Tag 1970s

Asylum (1972)

Asylum (1972)

You have nothing to lose but your mind.

In order to meet a requirement for employment, a young psychiatrist interviews four inmates of a mental asylum. He hears their stories about the revenge of a murdered wife, a tailor who makes a unique suit, a woman who questions her own sanity and a man who builds tiny robots with lifelike human heads. The psychiatrist must then decide which inmate is the former head doctor in order to secure his job.

 

Think British horror and Hammer will most likely be the first name on your lips, and rightfully so. The studio dominated the late 50s and 60s with its succession of period Gothic horrors featuring Dracula, Frankenstein, various mummies, werewolves and more. However, you would find a solid case to argue for Amicus, a rival British studio which, after the success of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors in 1964, churned out a further seven horror anthology films of varying levels of quality. Asylum was made mid-way through this schedule and acts as a critical high point where the creativity and originality had just about peaked and the films hadn’t got too formulaic for their own good.

The best thing about these anthology films is that they would feature a number of smaller stand-alone horror stories which usually ran for about ten to fifteen minutes and were linked together by a framing story. The stories were usually well-paced, snappy affairs which meant that if you didn’t like it then you’d only have to wait a few minutes before the next one began. It’s a something for all approach that worked well across their anthology films. For each weak segment, there was always a strong segment to rebound with. Asylum is no stranger to this way of working. Everyone will find something different to enjoy and the four different stories will each appeal to a certain horror lover.

The framing story for Asylum is probably the most interesting of the Amicus anthologies and does a nice job of linking together the individual stories. Writer Robert Bloch (who had previously penned The House That Dripped Blood, not to mention writing the novel Psycho) creates a mysterious tale in which the audience are being tested as much as the young psychiatrist. It also helps that Amicus’ film stock always looked dull and devoid of colour, certainly compared to their lavish Technicolour Hammer counterparts. The gloomy look adds to the creepiness and bleak nature of the asylum.

The first story isn’t particularly exciting about a husband who kills his wife because she won’t give him a divorce. It’s not great although it does feature a highly memorable image – that of a woman’s severed head, wrapped in brown paper, coming back to life and beginning to breathe through the paper. It’s quite an unnerving effect as the body parts squirm and making the paper rustle. However, no reason is given for the woman’s body parts coming back to life and this somewhat sours the whole episode.

The second story is also pretty low key as an impoverished tailor is paid a visit by a mysterious stranger who gives him an even more mysterious material from which to make a suit for his son. Barry Morse gives a sympathetic performance as the tailor and Peter Cushing adds a touch of class as the stranger with a lot to hide. The material glows quite weirdly and the set up to the finale is quite nice, if somewhat predictable. Cushing isn’t in it enough to make much of an impression so it’s a good job that Morse is able to hold his own.

The third story is arguably my least favourite but potentially the best developed of the four as a young woman is released from a mental home to stay with her brother. However she keeps having visions of her friend ‘Lucy’ who tells her to run away. Charlotte Rampling gives a good performance as someone who is delusional but Britt Ekland is her usual self: looks good but doesn’t cut it in the acting chops. The twist in this film is highly predictable right from the start even for the least seasoned horror veterans.

The final story doesn’t last too long and is basically a set up for the finale as Herbert Lom’s doctor creates little robots with lifelike human heads and says he can bring them to life by the power of thought. The robot looks really freaky with their little human heads but the segment isn’t really meant to be as long as the others. It leads right into the finale when we find out just who is the doctor and it’s quite a twist ending. It’s a chilling ending which comes out of nowhere and rounds the film off nicely. It will make you smile, laugh and shiver at the same time, which is precisely the sort of black humoured-horror that Amicus was aiming for.

 

As far as anthologies go, Asylum is a great way to spend eighty-eight minutes. The production is professional enough, the atmosphere suitably creepy for the setting, there are some big names to hold the cast together and there’s a little bit of gore too. It’s a great example of the anthology format being used in the right way.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Planet of Dinosaurs (1977)

Planet of Dinosaurs (1977)

Trapped On A Lost World of Prehistoric Monsters

A group of astronauts escape the imminent destruction of their starship on board an escape pod and head for the nearest planet which appears to be capable of supporting human life. After crash landing on the surface, the survivors find that they have no way of signalling for a rescue and set off to find a safe place to set up camp. However the planet is inhabited by an array of carnivorous dinosaurs which see the new arrivals as food.

 

Save for Ray Harryhausen flying a flag for stop motion monster movies, I didn’t think anyone else made these type of stop motion effects-driven films in the late 70s. But after recently discovering Planet of Dinosaurs and The Crater Lake Monster, I was wrong and look forward to uncovering more of this dying breed of film. Planet of the Dinosaurs is a cheap and nasty drive-in movie by definition but hides within it a fantastic array of stop motion special effects that would have Ray Harryhausen giving them a round of applause.

Straight from the off, Planet of Dinosaurs looks to be a blatant Planet of the Apes clone as we head into familiar territory. As well as the ‘Planet of…..’ title, here we have a spaceship which crashes into a lake in a remote location on a barren planet and the crew are forced to escape before their ship sinks. Stranded without hope of rescue, the crew then set off in pursuit of shelter, food, water and some form of civilisation. Only this is where the comparisons then end – instead of intelligent simians, these unlucky astronauts come face-to-face with a whole host of hungry dinosaurs. And this is where the fun begins. Far from being a serious science fiction flick, Planet of Dinosaurs descends into a cheese fest of epic proportions.

After being harassed by the dinosaurs for the first half of the film in which some of their number are picked off, the survivors decide to fight back and let the dinosaurs know who is in charge (as humans as a race have a tendency to do in science fiction films). From about the half an hour mark, the film is almost a non-stop collection of sequences involving various humans battling against the dinosaurs using spears, bow and arrows and stockades. If you came along thinking that you’d be cheated out of plenty of dino-action, then you’re completely wrong.

Planet of Dinosaurs‘ strength lies in the quality of its monsters. The dinosaurs are old school stop motion. And there are a lot of them. I can’t believe how frequently they appear on the camera. To say that this made outside of the studio system and given how low cost the rest of the film is, the special effects look fantastic. The T-Rex is the standout monster, looking suitably menacing, and could easily have been lifted from a Ray Harryhausen film. There are a stegosaurus, a triceratops and a brontosaurus to name a few others which are all animated with precise skill and technique. A few familiar names crop up in the effects department including Jim Danforth who worked on films like Jack the Giant Killer and assisted Harryhausen in the original Clash of the Titans. With talented people on board to produce some quality special effects, it makes a nice change to actually see where the money has gone.

The script and the acting do the most harm to Planet of the Dinosaurs. Whilst the story itself is basic and sees the ‘futuristic’ humans having to revert back to hunter-gather mode (which is perfectly completed by the abrupt final scene), the dialogue is appalling , though thankfully there’s not as much dialogue as I was expecting given how much action there is. These lines are delivered just as badly by the cast. Made up of gruff, bearded-men and good-looking, busty women, the film could be mistaken for some low rent porno flick. But it adds a little goofy charm to proceedings, especially as one male character spends almost the entire length of the film without his shirt on.

It isn’t just the quality of the dialogue and the delivery of them which is frustrating but the manner in which characters constantly put themselves in danger by making really stupid decisions. The females are the worst – if they’re not forgetting to pack communications equipment when their escape pod sinks, then they’re dropping the group’s food supply over the edge of a cliff. With the captain being an ineffectual dweeb who wants to run from the dinosaurs, another crew man wanting to beat his chest and do his best caveman impression, and another character just generally annoying the hell out of everyone by moaning about everything, there is dissent among the crew. Unsurprisingly, we never get to really know any of the characters in any great depth other than their stereotypes and so our support lies squarely in the dinosaurs, on whose planet these annoying characters have been dumped.

Planet of Dinosaurs also comes off like Tour of the Planet of Dinosaurs during the many scenes of the survivors walking around the desolate landscape looking for safety. There are far too many scenes of them climbing rocks, walking through swamps and scouring through bushes. There’s little attempt to drive the narrative in any direction and by the end of the film, whilst you may have had a fun time, you’d wonder what the point in it all was.

 

Planet of Dinosaurs is a curious film which didn’t sound particularly great but ended up being a lot of cheesy fun. Though it’s supposed to be set in the future, this is 70s camp at its purest. It’s got its fair share of problems but the quality and sheer number of special effects throughout the film should guarantee stop motion fans a great time.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Crater Lake Monster, The (1977)

The Crater Lake Monster (1977)

A beast more frightening than your most terrifying nightmare!

The heat of a meteor crashing into Crater Lake causes a dormant dinosaur egg at the bottom of the lake to hatch, unleashing a giant aquatic dinosaur which soon develops a taste for human flesh.

 

Cited as one of the worst monster movies ever made, The Crater Lake Monster comes with a hefty reputation to maintain. It does sound like one of those old school sci-fi ‘atomic monster’ flicks that were all the rage in the 1950s but this one was made in 1977, no doubt as some kind of throwback during a time when interest in the Loch Ness Monster had been revived thanks to the exploits of Robert H. Rines’s expeditions. If only The Crater Lake Monster had proven as captivating an attraction as the myth of Nessie.

Make no mistake about it – The Crater Lake Monster lives up to its reputation. With a shoestring budget and unpolished production values, it’s the sort of 70s film that would have played well in drive-ins. Utter tripe from beginning to end, the film does at least have one redeeming factor in the form of the monster. But in order to get to the sporadic and brief highlights, you’ve got to slug it out with one of the genre’s most awful creature feature films.

A lot of the flak comes from the film’s unnecessary focus on Arnie and Mitch, a couple of country bumpkins who live near the lake and provide the film’s copious amount of comic relief. Glenn Roberts and Mark Siegel seem friendly and innocent enough but their characters should have had background roles. I’m not sure whether director William R. Stromberg was the only one who found their antics hilarious but no one else will. It’s padding and blatant padding at that. The two men live up to numerous backwoods stereotypes as the dim-witted handymen who work for beer and each other’s monotonous company. Desperate to stretch out it’s running time to be classed as a full feature film, The Crater Lake Monster also features lots of random zooms and close-ups of the nice scenery. It sure looks like a nice place to visit but this is meant to be a film not a promotional video.

It’s not like anyone in the cast is any better though. Richard Cardella as Sheriff Hanson and Bob Hyman as Doc Calkins are both horrendous in their roles. It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to believe that both men were the local sheriff and doctor respectively and got roped into shooting the film when the director turned up at the lake with a few crew members and asked them to star in a film. Cardella has no other screen credits to his name whilst Calkins only had a prior credit. Based on this evidence, cinema has not missed out on any tricks with either man.

With all of these ‘actors’ running around the lake and local town and doing anything and everything but encountering the monster, the film never gets going. I would say that the pace is off but there is no pace at all. Stromberg doesn’t have any grasp of narrative or structure and just lets things pan out as slowly and as dully as possible. Coincidentally he also co-wrote and produced the film and has never directed, produced or written a film since. I guess that’s all you need to know about the quality on display. Characters are introduced and then dropped. Minor characters become the main focus. There’s no sense of urgency with anyone despite there being a monster on the rampage.

So the film itself is total rubbish but the actual monster looks fantastic. Brought to life with glorious stop motion to give it a realistic feel, the monster is a class above others in its genre and something more akin to a lesser Harryhausen creation. The man responsible, David Allen, went on to have a fantastic career creating the visual effects for such films as Q, the Winged Serpent (also featuring a stop motion dinosaur-like monster), Batteries Not Included and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. It just proves everyone has to start somewhere in the film business and it is clear from this film that Allen had talent.

Unfortunately but unsurprisingly given the practicality of stop motion, the monster isn’t allotted anywhere near enough screen time and does little more than waddle about on its flippers and roar. The finale involving the monster battling the sheriff in a bulldozer is a big let down too. However in plenty of other scenes, the monster is simply represented with an oversized head floating around underwater. This looks nothing like the monster in stop motion form. But I suppose that is the least of the film’s problems.

 

The Crater Lake Monster is nearly as bad as its reputation claims but the brief stop motion special effects are worth one look and I’m sure you could find a highlight reel lurking on Youtube to save you the ordeal of sitting through the full film. It’s just a shame that these effects are wasted in this hokey micro budget film and are not displayed in something bigger budgeted and more professional.

 

 ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Vampire Lovers, The (1970)

The Vampire Lovers (1970)

Beautiful temptress …… or Bloodthirsty monster?

A countess and her daughter attend a ball held by General Spielsdorf. The countess is called away after the death of a friend and her daughter, Marcilla, is allowed to stay with the General and his daughter until she returns. Soon afterwards, the General’s daughter starts to suffer from nightmares, growing weaker by the day and eventually dying from vampire bites. Marcilla disappears and lodges in with Roger Morton and his daughter. Soon the same mysterious illness begins to strike Morton’s daughter, Emma. It turns out that Marcilla is actually Carmilla, a descendant of the Karnstein vampire clan, who have returned to quench their thirst for blood.

 

The Vampire Lovers was made at a time of change for Hammer. New faces were being brought in behind-the-scenes to replace the established old guard and with them came a new wave of horror films, more commercially-aware and which slowly ditched the restrained Gothic pieces of old, replacing them with heaving and more often than not exposed bosoms and greater quantities of bright red blood. The exploitative change in direction was a response to the more shocking European horrors that were beginning to emerge and many consider this the beginning of the end for the studio, which wouldn’t live to see out the rest of the decade. It was ironic that the studio which originally pushed the boundaries of the genre further than they had ever gone in the late 50s and early 60s was now being left behind and made to look out-dated just as they had done to their rivals. That being said, it’s during this period that Hammer produced some of their most interesting work. Proving that there was life in the vampire sub-genre away from Dracula, Hammer loosely adapted the 1872 novel Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu (a novel which pre-dates Bram Stoker’s Dracula by some time) and managed to milk it into a trilogy. The Vampire Lovers is the first of this bold new wave of Hammer films, sleazier and more gratuitous than ever before.

All I can say is…..phew! I needed a cold shower after this one. The Vampire Lovers is arguably the steamiest film Hammer ever produced. Compare the sexually-deviant vampires in this one with Christopher Lee’s now-stuffy (at the time) Dracula and the difference in tone is amazing within the space of a few years. Though the exploitative elements look tame by today’s standards, I can only imagine the outcry at such explicit sights of lesbian vampires back in the 70s. Nubile, innocent young women wear flimsy nightgowns, take them off for the camera and cavort and fondle each other in vampiric desire. At times the lesbian elements seem to overwhelm the film and with all of the cheap titillation, the viewer can forget that there is meant to be a serious horror film in here somewhere.

The subject matter lends itself to these exploitative elements but make no mistake about it, this is a Hammer film and their visual prowess was still here in force: mysterious mountain-top castles, fog-shrouded cemeteries, creaky mansions and superstitious villages. Costumes are bang on the money for the time period being portrayed and the film still has that Gothic gloss in everything it portrays. It’s just that this time there’s a whole load of saucy lesbianism running rampant throughout! The Technicolour horror elements are still as charming as ever, with fake fangs, neck bites and a rather weak nightmare sequence clearly stamping the date on the proceedings. But there are also a couple of great beheadings and a nasty staking too for good measure, which upped the ante for what the studio usually got away with.

The Vampire Lovers also introduces the horror world to Ingrid Pitt, who would go on to become one of the genre’s most noted actresses with the brief number of appearances she made in the genre. Ms Pitt’s thick Polish accent gives her character a nice exotic European charm to add to the Gothic vibe of the film and she manages to convey predatory evil and being sympathetically sexy at the same time. It’s her other, ahem, attributes that the film makes best use of it. There’s no denying that the late Ms Pitt had an amazing body and the film is happy to show it off at every opportunity. But the character is a tragic one, wanting to be with her young girl lover forever, only to give in to her primal urges and destroy that things she craves the most – love. Pitt’s sad dialogue after she has witnessed the funeral cortege pass by is as good as anything Hammer ever put to the screen.

All-round acting legend Peter Cushing gets top billing but his time was passing for Hammer and his role is more secondary than anything. Cushing is still on top vampire slaying form when he does show up, showing that he’s lost none of his touch when it comes to staking or beheading the creatures of the night. He’s just grossly underused and bookended into the prologue and finale, with little to do in between. Also of mention is the pretty and chaste Madeline Smith, who plays one of the objects of Marcilla’s affections. Smith has this ridiculous English rose natural beauty and quickly became one of my favourite Hammer girls in her few appearances with the studio.

 

The Vampire Lovers is one of Hammer’s most daring films and definitely their most sensual and erotic work, infecting the narrative with an almost dream-like quality. Though the frequently-naked ladies detract from the more serious moments, there is no question that the well-developed characters and progressive themes for the time (a lesbian vampire, there’s one for the feminists!) make this Gothic horror at its finest.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978)

Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978)

When the price of lust is death!

Susan Stevenson and her brother fly to New Guinea in search of her missing husband and enlist the services of an anthropologist to guide them into the dense rain forest. They set off into the jungle but find out that he was captured by a cannibal tribe and that the same fate awaits them.

 

Ah the Italian exploitation cannibal sub-genre. Such an trashy, graphic and repulsive genre that it’s even hard to want to call them films sometimes because they are so depraved and perverse – I mean who in their right mind comes up with these ideas? They went to lengths that no other films dared to go out of decency and, rightfully as was the case in a few extremes, were banned across the world on the whole, Cannibal Holocaust being the most infamous of the bunch.Unfortunately it’s a sub-genre which cannibalises itself so much that once you’ve seen one of these tropical terrors, then you’ve seen them all.

Although slightly less offensive than some of the other sub-genre, Mountain of the Cannibal God adheres to the basic cannibal story of a group of white explorers (and usually expendable guides) head off into the remote jungle in pursuit of some MacGuffin where they have some minor run-ins with other natives before stumbling upon the cannibal tribe and, in rather unsporting fashion, decide to eat their guests. The film looks more polished than the rest, clearly has a bigger budget and isn’t as nasty as its companions. Everything is done as tastefully as possible – if that is possible in itself, knowing how brutal these films can get. The bad taste is kept to a minimum and the animal violence has been toned down – those who have seen the uncut version of Cannibal Holocaust will attest to the disgraceful and sickening acts of wildlife masochism on display. It is still present however and seems to be a token inclusion in this sub-genre, reflective of the no holds barred raw brutality of nature but more used for shock and horror tactics to disgust the viewer rather than send out any primal messages. It has nothing to do with what is happening on screen which is a travesty.

Though on the surface it seems less offensive and more mainstream than its counterparts, make no mistake about it,Mountain of the Cannibal God does boast plenty of expected cannibalistic carnage. Dwarf cannibals are punted over cliffs to have their heads smashed on rocks below. Bear traps crush and maim the legs of those unlucky enough to be caught in them. Would-be rapists are castrated for their indiscretions. Stomachs are ripped open and intestines fed to the tribe. The quality of the make-up effects range from the ridiculous to the sublime.

The big difference with this one is the relatively high star power on display. Making the sub-genre a bit more accessible by casting big names, Mountain of the Cannibal God boasts Ursula Andress and Stacy Keach in the lead roles, a decent coup for such a low budget, obscure Italian film.Andress seems to need the role more, agreeing to doff her duds and go naked for an infamous scene in which she is painted head-to-toe and worshipped by the cannibals.Keach was at a career low at this point (no kidding!) and seems more bored than anything but no doubt a free holiday helped to gloss over that issue.

Despite the moments of gore and the decent cast, Mountain of the Cannibal God rarely gets going at any sort of pace. It takes the characters too long to make any sort of progress into the jungle and despite odd moments of non-speaking guides being killed off bydeadly fauna and flora, there’s not a great deal of stuff happening on-screen. Little more than a step-by-step link between set piece scenes, the narrative gears up towards a finale which never once looks like it will deliver anything short of a total dud. Despite all of the cannibal carnage on screen, the film never gives off any sort of realism vibe. You know you’re watching a film and not a snuff movie, though this may be down to the presence of ‘named’ actors instead of obscure ones.

 

Mountain of the Cannibal God merely goes through the usual Italian cannibal exploitation film motions, only this time with the bonus of a famous cast. More professionally made but lacking the raw, nihilistic punch of some of it’s counterparts, it’s neither the best of this sub-genre, nor the worst either.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Incredible Melting Man, The (1977)

The Incredible Melting Man (1977)

The first new horror creature

An astronaut returns to Earth from an ill-fated mission to Saturn and is stricken with an awful disease, literally melting away. Escaping his hospital confinement, he finds that the only way that he can stay alive is to kill and eat human flesh.

 

With a title like The Incredible Melting Man, what do you think you are going to get when sitting down to watch it? Well there’s a man in it and, yes, he does melt. 1977 may have been more noted for its other monstrous sci-fi hit (a film set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away) but this low budget goop-fest showed that there was still life in adult-orientated shock-horror sci-fi that didn’t involve gold-plated droids and heavy-breathing bad guys. Don’t make any mistakes though – The Incredible Melting Man is not a good film and has been sent up on Mystery Science Theater 3000, though whether it warranted such an accolade remains to be seen.

The Incredible Melting Man sounds decent in concept – the idea of astronauts returning to Earth after being stricken with galactic diseases out of the limits of human knowledge has been a well that many sci-fi films have tapped in to (The Quatermass Experiment springs to mind). But the execution of that concept is woeful. With direction that is lifeless, a script that is as bizarre as it is terrible (with arguments about crackers being a random highlight) and overall production values that scream 70s movie, the film should never have been given the fame that it seems to have garnered.

Well that is until the make-up effects are called in question. When you sit down to watch a film about an incredible melting man, you expect to see an incredible melting man. Thankfully, and rather surprisingly given the poor quality of everything else on show, the special effects are marvellous but that’s expected when Rick Baker is behind them (he did the make-up inStar Wars the same year as this). The gradual decay of the ‘melting man’ is disgusting and you really sympathise for the character all the way through the film right through to the final meltdown.He is a gruesome sight to behold and the effects are done splendidly – at one point one of his eyes just drops out because the flesh and bone holding it in place has melted so badly.Though clearly not meant to have any deeper meaning in the script, the idea that by killing someone else you can preserve your own life is a moral dilemma that would make for interesting analysis. If you were in his position, would you kill to extend your life? Or just horribly melt away?

Unfortunately the special effects are the only positive in the film – the rest of The Incredible Melting Manis virtually a plot-less stalk ‘n’ slash film in which we’re introduced to a minor non-character, they are given a few brief moments to impress the camera and try and eek out some sort of personality before they meet their doom at the hands of Mr Gloop. Replace the astronaut with a guy in a mask and a machete and you have the sort of structure to the narrative.

The acting is shocking too, porn industry standards have been set higher. Undoubtedly the star of the show is of course Alex Rebar as the Melting Man who just stumbles around the woods like a zombie and doesn’t really do much since he’s usually caked up in make-up. The script says that he’s getting stronger as he melts and that he can kill people easier but surely if he’s losing body mass, bone structure and muscle tone, he’ll be getting weaker?

 

Ah who cares?The Incredible Melting Man is absolute nonsense with the exception of Rick Baker’s special effects and it has become a cult favourite because it’s so appalling. Check it out and have a good laugh at how a reasonable concept can make a trashy film when the makers of the film have no idea what to do with it.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Death Trap (1977)

Death Trap (1977)

He’s out there and he’s got murder on his mind!

A psychotic redneck runs a dilapidated hotel in the backwater swamps of Louisiana, killing people who upset him or his business and feeding them to his giant pet crocodile that he keeps locked up in the swamp.

 

Tobe Hooper’s follow up to The Texas Chain Saw Massacreis this? Boy, the dude really fell from grace quickly didn’t he? Shot in the same grainy, low budget style that made The Texas Chain Saw Massacresuch a grim classic, Death Trapcomes off as wanting to be a Leatherface and co. follow up but never really does anything worthwhile to achieve that goal. It’s almost as if Hooper caught lightning in bottle with his previous film and attempts to replicate that success, simply substituting backwoods Texas for rural Louisiana. Whilst Death Trap isn’t a particularly well-made film, there’s no question that it’s got a strangely perverse quality which warrants at least a look.

Death Trap’s main problem is that the narrative is all over the place. The story here doesn’t follow any major plot threads and meanders between the numerous random strangers who end up at the hotel before being offed by crazy Judd for whatever reason. There is the underlying search for the missing hooker from the beginning but most of the characters who visit the hotel aren’t involved in this search so it begs the question of whether it is actually the main plot or not. We never really know what pushes Judd over the edge to kill either so by the time he’s taken care of another stranger, you’re just happy to sit back and believe that the guy is just a total fruitcake. The script really needed some serious work here.

As expected for a low budget film, the crocodile doesn’t look too hot (or an alligator as some characters in the film claim) and has limited movement. But thankfully Hooper realised this and keeps it mainly covered in the swamp, only using it sparingly for a few shots where actors try and free themselves from the jaws of the model monster. No one and nothing is spared from this croc, even a poor dog!

But the croc isn’t the main source of violence from the film – that comes from Judd himself who is a dab hand with a scythe. Hooper shoots the death scenes here with gritty realism. Too often in horror films, one blow is enough to kill someone. Here, Hooper strings the death out, causing victims to bleed or gasp for breath as they hit the floor, trying in vain to escape or defend themselves. Death isn’t instant and this is where Hooper earns brownie points. As with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, you know that the victims here are suffering and going through hell before they eventually die. There’s a reasonably smattering of blood and Hooper even throws in some T&A to try and liven things up. But Death Trap is slow going and excitement is in short supply. The scenes drag out way longer than needed, the exposition takes for too long and there are only a handful of half-decent set pieces which are few and far between.

As for the cast, well it’s a pretty decent bunch of performances given the craziness around them. Neville Brand is great as Judd. I don’t think he had much of a clue where the character should be heading so he went for it and it works though Hooper could have cut back the amount of time he gave to his rambling monologues. Robert Englund, looking very young and pre-Freddy Krueger fame, appears as a horny redneck that uses the hotel as a meeting ground for hookers. Marilyn Burns, fresh from screaming her lungs out in the finale of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, is also in the film.

 

Death Trap is far too similar to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to work, given that it’s not a patch on its predecessor and seems content in trying to replicate its success without knowing why it has become a classic. Death Trap has got a few decent moments but there’s very little to stop the craziness, an incoherent script and lack of solid direction from ripping it up.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

And Now the Screaming Starts (1973)

And Now the Screaming Starts (1973)

The dead hand that crawls KILLS and LIVES!!!

Newly weds Charles and Catherine Fengriffin move into the family estate to start their new life together. But shortly after arriving, Catherine is disturbed by ghastly visions of man whose eyes have been gouged out and is also tormented by a disembodied hand. However no one else in the house has seen these things and Charles begins to suspect that Catherine is going insane. When she becomes pregnant, Charles enlists the help of psychiatrist Dr Pope to get to the bottom of these apparent hallucinations. What becomes evident is Catherine is now the victim of a horrible curse which had been bestowed upon the Fengriffins thanks to the actions of Charles’ grandfather.

 

Known more for their anthologies back in the 60s and 70s, British company Amicus finally tried their hand at period horror in an attempt to muscle in on their rivals, Hammer, with And Now the Screaming Starts. Ironically enough, Hammer had begun to move away from that tried-and-tested formula by bringing the likes of Dracula into the present day with Dracula A.D. 1972. So Amicus’ decision to do something that had been done to death over the years was a bit bewildering. So much so when you see how average And Now the Screaming Starts actually is. Far from being a classic period Gothic horror, it just went to prove Hammer’s decision to move on to different material was a good one.

Director Roy Ward Baker directed a few British horrors around this time and he approaches And Now the Screaming Starts as if he’s making some sort of low budget ghost train ride for a theme park. Portraits rattle against the walls. Windows blow open. Candles extinguish. There’s thunder and lightning. And that’s just the start of it – its hardly subtle horror, rather in your face scares. Baker relies on repeating the same scares over and over again for the first half of the film, with the eerie eye-less man leering through windows, a fake severed hand appearing and disappearing whenever someone mentions the curse and constant zoom-ins on one of the oil paintings which results in loud, sinister music being played. The effects aren’t convincing the first time around but they’re overworked like mad here as if Baker didn’t know how else to scare people. Despite his efforts, the film rarely conveys any sense of dread and as a result, the pace of the film slows to a crawl. You’re waiting for something to jump-start the film into life.

Thankfully the arrival of Peter Cushing half-way through the film is this required jump-start – not because he’s on the screen (though it makes a big difference to have him around) but because the story finally starts to advance and the characters begin to unravel the curse that is hanging over the Fengriffins. This leads to a nasty flashback and then the film moves swiftly on to its finale, peppered with a few twists and turns along the way. There are still a couple of the tacky scare sequences like there were in the opening half but at least the film is moving with purpose by this point and they don’t feel like they’re simply there to pad out the running time. Now they appear with meaning and relevance to the story. In fact the last forty minutes or so is pretty good. Though the direction of the story is predictable and the twists themselves are hardly nerve-shattering, And Now the Screaming Starts provides decent entertainment.

Stephanie Beacham stars as Catherine and she’s got a massive set of lungs on her (in both the euphemism sense and the proper sense!). Obviously with a title like And Now the Screaming Starts, there were going to be moments in the film where she was required to scream and boy, does she ever scream. Possibly one of the most ear-piecing and genuinely frightening screams I’ve heard, her character’s shock and fright is easily transmitted to the viewer. It helps matters greatly that she’s beautiful – like seriously stunning, one of English’s finest roses. The role requires her to scream a lot and wear low-cut dresses and she does both with equal aplomb.

Ian Ogilvy doesn’t do have much to do as Charles Fengriffin so it’s left to the old timers Peter Cushing and Herbert Lom to deliver. Cushing only enters the film past the half way point and even though he’s his usual brilliant self, the role is virtually useless to the story and the actions that his character makes could easily have been written for Charles himself. Lom’s part is meatier, starring in a flashback scene as Charle’s debaucherous grandfather and showing us the reason that the curse was put onto the Fengriffins. Lom hams it up in his brief role and is arguably the best bit of the film. This sequence alone features rape and a nasty hand chopping to boot!

 

And Now the Screaming Starts is totally worthless. It could easily match up against some of Hammer’s lesser efforts with ease. It’s just that the terrible first half of the film torpedoes any sort of momentum the film needed to give the rousing second half any hope of winning the viewer over. I got the impression that it would have worked better as a shorter film in one of their specialist anthologies.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, The (1974)

The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974)

They tampered with nature – now they must pay the price…

When a series of violent murders take place in a quiet English town, the local police detective believes it to be the work of Satanists and narrows his investigation towards a pair of young newcomers to the town. But in reality, the murders are being committed by zombies, brought to life by an experimental pesticide which uses ultrasonic radiation.

 

Potentially one of the most underrated zombie films of all time and predating the gruesome and colourful flesh-ripping antics of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead by a good four years, The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue surely wins the award for the hands-down strangest title concocted. Like many a foreign horror flick (this one being a Spanish production) the film has as many ridiculous names as it has running minutes but you’ll either see it as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie or the title I saw it under for this review. Owing a great deal to Night of the Living Dead, The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue is possibly one of the first of the zombie films to show its carnage in glorious colour.

Manchester Morgue, to give it a shorter name for the sake of the review, does what many a zombie film fails to do and that is build strong, believable characters that the audience can sympathise with and get on board with. There are anti-authoritarian and anti-political overtones emanating from the script as the two young newcomers George and Edna, hippy-like in appearance, are blamed for everything by the brash local detective who hates all of their ‘kind.’ Both Ray Lovelock and Christine Galbo are great in their respective roles with Arthur Kennedy being brilliant foil as the arrogant and aggressive detective, stealing the film with lines like “I wish the dead could come back to life, you bastard, so then I could kill you again.” Through Kennedy’s harsh treatment of the duo, and lest we forget the zombies, the duo are put through the ringer in the film and we’re on their side every step on the way.

The film is also able to create a brilliantly unnerving atmosphere, in no small part due to the fantastic cinematography on the gloomy British countryside. There is something unsettling about everything and the way in which Frau manipulates the camera to trick you into thinking that things are lurking in the background or just off-screen is the stuff of nightmares. Sound is also used to great effect too, with the radiation machines emitting a weird noise and the zombies themselves shuffling along with a unique pitch. These are the tools of how to make an effective horror film and they’re used well.

Manchester Morgue does take a while to get going and the first half of the film is standard mystery-thriller stuff which you could see on any TV detective drama. The odd zombie pops up here and there to remind us that it is a zombie film after all but its not until the main characters realise that there are zombies on the prowl that the film finally picks up pace. The gear shift is sudden and the characters soon find themselves doing what all great human characters do in the midst of a zombie onslaught – barricade themselves in somewhere, this time a church. They’re not for long before they head off to the morgue of the title for another showdown and it all moves quickly from here onwards.

The zombies here are smart and hard to kill. They hide when needed, use various objects to smash through doors and don’t die from the usual bullet to the head routine. One of the zombies is also classed as a ‘super zombie’ and is able to bring others back to life by dripping blood in their eyes. It’s one of many daft plot developments that ruin the credibility of the film – our disbelief has been suspended long enough to accept that zombies are on the loose but the script decides to blast that away with silly things like this. Plus there is the whole idea that the zombies are being resurrected by the radiation machine. Zombie films are better when they just appear out of the blue and no explanation is given for them being there. When you start trying to go into scientific detail about them coming back to life, you’re on shaky ground because you need to be able to get your facts right to make it work.

This isn’t all about the gore but for 1974, there is some horrific stuff in here, particularly the scene in which an unlucky nurse is literally ripped apart by three zombies who burst in on her. It’s something that the Godfather of Gore, Lucio Fulci, would have been proud of let alone Tom Savini. The fact that it’s all in graphic colour speaks volumes as to why this film had been banned for so long in the UK.

 

The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue takes a while to get going and lacks the scope of the apocalyptic feel that Romero’s classics have. But there is a real moody atmosphere to it and the film is downright creepy at times, not to mention gory. This is great old school horror film making which gets right underneath your skin before delivering its knockout blows.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Theatre of Blood (1973)

Theatre of Blood (1973)

It’s curtains for his critics!

A hammy Shakesperian actor takes horrific revenge on the critics who savaged his plays and denied him the chance to win Best Actor of the Year award by killing them in parodies of deaths from Shakespeare’s plays.

 

Essentially an elaborate sequence of death scenes linked by a loose plot, Theatre of Blood is an attempt by AIP to recapture the success that was The Abominable Dr Phibes. With Vincent Price playing a classically educated madman keen on getting revenge on some wrong-doers through a variety of convoluted set pieces, the film was a remarkably camp but graceful affair which is a bit of an oddity. Dr Phibes Rises Again soon followed which followed the same template. Then a couple of years later, this one appeared and for all intents and purposes, Theatre of Blood could almost be Dr Phibes 3.

Theatre of Blood works for one reason and for one reason only – Vincent Price. This is his film right from the start. He knows it. The director knows it. The script writer has known it. The rest of the cast know it. And after we’ve finished, we know it too. Price is at his scenery-chewing best in this one. The role of the hammy but egotistical Shakesperian actor needed a certain character to play the part and Price is perfect for it, mixing his energetic delivery with his velvet vocals and his trademark sinister, dark persona to create the perfectly grandiose villain. Edward Lionheart is weird and sometimes camp, totally mad, devoted to the works of the Bard and always posing an element of utmost danger. Shakespeare himself would have been proud to create such a multi-levelled character! Had Price not become so typecast within the horror genre, he would have made for a fantastic Shakespearian actor as he rattles off a recital of a passage of Shakespeare right before or after each death with immense passion.

Diana Rigg plays his on-screen daughter and seems to be having as much fun as Price himself, though she spends most of the film hiding beneath layers of fancy dress and make-up as she re-enacts the scenes with the ‘help’ of the intended victims. The supporting cast of critics include Jack Hawkins and Arthur Lowe of all people, most famous for his brilliant portrayal of Captain Mainwaring in the hit BBC show Dad’s Army.

Though Lionheart himself flits between the camp and the tongue-in-cheek, the film itself is played straight which makes for a disjointed combination at times. Theatre of Blood sadly lacks a decent narrative to keep it going. As I’ve already mentioned, the film is virtually a collection of Shakespearian death scenes. The flimsy story moves from death A to death B to death C without any hint of deviating. Ultimately, this just means the film gets too predictable because we know that nothing else is going to happen. Basically Price hams it up for a bit, kills someone and then moves on to the next victim. You could argue that the film follows the classic slasher formula to the latter, stripping away as much of the story as possible and keeping things simple.

The death scenes are highly elaborate and gruesome: each one ‘influenced’ by a famous death scene from a Shakespeare play and there are some crackers. One pompous character is fed his own dogs baked in a pie (from Titus Andronicus) and there’s a recreation of the famous swordfight from Romero and Juliet. Knowing your Shakespeare would definitely help! For 1973, the film can quite graphic and gallons of blood are spilled, more done with amusing fashion than truly nasty intent.

 

Theatre of Blood works on one level and one level alone: Vincent Price. If you like him, you’ll love this. If not, you still might like this. Gory fun with an interesting idea and you might even learn a bit of classic Shakespeare in the process. Price considered this his best film and I’d be hard-pressed to disagree.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆