On THE COMPANY OF WOLVES

Neil Jordan’s 1984 masterpiece is a sensual, cerebral fairy tale

Before Walt Disney and his squeaky clean, family-friendly ilk saw fit to sanitize them, the traditional fairy tale served as far more than a whimsical alternative to kiddie chloroform. As penned by those bad old Brothers Grimm especially, fairy tales of yore were cautionary morality fantasies: dark, violent warnings about the horrors and dangers in life that lurk behind every bend and within every human heart.

Take Cinderella, for instance. In the ‘real’ story, those cantankerous, treacherous stepsisters don’t just try on the ill-fitting glass slipper; the incident plays out as a vulgar perversion of the basest kind of vanity, as each sibling bloodily contorts their feet to fit the shoe, one even hacking off a few toes to complete the task. ‘Grimm’ stuff indeed. Then there’s Snow White, the story of an unfortunate lass who is set up to be murdered by her jealous mother, a crone who hires a woodsman to drag the porcelain beauty out into the woods and pull her beating heart from her bloody chest. And then take fairy tale forefather Charles Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood. British fantasy writer Angela Carter did. So did Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan. Their resulting collaboration on that infamous musing on temptation, recently eaten grandmothers and cross dressing canines was the brilliant and beautiful allegorical 1984 horror movie THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, certainly one of the most underrated horror films in history.

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On LAND OF THE MINOTAUR

An appreciation of the underrated British/Greek horror film

Released in 1976 in the U.S. by exploitation house Crown International to a moderately successful box office take and generally pitiful reviews, director Kostas Karagiannis‘s earthy and surreal horror mood-piece LAND OF THE MINOTAUR has been pretty easy to find on home viewing formats, popping up in rough looking pan and scan VHS versions and dodgy DVD releases in North America and in equally ugly (but thankfully uncut) editions in the UK. Scorpion Releasing even let it loose a few years back as a split disc with Norman J. Warren’s TERROR, uncut and in widescreen under it’s original title (THE DEVIL’S MEN) with little to no fanfare and that cut has been itself bootlegged to death.

Still, despite its exposure, I’ve sadly yet to hear anyone else seriously champion LAND OF THE MINOTAUR’s virtues.

So, with that, allow me to do so.

On the outskirts of a remote, inland village in beautiful, picturesque Greece (Aris Stavrou’s photography is stark and eye-filling), something secret, insidious and palpably evil lurks, sucking every too-curious young tourist into its maw and swallowing them whole. As the ever-expanding list of the curious missing travelers increases, an eccentric local Priest (the great Donald Pleasence) begins to suspect that a cult of mountain dwelling, black hooded, Minotaur-worshiping Satanists have gained a stronghold, sacrificing pretty young people to their titular stone hoof and horned, steam belching deity.

A battle of theological wits ensues between the fraught Father and the ultra-wicked village Magistrate/covert cult leader Baron Corofax (the perhaps even greater Peter Cushing in a rare, full-on chin-stroking villain role) and by the time the smoke clears and the last drop of crudely spilled virgin blood dries, only one of these admirably dedicated and faithful men will be left standing.

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On TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS

Looking back on Freddie Francis’ underrated 1973 horror anthology

Often mistaken for one of Amicus Pictures’ horror anthologies, Oscar winning cinematographer and veteran genre director Freddie Francis’ 1973 omnibus TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS is a superior British horror film and one of the finest examples of the multi-story shocker. Amicus of course cornered the market on these sorts of films throughout the 1960s and ‘70s and while they were all entertaining and skillfully produced, only 1972’s EC comics riff TALES FROM THE CRYPT truly felt like it was pushing boundaries, like it was dangerous in some way. And despite that film’s domestic PG rating, it still stands as one of the scariest horror movies this writer has ever seen. And it was directed by Francis. And TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS is directed by Francis. You see where I’m going with this…

TALES – whose title oddly foreshadows Charles Bukowski’s celebrated short story collection “Tales of Ordinary Madness” – opens with a dynamic credits sequences with green X-rays of human skulls and brains dissolving across the screen, a clear indication that this picture is concerned with the cornerstone of the greatest genre pictures, that of the shadowy, mysterious and easily damaged corners of the human mind. Its set up echoes that of Amicus’ ASYLUM (directed by Francis’ fellow Hammer Horror colleague Roy Ward Baker) but Francis – again, a trained DP – frames the film with weird angles and low camera set ups, making us feel like something is dreadfully wrong right from the start.

A doctor (Jack Hawkins, in what was his final film) visits an impossibly antiseptic, retro-futuristic insane asylum run by the kindly Dr. Tremayne, played by future HALLOWEEN legend Donald Pleasence, already at this point a stalwart of the European horror boom. Like in ASYLUM, Tremayne leads his visitor to four separate cells, where near-catatonic patients while away their days staring at walls. Each patient’s troubled past serves as a segment of the picture.

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On MOON OF THE WOLF

A creepy and unique small-screen ’70s Southern Gothic murder mystery

After Dan Curtis changed launched an American pop culture phenomenon with his dark, Gothic daytime TV series and quasi soap opera DARK SHADOWS in 1966, there was a sudden spike in interest for small screen horror that rolled on strong for over a decade. And while it was Curtis who made the most potent post-Shadows mark with his terrifying and visionary TV terror films like DRACULA, THE NIGHT STALKER, THE NORLISS TAPES and TRILOGY OF TERROR, many other savvy producers also jumped on the spooky bandwagon, delivering gritty, star-studded and serious-in-tone movie-of-the-week shockers that oozed atmosphere, mystery and menace. And while never intended to be high art, seen from the distance of time, the ’70s TV horror movie is a genre entertainment like no other, one that used the same post-code Hollywood approach of showing and exploring darker themes in creative ways without revealing too much and upsetting the sponsors, to elegant effect.

Among those incredible TV-tailored horror gems sits director Daniel Petrie’s MOON OF THE WOLF, a tight and eerie Southern Gothic creeper with an ace cast, a fun and engaging central mystery and compact, crackerjack storytelling. Originally broadcast on ABC on September 26, 1972, the film was repeated ad nauseum on prime time and then, eventually, late night, post-11pm news screenings, the latter which has made it a fan favorite. Long lapsed into the public domain, MOON OF THE WOLF is an easy picture to find and watch (tip: it’s on YouTube and every other free streaming service) and because of its easy accessibility, it’s rarely remembered as a good film, if it’s remembered at all. It certainly needs more love.

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On COLOR OF NIGHT

Underrated softcore thriller is really an American giallo

It’s easy for contemporary, unschooled audiences to poke fun of the European thrillers of a certain vintage. The beautiful, broadly painted and unapologetically melodramatic Hitchcock and French New Wave informed murder mysteries made by men like Argento, Martino, Lenzi and Lado throughout the 1970’s were as eccentric as they were wildly erotic, with music slopped all over the soundtrack, characters acting like lunatics and “twists” you could generally see slinking around a mile away but didn’t care because the trip to get to them was, well, such a trip in and of itself.

That’s what made them great.

Brian DePalma understood this and much of his post-CARRIE output was as informed by the giallo as it was heavily influenced by Hitch. His 1980 murder mystery DRESSED TO KILL is a masterpiece of stylized, high-gloss perversion, lust and black-gloved, gender-confused bloodshed. As this was 1980, and coming as it did at the closing of one of the most daring decades in cinema, critics and audiences “got” DRESSED TO KILL, applauding its slick visuals and reveling in its ludicrous narrative and hysterical sexuality.

But when COLOR OF NIGHT came out in 1994, the very same folks weren’t as receptive. And the younger generation? Forget about it.

COLOR OF NIGHT spurted out of its studio at the climax of the “erotic thriller” boom that began with Adrian Lyne’s (rabbit) potboiler FATAL ATTRACTION, continued with Paul Verhoeven’s BASIC INSTINCT, was beaten (off) down by INSTINCT’s writer Joe Esterhaz’s also Sharon Stone-starring kink-fest SLIVER and smothered by William Friedkin’s undervalued JADE. SHOWGIRLS doesn’t really count as an erotic thriller but by the time that Verhoeven/Esterhaz collaboration came out cumming, the bloom was off the rose. The novelty of mainstream celeb nudity had wound down.

COLOR OF NIGHT was lost in this tsunami of gauzy smut but it wasn’t really part of it.

Marketed stupidly to fit into that world, the truth is the film is far more akin to DePalma and Hitchcock and those delirious, fluid-soaked 70’s eurotrash shocker than it is to any of its not-quite-beaded-curtain brethren.

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On COUNT DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE

Celebrating one of Paul Naschy’s most interesting films

I can vividly remember the first time I met Paul Naschy.

I was a kid, maybe 12, and, as I was want to do in those days, I opted to stay up all-night, watching and videotaping every class of horror related film or show that filtered from my cathode-spitting screen. Perusing the TV guide with highlighter in hand (yes, I was THAT much of a movie dork, even then), I ran my yellow ink across a 4:15am screening on local channel CFTO of something called DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE starring all kinds of Spanish-sounding people I’d never heard of.

I stayed up. I watched. And was profoundly affected.

Here was an early seventies European shocker, romantic and cruel, violent and sexy, lush and ludicrous. The music was shrill and overbearing; the English dubbing was brilliantly off; the tone and rhythm were wonderfully alien and there were charming little pubic hairs flickering in the peripherals of the eerily worn and faded print that only added to the movie’s sumptuous other-worldliness.

And at the center of all, playing the good Count himself (more or less) was a hirsute, barrel-chested hombre named Paul Naschy. Looking a bit like a sun-kissed John Belushi, Naschy seemed like the least obvious choice to play the quintessential King of the Vampires and yet, somehow his hangdog, sad eyed visage was oddly appropriate.

Ultimately, my reaction to both Naschy and the film itself was one of intense bewilderment – I had never seen anything like it. Once the picture wound down to its rather abrupt and dramatic climax, I knew I had fallen in love with it. And yet I couldn’t properly articulate as to why that was.

Though the battered print I watched was listed in the TV guide under the title DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE, the actual full on-screen English moniker for director Javier Aguirre’s micro-epic of undead lesbian sex, eternal romantic longing and Gothic bloodlust is COUNT DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE (literally translated from the original Spanish EL GRAN AMOR DEL CONDE DRACULA). Many reference books and resources have erroneously dropped the “Count” from the picture’s name, due primarily to the fact that most badly pan and scanned versions of it (including the one I saw) shaved off the letters “C-O”, a sloppy mistake that led one of my equally horror obsessed pals to constantly refer to it as CUNT DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE.

Now then… the plot.

After a carriage load of ample-bosomed Spanish honey’s and one lucky, macho, pork-chop-sideburned dude (played by Naschy’s HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB co-star Vic Winner) bust a wagon wheel and get stranded, the intrepid crew wind their way to Dr. Wendell Marlow’s remote country sanitarium where they are put up for the night by their gracious, badly dubbed host. The thing is, the good doc is actually the legendary Count Dracula in disguise and not only is he hungry for their blood…he’s lonely.

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On THE SHOUT

A closer look at a rarely seen horror masterpiece

Whether it be a low, wet, growl coming from deep within in the dark, a disembodied whisper from behind a long locked door, or the skin-tightening timbre of a terrified woman’s pre-knife stuck scream, the use of sound has been manipulated since the dawn of horror cinema as a highly-effective tool to terrify those lucky enough to be blessed with relatively good hearing. Sound fills in the blanks, giving audible life to seemingly benign tableaux; people, objects and events are transformed. Sometimes sound is used to create tension, to provide the aural punch line to an unbearable set up and sometimes sound is even used to lull the viewer into a false sense of calm before unleashing whatever beast the filmmaker has heretofore kept under wraps. But in Polanski pal and Deep End director Jerzy Skolimowski’’s little discussed 1978 tone poem THE SHOUT, sound is used for even more aggressive purposes: to maim, to harm, to inflict agony and eventually, to kill every living thing in its path.

If you’ve never heard of THE SHOUT, you certainly are not alone. This dark, abstract sliver of arthouse weirdness has been long absent from Blu-ray or DVD on North American shores (an excellent, feature-filled British Blu-ray was released a few years ago) and the ancient, Columbia Pictures US VHS release is a highly-sought-after collectible.

I first encountered THE SHOUT the same way I first encountered many of my favorite films: alone, on late night television. This strange, dark and slowly paced film marked me the deepest and not a day went by that I did not think about it in some way shape or form. My fixation on it later amplified when I realized that basically no one I knew had ever seen it, let alone were aware of (or cared about) its existence and it felt as though it were mine, a secret slice of cinema whose fan club sported one member: me.

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On THE LAST MAN ON EARTH

Dissecting the most faithful adaption to date of Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND

Dr. Robert Morgan is not a well man. A mysterious airborne, plague-bearing dust storm has smothered the world, killing every man, woman and child and reviving them as sluggish, dull witted and eternally ravenous vampires. And yet, somehow, someway, Morgan has remained immune, completely unscathed…well, physically, anyway. He lives his life like a machine, by day rising early, clearing the streets of comatose, emaciated ghouls and throwing their barely living bodies into an eternally burning tar pit, tracking the sleeping stronger ones to their lairs and driving his specially made stakes through their hearts.

But by night, when the sun sinks below the horizon, the fanged echoes of mankind come-a-crawling out of their hiding spots, stumbling towards Morgan’s garlic and mirror fortified bungalow, clawing at his windows, screaming for his flesh and his blood. Such nerve shredding conditions might drive a weaker man to madness but, though he skirts insanity often, Morgan instead opts to play his jazz records loud, pour scotch, crawl into bed, squish a pillow against his head and wait, always wait, for the break of day when he’ll get up and start the horrible cycle all over again. Unbeknownst to Morgan however, he’s being watched by something other than the monsters, something that views him as an even bigger threat than the red-eyed viral vampires themselves.

This is the story charted in directors Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona’s 1964 Vincent Price vehicle THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, the first (and to date, best) stab at adapting influential dark fantasy author Richard Matheson’s still blistering existential 1954 vampire novella I AM LEGEND to screen. Written, then disowned, by the notoriously cranky author, the low budget Robert Lippert (THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING) Italian/US co-production had often been dismissed as a failed attempt to capture the psyche-destroying , bloodsucker-staking exploits of Matheson’s eternally put upon virus survivor, Robert Neville. Thankfully, that perception has changed through the years. Because although it inexplicably changes its hero’s name from Neville to Morgan, and tweaks the ending somewhat, it otherwise seldom strays from the novella’s narrative and perfectly captures it’s bleaker than bleak tone, downbeat mood and broken heart.

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On THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA

A look at the wild 1971 American vampire sequel

As the 1960s wound down and young audiences began hungering for more explicit horror entertainment, indie genre imprint American International Pictures (AIP) found some substantial success with director Bob Kelljan’s low-budget, Robert Quarry-starring 1970 shocker COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (filmed as a softcore flick called THE LOVES OF COUNT IORGA, VAMPIRE but softened and tweaked in the marketing stage when it was proved that no one could bloody-well read the title!). Sam Arkoff from AIP was so thrilled with Quarry’s presence on screen that he signed the elegant character actor to a contract. The idea was to groom him as the successor to their aging creepy flick cash-cow Vincent Price and build a series of horror films around his persona. But before they could put their newfangled leading man to work, Quarry stepped out with director Ray Danton to make another film independently and with some of his own cash called DEATHMASTER, a sort of amalgam of Yorga and the then topical Manson death cult tabloid bait that was still shocking the nation. That film, in which Quarry stars as a charismatic new age vampire named Khorda (not Yorga, Khorda!) was a little bit too close to AIP’s intended Yorga franchise plans (Quarry even wore the same custom fangs made for him for COUNT YORGA) and, reportedly none too pleased, Arkoff picked up the rights to DEATHMASTER, buried it, and immediately pushed Quarry into production on Kelljan’s sequel, THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA.

I mention this bit of back-story because AIP then opted to put the tagline “The DEATHMASTER is back from beyond the grave!”on the theatrical poster for THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA which was, well, kind of a dick move and not the best way to start a newly-minted business relationship.

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On LITTLE JOE

Quietly unnerving horror movie offers subtle, scary rewards

If Ingmar Bergman had mounted a production of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, it might feel something like co-writer/director’s bizarre and dreamlike anti-horror horror movie LITTLE JOE. Out now on DVD from Magnolia Home Entertainment, the film is bound to isolate general horror fans looking for a quick thrill but is almost guaranteed an enduring cult following from genre obsessives who prefer to be challenged and frustrated by their cinema. And if nothing else, LITTLE JOE is indeed designed to challenge and frustrate but it also offers subtle rewards and ample pleasures for those willing to navigate its austere weirdness.

Emily Beecham (who won the best actress award at Cannes) stars as Alice, a botanist working for a British company experimenting in new breeds of consumer plant life. She and her partner Chris (Ben Whishaw) have created a pretty and oddly emotional plan that Alice nicknames “Little Joe” after her son Joe who is light of her life. Said plant apparently releases a pollen that makes its owner bond with the sprout in the same ways in which parents chemically connect with their children. “Little Joe” feeds on human contact, on conversation and kindness and in turn, releases a hormone that makes its “parent” happy. Although explicitly instructed not to do so, Alice brings one of the plants home for her son as a gift. Everything seems fine at first, but slowly, surely, her boy begins acting strangely, removing himself from her and suggesting he’d rather live with his father. Alice begins to suspect that her “Little Joe” might not be quite as benign as she had intended, and when the plants begin releasing their pollen to staff in the lab, she wonders if she has in fact created a monster.

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