On THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM

Celebrating Roger Corman’s 1961 masterpiece of Gothic dread

Though he has made hundreds of films spanning over six decades, producer/director and indie genre film pioneer Roger Corman’s 8-picture “Poe Cycle” continues to be among his most celebrated and discussed works.

The story goes that Corman, who was, by the end of the 1950’s becoming fledgling studio American International Pictures’ regular house producer/director, went to AIP bosses Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson and convinced them to take the budget they’d normally use for two black and white pictures and instead combine them to make a single full color movie. The studio initially balked but eventually relented and the first entry in that experiment was 1960’s HOUSE OF USHER, based on the classic Edgar Allan Poe tale, “The Fall of the House of Usher”.

The Gothic, lushly realized film, written by popular writer and novelist Richard Matheson (“I Am Legend”, “Hell House”, THE TWILIGHT ZONE), was a rousing critical and commercial success, a picture that bridged the gap between the drive-ins and teen-drenched “flat tops” that Corman and AIP catered to, and the arthouse, with a distinctly literate and moody European sheen that most exploitation films of the time simply didn’t have.

But as to which of the 8 remarkable Poe films is the superior entry, It’s subjective, Certainly, everyone has their favorite and latter works like the shot in England, Ingmar Bergman-influenced MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and TOMB OF LIGEIA are the most sumptuously designed of the lot. But his HOUSE OF USHER follow-up, 1961’s THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, is inarguably the scariest…

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On THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE

Could Jorge Grau’s 1974 shocker be the greatest zombie movie ever made?

In the early 1970s, a young, experimental Spanish director named Jorge Grau was, alongside an equally visionary, Nouvelle Vague inspired pack of bratty celluloid slingers (the likes which include THE BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE helmer Vincente Aranda, being championed as the future of the Spanish film industry. In the wake of Grau’s violent, sexual and historically accurate telling of the Elizabeth Bathory legend, 1973’s THE BLOODY COUNTESS, producer Edmondo Amati approached the filmmaker to direct a movie that would blatantly ride the box office coattails of the George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but add the more visceral dimension of dripping, full-blooded color, replacing the gritty, cheap, shadowy expressionism of NIGHT with a more garish, pulpy and stomach churning pallet. Grau, swayed by a larger paycheck and the chance to film in England eagerly obliged, taking the rather straight forward genre screenplay and giving it a re-write, grafting on his own, unique personality quirks, obsessions and style, “borrowing” from Romero’s creation but forging something completely fresh and deliciously offbeat.

Known on these shores under at least a dozen lurid (and occasionally ludicrous) titles, including DON’T OPEN THE WINDOW, BRUNCH WITH THE DEAD and LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE, Grau’s resulting 1974 Spanish/Italian zombie shocker “Non Si Deve Profanare Il Sonno Dei Morti”, is a movie that I’ve always preferred to call by its UK moniker, THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE. Because I just love the way it reads, especially when read aloud.

London antique dealer George (a bearded, badass looking Ray Lovelock from, among many other things Armando Crispino’s AUTOPSY and Umberto Lenzi’s AN IDEAL PLACE TO KILL) is on a cross-country motorcycle trip into rural England when, after a bike crushing accident, he regretfully hooks up with the beautiful, fragile Edna (Christina Galbo from WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?) who is also traveling into the sticks to visit her mentally ill sister. On route, the pair come across a strange machine; a whirring, pulsing metallic engine sitting squarely in the centre of a farmers field. Said machine is an agricultural device that sends out waves of low frequency radiation designed to provoke insects to go mad and cannibalize each other. Science!

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On THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY

An appreciation of Peter Strickland’s sensual masterpiece

What is gender, exactly? When sperm hits egg and the first spark of creation takes shape in the cozy confines of the mother’s womb, all life is… is just life. Just the blueprint of the potential of what we will become. What plumbing and genetic purpose that life will have is unknown. And then a biological die is cast and presto bingo, we have a code that defines a role in nature. But no matter what dangles between our legs, we are all amalgams of both, we all have the same chemicals and impulses, just some of us are designed to perhaps tilt strongly in one direction or another. It’s out of our hands. It’s nature.

But where things get tricky and — yawn, yes, political — is when we socialize nature. When we try to put parameters around that which should have none. Religion, media, fashion, school, all of these societal factors serve to muddy waters that should run pure. Boys. Girls. Men. Women. Beyond our biological function when it comes to mating and birthing, we are all in fact masculine and feminine hybrids. And yet we keep on trying to categorize and compartmentalize.

Which brings me to British director Peter Strickland’s ingenious and delirious 2014 masterpiece THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY, a film I fell in love with instantly and which has haunted me ever since. Like his previous singular cinematic swoon, 2013’s BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, DUKE combines intimate drama with hyper-stylized evolutions of European genre tropes and festishizations of their iconography. In BERBERIAN it was the giallo film, focusing its narrative on a cinema sound designer who is losing his mind while working on an imagined ’70s Italian thriller. In DUKE, Strickland mines the voyeuristic, psychedelic and lush films of Jess Franco. In fact, the movie began its life as a straight remake of Franco’s 1974 exploitation shocker LORNA THE EXORCIST. But Strickland — one of the most wonderfully unconventional filmmakers alive — got bored of the idea of a remake and instead took the project in another direction. And I’m so glad he did. Because what he did here in this mesmerizing film transcends any sort of classification. Sure, it has the ghost of Franco whispering in our ears, but this is Strickland’s vision. It’s pure cinema, deceivingly simple, breathtaking to behold and intimately observed with one of the most fragile and moving film scores I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. And while THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY was exceedingly well reviewed and beloved by many, it’s still very much a secret. It’s out there. And it needs your eyes, your mind, your heart. And your other parts.

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On BLOODY MOON

Jess Franco’s slasher saga is a leering, sloppy blast

Beloved – and sorely missed – iconoclast Jess Franco first made his major movie mark in France with a series of crisp, sleazy and stylish black and white arthouse horror pictures like 1962’s THE AWFUL DR. ORLOFF (a quote on Georges Franju’s groundbreaking sex and surgery epic EYES WITHOUT A FACE), movies that valued high contrast photography, graphic violence and mild, soon to be abundant, female nudity. In the ensuing decades the tirelessly prolific Franco would make scores of increasingly graphic, often very personal, jazz influenced (Franco was also an accomplished composer and musician) sonnets to sex, violence and voyeurism, playing with color and working with budgets both high and low in any country that would fund his filmmaking fetish.

Which brings me to BLOODY MOON, an early ’80s German financed (the original title was DIE SAGE DES TODES or THE SAW OF DEATH) bloodbath made in the wake of the slasher craze sparked by John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN and juiced up by the considerably more explicit FRIDAY THE 13th and its endless stalk-and-stab ilk. But the seriously bent BLOODY MOON (whose ample but klutzy murders landed it onto the Video Nasties list in the UK) is so much more than simply a routine masked maniac shocker. Why? Because it was made by Franco of course and, as any serious scholar of Jess’s work knows, no matter how dodgy and cheap the more downmarket Franco films could be, there was almost always something there that was uniquely his. A lazy-lidded energy, a leering point of view. Something.

The attractively greasy looking BLOODY MOON opens on a spectacularly sickening murder at a Spanish girls school by a completely un-spectacularly made-up lunatic (Alexander Waechter). Five years later, pretty young student Angela (sex film starlet Olivia Pascal) has taken up residence in the same room where the said slaughter went down and to make matters eerier, the cheese-faced killer has been released from the loony bin, apparently none too reformed.

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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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