IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970)

1

As a kid, I favored BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970), the second film in the original PLANET OF THE APES series, and it was clearly my favorite of the five APES movies.

I appreciated its fast pace, its frequent action scenes, and its incredibly exciting ending. However, over the years, my opinion on this one has changed, and I don’t hold it in as high regard as I once did.

But wait! A review of BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, a science fiction movie, in a column on horror movies? Well, I….as do most of you…have a broad definition of horror, and a film in which the entire world is blown to bits by a doomsday nuclear bomb, well, that’s horrific enough for me!

This first sequel to the original PLANET OF THE APES (1968) was originally going to follow the further adventures of astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston), but Heston wasn’t interested in the project, as by rule, he said he simply didn’t make sequels. However, he eventually agreed to reprise his role as long as it was brief (he made himself available for two weeks) and that they killed off the character. He also donated his salary for this one to charity.

And so the plot instead follows a second astronaut who crash lands on the planet, Brent (James Franciscus). While Fransciscus is very good in the lead role, the plot point of a second astronaut crash landing on Earth in the future at the same point in time as Taylor, I’ve always found difficult to swallow.

Anyway, Brent soon meets up with the mute Nova (Linda Harrison), who leads him back to Ape City where he meets Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (David Watson) who help him with his search to find Taylor. Meanwhile, the apes are being led by the militant General Ursus (James Gregory) who is intent on leading the apes into war against a mysterious unknown enemy lurking in the forbidden zone. Minister of Science Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) while not on board with Ursus’ militant methods, agrees the enemy in the forbidden zone must be confronted, as he believes it to be the tribe of dangerous humans from which Taylor had emerged.

Of course, Brent’s search for Taylor also leads him to the forbidden zone into the bizarre world lurking beneath the planet of the apes, where he engages in a direct confrontation with the inhabitants living there, setting up the stage for an all out action-packed conclusion as the apes attack the city just as Brent finds Taylor.

BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES has a lot of things going for it. Unfortunately, it has just as many things working against it.

For the most part, its story is a good one, as the screenplay by Paul Dehn, who would go on to write the rest of the movies in the APES series, is solid and tells an exciting tale as it follows Brent’s attempts to stay one step ahead of the apes as he searches for Taylor. And the social commentary also works, as we witness chimpanzees protesting against the militant gorillas, scenes which at the time mirrored the protests against the Vietnam war. Of course, here in 2020, the protests still have relevance.

However, as good as the script is, the screenplay for the first movie was written by Oscar winning screenwriter Michael Wilson and Rod Serling. There’s simply no comparison.

The original film has one of the most memorable and iconic endings of any science fiction movie… heck, any movie period!… ever! It seems this was inside the heads of the makers of the sequel, as they seemed to want to one-up the original ending and came up with the shocker of blowing up the world and killing everyone off.

As much as I used to like this ending, today it’s my least favorite part of the movie. It just doesn’t fit with the thought-provoking feel of the original film, and sadly sets the stage for the rest of the series which seemed intent on containing dark, violent, and tragic endings.

The budget for BENEAT THE PLANET OF THE APES was half the budget of the original film, and it shows. Most of the apes in the background in this one wear masks rather than John Chambers’ Oscar-winning make-up, used here for only the major ape characters.

Still, director Ted Post makes the most of what he had, and this one remains fast-paced and exciting throughout. It just doesn’t possess the same awe and otherworldly feel as the first film did.

James Franciscus is very good as Brent, although strangely he seems to be doing his best Charlton Heston impersonation. Evidently, Franciscus was very serious on set and hoped this film would be a major breakout role for him, which ultimately it was not. There are also stories of Fransciscus and Charlton Heston being very competitive during the shoot, and supposedly there was some genuine antagonism during their famous fight scene.

Kim Hunter returns as Zira, but her screen time is greatly reduced here in the sequel. Also, Roddy McDowall was unable to return as Cornelius in this movie, since he was committed to another project, and he is sorely missed here. David Watson plays Cornelius, and he’s simply nowhere near as good as McDowall.

Maurice Evans does get lots of screen time as Dr. Zaius, and James Gregory delivers a scene-stealing performance as General Ursus.

Linda Harrison also gets more screen time as the mute Nova, and her death, shot dead by a gorilla, marks the point in the movie where for me it all begins to unravel and go downhill.

Charlton Heston is fine once again as Taylor, but he is not in this one much at all, since he wasn’t interested in the project.

BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES does contain one of my all-time favorite lines in the series, as uttered by Ursus: “The only good human, is a dead human!”

And with its doomsday conclusion, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES should have ended the series, but thanks to the imaginative minds of writers, there emerged a third film in the series, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971).

But that’s a story for another column.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

Dark Corners cover (1)

Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949914437.

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, first short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS (2016)

1

girl with all the gifts poster

The best stories supersede the genre.

Take THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS (2016), for example. While some may argue that the zombie movie has overstayed its welcome, THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS approaches the trope with some fresh ideas and as a result infuses new energy into the subgenre.

The fact that this movie has a deep and clever screenplay comes as no surprise since screenwriter Mike Carey adapted the screenplay from his own very successful novel of the same name.

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS takes place in the near future, where a deadly disease has turned people into flesh eating zombies. Yup, it’s another variation of the zombie apocalypse. The difference here is that a group of children hold the key to the cure.

Teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) is tasked with educating these children, who are subdued and guarded 24/7 by the military, commanded here by Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine), because these special children are pretty much zombies with consciousnesses who still retain their intellect and personalities.

To find the cure for the disease, scientist Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) busily experiments on these kids and treats them like lab rats, cold to the fact that they die from her methods, a notion that does not sit well with Ms. Justineau. One of the children, Melanie (Sennia Nanua) forms a bond with Ms. Justineau, and the two grow to care for each other very much.

When the “hungries” overrun the facility, and all hell breaks loose, a small faction of survivors which include Melanie, Ms. Justineau, Dr. Caldwell, Sgt. Parks, and some of his soldiers, have to find ways to survive and make their way to safety, even while Dr. Caldwell insists she is so close to a cure, and perhaps just one more experiment would do the trick, one more experiment….on Melanie.

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS tells a really interesting story that as I said rises above the genre. It’s a fabulous screenplay by Mike Carey. The first half grabs you with its originality, keeping the audience guessing as to what’s going on and then keeping things intriguing. It also generates decent suspense early on. The second half of the movie, once the zombies overrun the facility, becomes much more of a standard horror flick, but it still works well.

I loved the cast. I’m a fan of Gemma Arterton, having enjoyed her work in such films as THEIR FINEST (2016) and the Bond flick QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008). Here she’s a caring teacher who it turns out is also as tough as nails.

Paddy Considine makes for an effective Sgt. Parks, a military man who is all about duty but grows more sympathetic as the story goes along. Considine has enjoyed notable roles in such films as THE DEATH OF STALIN (2017) and on the TV show PEAKY BLINDERS (2016) where he played a very villainous priest, Father John Hughes.

And Glenn Close is deliciously cold as Dr. Caroline Caldwell, the scientist with ice in her veins. It’s a terrific performance.

But it’s Sennia Nanua who really steals the show here as young Melanie, the most intriguing character in the movie. Nanua is fantastic, and Melanie is one of the more watchable horror movie characters I’ve seen in a long while.

Director Colm McCarthy makes sure that this one remains scary even with its more literate screenplay. There are plenty of disturbing scenes, the type you expect to find in a movie about flesh eating zombies. The film also does a nice job mixing zombie horror with human horror, something the TV show THE WALKING DEAD (2010-present) always excelled at. Some of the scenes with Dr. Caldwell are just as chilling and suspenseful as the scenes with the “hungries.”

While I slightly prefer the other zombie movie which came out in 2016, TRAIN TO BUSAN, to THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS, it’s only by a hair. I thought TRAIN TO BUSAN, which is a much more traditional zombie film, pushed the envelope with its intense action sequences which were off the charts suspenseful. THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS, while telling a more intelligent story, never reaches the same emotional level as TRAIN TO BUSAN.

That being said, THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS is still an excellent movie. So much so, that it’s not only one of my favorite zombie movies of recent years, but one of my favorite horror movies.

This Halloween, if you want to watch superior horror, a frightening story wrapped around a thought-provoking concept, then you’ll definitely want to watch THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS.

It’s the perfect Halloween gift.

—END—

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE MAD MONSTER (1942)

2

mad monster poster 2

THE MAD MONSTER (1942) is a Grade Z horror pic worth watching because it stars everyone’s favorite Grade Z horror movie mad scientist George Zucco and future Frankenstein Monster Glenn Strange here playing a serum-induced werewolf.

And if that’s not enough, the film features tropical almost prehistoric looking jungle forests. Does the story take place in the Amazon? Nope. It’s just the view outside the mad scientist’s humble home, somewhere in swampy small town America, although it looks more like swampy small town Skull Island!

The screenplay by Fred Myton tells a straightforward story, especially for a low budget film from the 1940s. Mad scientist Dr. Cameron (George Zucco) is miffed that his fellow scientists scoffed at his work, and so not only does he seek to prove them wrong, but he also seeks vengeance against them. His experiments involve injecting the essence of different animals into humans, sort of a Dr. Moreau style of thinking, or DNA mixing, ahead of its time. Of course, the film doesn’t even attempt to get any of the science right.

Dr. Cameron injects his hulk of a gardener Petro (Glenn Strange) with the essence of a wolf, turning him in effect into a werewolf, and he sends him off to kill all his doubting scientist colleagues! Meanwhile, Cameron’s beautiful daughter Lenora (Anne Nagel) tries to stand by her father, but her hardnosed boyfriend reporter Tom (Johnny Downs) isn’t having any of it and sets out to prove that her father is a murderer.

As Dr. Cameron, George Zucco is as demented as expected. Zucco could play a madman in his sleep, and he portrayed one so often in the movies that he probably did! Zucco also enjoyed the recurring role of Egyptian high priest Andoheb in several of the Universal MUMMY movies. He also played Professor Bruno Lampini, a bit part in Universal’s HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944). He only has a couple of lines in that one, but he makes the most of them. Here, he is as villainous and as insane as you want your mad scientist to be. And he seems to be enjoying every minute of it.

Glenn Strange, who would go on to play the Frankenstein Monster in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945), and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948), plays a werewolf here. It’s been said, and it’s true, that Strange bears a strong resemblance to Lon Chaney Jr. Chaney, of course, played a werewolf in the now classic THE WOLF MAN (1941), but Strange’s performance here captures none of Chaney’s work in THE WOLF MAN. However, it does borrow from another Chaney role, that of Lennie in John Steinbeck’s OF MICE AND MEN (1939). When he’s not a werewolf, Strange’s Petro talks, looks, and acts like Chaney’s Lennie.

It’s interesting to note that Strange’s werewolf here is created by scientific means. This is significant because in the Universal werewolf movies the werewolf was created by supernatural circumstances. Lycanthropy was shared by the bite of other werewolves. This is so in both the Lon Chaney Jr. werewolf movies and THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935). Two werewolf movies from the 1950s, THE WEREWOLF (1956), and I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1957) are generally credited as being the first werewolf movies to feature these creatures as being created by mad scientists, but THE MAD MONSTER did it first a good fifteen years earlier.

As werewolves go, Glenn Strange’s creature in this movie is meh. The make-up is so-so, but what did you expect from a grade z horror picture? Still, with Strange’s considerable bulk, the creature looks menacing. However, Strange completely lacks the animal ferocity which Lon Chaney Jr. brought to his wolf man role.

That being said, credit director Sam Newfield for setting up some frightening scenes in this one, like having Strange sitting with his head down next to one of the unsuspecting scientists, and the audience knows that when he looks up, he will have changed into the murderous beast! There’s also a neat scene where Strange transforms in the back seat of a car, and the sequence where the werewolf snatches a young child from her bedroom window and then kills her is downright disturbing. While the action in these scenes takes place off camera, the set-up allows one’s imagination to take over.

Of course, at the end of the day, THE MAD MONSTER really isn’t scary. Mostly because Strange’s werewolf isn’t all that horrifying. While he’s certainly creepy to behold as he lumbers through the bizarre tropical swamp, he’s a little too slow to instill fear. The creature’s speed here is more reminiscent of another Lon Chaney Jr. creation, Kharis, the Mummy.

In another “strange” occurrence, Glenn Strange isn’t the only actor with the name Strange in this movie. Robert Strange plays one of the other scientists. No relation.

THE MAD MONSTER in the title may seem to refer to the monster played by Glenn Strange, but his werewolf is not that angry or insane. Now, George Zucco’s scientist Dr. Cameron is certainly angry and insane! So, my money is on Dr. Cameron as being the MAD MONSTER in the title.

Either way, you have two great horror actors, George Zucco and Glenn Strange, in one very low budget horror movie, the perfect combination for some late-night September horror movie viewing.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944)

1

mummys-ghost-kharis-mummy-lon-chaney-jr

Lon Chaney Jr. as Kharis in THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944).

I have a soft spot for the Universal movies featuring Kharis the Mummy.

They’re not widely considered Universal’s best, but I’ve always enjoyed them, and even though Kharis might lose a foot race to Michael Myers, I’ve always found him creepy and frightening, especially when played by Lon Chaney Jr., which he was in three of the four films to feature the character.

All this being said, THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944), the third film in the Kharis series and the second to star Chaney, is probably my least favorite of the series, which is funny, because for a lot of folks it’s their pick for the best of the bunch. But not for me, and the main reason for my lack of love for this one— don’t get me wrong, I still like this movie—is it’s just not as memorable as the other films in the series. It just sort of goes through the motions. THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942) contained one of the best endings in the entire series, and THE MUMMY’S CURSE (1944) took place in the Louisiana swamps which added a unique flavor and made Kharis even creepier as he lurked in and out of the bayou.

But THE MUMMY’S GHOST does have Lon Chaney Jr., and that’s a plus.

THE MUMMY’S GHOST opens with the so-old-he’s-going-to-keel-over-any-second Egyptian high priest Andoheb (George Zucco) giving instructions to yet another high priest Yousef Bey (John Carradine). Bey’s mission is to travel to the U.S., specifically to Massachusetts, and there retrieve the bodies of Kharis the mummy and the mummified princess, whose remains are inside a museum there. Even though we saw Kharis supposedly perish in a fire at the end of THE MUMMY’S TOMB, it’s hinted at in this film that he can’t really die, which is convenient, because the first time we see Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) in this movie, he just sort of emerges from the woods, with no explanation as to how he escaped the fire in the previous movie.

In Massachusetts, the story revolves around two college students, Tom (Robert Lowery) and his girlfriend Amina (Ramsay Ames), who we learn is part Egyptian. Cue dramatic music! Yousef Bey arrives, finds Kharis, brews the all important tana leaves, nine to be exact, to keep his favorite Mummy fit and strong, and together they plan to steal the mummified body of the princess Ananka, which makes Kharis happy since he’s finally going to see his long lost girlfriend again. But alas, when they attempt to remove the body, it crumples to dust, which infuriates Kharis, and he reacts by nearly tearing down the museum!

But not to worry, it’s discovered that the spirit of Ananka is now living inside Amina! And so, Kharis and Yousef Bey change their plans and go after Amina, and all is going well for them too, until once again the high priest messes things up. Yes, Yousef Bey falls in love with Amina and decides he wants her for himself. I can just see Kharis rolling his eyes in disgust: every time a high priest is sent to help him, the result is the same, the priest falls in love with a woman and screws up the mission. It’s true!

THE MUMMY’S GHOST does have one of the better casts in the series, and it’s loaded with veteran character actors, including Frank Reicher, known to horror fans as Captain Englehorn in both KING KONG (1933) and SON OF KONG (1933). Reicher plays a college professor named Norman who is an Egyptian scholar, a role he reprised from the previous film, THE MUMMY’S TOMB. He has a bit more screen time here in GHOST, and gets to enjoy one of the better scenes in the film. It’s just a small bit, where he converses with his wife after a long night of researching, but it’s such a sincere loving moment, it makes his death at the hands of Kharis moments later all the more frightening and sad.

Robert Lowery play the male romantic lead Tom, and he’s decent enough. A few years later Lowery would play Batman in the serial BATMAN AND ROBIN (1949). Ramsay Ames plays Amina, and she’s okay but her performance has never really wowed me.

Likewise the great John Carradine is just meh here as Yousef Bey. It’s still fun to see him though. And George Zucco makes the most of his brief scenes early on as the aged Andoheb.

This is the second time Lon Chaney Jr. played Kharis, and I think it’s his least effective. The make-up simply isn’t as spooky looking as it was in THE MUMMY’S TOMB, and Kharis simply doesn’t have all that many memorable moments here. In fact, in this movie, Kharis seems to be slower than ever, as there are too many scenes where we just see him walking. Walking. And walking. He’s much scarier when he’s murdering. Now, that does happen here in THE MUMMY’S GHOST, but for some reason these scenes don’t resonate as well as similar scenes in the other movies.

Sadly, director Reginald Le Borg just doesn’t really craft many scary scenes here.

Also, when the hero of your movie is a dog, that’s not a good thing. Kharis steals the body of Amina, and Tom and the authorities are clueless, until Tom’s dog barks to him and leads him and the police on a chase to hunt down Kharis!

Where is he, boy? Where is Kharis? Take us to him!

Er, no.

But that’s sort of what happens in this one.

The screenplay by Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher, and Brenda Weisberg does contain the interesting element of the princess Ananka’s soul entering Amina’s body, and does set up a somewhat memorable conclusion where Kharis carries Amina into the swamps as her body undergoes a frightening transformation. In fact, this is the part of the movie that most fans cite as being their favorite. For me, it’s too little too late. Hammer Films would borrow heavily from this conclusion for their Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee remake THE MUMMY (1959) only without the frightening transformation.

Sucher and Jay also wrote the screenplay to the previous film in the series, THE MUMMY’S TOMB. and Jay wrote the screenplay to one of my favorite Bela Lugosi movies, THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943). Both those screenplays are better than the one for THE MUMMY’S GHOST.

And while it’s not explicitly said in the movie, the ghost in the film’s title probably refers to the ghost of Ananka whose spirit takes up residence inside the body of Amina.

At the end of the day, THE MUMMY’S GHOST is still an opportunity to see Kharis the Mummy strut his stuff, and for me, especially during the lazy hazy  days of summer, that’s a good thing.

—END—

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: CAT GIRL (1957)

1

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)

1

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)

1

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)

0

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)

0

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)

0

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—