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.






   

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN 1975 - Creepy 70's TV Historical True Crime !



"Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one"



    Premiering during ratings sweeps on Feb. 10 1975 this was one of the best remembered and controversial TV movies released during that golden age of small screen movies. Although not a horror movie by definition THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN was one the more creepily unsettling viewing experiences of the time and thanks to its long unavailability (up till now) on home video and the impression it made on young minds (if you were lucky enough to have seen it) it has become something of holy grail for baby boomer horror movie fans. Up till now the only way to see this was via bootlegs of varying degrees of horrible quality, but a nice region 1 DVD from New Video Group (licensed from CBS Home Video) has recently been released.
   Viewing it again after almost 40 years its amazing to see how well its held up and how many of the things that were vaguely unsettling to me as a young teenager are now brought even more to the forefront (not to mention the copious amounts of blood flying about). Playing out as a weirdly hypnotic combination of American Gothic merged with a European art house film it remains to this day an unnerving viewing experience with some not to vague (and even some outright) references to necrophilia, incest and drug use lurking about in it's plot. Anchored by a mesmerising performance by Elizabeth Montgomery it was based on the actual events that incurred in Fall River Mass. during the summer of 1893 concerning the hatchet murder of Andrew & Abby Borden followed by the sensational trial and acquittal of their daughter Lizzie (Montgomery) for the murder.




    Following the actual events closely (some of the other family members present in the household have been removed) the film starts off like many true crime films with the discovery of the murder and then following through with the subsequent trial and its outcome, it has been criticized for simply being a drawn out TV courtroom drama (which at its core it is). However thanks to the above mentioned performance of Montgomery (along with a bunch of familiar TV faces), some truly disturbing flashback/dream sequences and the overall atmosphere of morbid family secrets in a sweaty (the actual murders took place in the midst of an oppressive summer heatwave, which the film brilliantly recreates) & claustrophobic setting the film does rise above your typical TV fare of the period.
   Sharing another plot point with other true crime films the movie presents the murder as a flashback during the trial and because the actual facts of the murder are still unknown to this day the film presents them as a "what if" with Lizzie Borden thinking back to the events of the murders. Although there have been other theories put forth to the identity of the perpetrator most scholars agree that Lizzie got away with murder and the movie does show her as the murderess (although it's been put forth that perhaps this sequence in the film is meant to be a dream). One of the mitigating circumstances that allowed her to be declared not guilty was the complete lack of blood seen on her immediately following the discovery of the crime (which had just happened prior to a maids discovery). The film puts forth an alternate theory (which leads to one of the best remembered sequences in 70's TV) that Lizzie stripped down naked and washed herself after each murder.




    The scenes of Montgomery slowly stripping down (at one point even caressing the hatchet handle) and later washing up are some of the more erotically charged sequences seen on TV up till that point and must have made quite an indelible impression on young minds (I know it did mine). Supposedly there was a harder cut prepared for Europe that showed Montgomery with full frontal nudity and when viewing the DVD today there is some brief instances of a visible nipple that does show that at the very least she did the scenes topless.
   The daughter of actors Robert Montgomery and Elizabeth Allen, Elizabeth Montgomery is most famous for her role as Samantha Stephens in BEWITCHED which ran from 1964-72 (in a role she grew to feel increasingly frustrated in) and later would work primarily in TV movies with roles here and in 1974's A CASE OF RAPE giving an example of what a gifted actress she was. Married to producer William Asher (the "Beach Party" movies) from 1963 to 1974 (and earlier to actor Gig Young and later to Robert Foxworth) she passed away in 1995 from cancer. Here as Lizzie Borden she gives a wonderful shape shifting chameleon like performance alternately creepy and vengeful and then playfully flirting with the men in the courtroom.




    Along with Montgomery it features a terrific cast of supporting characters including Ed Flanders (who appeared at one time or another in about every TV series), Katherine Helmond as Lizzie's sister and Fritz Weaver as the father (who seem to specialize in playing tyrannical family patriarchs). Although most likely not generating a bunch of press, for me this is one of the top DVD releases of the year. Amazon still seems to have a couple of the iffy releases listed, but this is the one you want.