Oooooooh. Halloween is right around the corner. Here are my film picks for a long evening of monster mayhem. Let’s start with an animated short.
Ub Iwerk’s brilliant The Skeleton Dance (1929) is a masterwork of early American animation available on the Walt Disney Treasures Collection, DVD Catalogue #52420 (The Adventures of Oswald The Lucky Rabbit). The short runs approximately 5:30 and is a delight from beginning to end and is perfect for setting the mood for the following films.
The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (aka Castle of the Walking Dead, 1967) is a quintessential 1960’s Euro-horror film loosely based on Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1983), and reminds me of various Poe-influenced fright films produced under American-International Pictures (House of Usher, 1960; TPATP, 1961 and others). The film stars the inimitable Christopher Lee as a sadistic nobleman who has returned from being drawn and quartered to raise blood-letting hell on those that defy him. Karin Dor (You Only Live Twice, 1967) provides the eye candy. This film has all the Halloween trappings including colorful photography, a corridor with arachnids and scorpions, a snake pit, skeleton, green blood, ghosts, cobbly passageways, and diabolical torture devices, including one hell of a pendulum.
This is the film where Christopher Lee’s body, under suspended animation, reassembles and connects (*pop*) dismembered limbs! Be sure to watch the widescreen “Johnny Legend Presents” DVD with added bonus feature Death Smiles of a Murderer (1973)(not recommended).
For the next film I recommend a lesser known horror film from the golden age of horror. Paramount’s Murders in the Zoo (1933) is one of the most gruesome pre-code horror-thrillers ever made. Lionell Atwill plays a fiendish psychopathic zoologist and game hunter Eric Gorman, possibly patented after animal collector Frank Buck (1884-1950), who has problems with other men looking at his wife, and knows nefarious ways of dealing with them! Right from the opening this film packs a wallop.
Zoo has a solid cast with Randolph Scott (who starred in three non-western genre films with Zoo, 1933; Supernatural, 1933; and She, 1935), as a herpetologist, Gail Patrick, character actor Charles Ruggles, and Lionell Atwill as the heavy. Here’s another film with odd halloween accoutrements, including venomous snakes, venom injection apparatus, a monster crocodile and other surprises. Unfortunately, Zoo is hard to come by on DVD. It was once available as a TCM Vault Collection “Universal Cult Horror Collection” set of five films.
If you can’t find Murders in the Zoo, Universal’s The Old Dark House (1932) is the lesser known and appreciated of James Whale’s horror films, including Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). I like the film a lot, with major kudos to cinematographer Arthur Edeson (Frankenstein, 1931; The Maltese Falcon, 1941) and a superb script and cast, but I don’t agree with horror film historian and author Bryan Senn, who describes the film as “the one truly flawless picture from the golden age of horror” (Melvyn Douglas’ singing and comedic quips annoy me and there are too many characters in the story). The film is best known today for Karloff’s performance as the ape-like butler Morgan. Check out the KINO special collector’s edition DVD, with running commentary by actress Gloria Stuart.
For the finale I’m picking Richard Gordon’s wildly entertaining horror/sci-fi hybrid Fiend Without a Face (1957). This is the film with the stop-motion animated brain suckers terrorizing an air force base. Be sure to grab the Criterion 1.66:1 print of this classic of British genre filmmaking.
With Halloween just around the corner most horror fans will relish the moment to watch their share of Universal and Hammer classics. I will too, but I I thought it would be fun to pick a list of oddballs, following these simple rules:
- Include at least one silent film
- No Universal films
- No Hammer films
- No more than two sub-genre films (e.g. 3 vampire, 3 werewolf, 3 zombie films not allowed)
- Include at least one modern era film (year 2005 to present)
Here are my picks!
Mad Monster Party? (1967). This Rankin-Bass stop-motion gem features the voice talents of Boris Karloff, Allen Swift, Grammy award winner Gale Garnett (We’ll sing in the sunshine) and Phyllis Diller. Dr. Frankenstein decides to have one last bash and invites the crew, including Dracula, the wolf man, the creature, Dr. Jekyll, the invisible man, the mummy, a hunchback, the monster, and a few other surprises show up. Along with A&C Meet Frankenstein (1948), this is the most kid friendly monster film ever made. Horror fans will also enjoy this due to Karloff’s presence, a wacky busty cat-fight (!), and contributions by Forrest J. Ackerman. The puppets were designed by Jack Davis who was the poster artist for the minimalist U.S. one sheet poster of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).
Brainiac (El Barón Del Terror, 1961). Described as “the most bizarre horror movie ever”. Along with The Ship of Monsters (La Nave de los Monstrous, 1959), which defies description, this film garners my vote for the most entertaining and weird Mexican horror film ever made. What’s not to like about a satanic Baron who seeks modern-day revenge as a grotesque, forked-tongue, pulsating bobble-head who gobbles up human brains? Be sure to track down the OOP CasaNegra DVD with Kirb Pheeler’s off the wall and informative audio commentary.
Dr. X (1932). This early two-strip Technicolor oddity was based on a short-run play from 1928. After its premiere, a New York Times critic described the film as a “production that almost makes ‘Frankenstein’ seem tame and friendly”. Lionell Atwill is at his creative creepiest as the vile Dr. X and Fay Wray screams her head off. What’s really sets this film apart is the bizarre production design and extraordinary makeup by cosmetic giant Max Factor.
After vigintillions of years great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight…
The Call of Cthulhu (2005). I double dipped on this one! Ha! This one gets my entry for both a silent and modern film, and what a duesie it is. This low-budget production by the HPLHS is bar none the finest film adaptation of Lovecraft ever. Had this film been made in 1929 it would have been hailed one of greatest horror films of all time.
Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972). Amando de Ossorio’s films are not for all tastes. They are clearly exploitative and full of contrivances and plot holes. Some people consider this film slow (try watching Dracula, 1931). However, the scenes with the evil Knight Templars, on horseback are so creepy and unusual it will keep most horror fans delighted. Tombs of the Blind Dead is essential viewing for fans of 1970’s Euro-horror.
I slipped in two Mario Bava films. The first is Hercules in the Haunted World (1961), starring Reg Park as Hercules and a dubbed (Err!) Christopher Lee as the evil King Licos. The sets, production design and cinematography (by Bava) in this film are just sublime. This film looks as good as any color film Bava has ever made. Reg Park is the definitive Hercules and Chris Lee is the prototypical villain. Sir. Christopher will you kindly dub your voice back into this film?
or an even better scene….
I Vampiri (Lust of the Vampire / The Vampires / The Devil’s Commandment, 1957) is widely credited as being the first Italian horror film. For my money it’s one of the best vampire films ever made. Credit Maestro Bava who helmed the camera and worked up the special effects. The sets, lighting, camera work and dream-like atmosphere elevates this film to top notch horror. The film suckers you in as a who done it mystery and leaves you with your jaw on the floor. This is exquisitive horror that looks good today.
The Deadly Spawn (1983). I saw this low-budget gem as a kid and have loved it ever since. It’s an homage to so many sci-fi/horror flicks from the 50’s. Think The Blob meets Audrey Junior (and if you know who Audrey Junior is you are reading the right blog), add lots of blood and a kid weened on FMOF and you have The Deadly Spawn. This is one of the very best horror tribute films to come out of the 1980’s and an effective monster movie to boot.
Eaten Alive (1976 or 1977, depending on source). This low-budget redneck horror flick stars cowboy heavy Neville Brand as a psychotic hick who feeds people who cross him to his pet crocodile. There you have it! This Tobe Hooper film came after Chainsaw Massacre (1974) but before the TVM Salem’s Lot (1979), and features a strong cast with Mel Ferre, Carolyn Jones, Robert Englund, and Stuart Whitman.
Blood Feast (1963). This infamous gore splatter concoction from Herschell Gordon Lewis and David Frieman first came to my attention in the 1980’s by way of the notorious Golden Turkey Awards (which I don’t agree with), where the brothers Medved nominated Lewis the worst director of all time (losing to Edward D. Wood, Jr.). The film is fairly tame by today’s standards and the blood comes across as being red paint, but the film still holds me in a trance and the scene with Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold) yanking a tongue out of a woman’s throat still freaks me out. Don’t pair this with Mad Monster Party as a kiddie double feature!
Here’s the trailer from Something Weird Video:
Kiss of the Tarantula (1975) crosses into two sub-genre of horror film. On one hand it is a misfit revenge movie similar in tone and competence to the killer snake movie Stanley (1972) and Horror High (1974) (a spin on the Jekyll and Hyde tale), with story elements possibly derived from Stephen King’s first published novel Carrie (1974) or Brian De Palma’s film Carrie (1976). There are also definite similarities to the rat film Willard (1971). On the other hand, the movie falls under the category of when spiders attack films. These include Frogs (1972)(cameo), Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo (1977) and the far superior Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), starring William Shatner.
Introverted Susan Bradley (Suzanna Ling) lives with her mortician father Walter (Eric Mason, Grave of the Vampire, 1972) and over-bearing sadistic mother Martha (Beverly Eddins). Susan has a fondness for spiders. Her mother beats her anytime she handles or talks to a spider. Susan later discovers that her mother has a lover and is planning to have her father killed. Having none of that, young Susan places a plump Mexican redknee tarantula (Brachypelma smithi) in her bed. Susan’s mother has a heart attack and dies. Susan grows up to be a beautiful, albeit odd young woman who harbors tarantulas in the basement of the funeral home.
As a halloween prank, some of the [oldest ever] local high schoolers sneak into the Bradley Funeral Home to steal a coffin. Susan discovers them, asks them to leave, but the pranksters discover Susan’s spider room. One of the tarantulas is crushed under the boot of badboy Joe Penny (Mark Smith).
Later, in an effective scene in a ventilation duct, Joe is greeted by several tarantulas. Claustrophobes and arachnophobes stay clear.
Kiss of the Tarantula has a creepy sub-plot with Susan’s uncle John (Herman Wallner), who was her mother’s lover, also showing sexual interest in Susan. Uncle John is also investigating the murders and discovers the tie to Susan. What will Uncle John do? The ending is surprising, macabre and good twisted fun.
Kiss of the Tarantula was directed by Chris Munger. IMDb notes that along with actress Suzanna Ling, this is their single contribution to film. It’s a shame —while Kiss is passable drive-in fodder and mediocre filmmaking, the film holds your interest and has some effective moments. This would make fun pairing with Kingdom of the Spiders (1977). I give this film 5/10 stars. Fun drive-in nonsense boosted with unusual ending.
Italian One-Sheet, below.
Castle of the Walking Dead (aka The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism)(1967) is another well-constructed European horror vehicle that played frequently on UHF TV in the 1970’s. It’s loosely based on the Poe story The Pit and the Pendulum, and would make a perfect late night companion film opposite Roger Corman’s 1961 Vincent Price classic. Castle of the Walking Dead (not to be confused with the moody Castle of the Living Dead) features Christopher Lee as the diabolical Count Frederic Regula, who returns from the dead to seek revenge after he was drawn and quartered.
The films stars Karin Dor as Baroness Lilian von Brabant and Lex Barker as Roger von Marienberg, who are descendants of council members that ordered Regula’s death. Fans of 007 will immediately recognize the beautiful Karin Dor who appeared in You Only Live Twice (1967). She also appears in Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969). Barker was a handsome actor popular in the 1960’s, having parts in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and in several German-made TV westerns. Carl Lange plays Regula’s servant Anatol. In the copy I watched he sounds like a dead ringer for John Furlong, who narrated the prologue for Faster, Pussy Cat! Kill! Kill! (1965). I’m wondering if Lange was dubbed by Furlong. The film is well cast with solid actors. The film’s script doesn’t allow much screen time for Christopher Lee, but when he’s in it he delivers the goods.
This film is loaded with bizarre props, such as bodies suspended from gnarly old trees, castle dungeons and corridors filled with skulls, weird murals, a pit filled with snakes, spiders and scorpions and nefarious torture devices.
Castle was directed by Austrian Harald Reinl, best known to sci-fi enthusiasts as the director of the pseudo-scientific Chariots of the Gods (1970) and In Search of Ancient Astronauts (1973)(a TVM reworking of Gods). He was a capable director known for a visual flair. I’d love to see some more of his films including The Carpet of Horror (Der Teppich des Grauens)(1962), where he directed Karin Dor, and Deadly Jaws (1974), a sunken treasure film. His Dr. Mabuse films, starring Gert Frobe are entertaining, fast paced vehicles.
Ah, and then there’s that pendulum!
Christopher Lee vs. the Cross.
My copy of Castle of the Walking Dead ran about an hour. I suspect it was heavily edited. The print is crappy and appears to have been derived from a video tape. I would love to see a good copy of this film in its entirety. This is another Christopher Lee gem and perfect Halloween fodder.