One part giallo stalk-and-slash, one part dreamy, supernatural coming-of-age tale about a girl who can communicate with bugs, and 100% off-the-wall, batshit crazy, Phenomena is a moviegoing experience you aren't likely to forget.
Yet another weird offspring born from the demented mind of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, the man who brought the world such Eurocult classics as Suspiria, Deep Red, Inferno, Cat o' Nine Tails and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Phenomena bears many of the hallmarks of the typical Argento film: an innocent in over their heads, a psychotic murderer on the rampage, plenty of shots from the killer's POV, moments of serene beauty punctuated with startling, extreme violence - all set to a pulsating, nerve-shredding rock soundtrack. It has these things, but it also veers off into its own, oddball territory.
The movie sets its creeptastic mood from the start. On a remote country road somewhere in the mountainous foothills of Switzerland, a yellow bus pulls up at a lonely bus stop. A gaggle of tourists emerge from a nearby forest path and get on the bus, which then pulls off and drives away. Soon after, a lone 14 year-old Danish girl runs after the bus, but is left behind. She shivers in the cold wind blowing down from the hills and looks around her uncertainly. Spying a lone house nearby, she walks up to it and knocks on the door.
Big mistake. She's picked the worse possible house to go poking around in. Something peers at her from inside. We see something chained up inside, ripping itself free. The girl enters the house and is soon viciously attacked by its now-freed prisoner. It chases her outdoors and through a neighboring waterfall park, where it stabs her with a pair of scissors and then decapitates her, her head cascading down the waterfall to be washed out to the lake below.
The Gorgon (1964)
An unfairly neglected gem from the Golden Age of Hammer Horror, The Gorgon is an atmospheric chiller with a sterling cast, an interesting story, plenty of atmosphere and a strong sense of tragedy. It's only let down slightly by some unfortunate special effects choices in depicting the title monster at the climax (Christopher Lee is on record as saying "The only thing wrong with The Gorgon is the gorgon"), but the rest of the film is good enough to overlook these technical lapses.
The film opens in yet another mitt-European burg, Vandorf, with the death of the young daughter of the local innkeeper. Police find her lover, visiting artist Bruno Heitz, hanging from a tree in the woods nearby, and the coroner is quick to claim a verdict of murder/suicide, ignorant of the girl's real cause of death - she was turned to stone. For reasons of his own, Dr. Namaroff (Peter Cushing, in fine icy form), withholds the truth from the court. Bruno's father, Professor Jules Heitz (Michael Goodliffe), protests the court's ruling, and determines to get to the bottom of the case and clear his son's name. He hears tales of an evil creature called the Megaera, mythical sister to Medusa, said to be haunting the ruins of nearby Castle Borski.
Dr. Namaroff warns Prof. Heitz to leave Vandorf before ill befalls him. Angry villagers try to run him out of town, but Heitz is made of sterner stuff. He's no match for the dreaded Megaera, however, and is soon lured to the castle by her siren call to meet his doom. He staggers back to his desk with just enough life left to pen a letter to his remaining son, Paul (Richard Pasco).
Cushing and Barbara Shelley
Paul leaves Leipzig University and soon is following in his father's footsteps. Stonewalled by Dr. Namaroff and Inspector Kanof (Patrick Troughton), Paul soon meets and becomes enchanted with Namaroff's nurse, Carla Hoffman (Barbara Shelley). Their relationship grows even stronger as Carla nurses him back to health when Paul is found outside his flat after a near-fatal attack by the gorgon.
Now prematurely grey-haired from the shock of his attack, Paul is more determined than ever to find out what exactly is going on. He digs up his father's casket and finds his stone corpse. He gets drawn closer and closer to Carla, as the jealous Namaroff and his assistant Ratoff (Jack Watson) keep a watchful eye. Namaroff knows all too well that the Megaera's 2,000 year-old spirit has possessed the body of someone in the village, transforming into its hideous shape and hunting for fresh victims every night when the moon is full.
Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter (1974)
"There are as many species of vampire as there are beasts of prey. Their methods and motive for attack can vary in a hundred different ways."
"And their means of destruction."
Fun and stylish late period Hammer film from Brian Clemens, one of the main architects of TV's The Avengers, and there's more than a whiff of that great spy show's spirit on hand in Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter.
Something is stalking the young lasses of Durward village and sucking the youth from them, leaving them dying old crones with blood on their lips. Dr. Marcus (John Carlson) suspects a supernatural agency and summons his old army comrade Captain Kronos (Horst Janson). Kronos arrives soon after, accompanied by his hunchbacked assistant, Prof. Heironymus Grost ("What he doesn't know about vampirism wouldn't fill a flea's codpiece.") Along the way, Kronos frees a gypsy girl, Carla (Caroline Munro), from the stocks ("And what crime have you committed?" "I danced on a Sunday") and she joins up with them.
John Carlson as Dr. Marcus
While Kronos mostly sits around smoking cheroots and looking pensive, Grost gets to work, burying dead toads around the woods where the various girls have been attacked. Apparently, if a vampire passes by, the toads will come back to life.
In the meantime, Marcus meets the blond, effete Durward siblings (Shane Briant and Lois Daine) as they visit the graveside of their dead father. Their reclusive mother, Lady Durward (Wanda Ventham) harbors a grudge against Marcus for allowing her husband to die under his care.
Caroline Munro and her "come hither" eyes.
Some ruffians, led by Kerro (Ian Hendry, far overqualified for such a small role) are paid to pick a fight with Kronos in the village tavern, but are no match for his skills with a samurai sword (how and why a former member of the Imperial Guard got ahold of a Japanese katana is never explained). As Kronos and Carla get more intimately acquainted, additional corpses pile up, and Dr. Marcus pays an ill-fated visit to the Durward estate.
This leads to one of the highlights of the film, as Kronos and Grost test various methods on a vampire captive to find out the precise way to kill it. When the traditional stake through the heart doesn't work, they try hanging. Eventually they find it's cold steel that does the trick, which paves the way for a final dramatic sword duel between Kronos and the master vampire in his lair.
After the success of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Bud and Lou finished out their big-screen career at Universal with a series of other "...Meet" films. While none came near the comic heights of ...Meet Frankenstein, a few remain fun, amusing trifles. Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is arguably the best of these final efforts, buoyed by the sinister presence of Boris Karloff and some occasionally inspired comic bits.
With a few exceptions, plotting was never really more than an afterthought in Abbott and Costello movies, working mainly as a bare skeleton to hang their jokes and routines on, and so it goes here. In a rather far-fetched set-up, Bud and Lou play a pair of bumbling Yank cops in the Victorian era - named Slim and Tubby, natch - on loan to Scotland Yard to learn British police techniques. After their disastrous handling of a riot at a suffragette rally, the boys are stripped of their badges and sent packing. They decide (or rather, bossy Abbott does) that their best chance at being reinstated is to catch the notorious murderer known as "the beast," an ape-like creature in a top hat and cloak recently terrorizing the city.
This is, of course, Mr. Hyde. Unlike most versions of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale, this Dr. Jekyll (Boris Karloff) knows precisely what he's turning into, and seems to be deliberately planning his attacks on those who displease him or otherwise get in his way.
When smooth, handsome young news reporter Bruce Adams (Peter Gunn's Craig Stevens) romantically pursues Jekyll's ward, suffragette and music hall dancer Vicky Edwards (Helen Westcott), Jekyll turns his malicious intent towards him.
Raw Meat (1972)
A really unique, interesting, little-seen British horror film from the early 70s, Raw Meat (a.k.a. Death Line) sets an odd tone from the start, as we follow civil servant James Manfred (James Cossins) on a tour through the seedy London strip club scene. Manfred eventually descends down into the Russell Square tube station.
A short while later, two student lovers, surly American Alex (David Ladd) and sweet English beauty Patricia (Sharon Gurney), exit the last train onto the platform and come across Manfred's body lying comatose on the steps. David assumes the man's a drunk and wants to leave him be ("Back home we just step over these people"), but kind-hearted Patricia wants to help him. Thinking he might be a diabetic, Patricia has Alex search the man's wallet for a health card. After cursorily scanning the man's I.D. ("James Manfred, O.B.E."), the couple head up to ground level in search of help. A reluctant Alex returns below with a local bobby, only to find Manfred's body has disappeared.
Sharon Gurney and David Ladd
The case comes to the attention of acerbic, tea-guzzling Inspector Calhoun (played with immense relish by Donald Pleasence), who remembers some other recent cases of people going missing in the same tube station. He sends amused, long-suffering Detective Sergeant Rogers (Norman Rossington) to fetch Alex to "assist with police enquiries." The two coppers begin to poke into Manfred's disappearance, Calhoun cheekily breaking into the missing man's flat and helping himself to his whiskey. Christopher Lee (in a delightfully snide, all-too-brief cameo) shows up as the mysterious Man from the Ministry, Stratton-Villiers, who icily warns them to leave the Manfred case alone.
The Monster That Challenged the World (1957)
I've always had a soft spot for 50s monster movies, especially those of the alien invader or “big bug” variety (The Thing from Another World, Them!, Tarantula, It Came from Outer Space, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, etc.) and The Monster That Challenged the World is high on my list of favorites. It's a modest creature feature, but very effective nonetheless, with a first-rate monster design, some memorable shock scenes and an unusual location – the Salton Sea in California.
What more can be said about this, the granddaddy of all monster and nature-run-amok movies? One part horror film, one part seafaring adventure, 100% sheer, knuckle-biting suspense. Much like its title menace, Jaws is a straight-up thrill machine. To paraphrase Richard Dreyfuss (as Hooper), all it does is swim, eat, and make baby sharks: in this case, the infinite number of Jaws knock-offs, imitators and wannabes, some of them decent in their own right (Alligator, Piranha), some mediocre (Grizzly) and all too many, awful (insert random Scy Fy channel schlock here).
Here we see director Steven Spielberg at the absolute peak of his powers. While Raiders of the Lost Ark is probably my favorite Spielberg film, there's no doubt that, when it comes to cinematic technique, Jaws is his masterpiece. It's just a superbly crafted film.
A lot of blame has been laid on Jaws as the film that ruined Hollywood moviemaking for adult audiences by ushering in the era of the blockbuster. That may be so, but there's nothing empty, juvenile or crass about Jaws itself. It's full of excitement and entertainment value, for sure, but its got plenty of meat to chew on, and artistry to admire, as well. From its wonderfully-drawn three lead characters (Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Dreyfuss each arguably giving the performance of their respective careers), to its characteristic 70s era naturalistic, overlapping dialogue, to its sharp observations on tourist town politics, to its canny understanding and manipulation of human nature and our atavistic fears of the sea and what dangers may lurk beneath – this is a masterclass of top-drawer filmmaking.
The Hole (2009)
Things didn't go Joe Dante's way when it came to releasing his most recent feature film, The Hole. Made 3 years ago, it's only now getting a limited release and making its way onto DVD and Blu-Ray (you can read more on the whys and wherefores here and here). It's a pity, really, as it's quite a good movie - easily Dante's best since Matinee, from all the way back in 1993. The Hole is a family movie - you might even call it a kids movie, actually - but don't let that put you off...it's still pretty dang scary. Not as gory as The Howling or Piranha, nor as nostalgic and knockabout as Gremlins, but plenty spooky all the same.
Single mom Susan (Terri Polo), teenaged son Dane (Chris Massoglia) and younger brother Lucas (Nathan Gamble) have just moved from New York City to the quiet burg of Bensonville. Dane is not happy about leaving his old home and friends behind, and doesn't care to spend much time with Lucas, but he perks up a bit when he catches sight of Julie (Haley Bennett), the cute, perky blonde girl next door.
One day, Dane and Lucas are horsing around down in the cellar when they come across a locked door in the basement floor. The boys accidentally find the keys to the locks and open the door to reveal a deep, dark, seemingly bottomless hole. Julie soon joins them and together they do a series of tests to find out what's down there. They drop a paint bucket down but don't hear it land. They lower a South Park Cartman doll, and something suddenly tears it away. They lower a video camera on a fishing line and on playback see a vague white shape which they can't quite make out. Then Susan comes home and they all head off to bed...without locking the door to the hole back up.
House of Wax (1953)
The movie that set star Vincent Price's career on a course with horror movie destiny, House of Wax was Warner Brothers' first 3D film and proved a massive success for the studio. Director Andre de Toth gives this modestly-budgeted period piece a lavish, colorful look, and it moves along at a nice clip, yet I couldn't help feeling just a little disappointed with the film.
Price plays Prof. Henry Jarrod, a gentle if eccentric sculptor of taste and genius who runs a small and unsuccessful wax museum. His partner and investor, Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts) wants to get his hands on the $25,000 insurance money on the building and so callously sets fire to Jarrod's painstakingly-crafted exhibits. The two men struggle, and Burke leaves Jarrod to a fiery fate. Of course, Jarrod survives to plot his revenge, albeit now a disfigured wretch of a man, driven to madness by the loss of his precious life works.
Phyllis Kirk, soon to play Nora Charles in THE THIN MAN TV series.
The murderous Burke has little time to enjoy his spoils, as Jarrod, clad in black cloak and slouch hat, sneaks into his office, strangles him, and arranges his body to drop down the elevator shaft in a semblance of suicide.
Next, he targets Burke's mistress, social climber Sally Gray (Carolyn Jones). Sally's friend, down-on-her-luck Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk), comes upon Sally's dead body just in time to witness Jarrod's monstrous appearance, and is pursued by him through the fog-lined New York streets, until she reaches the safety of the family home of her beau, young sculptor Scott Andrews (Paul Picerni).
With the financial backing of kindly art critic Sidney Wallace (Paul Cavanaugh), a seemingly normal - if wheelchair-bound - Jarrod opens a new, grislier and sensationalistic gallery. His badly burned hands no longer capable of doing fine sculpting work, Jarrod is assisted by mute, hulking henchman Igor (Charles Bronson, in unconvincing pancake make-up) and an alcoholic ex-con in creating new figures for a series of tableau reenacting famous crimes and scenes of torture and death, which make the new House of Wax a notorious and immediate success. Only sensitive Sue, gazing upon a figure of Joan of Arc which bears a striking resemblance to her dead friend Sally, suspects the truth - that Jarrod is using actual corpses to imbue his new wax figures with their uncanny life. Unfortunately for Sue, Jarrod sets his sights on turning her into his newest wax masterpiece, Marie Antoinette.
Dark Shadows (2012)
Tim Burton lavishes his usual visual flair on this re-imagining of the 70s cult horror soap opera. The film opens with a breathless, full-blooded Gothic prologue which sets up the conflict for the rest of the film. Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), scion of a wealthy 18th century family whose immense mansion looms over the New England fishing village below, spurns beautiful witch Angelique (Eva Green) in favor of his true love, Josette (Bella Heathcoate). Angelique retaliates by killing Barnabas' parents with a falling block of stone, sending a spell-bound Josette over a cliff to be dashed upon the rocks below, and finally, cursing Barnabas to live the rest of his days as a vampire. Rousing the townspeople against him, she buries him in a chain-lined coffin and leaves him to contemplate his sorrow for nearly 200 years.
The film next jumps forward to 1972, and in a marvelous opening credits montage, set to the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin," young Victoria (Heathcoate again) makes her way to the Collinwood estate to become governess to Barnabas' modern-day descendants. She finds the great house in a state of disrepair and neglect, inhabited by the dysfunctional Collins family, led by matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her sullen teen daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), ne'er-do-well widower Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), his gentle yet troubled son David (Gulliver McGrath), David's psychiatrist, the alcoholic Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and groundskeeper Williie Loomis (played for inconsequential comedic effect by Jackie Earle Haley).
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