Monday, December 8, 2014

THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE 1959


"This Picture Was Written, Produced and Directed To Scare The Daylights Out Of You !"



   One of the more lurid and sensational low budget horror programmers to come out of the 1950's THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE was a perennial favorite for Saturday afternoon horror hosts and boasted that infamous still that was an oft repeated image in Famous Monsters. In terms of 1950's horror and sci/fi it boasts a pretty impressive pedigree both behind and in front of the camera and features a story line that would to be right at home in an E.C. horror comic. The film is also interesting in the fact that as in WHITE ZOMBIE (1932) and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) it treats the subject of voodoo in a very serious way with an almost scholarly approach to it (complete with a step by step "how-to" for shrinking a head). In addition the script doesn't use frantically explained science hyperbole or natural facts to explain away the proceedings, leaving it up to supernatural and voodoo to the cause of the central horror.




   Approximately 200 years earlier a South American jungle trading post operated by the Drake family massacred an entire native village in attempt to rescue a captive member of their company group who they find beheaded (which will play into the plot in regards to the maim villain). Leaving alive only the tribal witch doctor, he of course imparts a curse upon the successive generations of the family. This manifests itself in the ongoing male members of future generations of the Drake family as each one of them dies around the age of 50 by apparent heart attack with their heads being mysteriously removed afterwards and skulls subsequently showing up in the family crypt.
   Two brothers are now the sole reaming male members of the family left alive and after receiving a message from the elder brother Kenneth Drake (Paul Cavanagh from HOUSE OF WAX 1953) concerning shrunken heads that have been popping up, prompting younger brother Jonathan (Eduard Franz - THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD 1951) to travel to to his older brother's house accompanied by his daughter Alison (Valerie French from THE 27th DAY). Unfortunately they arrive just after Kenneth has been dispatched by a creepy figure with his mouth shown shut welding a curare tipped stick, a bamboo dagger and a basket for collecting heads. Arriving just in time for the funeral Jonathan (who is also an expert on the occult) opens his brothers casket and is shocked to find the head has been cut off.




   Also appearing on the scene is Mike Hammer-esque police detective Lt. Jeff Rowen (Grant Richards From T.V's THE UNTOUCHABLES) who is there to investigate the somewhat mysterious death and to provide a nominal love interest for Alison. The great Henry Daniell (THE BODY SNATCHER 1945) is also here as Dr. Emile Zurich. Without giving much away its fairly obvious from his first appearance that Zurich is is involved in the voodoo proceedings (why else would you have Henry Daniell here ??) - although there is quite a surprise concerning his "origin" that still packs a bit of a punch when viewed to this day. Famous for playing cultured and sophisticated men of evil intent, he's obviously rather old & frail here (he would die in 1963) but still bring a wonderful air of menace to the proceedings (you just know from his first appearance that he's up to something).



    As romantic leads (luckily this is not played up to much) Grant Richards and Valerie French have about zero chemistry with Grant's police Lt. looking and acting like he stepped out of an episode of NAKED CITY. The film has a cramped set-bound look with all the cars driving through the same 20 ft. stretch of driveway, but is helped immensely by the creepy presence of Paul Wexler as the witch doctor Zutai and some gruesome close-ups of the shrunken head process and thankfully the plot doesn't (in it's 70 minute running time) get bogged down in the police procedures or romantic sub-plots. Directed by Edward L. Cahn ( IT ! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE, INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN & CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN) and photographed by Maury Gertsman (SHE WOLF OF LONDON) and with a suitably creepy score by Paul Dunlap (who cranked out literally dozens and dozens of scores for low budget movies in the 50's and 60's among them I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN & BLOOD OF DRACULA). It's available on DVD in the Midnight Movie series in a double feature with Boris Karloff's VOODOO ISLAND.
   





  

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

QUATERMASS AND THE PIT 1967

AKA FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH 





   If it's there's one thing Hammer's QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (U.S. title FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH) cannot be criticized for it would be for a lack of plot elements. Packed into its 97 minute running time is martin invasion, devil worship, ESP, Gothic horror and even some Chariots of the Gods like UFO conspiracies. As with Hammer's previous two Quatermass titles (THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT from 1955 and 1957's QUATERMASS 2) it was based on an earlier BBC serial. If QUATERMASS AND THE PIT does have a fault its perhaps that its sometimes lofty plot goals overtake its budget, but this is more then balanced by a solid leading cast, those typically wonderful Hammers faces in the secondary roles and a refreshing lack of romantic nonsense to gum up the works. It's interesting to see how as in most movies of this ilk, its left up to science to come to the rescue (with the thick headed non-believing  military and clueless bureaucrats just getting in way) but here science also has to look back to ancient history, pagan rituals and devil worship to save the day.




   While working on a new subway extension for the London Underground workers find remains of a herewith unknown prehistoric man which necessitates the arrival of Dr. Roney (James Donald from THE GREAT ESCAPE) and his assistant Barbara Judd (the very beautiful Barbara Shelley from DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS). Further exploration uncovers a mysterious space ship/missile which brings in the military in the form of dis-believing Col. Breen (Julian Glover from INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE) and his more open minded colleague Dr. Quatermass (Andrew Kier also from  DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS) who quickly forms a bond and working relationship with Roney. Eventually strange locust like creatures are found in the spacecraft which seem to be to be tied into the prehistoric men with sidetracks into the above mentioned devil worship & possession, ESP, ghostly apparitions, martian invasions and a climatic (partial) destruction of modern day London. To the scripts credit (by Nigel Kneale) it does an admirable job of keeping everything sorted out and throws so many things into the plot (all the while being explained with such earnest conviction by the leads) that you can help but get caught up in the dizzily fast paced plot and totally ignore whatever holes there might be.




   Quatermass as portrayed here by Keir is a much more sympathetic character then Brian Donlevy from the previous two films. In QUATERMASS AND THE PIT Kier forms an almost instant working relationship with more opened minded and inquisitive James Donald and Barbara Shelley characters. In an early introductory scene involving proposed bases on the moon, Quatermass in keeping with the spirit of the times speaks of peace "and leaving our vices behind" while the military represented by his nemesis - Julian Glover's Col. Breen (who foresees the moon bases as missile platforms) refers to his notions as "naive". Though perhaps we're given some hints early in the picture to a developing romance between Barbara and Quatermass this is wisely not perused (not to mention one would wonder when the script would find time for this anyways).
    The cast are all excellent with the above mentioned comradely between Keir and Donald and Barbara Shelly does her best with a somewhat under written role (although she does play a big part in the final act of the plot). Most often lumped in the "Hammer Glamour" category Shelley, although very beautiful always seemed to bring something a bit more substantial to her roles. Her transformation from upright and stiff upper crust English wife to sexually charged seductive female vampire in DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS is amazing as is her work in 1966's RASPUTIN :THE MAD MONK as the tragic Sonia and in THE GORGON from 1964. In addition there's British character actor Duncan Lamont in a great little role ("Are you insured...I'm insured...It's a good thing to be insured...At least it cheers you up...").

  


    Directed by Roy Ward Baker the film does a nifty job of taking science fiction themes and working in Hammer Gothic horror with references to gargoyles, pentagrams & apparitions appearing in the plot and its fascinating to see how the movie blends in references to ancient legends & witchcraft. The dialogue has some wonderfully creepy asides including an exchange between Keir and Shelley in regards to street where the subway extension is located and its long ago name change from Hob to Hobbs with Shelley remarking "Hob use to be a sort of name for the Devil..." and the repeated phrase in describing an apparition "the figure was small....like a hideous dwarf..". The film's sometimes overly ambitious plot does go above and beyond the special effects budget at certain points in particular the plaster and crepe paper aliens and the destructive climax (although the shot of James Donald riding the huge crane into the gigantic spectre demon head is not soon forgotten). The region 2 blu-ray is absolutely beautiful looking with the luminous purples of the interior of the alien spacecraft and the eye popping green of the alien locusts (and anytime you can get Barbara Shelley in HD, its a good thing).










Tuesday, November 4, 2014

THE FROZEN DEAD 1966

NAZISPLOITATION MOVIE NIGHT # 7 !!




    In the 1960's because of favorable tax laws and production costs many American producers traveled to England to make films in order to make films there. This was especially advantageous to horror film produces who could go over and knock out a quickie for the American drive-in market while taking advantage of the proliferation of castles and stately country homes which could be leased cheaply. In 1966 and '67 produce/writer/director Herbert J. Leder (who had been a film professor at Jersey City State College) traveled to England and cranked out THE FROZEN DEAD and the very bizarre Golem re-boot IT ! in 1966.
    Although THE FROZEN DEAD was shot in color (and shown that way in England ) for its U.S. theatrical showing B&W prints were struck and it was later shown that way on TV (which probably didn't do much for its legacy). Long unavailable on home video it was released last year by Warner as part of their MOD program last year in a colorful anamorphic transfer, thereby righting the wrong of not including it on their now OOP DVD release of its original co-feature of IT ! (the DVD for some strange reason paired IT! with the totally unrelated THE SHUTTERED ROOM). Not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, it is however a wonderfully entertaining  low-budget effort with some sleazy & lurid overtones that never try’s to overreach itself (plus any movie that goes for “the living disembodied head in tray” plot point has to have something going for it). Thanks to couple of much reproduced stills in Famous Monsters, one showing the frost covered frozen Nazis (in full uniforms complete with Iron Crosses & 60’s hairstyles) in a glass fronted freezer with wires hooked up to their heads and the second being a wall with amputated arms mounted on it, this movie became a kind of holy grail for monster kids in the late 60’s and early 70’s.





    Ex- Hollywood semi- A lister Dana Andrews (from 1957's NIGHT OF THE DEMON), plays Dr. Norberg a Nazi scientist hiding out in England at a large country house with a bunch of the previously mentioned Germans in cold storage down in his basement lab.  He’s been experimenting for awhile at trying to bring them back to life – not too successfully it seems, as there’s a bunch of his failed attempts that have gone slightly psycho locked up in a handy dungeon with his big problem being the brain (one of the failed attempts is actor Edward Fox – who in a few years would make it big in 1973'S THE DAY OF THE JACKAL among others). 
   Things get a bit complicated for Norberg with the arrival of a couple of Nazi big-wigs who want to check up on his progress (or lack thereof) and the unexpected visit of his niece Jean (Anna Palk) along with her American friend Elsa (Kathleen Breck). Plus to top it all off Dr. Ted Roberts (Philip Gilbert) shows up from the U.S. after an invite to help out with the revival of dead body parts. Thanks to the handy murder of Elsa committed by one of his dungeon dwelling failed experiments Norberg obtains a head on which to try out his brain experiments and we’re off into 1959’s classic THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE territory.


  

   It’s at this point that movie really takes on a surreal turn. Most “disembodied head in a tray” movies just stick a person’s head through a hole in the table and maybe throw some wires and maybe a bit of make up on, however THE FROZEN DEAD does them all one better by having Elsa’s head come complete with a clear skull cap (so we can see her quivering brain) along with some weird blue lighting. In addition, she speaks in a creepy hoarse whisper and eventual can telepathically communicate with Anna (Ah-la the above mentioned THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE -and soon can control by telepathy "other things"  which helps lead to its well remembered climax).  
   As Dr. Ted helps Anna look for her missing friend (he’s unaware of the frozen Nazis -he just thinks he’s helping out with medical transplant research) this leads to the as expected developing romance between the two of them and as it turns out Anna’s father is one of the failures down in the dungeon. It does drag a bit at some points with some obvious padding to add to the running time - especially the parts with Ted & Anna  playing detective and as the two romantic leads they are a bit flat. But it’s got some terrific moments and more than a couple scenes that stick in your mind – plus anytime you've got frozen Nazis, a living head in a tray and wall mounted amputated arms you can’t really go wrong.




    Although as mentioned this is never going to be considered in the great pantheon of horror films (and for what its worth it is much better then its original co-feature of IT!) but it is an entertaining piece of low budget 60's horror and perhaps as a result of its long unavailability on home video and along with its original B& W showings it seems to have fallen through the cracks. Warners MOD DVD restores the films eye popping (and sometimes queasy looking) color palette - and Kathleen Breck as the American friend Elsa (and the soon to be experimental disembodied head) strikes some great pin up poses.