Monday, September 1, 2014

NIGHT OF THE DEMON 1957



"It has been written since the beginning of time, even unto these ancient stones, that evil supernatural creatures exist in a world of darkness. And it is also said man using the magic power of the ancient symbols can call forth these powers of darkness, the demons of Hell." 


    I know this one's been covered ad nauseam, but it's a favorite and I just got the beautiful French blu-ray which reminded me all over again what an excellent film this is (BTW, screen caps are from the Region 1 DVD). Produced in Britain by transplanted American former child actor (Monogram's THE EASTSIDE KIDS) Hal E. Chester and directed by Val Lewton alumnus Jacques Tourneur NIGHT OF THE DEMON was one of the first British films to present demonology and witchcraft as serious subject matters and place them in a modern setting, but also tying them to Britain's past with its images of Stonehenge and the use of ancient folk melodies. It can be looked upon as a precursor to CITY OF THE DEAD (1960) and the THE NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (1962), in addition to Hammer's THE WITCHES (1966) and THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968).
    Based upon the short story "Casting The Runes" by Edwardian ghost author M.R. James, it was released in the U.S. by Columbia as CURSE OF THE DEMON and was trimmed from the 95 min. British cut down to 81 min thereby making it more adaptable to double features, where it was often paired up with Hammer's THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN. In the pre-home video world this was bit of a holy grail for horror fans (especially the mythical "British cut") as it was infrequently shown on TV, but was always heavily promoted in Famous Monsters with that ad for the Castle 8mm version staring out from the back ads in practically every issue. In 1987 Columbia by happy accident released the British cut on laser disc (with the CURSE title card slapped on) and this was the version seen going forward until a 2002 DVD release presented both versions as two separate films.




    Starring former Hollywood quasi "A" lister Dana Andrews as Dr John Holden, a seemingly world famous American psychiatrist (and non-believer in the supernatural) who travels to London to attend a conference on the paranormal, that's end purpose seems to be the ruination and discrediting of cult leader Dr. Julian Karswell (as portrayed by the wonderful Naill McGinnis). In the opening sequence we're shown Holden's British colleague Henry Harrington traveling through a darkened countryside (in a beautifully atmospheric succession of shots) to the large country estate of Karswell. Once there he begs Kraswell "to put a stop to this thing" and after being hastily dismissed by him travels back home where is killed by a huge winged demon figure (still one of horror's most startling apparitions) that materializes out of smoke & light along (along with an oddly creepy "chirping" sounds).
    There has always been much debate on the full-on showing of the demon and Tourneur's participation (or lack thereof) in filming the two sequences showing it. The French born Tourneur cut his teeth for RKO in the 1940's working on Val Lewton's famous series of low budget and atmospheric horror films. He directed THE CAT PEOPLE (1942) along with 1943's I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE & THE LEOPARD MAN and always maintained that it was his intention that the demon remain largely unseen and that the sequences with it fully visible were added post production while producer Chester claimed that they were filmed by Tourneur. Originally Ray Harryhausen was contacted to model the demon figure in stop motion but when he was unavailable a puppet was used along with a close up of an articulated rubber head and claw (and in one memorable shot, a huge cloven hoofed leg). The special effects hold up remarkably well to this day, but for the climax the puppet is strangely substituted for an obvious man in in a rubber suit (and a rather pudgy one at that).




    Upon arrival in England Holden meets up with Harrington's daughter Joanna (played by Peggy Cummins - who had appeared in Joseph H. Lewis's delirious and ground breaking GUN CRAZY in 1950). In spite of Holden being the well respected Doctor, its Joanna playing a kindergarten teacher (Karswell himself at one point refers to her as "that terribly bright young woman") who serves as the believing voice of reason as the stubborn Holden seems headed to the same fate as his earlier colleague. It's amusing to see that in this being a British production Holden is portrayed as the pig headed and know-it-all American (obliviously headed to his doom) while its up to the crafty Brits (both in terms of his allies and nemesis) to set him straight.
    As far as his nemesis there is much to be said for the performance of British character actor Naill MacGinnis as the warlock/ cult leader Julian Karswell. With his wild tufts of hair and pointed goatee he could be easily played as manically laughing villain all the while stroking his said beard and chewing bunches of scenery, but its to MacGannis talent (along with Tourneur's direction) that he is played absolutely straight (in keeping with the entire tone of the plot) and is even able to invoke some pity from the audience. In a very moving scene (missing from the U.S. prints) he tells his mother, with whom he leaves alone with in his vast country house, that their entire life is wholly dependent upon his immersion in the black arts and that there is no going back. Obviously totally friendless in the world, he's seemingly as afraid of his conjured demons and powers as much as his followers, along with his intended victims.




    In addition, along with some of Holden's beginning airplane flight scenes (where he initially meets Cummins) and a bit of their later visit to Kreswell's estate (where Kreswell appears as a clown hosting a children's party) another sequence cut from the American print is Holden's visit to a desolate farm (featuring some wonderfully creepy sets from production designer Ken Adam) where the people live in abject 19th century like poverty. Going there to receive permission to study their son (an ex-follower of Kraswell who's now insane) it becomes apparent that they along with many others turn the majority of their wealth over to Kraswell for fear of his powers.
   Adam, who in a few years would gain fame on the James Bond movies, creates some marvelous sets here including the interior of Kraswell's country estate and the long maze like hallways of Holden's hotel. In spite of a few obvious process shots at the airport and later in the British Museum the film has a rich look for a then perceived "B" picture (helped in no doubt by Tourneur's Lewton influence) with a sequence in some moon shrouded woods where Holden is chased by an unseen figure (with only smokey footprints appearing) being one of the highlights of British horror cinema - and if Tourneur's claims are to be believed, this most likely would be the extent of what we would see of the demon in question.




    Dana Andrews while appearing in several notable Hollywood films such as LAURA (1944) and THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946) never seemed to quite make it to the upper hierarchy of leading men. He was a solid and dependable if not spectacular actor and later become president of the Screen Actors Guild where he was an advocate of actresses rights, particularly in their right of refusal to do nude scenes. Into the 50's and 60's he would continually work in both low budget horror and exploitation movies such as HOT RODS TO HELL (1967) and THE FROZEN DEAD (1966) and major films such as IN HARM'S WAY (1965). He also appeared in the airplane disaster film ZERO HOUR ! in 1957 (as "Lt Ted Stryker") which was the main inspiration for 1980's AIRPLANE ! and ironically would finish his career by crashing his plane into the jet in AIRPORT 1975.












Wednesday, August 27, 2014

KEEP MY GRAVE OPEN 1976


"Enter the other side of MADNESS"



   In the early to mid 1970's Texas based S.F. Brownrigg made a string of four unique low budget horror/exploitation movies (a fifth movie titled THINKIN' BIG, a teenage T&A comedy from 1986 is also credited to him). Working on minuscule budgets while shooting in desolate & lonely looking locations and most times featuring the same stock company of players, his movies (often re-titled) filtered out through the drive-in & grindhouse circuit where they played for years on dbl and triple bills.
   Born as Sherald Brownrigg in 1937 in Arkansas he worked as photographer during a stint in the army and in the late 1950's began working for Texas low budget schlockmaster Larry Buchanan editing THE EYE CREATURES and doing various duties on MARS NEEDS WOMEN, THE NAKED WITCH, ZONTAR THE THING FROM VENUS, HIGH YELLOW and IT'S ALIVE.
   His first movie as producer/director was 1974's FORGOTTEN (later re-tilted with the more familiar DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT). Filmed over the course of 12 days it concerns various grisly occurrences at a desolate asylum (actually the dorm block of a Texas religious college). Recipient of one of the earliest LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT rip-off taglines ("To keep from fainting keep repeating it's only a movie...) and helping kick start the whole 70's "Don't" genre it was followed by SCUM OF THE EARTH (aka POOR WHITE TRASH II - Brownrigg's crowning achievement), DON'T OPEN THE DOOR & KEEP MY GRAVE OPEN. Although the films carry various copyright dates they all seemed to have been filmed in 1972/73 and released over the coming years with later dates attached to them.




   Filmed on most likely insanely small budgets they each play out like a very warped little combination of low budget horror & southern gothic, like an unholy marriage of a more technically proficient Andy Milligan filtered through some Tennessee Williams. After DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT Brownrigg's next three movies all focused on evilly dysfunctional family situations usually in isolated houses seemingly cut off from the world. Featuring close-ups of sweaty and weirdly unattractive faces shot with odd camera angles through running water, mirror reflections and streaky glass they look wholly unlike any other low budget horror of the time. Benefiting from better then average performances from his regional stock company (including future character actor Stephen Tobolowsky), Brownrigg's movies while undeniably slow moving do have a certain claustrophobic grimy creepiness about them.
    For KEEP MY GRAVE OPEN Brownrigg toned down somewhat the gory aspects of of the two "Don't" films leaning toward more of a psychological type horror that brings to mind a bit Hitchcock's PSYCHO. Starting off with hitchhiker being dropped off on a deserted stretch of road and then making his way up a long driveway (ominously with a "Keep Out - Not responsible for any accidents" sign) toward a lonely looking house. Finding the door unlocked he enters, pilfering the refrigerator and later in the evening while cooking his meal over a campfire a mysterious cloaked figure with a sword kills him.




    Arriving home from the store the next day we're introduced to the owner of the house Lesley Fontaine (Brownrigg regular Camilla Carr who later showed up in a small part in LOGAN'S RUN) who initially seems to share the house with her brother Kevin, although almost right away we're not certain of his existence. Loosely under the care of a psychiatrist (Gene Ross) Lesley seems to suffer delusions which may or not be connected (along with the mysterious "brother") to a rash of grisly murders occurring in and around the house. The murders include a hired hand (Tobolowsky), his girlfriend and in one the movies highlights a prostitute named Twinkle (Sharon Bunn) who's brought back to house by Lesley to service the mysterious Kevin. Although initially its fairly easy to deduce who the killer is, there's enough left turns thrown into the plot (including a jarring ending) that leaves it ambiguous to who or what is actually behind the killings.
   As the central character here (and with whom a movie like this would succeed or fail) Camilla Carr is really outstanding in the role of Lesley alternating between barely controlled sanity,simmering rage and seductress - the highlight of which is her build up to and the attempted incestuous seduction of her real/imagined brother. As one of Brownrigg's stock company she also appeared in DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT and SCUM OF THE EARTH.



   After his motion picture career faded away Brownrigg went to work for ESPN doing production work on golf shows and various hunting/fishing programs. In a 1990 Fangoria article he announced that he was going to do a sequel to Tod Browning's FREAKS (which was his life long dream project) but sadly nothing become of it and he died in 1996 at the age of 58. Save for SCUM OF THE EARTH, his movies have always been rather easy to find (albeit in sometimes iffy quality), as they pop up constantly in those budget horror movie compilations. VCI has put out a nifty double feature DVD of DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT and DON'T OPEN THE DOOR that are both in the best quality yet (BASEMENT is even widescreen). It can be had for less then $10.00 and is an excellent introduction for those looking to discover ol' S.F. Grindhouse Releasing has been promising a DVD (and now Blu-ray) of SCUM OF THE EARTH for years with a release date now set for 2015.



    
 


Thursday, August 21, 2014

THE MAN WHO TURNED TO STONE 1957

CREEPY GANG OF LIFE SUCKING SCIENTISTS SET UP SHOP AT GIRLS REFORM SCHOOL AND THEN THE FLANNEL NIGHTIE CLAD BODIES START PILING UP !!!



"You'll Tremble With Suspense !




    In addition to Ray Harryhausen's IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA and EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS, during the 1950's producer Sam Katzman cranked out dozens of "B" films including a handful of horror titles (the majority of which were distributed by Columbia) that while being undeniably low budget & schlocky do exclude a certain perverse curiosity with probably the most (in)famous being 1957's THE GIANT CLAW. In 2007 Sony issued a nifty 2 DVD set that collected four Katzman productions including the aforementioned CLAW along with the interesting wolfman via 1950's atomic paranoia THE WEREWOLF (1956) and CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN (1955), plus ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU (1957).
    Although 1957's THE MAN WHO TURNED TO STONE didn't make the cut for the above package, it has shown up through the Sony MOD program which is good news indeed. Like most of Katzman's productions its a bit talky and sometimes slow moving, but in it's own way does have a weirdly surreal atmosphere running through it (whether by design or not) with a closing shot that is strangely haunting. Throwing some 1950's female JD plot elements (ala' REFORM SCHOOL GIRL) into a low budget horror programmer is an inspired idea and as helped along by the presence of veteran character actors Victor Jory  & Ann Doren, plus the work of cinematographer Benjamin H. Kline (who shot many of The Three Stooges shorts) the film is an entertaining example of "B" 50's horror.




   At the La Salle Detention Home For Girls (where most of the "girls" seem a bit long in the tooth) strange things have been happening with the sudden death of a number of the residents (usually proceeded by a blood curdling scream) which begins to arouse the suspicion of sympathetic new social worker Carol Adams (Charlotte Austin from FRANKENSTEIN 1970). The victims are usually found to have died of a "heart attack", but when one of the inmates turns up as a suicide and is found hanging in the dormitory ("she would no sooner commit suicide then she could've flown over the fence !"), Carol becomes convinced something nefarious is going on.
   Helped by her assistant & inmate Tracy (Jean Willes - who in a few years would be hanging out with Frank & The Rat Pack in OCEANS 11) along with visiting state appointed psychiatrist & soon to be love interest Dr Jess Rogers (William Hudson - best known as Allison Hayes philandering husband in ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN) Carol begins investigating the strange goings on - which seem to be tied in to a spooky bunch of recently appointed school administrators who include Dr. Murdock (Victor Jory), his creepy assistant Mrs. Ford (Ann Doran -who appeared in literally hundreds of movies and TV shows) and their REALLY creepy associate/ henchman Eric (the grim and never smiling Freidrich von Ledebur).




    It's soon discovered that Dr. Murdoch and his gang are actually a group of 18th century scientists who have discovered the secret of eternal life that consists of literally transferring the life energy out of young girls, which entails placing the victims in a metal bathtub and then hooking up some Ed Wood-like electrical equipment to an electric chair looking device that transfers their life energy to the 200 plus year old protagonists. A downside to the procedure is that the process is only temporary and that without a regular repeat of the life sucking electric bath the recipient will harden and pretty much "turn to stone". As it's been discovered that young females (imagine that !) work best, we've ended up at the school for delinquent girls with the back story being discovered via a handily procured diary (that makes some references to alchemy & the Count St. Germain).




   The gaunt & cadaverous Eric makes periodic appearances carrying off hapless female victims and once even breaking in on dorm room full of them. Like most movies of this ilk it drags a bit during the "investigating" portion of the movie, but the script is fashioned with enough female abductions every so often to keep ones interest and somewhat flat direction by László Kardos (credited here as  Leslie Kardos) is offset by Benjamin Kline's moody cinematography which is shown to great effect in the closing shot with the nightgown clad women standing silently watching as the scientist's laboratory/house burns.