Christopher Lee is the last of the true horror legends that is still with us. In fact, he continues to make movies today with two more films due in The Hobbit trilogy. However, everyone best knows Lee for his numerous horror flicks from Hammer Films. Unfortunately, the last film he had a starring role in turned out to be the end of the original Hammer era. Hammer had acquired the permission of author Dennis Wheatley to produce another film based on one of his novels. Hammer had done so twice before (The Devil Rides Out and The Lost Continent) and with his novels dealing with the occult, the timing was perfect. Hollywood was dominating with movies concentrating on demonic possession and devil worship. Hammer, on the other hand, was struggling and needed a big theatrical hit. However, To The Devil…A Daughter (1976) ultimately wasn’t the film they were hoping for.
The movie starts off strong with Christopher Lee playing an excommunicated priest, Father Michael Raynor. Father Michael has left the church and is now the leader of a group of Satanists. When a member of his flock, Henry Beddows (Denholm Elliott, Raiders of the Lost Ark), reaches out to author John Verney (Richard Widmark, Kiss of Death), the story focuses on Beddows’ daughter Catherine (Natassia Kinksi, Cat People). A pact with the devil was made years earlier and now, at the time of her 18th birthday, it’s time for all of Father Michael’s work to come together.
There are countless problems with this movie. The script starts off strong but gets too convoluted along the way and totally falls apart in the last 10 minutes. Orgy scenes seem out of place and full frontal nudity from a 14-year old Kinski is unnecessary. And let’s not even talk about the “baby” scene, an obvious hand puppet gone wrong. While Lee puts in a great performance alongside others such as Denholm Elliott and Honor Blackman, Richard Widmark stands out as being poorly miscast. The end result is a bit of a mess that signified the end of the Hammer horror era and ensured Dennis Wheatley would never agree to one of his novels being adapted for film again. Watch the trailer but shop around before buying the DVD. It’s out of print and you really don’t want to spend more than you have to on this one.
With Turner Classic Movies honoring the legendary Vincent Price all this month, there is no doubt most of you have watched at least one Price film or have plans to spend Halloween glued to the tube. Following up on my recognition of greats like Cushing, Chaney Jr., Karloff and Lugosi, cinematic respect must be now given to Vincent Price. Instead of going with any number of his classics, I’ve opted for one that doesn’t get enough love. It’s time for An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe (1970).
Vincent Price and Roger Corman worked together on numerous movies based on the works of the literary master Edgar Allan Poe. So it’s only fitting that Price would eventually go to the original material. In this short (53 minute) presentation recorded live in front of a studio audience, Price recites four of Poe’s classics: The Tell-Tale Heart, The Sphinx, The Cask of Amontillado and The Pit and the Pendulum. Here, Price shows everyone just how well he could actually act. His movies did not always allow him the room to breathe theatrically. However, here he embraces it with such veracity that one feels hypnotized by the natural combination of the voice of Price and the words of Poe. Despite a minimalistic presentation and short running time, you’ll walk away satisfied for the experience and craving more (which sadly never came).
If you’ve never taken the time to watch An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe, then Halloween 2013 must be the year. It’s available on YouTube as well as DVD (paired with The Tomb of Ligeia). Top it off by finding a comfy chair, lighting a fire in the fireplace and embracing the original written word. All of it is highly recommended!
The concept of twin brothers, one good and one evil, is an age-old tale. In 1935, Boris Karloff brought it to life in one of my all-time favorite horror flicks, The Black Room. As with any story involving one actor playing dual roles, subtle changes in mannerisms and appearance can be quite effective for convincing the audience they are two different people. With Karloff, who in reality was quite a gentle person, the duality came quite easy and adds to overall believability of the story.
Twin sons are born into the de Berghmann family. Anton is born with a lame right arm while Gregor is strong and healthy. As time passes, Gregor becomes baron and rules over the kingdom with an iron fist while Anton travels the world. Upon Anton’s return, he is shocked to see what his brother has become and how much the people hate him. He cannot believe his brother Gregor is all that bad. When the villagers decide to rise up, Anton protects his brother while Gregor agrees to step down. Anton becomes baron but it’s only a matter of time before murder rears its ugly head. For in the black room is a pit where Gregor has disposed of many of his enemies and Anton is the only thing standing between him and the woman he desires.
Karloff did a few period films over his vast career and here, he was able to combine he gentle side with his menacing in a shroud of horror and mystery. I have fond memories of watching this film on a Saturday night in the early 80s when Crematia Mortem presented it on the Creature Feature. My dad and I stayed up late to watch it together and every time I’ve seen it since, it takes me back to simpler times. Karloff here is at his most wicked and The Black Room stands as one of his very best. It is one of four films on The Icons of Horror Collection, which is a fantastic set and well-worth tracking down as it is now out-of-print. Add it to your collection today!
As soon as Bela Lugosi turned down the role of the Monster in Frankenstein (1931), his career followed a new path that would be in dark contrast to that of Boris Karloff. By 1939, Karloff was a major star while Lugosi became relegated to B pictures and Poverty Row flicks. However, many of those lesser-known movies are quite enjoyable and The Human Monster (1939) ranks among some of the better efforts Lugosi found himself associated with.
Lugosi stars on Dr. Orloff (yes, clearly a take on the name “Karloff”), a gentleman who, despite dreams of helping others, finds himself rejected by those in control. He is forced to run an insurance agency that loans money to those in need in exchange for their life insurance benefits. Of course, the bodies begin to pile up thanks to a huge brute who serves Orloff. Orloff doesn’t count on a daughter of one of his victims finding out what is going on. With Scotland Yard on the case, Orloff finds himself in a web that is closing in closer and closer.
Better known as The Dark Eyes of London when released in the UK, production was swift and, as common with these Poverty Row flicks, the budget was quite small. Lugosi clearly rises above the material and is the only reason this film is known today. Unfortunately, the only known print of this public domain flick is in pretty rough shape. However, I find it adds a certain measure of charm. Check it out on archive.org or buy the DVD. It’s always fun to watch some Lugosi and October makes these flicks even better.
As we enter the final week of Halloween month, it’s time to shift gears and go old school. It would not be right to not have at least one movie from the legendary Lon Chaney Jr. Many fans consider The Wolf-Man (1941) as the starting point of his career but, in reality, he had been acting since 1931. However, he was essentially a character actor playing tough guy roles. In 1940, he started to sneak into the horror genre by starring in the original version of One Million B.C. before working on his first full-fledged Universal Horror flick, Mon-Made Monster. Filmed months before The Wolf-Man, this was Lon’s first time as a leading man and it could be argued that this film is what laid the ground work for what was to follow over the next several years.
Despite playing the primary role, he was second-billed to Lionel Atwill, who was already established in the horror/mystery/thriller genre thanks to his work on such films as Son of Frankenstein and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Lon plays Dan McCormick, a sideshow huckster who does tricks with electricity. After surviving a bus crash and an electrical charge that killed five other people, Dr. Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds, The Raven) offers him a home and an opportunity for employment as an assistant in the scientific research field. But it’s Dr. Rigas (Lionel Atwill) who is really interested in Dan. Soon, Dan becomes a guinea pig in a series of experiments that leave him an electrically charged zombie.
Taking a mere three weeks to film, it would be the cheapest movie made by Universal in 1941. Upon its rerelease, it would be renamed The Atomic Monster. Whatever the title, I’ve always enjoyed this little gem. At 59 minutes, it also remains one of the shortest Universal Horror films. I particularly enjoyed Hinds performance as he always seems to come across as a fatherly figure, the kind who will always give you good advice if not a little conservative. And Atwill turns in a stereotypically great mad doctor performance.
Man Made Monster is available as part of the Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive DVD set. At less than $20, the set offers five lesser-known Universal flicks in addition to some Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone. It is well worth the investment and addition to your collection.
Back on Sunday with some old school Bela Lugosi!
One more day down Mexico way (well, technically Spain for this one) and it’s time to visit a modern-day master. Guillermo del Toro is a driving force in Hollywood, whether he’s directing (Pacific Rim, Pan’s Labyrinth), writing (Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark) or serving as an executive producer (Mama, The Orphanage). After some moderate success with Cronos and Splice, in 2001 he had his first big critical hit with The Devil’s Backbone. Overwhelming response, in addition to del Toro’s statement that it is one of his most personal and favorite films, has made The Devil’s Backbone one of the biggest horror hits of the new millennium.
The story is set in the last days of the Spanish Civil war. A small orphanage is running on a shoestring budget in the desert as a final stop for young boys orphaned by the war. Casares (Federico Luppi, Pan’s Labyrinth) remains out of loyalty to Carmen (Marisa Paredes) despite a bleak outlook. Only a groundskeeper and another teacher remain. Young Carlos (Fernando Tielve, Pan’s Labyrinth) arrives and settles in with the other boys but from the moment of his arrival, he has visions of a mysterious boy. It turns out the school is haunted but there are other secrets lurking behind every dark corner.
A visually stunning film in what are dark and bleak times. Del Toro weaves an eerie and haunting tale that is enhanced by his masterful story telling. Symbolism runs throughout the movie and may require multiple viewings to understand and capture it all. I was way late to this party and have no excuse. If by chance you haven’t seen The Devil’s Backbone yet, step away from the computer and do it now. Check out the trailer and buy the DVD or Blu-ray. This is another highly recommended flick for the Halloween season.
Tomorrow, we’re going old school for the rest of the month starting off with some Lon Chaney Jr. Universal Horror goodness!
Director Chano Urueta is well-known amongst Mexican cinema aficionados due to his 117 directorial credits. Some fans will recognize his name from several of the Blue Demon movies he did in the 1960s. But his most famous work is easily El Baron del Terror (1962) aka Brainiac. However, as much love as that film receives, another project he worked on that same year is actually just as deserving of attention. The Witch’s Mirror deals with a vengeful witch, never a good combination.
Sara (Isabela Corona) is a witch who witnesses her godchild Elena’s murder in a mirror. She will be killed by her husband, a famous doctor and scientist named Eduardo (Armando Calvo). After the murder, Sara communicates with Elena (Dina de Marco) and brings her back through the mirror to seek revenge upon her husband. Unfortunately, taking the brunt of the revenge is Eduardo’s new wife Deborah (Rosita Arenas). Once Deborah is burned, Eduardo set about killing women to restore his new wife’s beauty. Needless to say, Elena is far from finished in her revenge on Eduardo and Elena becomes the tool for his undoing.
The sets are expansive and the story woven is chilling. Special effects are quite good with one exception. There are scenes of some disembodied hands that really don’t hold up well. However, considering how well everything else is done, that can be easily forgiven. This is another classic that is well worth chasing down. Casa Negra provides another fantastic print as well as the original Spanish language version with subtitles, which clearly enhances the experience. Check out the YouTube trailer and check out Amazon for a reasonably priced DVD. But be warned, it’s out of print and requires some patience in waiting for a good price.