A splendid example of Hammer Films operating at the height of their powers, The Devil Rides Out - released as The Devil's Bride in the U.S. to avoid being confused for a western - is pure class all the way. Elegantly directed by Terence Fisher, it features a fine script by ace horror scribe Richard Matheson (based on the somewhat forgotten but once famous novel by Dennis Wheatley), and stars one of the horror genre's biggest stars, Christopher Lee, in a role he has long claimed as a personal favorite. The Devil Rides Out wasn't a big hit at the box office and isn't nearly as well known as it should be, but it regularly appears near the top of most fan polls of Hammer's best movies. It's certainly an unusual sort of film compared to the studio's typical Gothic horror output, set as it is in the late 1920s world of art deco and English country estates, and revolving around black magic amidst a group of decadent Satanists. It's also unusual for giving the imposing Lee, so often typecast as villains (to memorable effect, it must be said), a chance to doff his Dracula cape and fangs and fight on the side of the angels for a change.
The films opens with a bang and scarcely pauses for breath as it hurtles headlong through its story. Once every year, veterans of the Great War and ex-members of the Lafayette Escadrille, Nicholas, the Duc de Richleau (Lee) and Rex van Ryn (Leon Greene) meet up with Simon (Patrick Mower), the son of their dead wartime friend, for a celebratory dinner. No sooner has Rex landed his biplane upon the green swards of southern England and joined de Richleau in his expensive roadster than he finds out that this time, Simon has cancelled their heretofore unbreakable tradition for mysterious reasons. De Richleau and Rex decide to pay an impromptu call on Simon at the country estate he's recently had built for him outside London. Upon their arrival, the pair discover that an odd sort of party appears to be in progress. Simon gives them a halfheartedly warm welcome but is obviously nervous about their presence, and it doesn't take long for the Duc to suss out what's really going on - Simon's got himself mixed up with a bunch of Satan worshippers, led by the suavely sinister Mocata (Charles Gray). For his part, the stalwart but skeptical Rex finds himself entranced by another party guest, an otherworldly Continental beauty known as Tanith (Nike Arrighi).
Those who feel that the modern horror genre has become glutted with "torture porn" Saw knock-offs, home invasion "thrill killer" gorefests and miscellaneous, misbegotten remakes of older classics, have had reason to cheer up of late. Recent hits like The Conjuring are tapping in to that narrow but rich vein of more restrained, subtle terror that some might deem old-fashioned (and the rest of us, classy.). A few enterprising filmmakers, generally funded by smaller, independent production companies, are coming out with films made in this classical style, with horrors more implied than overt, constructed with a bit of that old school intelligence and grace. One of these is The Awakening, a refreshingly traditional British ghost story of the type they rarely make anymore. Reminiscent of such wonderfully eerie films like The Innocents, The Haunting (the Robert Wise version, natch), Legend of Hell House and The Changeling, The Awakening makes for fine seasonal viewing.
Set in 1921, when the extreme losses suffered during the First World War were still keenly felt, The Awakening centers around occult expert and spiritualist hoax debunker Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), who's gained some notoriety from a book she's published about her experiences dealing with supposedly supernatural phenomena. The movie opens with Florence attending a seance and swiftly exposing it, and the medium in charge, as frauds...to the gratitude of the police but the hostility of a bereaved couple whose hopes she's shattered. Worn out by her investigations and overwork, Florence returns to the London home she shares with her parents, reflecting on her own deep personal loss, of a fiancee pilot shot down in the war, when she's visited by Robert Mallory (a brooding and very effective Dominic West), who teaches at a boys' boarding school in Rookford, Cumbria. Mallory tells a chilling tale of a recent death of a young boy at the school, and shows Florence several school photos depicting the ghostly figure of a child, its face obscured.
The third out of four films Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made for Universal in 1941, Hold That Ghost is the duo's first foray into spooky territory, and finds the former vaudevillians in fine fettle, pretty much at the height of their physical and comedic powers. Alas, it also features that bane of the 30s and 40s comedy film - unnecessary musical numbers. The 86 minute film wastes nearly 10 minutes of that screentime by bookending performances by annoying "talk-singing" bandleader Ted Lewis and the Andrews Sisters. The sisters are terrific, but seem shoehorned in, mainly because they previously featured in A & C's first film, Buck Privates, and that was such a smash that the studio apparently figured it was best to keep to the same formula. Luckily the songs are pretty painless and it isn't long before the movie proper kicks into gear.
Per usual in these early Abbott and Costello movies, the plot is mostly just a bit of nonsense upon which to hang several of the boys' finely-honed routines, patented schtick and slapstick business. The movie opens with Chuck Murray (Abbott) and Ferdinand "Ferdy" Jones (Costello) trying to make a go of it as fill-in waiters at a posh restaurant and nightclub. Needless to say, things don't go so well, as Ferdy makes one cock-up after another, under the baleful eye of a snooty maitre-d' (Mischa Auer). An example of the quick, witty dialogue woven throughout the movie occurs in this early exchange between Ferdy and his first customers: an attractive young gold digger and her grouchy sugar daddy:
Ferdy: Good evening, folks. Want to start off with some soup?"
Old man: I don't like soup.
Ferdy: Gimme a reason.
"Of the 19 men and women who have set foot upon the planet Mars, six will return. There's no longer a question of murder but of an alien, an elemental life force, a planet so cruel, so hostile, that Man may find it necessary to bypass it in his endeavor to explore and understand the universe. Another name for Mars is Death."
It's that time of year again. October has started and as usual, my movie viewing tastes run to blood-curdling tales of terror, Gothic horror and rampaging monsters. I decided to kick off Halloween 2013 with an old fifties sci-fi flick, the splendidly-titled It! The Terror from Beyond Space. Far from the cream of the 50s monster movie crop, it's still a pretty fun watch and at 69 minutes, doesn't overstay its welcome.
The movie has a terrific premise: Col. Edward Carruthers (Marshall Thompson) is the commander and sole survivor of an initial expedition to Mars. When a second, rescue expedition arrives, they refuse to believe his story of some strange creature that attacked and killed the rest of his crew, especially when the only evidence they find is the skull of one of the missing men with a bullet-hole in it. The leader of the second ship, Col. Van Heusen (Kim Spalding), puts Carruthers under arrest in anticipation of a court martial and sets his ship on a return course to Earth.
Carruthers is allowed to roam free on the ship, the Challenge 142, as long as he's always accompanied by one of the other crewmen to keep an eye on him. Heusen is convinced that he can make Carruthers crack and refute his crazy monster story. Only ship's science officer (and Heusen's girlfriend) Ann Anderson (Shawn Smith) proves somewhat sympathetic to the very sane-seeming Carruthers. Of course, Carruthers' story is borne out when the crew discover that they are not alone on the ship. Some thing has managed to get aboard, and soon begins to run amok, picking off crew members one at a time...
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