IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: CAT GIRL (1957)

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cat girl

Who’s that Cat Girl?

No, she’s not a villain on BATMAN. That’s Catwoman.

And no, she’s not Batman’s ally. That’s Batgirl.

She’s not even the lead in a classic horror movie directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by Val Lewton. That movie is CAT PEOPLE (1942).

CAT GIRL was made fifteen years later and is largely inferior to Val Lewton’s influential horror movie, but the good news is the lead role in CAT GIRL is played by one of my favorite British actresses, Barbara Shelley. Shelley has starred in such classic British horror movies as BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE (1958), Hammer’s THE GORGON (1964) with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966), again with Lee, as well as the science fiction classics VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) and QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (aka FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH) (1967).

But before all these came CAT GIRL.

Shelley always adds class and distinction to her roles, and her performance here is no exception. She’s excellent in the lead role, even as the rest of the film ultimately lets her down.

The plot is quite simple. A young woman Leonora Johnson (Barbara Shelley)  returns to her family home with her new husband, where she learns from her crazy uncle that their family is cursed, that they have this bizarre attachment to cats, so much so, that once home, Leonora falls victim to this curse and becomes a murderous cat creature.

Yup.

That’s why it’s called CAT GIRL.

Things actually start very well. The beginning of the movie is steeped in creepy atmosphere. The black and white photography by director Alfred Shaughnessy is ripe with dark shadows and completely captures the classic haunted house feel. But unfortunately as the story develops the film loses its atmosphere somewhat, driven by the fact that there’s simply not that much suspense, especially since the cat girl sequences look cheap and aren’t very good. The killer cat sequences are laughable.

The screenplay by Lou Rusoff also gets off to an intriguing start. See, not only is Leonara in danger from her looney relatives, but her own husband Edmund (Ernest Milton) is a real creep! We learn early on that before marrying Leonora, he had a fling with her best friend, and worse yet, the fling continues still, and he makes it clear that his marriage to Leonara is not going to get in the way of this other relationship. Complicating matters is this friend and the man she is currently dating are  also accompanying Leonora and Edmund on this trip to Leonora’s ancestral home, and all four of them are supposed to be friends.  This has all the makings of a classic sitcom! Not.

So, even before the cat curse comes into play, things are rather interesting! But sadly, they don’t really stay that way, and that’s because Leonara once she learns the truth about her husband simply lets Cat Girl take over and seeks some friendly feline vengeance.

Lou Rusoff also wrote the screenplays to several other low budget horror movies from the 1950s, including DAY THE WORLD ENDED (1955), IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956), and THE SHE-CREATURE (1956).

CAT GIRL was originally released as part of a double bill with THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN (1957), a film I like much better than CAT GIRL, which has some good things going for it but not enough to lift it to classic horror status.

So, in spite of a strong atmospheric opening, and the presence of a group of friends in some complicated relationships, and Barbara Shelley in the lead role, CAT GIRL is eventually done in by low production values and a lack of decent scares.

Poor Cat Girl.

While she tries her bloody best, at the end of the day, there’s still only one female feline leading the pack. Yup, Catwoman is still top cat.

Maybe Cat Girl could apply for the position of Catwoman’s enforcer? I have no doubt that she’d be purr-fect in that role!

—END—

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: MAY THE DEVIL TAKE YOU (2018)

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may the devil take you 2018

MAY THE DEVIL TAKE YOU (2018) is a horror movie that hails from Indonesia. It was directed by Timo Tjahjanto, a filmmaker who is a huge fan of the EVIL DEAD movies, and this movie, MAY THE DEVIL TAKE YOU, is sort of a love letter to that series.

Or at least it tries to be.

MAY THE DEVIL TAKE YOU is the story of Alfie (Chelsea Islan) a young woman who learns that her father Lesmana (Ray Sahetapy) is in the hospital in a coma, and nobody seems to know why. But the audience knows because the film opens with a creepy sequence in which we see Lesmana making a pact with a demon that somehow involves the souls of his children. Hmm. No daddy of the year award for this guy!

Anyway, in the hospital Alfie is reunited with her step family, including her stepmother,stepbrother, and two stepsisters. Her oldest stepsister, Maya (Pevita Pearce), does not like Alfie at all. Actually none of them like each other all that much because it seems pop Lesmana wasn’t always faithful and was only successful in business for a time, and now as he lies in a coma he’s lost everything.

While at the hospital, Alfie has a strange experience where she sees a frightening female figure in the hospital room with them, and then her father wakes up long enough to vomit deep dark blood all over the place.

Later, this same group attempts to clean out Lesmana’s home, and while they are there bickering and arguing, mysterious things begin to happen, like a freakish demonic woman crawling out of the basement. Yikes! After this, all hell breaks loose. Well, not all hell, but enough of it to make these folks miserable as they are chased down by a horrific demon, hell-bent on possessing their souls.

This actually sounds better than it is.

And that’s because while there were parts of MAY THE DEVIL TAKE YOU that I liked, there were just as many things that I didn’t like.

For starters, director Timo Tjahjanto does set up some pretty scary scenes. There are some really cool spooky images here, like when the woman demon shows up, from the way he films her face to the way he captures her long bony hands. There’s some really freaky stuff happening in this movie. That’s all great.

However, for a guy who’s a fan of the EVIL DEAD movies, I thought Tjahjanto’s use of gore here was pretty lame. It might have been a budget issue, but the gory scenes simply didn’t look all that good, nor were there all that many of them.

I also didn’t think the story was as tight as it could have been. Tjahjanto wrote the screenplay, and it wasn’t always clear what exactly was going on. For example, the pact between Lesmana and the demon is never clearly explained, and as a result neither are the demon’s motives.

And in many instances the characters were slow to react to things. There’d be some horrifying violent event, and then afterwards the characters would still be sitting in the next room having a conversation. I would have high-tailed it out of there within minutes of that woman emerging from the basement. But no. These folks stay. And stay. And stay.

Will you flippin run away from that house already!

Chelsea Islan is excellent in the lead role as Alfie. She plays the role with a good mix of being scared and being tough when it’s needed. Likewise, Pevita Pearce is notable as Maya, who ends up spending a good chunk of the film possessed.

Overall, MAY THE DEVIL TAKE YOU is a mixed bag. I liked its creepy scenes and enjoyed Chelsea Islan’s lead performance, but its story isn’t always clear and its gore effects aren’t anything to write home about.

While it held my interest for the most part, there were times when I wished the devil had simply taken me someplace else.

—END—

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF (1975)

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Legend-of-the-Werewolf-werewolf

One of my favorite werewolf movies has always been Hammer’s THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961). Directed by Hammer’s A-List director Terence Fisher, THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF features both memorable scenes of fright, a strong performance by Oliver Reed as the werewolf, and superior make-up by Roy Ashton.

However, I can’t deny that this movie does suffer from some very slow pacing and some weak story elements, so much so, that over the years, its reputation has diminished, while Universal’s THE WOLF MAN (1941) keeps getting stronger.

Now, there is another werewolf movie out there, the seldom seen LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF (1975), produced by Britain’s Tyburn Films, a company that tried and failed to compete with Hammer and Amicus, that has something that neither of the aforementioned werewolf movies have, and that something is a someone: Peter Cushing.

legend of the werewolf - peter cushing

Peter Cushing didn’t really make a lot of werewolf movies. He appeared in THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974), and he fares much better here in LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF, a movie that has always been dismissed as an inferior cousin to Hammer’s superior THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF.

But in the here and now, one can almost make the argument—almost-— that it’s LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF that’s the superior movie.

I say “almost” because seriously, LEGEND is hindered by some weaknesses that can’t be ignored. However, it has enough strengths where it can seriously be involved in the conversation of classic werewolf movies of yesteryear.

LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF tells the story of young Etoile (David Rintoul) who like Mowgli in THE JUNGLE BOOK was raised by wolves. While still a boy, he’s discovered by the owner of a travelling circus and joins the show as “wolf boy.” As an adult, he runs off to Paris where he finds work at the local zoo, specifically handling the wolves there. But it’s at this time that he discovers he’s a werewolf, but he’s also a particularly selective werewolf, because as a human, he has a crush on a local prostitute, and as a werewolf, he’s able to kill only her clients.

Hmm. Perhaps this one should have been called LEGEND OF THE JEALOUS WEREWOLF.

The subplot in LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF involves medical examiner and coroner Professor Paul (Peter Cushing) who while he’s not rolling his eyes at the local authorities, likes to play amateur sleuth. And when the werewolf murders start to happen, and the police are clueless, Professor Paul decides to solve the case himself, and it’s here where Peter Cushing enjoys the best scenes in the movie.

For Peter Cushing fans, LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF is a must-see film, as it provides Cushing with nonstop memorable scenes, both full of humor as he belittles the authorities, and poignancy, as he’s the one man who actually understands the werewolf. The scene at the end of the film where he confronts the werewolf in the Paris sewers is one of the best scenes in any werewolf movie period. Really!

So, you can list Peter Cushing as the number one reason LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF is a classic horror tale.

The second reason is the make-up. Borrowing heavily from Roy Ashton’s classic werewolf make-up in THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, the make-up team of Jimmy Evans and Graham Freeborn gives us the screen’s second blonde werewolf. The werewolf make-up here is very good. That being said, it’s not quite as good as Ashton’s, and it’s also not original, since it looks exactly like the make-up on Oliver Reed in CURSE.

Probably the biggest knock against the film is its cheap production values. LEGEND simply doesn’t compare to the opulent sets and costumes found in THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF.

THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF was directed by Terence Fisher, one of the best horror movie directors of all time. LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF was also directed by a veteran of the genre, Freddie Francis. Francis’ reputation is more as a cinematographer and did his best work on movies as a cinematographer rather than as a director. But his horror films in general are pretty good. Probably my favorite Freddie Francis directed horror movie is DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968), Christopher Lee’s third Dracula movie. LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF is probably my second favorite Freddie Francis-directed horror movie.

He includes some nice touches, like close-ups of the werewolf’s bloody teeth, shots that are particularly effective.

Also working against LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF is it arrived on the horror scene late in the game. In 1975, JAWS took the world by storm, and modern werewolf classics like AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) and THE HOWLING (1981) were just a few years away. Audiences in 1975 weren’t all that interested in a werewolf movie that seemed more at home a decade or so earlier.

THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF also featured Oliver Reed in the lead role. LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF features David Rintoul. And while Rintoul is just okay here, I don’t think you need Laurence Olivier playing a werewolf. For what he was supposed to do, Rintoul is just fine, but he never received the praise which Reed did for his werewolf portrayal a decade earlier.

What LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF does have is a veteran cast. In addition to Peter Cushing, the film also stars Ron Moody as the cantankerous zookeeper.  Moody won the Best Actor Oscar in 1968 for his portrayal of Fagin in the musical OLIVER!, incidentally, directed by Oliver Reed’s uncle Carol Reed, who also won Best Director that year, and OLIVER! won Best Picture as well. Moody is excellent here in LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF, and the scenes he shares with Peter Cushing are well worth watching.

Hammer’s favorite character actor Michael Ripper is also in the cast. Ripper also appeared in Hammer’s THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, and not only that, but his characters have the dubious distinction of being murdered by the werewolves in both movies!

The screenplay by John Elder (aka Anthony Hinds) is also not a strength. While the story told in the movie is decent enough, and the Peter Cushing storyline a very good one, the dialogue throughout most of the movie is sub par.

Long considered a tepid entry in the werewolf movie canon, LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF is trending upward. It’s getting better with age, and in spite of some obvious weaknesses which still need to be considered, it does feature two acting greats, Peter Cushing and Ron Moody, who add a lot to this otherwise standard werewolf picture.

Is it really better than THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF? No, I wouldn’t say that. But the gap between these two movies is no longer as wide as once thought. Watch out CURSE. The LEGEND is growing!

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966)

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war of the gargantuas - two gargantuas

WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966) has always been one of my favorite Toho giant monsters movies.

One reason for this is nostalgia. In addition to its regular play on the popular Saturday afternoon Creature Double Feature back in the day, it also received a much-hyped prime time showing on our local UHF Channel 56 in Boston that had all the neighborhood kids, myself included, chirping about it before, during, and after it was aired.

But the main reason is it’s a darn good movie. Well, at least among films in the Toho canon, and this is no surprise since it was directed by arguably their top director, Ishiro Honda, who also directed the original GODZILLA (1954), THE MYSTERIANS (1957), KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962), and DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968) to name just a few.

I was recently able to view the original Japanese version of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, which includes the Frankenstein references that were removed from the film when it was released in the U.S. back in 1970.

And there are Frankenstein references because WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is a sequel to Toho’s Frankenstein flick, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (1965). I’m not sure why the Frankenstein connection was initially severed, but it’s too bad it was done, because the film works even better as a Frankenstein movie.

The story of a giant Frankenstein monster and his “brother” is much more intriguing than a story about two random gargantuas. And WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is a better movie than FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, which means it’s one of those rare cases where the sequel is an improvement on the original.

In WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, a mysterious monster is terrorizing the countryside attacking and eating people. It is also avoiding detection, as it always disappears quickly after it attacks, preventing the authorities from being able to stop it. It’s assumed that this is the same creature which escaped from the lab of Dr. Paul Stewart (Russ Tamblyn) and his fellow scientists. Of course, in the original version, this was the Frankenstein monster from FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD. Dr. Stewart doesn’t think it’s the same creature, because the one which escaped from his lab was peaceful and would never harm humans.

It’s later discovered that there are two gargantuas, the original who escaped from Stewart’s lab, and a new more menancing one, who is believed to be a sort of clone from the first. These two behemoths eventually do battle. Hence, the war of the gargantuas.

The best part of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is that there are lots of scenes featuring the gargantuas. In lesser Toho movies, you have to sit through long stretches of usually boring dialogue and bland characters while you wait for the monsters to make their appearances. Not so here with WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS. These creatures are in this movie a lot. There is a ton of giant monster action.

And director Ishiro Honda, who also wrote the screenplay,  fills this one with a lot of memorable scenes. The film opens with a frightening sequence where a slimy looking giant octopus attacks a ship, only to be deterred by an even scarier looking gargantua, who makes quick work of the octopus before turning his attention to the crew of the ship which he promptly consumes for a yummy dessert

There are a bunch of rather frightening scenes in this one. In spite of this being a silly giant monster movie, there are some dark moments. The scene where a group of hikers encounter the gargantua waiting for them in a dense fog has always been one that gives me the shivers. Likewise, in another sequence on a boat, the gargangtua is seen staring up at the passengers from under the water. We’re gonna need a bigger boat!

And the battle scenes here are second to none. There’s an excellent sequence where the gargantua comes out of the water to attack an airport, and of course, the climactic battle between the two garagantuas is a keeper.

If you’re a fan of the Toho movies, this is one film you do not want to miss, and if you’ve never seen a Toho film, this is a good one to start with, although I do recommend watching FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD first, since this is a sequel to that movie.

All in all, if you love giant monster movie action and want to see an A-list director at the top of his game, then check out WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS.

It’s a gargantuan good time!

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: ONE MILLION B.C. (1940)

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one million bc battle

After KING KONG (1933), film audiences really had to wait a while before any other giant monsters returned to the big screen. The next major giant monster release really wasn’t until Ray Harryhausen’s special effects driven THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), based on Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Fog Horn.” Of course, the following year Japan’s Toho Studios released GODZILLA (1954) and after that there was no looking back for giant monster fans.

But in between 1933 and 1953 were lean years, with just a couple of films released featuring oversized creatures. One of these films was ONE MILLION B.C. (1940), an adventure about two different cave tribes who have to overcome their differences in order to survive.

One of the reasons they have to fight to survive is there are some prehistoric beasts on the loose. Yup, this isn’t factually accurate, of course, as some of these creatures would have been extinct long before cave people walked the earth, but who’s complaining?

While ONE MILLION B.C. technically isn’t a horror movie, it does feature enormous ferocious creatures, and it is also of interest for horror fans because it features a pre-Wolf Man Lon Chaney Jr. in the cast.

The plot of ONE MILLION B.C. is pretty much a love story, as Tumak (Victor Mature) and Loana (Carole Landis) who are from opposing tribes meet and fall in love. Loana’s tribe is the more advanced and civilized of the two, and as they welcome Tumak, he learns of their more modern ways and uses this knowledge to help his own people. Meanwhile, life in the stone age is no picnic. There are nasty creatures at every turn, and pretty much all of them want to eat people for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Lon Chaney Jr. plays Tumak’s father Akhoba, who is a bit rough around the edges and sees nothing wrong with eating all the food first and letting his underlings have the scraps, which is unlike Loana’s tribe, who share their food equally.

While Victor Mature, Carole Landis, Lon Chaney Jr. and the rest of the human cast are all fine, since they’re playing cave people, they don’t really have any lines of dialogue, meaning this one can become tedious to watch.

The real stars in this one are the creatures, and the special effects run hot and cold. Mostly cold. There is a T-Rex like dinosaur that is laugh-out-loud awful. It’s obviously a man in a suit, its size changes, and at times it seems to be no taller than a center for the NBA.

The best effects are when the film utilizes real lizards and makes them seem gigantic. Most of the time this type of effect is inferior, but in this film the “giant” lizards look pretty authentic. The film also does a nice job with the “mastodons” which are elephants in disguise. If anything is done well consistently, it’s the sound effects. All the creatures, regardless of how they look, sound terrifying.

The special effects were actually nominated for an Academy Award but lost out to THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940).

ONE MILLION B.C. was directed by Hal Roach and Hal Roach Jr., and while the monster scenes are all rather exciting, what happens in between them is not. In fact, most of the film is pretty much a bore.

But audiences in 1940 didn’t think so. ONE MILLION B.C. was the box office champion that year.

Mickell Novack, George Baker, and Joseph Frickert wrote the standard no frills screenplay.

Victor Mature would go on to make a lot of movies, including SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949) and THE ROBE (1953), while Carole Landis, who pretty much gives the best performance in the film, sadly struggled to land leading roles in subsequent movies, ultimately leading to her tragic suicide at the age of 29 in 1948.

And Lon Chaney Jr. of course would make THE WOLF MAN the following year, and the rest, as they say, was history.

Over the years, ONE MILLION B.C. has been overshadowed by its Hammer Films remake, ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966), which starred Raquel Welch and featured special effects by Ray Harryhausen. Neither film is among my favorites.

This Thanksgiving, as you prepare to give thanks and dig into that grand turkey dinner, you might want to check out ONE MILLION B.C., a movie that recalls a long ago time when it was humans who were on the holiday menu.

—END—

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945)

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isle of the dead posterI love the Val Lewton-produced horror movies from the 1940s.

Lewton produced a bunch of low-budget horror pics that impressed with style and atmosphere and have become some of the classics of the genre, films like CAT PEOPLE (1942) and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943). He also produced three movies starring Boris Karloff, films that are among the best in Karloff’s career, THE BODY SNATCHER (1945), BEDLAM (1946), and the subject of today’s column, ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945).

Sadly, Val Lewton’s life and career were cut short when he died of a heart attack on March 14, 1951, at the age of 46.

ISLE OF THE DEAD features one of my favorite Boris Karloff roles. Karloff plays General Nikolas Pherides, a general in the Greek army who goes by the nickname “The Watchdog.” He’s cold, ruthless, and nothing gets by him.

The story takes place on a Greek island in 1912, during the Balkan War. There’s a lull in the fighting, and General Pherides takes American reporter Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) to the Isle of the Dead to pay respects to the General’s deceased wife, who is interred there. They discover that the grave has been disturbed, and when they hear a woman singing in the distance, they follow the voice to investigate and come upon a house full of people, a guest house run by a retired archeologist named Dr. Albrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.).

Albrecht invites the General and Oliver to join them. When the General questions them about the desecrated grave, Albrecht explains that years ago the islanders plundered many of the graves in search of valuable Greek artifacts. But Albrecht’s superstitious housekeeper offers a different explanation. She tells the General that it’s the work of the vorvolaka, evil spirits, and that one of the guests, the young and pretty Thea (Ellen Drew) is in fact a vorvolaka. The housekeeper tells the General that people there will die because of Thea.

The General scoffs at this suggestion, but when the guests do indeed start dying, and the housekeeper continually accuses Thea, the General changes his tune. He enters his “Watchdog” mode and declares that he will get to the bottom of what’s going on and protect everyone there. When a doctor (Ernest Deutsch) explains that it is the plague and that they must be quarantined, the General makes it his mission to prevent anyone from trying to leave the island. As more people die and the housekeeper’s accusations against Thea continue, the General finds himself swayed to the point where he himself believes that the true culprit here isn’t the plague but the vorvolaka.

ISLE OF THE DEAD is blessed with the same strengths of all the Val Lewton movies, an intelligent script and an almost palpable eerie atmosphere.

The screenplay by Ardel Wray, who also wrote the screenplay to two other Val Lewton movies, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE— one of my favorite horror movies of all time— and THE LEOPARD MAN (1943), does a masterful job mixing the supernatural with reality.

The character the audience probably most relates to is reporter Oliver Davis, and he never suspects the vorvolaka. In fact, on the contrary, he vows to protect Thea from the General’s ever-increasing irrationality.

The story becomes a fascinating treatise on one man’s descension into despair. The General goes from competent pragmatic leader to a man motivated by fear.

Karloff is great in the role. As I said, it’s among his best performances. Famous for making the Frankenstein Monster a sympathetic character, he does the same here for the cutthroat General Pherides. At times, Karloff channels the cold dark ruthlessness of the General, but he also imbues the character with a fierce need to protect those around him.

Jason Robards Sr. is also memorable as their host on the island, Dr. Albrecht, as is Ernst Deutsch as Dr. Drossos, the doctor called to the island to deal with the plague. Deutsch was also notable in a supporting role as Baron Kurtz in Carol Reed’s classic THE THIRD MAN (1949) starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles. Deutsch also starred in the silent German classic THE GOLEM (1920).

Also in the cast is Alan Napier, as one of the guests. Napier of course would go on to play Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, in the Adam West BATMAN TV series (1966-68). And Napier starred in several other genre films as well over his career, movies like THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940) and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959).

And Helene Thimig makes for a creepy housekeeper, Madame Kyra, who keeps peppering the General’s thoughts with her cries of “vorvolaka!”

Director Mark Robson, who also directed BEDLAM, does a nice job with the spooky atmosphere, giving such authenticity to the warm winds blowing over the island you can almost feel the breeze on your skin.

There are lots of creepy elements to keep the audience unsettled, including one of the characters who suffers from a condition where she collapses into a catatonic state that mimics death. Rightly so, she has an intense fear of being buried alive. That sort of thing couldn’t possibly happen on this island, right? RIGHT???

Sorry. All bets are off.

I really enjoyed Robson’s work here, so he can be forgiven for directing one of the all time worst disaster movies, EARTHQUAKE (1974) starring Charlton Heston and George Kennedy.

ISLE OF THE DEAD is a classic example of quiet horror. It possesses a winning combination of smart writing, atmospheric direction, and solid acting. Detractors of Val Lewton’s movies complain that they are more drama than horror, as the supernatural elements are reduced to pretty much nil, but this has never bothered me because regardless of whether or not the supernatural is alive and well in these films, they still tell stories of horror.

What happens on the island in ISLE OF THE DEAD is frightening, and as such, it makes for a compelling horror story.

It’s also fun to watch Boris Karloff play a role in which he’s not a monster, or a mad scientist. The three Val Lewton films that Karloff starred in gave him the opportunity to play roles unlike the ones he was playing for other directors. I think some of Boris Karloff’s best acting appears in these movies.

September means the end of summer. Vacations are done, the kids are back in school, and the focus for most is on work rather than play. Likewise, September is the perfect month for some serious horror viewing.

So check out ISLE OF THE DEAD, a classic horror drama shot in spooky black and white that tells a subtle yet nonetheless frightening story of a group of people quarantined on an island, fighting both the plague and the horrors of superstition, and featuring one of Boris Karloff’s best performances, as General Pherides, “the Watchdog,” a man hellbent on protecting those around him, unless of course, he suspects they’re a vorvolaka. In that case, he’s every bit as lethal as the plague.

It’s a deadly mix, and for the folks on this island, it really is the ISLE OF THE DEAD.

—-END—

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016)

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train to busan

I absolutely love TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016).

So much so that after watching it for the first time a couple of years ago on Netflix, I decided to watch it again last month. The result? I enjoyed it even more!

TRAIN TO BUSAN is a South Korean horror movie about the zombie apocalypse. Now, obviously, there have been many stories about said apocalypse in recent years, from the exceptional THE WALKING DEAD TV show to films like WORLD WAR Z (2013) and ZOMBIELAND (2009). What makes TRAIN TO BUSAN stand out from all the rest?

For me it’s the same for any quality movie: it’s the writing, stupid!

TRAIN TO BUSAN has a superior script that both tells a compelling story and creates memorable characters. The result is one heck of an emotional roller coaster ride, and that’s the part that I enjoyed the most upon a second viewing. I had forgotten just how emotional this movie got. Bring out the tissues! You’re going to need them.

Yup. You’re gonna need a bigger box of tissues.

And TRAIN TO BUSAN is that good. It’s on par with the best episodes of THE WALKING DEAD, and in terms of movies, you have to go back to George Romero to find a better zombie movie. SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) might be better, but that one’s a comedy.

TRAIN TO BUSAN is pure horror.

In TRAIN TO BUSAN, Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) just can’t seem to spend enough time with his daughter Soo-an (Su-an Kim), as his job simply keeps him too busy. But when he decides to accompany his daughter on a train ride to take her to see her mother who he’s now separated from, he hopes to at least have this time with her.

Unfortunately for Seok-woo, he picked a bad day to go for a train ride with his daughter, as it just so happens to be the same day that the zombie apocalypse breaks out. And suddenly, quick moving flesh eating zombies are overrunning the land and getting on the train. A small group of survivors band together to fight off the zombies, all the while hoping the train makes it to Busan, where rumor has it that the military has successfully created a safe haven there.

TRAIN TO BUSAN is the story of these survivors, who besides Seok-woo and Soo-an, also includes a pregnant woman Seong-kyeong (Yu-mi Jung) and her husband Sang-hwa (Dong-seok Ma), and two high school students, Jin-hee (Sohee) and Yong-guk (Woo-sik Choi) to name a few.

What follows is an intense thrill ride that provides nonstop chills and suspenseful action sequences, as well as tugging at your heartstrings, in a big, big way.

The cast in TRAIN TO BUSAN is phenomenal.

Yoo Gong is naturally heroic as main character and daddy Seok-woo. At first, he’s not the most sympathetic character, as it’s clear that in the past he has placed his career above his daughter, but when the zombies attack, it’s also clear that Seok-woo will do whatever it takes to protect his young daughter. Gong makes for a dashing young hero.

Some of Gong’s best scenes are with his co-star Dong-seok Ma who plays Sang-hwa, the husband who similarly will do whatever it takes to protect his pregnant wife. Dong-seok Ma delivers the most fun performance in the film, as Sang-hwa is both a humorous guy and a kick-ass fighter who becomes the go-to guy when the need arises to fend off the walking dead. Initially, Seok-woo and Sang-hwa do not see eye to eye, but as things grow more bleak they put aside their differences and work together.

Yu-mi Jung is equally as good as Seong-kyeong, the pregnant wife who eventually befriends Seok-woo’s daughter Soo-an. Jung makes Seong-kyeong one of the film’s strongest characters, as she has to go above and beyond what one would expect a pregnant woman to have to do.

Likewise, Sohee is memorable as teen Jin-hee.

But best of all is Su-an Kim as Seok-woo’s young daughter Soo-an. She gives the most emotional performance in the entire movie. She has some of the best scenes in the film, and she is more than up to the task of nailing these powerhouse scenes, and for such a young performer, that’s saying a lot.

And I challenge you to find a more emotional ending to a horror movie. Talk about gut-wrenching, the final sequence will have you shaking.

Director Sang-ho Yeon has made one of the best zombie films ever. In addition to the first-rate performances and superb story, there are some truly outstanding action sequences here, well-crafted by Yeon. From hordes of zombies charging up escalators to the characters having to battle their way through zombie infested train cars, the film’s action sequences are second to none.

The special effects are also top-notch. The zombies look scary and are plenty deadly, and these undead folks are of the speedy variety. No slow-moving walkers here. These babies run like the wind!

But the best part of TRAIN TO BUSAN is that the film gets the emotions right. You truly feel for these characters, and the situations they find themselves in play out as tremendously realistic. TRAIN TO BUSAN is a much more emotionally satisfying movie than say WORLD WAR Z which as entertaining as it was fell flat emotionally.

A lot of the credit for the emotion goes to the screenplay by Joo-Suk Park and director Sang-ho Yeon. The script creates riveting situations, likable characters, and realistic dialogue, and it’s all executed to perfection by the actors and by director Yeon.

TRAIN TO BUSAN was the first South Korean zombie apocalypse horror movie, and it’s not going to be the last, as a sequel is already in the works.

You really need to watch TRAIN TO BUSAN. It’s one of the best zombie apocalypse movies ever made, and it’s certainly the most satisfying zombie horror movie of the last twenty years.

What are you waiting for? Get your ticket already! Of course, once on board, you may want to text your loved ones, as there’s no guarantee you’ll actually make it to Busan. The zombies on the train are plenty hungry, and they have the humans insanely outnumbered, but heck, it’s a helluva thrill ride, one that you definitely don’t want to miss!

Will that be one ticket or two?

—END—

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: TARANTULA (1955)

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Don’t you just love furry little critters like— tarantulas?  No?  Find them a bit scary and repulsive, do you?  Well, then you’ll just cringe at the colossal star of Universal’s TARANTULA (1955), a spider so big it can step on a house!

TARANTULA is one of the best giant monster movies from the 1950s.  It’s certainly the finest one produced by Universal Studios.

Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar) is called to the coroner’s office in the small town of Desert Rock, Arizona, by his friend Sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva) to investigate the death of a man found in the desert.  The victim resembles a man they know, Eric Jacobs, but his facial features are swollen and contorted.  Hastings believes Jacobs’ symptoms resemble the disease acromegaly, a disorder of the pituitary gland, but this doesn’t make sense to Hastings since the disease takes years to develop and Jacobs wasn’t showing any symptoms just days before.

When Jacobs’ employer, the eminent Professor Gerald Deemer, (Leo G. Carroll), arrives, he insists that Jacobs was indeed suffering from acromegaly, and he refuses to allow an autopsy on the body.  This doesn’t sit well with Dr. Hastings, who finds the diagnosis wrong, and Deemer’s behavior baffling.

Yep, Deemer is the town’s resident mad scientist, and he lives just outside Desert Rock in a huge mansion, complete with a laboratory full of oversized animals in cages, including a tarantula the size of a dog.  When yet another malformed insane human attacks Professor Deemer, the laboratory is set on fire and destroyed, but not before the tarantula escapes from the house.  This hideous human also injects an unconscious Deemer with some unknown drug, before collapsing and dying himself.

Later, when a new assistant arrives in town to work for Professor Deemer, the beautiful Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (Mara Corday), Matt Hastings accompanies her to Deemer’s place, where he learns all about the professor’s research.  Professor Deemer is attempting to stamp out world hunger by using atomic energy to create a “super” food nutrient, which he has injected into various animals, and as a result they have grown in size.  Hmm.  Supersized fried chicken!  Yummy!

Deemer tells Steve and Matt that his lab was destroyed in an accidental fire, and he believes all his caged animals were killed.  He doesn’t realize that his tarantula is free in the desert growing bigger by the minute.  When next seen, the spider is gigantic, the size of a house, and it’s hungry, eating everything in its path, including horses, farms animals, and people.

Eventually, the giant tarantula sets its hairy sights on Desert Rock, and suddenly the town has to scramble to defend itself against the humongous marauding arachnid.

TARANTULA is one of my favorite giant monster movies.  First off, the screenplay by Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley presents a story that is more creative than most.  There’s more going on in TARANTULA than just the basic “giant bug on the loose” storyline.  There’s all the mystery surrounding Professor Deemer’s research, and the strange misshapen men lumbering in and around his property, which adds some genuine intrigue to the story.  Screenwriter Berkeley also penned the screenplay for two other Universal monster classics, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955) and THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957).

Director Jack Arnold, who directed several genre movies, including CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), is at the top of his game with TARANTULA.  He creates some memorable scenes.  One of my favorites occurs at night at a farm, when suddenly a group of horses begins to grow very nervous.  In the distance we see a darkened hill, and very slowly, onto that hill from the other side, creeps the massive tarantula.  It’s one hair-raising scene!

Another effective scene has Steve walking back and forth in her bedroom, not noticing the enormous tarantula through her window as it makes its way towards the house.  She doesn’t notice until the beast is on top of the house, literally!

And the tarantula looks terrific, as it’s menacing and scary.  I’m sure the special effects team was helped by the black and white photography, because with shades of light and dark, the tarantula fits into its scenes naturally and realistically.  The special effects team did a phenomenal job in this one.

The make-up on the acromegaly victims was done by Bud Westmore, and it reminds me a lot of the work he did on ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1953) and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS (1958), as his monstrous creations in both these movies resemble the folks in the desert in TARANTULA.

There’s also an effective music score by Herman Stein.

The cast is decent enough.  Though I’m not a huge fan of John Agar, his performance in TARANTULA is one of his best. He makes his Dr. Matt Hastings a very likeable fellow, and rarely has he seemed more natural in front of the camera.  I just want to know what he keeps inside his briefcase.  It must be valuable, because young dashing Dr. Hastings doesn’t go anywhere without it, even grabbing it before he runs out the door!

Playing Sheriff Andrews is character actor Nestor Paiva, who appeared in a ton of movies and TV shows over the years.  I’ll always remember him as Lucas, the captain of the Rita in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) and REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955).

Leo G. Carroll, another veteran of movies and television, is also very good as Professor Deemer.  Carroll appeared in many Alfred Hitchcock movies, including NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) and SPELLBOUND (1945), and he played Alexander Waverly on the 1960s secret agent show THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968).

And for added fun, Clint Eastwood appears unbilled in one of his first roles as an air force pilot leading the attack on the tarantula, arriving just in time to save the folks of Desert Rock from the deadly arachnid.

Do you feel lucky, tarantula?”

—END—

(Originally published in The Official Newsletter of the Horror Writers Association in July 2012).

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: FREDDY VS. JASON (2003)

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In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a fan of Jason. Nor am I a fan of Freddy.

So, if you absolutely love the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series and/or the FRIDAY THE 13TH series, you’re probably not going to enjoy this review. I know, there’s a generation of fans who swear by these movies, who believe that the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies are the best thing since sliced bodies. Er, bread.

I’m not of that generation.

See, back in the day, when the slasher film was just getting started, I saw John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978) and loved it, so much so, that even though each successive film in the series was inferior, I enjoyed most of them and they pretty much were all guilty pleasures. So, when it comes to loving films that really aren’t that good, I get it.

Anyway, I also saw the original FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) and immediately thought it was a pretty inferior rip-off of HALLOWEEN, but being a horror fan, I wasn’t ready to quit on the series. However, after suffering through a couple of more FRIDAY films, I said enough is enough.

Now, I enjoyed the original  A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) very much, and for a while watched and enjoyed the sequels, and I found Freddy Krueger to be a pretty cool character. However, over the years with subsequent viewing, I’ve found that the NIGHTMARE films really haven’t aged all that well.

Which brings us to the subject of today’s In The Spooklight column, FREDDY VS. JASON, that epic battle of titans, a bout to rival FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN (1943), KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962), and Ali vs. Frazier.

Well, not really.

How about ALIEN VS. PREDATOR (2004) or BATMAN V SUPERMAN (2016)?

Getting warmer.

Needless to say, I didn’t rush out to the theater in 2003 to see FREDDY VS. JASON. And in subsequent years I never had any interest in seeing it.

Until now.

I thought, heck, you’re a horror fan, let’s give these guys a chance.

So, I did.

Did the years of waiting erase my disdain for the FRIDAY THE 13TH series? Was all forgotten when after finishing this one, I found it refreshing and fun?

Nope.

Not even close.

The plot here, if you want to call it that, centers around Freddy (Robert Englund) realizing that in order to restore his power and escape from Hell, where he’s been imprisoned since the last NIGHTMARE movie, he needs dead bodies, and so he resurrects Jason Voorhees (Ken Kirzinger) to kill unsuspecting teenagers for him. For the life of me, I don’t understand why Freddy can’t do this on his own. I mean, he’s Freddy Krueger, for crying out loud!

The bulk of the film involves Jason killing teenagers, in between ridiculously boring conversations between these teenagers as they discuss their fear of Freddy Krueger, who attempts unsuccessfully to enter the world of dreams to murder teens himself. Since his return is a big fail, he retreats, once more allowing Jason to have all the fun. Eventually, Freddy makes it back just in time to realize that there’s not enough room for two leading supernatural maniacs in the same movie, and so they decide to battle each other.

Yawn.

Yeah, I know, there’s more specifics here, and other characters with names in the film, but the problem I have with this movie and others in both series, especially FRIDAY THE 13th, is they make little sense and worse, they’re not in the least realistic. In short, without any of the action seeming believable, it becomes an excuse to kill teens in creative and supposedly humorous ways. Which just bores the hell out of me. No pun intended.

I know there are some folks who like this sort of thing.

I’m not one of them.

All I can say is I’m grateful horror movies have taken another direction in recent years, with compelling believable scripts and talented directors at the helm. People like to bash horror movies, but really, since the mid 2000s, there have been a lot— a lot!— of quality horror movies released both to theaters and to streaming services.

But FREDDY VS. JASON is not one of them.

Was there anything at all that I liked about this film?

Yeah. I liked it when it ended.

With that said, let’s end this column as well.

I know FRIDAY THE 13TH movies have their fans, and I’ve listened to some of these fans in person explain to me why these films are so good, and I respect the opinion of these folks, but for me, well, I respectfully disagree.

—END—

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935)

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Forever overshadowed by Universal’s next werewolf movie, THE WOLF MAN (1941) starring Lon Chaney Jr. as the ill-fated Larry Talbot, WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935) starring Henry Hull in the lead role nonetheless remains Universal’s first werewolf movie.

And there’s a reason it exists in the shadow of THE WOLF MAN. It’s simply not as good, but that being said, there are still things to like about WEREWOLF OF LONDON.

Dr. Glendon (Henry Hull) is attacked and bitten by a werewolf while on an expedition in Tibet. He returns home to his wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson), where all is not well. He’s so busy in his laboratory he barely can find the time to spend with his socialite wife, and to further complicate matters, her childhood friend and first love Paul Ames (Lester Matthews) shows up, suddenly competing for Lisa’s affection.

Meanwhile, the mysterious Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland) arrives with the news that he was the werewolf who had attacked Glendon in Tibet. He further informs Glendon that once bitten by a werewolf, that person also becomes a werewolf. Even worse, werewolves often seek out those they love to kill. Jeesh, talk about being a killjoy! 

Yogami explains that the only known antidote to werewolfism is the rare Tibetan flower which Glendon brought back from Tibet and is now growing in his laboratory. It doesn’t bloom all that often, and so its flowers are a rare commodity. Yogami wants those flowers. Of course, once Glendon transforms into a werewolf, he wants the flowers too, and so the battle is on.

So, technically, in this movie, there are actually two werewolves of London.

The story told in WEREWOLF OF LONDON isn’t half bad. The screenplay by John Colton does a nice job establishing the werewolf legend and creating two adversarial characters in Glendon and Yogami. Even better, however, the screenplay knocks it out of the park when showing the marital stress between Glendon and Lisa. Henry Hull and Valerie Hobson are also both up to the task of playing a husband and wife whose marriage is falling apart. Their scenes together are so good they’re often painful to sit through.

Valerie Hobson also starred that same year as Elizabeth in James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN sequel THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935). I thought she over-acted somewhat in BRIDE, and her performance in WEREWOLF OF LONDON is much more realistic.

Writer John Colton also penned the screenplay to the Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi classic THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936).

Speaking of Karloff and Lugosi, evidently, early in the creative process, the two horror superstars were originally approached to star in WEREWOLF OF LONDON, with Karloff playing Dr. Glendon and Lugosi playing Dr. Yogami. Had this casting happened, it’s very likely Universal would have had another classic on its hands. Can you imagine a werewolf movie where both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi played werewolves? I’m sure the film would have been a hit.

The fact that it wasn’t a hit really isn’t the fault of either Henry Hull or Warner Oland. Hull is quite good as Dr. Glendon, and Oland of Charlie Chan fame is excellent as Dr. Yogami. His scenes are my favorite in the entire movie. Sadly, Oland died a couple of years later, in 1938 at the age of 58 from bronchial pneumonia.

One of the reasons most cited for the failure of WEREWOLF OF LONDON is the tepid werewolf make-up by Jack Pierce, the famous make-up artist not known for weak make-up jobs. After all, Pierce created the make-up for Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster and later for Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man.

Rumors persisted over the years that Henry Hull refused to wear heavy make-up for the role, but evidently this is not true. Supposedly, it was the producers of the film who urged Pierce to go lightly with the werewolf effects out of fear that the film censors would object. I find this story puzzling, since Universal had already pushed the envelope with DRACULA (1931), FRANKENSTEIN (1931), and THE MUMMY (1932).

Either way, the werewolf make-up used here in WEREWOLF OF LONDON pales in comparison to Pierce’s work on THE WOLF MAN (1941) six years later. That being said, it’s not awful, and Hull’s werewolf is rather creepy looking, and director Stuart Walker manages to create some eerie scenes in this one. The werewolf’s howl in this film is also quite frightening.

What’s not scary is just before Hull’s werewolf decides to prowl about London, he stops long enough to put on his hat and coat! And here’s  the true difference between WEREWOLF OF LONDON and THE WOLF MAN. It’s all about Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance. He plays the Wolf Man as a wild animal, a creature that will rip a person’s throat out with its teeth. Hull’s werewolf attacks his victim’s like a man. And of course Chaney gave the Wolf Man the perfect alter ego with the very emotional and tragic Larry Talbot. Hull’s Dr. Glendon does not emote much emotion or sympathy at all.

WEREWOLF OF LONDON manages some fine moments of humor, like the scenes with the two old ladies Glendon rents a room from, who are constantly fighting with each other.

WEREWOLF OF LONDON is not my favorite Universal werewolf movie. I’d argue that all of the Lon Chaney Jr. werewolf movies are better than this one.

However, it’s not a bad movie, and as a standalone werewolf picture, it has its moments. For me, the best part is Warner Oland’s performance as Dr. Yogami. Interesting about Warner Oland. He was famous for playing Charlie Chan and a host of other Asian parts, like Dr. Yogami here in WEREWOLF OF LONDON, and yet supposedly he had no known Asian ancestry. I guess he was just a pretty good actor!

He certainly is here in WEREWOLF OF LONDON, as he outshines lead actor Henry Hull. Of course, had Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi starred in this film as originally intended, that would have been something.

Seen any werewolves of London lately?

You have? Where?

“I saw a werewolf drinkin’ a piña colada at Trader Vic’s. His hair was perfect.”

—-“Werewolves of London” by Warren Zevon.

 

—END—