Interview: Veronica Cartwright

In conversation with the revered co-star of THE CHILDREN’S HOUR, ALIEN, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and much more

Actress Veronica Cartwright has been casting spells in cinema since she was a little girl, co-starring at the age of 12 with heavy-hitters Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine in William Wyler’s controversial 1961 thriller THE CHILDREN’S HOUR and a tidal wave of entertainments made for both the big (THE BIRDS) and small (The Twilight Zone, Leave it to Beaver) screen.

Hers is truly a life spent in front of the lens. But it was in the 1970s, when Cartwright was in her late 20s, that she began to find her footing, starring in John Byrum’s sexually-explicit INSERTS, in director/star Jack Nicholson’s comedy western GOIN’ SOUTH and in a pair of films that history has proven to be two of the greatest science fiction horror movies ever made: Philip Kaufman’s nightmarish remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking ALIEN.

We had the honor of speaking with the funny, talented actress – she of those near-translucent, oversized blue eyes – about her many film appearances, including her blistering and outrageous turn in George Miller’s 1987 horror comedy THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK and so much more…

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On THE COMING OF SIN

JOSE LARRAZ’S ELEGANT AND DEPRAVED MASTERWORK

In the annals of exploitation cinema, Spanish filmmaker Jose Larraz had one of the more unique voices; a multi-hyphenate artist who dabbled in many mediums, including comic books, and whose filmed fixations on beautiful women and hot sex were matched for his interests in darker, more psychological explorations. And while his resume certainly boasts a more than a few middling efforts, his undisputed masterworks outweigh the weaker material. Joining the director’s essential ranks is his SSS shocker THE COMING OF SIN, an  astonishing work of erotic horror that’s the depraved equal to his WHIRLPOOL and sensual kin to his most recognizable picture, VAMPYRES. THE COMING OF SIN is a balletic three-hander that forsakes plot in favor of fevered couplings and ratcheting tension and whose measured rhythm might turn off the average viewer seeking smutty Eurotrash thrills. But for the rest of us…look out.

The film (released in many markets under the riotous and misleading title THE VIOLATION OF THE BITCH) stars Lidia Stern as Triana, a beautiful but simple Gypsy servant girl whose masters “loan” her out to an older, sexually voracious artist named Lorna (Patrice Grant) at her beautiful country estate. Before you can say “The Rain in Spain”, Lorna is smugly boasting that she will refine Triana’s palette, teaching her how to read, to speak, to socialize. And to fuck. Because it’s clear from the moment the two women meet that there is a strong sexual connection and Larraz revels in sustaining that tension, creating a dripping erotic aura that only relaxes once his film veers into full blown mania.

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On THE WITCHES

A closer look at an underrated Hammer Horror classic

Director Cyril Frankel’s 1966 supernatural drama THE WITCHES (based on the novel “The Devil’s Own” by Peter Curtis) might be one of Hammer’s most misunderstood and undervalued productions, with casual admirers of the venerable studio’s output often either ignoring or dismissing it. This is likely due to the film being released squarely in the center of Hammer’s “Golden Age”, when the company had had a near decade-long paydirt mining and perfecting Gothic melodrama and more sensational shockers. It defied audience expectations and needs, in some respects. But Frankel’s eerie mystery is more in-line with the studio’s post-PSYCHO “Mini-Hitchcock” thrillers, material like Frankel’s own queasy NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM STRANGERS, but one armed with a supernatural twist and buoyed by two mature female leads in the cast. But unlike Hammer’s 1965 scenery-chomper DIE, DIE MY DARLING – in which an aged and deranged Talulah Bankhead out-babied BABY JANE – THE WITCHES is no pandering horror-hagsploitation potboiler. It’s something far more evolved and interesting (and I say that with ardent adoration of the hagsploitation subgenre).

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On INVASION OF THE BLOOD FARMERS

One of the most deranged American independent horror films of the 1970s comes to Blu-ray

Those who – like me – have cited Ed Adlum’s 1974 howler SHRIEK OF THE MUTILATED as the worst indie American horror movie of the 1970s, obviously never saw his 1972 go-for-broke earlier craptastic creeper INVASION OF THE BLOOD FARMERS. I’d missed it, though had certainly heard many scream its perverse praises for years and now, thanks to Severin Films’ recent release, we have a new remastered Blu-ray release in mass-circulation so that hardcore fans and newly minted audience members (like me) can lock their bloodshot glazballs upon it. Naturally, one has to have a healthy streak of masochism in order to fully appreciate the film’s downmarket charms but those bold enough to endure its 77 torturous minutes will be – for better or worse – transformed for life.

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On THE HUNGER

Flashing back to the stylish and undervalued 1983 vampire drama

Tony Scott’s 1983 vampire drama THE HUNGER, his first film and an adaptation of author Whitley Strieber’s bestselling, same-named book, is a marvelous picture; stylish, beautiful, sensual, elegant and, at its core, almost overwhelmingly melancholy. It’s no surprise then, that this hazy, dream-like work of neo-Gothic art faired poorly at the box-office, seeing as the dawn of the decade concerned itself mainly with post-STAR WARS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK spectacle and, in the annals of horror, gory, brainless body count pictures.

But THE HUNGER is something different. Something special.

In it, revered French actress Catherine Deneuve plays Miriam Blaylock, statuesque female vampire, a creature who we are lead to believe has endured centuries, forever gliding through time, never aging and living off human blood. But she doesn’t make this endless journey alone. Like Delphine Seyrig’s similarly graceful and parasitic Countess Bathory in Harry Kumel’s DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS, Miriam must always have a companion, a lover of her choosing whom is afflicted with a version of the disease that she has, the disease that blesses one with life eternal and an unnatural, murderous thirst.

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On JACK THE RIPPER

A brief look at both cuts of the undervalued 1959 shocker

The mystery of the Victorian-era serial killer dubbed “Jack the Ripper” has endured the ages, with countless fictionalized novels and films riffing onthe  sordid story of the fiend who once slashed his way through the flesh of London’s ladies of the night. The fact that “Saucy Jack” himself was never caught has only fueled the fantastical, with conspiracies ladled upon conspiracies as to who or what the murderer might have been, most potently in Alan Moore’s FROM HELL graphic novel and the freely adapted (and absolutely undervalued) Hughes Brothers feature film. But one of the more obscure remounts of the Jack the Ripper crimes can be found in Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman’s crackerjack 1959 chiller, simply called JACK THE RIPPER. Working from a script by Hammer Horror vet Jimmy Sangster, the film is a low budget but deft little murder mystery that sends ample chills up the spine, especially in its original UK theatrical cut, the likes of which is represented here – alongside the more sensational American re-edit – on Severin‘s snazzy new Blu-ray release.

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On THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT

Lars von Trier’s brutally violent serial killer confessional is a film only he could have made

No matter the genre Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier hides behind, he’s almost always making a horror movie. The troublemaker director’s aesthetic – blending pseudo-documentary, hand -held camera POV with rapturous sequences of fantasy – almost always pushes his work into the realm of magic-realism and whether it be the story of a simple woman driven to sexual and religious frenzy (BREAKING THE WAVES), a working-class blind, musical-obsessed mother sent to death row (DANCER IN THE DARK) or a hopelessly depressed girl whose miseries echo the coming apocalypse (MELANCHOLIA), all von Trier pictures trade in his art of disorientation and dread and all evoke his single-minded desire to illustrate the beauty, terror and humanity hidden within events both ordinary and extraordinary.  That almost all of his protagonists are female is interesting (and has indeed caused some reactionary viewers to incorrectly label him a misogynist) and only serves to add another layer of fascination to his deeply personal, challenging and unique creative identity.

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On ALIEN: COVENANT

Another look at Ridley Scott’s visionary science fiction film

It’s appropriate that Ridley Scott’s mutated ALIEN prequel/PROMETHEUS sequel ALIEN: COVENANT begins (and ends) with the mention and music of Richard Wagner. The wildly influential German composer’s life, writings and operas were an early and steady influence on Adolph Hitler and it’s thought that the future Fuhrer’s skewed, sociopathic philosophies on “racial purity” and his festering anti-semetism stemmed from this obsession.

“Wagner’s line of thought is intimately familiar to me,” the Nazi party leader once said.

“At every stage of my life I come back to him.”

It is important to mention this, because Scott and screenwriter John Logan’s remarkable, high-minded and misunderstood blend of splatter-show and cerebral science fiction is about these very themes, of ego, narcissism, spite and jealousy propelling a quest to alter the path of creation to suit a singular agenda. Fueled by these things, Hitler inexplicably rose to power and in his quest to dominate, also murdered millions of innocent men, women and children. All in the name of a psychotic desire to meddle with natural order, to “play God” for no other real reason than to appease his obsessions.

And so it goes with David, the “synthetic” played by Michael Fassbender who we first met in PROMETHEUS and who we are re-introduced to here, in the prologue for ALIEN:COVENANT. The film begins with David opening his eyes and meeting his “father” Weyland (Guy Pearce).

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On NIGHTWING

A look at the underrated 1979 evil bat thriller

Director Arthur Hiller’s NIGHTWING is one of a handful of films that trade in the terror of killer, disease-ridden bats, a loose, unofficial subgenre that seemingly doesn’t command much fan enthusiasm.  And while 1974’s future-shock chiller CHOSEN SURVIVORS remains my winged-rodent romp of choice, NIGHTWING flies not too far behind.

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On MANDY

Acclaimed hallucinatory horror drama is now on Blu-ray

There’s a primal, animal power that propels director Panos Cosmatos’s acclaimed experimental horror head-trip MANDY. A kind of danger pulsing beneath its arcane imagery, bubbling-forth from its moaning electronic music and arch, hissing dialogue. The film just feels alien. It feels evil.  It courses with a sort of seething darkness and descends into such brain-swelling madness that you can almost smell it.

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