On Hammer’s DRACULA Cycle

A brief, critical look at the official Hammer Studios Dracula film series

When England’s Hammer Studios invested some of their capital and produced 1957’s full-color, full-blooded, adult-geared riff on the classic Universal horror film with Terrence Fisher’s THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, they changed the way we watch horror movies. Filled with sadism, cruelty, sexuality and gore, but classed-up with sumptuous production values and classically trained British actors in lead roles, CURSE was an international hit and launched a successful (and really, rather wonderful) series of Hammer Frankenstein pictures.

But it was with their next picture, 1958’s HORROR OF DRACULA (known in the UK as simply DRACULA) that they found their first real deal iconic franchise and shone a light on their most memorable horror movie star, Christopher Lee, who was under wraps as the cataract-eyed monster in CURSE, but here was given free reign to terrify and seduce an entire generation of fright fans.

Here’s a brief, critical look at the strange, beautiful, bloody and often, bloody frustrating series of Hammer horror films starring the King of the Vampires.

HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

Terrence Fisher’s majestic, lean and urgent riff on Bram Stoker’s novel was a bloody punch to the face to Tod Browning’s gentle, mannered 1931 film, effectively replacing Bela Lugosi’s fangless European gentleman with Christopher Lee’s snarling, athletic and imposing man in black. The film begins with a bang, with cameras prowling over the set of Dracula’s castle, with jets of blood squirting sexually over his coffin and James Bernard’s now-iconic score roaring on the soundtrack. There’s not much to complain about in this maiden voyage as HORROR set the tone for the wave of tough Hammer Gothics to follow and was rarely bettered, with Fisher at the peak of his craft here. That said, the film doesn’t feel as epic as one might hope, with the geography between London and Transylvania fuzzy as, due to budgetary restraints, it’s often clear the actors are just jumping between sets. Lee is perfection of course, effortlessly cool, fluid and dangerous and Peter Cushing sculpted what is still the definitive screen Van Helsing, here portrayed as a less bonkers riff on Sherlock Holmes, a role Cushing would take on a year later in Hammer’s THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES.

BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

Lee opted to sit this Fisher-directed sequel out, afraid of being typecast and truthfully…the film does not suffer for the lack of his presence. In fact BRIDES is one of the best Hammer films of all time and one of the strongest in their DRACULA cycle. The title implies that the focus will not be on the Count this round, rather his “Brides”, as in “Brides of Christ”, nuns, the “wives” of a parasitic messiah. Which is interesting, considering the vampire or “bride” we follow here is one Baron Meinster (David Peel), a preening, cackling brat of a ghoul with a very toxic and unhealthy relationship with his long suffering mother. Yes, the homerotic subtext of BRIDES has been talked about ad nauseum but it’s an interesting one (though calling Meinster bisexual would be more appropriate). Peel’s blonde, effete and mean spirited aristocrat revels in his bloodsucking ways and he’s wildly manipulative and resourceful. In HORROR OF DRACULA, Lee’s Count, for all his majesty, was rather easily dispatched. But Meinster gives Cushing’s Van Helsing a real run for his money and the battles between the two opponents are action packed and exciting. The best of them sees Meinster bite Van Helsing, leaving him to be turned, causing the terrified vampire killer to cauterize his infected neck with a hot iron and cool holy water! Fisher directs like a bat out of hell, the movie looks sumptuous and it’s an incredibly eccentric and entertaining example of Hammer at its best.

DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966)

Eight years after re-inventing the way in which the world would view the character of Dracula, Lee returned to Hammer’s franchise with their first Drac film in 6 years, another winner helmed by the great Terrence Fisher and one in which, strangely, the Count is mute. Depending on who you believe, the role was either written without dialogue to save the production some dough or, as Lee tells it, the script was so chock full of cringe-worthy lines that Lee himself opted to play it silent. One of the lines Lee said he balked at was Dracula saying “I am the apocalypse!”, which I kinda like and wished they had kept. Otherwise, Lee playing the role without dialogue turned out to be a masterstroke, accidental or by intent, it matters not. Without words, Lee relies exclusively on his imposing physical presence (as he did in both THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE MUMMY), a hissing reptile like monster, an alien presence that is to be feared and loathed. This is a mean, violent picture. And those worrying about the lack of Cushing’s Van Helsing needn’t fear as Andrew Keir’s crusading holy man is just as compelling an opponent. There’s also a lot more overt sexuality, as in the scene where Dracula opens his chest and urges his female victim to drink his blood, an obvious nod to fellatio.

DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)

One of the most underrated Hammer Dracula pictures, GRAVE is a lively affair, directed with style and a leaning towards psychedelia (dig those Dracula-gels!) by veteran Hammer director and award winning cinematographer Freddie Francis. Here, Dracula is woken from the ice prison he fell into in PRINCE OF DARKNESS by a wayward Priest who then becomes Drac’s familiar. Eventually, the Count’s coffin ends up in the cellar beneath a local tavern, where Dracula uses his powers to draw women down to him. Lee has less to do here but he’s still the spine of the film, a movie that is in fact a bit more, dare we say, intellectual than most of the DRACULA films? Conversations about the existence of God and a central dynamic and sub-conflict in which one of the heroes is a pious man, the other an atheist, adds much needed substance to a series of films that usually lack any conflict beyond the morally one-dimensional good vs.evil. A vibrant, classy Drac picture that strangely, despite its bloodshed and headier themes, was rated ‘G’ in the U.S. upon release.

TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1970)

This film was initially one of a handful of films designed to turn actor Ralph Bates into a major Hammer horror star, TASTE was originally intended to not have Lee in it at all. But when international distributors balked at having a Drac picture without Lee, the studio piled on the dough to bring Lee back. And truthfully, that’s a shame. TASTE has a dynamic first half. It begins during the final moments of GRAVE, when a traveler witnesses Drac’s execution and, after the old vampire bastard turns to dust, the man retrieves a vial of the Dracula’s concentrated blood. After the credits roll, the central tale kicks in, a story of Victorian morality gone rotten, with a cabal of entitled, elite men of society, stepping out for their monthly night of debauchery and hypocritical transgression. At the house of ill-repute they’re playing in, they meet the Black Magic loving Lord Courtley (Bates) who promises them the ultimate thrill in the form a ritual in which they will drink an activated goblet of Drac’s plasma. When the men freak out at the 11th hour, Courtley drinks the gore, has a fit, is beaten to death by the men, cracks apart and then turns into Christopher Lee! From there, Lee just sleepwalks through his part, bumping off and/or enslaving the daughters of the men who he thinks killed his “master” Courtley. It makes no sense. In the original script, Courtley was the ghoul getting his revenge. But why is Dracula so cheesed? These dudes helped revive the Count. He should thank them! That central lapse in lazy logic makes the second half of TASTE a bit of a by-the-numbers snooze,though Peter Sasdy’s direction is perfectly fine, especially during the darker moments in the first reel.

SCARS OF DRACULA (1970)

After TASTE did so well, Hammer rushed another Dracula picture into production, albeit one armed with a lower budget. SCARS OF DRACULA is the first Drac film to get saddled with an R rating, due in no small part to Dracula’s full-blown and unpleasant sadistic streak. Here Lee is the Devil himself, whipping his servant Klove (not the same dandy butler from PRINCE OF DARKNESS, more of a Renfield-esque madman), torturing his victims and even driving a stake into one of his “brides” hearts for no other reason than to juice the film up with some extra gore. SCARS also has no relation apparently to the rest of the films in the series, with Lee being revived by a blood-spitting rubber bat while he lies desiccated in his coffin (and oh, those bats are so wonderfully phony baloney) but is more of an attempt to re-boot the series, with yet another young couple, this one a rather dull pair, running afoul of the mean Count. Lee approved of this film, mainly because of its attempts to lift scenes from the original novel, including the chilling bit where he scales the castle wall. Roy Ward Baker is perhaps not the edgiest of Hammer’s house directors and his more restrained approach is at odds with the film’s nastier elements (a problem that plagued his THE VAMPIRE LOVERS). If Freddie Francis had steered this ship, it would have been a lurid, even dangerous Dracula movie. As stands, it’s still a fun anomaly in the cycle.

DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972)

Critics and fans scoffed then and some still jeer at director Alan Gibson and writer Don Houghton’s attempts to propel the Dracula series into the modern age and certainly, DRACULA A.D. 1972 is a much campier, sillier picture. But that unbuttoning of the collar works in the film’s favor. With Lee now running rampant in Mod-era London (one of the film’s alternate titles is DRACULA CHASES THE MINI GIRLS), A.D. 1972 is a blast, with groovy music, a luscious Caroline Munro in the cast, a much more urgent and fast-paced narrative and plenty of kinky twists. It’s also great to see the distinguished Cushing back in action as Van Helsing’s Great Grandson, stalking the demon who has long plagued his family. Both Lee and Cushing bring the class, while Gibson and his supporting cast bring the sass. Maybe not a good Hammer Gothic, but a plenty fun vintage 70s British horror movie.

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973)

Gibson and Houghton teamed up again for this immediate follow-up to DRACULA A.D. 1972 and the movie has an even worse reputation than its predecessor. Much of this is due to the picture being a public domain eyesore, haunting dump bins and 50-movie collections everywhere in its heavily cut U.S. version, called DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE. But man, is SATANIC a great film. Propelled by an amazing score by HORROR EXPRESS’ John Cacavas, SATANIC is a deranged and compelling world-domination spy thriller filled with sex and violence and vampirism, with Lee’s revived Count commanding a vampire cult while also serving as the head a shadowy corporation. Yes indeed, Dracula is a capitalist here and it makes perfect sense. His modus operendi is to release a bio-weapon that will infect the world with the black plague, effectively murdering every human being alive. The extra gravitas comes from the concept that, as Cushing’s Van Helsing explains, with Dracula doing this, he is effectively committing suicide; after humanity perishes, no one will be left to revive him and no one will left for him to eat. There’s so many thrills and chills in SATANIC (love the vampire slaves dying in slow-motion in the cellar sequence). More respect needs to be lauded on this fascinating climax to the series.

Except it wasn’t really the climax…

THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974)

Sir Run Run Shaw and Hammer teamed up for this oddball commercial disaster, a mutant hybrid of horror film and Kung-Fu action epic and a weird sidebar-cum-coda to the series. Lee sat this one out, by this point vocally disgusted by Hammer’s irreverent treatment of Stoker’s character, and was replaced by John Forbes-Robertson whose truly evil looking Count possesses a 19th century Shaman in China and uses him to resurrect the Seven Golden Vampires, a group of long-fanged, ancient demonic bloodsuckers who lay waste to the land. Luckily, Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing is lecturing in China and agrees to help fight the monsters, with the aid of a family of chop-scokey heroes. Barely released in an insanely edited version in the US as THE SEVEN BROTHERS MEET DRACULA (have you ever seen this cut? It’s totally bonkers…not in a good way!), GOLDEN only started getting the acclaim it deserves when it started showing up uncut on VHS and DVD in the 90s. It’s a spectacular picture, filled with violence, classic Shaw Brothers action, another great turn by Cushing and buckets and buckets of vampiric weirdness. And that James Bernard score! Roy Ward Baker teamed up with Chinese director Change Cheh, and the latter vision clearly is the one bringing the freak value to this party. A must see…but not a classic Hammer Dracula movie.

What’s your favorite Hammer Dracula movie?

On THE BIG CUBE

Vintage psychedelic mind-bender is Lana Turner’s last great film.

Poor Lana Turner.

The former Hollywood sex-siren, she being one of the original Femme Fatales in Tay Garnett’s 1946 adaptation of James M. Cain’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, was considered in her prime to be one of the most dangerous and desirable women working in front of the lens. Of course, like most if not all of the living legends controlled by grooming studios during that period, much of Turner’s public persona and carefully marketed myth was fabricated. In truth, the actress was a gentle, troubled soul, an alcoholic and a bit broken after failed marriages and carreer dips and the typical Hollywood sneering at women when the bloom leaves their rose and they slip into middle-age.

It was at this point in Turner’s career that she would find herself starring in what is one of the most outrageous and bizarre films of the 1960s. Director Tito Davison’s Mexican/American co-production THE BIG CUBE was Warner Bros. attempt to out-trip Roger Corman’s THE TRIP and blend noir tropes with druggie youth culture and the still popular “horror hag” wave of films, the likes of which usually starred Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. Turner joins their ranks here, in a psychedelic assault on the senses, common and otherwise, a film so over-the-top and wrong of head that cruel critics had a field day eviscerating it and Turner’s appearance and performance in it.

The bile ladled upon THE BIG CUBE upon release helped propel it into virtual oblivion and so damaged Turner’s already fragile state, that she wouldn’t appear in any films until 1974’s trashy British horror/melodrama PERSECUTION (where she played Ralph Bates’ domineering mother).

But watching THE BIG CUBE today, it’s actually something of a marvel; an absolutely insane anti-drug yet still drug-addled free-fall into surreal psychedelia and ludicrous, overheated psychodrama. It’s a genuine cult film that has sadly not yet found its cult.

THE BIG CUBE sees Lana starring as Adriana, an aging, elegant actress of stage and screen who gives it all up to marry wealthy millionaire bachelor Charles Winthrop (HALLOWEEN III’s Dan O’Herlihy, whose equally obscure and deranged 1962 sorta-remake THE CABINET OF CALIGARI is the perfect psychotronic companion picture to CUBE). Charles’ daughter Lisa (Karin Mossberg, whose thick Swedish accent is bizarrely explained away as the result of her attending a Swiss boarding school!) isn’t terribly thrilled about dear old dad marrying again, but Adriana genuinely cares for the girl and sweetly attempts to build a relationship. But their potential bright future takes a tragic turn when,while on a sailing trip, Adriana and Charles are in a shipwreck and Charles drowns. Gutted, Lisa falls in with a pack of acid head hipsters, led by sociopathic, disgraced med student/LSD alchemist Johnny (played by WEST SIDE STORY’s George Chakiris). When Johnny learns of her fortune, he manipulates the girl into a plot to drug her stepmom to Palookaville and secretly trip her out to the point of madness. Convincing Lisa that Adriana was actually responsible for her dad’s death, Lisa’s mild disdain for her new mom turns to blind hate and she goes along with the plot, with dire results for all involved.

THE BIG CUBE is pretty much wall-to-wall lunacy. The movie is shot almost entirely on sound-stages, dream-like expressionist interiors that are ideal for projecting the endless LSD-trip visuals over the surprisingly frequent naked female bodies and wild-eyed male faces that make up a bulk of the non-domestic scenes. Chakiris is pure, smooth evil, essentially a kind of vampire who seduces and spikes his victims with acid-soaked sugar cubes (hence the title) and thinly grinning through all of his transgressive actions, convinced he is above suspicion and any sort of law. The entire thing feels like a play put on by the inmates of an asylum. Like MARAT/SADE for horny, far-out 60’s teens.

As we mentioned, poor Lana got lambasted for her turn here but really, she’s rather good in it. She’s a sympathetic presence, a woman who sees her second chance at happiness with a wonderful man and whose attempts to give love are met with malevolence. In her late 40s at the time, Turner doesn’t look nearly as worn out as critics have cited, though you can certainly see where the effects of booze and chain-smoking (the latter which led to her death from throat cancer in 1995) have played minor havoc with her skin. Sure she wears a cavalcade of cheap wigs, but such affectations suit the character and add to her slightly past-its-prime old school Hollywood glamour.

Many have giggled at the film’s final reel, where an LSD-damaged Turner is convinced to essentially re-enact the entire film’s events in a mocked-up stage play directed by her former lover and collaborator Richard Egan, but it’s that surreal, overheated turn of events that most lovers of odd cinema will cherish most. Truly, I’ve never seen another film quite like it.

THE BIG CUBE was released as part of long out of print “Cult Camp Classics” DVD box set from Warner Home Video that also included the proto women-in-prison flick CAGED! and the uproarious Joan Crawford vehicle TROG. The transfer on this version is gorgeous and bright and presented in matted widescreen.

You’ll laugh at THE BIG CUBE and that’s okay. It is funny. But more than simply tittering at its dated charms, you’ll more likely be astonished at its skewed vision and of Turner’s brave, committed performance, one of her last great roles buried in a movie that so many people would have you believe is just antiquated junk.

On WHO CAN KILL A CHILD?

A look at the shattering 1976 Spanish horror film

I first watched the 1984 Stephen King-penned horror film CHILDREN OF THE CORN with my parents on cable when I was 10 and even at that relatively easy-to-please age, its punch-pulling pedigree was obvious. Here was a film with a shocking enough opening sequence (I especially winced at the bit where the creepy kids pushed the beefy chap’s knuckles into the blender) and with a pair of solid enough lead actors in Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton and propelled by the grim concept of small town kids locked on murdering everyone over 18. But the film was utterly undone by juxtaposing the eeriness of the killer tots with an inner look at their religion and societal structure and was totally torpedoed by an FX heavy ending complete with a silly corn-creeping demon.

It’s understandable that CHILDREN OF THE CORN shrugged and sunk its inherent horror deep into the weeds because, well, that’s kinda what American horror movies did in the 1980s. This is not to necessarily dismiss 80’s American horror films outright, because I generally like them for what they are – lighter in tone, conventional, accessible and slick. But a movie about kids killing their parents and all adults within their sight-line needs to cut deeper to the bone. It needs to have the courage of its convictions. King’s own original short story played with suggestion and shadow to unnerve effectively. The film adaptation aimed to wrap the terror up with a tidy bow to please the multiplex set. The result is a picture that is neither fish nor fowl.

But nearly a decade prior, Spanish director Narcisco Ibanez Serrador tapped into the visceral, primordial horror of those who nature has designed us to protect rebelling against us instead (and cutting our throats) with his 1976 Spanish masterpiece WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? And where the King film’s mission to freak-us-out flopped, Serrador’s nihilistic shocker succeeds. This movie – even in its shorter, more direct US cut ISLAND OF THE DAMNED – is truly one of the most savage and upsetting movies that the genre has ever offered and yet – despite its sensational subject matter – it’s anything but an exploitation film. Recently released in an impressively thorough and meticulously remastered Blu-ray edition from Mondo Macabro, WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? is a somewhat obscure-on-these-shores dose of mature, unsparing horror that demands as much attention as possible.

The film stars Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome star as Tom And Evelyn, a British couple who are celebrating the impending birth of their third child by leaving their other two kids at home and whisking themselves off to the Spanish coast for a sun-soaked holiday. Escaping the mainland, the pair rent a small boat and drive off to the tiny, remote island Almanzora and soon discover that, while beautiful, the isle is virtually abandoned…that is, save for a horde of children. These wide-eyed moppets unnerve our heroes instantly, staring and them wordlessly and often breaking into manic giggling. When Tom witnesses one little girl bludgeon an old man to death and later sees a dozen of them using his corpse as a gory pinata, he breathes past his nausea and begins to conclude that something is dreadfully wrong. Wrong with island and wrong with these fresh-faced little boys and girls, all of whom seem to be on a perverse crusade to sadistically torture and violently butcher every adult they encounter. As Tom and Evelyn try to leave the island, the blood-lusting brood block them and every turn leading to a shattering, disturbing climax that you won’t soon forget.

On the surface, making children into monsters and forcing adult heroes to defensively slaughter them seems an easy mark. Horror movies are bought and sold on shattering societal taboos, after all. But Serrador is operating on an entirely different level. In the original Spanish and English cuts present on this release (the US cut is also here), Serrador treats us to a stomach-churning “mondo” style documentary that plays over the slowly unspooling opening credits. In it, the director employs a sickening wave of real 16mm footage of children being experimented on and murdered and dumped into mass graves by their Nazi tormentors, shots of juvenile Korean war survivors shambling through wreckage and the effects of nerve gas on kids during Vietnam. While damn-near impossible to watch, this opening is Serrador’s way of offering an allegorical explanation of the horrors to come. Here, he suggests that although we pride ourselves on being a species that protects and nurtures our children, we have a long, ignoble history of betraying trust and inflicting legacies of pain upon our offspring, of playing our “games without frontiers” and crushing our innocent successors in the process. And naturally, as pain begets pain, the cycle inevitably will continue.

Except here, whatever madness or virus has these children in its grip (refreshingly, nothing is explained, though it’s clear the impulse to murder is spread through the children by eye-contact or touch) is a break in the cycle of pain. These kids do not kill each other. They mourn when one of their brethren falls. They are a kind of hive-minded new species that is driven to enact a kind of rough justice on the generations that came before them. In the 1975 sci-fi/horror classic SHIVERS, director David Cronenberg has said of the phallic sex-parasites that tear through their hosts, turning them into Freudian ID-fueled maniacs, that they are in fact the “heroes”, wiping out the “old” to make way for the “new”. I think that same philosophy can be applied to WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? The killer kids have but one purpose and that is to completely wipe the slate clean of the human beings that bore them, thus inheriting the earth and breeding a new master race, one that sticks together. On that tip there’s just as much social parable here than there is in George A. Romero’s zombie films. In fact, Serrador’s film pre-dates Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, the film that first hammered home the idea of the dead as a new race inheriting the earth, by two years.

In lesser hands, WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? would be cold, cruel and pointless. But it’s not. There’s a real poetry here and it’s anchored by the lead actors’ deft performances. Serrador takes enough time with the first half of the the film to allow us to get to know them, to care about them, to emotionally invest in their doomed plight. And as the picture downspirals hard and fast into the unthinkable, we feel – along with revulsion, shock and terror – deeply, profoundly sad, a response that is accentuated by Serrador’s THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED composer Waldo de los Rios’ dark, dissonant, delicate and moody score.

WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? is an exceptional and essential genre film.  Once you see it, you will never shake it. Ever.

On THE BAD BATCH

Revisiting Ana Lily Amirpour’s visionary and allegorical horror western

Sophisticated director Ana Lily Amirpour‘s sophomore genre-bender (following the stark, monochrome A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) The Bad Batch screamed into festivals chased by critical acclaim, received a limited theatrical run, didn’t really find its audience and then was seemingly cast into the literal and figurative contemporary cinematic dump bin. That’s not really a surprise. Pictures like The Bad Batch are so singular in their vision, so pulsing with energy, art and ideas that they generally need a wide berth of time to be re-discovered, discussed, debated and appreciated.  And I’m convinced that history will remember The Bad Batch as a major work of pop-cult art and I say this fully admitting that, after a blistering first half, by contrast, the rest of the film is a bit of a shrug, bleeding out into a wave of exposition and hastily resolved narrative and character arcs.

But man, oh man… those first 45 minutes! So deliriously brilliant is the set-up for this future-shocker that you can – and should – forgive the work its flaws. In fact, after multiple viewings – which The Bad Batch surely needs – those flaws become acceptable deviations. They become part of the fabric of the total vision, for better or worse.

The Bad Batch literally hits the ground running, with Suki Waterhouse‘s lithe Arlen fleeing a future-Texas desert Hell from motorcycle-riding assailants who takes her back to their camp, restrain her and inject her with some sort of fluid before hacking off her arm and leg and eating them! It’s a bold passage of violence and odd poetry propelled by an equally-odd soundtrack and, despite the graphic nature of the sequence, it’s shot with, er, taste. Suddenly Amirpour trots out a rogues gallery of miscreants, a cannibal tribe of weight lifters — even the women are ripped — led by the hulking Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones, Justice League, Aquaman) that seem pulled from the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky (with echoes of pictures like The Witch Who Came From the Sea and select works by Kenneth Anger) and yet are still unlike anything else seen on screen. As Arlen drifts in and out of her haze and sees others like her, human livestock, missing limbs and wallowing in misery, the scrappy woman with the too-short jean shorts plots her escape. Said escape involves caking herself in her own excrement and with her one-arm, wielding an iron pipe while wheeling herself away on a skateboard.

That all this mesmerizing madness is related by Amirpour and her cast without a word of discernible dialogue makes it all the more powerful, a battle cry against genre films that pad their running times and murder their own souls with tin-eared verbiage, refusing to trust that their audience is engaged enough and intelligent enough to follow along using universally understood sound and image, body language and movement. But when Arlen weaves her way to the neighboring camp of “Comfort” and “rescues” the daughter of her former cannibal captor, Amirpour either loses her nerve or listened to too many money people who likely suggested that she compromise her vision and clarify her beautiful abstractions.

See, The Bad Batch is very clearly an unsubtle allegory for the New America, specifically honing in on the “have-nots,” those on the fringes who often are forced to create their own sub-societies, governed by their own laws and codes. These are motifs alive in the best Spaghetti Westerns, where Europeans presented a fascinating outsider’s view of the already fantastical cinematic visions of early America and the director herself has cited The Bad Batch as a neo-western of sorts. With our man Trump blathering about walls and blustering through attempts to keep “undesirables” out, The Bad Batch‘s entire Escape From New York-ish set-up speaks of this current regime’s skewed view on “the other” and Amirpour makes the point here that “the other” is really an illusion, and only a matter of perspective. And again, she does this with image and sound, not words. She does it with revolting scenes of human barbecue and instantly-iconic imagery (Waterhouse’s “happy face ass” will likely live on in cinema history forever). Truly, Amirpour is an intelligent, bold filmmaker and it’s beyond exciting to watch her create this world, her world.

But then, as the movie trods on, people start talking — a lot — including Keanu Reeves’ Jim Jones-esque leader, whose hammy oration pushes the movie into camp but also has the unfortunate effect of hammering home explicitly everything Amirpour has taken an effort to allude to in the abstract (Reeves literally says that freedom costs an arm and a leg to our limb-challenged heroine). Suddenly the film is awash in heavy-handedness, from fractured puzzles of the American flag, the slogan-heavy T-shirts key characters wear, to signs, signs, everywhere signs. The movie loses its footing and feels like the intellectual at the party who has one-too-many and just dissolves into a puddle of punchy preaching.

But no matter. There’s more than enough fire and strangeness and near-feral originality to make The Bad Batch a major slab of deranged grandeur and anti-mainstream majesty while cementing its director as one of the most interesting cinematic voices currently alive. There’s no other film like it. And hey, Jim Carrey appears as a mute Gabby Hayes-esque desert rat. Know any other movies that can claim that honor? I thought not…

On THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA

A deeper look at Matt Cimber’s moving, horrifying and emotionally sophisticated masterpiece

The job of every good horror film is to exploit, degrade and pervert that which society deems sacred, to suck us out of our comfort zone and shake our foundations. Ultimately, I’ve found – as have many other admirers of the genre – horror to be the most successful form of cinema to not-so-subtly remind us that life is NOT all strawberries and orgasms. That life is short, often painful. That the illusions we as a society work so hard to construct to make that short, painful life slip down our throats like sugar pills, are easily undone and that perhaps our only true defense against that which is inevitable is to accept and soldier on.

I find horror films – when they are on point – to be life-affirming, even when they come draped in extreme images of gruesome death, misery and general malevolent mischief.

This may seem an odd statement to make when one is about to discuss Matt Cimber’s leveling 1976 psychodrama THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA, a harrowing work that has slowly, surely amassed a devoted cult following. But despite the film’s jet-black subject matter and its wrenching portrait of a woman pushed into the deep end of psychosis,  THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA has a primal power that speaks loudly to the horrors of childhood abuse, and how – when left untreated – that trauma can decimate its victims and the many unfortunate people that surround them. It offers no trite solutions to its internal terrors,  it offers no comforting denouement for the grisly journey of the “witch” of the title. Rather it serves as a stark warning, a barb-wired buoy bobbing in the seaside where most of its lyrical, lurid action unfolds. And while its oft-tread subject matter has been explored in horror cinema many times prior and since, there is simply no other film quite like it.

Working from a thoughtful, mature script by DEATH RACE 2000 scribe Robert Thom, Cimber’s expressionist shocker expertly frames his canvas from the film’s opening sequence: a long, almost abandoned beach on an overcast day, waves crashing into the sand and over the lens of cinematographer Dean (HALLOWEEN, THE THING) Cundey’s camera. This meditative, lonely visage is rendered even more melancholy by Herschel Burke Gilbert’s beautiful, lilting flute and guitar score, music that speaks of the sea, and more importantly things “lost” at sea. Specifically, a woman lost at sea, hopelessly. That woman is the deeply disturbed Molly (a shattering, dissonant performance by Millie Perkins), a seemingly sweet, child-like lady who we first see embracing her beloved nephews, telling tales of their grandfather, a sailor who himself was lost at sea. The children obviously adore their seemingly eccentric aunt and she them. And it is at this level that Molly is happiest, in the company of children, safe and needed. Because in the real world, the one populated with peers and with expectations, Molly is barely hanging on.

Almost immediately, Cimber illustrates Molly’s psychosis when she spots a pair of Charles Atlas comic-strip-esque bodybuilders on the shore, her eyes fixating on their muscles, their sweaty bodies, their bulging swimsuits. Cimber expertly cross-cuts Molly’s lust-locked face with flashes of these “parts” and eventually climaxes with bursts of cartoonish blood and the men hanging dead from ropes.

At this point we are barely five minutes into THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA and we are painfully aware that our protagonist equates sex and desire with death and is only calmed by the elemental nature of the sea and the “pure” love of children. Through direction, photography, sound and Perkins’ wide-eyed, carefully controlled performance, we are completely committed to Molly’s plight, wherever it may take us.

And naturally, nothing ends well for her.

Protected by her welfare-chained older sister and endlessly rhapsodizing on her long-dead father – whom her sibling dismisses as a monster – Molly is a raging alcoholic and ritualistic drug abuser, a woman whose only protection from whatever demons have hold of her is to numb herself with substances and sex, something she seeks out like an innocent. She is loved by her salty dog boss Long John (Lonny Chapman), who owns the bar in which Molly works at and who lives for the moments he can get her in his bed. He also – like everyone close to her – enables her and turns a blind eye to her increasingly distressing psychological state. There are passages in THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA where it seems that Long John’s blind adoration might just “save” Molly, ground her and serve as a lantern to help her find her way out of her fog-drenched, self-destructing state of mind.

But naturally, it can’t. And it doesn’t.

In protracted, slowed-down and hallucinatory sequences that illustrate both Molly’s intoxication and lapses into out-of-body darkness, we see Molly immersed in kinky sexual liaisons that end in torture and murder. First, with a pair of drug-juiced Football heroes who tag-team the beautiful woman, only to awaken the “witch”, who ties them up and slowly, sadistically carves them to pieces.  As the police investigate the crime, Molly declines further, ferally attacking a Hollywood hotshot, sexually fixating on the star of a shaving commercial and worse. And while Molly’s lethal libido ramps up, we are treated to gut-punching flashback’s of Molly as a little girl, brutalized by her vile father. It all climaxes in one of the most affecting, tragic and strangely beautiful final acts I’ve ever seen a horror movie. If you can even call THE WITCH FROM THE SEA simply a horror movie. It is one, but it’s so much more. It’s a work of art and it’s what all filmmakers who toil in dark cinema should aspire to be.

In some ways, THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA reminds me of an adult version of the classic Swedish/German PIPPI LONGSTOCKING movies from the early 1970s. Astrid Lindgren’s beloved child-waif Pippi is realized in those movies as a free-spirit, living alone in a candy-colored world, blessed with unlimited wealth and super-human powers, the hero to all children and the scourge of responsible adults. Like Molly, Pippi pines for her long-lost sea Captain “Papa”, of which she has a close but rather irresponsible relationship with. If you’ve seen those pictures, you’ll know that they are adored mostly for their almost experimental nature and the way they are completely free of the crushing, pedestrian confines of conventional narrative. They move like a child’s life moves, from adventure to adventure, from moment to moment. Undercurrents of serious social issues like child abuse are ignored, but there is most assuredly a darker side to the pictures that scratches just under their day-glow surfaces.

I see Molly as Pippi, all grown-up. The world has moved on. The circus has left town. The magic has long since evaporated. She’s alone at the Villa Villekulla, left to stare at her aging reflection and forced to confront the truth of her childhood. Unlike so many movies with a central character who is broken and psychotic, Molly is never painted as a villain. She is always, from the first frame to the final sequence, a victim. We cry for not only the broken woman she is, but the ruined child she was. She is OUR child, left alone, unguided and unprotected.

See this movie. Now.

 

 

On THE CHILD

A look at the often neglected low-budget 1977 zombie chiller

In 1977, as STAR WARS blazed its way across the planet, re-writing the rules of cinema exhibition and defining its generation, a greasy little slip of shocker was quietly brightening regional screens and briefly providing a glowing ambiance for winos and weirdos on New York’s 42nd Street.

Said film was indeed a horror movie, humble, cheap and unpretentious. It came, it went. It came back again on home video, vanished once more. Was “rescued” and re-distributed by the fine freaks at Something Weird Video, then once more slipped into obscurity.

Indeed, THE CHILD (also known as ZOMBIE CHILD and in Italy as LA CASA DEGLI ZOMBI) probably deserves to stay in obscurity, hiding in limbo waiting for the odd set of eyeballs to find it, dig it and then forget it. It’s not a great movie (whatever that means). But there’s something about it. Some sort of lazy, lurid appeal. A morbid atmosphere, a rusty-swing eeriness that gets under your skin, if you let it. The movie’s charms perhaps only speak to a select few of extreme fringe film lovers.

I am one of these people, naturally.

THE CHILD was directed by LA based director Robert Voskanian, who never directed another feature film after it, but really should have. After graduating film school in 1975, the young Voskanian started his own company, Panorama Films, an imprint that aimed to make educational and industrial pictures and commercials, much like George A. Romero’s The Latent Image set out to do in the 1960s.

We all know how that turned out.

In fact, Voskanian and his partners were so smitten by Romero’s first feature NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, that they figured they would follow in his sizable footsteps and make their own horror picture. Getting their mitts on a scrappy screenplay by a one Ralph Lucas called KILL AND GO HIDE, the company raised an impressive $100,000 USD and set out to make their maiden movie.

Shot in the Los Angeles area on a 35mm Arriflex camera, KILL AND GO HIDE, later renamed THE CHILD by its distributor, exploitation movie fat cat Harry Novak, plays like an eerie amalgam of THE BAD SEED meets CARRIE meets NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, built on the foundations of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw”. In it, a governess named Alicianne (Laurel Barnett) drifts into a rural town to take the position of caregiver to a troubled girl named Rosalie (Rosalie Cole), a motherless child with a chip on her shoulder a mile wide, not to mention a very unique gift.

As Alicianne soon finds out, Rosalie is a telepath and not a very nice one. Her happiest hobby is to drag the desiccated corpses from the nearby cemetery out of their graves and play with them. Of course, when people cross her, she sends her monstrous friends out to tear them to shreds, something her nanny finds out during the film’s nightmarish climax.

The first thing one notices when watching THE CHILD is the eerie score, a haunting piano based melody by future video game composer Rob Wallace that bumps up against weird electronics to set a Gothic, dramatic mood. The second thing of significance is that Voskanian wastes little time getting to the atmospherics; as Alicianne wanders through the woods, fog machines work overtime and wind howls like mad on the soundtrack. And then there’s the ghouls: blackened, white eyed horrors that we barely see, save for a taloned hand uncoiling here, a tooth or two and a quick dash of a charred body there. It was Voskanian’s belief that the zombies should only be seen in the peripheral, not just to hide any budgetary limitations evident in their costumes, but to keep the audience guessing as to what exactly these things are.

THE CHILD was shot without sound, it’s dialogue dubbed in later and not terribly convincingly. The film feels like a European horror picture at times, with actors speaking louder than they obviously should be and voices not matching the faces of the people speaking them. And though this is a flaw that might isolate many viewers, this dissonance simply adds another layer of dream-like weirdness to the entire production.

I’m not sure if Voskanian and his producer Robert Dadashian ever saw any profit from THE CHILD. Knowing Novak, it’s unlikely that they ever did. But the film did see play-dates all over the world, with 1100 screens in the US alone, an impressive number for a low-budget horror movie with no stars. And yet, to this day, so few remember the movie. So few reference books have ever seriously discussed the picture. Even the web offers a dearth of discussion on this flawed, fascinating little film.

Bloody, sloppy, strange, serious, sometimes too somber but always more than a little bit spooky, THE CHILD is out there, waiting for the handful of horror fans who will no doubt embrace its charms.

Originally published at www.ComingSoon.net

On NOMADS

Reflecting on the enigmatic 1986 supernatural mystery

I tend to gravitate towards genre cinema that isn’t necessarily perfect but rather is flawed, fascinating and enigmatic; movies that reflect upon the mysteries of the human condition by shielding their truths in a thin sheen of bloody mess and abstract fantasy. I like films that are hazy, a bit out of focus, out of reach; pictures that you keep revisiting in order to unravel their secrets, even if they originally set out to offer very few. John McTiernan’s 1986 head scratcher NOMADS is one such feature film, a picture that feels like a dream. And like a dream, the effect of NOMADS is subjective and can’t properly be articulated.

But I’ll try.

During a long, graveyard shift in the ER, pretty young Doctor Flax (Lesley-Anne Down) encounters a beaten, bloody man (Pierce Brosnan) who initially appears to be a stark raving- mad transient. When the run down, sleep deprived MD leans in to check his pupils, the pair momentarily lock eyes before the wild-eyed lunatic bursts from his gurney, locks his jaw around her neck and whispers something in French before finally collapsing, dead.

Shaken, Dr. Flax is treated for her minor wounds and left to lie down and collect her bearings before, almost immediately, she begins to experience vivid hallucinations that send her into violent fits. As she soon discovers, the drooling madman that attacked her wasn’t a madman at all but rather a famous Canadian anthropologist named Jean Charles Pommier, a man who after traveling the earth studying nomadic cultures had finally settled down at the request of his gorgeous wife (the persuasively beautiful Anna Maria Monticelli), into a cushy teaching gig in LA.

Apparently, shortly before his death, Pommier had been tracking a leather-clad gang of street punks (whose ranks include 80’s rocker Adam Ant and cult film heroine Mary Woronov) drifting around his home. Turns out these homeless, rootless ruffians are in actuality a tribe of evil, nomadic spirits, the same breed of ancient, wandering souls he’d been obsessively following his whole life and are now hell-bent on driving him mad. The bite that Jean Charles gives Dr. Flax inexplicably causes her to aggressively relive – and we, the audience along with her – the memories leading up to his final sad state. Soon enough, she too becomes sucked into the Nomads’ secret, clandestine, twilight world.

I saw NOMADS theatrically in 1986 ( I bought a ticket for the still-running, PG rated BACK TO THE FUTURE and snuck into the curiously R-rated film instead) and I can clearly remember the disorienting effect it had on me. See, NOMADS doesn’t really make much sense, not in a linear, easily digestible way, anyway. The odd narrative structure – with its flashbacks within flashbacks, ever shifting points of view and lack of clear explanation as to the Nomads’ history or true intent – made for a rather infuriating initial viewing experience. But I soon discovered that I could not stop thinking about it. I became obsessed with it. When it arrived on home video months later, I watched and re-watched it numerous times, trying in vain to decipher its clues and determine what made the movie resonate so much with me.

But NOMADS has something. An aura. A lyricism, a kind of poetry. It has that certain– as Pommier himself might say, je ne sais quoi, that elevates it beyond simple 80’s genre potboiler and into the fluid, subconscious realms of the surreal.

I can tell you that I absolutely adore Bill (ROCKY) Conti’s urgent, erotic synth and guitar score – especially the opening theme and closing hard rock collaboration with the wingnut, bow-hunting guitar wizard Ted Nugent. I can tell you that both Down and Brosnan are magnetic in a pair of extremely difficult roles that require them to achieve a bizarre sort of character symbiosis. I can tell you that the cold, washed out look of the film (perhaps the mark of a low budget, perhaps not) is claustrophobic and unsettling in its otherworldly, dim lit way.

It’s difficult to believe that McTiernan would go on to create an endless spate of high octane, considerably less challenging, popular action pictures like DIE HARD and THE 13th WARRIOR because his maiden cinematic voyage is a work of such strikingly haunting and original moxy, such an intelligent, sophisticated, offbeat and mysterious psychological /supernatural thriller. Maybe the fact that NOMADS made about 10 cents at the box office scared McTiernan off from continuing in this daring, metaphysical fantasy vein.

I’m not entirely sure if this is a “good” movie or a “bad” movie but you know what? I don’t really care.

Interview: Composer Claudio Gizzi

A conversation with the Italian composer on his scores for Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula

In Paul Morrissey’s eccentric and utterly unhinged 1974 Italian horror classic BLOOD FOR DRACULA (often erroneously credited as the brainchild NYC art guru Andy Warhol under the name ANDY WARHOL’S DRACULA), the opening imagery of Dracula (played by iconic German weirdo Udo Kier) painting his face kabuki-white has always haunted me. The sequence is the spine and soul of the picture, showing the good Count as a tired, lonely showman who has long been forgotten by time and by the audience he once terrified.

And as eerily gorgeous as that bit of credit-crawling business is, it’s the delicate piano waltz playing in the background that truly sells it.

Like Morrissey’s 3D companion film, the previous year’s FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN, the music for BLOOD was composed by Italian musician Claudio Gizzi. It’s orchestral, elegant, full of melancholy mourning and sadness. And truthfully, it’s that dichotomy between the excessive gore, sex and general insanity on screen and Gizzi’s sophisticated, sometimes Wagnerian soundscapes that – I firmly believe – have given both films their enduring and evolving cult status.

Whether it be experimenting with progressive electronica with his fascinating Automat project or sculpting oddball stanzas for Roman Polanski’s eccentric and often neglected WHAT?, the music of Claudio Gizzi has always been a sort of secret handshake in cult cinema soundtrack circles.

A few years ago – way back in 2009 – I had the pleasure of speaking with Gizzi in an interview for the now long-scorched archives of Fangoria.com. I’m very pleased to resurrect and re-present that conversation here.

Tell me a bit about your childhood experiences with music…

From my earliest childhood I was very attracted to music. My parents told me that in the earliest days of my life my favorite tune which made me convulse with laughter and made me beat time to the music, was the Overture to William Tell by Rossini. In other words, music had to be lively and jolly for me. I belong to a family of amateur instrumentalists. In my family I am the only one who has adopted music as a profession. From being a few months old, I listened with pleasure to the violin, the banjo and the accordion and then at school I started to learn to play the piano, so as to continue in the family tradition, my parents realized that I was really fascinated by music, and so I studied composition, orchestration and everything else.

How did you become involved in composing for film?

My teachers had noticed that from the beginning, from my earliest lessons, I preferred, when seated at the piano, to improvise rather than to study and that it was easy for me to compose little pieces in a required pattern and so my way of life was indicated. Not as a pianist – even though I preferred piano and it was my favourite instrument- but as a composer. Anyway, in my way of thinking, the music more expressive and pleasing to write and to perform for an up-to- date composer is music for films and therefore at the first opportunity that came in my way I was there to collaborate with famous directors and it was incredibly important that my first appearance in the cinema was with Luchino Visconti with the film DEATH IN VENICE , a film completely infused by music. But then Roman Polanski arrived and wanted me for the sound truck of WHAT?

What was Roman like at this time? It was I presume, a strange film for him to make at a very volatile point in his life.

For me Roman was like a magician, a fairy, an elf…a genius, a creator of a dreamlike atmosphere, lively and a very knowledgeable person about music both entertaining and profound…every moment that I spent with him (from the very start of the work at Cinecitta’ to the eating of spaghetti together at his villa on Appia Antica is stamped on my memory.

And to think that he immediately had faith in me, even though I was then just a young boy.

Your work in FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN is incredible. Who really directed the film? Antonio Margheriti or Paul Morrissey? There has long been some debate as Margheriti gets credit on the Italian prints…

You know, the soundtrack for FLESH is due to Roman Polanski. He had listened to some of my compositions at piano and he introduced me to Paul Morrissey. That meeting was the beginning of the collaboration with him, followed then by the soundtrack for BLOOD FOR DRACULA. Both the principal themes of this films I had played on the piano and then with my orchestration I was able to create that atmosphere of horror and romance that I considered necessary for the films. Really, I was always interested in this style of horror, fantasy and Science Fiction in literature as well as in the cinema so, to be able to work at these two strange films – elegant, witty, intriguing – involved me and delighted me. I had artistic connections at all times with Paul Morrissey, whom I consider is a most cultured, refined and creative person. I remember that Margheriti intervened to bring his skill and experience in the splatter scenes and in the tricks of some scenes.

How much freedom were you given with FRANKENSTEIN? Were you aware ahead of time that it was a 3D film and did that influence your compositions?

It has been a very good experience because I was not conditioned by Paul, who trusted my musical intuition, especially my collaboration with Visconti. Before writing Frankenstein’s soundtrack Paul had listened to Frankenstein’s theme played on the piano and was very impressed. For the rest I had been able to present and to realize all my musical ideas as I wished to do and in the style that I had originally chosen. With reference to the 3D, I can remember having been able to see only as far as the end of my work, so I could not have been influenced at the time at all by the gimmick.

With BLOOD, you created one of the most gorgeous pieces of music ever used in a horror film….that overture…haunting. Was that composed while staring at Udo Kier’s face in post production or was it composed before the film was edited?

Effectively this theme for Dracula, especially in its version for solo piano,  is one of the most complete and efficacious things of my career. This is a demonstration that the simplicity and power of melody makes it superior and the most important thing in the musical world. I remember that this theme was born spontaneously by the magnificent images of the titles of the film while they were being shown on the screen. Udo’s sadness, composure and elegance in front of the mirror really struck me and guided me towards this musical experience…

Have you received letters and love for these scores over the years?

In fact, I received a great number of messages of approval and enjoyment from all over the world, especially from the U.S.A. There were also some people who wanted to have the score and to some of them I sent a score that I had written and signed. I hope I have made someone among my admirers happy. Basically, music is a wonderful, universal language which unites us and creates friends.

Why did you stop making music for movies?

Italy is a strange country, where both the most marvelous and the most unbearable things occur. As you know, from the great world of the Italian cinema after the second world war, we have come to a time that was less favorable to our productions. In these years the so called “cinema of style” has vanished and also the greater part of Italian films have been comedies, or at least entertaining or dramatic works (obviously apart from the work of Fellini and other talented people). So, the conditions for being able to write music of international value is greatly reduced and there is space only for the great Italian composers, above all, Ennio Morricone. In other ways even my way of life as a musician has not helped me to find a place in my country and so, during these years of my career, I have been working in the world of commercial music… in the world of the TV, easy listening and music for the theater. However, even in this sphere I have been able to achieve international success under the pseudonym “Jean-Pierre Posit ” doing classic- romantic music , dreamy and elegant,  or “Automat” which is more electronic and aggressive.

I also enjoyed your work in David Gregory’s PLAGUE TOWN. Why did you decide to make that piece for the film?

I have been sorry not to have known sooner David, a man of great experience and knowledge of the cinema-music world who immediately became my dear friend, by then the work of his splendid film was already completed and the music already recorded…the elegance and the atmosphere created in his film would have been perfect for my way of making music. Anyway, when David had sent me a rough cut of his film I was struck immediately by the pictures, especially the expressiveness and skill of the lead actress Josslyn DeCrosta and the sight of that girl with the eyes drawn , the one in the advertisement of the film) and suddenly the theme was born. I then sent it to David – once more the piano, as you can hear – and he liked it and to my great satisfaction has included in his film. I hope to be able in the future to collaborate again with David Gregory, because I am sure of being able with my music to contribute to his excellent work as a film-maker and because, with David, I have a great feeling of agreement and also a feeling for filming and for music.

Who are some of the great composers for film that you love?

A great number of them. Often, when I watch a film just about I don’t understand the plot as I cannot listen to the dialogues, being so involved with the music. However, my favourite, without a doubt, is John Williams, who I consider to be a master because of the strength of his melodic talent and at the same time an incomparable builder of forms and orchestrations. Here, in Italy I like Nino Rota because no other composer is able to invent simple melodies that are very beautiful and unforgettable. I always think that the greatest attraction in music is due to that incomprehensible skill that you don’t study, you don’t learn, but that is born in you, the melody.

On CIRCUS OF HORRORS

In praise of the lurid and pulpy 1960 shocker

Before H.G. Lewis was bathing in cheap stage blood and flipping stomachs at drive-ins everywhere and the same year that Alfred Hitchcock ran chocolate sauce down the drain while a sort-of nude Janet Leigh screamed, there was director Sidney (BURN WITCH BURN) Hayers’ wonderfully pulpy and surprisingly sadistic CIRCUS OF HORRORS, a Grand Guignol shocker with a campy cruel streak that was far ahead of its time.

The film was the product of a partnership between British studio Anglo-Amalgamated (the same studio that brought us PEEPING TOM and Roger Corman’s THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH) and US genre machine American International Pictures, their second after the successful Michael Gough vehicle HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM. And like that deliciously dark picture, CIRCUS has a rough, lurid edge and trades in cruelty and nasty behavior to provide its frissons.

But the movie is great for other reasons too. It’s a bright, candy colored melodrama about the abuse of power and, like any good Frankenstein tale, it’s a moral parable about the dangers of playing God.

The great Anton Diffring, who a year earlier starred in the magnificent THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH and decades later wound up in Jess Franco’s FACELESS, stars as Dr. Rossiter, a brilliant plastic surgeon on the lam after a series of botched operations. We see one of these failed procedures in the first 5 minutes, with a comely woman whose face is slowly melting to putty. When she screams in horror at the disintegration of her visage, we scream too. It’s a harrowing scene that must have alarmed audiences in 1960 and still has the power to ick you out today…

After he flees the city and crashes his car, he himself is disfigured and, with the help of two loyal assistants, rebuilds his own mug and re-christens himself Dr. Schuler. The trio travel to France where they meet a poor, kindly circus owner (the great Donald Pleasence) and his scarred daughter. Figuring this not-so-big top is the best place to hide out, Rossiter/Schuler makes a deal with the ringmaster to heal his daughter, which he does, in exchange for taking him on as a partner in the circus. But when the owner is killed by a dancing bear (it’s a great, violent and ludicrous sequence), Schuler takes over the joint entirely.

Combing through the city streets, Schuler begins collecting wounded women, including a prostitute/hustler whose face-long scar has driven her to a life on the skids. In one of the movie’s most entertainingly sick bits, the hooker stabs and steals the wallet of one poor John, and as he cries for help and bleeds out in the background, Schuler pins the girl to a wall and urgently convinces her to join his psycho circus. Schuler becomes a sort of surgical Svengali, rebuilding broken women and controlling them, training them to be his star attractions and, if they dare threaten to leave, murdering them.

Of course, the ruse can’t last forever and, despite the circus’ success and evolution into the biggest of its kind in the country, the law begins to snoop around and, very quickly, Schuler’s reign of megalomaniacal terror winds down.

There’s so much to savor in CIRCUS OF HORRORS, including the lilting, romantic and delightfully tacky Garry Mills song “Look for a Star”, a song that actually charted successfully in England, and of course the endless array of violent, theatrical murders, bubbling-cauldron melodrama and winking mean-spiritedness (love the death by knife throwing bit). But the movie really works primarily because of Diffring’s truly magnetic performance, a complicated turn that sees his Rossiter/Schuler veer between sympathetic and sociopathic, sometimes within the same scene. We never quite hate him. His intentions are always good – or at least the germ of his intentions are –  and yet they’re fatally corrupted by his ego. It’s a fascinating character and a very layered performance in a truly remarkable horror movie that has sadly slipped into the sideshow of shock cinema history. It’s out there, waiting and ripe for rediscovery.

 

On NOSFERATU: PHANTOM DER NACHT

A look at German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s haunting 1979 vampire film

Immortality. We all want it. The chance to defy that black specter of death that equalizes us. But to live forever, drifting through time like a ghost; residue of a memory, unattached to anything, anyplace…anyone. Hiding in shadows until the earth stops spinning. The crushing loneliness of it…would it really be worth it?

That’s the central driving thematic force behind director Werner Herzog’s dark, dreamy, full color remake of the immortal 1922 German expressionist classic Nosferatu. A film that, although deeply indebted (sometimes almost scene for scene) to the iconic, silent original, still manages to evolve beyond its experimental horror roots, taking its essence from F.W. Murnau (like a vampire would, in fact), assimilating that blueprint and then injecting liberal amounts of lyricism and a driving force of deep, bittersweet melancholy. The resulting work is among the inimitable Herzog’s most powerful and important films.

After a string of incredibly successful art house favorites throughout the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Herzog, who alongside trailblazing filmmakers Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders, was a major figure in the German new wave movement, turned his gaze to the film he correctly acknowledged as the single most important German movie of all time. Indeed, the director had set his sights on remaking Murnau’s shuddery unauthorized Dracula adaptation, shooting both German and English language versions and applying his own unique cinematic aesthetic to the oft filmed tale of the bloodsucking undead.

Unfortunately, at the same time Universal was also prepping the John Badham / Frank Langella take on the Hamilton Deane stage version of Dracula and MGM were launching the post-disco era George Hamilton spoof Love at First Bite, both easily accessible to mass-audience sensibilities and hugely popular. Herzog’s languid, meditative anti-horror film was completely at odds with both the times and stateside sensibilities and his film, Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht (or Nosferatu:The Vampyre as it was known in the US and UK), although critically praised by many, got lost in the sanguinary shuffle, deemed by some as pretentious and thought by some critics to be a pointless attempt to revisit a picture that was already perfect as is.

Of course, that simply is not the case and time has, like it often does with most enduring masterworks of dark cinema, proved any naysayers wrong. Herzog’s epic tale of disease, death, love, loss and isolation is absolutely one of the most evocative and emotional vampire film ever committed to celluloid.

To fully appreciate the one of a kind wonder of Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht, one must first understand the work of its creator. Born and raised in a remote German mountain village, one completely untouched by technology, young Werner would grow up in an environment two shades shy of the Stone Age, not making his first phone call until he was 14 and not seeing his first film until he was 17. But Herzog had something far better than modern distractions to inspire him. He was surrounded by the beauty of the natural world; of mountainous terrain, unforgiving nights and swooning days; of green grass, gentle winds and free flowing rivers. Herzog would grow up understanding nature, respecting it and most importantly, he was deeply humbled by it. He understood infinitely that mother earth was an unforgiving mistress; a bitch goddess that could kiss as easily as kill and only a fool would dare attempt to gain the upper hand against her.

So when life propelled him towards becoming what he would become, Herzog began making movies that told tales of dangerous eccentrics, heroes and madmen whose sometimes valiant, often vain, efforts to conquer nature result in their ruin. Thing is, Herzog would often choose to film these pictures in the very bowels of the badlands and wild worlds that his scripts painted as treacherous, using locals and natives as extras and often personally teetering on the very destruction he sought to chart.

His front-of-lens collaborator for 5 astounding films, the probably legitimately insane performance artist Klaus Kinski, he of the blond hair, widely spaced eyes and twitchy lips, would in essence become the extension of Herzog; his dark side, the embodiment of his vice and his irrational desire to perhaps subconsciously cause his own destruction. The two became close friends but also, famously, mortal on-set enemies, once even plotting to murder each other behind the other’s back (check out the stirring Herzog documentaries Burden of Dreams and My Best Fiend if you don’t believe me). The fact that Herzog would eventually cast his beloved nemesis as the Lord of the parasites, speaks volumes about their unique and creatively volatile relationship.

Now, as every horror historian knows (but we’ll recap here for those who don’t), back when Murnau decided to adapt Stoker for the screen, he ran into a huge problem: Stoker’s widow was very much alive and in possession of both her faculties and the rights to her hubby’s estate. And she wanted cash. A lot more cash than Murnau was planning to part with. So Murnau, ever the arrogant brat, got the idea to tweak names and places in the story, changing Stoker’s suave Transylvanian Count into a bald, bone- white, taloned freak named “Orlock”, and went ahead as planned, calling his picture Nosferatu instead. As only a moron would miss the narrative disguise, the widow Stoker sued the director within an inch of his life, resulting in the courts ordering all prints of the picture to be destroyed. But they weren’t and years later some of them surfaced, the film was hailed a lost classic and the rest is horror lore.

When it came time for Herzog to make his own tribute to this remarkable picture, the Dracula property had lapsed into the public domain, meaning he could call his villain Dracula and change the names and places back to their rightful literary origin. His plot, however, follows the original film’s setup verbatim: Jonathan Harker (here played by notable German actor Bruno Ganz, perhaps best known now as Hitler in the film Downfall) lives in quiet bliss in Virna with his porcelain skinned wife Lucy (played by the ravishing French actress Isabelle Adjani). One day, Harker’s giggling, half-mad boss Renfield (brilliantly played by author Roland Topor, the same Roland Topor who wrote the novel on which Polanski’s The Tenant was based) sends him on an expedition to Transylvania to sell property to one Count Dracula (Kinski), a long trip he promises will cost the young go-getter plenty of sweat…and blood.

Harker leaves his beloved Lucy and begins his serpentine journey to Castle Dracula where, after enduring weeks of endless horror, he discovers his host is in fact a night-crawling, neck-nipping monster. As Dracula packs up his black coffins and heads to Harker’s hometown, specifically to sample the wares of his wife, a fever-ridden Harker must escape his tower prison and beat the rat-bringing, plague- carrying vampire to the punch before it’s too late.

There’s nothing in that synopsis that you haven’t read or seen before, but remember, this is Dracula retold by a man who tells tales a bit differently than most. This is Werner Herzog’s Dracula, shot on staggeringly eye filling locations in the Netherlands, filled with impossible beauty, eccentric characters and most importantly an almost overwhelming sadness. The film is, as are all Herzog pictures, free of artifice and special effect save for Kinski’s shocking make up design, cribbed wholesale from the original fiend played by actor Max Shreck. Indeed the first time we see Kinski, his bald, pointy-eared, rat-toothed visage is shocking; he’s a creature completely at odds with the natural beauty around him. This Dracula, for all his hideous, otherworldly, appearance, is simply another one of the director’s dangerous outsiders, a thing who has been blessed and cursed with the secret of eternal life and yet forced to live as an outcast, skulking in rotting tombs, in a twilight shadow world, free of any sort of comfort…or love.

And this vampire needs love, or rather needs to be loved.

And what of Kinski? Does this lunatic who so viscerally brought the monkey-tossing, delusional Don Lope de Aguirre and the megalomaniacal Fitzcaraldo to screeching life, manage to successfully essay a miserable, attention-starved vampire fiend who’s bloodlust is only matched by his despair? Fucking right, he does. Whether glowing in the moonlight, hungrily eyeing a dining Harker or creeping up on the beautiful Lucy, Kinski manages to create a monster that is as pathetic as he is terrifying, who wants to re-join the human race but whose disdain for it keeps him terminally distanced from everything.
Witness the climactic scene where a broken-hearted Lucy finally invites Dracula to drain her, hoping to drown him in daylight and save her husband’s soul. In the original, Max Shreck’s Count Orlock simply drinks her dry but here, with Kinski in the role, he vainly attempts to engage in ‘normal’ lovemaking, clumsily pulling up Lucy’s dress, clutching her bosom, sniffing her like a suspicious dog, before she lets him off the hook and just pulls him to her throat. It’s an erotic (though free of nudity or traditional erotica tropes), tragic and macabre sequence and there has never been anything like it onscreen before or since.

There’s one paralyzing section in Herzog’s Nosferatu that long ago made it one of my favorite films. As the rat plague brought by Dracula ravishes Virna, killing men, women and children without mercy, Lucy wanders the streets trying to convince the few survivors of the undead menace in their midst. The haunting sounds of Herzog’s regular composer, the late Florian Fricke (aka progressive rock outfit Popol Vuh) bleeds into an otherworldly Georgian Choir, their mournful sound drifting across a tableaux of an inevitable death. Pigs shit in the street, men try to mate with sheep, children dance with fiddlers, couples make love on the cobblestones and Lucy, dressed in white, raven hair pulled tight in a bun, almond eyes open wide weaves within it all. A table in the middle of the madness sees handsomely attired men and women dining and drinking, inviting Lucy to sit with them. “We all have the plague” a woman says matter-of-factly as rats dart in and out from between her legs, “and we want to enjoy every last minute we have left.”

A frame later and the people are gone. Their feast now simply a table full of hordes of diseased rats. Chilling and beautiful stuff…. watch it below…

Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht might just be Werner Herzog’s ultimate masterpiece. A moving, haunting portrait of the mercilessness and inevitability of death but also a stark statement about how sometimes a brief life filled with warmth, love, beauty and belonging is better than an endless one filled with nothing but want. From the gorgeous cinematography, heart breaking performances, eerie, unforgettable music and even the quintessentially Herzogian dark humor, this is one of the few motion pictures that benefits from several serious viewings, preferably alone, without a break of any kind. To say it pales beside the original is to miss the point…

Originally published at www.comingsoon.net