Halloween Havoc!: THE BLOB (Paramount 1958)

Teenagers save the world from the outer space menace known as THE BLOB in this 1958 indie-made sci-fi classic. The stars are a 28-year-old Steve McQueen (billed here as ‘Steven’), channeling his inner James Dean and cool as ever, and THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW’s  future Miss Helen, lovely Aneta Corsault. The cheaply made BLOB became a huge hit, and remains one of the best-loved sci-fi flicks of the 50’s.

After the peppy title tune “Beware the Blob!” (written by Burt Bacharach and Mack David), we find teens Steve (McQueen) and Jane (Corsault) out parking, as 50’s teens do, when a mysterious flying object crash lands in the distance. The curious kids investigate and come across an old man (veteran Olin Howland ) in the road, his hand covered with a purple gelatinous goo. The  geezer’s in obvious pain, so our young couple take him to Doc Hallen, who’s baffled as the goo creeps up the geezer’s arm.

Steve and Jane go back to where they found said geezer to look for clues, but The Blob engulfs the geezer, a nurse, and the doc, which Steve witnesses in horror. The kids go straight to the cops, who naturally are skeptical. They all head for Doc’s house, finding it in disarray  but with no bodies. The cops think Steve and Jane are pulling a prank, and no one believes he saw “a monster!”. Meanwhile, The Blob oozes its way around town, eating whatever’s in its path, until Steve recruits his hot-rodding buddies to warn the town there’s a Blob on the loose!

The malleable monster is among the coolest of cool 50’s aliens, a living blob of protoplasm that slimes through the streets gobbling up earthlings like Goobers and Raisinets at a drive-in show. This Incredible Bulk was really nothing more than a ball of silicone, made to look massive thanks to the genius of SPFX man Bart Sloane and DP Thomas Spaulding. They replicated some of the films’ locations in miniature and plopped the silicone into the picture, tilting the table it sat on back and forth to give the impression of movement. Red dyes were used to make Blobby seem blood-gorged as it grew larger. Simple and primitive yes, but effective as hell!

Those locations I mentioned were mainly in the small town of Phoenixville, PA, which now holds an annual “Blobfest” every July commemorating the movie. The scene of scared patrons running out of the Colonial Theater is reenacted, Chef’s Diner (where McQueen and company were trapped by Blobby) is open for business, there’s a BLOB screening along with other sci-fi shockers of the era, and special genre guests appear. Sounds like a good time to me, and Pennsylvania’s not THAT far of a drive from Massachusetts! Maybe next year…

Speaking of that iconic Colonial Theater scene, the marquee heralds a ‘Midnight Spook Show’ featuring DAUGHTER OF HORROR and BELA LUGOSI!! The former was a 1955 low budget item producer Jack Harris owned the distribution rights to, a surrealistic little number with no dialog narrated by (of all people) Ed McMahon! Lugosi’s name is up in lights because Harris also owned OLD MOTHER RILEY MEETS THE VAMPIRE, a 1952 British production teaming the Hungarian legend with cross-dressing comedian Arthur Lucan. The movie was known variously under the titles VAMPIRE OVER LONDON, MY SON THE VAMPIRE, and here as THE VAMPIRE AND THE ROBOT. Since there was no poster for it available, Harris simply had the title plastered onto a poster of FORBIDDEN PLANET ! Again, simple but effective.

THE BLOB was made in a simpler era, where teens and cops got along, small town life was cut and dried, and citizens rallied together to confront any enemies… even giant gelatinous aliens! Many have tried to read a bit too much into THE BLOB, but to me it’s just an entertaining drive-in flick, made in a can-do DIY spirit. Enjoy it for what it is, folks, good, clean American low-budget fun!

 

 

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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.

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!: 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.

Halloween Havoc!: Tod Browning’s FREAKS (MGM 1932)

Ex-carnival and sideshow performer Tod Browning had combined his love for the macabre and carny life in films before in two silent films with the great Lon Chaney Sr (THE UNHOLY THREE, THE UNKNOWN), but with FREAKS Browning took things to a whole new level. The cast is populated with genuine “abnormalities of nature”, legless and armless wonders, bearded ladies and skeletal men, a crawling human torso and microcephalic pinheads, parading across the screen to shock and frighten the audience. Yet it’s not the “freaks” that are the monsters in this movie, but two specimens of human physical perfection, their healthy bodies hosting malice and murder.

The film opens with a sideshow barker drawing a crowd to a horror hidden in a box, victim of what happens when you dishonor the code of the freaks – “offend one and you offend them all”. A flashback introduces us to the members of this dark carnival, beginning with midget performer Hans, who has an insane crush on big person Cleopatra, a trapeze artist dubbed “the peacock of the air”. Cleo plays along, toying with Hans’s affections and making his fiancé Frieda extremely jealous. Beautiful young Venus, meanwhile, is about to leave her abusive lover, the strongman Hercules, and is taken in by nice-guy clown Phroso.

Hans showers Cleo with gifts, and she soon discovers the dwarf has inherited a fortune. The scheming siren conspires with the strongman to marry Hans and do away with him. “Midgets are not strong”, she tells her musclebound lover. “He could get sick… it could be done”. Browning takes us to the famed ‘Wedding Feast” scene, in which the freaks are partying hardy. A chant begins among them in Cleo’s honor: “Gobba gabba, gobba gabba, we accept her, one of us”, and a goblet of wine is passed around. Cleopatra is appalled by them, and when the goblet is served to her, she unleashes her fury. “Freaks! Freaks! Freaks! Get out of here!” The dejected “living, breathing monstrosities” leave the room as Cleo and Hercules humiliate Hans, perching him atop Cleo’s shoulders and parading around the tent.

Cleopatra is slowly poisoning her new husband, but the freaks are watching from a distance. Always watching, hidden in the dark, underneath the wagons. Watching and waiting. Hans is wise to Cleo’s plot against him, and initiates a plot of his own with the help of his brethren. The circus wagons roll out during a storm, and Hans and his army of freaks confront Cleo. Hercules, trying to silence Venus, fights with Phroso. The freaks go on the attack, creeping and crawling in the darkened storm, and Hercules dies in the muddy road, as the “peacock” runs screaming into the night in the pouring rain, hunted down like an animal. The flashback ends, and the audience is shown the result in that box: Cleopatra has truly become “one of us”!

Browning’s film shocked both audiences and MGM execs, who cut a half hour from the film, then swiftly withdrew it’s release. The negative reactions to FREAKS effectively ruined Browning’s career; he’d make only four more films before retiring in 1939. FREAKS was banned in Britain, and sat unseen until the early 1960’s, when it was rediscovered by midnight movie audiences and rightly heralded as one of the best in the horror genre. Browning never knew his dark vision had been vindicated, having died in 1962.

Of the “big people” in the cast, Leila Hyams and Wallace Ford are sympathetic to the plight of the freaks as Venus and Phroso. Miss Hyams was (and is!) a Pre-Code favorite in films like THE BIG HOUSE, RED HEADED WOMAN, and THE BIG BROADCAST, also appearing in Browning’s first talkie THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR (with Bela Lugosi) and the horror classic ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. I’ve discussed Ford’s career many times; he was one of the most dependable character actors in film. Beautiful Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra) was a silent star whose transition to talking pictures was hampered by her Russian accent; in FREAKS that accent and her exotic good looks serve her well as the villainess. Henry Victor (Hercules) suffered the same fate as Baclanova, though his career was lengthened by WWII, where his German accent came in handy in Nazi roles. His horror credits include THE MUMMY and KING OF THE ZOMBIES . Other “normal” Familiar Faces include Roscoe Ates, Ed Brophy, Rose Dionne, and Matt McHugh.

But it’s the freaks themselves who are the real stars, beginning with Harry Earles as the diminutive Hans, and his sister Daisy playing fiancé Frieda; both were circus performers with extensive movie credits. The rest were recruited straight from sideshows, circuses, and carnivals, each amazing in their own right. Most well known is probably Schlitzie, the microcephalic who served as the model for Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead. She’s joined by two others, Zip and Pip. Prince Randian, the Human Torso, was born without arms or legs, and demonstrates an amazing ability to overcome his handicap. Johnny Eck, the “half-boy” who walks on his hands, is equally amazing. The famed Hilton Sisters, conjoined twins Violet and Daisy, once performed in vaudeville with no less than Bob Hope , and starred in the exploitation film CHAINED FOR LIFE. There’s Josephine Joseph (hermaphrodite), Koo Koo (the bird girl), Olga Roderick (bearded lady), Peter Robinson (human skeleton), Frances O’Connor (armless girl), and Delmo Fritz (sword swallower). Dwarf star Angelo Rossitto , who had a long and successful film career, also appears.

Tod Browning and the cast of “Freaks”

FREAKS will disturb some people even today, mostly those who feel the performers were being exploited by Browning. Yet these men and women took what misfortunes nature had given them and used it to their advantage to earn a living as best they could. We should be grateful Tod Browning gave them a chance to shine on the screen, especially in a movie showing them in a sympathetic light. In the world of the FREAKS, it’s Cleopatra and Hercules that are the true monsters, and their retribution, while horrifying, is justified. Browning’s dark carnival remains a masterpiece of early horror, and perfect for a dark, stormy Halloween night.

Halloween Havoc!: FROM HELL IT CAME (Allied Artists 1957)

I’ve seen a lot of movie monsters in my time. Vampires and werewolves, zombies and mutated bugs, but nothing prepared me for the horror of… Tabanga, the Terrible Tree Monster and star of FROM HELL IT CAME! I’ve seen a lot of Grade ‘Z’ “so-bad-they’re-good” movies as well, and let me tell you, this one’s right up there with the best of the worst. This was the last film from Milner Brothers Productions (who brought you the equally ludicrous PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES) and rightly so. FROM HELL IT CAME is so inept it makes Ed Wood’s epics look like Cecil B. DeMille spectaculars!

So there’s this tribe of suspiciously Caucasian-looking natives living on this South Seas island, okay. The very Caucasian Kimo (Gregg Palmer, ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU) is staked to the ground, accused of poisoning his chieftain father with the white man’s “bad medicine”. This is only a ruse by witch doctor Tano (Robert Swan) to take over  the tribe with Maranka (Baynes Barron) and Kimo’s tropical floozy wife Korey (Suzanne Ridgway). Before Tano gives the order to plunge a knife into his victim’s heart, Kimo vows to return from the grave to exact revenge on his lying tormentors.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the island, scientists Dr. Bill Arnold (Tod Andrews) and Professor Clark (John McNamara) are researching nuclear fallout in the area, which the natives call “Devil Dust”. With them is Army Sgt. Eddie (Mark Sheeler), whose role is so meaningless he isn’t even given a last name. Then there’s Mrs. Kilgore (Linda Winters), man-hungry owner of the local trading post, sporting one of the worst Cockney accents in the history of cinema! Into the picture (via helicopter) comes Dr. Terry Mason (Tina Carver), no relation to Perry Mason, one of those dedicated 50’s “female scientists” that leading men like Bill go ga-ga over.

It’s brought to everyone’s attention there’s a tree stump growing out of Kimo’s grave, and this botanical marvel has a pulse! Some friendly natives warn the gang about the legend of Tabanga, a restless evil tree monster who once terrorized the islanders. Dr. Mason gives it a shot of her new serum to keep it alive, but Tabanga busts out of the lab and makes good on Kimo’s promise to avenge his death against those who murdered him. The shambling stump takes things too far when it shuffles off with Terry. The men chases after it, and realize the only way to stop Tabanga is to shoot a bullet at the knife still protruding from the former Kimo’s chest, driving it through its tree heart! I don’t think even Annie Oakley could pull that off, but scientist Bill manages to do just that, ending the threat of Tabanga, earning the native’s gratitude, and winning the hand of the fair Terry.

The only thing worse than the stilted dialog is the wooden (pun intended) delivery the actors give it. As for Tabanga  itself, this monster wouldn’t scare anybody over the age of five. In fact, I found myself smiling every time it appeared on-screen. This isn’t “rubber suit” monster maker Paul Blaisdell’s greatest creation; then again how do you make a tree scary? I’m pretty sure there are worst films you can watch this Halloween though, so if you’re in the mood for some unintentional Tree Monster laughs, FROM HELL IT CAME will certainly fill the bill. Time to say goodnight, Tabanga:

 

Cracked Rear Viewer’s 3rd Annual “Halloween Havoc!” Spotlight — Drew Martin Writes

Thanks to Drew Martin Writes for the spotlight!

For some, October means the true arrival of autumn. A time when leaves change color and fall to litter the ground. The weather begins to cool reminding us summer is far behind and winter is on the rise. Of course, October is a month of scares and screams with Halloween at the end of the month, but festivities spread throughout. October also marks a special film festival hosted by my friend and fellow blogger Gary Loggins over at his blog, Cracked Rear Viewer. This month, he’ll be hosting his third annual “Halloween Havoc!” and I’d like to shine a spotlight on the month-long event.

via Cracked Rear Viewer’s 3rd Annual “Halloween Havoc!” Spotlight — Drew Martin Writes