IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)

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“This nut thinks he’s a vampire!”

So says reporter Carl Kolchak to his editor Tony Vincenzo, as he tries to convince him to publish his story.

THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) is not only one of the best horror movies from the 1970s, it’s also one of the best horror movies period.

Even more impressive, it was a made-for-TV movie, which isn’t surprising for the early 1970s, as that part of the decade was a great time for made-for-TV horror movies. Films like THE NORLISS TAPES (1973), GARGOYLES (1972), and TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975) were all made-for-TV shockers.

The best of the lot was THE NIGHT STALKER.

THE NIGHT STALKER starred Darren McGavin in the role that most of us consider to be his signature role, the inexorable reporter Carl Kolchak.

This movie earned such high ratings when it premiered on television on January 11, 1972 that in a largely unprecedented move, it was released theatrically after it played on TV because the film was that popular. Amazing.

And it really is a superior horror movie, which is no surprise since it was produced by Dan Curtis, the man behind the Dark Shadows phenomenon. It’s also an incredibly lean production, as it clocks in at just 74 minutes. There isn’t an ounce of fat on this baby.

THE NIGHT STALKER boasts a fantastic script, and you would expect no less since it was written by Richard Matheson, based on an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice. The legendary Matheson wrote a ton of movies and so it would be difficult to call THE NIGHT STALKER his best screenplay, but I will say that for me, it’s probably my favorite Matheson screenplay.

In 1972 Las Vegas, young women are being murdered, their bodies drained of blood. The authorities want this information kept out of the news to avoid a panic, but reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) sees this story as his ticket back to the big time, as he’s been fired from one major newspaper after another, due to his in-your-face abrasive style.

Kolchak’s efforts come much to the chagrin of his hard-nosed irritable editor, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) who has a love/hate relationship with his reporter.  Kolchak describes his boss in a voice-over, “Rumor has it that the day Anthony Albert Vincenzo was born, his father left town. The story may be apocryphal, but I believe it. The only point I wonder about is why his mother didn’t leave too.”

Vincenzo recognizes that Kolchak is a top-notch reporter but grows increasingly frustrated that he can’t control him. Their verbal exchanges are some of the liveliest parts of the movie.

The vampire, Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater) possesses superhuman strength and performs such feats as hurling doctors through windows, tossing police officers about like twigs and outrunning police cars. He’s a type of vampire seldom seen in the movies, and to 1972 audiences he made for a violent shocking killer.  He’s quite scary.

The film does a nice job building to the inevitable climax where Kolchak finally tracks down Skorzeny.

Carl Kolchak was a perfect role for Darren McGavin and it’s no surprise he’s most known for the part. What I’ve always liked about Kolchak in THE NIGHT STALKER is unlike other heroes in vampire movies, Kolchak knew absolutely nothing about vampires.  For him, it was just a story, and at first, he didn’t even think it was a real vampire until he saw with his own eyes the vampire in action. He then researches the supernatural, and before you know it, he’s the one who’s telling the police about crosses and wooden stakes through the heart.

The vampire scenes in THE NIGHT STALKER are second to none.  Barry Atwater makes for a chilling vampire, hissing and dashing in and out of the shadows a la Christopher Lee, and like Lee in some of his Dracula portrayals, Atwater has no dialogue. In fact, Atwater’s performance as Skorzeny is even more visceral and violent than Lee’s Dracula. The success of THE NIGHT STALKER also influenced Hammer Films to make their next Dracula movie, DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972) as a modern-day vampire tale set in 1970s London rather than the usual 1890s period piece. THE NIGHT STALKER is the superior film, by far.

The film enjoys a fine supporting cast, led by Carol Lynley as Kolchak’s girlfriend Gail Foster. There’s Claude Akins as the aptly named Sheriff Butcher, who also butchers the English language. During one press conference, he yells at Kolchak saying the reporter is there by the “mutual suffrage of us all,” to which Kolchak quickly corrects him, “it’s sufferance, sheriff.””

The cast also features Kent Smith as D.A. Paine, Ralph Meeker as Kolchak’s friend and FBI contact Bernie Jenks, and Elisha Cook, Jr. as another of Kolchak’s sources, Mickey Crawford.

The best supporting performance though belongs to Simon Oakland as Tony Vincenzo. Oakland would reprise the role in both the sequel THE NIGHT STRANGLER (1973) and the subsequent NIGHT STALKER TV series.

Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey, THE NIGHT STALKER is a quick efficient thriller with enough chills and thrills for a movie twice its length. The early scenes chronicling the violent attacks on women in Las Vegas are scary and unsettling, and thanks to Richard Matheson’s superior script, the story moves forward with nearly every scene as the suspense continues to grow..

Moxey worked mostly in television, and he directed other genre TV movies as well.  He also directed the little seen Christopher Lee horror movie CIRCUS OF FEAR (1966), also known as PSYCHO-CIRCUS, a West German/UK co-production, and Moxey directed the English language version.

But the biggest reason, of course, to see THE NIGHT STALKER is Darren McGavin’s performance as reporter Carl Kolchak. Kolchak is a man who isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers or get into the faces of the authorities in order to tell the truth.  That’s part of the attraction of the character.  That he’s fighting through the lies of the establishment.  As he says in another voice-over, “Sherman Duffy of the New York Herald once said, ‘A newspaperman is the loneliest guy on earth. Socially he ranks somewhere between a hooker and a bartender. Spiritually he stands with Galileo, because he knows the world is round.'”

McGavin would play Kolchak again in the sequel THE NIGHT STRANGLER and in the NIGHT STALKER TV series (1974-75), which sadly lasted only one season.

He also gets the last lines in the movie, as he speaks into his tape recorder and concludes, “So think about it and try to tell yourself wherever you may be in the quiet of your home, in the safety of your bed, try to tell yourself, it couldn’t happen here.”

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1964)

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The following IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column originally appeared in the April 2012 edition of the HWA NEWSLETTER:

 

Like Universal before them, Hammer Films made a series of Mummy movies, four to be exact, none of them direct sequels, none of them all that exciting, but all of them in vivid color and at the very least entertaining.

THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1964) is the second Mummy movie Hammer made, and of the four, it’s my second favorite.  My favorite, of course, is their first Mummy movie, THE MUMMY (1959) starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  Again, THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB is not a sequel to THE MUMMY but tells an entirely new story, completely separate from Hammer’s initial Mummy movie.

Egyptologists John Bray (Ronald Howard), Sir Giles Dalrymple (Jack Gwillim), and Annette Dubois (Jeanne Roland) discover the mummified remains of the Egyptian prince Ra.  Like all good Mummy movies, there’s a curse that says anyone who messes with the mummy’s tomb will die.  The difference in this story, however, is that the curse is welcomed.  That’s because the expedition has been financed by an American showman Alexander King (Fred Clark) who wants to take the mummy and all the relics discovered along with it on the road for a sort of travelling road show, the sort of thing Carl Denham would have dreamed up after his adventures with King Kong.

Unfortunately, the show doesn’t last long because someone— the audience doesn’t know who— resurrects the Mummy, and so King can’t have his show without its star.  Soon afterwards, the Mummy goes on a murder spree, methodically attempting to kill everyone involved in the discovery of his tomb.  Will the Mummy kill everyone in the movie?  Or will our heroes figure out the identity of the Mummy’s secret benefactor and stop both him and the Mummy before it’s too late?  You’ll have to watch THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB to find out.

I’ve always found THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB to be a fairly entertaining movie, as it has some neat things going for it.

First off, director Michael Carreras cranks up the violence in this one, although admittedly by today’s standards, the movie is very tame.  The movie opens with a scene in which a man’s hand is chopped off.  In another scene, the Mummy uses a heavy statuette to smash in the head of his victim.  This occurs off camera, of course, but alone on the soundtrack— without any accompanying music— is the sickening thud of the statuette crushing the man’s skull.  In yet another scene, the Mummy uses its powerful foot to obliterate his victim’s head.  Nasty!

Director Carreras usually served Hammer in another capacity, as a producer.  He produced many of their early hits, including THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).  As the director of THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB, Carreras performs well.

The first time the Mummy makes his appearance, it’s an excellent scene as he steps from a thick fog onto the top of a creepy outdoor staircase ready to attack his first victim.  Later, the Mummy emerges from fog again, this time just before crashing through a window.

Another neat touch is the sound effect of the Mummy breathing.  Fourteen years later John Carpenter would use a similar effect with Michael Myers in HALLOWEEN (1978).

Carreras also penned the screenplay using the pseudonym “Henry Younger” which was an in-joke because fellow Hammer producer Anthony Hinds wrote the screenplays for a ton of Hammer movies [including THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961) & DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)] under the pen name “John Elder.”

Carreras’ screenplay tells the usual Mummy tale but does include an interesting plot twist.  While it won’t knock your socks off, it’s still an intriguing twist.

The actual Mummy make-up looks fine, but the same can’t be said for the Mummy’s body.    The Mummy was played by stunt man Dickie Owen, and he surprisingly sports a noticeable pot belly.  It’s sadly laughable.

Lon Chaney Jr. was criticized when he played Kharis the Mummy for Universal for looking too solid and heavy to be an Egyptian mummy, but Chaney looks like a trim Olympic athlete compared to the Mummy in this movie!

THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB has a solid cast.  Ronald Howard, the son of famed actor Leslie Howard, is capable as lead Egyptologist John Bray.  I also really liked Fred Clark as the showman Alexander King.  The best part about the entire cast, which can be said for the majority of Hammer movies, is that they are thoroughly believable in their roles.  They make you believe in all the supernatural proceedings.

THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB also has a good music score by Carlo Martelli.

On the other hand, one thing that doesn’t work so well is the ending, which is abrupt and is probably the weakest part of the movie.  Compared to the Mummy scenes that come before it, the ending is not very exciting.

Overall, though, THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB is a decent Mummy movie, competently executed by all involved, and it gets much better once the Mummy finally appears.  The final twenty minutes are the best part of the movie, except for the ending, which mummy-wraps things up too quickly.

So, this spring, if you’re pining for pleasant sunshine and warmer temperatures, but the weather isn’t cooperating, take a trip to the desert sands of Egypt in search of Mummies and monsters.  And like Alexander King in the movie, don’t fear THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB, but embrace it!

That’s right.  Hug your Mummy today!

—END—

 

 

 

 

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.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE CORPSE VANISHES (1942)

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Bela Lugosi carries off Luana Walters in THE CORPSE VANISHES (1942)

It’s winter.  It’s friggin cold.  Let’s heat things up a bit with a good old-fashioned Grade Z horror movie starring Bela Lugosi.

My favorite part of any Grade Z Lugosi flick is that in spite of the awful acting, writing, and production values which often accompanied these films, Lugosi would always bring his “A” game, the result being a masterful horrific performance in an otherwise forgettable movie.

Take today’s movie, for instance.  THE CORPSE VANISHES (1942) would no doubt be a forgotten film if not for the presence of Bela Lugosi.  And while there are a few other parts about this movie that I like, Lugosi’s the reason to see it, and as he almost always does, he delivers a commanding performance.

It seems that it’s not a good time to get married.  Yup, in THE CORPSE VANISHES, every time there’s a wedding, the bride drops dead at the altar, and to make matters even more horrifying, her body is then stolen by phony morticians and whisked away to some unknown destination, leaving the grieving families shell-shocked and devastated.

That’s because Dr. George Lorenz (Bela Lugosi) has a wife who for reasons that are not entirely explained needs a special serum made from the gland fluid of virginal brides to keep herself young.  It’s a good thing for her that she’s married to Dr. Lorenz, because he’s only too happy to accommodate her, and so it’s Lorenz and his weird housemates who are busy killing and stealing the brides’ bodies so Lorenz can extract their fluids back in his secret laboratory in his home.

While the police are baffled, young newspaper reporter Patricia Hunter (Luana Walters), trying to make a name for herself, vows to investigate and solve the case on her own.

And that’s the plot of THE CORSPE VANISHES. The best parts, of course, involve Bela Lugosi.  One of my favorite scenes has the police searching the hearse which contains one of those dead brides.  When they open the coffin, rather than find the dead bride, they find Lorenz pretending to be a corpse. The officer says “it ‘s a corpse all right, but not the one we’re looking for.”  The scene’s a hoot because the audience expects to see the deceased newlywed but instead it’s Lugosi inside the coffin, and of course since it is Lugosi, you half-expect him to sit up and declare, “I am— Dracula.”

Speaking of Lugosi and coffins, when Patricia searches his house and discovers both the doctor and his wife sleeping in coffins, she calls him on it the next day.  His response? “I find a coffin much more comfortable than a bed.” Only Bela Lugosi can utter that line and make it seem so matter of fact that it is completely believable.

And what Bela Lugosi “mad scientist” movie would be complete without him grabbing a whip and beating on his mute assistant.  And while it’s not Tor Johnson, the guy is still rather creepy. In fact, one of the creepiest scenes in the movie occurs when Patricia searches the secret tunnels under the house, and the mute assistant Angel (Frank Moran) slowly pursues her, munching on a humongous turkey drumstick, no less!  This scene also features some neat music, and the whole film, for a grade Z flick, has a pretty decent music score.

But make no mistake.  This is definitely a grade Z movie, with absolutely no production values whatsoever. Directed by Wallace Fox, THE CORPSE VANISHES does have the aforementioned creepy scene in the secret corridor, and it does have Bela Lugosi, but other than this, there’s not much that makes this one all that horrifying.

The screenplay by Harvey Gates tells a rather ridiculous story, but in a movie like this, that’s half the fun.

And Lugosi isn’t the only actor in this film who turns in a decent effort.  Luana Walters is very good as reporter Patricia Hunter.  She’s smart, sexy, and feisty, the perfect female heroine.

Tristram Coffin— yes, that’s right, Coffin— is very good as well as the likable Dr. Foster, a doctor who ends up helping Patricia with her investigation.

As already mentioned, Frank Moran makes for a creepy mute henchman, while diminutive Angelo Rossitto plays Lugosi’s other assistant, the very little Toby. Rossitto also starred in Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932) and would co-star with Bela Lugosi again in Lugosi’s only color film, SCARED TO DEATH (1947). Rossitto remained active as an actor until 1987.  He died in 1991 at the age of 83.

Also in the cast as Dr. Lorenz’ wife, the Countess Lorenz, is Elizabeth Russell, familiar to horror fans for her role as the Cat Woman in the original CAT PEOPLE (1942).  Russell also appeared in the classic ghost story movie THE UNINVITED (1944) with Ray Milland, WEIRD WOMAN (1944) with Lon Chaney Jr., THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944), and BEDLAM (1946) with Boris Karloff.

But the main reason to see THE CORPSE VANISHES is Bela Lugosi. In these frigid icy nights of winter, heat things up by watching Bela Lugosi chew up the scenery as he steals the bodies of dead brides, drains fluids from their glands to make a serum to keep his wife young, whips his mute servant into obedience, and settles in for a good night’s sleep inside his comfy coffin alongside his now youthful beautiful wife.

Sure, there are a lot of classic “A” list horror films featuring Lugosi, from DRACULA (1931) to THE BLACK CAT (1934) to SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939), but just as fun and just as memorable for Lugosi fans, are the plethora of low-budget horror flicks he made, adding his distinctive presence to films that would otherwise be long forgotten.

One last piece of advice.  If you find yourself unable to sleep after viewing this movie, consider trading in your mattress— for the latest designer coffin.

Pleasant dreams.

—END—

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE EXORCIST (1973)

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I’ve always considered THE EXORCIST (1973) the scariest movie I have ever seen.

It’s not a jump-scare suspense thriller, nor is it a special effects gore-for-gore’s sake bonanza, although sure, it does contain very graphic scenes that are certainly not for the squeamish. THE EXORCIST is the scariest film I have ever seen because of the story it tells.

Its story of a young girl possessed by— not just a demon but the Devil himself— is so disturbing, that even if you’re not religious you are sure to be moved by it all.

It also doesn’t hurt that everything that happens in the movie seems so convincingly real.

THE EXORCIST not only gets the storytelling right, but it also gets the Catholic Church right.  So many films featuring demons and exorcisms mess up the religious aspects of their tales, often featuring priests who aren’t realistic at all and exorcisms that resemble something out of a Steven Spielberg film with special effects galore.

Not so with THE EXORCIST.  The movie has always seemed authentic and real.

When THE EXORCIST first came out in 1973, I was only 9 and too young to see it.  I first saw it on HBO when I was in high school, probably around 1980, and it was late at night, and it really got under my skin.  I still remember to this day going to bed, closing my eyes, and being unable to erase the image of Linda Blair’s possessed face from my mind. Her eyes kept staring at me.  Long into the dark night and wee hours of the morning.

THE EXORCIST pretty much tells three stories which all converge in the film’s third act. The main story features prominent actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) who’s having trouble with her 12 year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair).  Regan has been acting strangely, and when things get worse and really bizarre, as in her bed shaking and her body becoming grotesquely mutilated, the doctors are at a loss and eventually advise Chris to seek religious guidance and perhaps request an exorcism.

The second story concerns Father Karras (Jason Miller), a young priest who is guilt ridden about the death of his elderly mother, since he was never there for her.  Chris turns to Father Karras for help, and he tries to steer her away from an exorcism, saying instead that she should rely on the medical profession, but when Chris breaks down saying she has taken Regan to countless doctors, and they failed to help her and actually suggested an exorcism, she feels there is no one to help her daughter, and so Karras agrees to see Regan.  After he does, he changes his tune.

The third story revolves around Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) who we see in the first few minutes of the movie in the middle east seeking out religious artifacts.  Merrin is an exorcist who has had experience fighting demons, and eventually the elderly priest is called in to perform an exorcism on Regan, setting up the film’s exciting climax.

THE EXORCIST is one of those rare horror movies where nearly everything works.  It’s no surprise then that THE EXORCIST was the first horror movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.  It didn’t win, nor did Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, or Linda Blair, or director William Friedkin, who were all nominated that year.  But it did win two Oscars, for best adapted screenplay by William Peter Blatty,  based on his novel, and for Best Sound.

The acting is phenomenal throughout.  Ellen Burstyn delivers a powerful performance as Regan’s mother Chris.  She goes through such an emotional roller coaster ride trying to save her daughter, it’s both moving and terribly painful to watch.  It’s certainly an Oscar-worthy performance.

Jason Miller is just as good as Father Karras.  He’s the epitome of a struggling Catholic, a priest who questions his faith and his own actions as a human being.  He needs every bit of strength and faith he has when he eventually has to confront the demon inside Regan.

Likewise, Max von Sydow is just as convincing as the elderly Father Merrin.  It’s an impressive performance, mostly because von Sydow was only 44 at the time, and he is completely believable as a much older man, a testament both to his performance and the superb make-up job by Dick Smith.

Of course, there’s Linda Blair as the possessed Regan, certainly an exceedingly challenging role for a child actress.  But she was helped immensely by Mercedes McCambridge who provided the memorable voice of the demon inside Regan.

Director William Friedkin made a horror film for the ages.  The best thing about THE EXORCIST is that it doesn’t play like a traditional horror film.  It plays instead like a serious drama, only its subject matter of a 12-year-old girl possessed by a demon is horrific.  It’s incredibly disturbing.

The “horror” scenes in THE EXORCIST are legendary:  Regan’s head turning completely around, the green “pea soup” vomit,  the infamous masturbation scene, and the words “help me” on Regan’s stomach.

The film is chock full of unnerving images, from the subliminal flashes of the white-faced demon to Regan’s monstrous stare.

The sound effects are just as ominous.  It’s one of the more innovative uses of sound in a horror movie ever.

And I’ve always loved the scene where Father Merrin first arrives at the house, in the fog and creepy lighting.  It’s never been referenced as an influence, but Friedkin’s shot of Merrin’s arrival has always reminded me of Terence Fisher’s shot of Peter Cushing entering the windmill at the end of Hammer Films’ classic THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) thirteen years earlier.

And who can forget the line, “The power of Christ compels you!” spoken by both Father Merrin and Father Karras during the climactic exorcism scene.

If you’ve never seen THE EXORCIST, it’s a must-see movie for all horror writers. It will continue to haunt you long after you’ve watched it.

It’s the stuff that bad dreams are made of.

—END—

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

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THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960), Hammer Films’ second vampire movie, is so steeped in rich atmosphere you can almost feel the Transylvanian mist on your flesh.

It also ranks as one of the best vampire films ever made.

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA tells the story of young Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur) on her way to the Lang Academy at Badstein where she is to be a teacher.  Unfortunately, before arriving at the school, she spends the night at the Chateau Meinster where she meets the young dashing Baron Meinster (David Peel) who happens to be a vampire.

Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, reprising the role he played in HORROR OF DRACULA two years earlier) arrives in town to investigate the reports of vampirism in the area.  Van Helsing befriends young Marianne and discovers that Baron Meinster is the local vampire.  In a neat piece of drama, he is understandably shocked to learn that Marianne and the Baron are engaged to be married.  However, Van Helsing puts his personal feelings aside and pursues the vampire, eventually battling it out with Meinster in an exciting climax in a fiery windmill.

While THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is an excellent film, it’s not without its problems.  For starters, Dracula does not appear in the movie, so the title is a major misnomer and source of frustration for many fans.   Dracula is absent from the film because back in 1960 Christopher Lee refused to reprise the role for fear of being typecast.  And while David Peel performs admirably as Baron Meinster, he’s no Christopher Lee, and his performance lacks the powerful punch that viewers loved about Lee.

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David Peel as vampire Baron Meinster in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).

Also, the music score by Malcolm Williamson is so over the top in places it’s almost laughable.  James Bernard’s music is sorely missed here.

Still, there’s lots to like about BRIDES.

The cast is superb, led by Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing.  Long before Hugh Jackman put us to sleep in the over-hyped yawn fest VAN HELSING (2004), Peter Cushing was THE film Van Helsing.  His performances in HORROR and BRIDES marked the first time the role was played as a younger action hero, rather than the old wise professor from Stoker’s novel.

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Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) fighting off a vampire in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).

The supporting cast is also very good, notably Martita Hunt as the Baroness Meinster, Baron Meinster’s mother, and Freda Jackson as Greta, Baron Meinster’s former nurse and current servant.  Jackson steals nearly every scene she’s in.

Jimmy Sangster, Peter Bryan, and Edward Percy all worked on the screenplay for THE BRIDES OF DRACULA.  Evidently, extra writers were called in and extensive rewrites were performed at the request of Peter Cushing who was unhappy with the original script.  For instance, in the original script, Van Helsing used black magic to fight off the vampires, and Cushing thought this was completely out of character for the doctor.

Director Terence Fisher gives the film its wonderful atmosphere by using rich colors and textures, elaborate sets and costumes, the whole bit.  It’s one of the reasons Hammer Films were so successful.  They always looked liked extremely high-budgeted movies when in fact they weren’t.

Fisher also creates some classic scenes in this film- Greta calling to the young vampire bride in her grave, the girl’s hand clawing its way out of the soil, Van Helsing burning the vampire’s bite from his own neck, and in the fiery climax, Van Helsing leaping onto the blades of the burning windmill to form the shadow of the cross on an adjacent building.

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is an atmospheric gem, well worth sinking your teeth into.

—END—

(This column was originally published in the HWA Newsletter in November 2006.)

 

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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

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

For The Love Of Horror cover

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

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE FUNHOUSE (1981)

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thefunhouse_poster

Tobe Hooper, the famed horror movie director who passed away on August 26, 2017 at the age of 74, is mostly known for his classic horror movie, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974).  Many horror writers swear by this movie and cite it as their inspiration for entering the genre.

Other fans prefer Hooper’s work on SALEM’S LOT (1979), the chilling made-for-TV adaptation of Stephen King’s vampire novel.

A smaller group opt for today’s movie, THE FUNHOUSE (1981), Hooper’s entry in the 1980s slasher flick craze, a genre which received a nice kick in the pants with John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978).

I’m a sucker for films which take place at amusement parks or carnivals, and so, while THE FUNHOUSE is not my favorite Tobe Hooper film, it does capture what it’s like to be a teenager at a carnival on a sultry summer evening.  The sights, the sounds, and even the smells, as you can easily imagine the aroma of fried foods, hot buttered popcorn, sweet cotton candy, and of course the repugnant stench of full garbage cans, and the occasional sour sting of leftover vomit on the cement pathways.

As a result, THE FUNHOUSE is a guilty pleasure for me.

I mentioned HALLOWEEN, and one of the weaker parts of THE FUNHOUSE is its opening sequence, in which it pretty much copies the opening sequence in HALLOWEEN, complete with the child killer with a knife and the point-of-view shots from the child’s eyes as seen through a Halloween mask.  I’m sure Hooper intended it as an homage, but since this movie came out just three years after HALLOWEEN, it doesn’t come off that way.

This same scene also includes a shower sequence, and so there’s also an obvious nod to Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960).  This homage works better than the nod to HALLOWEEN since it’s less derivative.

In THE FUNHOUSE, teen Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge) can’t wait to get out of the house, away from her stifling parents, and if you spent five minutes with the folks playing her parents in this movie, you’d want to get out of the house as well!  They sit like zombies watching television and speak in monotones and spew parental clichés when they talk to their daughter.  With these parents, it’s a wonder that Amy isn’t the masked killer in this movie!

Anyway, on this particular summer night, Amy sneaks off with her friends and heads off to the local carnival, even after her father told her she was not allowed to go there, which, of course, is exactly why she decides to go to the carnival.  Well, actually, to her credit, she tries to resist at first, but her friends convince her to go, and she gives in.

At the carnival, since they’re crazy teenagers, they come up with the daring idea to sneak into the funhouse and stay there overnight.  Too bad for them the guy working the ride wearing a Frankenstein mask happens to be a murderous psycho.  It’s going to be a long night, Amy.

So, what was supposed to be a wild night goofing around inside a funhouse turns into a night of terror as this insane monster chases Amy and her friends through the funhouse with the intent of killing them in various nasty ways.

And there you have the plot of THE FUNHOUSE.  As horror movies go, it’s a fun enough story.

That being said, for me, THE FUNHOUSE has always been a poor man’s HALLOWEEN.  It comes off as cheaper, the acting isn’t as good, and the scares are nowhere near as effective, but it’s still a heck of a lot of fun to watch, especially on a hot summer night.

One of the more memorable parts of THE FUNHOUSE is the Monster, played by Wayne Doba.  At first, he wears a Frankenstein mask, which is creepy enough, but when he takes his mask off, his face is hideous.  It’s a cool looking make-up job, which is no surprise since the man behind the make-up here is none other than Rick Baker.

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Wayne Doba as the Monster in THE FUNHOUSE (1981).

Actually, the creepiest part of THE FUNHOUSE isn’t the Monster. It’s Kevin Conway’s performance as three different ride operators.  He plays the Freak Show Barker, the Strip Show Barker, and the Funhouse Barker, and he’s effectively unsettling as all three.  He’s really creepy, and the funny thing is, he reminds me of a lot of ride operators I used to see at amusement parks and carnivals when I was a kid.  Yup, there used to be some pretty unsavory looking characters running those rides back in the day.

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“Come on, kiddos.  Ride my ride!  It’s fun!”    Kevin Conway operating a ride in THE FUNHOUSE (1981).

And Conway’s Funhouse Barker gets the most screen time as it’s revealed that he’s the stepfather of the Monster.  How about that for a family portrait!

Also working against THE FUNHOUSE is in spite of its premise, it’s never all that scary. The scare scenes for the most part involve the Monster chasing the teens through the Funhouse which sounds scarier than it actually is.

The best part about THE FUNHOUSE is the way Tobe Hooper captures the essence of a summer time carnival.  That’s the main reason I like to watch this one.

Lawrence Block wrote the screenplay, and the story it tells is compelling enough:  a group of teens spending the night in a creepy funhouse, and it has a frightening looking Monster, but pretty much everything else about this one is rather standard.

Tobe Hooper will be remembered most for his work on THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.  But it’s always fun to look beyond an artist’s best or most popular work and look at those projects which weren’t the best things they ever did. It’s how we gain and understand the complete story of the artist.

With that in mind, grab a cotton candy or a candy apple, sneak past that guy wearing a Frankenstein mask, and when no one’s looking, hide.  Now, you’re all set to spend the night inside THE FUNHOUSE.  You’re sure to have a good time.

And with a little luck, you may even survive.

—END—