Halloween Havoc!: DIABOLIQUE (Filmsonor 1955)

I last discussed France’s le cinema fantastique two years ago today with a look at EYES WITHOUT A FACE . Now let’s return to the land of “Liberte’, equalite’, fraternite'” and take a trip back to 1955’s DIABOLIQUE, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece of psychological horror starring Simone Signoret that can compete with any Alfred Hitchcock film in the spine-tingling suspense department. In fact, Hitchcock himself wanted to secure the rights to the book by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac that DIABOLIQUE is based on, but Clouzot beat him to it!

Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is the cruel principal of a boarding school owned by wife Christina (Vera Clouzot), a weak woman with a heart condition whom he constantly berates. He also has a mistress, teacher Nicole Horner (Signoret), sporting a black eye from the bastard. The two women know about each other, with Michel lording his power over them. Christina and Nicole have had enough though, and conspire to do the prick in over the school holiday. Nicole has devised an ingenious plan to lure him away, having Christina call and tell Michel she wants a divorce. Not wishing to lose his meal ticket, he goes to Nicole’s apartment in Niort, where he’s drugged with a bottle of Johnnie Walker and drowned in the bathtub. They cart Michel’s body in a wicker basket back to the school and dump it in the swimming pool, but when it doesn’t emerge they scheme to have the pool drained. The body has vanished, and strange things then begin to happen: the suit Michel was wearing is delivered home from the dry cleaners, a little boy tells them the principal caught him breaking a window, and the annual school picture shows Michel’s ghostly face in a window!

Clouzot keeps the suspense ratcheted tight as a drum, turning the screws ever so slowly until the haunting finale, with a triple twist ending that the filmmaker asks the audience not to reveal… so I won’t! The penultimate scene is obviously influenced by the films of Val Lewton and American film noir (which were both influenced by the French poetic realism films to begin with): full of chiaroscuro shadows, footfalls in the dark, a quiet sense of dread, followed by the shocking revelation. It is one of the scariest segments in horror, indeed in cinema as a whole, and not to be missed.

The performances are dead-on (pun intended), with Simone and Madame Clouzot at the top of their game. Charles Varel also shines in the pivotal role of a Columbo-like retired cop turned private detective, adding to the eeriness. DIABLOIQUE has been remade several times: Curtis Harrington’s 1967 GAMES (also with Signoret), a pair of TV Movies (1974’s REFLECTIONS OF MURDER, 1993’S HOUSE OF SECRETS), and a big budget 1996 version starring Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani (with Kathy Bates as the cop!) that failed miserably. None of these films can hold a candle to Clouzot’s dark, disturbing piece de resistance. There’s only one auteur who could’ve possibly handled this material with such style, and that would be Hitchcock. We can only wonder what that would be like, but we’ll never know. Instead, we’re left with Clouzot’s brilliant piece of film work, which we can certainly be grateful to have for Halloween (or any) season.

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Halloween Havoc!: DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! (Columbia/Hammer 1965)

Miss Tallulah Bankhead  jumped on the “Older Women Do Horror” bandwagon with 1965’s DIE! DIE! MY DARLING!, a deliciously dark piece of British horror from the good folks at Hammer. It was Tallulah’s first screen appearance since 1953’s MAIN STREET TO BROADWAY, and the veteran actress is a ball of fire and brimstone playing the mad Mrs. Trefoile, a feisty religious fanatic who locks up her late son’s former fiancé in an attic room in order to save her mortal soul.

Things start out innocently enough, as American Patricia Carroll (Stefanie Powers) travels to England to be with her new fiancé Alan Glentower (Maurice Kaufman). She’s received a letter from her deceased ex’s mother and agrees to pay her a visit, despite Alan’s protestations. Driving to Mrs. Trefoile’s ramshackle old farmhouse, Pat discovers the old woman’s more than a bit odd, holding daily church service for her servants, dressing all in black, and eschewing any food with flavor. Mrs. Trefoile freaks out when Pat wears a crimson outfit to dinner, insisting she change to a more conservative color immediately. Pat soon finds out Mrs. Trefoile considers Pat her daughter-in-law now – for life! Not only that, she locks Pat in an attic room and piles on the psychological and physical torture to convert Pat from her evil, secular ways. A deadly game of cat and mouse ensues as Pat desperately tries to escape from the gun-toting, Bible-spouting madwoman and her flock.

Tallulah has a field day as Mrs. Trefoile, performing sans makeup and her hair pulled severly back. It’s a bold change of pace for the glamourous actress, and Tallulah pulls it off in her own inimitable style. Mrs. Trefoile is the very model of sexual repression, and her devotion to her late son’s memory is illustrated as she talks to him and sleeps with his childhood teddy bear. A lesser actress would have gone over the top, but Tallulah manages to play things totally straight and creates one of the genre’s scariest psycho-biddies. She’s cast against type as the pious fanatic, as her sexual and hard-partying exploits were well documented by the press. Tallulah Bankhead made less than two dozen pictures, spending most of her career on the stage, but shows she was a master of movie acting with this juicy part.

Stefanie Powers is more than up to the task of acting opposite Tallulah as Patricia. DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! was made a year before Stefanie starred as TV’s THE GIRL FROM UNCLE, and is her best movie role. Later she teamed with Robert Wagner and veteran Lionel Stander for another hit series HART TO HART (1979-1984). Mrs. Trefoile’s servants include Peter Vaughn (GAME OF THRONES) as the lustful Harry, Yootha Joyce (HAVING A WILD WEEKEND ) as his powerful wife Anna, and a young Canadian named Donald Sutherland as the simple-minded Joseph. Wonder whatever happened to him?

Richard Matheson’s  screenplay takes it’s time building the suspense, slowly ratcheting things tighter and tighter for poor Pat until the final frightening crescendo. Horror fans are well aware of Matheson’s work in novels, short stories, film, and television. This was his only foray into ‘Grand Dame Guignol’ territory, and it’s one of the genre’s best. Director Silvio Narizzano made his feature film debut here; he’s best remembered today for the British hit GEORGY GIRL. Hammer Films’ original title to DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! was FANATIC, but when released in America Columbia changed it to play off Tallulah’s famed catchphrase (she called everyone “dah-ling”). Miss Bankhead was not amused, but by any name, this is a terrifying piece of work that belongs on your Halloween watch list. Bravo, Tallulah!

Halloween Havoc!: Joan Crawford in STRAIT-JACKET! (Columbia 1964)

It’s time once again to revisit Joan Crawford’s later-day career as a horror star, and this one’s a pretty good shocker. STRAIT-JACKET! was Joan’s follow-up to WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, the first in the “Older Women Do Horror” genre (better known by the detestable moniker “Psycho-Biddy Movies”). Here she teams for the first time with veteran producer/director William Castle , starring as an axe murderess released after twenty years in an insane asylum, becoming the prime suspect when people begin to get hacked to bits again.

The film itself begins with a 1940’s prolog depicting the gruesome events that occurred when Lucy Harbin (Joan) catches her husband (Lee Majors in his uncredited film debut) in bed with another woman. Joan, all dolled up to resemble her MILDRED PIERCE-era self, grabs the nearest axe and CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! goes hubby and his squeeze into itsy-bitsy pieces. The act is witnessed by her little daughter Carol (Vicki Cos), and Lucy is put away for a long stretch in the nuthouse.

Flash forward twenty years, and Lucy returns home to stay with her brother Bill (Leif Erickson), and his wife Emily (Rochelle Hudson ) who’ve raised Carol (now played by Diane Baker) ever since. Carol, now a budding sculptress, has a fiancé Michael (John Anthony Hayes) she wants Mom to meet, but Lucy’s still skittish, so Carol decides to help by glamming Lucy up to look like she did in the fabulous 40’s! Strange things happen after that, with Lucy’s old psychiatrist getting CHOPPED, then the sleazy farm hand (George Kennedy ), finally Michael’s dad – CHOP! CHOP!, and Michael’s mom is up next before the climax that most horror fans will see coming a mile away.

Joan’s silent film training comes in handy, as the consummate screen star gets to emote with her eyes and body language in many scenes. Crawford is in complete control as the is-she-or-isn’t-she killer, and besides BABY JANE this is her best horror picture. The scenes with Joan all decked out in 40’s fashions and bewigged are a little silly, especially when a tipsy Joan tries to seduce her future son-in-law, but it’s all part of the plot written by another horror vet, Robert Bloch (PSYCHO, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD ). Castle lends his own macabre touch, with decapitations and some gripping suspense. The Master of Ballyhoo’s gimmick to put patrons in the seats this time around involved passing out little cardboard axes to theater goers, and Joan even participated in a personal appearance tour to promote the film.

Diane Baker had worked with Joan before, in 1959’s THE BEST OF EVERYTHING, and the two women have a marvelous screen chemistry. The rest of the cast is filled with old pros like Erickson, Hudson, and Edith Atwater as Michael’s rich-bitch mother. This was only George Kennedy’s sixth film, but he holds his own as the creepy farm hand who winds up with his head lopped off. STRAIT-JACKET! had an impact on the later slasher shockers to come, and is more than worth your time this Halloween season, especially for fans of the great Joan Crawford.

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: THE DUNWICH HORROR (AIP 1970)

THE DUNWICH HORROR is another film I saw when it was first released, on a double bill with the Spaghetti Western GOD FORGIVES, I DON’T. Unfortunately, this one fails to stand the test of time, with it’s trippy special effects and a somnambulant performance by Dean Stockwell , who was pretty obviously stoned out of his gourd during the shooting.

Professor of the occult Henry Armitage is lecturing on the Necronomicon, a book said to hold the key to the gate to another dimension, where a race of monsters known as “the old ones” dwell. Creepy Wilbur Whateley, great grandson of occultist Oliver, shows an abonrmal interest in the book. In fact, Wilbur wants to possess the Necronomicon to bring “the old ones” back to rule the Earth once again. To achieve this, he pretty much kidnaps and drugs student Nancy Wagner, hoping to use her in a bizarre sex ritual that will unlock that gate. Nancy’s friend Elizabeth, concerned about her well-being, goes to the Whateley house to find her, only to be attacked by Wilbur’s twin brother, who’s a demon from beyond!  Some nefarious doings cause the townspeople to storm Wilbur’s property, where Armitage and Whateley engage in an occult battle that results in the end of the Whateley line… or does it??

This wasn’t director Daniel Haller’s first shot at helming a film based on the writings of H.P. Lovercraft. In 1965, Haller directed his first film, DIE, MONSTER, DIE, based on Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”, starring the immortal Boris Karloff. THE DUNWICH HORROR features color filters and distorted lens to convey the horrors from the other side, but they come off like bad outtakes from executive producer Roger Corman’s LSD extravaganza THE TRIP , causing the film to feel dated. Though there are some scary scenes, they’re few and far between.

Stockwell sleepwalks through the role of Wilbur Whateley, as he did for most of his performances of the era. That’s understandable, as during this time he was involved in the hippie/drug scene and hanging out with the likes of Dennis Hopper and Neil Young. Sandra Dee (Nancy) is equally dull, although she has an excuse, her character having fallen under the spell of Wilbur’s occult powers (and drugs!). Dee makes the movie seem like it could be subtitled GIDGET GOES TO HELL! This was the last film for veteran Ed Begley (Armitage), who at least lends some dignity to the proceedings, despite spouting gibberish in that fatal final battle with Stockwell. The same can’t be said for Sam Jaffe, playing Wilbur’s grandpop, who overacts mercilessly.

Other Familiar Faces include Donna Baccala, Lloyd Bochner , AIP stalwarts Beach Dickerson and Barboura Morris , Talia Shire (her 2nd film appearance), and Jason Wingreen. I really liked THE DUNWICH HORROR when I first saw it, and wanted to like it again. But I just can’t recommend it; there are tons of other, better horror films to watch this Halloween season. Unless you’re as stoned as Stockwell was when he made it – then you just may dig it!

“Yog-Sothoth!!”

Halloween Havoc!: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (The Walter Read Organization1968)

The late, great George A. Romero’s first feature, NIGHT OF THE LVING DEAD, was shot in the wilds of Pittsburgh, PA on a budget of $114,000. This unheralded,  gruesome little indie became a landmark in horror, influencing and inspiring generations of moviemakers to come. Better scribes than your humble correspondent have written countless analyses on the film, so I’m going to give you my perspective from my first viewing of the film… at the impressionable age of 13!

My cousin and I, both horror buffs, first saw it as the bottom half of a double feature in 1970. The main attraction was EQUINOX , which came highly recommended by Forrest J Ackerman , editor of the Monster Kid’s Bible, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. As we eagerly awaited the main attraction, we sat through the warm-up, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. At first, we thought it was an older rerelease, because no one would dare make a black & white film in this modern day and age! But as things unfolded, we were treated to the scariest movie we’d ever seen (and much better than EQUINOX, which was a huge letdown after watching NOTLD!).

The movie opened in a creepily stark white cemetery, always a good sign. Johnny and Barbara are there to put flowers on their dead father’s grave, when Barbara spots a figure approaching from afar. Barbara, who’s already creeped out, is mercilessly teased by her brother, who intones in his best Karloff impression, “There’re coming to get you, Barbara!”. More cool points scored for the Boris reference! But the zombie thing attacks her, and Johnny is forced to defend against it, getting overpowered and cracking his head open on a headstone. Barbara flees for her life, making it to the car, but the zombie catches up, and soon she’s frantically running down a deserted road, her destination a lone farmhouse…

After the unrelenting terror of that first scene, we were hooked, black & white be damned!! More ghouls descend on the house, when suddenly a savior appears. His name is Ben, and he’s a black man! This was unheard of, as blacks in horror were usually relegated to comedy relief a’la Mantan Moreland , or Carribbean-type voodoo priests . But this guy was the star, the main good guy, and the one who keeps his cool amidst all the mayhem. There are other people inside, including the Cooper family, whose daughter has been bitten by one of the zombies, and young couple later shows up, but there’s no doubt Ben’s in charge of keeping this zombie apocalypse at bay.

As if all these shocks to the system weren’t enough, we find out these zombies are flesh-eating ghouls. Not only that, we’re SHOWN the undead terrors chowing down on raw flesh and guts, munching human entrails with gusto! Even Herschell Gordon Lewis was never this gross! Loud, audible cries of “EWWW!” and girlish pre-teen screams (not me, of course!) echoed throughout the theater at the sight of this cannibalistic flesh feast. Then a treat of a different kind… Bill Cardille, the voice of TV’s CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING, popped up on the screen playing a reporter! He was the only recognizable actor in the film, and we wondered if Bruno Sammartino would appear next!

The tension and the shocks kept piling higher and higher, and those old theater armrests took a hell of a beating. The final shock came when Ben, hearing shots outside, came up from the basement and was shot in the head, mistaken for a zombie. His dead body, after all he did to avert the carnage, was tossed onto a pile of dead zombies, as a redneck cop quipped, “That’s another one for the fire”. Ben, the hero of the movie, died – again, unheard of in this genre!

You can see why EQUINOX was such a washout with us after viewing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. I could write a whole other post using my critical eye, underscoring Romero’s cinematic influences, from Hitchcock to Corman , from Hawks’ RIO BRAVO to Kramer’s THE DEFIANT ONES, from the DIY films of Ed Wood to Herk Harvey’s chilling CARNIVAL OF SOULS. But I prefer to watch NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD through the lens of that 13-year-old boy I once was, on the edge of my seat and mesmerized by the ghastly tableaux unfolding before me. My VHS copy of NOTLD is grainy as hell, well worn from repeated viewings, yet still manages to scare the beejeezus out of me. This movie is required viewing for all Cracked Rear Viewers, especially during the Halloween season. Rest in peace, George Romero.

Halloween Havoc! Extra: SINISTER HANDS (Complete 1932 Movie)

1932’s SINISTER HANDS is an “old, dark house” murder mystery influenced by the horror cycle of the early talkie era, complete with a sinister swami conducting spooky séances. Former silent film matinee idol Jack Mulhall stars as the detective, with Mischa Auer the swami, Western ingenue Gertrude Messenger the damsel in distress, and the ubiquitous Bess Flowers! Sit back, grab some popcorn, and enjoy watching SINISTER HANDS:

Halloween Havoc!: Vincent Price in THE CONQUEROR WORM (AIP 1968)

British director Michael Reeves cemented his reputation in horror with three films before his untimely death from a barbiturate overdose at age 25, all featuring icons of the genre. The first was the Italian lensed THE SHE BEAST (1966) starring beautiful Barbara Steele. The second, 1967’s THE SORCERERS , headlined none other than Boris Karloff. Reeves’ third and final production, 1968’s THE CONQUEROR WORM (also know by the more apt WITCHFINDER GENERAL), saw Vincent Price give one of his greatest performances as the cruel torturer Matthew Hopkins.

1645: England is engaged in a bloody civil war between Charles I’s Royalists and Oliver Cromwell’s army. Amidst this unrest, Matthew Hopkins and his assistant Stearne roam the countryside, hunting down, torturing, and killing accused witches for profit. It’s “The Lord’s work and an honorable one”, states Hopkins, as he and Stearne commit acts of atrocity upon the helpless innocents. They arrive in Brandeston and target the local priest, accused of being in league with the devil. The priest is jabbed with sharp needles and abused by the sadistic Stearne in hopes of gaining a confession when his niece Sara Lowes rushes in. She offers herself to Hopkins in order to stop the torture. The jealous Stearne rapes her when Hopkins leaves town, and upon his return he wants no more of Sara, condemning the priest and two others to be hog-tied, drowned in the moat, then hung.

Richard Marshall, betrothed of Sara, is away at war during all this. He hears of the news and rides back to Brandeston, where Sara tells him of the horrors inflicted on her and her uncle. Marshall marries her, and vows before The Lord to avenge Sara. He tracks down Stearne in a tavern and they engage in a vicious brawl from which Stearne escapes. Stearne reunites with Hopkins, and they plot to “prove” Marshall and Sara are witches. Getting an obliging citizen to do the accusing, Marshall and Sara are taken prisoner and brought to a castle to be “interrogated”… that is, tortured by Hopkins and Stearne into confessing their sins!

Price etches a subtle portrait of evil as Hopkins, his imperious visage dominating the proceedings. He’s sinisterly serious, whether imposing his will on frightened young maidens or devising new, more nefarious ways to torture and kill, such as burning the accused alive in one particularly gruesome scene. Reportedly, director Reeves wanted Donald Pleasance to play Hopkins, but the powers that be at American-International insisted on Price (in order to link the film with their Poe series), and since they controlled the purse strings, Vinnie was in. This didn’t sit well with Reeves, and the director and his star were constantly at odds during the shooting, with Price wanting to play the role in a more bombastic manner. Yet when Price saw the final release, he understood what Reeves was going for, and praised the young tyro’s efforts. The two were scheduled to make THE OBLONG BOX together before Reeves’ demise; it’s a pity, since Reeves would’ve handled the material a lot differently than his replacement, Gordon Hessler.

Reeves’ childhood friend Ian Oglivy, who also played in his other two films, does him proud as Marshall. Oglivy looks dashing riding horseback through the English countryside, and his final violent revenge (which I won’t spoil for those unfamiliar with the movie) is ferocious and intense. Hilary Dwyer (also know as Hilary Heath) made her film debut as Sara, and her screams echoing throughout the castle at film’s end is one of horror’s iconic moments. She also appeared with Price in THE OBLONG BOX and CRY OF THE BANSHEE before becoming a successful talent agent and producer. Robert Russell (Stearne) is one of the most repulsive characters in any genre, and one of the most sadistic sons of bitches you’ll ever see. Hammer vet Rupert Davies plays Sara’s unfortunate priest uncle, and there are cameos by Partick Wymark (as Oliver Cromwell) and Wifred Brambell ( A HARD DAY’S NIGHT ) as a horse trader.

THE CONQUEROR WORM is a unique and highly influential film in the horror canon, opening the floodgates for a new subgenre with titles like BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS, Jess Franco’s NIGHT OF THE BLOOD MONSTER, and the gross-out classic MARK OF THE DEVIL. A hell of a swan song for Michael Reeves, with a darkly disturbing performance by Vincent Price, THE CONQUEROR WORM is must-viewing for your All Hallow’s Eve feast.