transfer, they have uncovered and restored eight minutes cut from the original Japanese 35MM negative.  There are also newly filmed interviews with director Yamamoto, art director Kenji Fukai and composer Masahiko Sotoh, plus the recent American and 1973 Japanese trailers.  And for a hands-on delight, there’s a 16-page, full-color illustrated booklet with an essay by Dennis Bartok.

I’m glad to have finally been able to see BELLADONNA OF SADNESS – if, for no other reason, to enjoy Nakadai’s work.  I do have to admit that I’m a bit perplexed by the slew of on online bloggers who condemned the picture’s storyline as being boring.  Pray I never have to party with them.

BELLADONNA OF SADNESS.  Color.  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA (Japanese w/English subtitles).  Cineliciouspics.  CAT/ISBN # 83390-00118.  SRP:  $39.99

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The Moor of Menace

“Know then the legend of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES…” opens the direful narration, which continues, “[And] know then that the great Hall of Baskerville was once ruled by Sir Hugo…a wild, profane, Godless man…an evil man in truth…”  And, while we’re at it, you should also know that it’s – “Ten Times More Terrifying in TECHNICOLOR,” as the ads proudly (and honestly) claimed.   Finally, know then that we’re talking about the superb 1959 version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes classic, brilliantly filmed by Hammer, directed by Terence Fisher, starring Peter Cushing and now available in a fantastic limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.

I suppose I could wax rhapsodic about all the splendors of this much-beloved production, but I’d just be retreading ground done far more thoroughly  in tomes about Cushing, [co-star] Christopher Lee, Fisher, Doyle/Holmes and the famed studio itself (I recommend checking them all out, particularly Hammer Films: The Bray Studio Years by Wayne Kinsey, In All Sincerity, Peter Cushing by Christopher Gullo, The Charm of Evil: The Life and Films of Terence Fisher by Wheeler Dixon and Peter Cushing: An Autobiography and Past Forgetting and Tall, Dark and Gruesome by Christopher Lee).

That said, I can’t praise this version highly enough; it’s my favorite Sherlock Holmes movie with, I believe, the best portrayal of the consulting detective ever captured on film (my apologies to Basil Rathbone, John Neville, Christopher Plummer, Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch – all admittedly excellent).

The Hammer/Fisher rendition really upped the bar for the title, arguably most horrific adventure that Holmes and Watson ever tackled (and one of the most filmed).  It’s Hammer at its peak, and the first time a Holmes picture was ever lensed in color – and what color!

Firstly, though, leave us discuss the performances.  In my eyes, Peter Cushing can do no wrong, and he plays Holmes with perfection.  Lee, too, as the victim-to-be, heir to the family’s curse, Henry Baskerville, is exceptional, (in a part that’s usually a thankless human MacGuffin).  The supporting players are all hand-picked gems, specifically Francis De Wolff, Ewan Solon, Marla Landi, David Oxley, John Le Mesurier, Sam Kydd, and last but not least, the comical presence of Miles Malleson.

It is, however, Andre Morell as Watson who deserves a lion’s share of accolades, bringing us the screen’s most believable Dr. J.  Now don’t get me wrong; I’m vastly entertained by the shenanigans of Nigel Bruce, perhaps the world’s most celebrated Holmes associate.  But, fair’s fair – the dude’s a bumbling buffoon.  Logically, I could never understand the relationship between Bruce/Watson and Rathbone/Holmes, unless it was some kind of superiority master/slave kind of kinky thing (here comes the deluge of how-dare-you emails).  Morell, on the other hand, embellishes his Watson with cold intelligence, wry sarcasm and genuine instinctive reflexes that nicely parallel Cushing’s Sherlock.  The two actors display a camaraderie that transcends movie chemistry; their professionalism and respect is extraordinary.  If one needs any further proof of their formidable acting abilities, check out the greatly underrated 1961 Hammer psychological thriller Cash on Demand, where one preys upon the other with wings-off-the-fly mind-fuck sadism.

Fisher’s direction is spot-on, from the tense flashback opening (that gives us the lowdown on the curse’s origins) to the thrilling conclusion on the sinister, but hauntingly beautiful moors (via Surrey location work and interior/exterior design excellence).  The script, by Peter Bryan, is quite literate, fat-free and engrossing.  That said, Malleson (as the local bishop/amateur entomologist) nevertheless delivers my favorite, likely one the writer/character actor contributed on his own (“I knew a Watson once, a white slaver…”  Morell’s response is suitably droll).

Lee’s courting of his neighbor, Spanish-born crazy-legs Cecile Stapleton, is doomed from the start.  As enacted by the sensuous Marla Landi, Cecile is a like a Victorian mean girl, snarkily putting down her neighbors, displaying her shapely gams and nearly causing Watson’s demise on the moor’s lethal bogs.  She’s one bad-ass Hammer babe, which also means that she’s one of our favorites.  Her seething male-taunting of “You thought eet would be eezie, deent you?” is a guilty pleasure of mine and many of my pals – primarily because if we were characters in the movie, we’d all be caked under Grimpen Mire by now, thank you, Cecile.  Her maniacal grin is chilling, yet erotic.  What can I say?  If they’d find my corpse, it would have a smile on my face.

HOUND was chosen by Hammer’s to be their initial foray into the Holmes library.  Yet, while it performed decently, it didn’t fill the coffers like its predecessors Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, so, sadly, the proposed series never went beyond this outing (Cushing did get to play Holmes again in a 16-episode TV series, broadcast in 1964-65 and 1968).  Ironically, it was the only major Hammer goth to be released by UA, the company that helped put the company on the map in the U.S. with The Creeping Unknown (aka, The Quatermass X-periment).

Parts of my youth are connected to this movie in ways that transcend Marla Landi.  I vividly recall the frightening TV spots that aired in 1959 (dominated by blood-curdling howls over a graphic of a demonic, salivating canine with glowing eyes).  At five, I was already a fan of scary movies, and I couldn’t wait to see this pic at the Loew’s 175th.  Alas, it wasn’t to be.  My close buddy, another monster-movie fan, also had seen those TV spots and begged her mother to take her to see it ASAP.  My dad was going to take me that Saturday, she got her mom to do it Friday.  The next morning, her mater frantically called my mom with the shocking warning, “Don’t let Mel see that horrible movie.  Michelle had awful dreams all last night.  She woke up crying, she’s so scared.” Of course, this is the LAST thing you want to tell a precocious urchin who delights in all things creepy-crawly.  Didn’t matter, my mom forbade my dad from taking me to see HOUND in its initial release.

Years later, I was at a private screening of HOUND, a beautiful 16MM IB print, when something memorable occurred.  At the point where wily Cushing calmly tells the excitable Dr. Mortimer, “Strange things are to be found on the moors,” then becomes manic, shouts, “LIKE THIS, FOR INSTANCE!” and flings a crimson-stained dagger, barely missing the surgeon’s hands as it becomes embedded in a piece of furniture.  Some dude sitting a couple of spaces away from me, dead-panned, “Typical coke-head” (and, trust me, he would know).  At first, I was amused, but then, upon thinking it over, pondered  if this was indeed an intentional bit by Cushing/Fisher (since we all know Holmes was a snowbird), they’re even greater geniuses than I give them credit for!

I have never seen a bad copy of HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLLES, and I have never seen a better transfer than the magnificent 1080p Blu-Ray transfer that Twilight Time has bestowed upon us Hammer buffs.  The studio’s trademark meticulous detail (realized through Molly Arbuthnot’s costumes and spectacular production design by Bernard Robinson) has never been more evident than on this must-have platter.  It doesn’t hurt that the visuals were shot by my favorite Hammer d.p. Jack Asher, bathing the widescreen frame in ghoulish greens and reds.  And, natch, there’s the iconic score by Hammer composer James Bernard (with occasional riffs from Horror of Dracula).  The music is accessible as an IST; the mono sound is uniformly fine, save a bit of infrequent sibilance (extremely minor).  And there are extras worth noting, including Christopher Lee’s Actor’s Notebook, two audio commentaries (one with David Del Valle and Steven Peros, and another with Paul Scrabo, Lee Pfeiffer and Hank Reineke), hound mask creator Margaret Robinson discussing her work, and Lee reading excerpts from the Conan Doyle novel.

Know then the curse of Twilight Time.  This is a limited edition of 3000.  When they’re gone, that’s it.  And one doesn’t need to be a Sherlock Holmes to realize that strange things are to be found on eBay – LIKE TEN TIMES THE PRICE OF AN OUT-OF-PRINT BLU-RAY!

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES.  Color.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # 11956-02123.  SRP:  $29.95.

Limited Edition of 3000.  Available exclusively through www.screenarchives.com and www.twilighttimemovies.com

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Hardcore Bard Gore

Calling 1973’s sardonic horror-comedy THEATRE OF BLOOD (now on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios) a slap in the face at critics is a gross understatement (accent on “gross”).  A slit throat from ear-to-ear is more appropriate.  The fact that it’s able to do this with buckets of blood and still remain all in fun is part of this nasty delight’s endearing charm.

The plot chronicles the vengeful retribution of one Edward Lionheart, Shakespearean actor extraordinaire (at least to his way of thinking), shunned by his critics from a prestigious award (given to one of those “mumbling” kitchen-sink undeserving crotch-scratchers; again, to his way of thinking).  Truth be told, the only trophy Lionheart’s critics are likely to upon him is the lead in a Dr. Seuss production of “A Ham I Am.”

When an irate Lionheart invades their round table, his megalomania goes ka-boing and he gives his final performance – a death leap into the Thames.  That’ll show ’em!  Critics being critics, they review their deceased’s swan song with disdain (three out of five stars), and after a proper mourning period (say, 90 seconds) proceed to more pressing issues.

But have they seen the last of Edward Lionheart?

If they had, this would be shortest horror appearance since Bela Lugosi uttered his immortal “You have booped your last boop.”

Rescued by Britain’s homeless, Lionheart offers his gratitude by ensconcing them in a deserted theatre he has purchased and entertaining them with a full roster of Willie Shakespeare’s best.  The added incentive of unlimited Ripple (dare we say) juices the applause meter and all are happy.

Well, except there’s one more thing to do:  extract lethal payback on the nine waspish reviewers who dogged Lionheart’s entire career.  To do this, the demented thesp plots to gruesomely liquidate each critic in the order of murders corresponding to his final Shakespearean schedule.  And let’s face it, when it came to gaining sanguine audience approval, Shakespeare was in many ways the Herschell Gordon Lewis of the Elizabethan Era.

It doesn’t help the poor critics that Edward Lionheart is portrayed by Vincent Price, who knows a thing or two about torture, dissection, garroting, drowning and other jewels in the crown that for centuries defined the British Empire.

In rapidly decreasing fashion, the nine poison-quill culprits are dispatched quicker than pounds at an Agatha Christie liposuction clinic.  And (like the possibilities of the previous comment) it ain’t pretty.

The nine in question, all shining examples of the acting profession themselves (Ian Hendry, Jack Hawkins, Michael Hordern, Coral Browne, Robert Morley, Arthur Lowe, Dennis Price, Robert Coote, Harry Andrews), quickly demand an end to this bloody nuisance before it’s too late.  Hendry, the most reasonable of the bunch, teams up with Lionheart’s concerned daughter (herself a member of the entertainment biz, excelling in makeup and hair), the formidable Diana Rigg.  With the additional aid of stunned Inspector Milo O’Shea and his befuddled assistant Eric Sykes, the game, as they say, is on.

As one might imagine, THEATRE OF BLOOD is the ultimate bash at those who purport to be the enlighteners of the acting profession with tongue very firmly in cheek (and, often, later, on a platter).  That all involved seem to be having the time of their lives makes their deaths scrumptiously more delicious (the picture is rife with in-jokes, nicely meshed with the entrails).  The stellar cast is (obviously) terrific, and even extends to the minor supporting players (critics’ Hordern’s and Lowe’s spouses are portrayed by Renee Asheron and Joan Hickson; the crème de la crème, however is the partner chosen for jealous “Othello” Hawkins – Diana Dors).

The script, by Anthony Greville-Bell (from an idea by coproducers John Kohn and Stanley Mann), is full of macabre twists, turns and literally gut-wrenching visual puns.  When Merchant of Venice victim Harry Andrews’s heart is shockingly delivered to Hendry, his terror is almost immediately supplanted by outrage:  “Only Lionheart would have the temerity to re-write Shakespeare!”

THEATRE IS BLOOD is the logical progression of the great Vincent’s Dr. Phibes character (which resulted in two very successful and gory comedies for AIP).  BLOOD is the Phibes pics on a far more elaborate and erudite scale.  The repellent violence and hemoglobin splatter throughout becomes acceptable to non-genre fans due to the witty script and celestial cast (even Hendry’s personal assistant is no less than Hammer’s beauteous Maddie Smith).

Like the Phibes pictures, BLOOD was originally slated to be directed by Robert Fuest.  But by the time the picture was ready to roll for UA, he had been replaced by Douglas Hickox.  Hickox, at first, may be a weird choice for the ghoulishly hilarious proceedings, but, then again, maybe not.  Hickox was an excellent a.d. turned fast-paced director, whose output defined “no-nonsense.”  He also doesn’t seem to have had a particularly great sense of humor, which, ironically, also works toward BLOOD‘s Grand Guignol appeal (he had previously directed a Sitting Target, a violent crime drama with Oliver Reed and Ian McShane that I like a lot); to this day, Morley’s fate still makes me squirm, but with lip-biting “ewwww” glee.

Curiously enough, critics adored THEATRE OF BLOOD when it was originally released in 1973, many citing it as Vincent Price’s crowning achievement.  The actor thought so too, proclaiming it the personal favorite of all his movies.  Rigg went one better:  she called it the best picture she ever made.

Rigg also played a key factor in another aspect of the production.  Seeing the obvious growing attraction between Price and Browne, she stealthily maneuvered them accidentally-on-purpose together whenever the op arose.  By the time the movie wrapped, the pair was inseparable, marrying soon afterward and spliced together till the end of their days.

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray is a much-desirable addition to any horror/comedy fan’s collection.  The picture quality (as rendered by Wolfgang Suschitsky’s cinematography) is quite excellent, as the format demands; the mono audio is a bit of a mixed bag.  Some of the lines are occasionally muffled and the Foley person seems to have misinterpreted the term for “folly.”  By that I mean that sometimes a snippet of dialog is so low that one must boost the volume, only to be blasted by another actor’s response, which is at normal (and suitable) level.  Don’t know if this is a problem due to the picture’s deteriorating sound elements, or perhaps something that always existed in the mix.  In any event, it’s not constant, and shouldn’t prevent Price fans from a purchase (for further incentive, there’s a running commentary with film historians Nick Redman and David Del Valle).  And like all Twilight Time titles, the soundtrack, featuring a wonderful score by Michael J. Lewis, can be accessed as an IST.  Even without that option, I’ve already played that main credits theme over and over (another in-gag, the titles being displayed over a montage of silent Shakespeare films, the dig being that, unlike Lionheart, you can’t hear anyone).

For those looking for perhaps the grisliest show-business movie ever made (but nevertheless one with a scholarly, cerebral kick), you can’t do better than this deranged offering (remember, however, that this is a limited edition, and once they’re gone, they’re gone).  But be forewarned, the picture lives up to its title and the blood flows like Malmsey.

THEATRE OF BLOOD.  Color.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HA MA. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # 11956-02134.  SRP:  $29.95.

Limited Edition of 3000.  Available exclusively through www.screenarchives.com and www.twilighttimemovies.com .

theatreofbloodcover

 

 

Ray-I-P

Call it a case of a major at a minor, but Oscar-winning actor Ray Milland’s involvement with exploitation masters American International Pictures (at their peak) is a cinematic marriage made in psychotronic heaven.  Three back-to-back “classics” – all exceptionally well-made and respectable – have beautifully stood the test of time.  The trio, made in 1962 and ‘63 comprise THE PREMATURE BURIAL, PANIC IN YEAR ZERO and X – THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES, and they’re jaw-dropping pips.

But, as with so many iconic movies, their coming to light was not all milk and Karo syrup.  In fact, the Milland pics started with a rather nasty altercation that almost ended with a court date (and not Hazel).

AIP’s shining star was the prolific Roger Corman, but, by 1961, after pretty much single-handedly putting the tiny studio on the map, the director-producer was carping about his treatment by the indy’s moguls Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson.  Corman had already created his own releasing arm FilmGroup, which, if nothing else during its short reign, gave us Little Shop of Horrors.  Corman’s return to AIP and his pushing the teen-oriented company into the bigger leagues (via the color and scope Edgar Allan Poe/Vincent Price series) gave him some points.  But not enough to suit him, and too many to appease Arkoff and Nicholson.  Well, the reason the studio picked Poe to cinematize was because his sublimely shuddersome works were so visual, so movie-friendly, so public domain.  Thus, Corman didn’t need AIP to do a Poe adaptation; he put together his core crew of actors and technicians, scored a coup by snaring writers Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell (the latter, who among other things, penned the horror masterpiece Mr. Sardonicus) and put out distribution feelers.  Since horror and westerns were huge during this period, buttressed by the tried-and-true Corman name, the young maverick had little trouble luring potential backers.  Dubious lab Pathe was looking into starting their own producing arm and tentatively made Corman a deal for BURIAL.  This sent Arkoff into a rage, and the pint-sized cigar-chomper immediately flew to the East Coast to rip ’em a new one.  AIP, he informed Pathe, was their biggest client; go with Corman, and the studio would pull their account.  This was no idle threat, and Arkoff going psycho-Pathe-ic worked its charm.  Pathe forgot all about producing, Sam and Jim came to terms with Corman, and PREMATURE BURIAL went out as an extremely profitable AIP release.  But there were codicils.

While Corman had originally wanted Vincent Price to star in BURIAL, Arkoff reminded him that the House of Wax/House of Usher luminary was a “house of AIP” legally contracted talent, and could not appear in any other Poe adaptation (a fine-print clause that probably could have been argued legally).  Nevertheless, Corman cast his net elsewhere and brilliantly snared Milland, whose presence always upgraded whatever project he was associated with.  With everyone kissed and made up, Arkoff offered Milland an additional two-picture deal; Milland agreed on the condition that he would direct one of them (the actor had been directing movies and TV since the early-mid 1950s, and quite well, too).  Arkoff had no problem with that, and the countryside was quickly scoured for suitable macabre properties for all concerned.  It all (obviously) turned out remarkably well – with the aging star returning to the AIP fold the following decade with another pair of kitsch gems Frogs and the outstanding Thing with Two Heads (one of my personal favorites).

In Roger Corman’s rendition of Poe’s THE PREMATURE BURIAL (as eerily scripted by Beaumont and Russell), Guy Carrell (Milland) is a wealthy, scholarly denizen about to marry the gorgeous daughter (the always welcome Hazel Court) of a revered physician.  What’s there to worry about?  Puh-lenty!  Carrell, living a reclusive existence in a creepy manse with his equally creepy, morbid sister (Heather Angel in her final screen appearance) has more phobias than barrel of Elisha Cook, Jrs.  Prime is his fear of being buried alive (as he swears his father was), coupled with the fear that he’s inherited a severe version of narcolepsy (which mimics death, thus allowing one to be…buried alive).  To this end, he’s moved into the family crypt and customized the chamber with a barrage of Rube Goldberg escape devices (in one of the movie’s key sequences, a sardonic anti-Christ nightmare ensues when each fail safe ploy backfires, Wile E. Coyote-style).  A genuinely gruesome shot of pater’s opened coffin revealing splintered, bloody claw marks doesn’t sit well with Guy (and why SHOULD it?).  Add the fact that the local gravediggers are John Dierkes and Dick Miller, and oy vey!  On cue, Carrell expires just as he predicted, and returns insane and out for vengeance (done rather graphically for 1962, as he literally gets the dirt on Court).  Of course, Milland was no stranger to the genre, having starred in the superb 1944 ghost romance The Uninvited and later doing a diabolical turn as a satanic figure in a bona-fide horror noir, 1949’s sadly neglected Alias Nick Beal; can’t not mention his excellent directing abilities, helming a terrific adaptation of Robert Bloch’s Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper for TV’s Thriller series.

Aside from the aforementioned thesps, there’s also Richard Ney as a perhaps too friendly best friend and Uninvited/reunited cast member Alan Napier.

The picture is thick with atmosphere, the interior/exteriors flooded with mist and fog (sumptuously photographed by the great Floyd Crosby), a ghoulish reprise of the song “Molly Malone” (that plays an integral part in the scenario’s shocking climax) and a suitably, sinister score by Ronald Stein.  The Blu-Ray, digitally-restored from the faded PatheColor elements looks better than it likely did during the original release.  FYI, fellow Boomers whom I’ve spoken to throughout the years, and lucky enough to have seen BURIAL in ’62, all admitted that it was the only Corman/Poe flick that seriously frightened them.  Not to besmirch Vincent Price, it’s pseudo-zombie Milland who chills to the bone, oozing evil with dastardly delight.

 

1962’s PANIC IN YEAR ZERO is a fascinating look at that Cold War quick-hide-under-the-desk bugaboo – nuclear devastation.  A trim, unnerving look at how “the bomb” effects a typical American family on vacation is lovingly detailed in a blood-spattered path of violence by director (and star) Milland.  Milland (as Harry Baldwin) and his family (the terrific Jean Hagen, Frankie Avalon and Mary Mitchel) hear that L.A. is now in the partial rubble of a mushroom cloud (ditto, major democratic cities throughout the globe).  Milland/Baldwin wastes no time in swinging into action (“My family MUST survive!”).  Always expert at portraying exasperated “I have no time for your shit” easily-angered protagonists, Milland immediately realizes that humans are basically living fecal specimens and, when a wily shopkeeper refuses his check (what bank is left to cash it?), Milland offers the same argument for cash and instantly brandishes a gun (the new law of the post-nuclear land); ironically, a point is made earlier about firearm purchasing needing to wait for a background check.  It’s difficult not to get political, but YEAR ZERO is definitely a right-leaning vehicle (not unlike Milland).  Teens are not to be trusted, merely killed.  Clean-cut Avalon takes dad’s lead and relishes liquidating the opposition (“[I like the idea of] blowing their heads off,” he gleefully tells papa).  Natch, surviving yoots are portrayed as duck-tailed fugitives from Rebel without a Cause, specifically a trio of psychos (Dick Bakalyan, Rex Holman, Neil Burstyn) who murder a family, take over their home and use their teenage daughter as a sex slave (the beauteous Joan Freeman).  Milland and Avalon have no use for these deviates and systematically annihilate them; even spouse Hagen gets in on the act, and, it’s indeed a hoot to see Lina Lamont using her own daughter as bait and using leather-jacketed felons as target practice.  This American mini-Lord of the Flies eventually concludes with Harry & Co. residing in a cave and coming to terms with their own lust for violence (“I looked for the worst in others, and found it in myself,” reveals Milland with a sense of revulsion).

A cease fire, heard over a radio, offers hope as the Baldwins pack up and prepare to relocate back to the middle class.  Of course, no mention is made of the lethal fallout that will likely make ’em all corpses when they reach the outskirts of L.A. (although it’s probable that the bomb ballast is less toxic than the city’s smog).

The script by Jay Simms and John Morton (from Ward Moore’s short stories, Lot and Lot’s Daughter) is tight, the direction tighter, and the documentary-esque black-and-white/CinemaScope photography (by Gil Warrenton) is top-notch (helped by a superb High-Def transfer). Les Baxter furnishes a reasonable score that nicely appends this mid-century nightmare.  Some cool extras supplement the package, including Joe Dante’s take on the movie and audio commentary by Richard Harland Smith.

Practically piggy-backed on the Cuban Missile Crisis, YEAR ZERO must have made its exiting audience eager to seek out therapy what, in 1962, forebode a very grim and possible future.

 

In 1963’s X – THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES, the “present” of the Ray-IP past, present and (sort of) future triad, Milland plays Dr. James Xavier, striving to better mankind with a sight-enhancing/possible blindness-curing wonder drug.  Need we go any further?  In this clever update of the “there are some things man was never meant to know” warning, scenarists Robert Dillon and Ray Russell (from Russell’s story) have fashioned an engrossing, unsettling version of the negative side-effects one encounters when they shy clear of the FDA.  It’s nicely shot by Floyd Crosby (unequivocally, this Blu-Ray is the best copy I’ve ever seen) and directed by Corman in his usual fat-free, lean and mean style.

Obviously, Milland’s Dr. Xavier has never read H.G. Wells or seen the James Whale/Claude Rains movie.  His drug is the 1960s equivalent of Monocaine – with essentially the same results.  Testing the compound on himself soon alleviates any of that altruistic jazz in preference of power and neo-fascist dreams.  Within a reel, he’s tossing his best friend and colleague (Harold J. Stone) out a skyscraper window, and reveling in the pleasures of his discovery.  This is visualized by a trippy sequence wherein Milland parties with twisting twentysomething babes, whom he lasciviously watches gyrating naked (likely an addition by the director, knowing Corman’s own penchant for that era’s hallucinatory experiences).  Now a wanted felon, he hides out as a freak act in a sleazy carnival, managed by sleazier Don Rickles (engagingly snapping on hecklers Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze).  But no one out-heckles Rickles, so it’s off to Vegas to try and win millions by seeing the baccarat cards before they are turned over.  This doesn’t please the made owners who force him to flee into the desert, where he comes across obsessed preacher John Dierkes (the scariest character in the piece).  Dierkes’ mania offers now totally demented Milland (terrified at what he sees at the spiritual level) the Bible as climactic solace, particularly that wheeze about “If thine eyes offend thee…” well, you know.

THE PREMATURE BURIAL.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  CAT # K1618.

PANIC IN YEAR ZERO.  Black-and-White. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  CAT # K20070.

X – THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES.  Color.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  CAT # K1620.

All Blu-Rays released through Kino Studio Classics/MGM Studios/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  SRP: $29.95@.