Halloween Havoc!: DEATH CURSE OF TARTU (Thunderbird International 1966)

Welcome to the weird world of low-budget Florida-based filmmaker William Grefe, whose Everglades-lensed movies are always interesting. Not necessarily good mind you, but interesting. Still, the man did the best he could with what little resources he had. One of his most famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) films is the 1966 shocker DEATH CURSE OF TARTU.

DEATH CURSE OF TARTU concerns a husband-and-wife team of archeologists and their students searching for a missing colleague. The teens want to “go down to the lake and roast marshmallows” (and engage in some energetic frugging and heavy necking!), when they stumble on the crypt of Tartu, an ancient Indian “witch doctor”, and his curse. Soon, teens begin to drop like swamp flies as shape-shifting Tartu turns into a snake, shark and alligator, until the lead archeologist translates the ancient tablet, and discovers the only way to break the curse is by destroying Tartu’s remains…

I can see how DEATH CURSE OF TARTU has had an influence on all those slasher flicks to come, with the teens getting picked off one by one in some fairly gruesome (for the time) ways. My favorite is the swamp-shark attack, and even though, as one teen puts it, “Sharks don’t live in fresh water”, it’s a neat little set-piece. The 400-year-old “witch doctor” himself isn’t very scary in the flesh, but when he turns into a swamp creature, look out! The film was initially released as a double feature with another Grefe epic, STING OF DEATH, involving a mutated jellyfish and allegedly cowritten by another maverick filmmaker, Herschell Gordon Lewis!

Florida filmmaker William Grefe

Grefe’s filmography includes the biker flick THE WILD REBELS, the druggie drama THE HOOKED GENERATION (with biker/western vet Jeremy Slate), the sleazy THE NAKED ZOO (starring of all people Rita Hayworth alongside the rock band Canned Heat!), the WILLARD-with snakes shocker STANLEY, the psycho-killer classic IMPULSE (with William Shatner as a leisure-suited murderer!), and the aptly-titled JAWS rip-off MAKO: THE JAWS OF DEATH. He also did the underwater shark scenes for the James Bond adventure LIVE AND LET DIE, which is probably his greatest contribution to cinema.

DEATH CURSE OF TARTU isn’t all that coherent, and I was annoyed by a few things in the film, like the constant drumbeats-and-chanting coming from nowhere, and the constant screaming of annoying teen Cindy (though I did love it when Annoying Cindy was mercifully chomped to death by that gator!). But as a proto-slasher movie, it deserves a small amount of credit, as does William Grefe himself, a man with a dream to make his movies his way, without the benefit of a large budget (or any budget, for that matter!). In that respect, Mr. Grefe was a success.

Halloween Havoc!: Peter Cushing in TWINS OF EVIL (Universal/Hammer 1971)

British babes Mary and Madeleine Collinson became the first set of twins to not only star as Playboy Twin Centerfolds (and we’ll get to that at the end of this post!!), but to star in a Hammer Horror film, 1971’s TWINS OF EVIL. Not only that, the lasses got to play opposite Hammer icon Peter Cushing as their puritanical, witch burning uncle. It’s the final chapter in Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy (preceded by 1970’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and 1971’s LUST FOR A VAMPIRE), based on characters from Sheridan LeFanu’s 1872 novella , and it’s a sexy, blood-spattered scream!

As uncle Gustav Weil goes around the countryside burning young girls at the stake, his recently orphaned twin teenage nieces Maria and Frieda arrive from Venice. Prudish Uncle Gustav disapproves of the girls’ plunging decolletage (“What kind of plumage is this? The birds of paradise?”). While Maria is shy and demure, Frieda’s a rebellious wild child, and sneaks out of the house to meet up with Gustav’s sworn enemy, the decadent Count Karnstein.

The aristocratic Count has long been dabbling in black magic, and his satanic ritual summons forth his dead ancestor Countess Mircalla (played by Katya Wyeth in a cameo), who puts the bite on Karnstein and makes him one of the undead. The Count in turn sinks his fangs into Frieda, and things really start to get gruesome from there as Gustav and his church brethren storm Castle Karnstein for an exciting, gore-filled climax.

Cushing’s amazing as always, delivering his pious lines with aplomb and running around like a much younger man (he was 58 at the time). Damien Thomas takes the role of the debauched Count and runs with it, his handsome looks belying what lurks underneath. Character actor Dennis Price has a small part as one of Gustav’s closest advisers. Director John Hough keeps the pace brisk; some other Hough horrors of note include THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, ESCAPE FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN, THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS, and AMERICAN GOTHIC, not to mention the Peter Fonda drive-in actioner DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY.

As for the Collinson Twins, their screen career pretty much ended with TWINS OF EVIL. Let’s face it, there’s not much you can do with a twin gimmick after starring in a vampire horror flick. Madeleine passed away in 2014, but Mary is still alive and well, living the good life in Milan. As I promised earlier, here are Mary and Madeleine Collinson in their famous 1970 Playboy Centerfold:

C’mon, you didn’t really think I was going to go there, did you? This is a family blog!!

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (Paramount 1932)

Universal Pictures kicked off the horror trend of the early 30’s with DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN , and soon every studio in Hollywood, both major and minor, jumped on the terror train. Paramount was the first to hop on board with an adaptation of Stevenson’s DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE , earning Fredric March an Oscar for his dual role. Soon there was DR. X (Warners), THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (RKO), FREAKS and THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (both MGM), and THE MONSTER WALKS and WHITE ZOMBIE from the indies. Paramount released ISLAND OF LOST SOULS at the end of 1932, a film so shocking and perverse it was banned in Britain for over a quarter century, and still manages to frighten even the most jaded of horror fans today.

Based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells, the film begins with shipwrecked Edward Parker being rescued by The Covena, a cargo ship carrying a freight of wild animals to the uncharted island of Dr. Moreau, located in the South Pacific. Moreau is called “a scientific genius” by his associate aboard ship, Dr. Montgomery, but though ship’s Captain Davies labels him a “grave robbing ghoul” Parker gets into an altercation with the drunken captain, who strands him on the island. As Montgomery leads Parker through the jungle to Moreau’s home, the young man notices something strange about the island natives, something he can’t quite put his finger on.

It is now we meet Dr. Moreau: a white-suited, whip-cracking, portly figure who’s beard gives him a Satanic visage. The courteous Moreau invites Parker to spend the night, and leave with Montgomery in the morning, yet he has sinister ulterior motives. Moreau is a vivisectionist who has been experimenting with “organic evolution”, turning animals into half-human monstrosities in his ‘House of Pain’. The natives Parker encountered were the results of those mad experiments, but Moreau’s had more success with Lota, half-human/half-panther, and wants to find out how much human emotion she has by introducing her to the handsome Parker, hoping perhaps they’ll mate!

When Parker finds out about Moreau’s deviant research projects, he tries to escape with Lota (not yet realizing she, too, is half-human), but they’re stopped by the Manimals. Moreau rescues the pair, cracking his whip and forcing the beasts to recite The Law (“Not to spill blood”, “Not to eat meat”). After explaining his scientific discoveries to Parker, it’s discovered the schooner has sunk, leaving Parker no alternative but to stay longer. Lota has caught feelings for Parker, and they kiss, but to Parker’s horror, he feels large panther claws digging into his back! She’s reverting back to animal state, and Moreau returns her to his ‘House of Pain’. Meanwhile, Parker’s fiance Ruth has arrived with Captain Donahue, and Moreau’s plans to mate a human with his weird creations changes…

Shock follows shock in this gripping, gruesome film from director Erle C. Kenton, who began his career back in 1916. Kenton and his cinematographer Karl Struss use shadows and light to create an eerie ambiance, with that trademark Paramount early 30’s filmed-through-gauze style. Struss was well noted for shooting F.W. Murnau’s Expressionistic classic SUNRISE, and became one of the studio’s ace cinematographers. Kenton was strictly a ‘B’ director, and ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is probably his greatest film achievement. He later helmed Universal’s 40’s Monster Rallies (GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN,  HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN , HOUSE OF DRACULA ) and Abbott & Costello comedies (PARDON MY SARONG, WHO DONE IT?, IT AIN’T HAY), as well as the 1948  exploitation drama BOB AND SALLY, which covered everything from abortion to alcoholism to VD in a little over an hour!

Charles Laughton  gives a bravura performance as Moreau, outwardly charming and cultivated yet harboring a deep rooted insanity. A lesser actor would’ve went over the top with a part as juicy as Moreau, but Laughton shows great restraint in bringing the mad doctor to life, even when uttering the tempting line, “Do you know what it means to feel like God?”. Laughton’s Dr. Moreau is up there in the pantheon of 1930’s horror performances, and though he’d give us more fine film roles (Henry VIII, Ruggles, Inspector Javert, Captian Bligh, Quasimodo) his Moreau remains my personal favorite.

Square jawed hero Richard Arlen has what’s probably his most unusual role of his career as Parker (except maybe his Cheshire Cat in ALICE IN WONDERLAND , but as usual he nails it. Bela Lugosi appears, almost unrecognizable except for that Hungarian voice, as the hairy-faced Sayer of the Law, leader of the Manimals. Leila Hyams isn’t given much to do as Ruth,but she’s always a welcome presence. Arthur Hohl (Montgomery), Stanely Fields (Davies), and Paul Hurst (Donahue) offer strong support.

Then there’s Lota the Panther Woman. She’s played by 19 year old Kathleen Burke, who won a talent contest in Chicago for the chance be in the film. Burke brings a savage beauty to the part, and is quite good for a novice in her first time out. Miss Burke altogether made 22 films, among them MURDERS IN THE ZOO (another horror effort, starring Lionel Atwill), LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER (as a Russian seductress), THE LAST OUTPOST, and BOY OF THE STREETS, before retiring in 1938 and returning to Chicago. Kathleen Burke passed away in 1980.

Those half-human monstrosities were created by makeup wizard Wally Westmore and Charlie Gemora (who also appears early as a gorilla in a cage). Each and every Manimal is unique unto itself, which must have been painstaking work for the makeup department, but well worth the effort. The revolt of the Manimals against Moreau is one of the most chilling scenes in early horror history, and ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU is a bona fide horror classic that genre lovers do not want to miss.