IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964)

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Christopher Lee and Donald Sutherland in CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964).

I first saw CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964) in the early 1980s when I was in high school late on a Saturday night on my local UHF channel— Channel 56 in Boston— on their Creature Feature broadcast.  Channel 56 used to show the Creature Double Feature on Saturday afternoons, but then they would also show a solo horror flick usually after 11 pm on Saturday nights under the moniker Creature Feature.  Way back when, these films were a major highlight of my weekends.

I immediately noticed two things about CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD upon that first viewing all those years ago. One, although it starred Christopher Lee, it was clear that it was made on a much lower budget than the Hammer Films of the period, and two, there was something incredibly mesmerizing about it.

One of the major reasons it was so captivating then and remains so today is that it was shot on location at a real castle, the Castello Orsini-Odescalchi in Italy, and also at the rock garden in Bomarzo, Italy, which contains monstrous and weird statues, which are used to full effect in the movie. With the nonstop whistling wind in the background, there is an authenticity to this movie that remains its best attribute. You will truly feel as if you are right there with the characters spending a night at the Castle of the Living Dead.

The film also boasts a decent story.

A group of circus entertainers in 19th century France happen upon a strange castle occupied by the mysterious Count Drago (Christopher Lee) who invites them to spend the night. Nothing unusual here in terms of story, except that Count Drago is housing a terrible secret. No, he’s not a vampire, but he does have an unusual hobby that his guests are sure not to enjoy.

CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is also the beneficiary of some atmospheric direction by Warren Kiefer, an American filmmaker who went to Italy to pursue his film career. Kiefer also wrote the script. Some prints also list Herbert Wise as the director, a pseudonym for Kiefer’s assistant director Luciano Ricci. This was done because the film was a French-Italian co-production, and for tax reasons, the Italian version needed an Italian director.

Further complicating matters regarding just who directed CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is that Michael Reeves, the young British director who would go on to make a name for himself directing the well-regarded Vincent Price movie THE CONQUEROR WORM (1968) (aka WITCHFINDER GENERAL) before dying unexpectedly a year later, was part of Kiefer’s crew, and rumors have spread over the years that it was Reeves who largely directed CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD.

But most of these rumors have since been debunked by others on the set, and so today by most accounts it’s believed that it was Warren Kiefer who directed this movie.

Again, the best part about CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is its atmosphere. With its grainy black and white photography, at times it looks raw and real, while at others it appears almost dreamlike, the whole thing more akin to Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) than a Hammer Film. It’s creaky and it’s creepy, which is a good thing, because in terms of action and horror, not a lot happens in CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD, which is a major reason why it’s not considered a classic of horror cinema.

Kiefer also does a nice job photographing Christopher Lee here, as with the deep dark circles under his eyes, he resembles someone with a serious drug addiction.  The way Lee is photographed in this move reminds me a lot of the way Bela Lugosi looked in WHITE ZOMBIE (1932).

That being said, Count Drago is not of one Lee’s strongest performances.  Count Drago is not an evil character like Count Dracula. He’s more manipulative and neurotic a la Norman Bates. In fact, they share similar hobbies. Lee somewhat captures this about Drago, but he’s not altogether successful here. Indeed, it may not all be Lee’s fault. He said in interviews that during this movie in the post-sync stage, he had to dub his own lines without the benefit of having a script because no one had written down the movie’s dialogue on paper. Oops!

The other major star to appear in CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is Donald Sutherland. In one of his first movie appearances, Sutherland actually plays three roles: a young soldier, an old man, and a witch. He’s most memorable as the creaky old witch.  The witch’s line, “Some will live. And some will die,” will stay with you long after you’ve seen this movie.

Sutherland got along so famously with director Warren Kiefer that he named his son after him, which is how actor Kiefer Sutherland got his name.

CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is not a classic of low-budget horror cinema. It doesn’t quite have enough going for it to reach that level. However, it is much better than critics have given it credit for.

It plays more like a drama— think the Charles Laughton version of Victor Hugo’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939)— that evolves into a horror tale, with traces of PSYCHO (1960) and low-budget foreign cinema, evoking the same kind of flavor and deadly charm as films like MANEATER OF HYDRA (1967) but shot in black and white without any serious blood and gore.

CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is all about atmosphere, and as such, it does not disappoint.

In the dead of winter, when everything seems cold and lifeless, there comes a barren castle occupied by Count Drago, a castle where all who visit remain, because once its secrets are exposed, it’s revealed to be truly a CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1966)

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Godzilla and Ebirah duke it out in GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1966).

When I was a kid in the 1970s watching Godzilla movies on the Creature Double Feature, GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1966) was not one of the Godzilla flicks that made the rounds back then.  I didn’t see it for the first time until the mid 1990s.

GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER is one of the early “silly” Godzilla movies, films where Godzilla pretty much is a giant monster superhero saving human kind from monsters, aliens from outer space, and assorted human villains.  Here, he takes on human villains and the giant sea monster known as Ebirah.

My favorite part of GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER is the story it tells and the characters it creates.  Most of the time, the storylines in the old Godzilla movies were pretty bad, and the characters uninteresting.  In fact, in general, you had to sit through a pretty boring movie and wait for Godzilla to show up before things got interesting.  But that’s not the case here with GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER.  It boasts one of the more fun stories in a 1960s Godzilla film, and it certainly contains some of the series’ more interesting characters.

So, it’s one Godzilla movie where things are a lot of fun even when Godzilla is not stomping on the scenery. But that doesn’t mean that Godzilla still isn’t the best part of this movie

Basically, a young man in search of his brother who had been lost at sea convinces two of his friends to help him steal a boat so they can search for his missing brother.  It turns out, the boat they choose happens to be inhabited by a jewel thief named Yoshimura (Akira Takarada) who’s hiding inside the boat.

Eventually, the four men find themselves shipwrecked on an island run by evil militants who are running a slave trade, and these militants are protected by the giant sea monster Ebirah. Lucky for our heroes, they discover Godzilla sleeping inside a cave and use lightning to wake him up, and of course, being Godzilla, he immediately gets cracking at seeking out and destroying all the evil elements on the island.

It also turns out, that the missing brother found himself on Mothra’s island, and so eventually Mothra shows up to help out when Godzilla’s intentions aren’t all that clear. That’s the fun thing about Godzilla. Sure, he’ll smack down the bad guys, but that doesn’t mean he won’t stomp on the heroes as well.

If this sounds silly, that’s because it is silly, but it’s all framed in a quick-moving fun storyline in which jewel thief Yoshimura often has to use his “thief skills” to help get his new young friends out of jams. Plus there’s a hopping 1960s music score that sounds like a cross between the Adam West BATMAN TV show and a Sean Connery James Bond movie.

But the bottom line is the entire flick is a heck of a lot of fun, and it’s one of my favorite GODZILLA  movies from the 1960s.

Akira Takarada, who plays Yoshimura the jewel thief, also starred in the original GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956) as the heroic Ogata, as well as in KING KONG ESCAPES (1967). He’s excellent here as Yoshimura.  Takarada’s co-star from first GODZILLA, Akihiko Hirata, who played Dr. Serizawa in that film, plays the villainous Captain Yamoto here.  Both actors have appeared in multiple Godzilla movies over the years.  Hirata passed away in 1984 at the age of 56, but Takarada is still with us.

The other interesting thing about GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER is that it was originally written to be a King Kong movie, a follow-up to KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962). Eventually that idea was scrapped, and Kong was replaced by Godzilla, which explains some of the different behaviors displayed by Godzilla in this movie.  First and foremost, Godzilla is very protective of the lead female character here, which isn’t indicative of Godzilla’s behavior in any other movie.  On the other hand, showing affection towards the female lead is one of Kong’s signature movie traits.  What a Lothario!

Godzilla is also found sleeping inside a cave, where in other films he pretty much lives in the ocean, and he’s strengthened by lightning, which is how Kong was strengthened in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

The battle between Godzilla and Ebirah is okay, and there have been far better monster battles in other Godzilla movies, but the strength of this film is the better balance between Godzilla scenes and the scenes featuring human characters.  When Godzilla is not on-screen, the action here is still engaging and fun.

GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER is not one of more popular Godzilla movies, but it’s certainly one of the more entertaining ones.

Definitely check out GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER.  Watch Godzilla battle that giant lobster monster Ebirah, and if you’re lucky enough, there might even be some leftovers for a hearty seafood platter.

Yum!

Pass the tartar sauce please.

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