Welcome, children of the night! This Blog is for fans of vintage horror films as well as those who are just beginning to discover the joy of these classic movies. I'd love to hear from you!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Thriller: The Return of Andrew Bentley (1961)

Season 2, Episode 12

When you start with a script by Richard Matheson [I Am Legend], you know it’s going to be really great.  Such is the case with this very serious and dark episode of Thriller.  The story begins with Uncle Amos, a practitioner of the dark arts, who kills himself after securing his nephew Ellis’ promise to guard his tomb against nefarious forces.

Terence de Marney [Monster of Terror] is fantastic as Amos.  Even his physical appearance is a little bit crazed.  John Newland [Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Dr. Kildare], who also directed this episode, plays Eliis who is a bit aristocratic and snobbish.  Newland gets every aspect of this character right.

I won’t tell you how the story works itself out because that’s the fun of this Thriller episode.  The Return of Andrew Bentley is a bit darker than some of the other episodes that often have a sense of humor and playfulness to them.  This one is straight up horror and is very effective in establishing a mood of dread and sustaining it to the end.

I can’t recommend it enough.  It’s just another reason why Thriller may be the finest horror series to ever grace the small screen.

RATING: Excellent.

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Mole People (1956)

Utterly ridiculous!  The Mole People suffers from many things.  First on the list is a preposterous screenplay that doesn’t have an ounce of believability in it!  There is simply no way an ancient Sumerian civilization could survive underground for a week much less 5,000 years.  To make matters worse their costumes look like something that was designed by either Ed Wood or a local High School drama department.

Then let’s talk about the Mole People who are the Sumerian’s slaves.  Good God!  They are not even so-bad-they’re-good.  They are just plain bad. The only time they really look menacing is in the early scenes when we only see a brief glimpse of a hand or a set of eyes peering though a hole in the cavern.  I do, however, like the effect of when the Mole People pull their victims through the earth.  It’s the only thing that actually works in this film.

To be honest, I feel sorry for the actors, especially John Agar [Tarantula] and Alan Napier [Alfred form Batman] who are trapped in this film and are forced to utter inane dialogue form start to finish.  The Mole People takes itself way too seriously and fails epically.  You can skip this one altogether.  While the cinematography and direction are good, filming crap is…filming crap!

RATING: Bad.

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Tarantula (1955)

I know Leo G Carroll was over a barrel when Tarantula took to the hills…everybody sing!  Yet another Sci-Fi classic immortalized by the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and this one is worth singing about!  Tarantula is a fine example of those fun “creature features” from the 1950’s that were adored by kiddies as well as their parents.  It’s simply good, clean family fun that gets it right at every turn.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s right up there with my favorite from this era Them! (1954).

Director Jack Arnold [Creature From the Black Lagoon, It Came From Outerspace] and producer William Alland [Creature From the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature] know their stuff and give the movie a nice look and pace.  A beautiful musical score by Henri Mancini [The Pink Panther] only enhances the action and helps to heighten the tension.

The basic story involves a not-so-mad scientist, played by the wonderful Leo G. Carroll [North by Northwest, Strangers on a Train], whose experiments with growth hormones have unintended consequences.  Along for the ride are his gorgeous new research assistant Stephanie and a colleague named Dr. Hastings.  Mara Corday [The Black Scorpion] smashes a few 1950’s stereotypes with this role.  She’s smart and is taken seriously in the lab.  She only screams slightly, never faints, and rescues her own damn self!  Way to go, sister!  John Agar [The Virginian] is also great as the “leading man” and gives a great performance through and through.

Tarantula is helped by a smart screenplay whose science sounds believable, as well as Bud Westmore’s make-up that would make the legendary Jack Pierce smile.  As an added bonus, watch the final scene carefully and you’ll spot a young Clint Eastwood as a military pilot.  While he has an air mask on, you simply can’t mistake those eyes for anyone else’s!

The giant tarantula that terrorizes everyone is…well…a tarantula that is clearly magnified to epic proportions.  The handlers of the arachnid in question used air jets to make it move in the direction they wanted over a  well-built miniature landscape.  The effect is pretty good for 1950’s standards.  An uncredited Wah Chang [The Time Machine, Planet of the Apes] also designed a tarantula puppet that is used for close-ups.  It is very well made which also helps the monster to look convincing.

You can’t go wrong with Tarantula.  It’s a joy to watch from start to finish. 

RATING: Excellent.

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Deadly Mantis (1957)

Locked in a prison of ice millions of years ago, a giant praying mantis is set free to terrorize America!  And that’s all you really need to know.  The Deadly Mantis is a delicious slice of 1950’s kiddie horror that was probably shown on a Saturday afternoon.  In spite of it’s overly serious tone in the beginning of the film, it’s actually a lot of fun. 

The trio at the heart of this story is Margie Blaine, the editor of a Natural History Magazine; Dr. Ned Jackson, an authority on the evolution of animals; and Col. Joe Parkman, who invited the other two to join him at an Army base near the Arctic Circle where our adventure starts.  Alix Talton [The Man Who Knew Too Much] is great as Margie, who is a bit more useful than your typical 1950’s hysterically screaming movie female.  William Hopper [The Bad Seed] makes a convincing scientist does a great job at making the storyline seem believable.  Finally Craig Stevens [Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde] confidently commands the troops into battle and wins the girl in the end.  [Naturally!]  These three, along with the rest of the cast, do a great job of making the story come alive.

Now, how about the monster?  Well, the results are uneven.  When the Mantis is on the ground, it looks pretty good.  When it takes off in flight, it looks ridiculous.  Fred Knoth, who did the god-awful special effects in The Land Unknown (1957), has a more money to work with here and shows he can come up with some decent effects by 1950’s standards.  The best the creature looks is when it’s trapped in the Lincoln Tunnels in NYC.  The fog and subtle lighting help to make it look more menacing and powerful.  I made a n emotional connection with the Mantis in this scene and actually felt sorry for the big guy when he met his demise.

Kudos to director Nathan Juran [Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman] and Producer William Alland [Creature from the Black Lagoon] for making this film work as well as it does.  It definitely has its weak spots [use of stock footage as well as a few bad shots where the camera tricks are way too obvious] but the film itself manages to be greater than the sum of its parts.  It’s not the best monster movie out there, but it’s definitely a campy and enjoyable film.

RATING: Very Good.

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.

 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Land Unknown (1957)

Universal originally intended The Land Unknown to be a big budget Sci-Fi extravaganza, filmed in color.  What it ended up becoming was a small budget, black and white B-movie with laugh-out-loud special effects. The plot is simple:  A crew exploring Antarctica discovers a giant crater that is home to a prehistoric world, including dinosaurs.  Where it goes from there is classic “lost world” stuff with no big surprises.

The Land Unknown is nearly impossible to rate because parts of it are very good, while other elements suffer from lack of money.  Let’s start with the good stuff:  Director Virgil W. Vogel [Tons of TV credits to his name] shot his film mostly indoors at Universal Studios and does a decent job of trying to make painted backdrops and artificial shrubbery come to life.  To the film’s credit, the backdrops are painted beautifully.  It’s the kind of stuff you just don’t see in movies anymore and it has its own special charm.

Vogel also had a great cast to work with including the electrifying Shirley Patterson [It! The Terror From Beyond Space] who plays an adventuresome scientist who, unfortunately, morphs into the stereotypical 1950’s woman who screams, faints and has to be rescued by her man.  Sigh!  I also enjoyed William Reynolds [The Thing That Couldn’t Die] who looks a bit like a young Marlon Brando and has a strong presence on screen.

I was also impressed with the soundtrack which is beautifully composed and gives this film lots of energy and emotion.  Not surprisingly, an uncredited Henri Mancini [The Pink Panther] was the man behind the music.  Perhaps he did this anonymously so that the Universal could pay him less than his usual fee.

Now the bad stuff:  OMG the dinosaurs are HORRENDOUS.  Let’s start with the classic “giant iguanas wrestling” that we’re supposed to believe are dinosaurs.  It’s classic 1950’s stuff but that doesn't mean we have to like it.  Then, bless their hearts, there’s the T-Rex that is a man in a poorly constructed rubber suit with lifeless arms and a way-too-upright posture to be a convincing a T-Rex.  The swimming Plesiosaurus is even worse and looks like a bad ride at the county fair.  I know they had a limited budget but, WOW, the dinosaurs absolutely kill this movie, and not in a good way!

So, if you like cheese, then The Land Unknown is right up your alley.  It’s a rip-roaring good time.  However, if you like serious horror you will probably mourn the fact that if this movie only had a few decent special effects it could have been a really good movie.

RATING:  Very Good - direction, acting and cinematography  Bad - special effects

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.


Monday, August 11, 2014

King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) American Version

Willis O’Brien, who did special effects for King Kong (1933) wanted to pit this epic monster against another epic monster…Frankenstein.  Huh?  Not surprisingly, he couldn’t find an American studio who was interested in making the movie.  Next he turned to Japan and the result is King Kong vs. Godzilla.  If you’re looking for a movie with horror elements and sharp social commentary, this is not it!  If you approach it as a Saturday morning kid’s cartoon, it works quite nicely.

Ishiro Honda, who directed the original 1954 Godzilla film, gave this incarnation of Godzilla a sense of fun and adventure.  This is NOT a stinging commentary on the nuclear age.  Instead it has more in common with TV Westling than it does with the horror genre.  They toned down the look of Godzilla and gave his roar a higher pitch to make him look less menacing.  They also designed the expression on King Kong’s face to be more comical so that it didn’t frighten younger children.

So, how is the movie?  As a kids movie it works quite well.  It’s fun, entertaining and not the least bit scary.  The effects are fine for a young audience and comparable to others in the same time period.  The storyline is a bit contrived but how else are you going to get these two monsters together in the same city?

As a movie for adults, however, King Kong vs. Godzilla definitely has it’s faults: 1) The scenes involving Kong and the island natives are ridiculous.  They have bad face paint, awful costumes, and sing and dance like central casting extras (which is exactly what they are), 2) The miniatures used are inconsistent.  Sometimes they look really good and at other times they are god-awful, and 3) The American scenes cut into the original  Japanese film have a different visual quality to them and don’t match very well.

So, it all depends on what you like in classic horror films.  This is definitely not Freddy vs. Jason. It’s more like Rick Flair vs. Hulk Hogan.  Enjoy it for what it is, and try not take it it too seriously.

RATING: Good.

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.


Saturday, August 9, 2014

Thriller: Dialogues With Death (1961)

Season 2, Episode 11

How do you make a fantastic episode of Thriller?  Start with a smart script that combines horror with a little dark humor (Robert Arthur, a Thriller and Alfred Hitchcock Presents regular, fits the bill quite nicely).  Hire a veteran TV director to steer the ship (Herschel Daugherty is hard to beat).  Then cast Boris Karloff three times in one episode and watch the sparks fly.

Dialogues With Death is a joy from start to finish.  Karloff introduces and end the episode.  In between be plays two colorful characters in with vignettes about death.  In the first he is Pop Jenkins who likes to sit in the morgue and chat with the dead.  He usually keeps their secrets until, one day, he accidentally spills the beans.  The rest of the story focuses on the consequences of his actions.

The second vignette contains Karloff as Col. Jackson Beauregard Finchess, an eccentric old Southern plantation owner.  He is over the top great with this role and his performance is enhanced by Estelle Winwood [Batman, the TV Series] who plays his equally crazy wife.  I love seeing Karloff tackling a comedic role.  He is so good at it, it makes me wonder why he was not hired to do more of it!

Episodes like Dialogues With Death are a reminder of how brilliant this TV series was.  Thriller is definitely the best of the best in terms of horror TV.

RATING: Excellent.

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Gojira (1954) a.k.a Godzilla

Gojira is, without a doubt, one of the finest creature features ever made.  It starts with a brilliant story which is a critique of the atomic age after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 as well as H-bomb testing in the Pacific Ocean in 1952.  Screenwriter Takeo Murata and visionary director Ishiro Honda took Shigeru Kayama’s novel and adapted it for the screen.  The themes in the movie were so powerful that when it came time to adapt the Japanese film for American audiences, much of the stinging commentary was left out.  Personally, the original version is a more coherent story and is much stronger that what would become Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956).

The next thing they needed was a great monster.  Director of photography and special effects guru Sadamasa Arikawa originally wanted to use stop motion animation for Gojira but no one in Japan was experienced with this filming technique.  So, he decided on a “guy in a suit” who would destroy a miniaturized set.  He worked a long time on developing the creature which was a mix of a T-Rex and an Iguanodon with Stegosaurus spikes and alligator skin detail.  It might be a guy in a suit, but it had to be a terrifying guy in a suit!  As a bit or trivia the original Godzilla was charcoal grey, not green.  Furthermore, the actor’s head is actually in the neck and the creature stood at a height of 2 meters.

From the very beginning of the film, the director establishes a feeling of dread and helplessness which never lets up until the closing credits.  There is also lots of angst, hidden secrets and regrets which give the film depth and complexity.  The cast is great and I think it’s essential to see Gojira in its original language with subtitles.  The dubs in the American version are less than accurate in conveying the emotions needed to carry this film.

Not much more needs to be said.  Gojira is right up there with 1931’s Frankenstein in terms of creating an iconic monster that spawned endless sequels and rip-offs.  The original is still the best so make sure you catch this horror classic.  See it on the biggest screen possible and if you can snag the Criterion Blu-ray version to watch, it’s probably the best one available.

RATING: Excellent.

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.


Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Black Castle (1952)

WARNING: While The Black Castle contains performances from Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr, they are not the stars of this thriller and are relegated to minor roles.  This is especially true of Chaney who is virtually mute and does a lot of staring for a couple of brief scenes.  Of course, their work in this film is very good but there is oh so little of it!

That being said, the stars of this thriller are Richard Greene [The Adventures of Robin Hood] and Rita Corday [The Body Snatcher].  Greene plays Sir Ronald Burton who goes undercover as Richard Beckett in order to investigate the disappearance of two of his friends.  He stays at the castle of the sadistic Count von Bruno whose wife Beckett eventually falls in love with.  Both of them give very good performances with Greene being the stronger presence on screen.  The rest of the plot develops as expected with no real surprises along the way.

Why IMDB gives this one a 6.4 rating is baffling.  Perhaps I missed something.  Yes, it’s a well made movie.  However, the problem is that it’s not terribly interesting.   I was lured into watching it because of Karloff but, as I said, there’s precious too little of him in the film.  The Black Castle is part of the Boris Karloff DVD Collection which is odd since he has such a minor role in the movie.  Karloff did so many wonderful films, it’s interesting that this one would be included in the collection.

So, if you like thrillers with no gore or horror elements.  And if you don’t like big plot twists then The Black Castle might be your kind of film.  I personally don’t feel the need to see it ever again.

RATING: Good.

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.


Friday, August 1, 2014

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

I don’t say this often but An American Werewolf in London is a perfect horror film.  It has everything going for it: A smart script, great acting, a sense of humor and eye-popping special effects.  Director/Writer John Landis [Twilight Zone: The Movie, Thriller] is at the helm of this visual feast that surprises and delights at every turn.  Kudos to cinematographer Robert Paynter [Thriller, Little Shop of Horrors remake] for such beautiful color and lighting that looks glorious in the restored version of the film.

American Werewolf won the Oscar in 1982 for Best Makeup that was done by the legendary Rick Baker [Videodrome, Men in Black].  Even by today’s standards some of the visual effects hold up really well. This is especially true of the main character’s dead friend who continues to decompose throughout the film.  I also love Baker’s werewolf transformation scene as well as when the wolf is running through the streets of London.  It’s classic stuff!

But the thing that really holds this movies together is the incredible performance of David Naughton as David Kessler, the college stunt who is bitten by a werewolf and survives, only to begin his transformation into a werewolf himself.  Naughton gets everything right with nuanced emotions that draw you into his struggle and make you really care what happens to him. The rest of the cast is great too and serve to enhance Naughton’s fine performance.

So, what are you waiting for?  If you’ve not seen this film yet, put it on the top of your list.  You won’t be disappointed.  A sequel, of sorts, entitled An American Werewolf in Paris was done in 1997.  It’s pretty good but it doesn’t come anywhere near the genius of the original.

RATING: Excellent.

For more info check out the film's entry in IMDB.