Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 15: Halloween Leftovers 2

Halloween (and ‘Halloween Havoc!’) may have come and gone, but for horror fans every day’s Trick or Treat! Here are 5 fright films scraped from the bottom of this year’s candy bag:

THE BEAST OF HOLLOW MOUNTAIN (United Artists 1956; D: Edward Nassour and Ismael Rodriguez) – This US/Mexican coproduction stars Guy Madison (TV’s WILD BILL HICKOCK) and Patricia Medina (PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE) up against a giant prehistoric Allosaurus in the Old West. The movie starts as just another standard Western until the three-quarter mark, when the beast finally makes his appearance. Jack Rabin’s cartoonish special effects can’t hold a candle to the great Willis O’Brien , who’s given credit for the film’s story idea (later remade as the much better VALLEY OF GWANGI ). Good as Saturday matinée kiddie fare, nothing more. Fun Fact: Patricia Medina was the wife of actor Joseph Cotten, who made quite a few horror flicks later in his career.

THE DEADLY MANTIS (Universal-International 1957; D; Nathan Juran) – Another William Alland-produced sci-fi flick from the fabulous 50’s, coming at the end of the ‘Big Bug’ cycle, involving a prehistoric Praying Mantis awakened from its frozen slumber to wreak havoc across North America. Air Force Colonel Craig Stevens teams with paleontologist William Hopper and pretty magazine reporter Alix Talton to stop the flesh-eating terror – mainly by talking it to death! Some of the Arctic set scenes are reminiscent of Howard Hawks’ THE THING, but don’t get your hopes up, this film’s nowhere near that classic. This ‘Big Bug’ is a Big Bore!  Fun Fact:  Director Juran won an Oscar for his art direction on 1942’s HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, and his later directorial credits include a pair of sci-fi hoots from 1958: THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS and the immortal ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN!

INDESTRUCTiBLE MAN (Allied Artists 1956; D: Jack Pollexfen) – Lon Chaney Jr stars as Butcher Benton, an executed convict brought back to life via a massive dose of electric current, giving him superhuman strength in this horror/crime hybrid. Chaney, looking pretty ragged due to his alcoholism at this point in his life, does well in a mostly mute role as the murderous Butcher seeking revenge on the double-crossing rats who sold him out, giving an athletic, energetic performance. Dad would’ve been proud! The rest of the cast is game, but hampered by the ultra-low budget and somewhat silly dialog (“You rotten, stinkin’ mouthpiece!”). Casey Adams (later known as Max Showalter) plays the detective on the case, narrating a’la DRAGNET’s Joe Friday, and Robert Shayne (SUPERMAN’s Inspector Henderson) and Joe Flynn (MCHALE’S NAVY’s Capt. Binghampton) are the biochemists who revive the Butcher. The macho script was written by two women, Vy Russell and Sue Bradford, who also penned the 1963 cult classic MONSTROSITY! Not a great film, but not all that bad; Chaney fans will definitely want to take a look. Fun Fact: DP John Russell (Vy’s husband) was also the cinematographer on another horror film of note – Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece PSYCHO!

BILLY THE KID VS DRACULA (Embassy 1966; D: William Beaudine) – The Count goes West to battle a reformed Billy the Kid in this no-budget piece of dreck. John Carradine reprises his role of Dracula from his Universal days, but even at his most demonic can’t save this juvenile schlockfest (though his crazed hypnotic eyes are pretty scary!). It features the cheeziest rubber bat this side of THE DEVIL BAT , and is padded with plenty o’stock footage. The acting, script, and direction are all rock bottom, making this fail as both a Western AND a horror movie. Yet somehow, the producer enticed veterans like Roy Barcroft, Marjorie Bennett, Harry Carey Jr and his mom Olive Carey , Virginia Christine, and Bing Russell to appear. Must’ve done a casting call at the unemployment office that week! The film was shot in just 5 days – and it shows! Fun Fact: This was the last feature for both director Beaudine and Miss Carey, both of whom started their film careers at the dawn of motion pictures (Beaudine in 1915, Olive Carey in 1913).

SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM (AIP 1973; D: Bob Kelljan) – This much maligned sequel isn’t as bad as some claim, just not as good as the original. William Marshall is back as the undead Prince Mamuwalde aka BLACULA , and Blaxploitation icon Pam Grier plays a voodoo cult priestess! There’s some neat touches updating the usual vampire tropes for the 70’s Blaxploitation crowd, and a decent supporting cast (Michael Conrad, Bernie Hamilton, Richard Lawson, Don Mitchell, Lynn Moody, Barbara Rhodes). A fun little fear flick that’s better than it’s reputation. Fun Fact: Director Bob Kelljan also helmed another AIP vampire sequel, 1971’s THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA.

See you next October, fright fans!

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Halloween Havoc!: Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS (Universal 1963)

Many years ago, back in the 80’s I believe, I spent a week on Martha’s Vineyard. It was early in the morning on a gorgeous summer day, and as my friend was still crashed from the previous evening’s debauchery, I decided to walk down to the beach and catch some rays. I strolled past a particularly marshy stretch when, out of nowhere, a seagull buzzed by my head. Then another. And another. And soon there were about ten of the nasty flying rats swooping down at me, screeching and dive-bombing toward my long-haired dome (this was back when I actually had hair!). I ducked and dodged, yelling and snapping my beach towel at the airborne devils, and ran as fast as I could away from the area, scared to death one of these buzzards was going to peck my eyeballs out! It was like something straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s  1963  masterpiece of terror THE BIRDS!

THE BIRDS was Hitchcock’s follow-up to 1960’s PSYCHO, his first true entry into the horror genre. While that film deals with an easily explained (though very complicated) deranged man, THE BIRDS gives no clarification as to why the critters rebel against mankind. They have no motive, they just do, making their actions all the more terrifying. Birds have always been an omen of portending doom in Hitchcock films, from 1929’s BLACKMAIL all the way to the taxidermy of Norman Bates, but here The Master of Suspense takes it to the next level – birds as agents of chaos.

The film starts normally enough, as lawyer Mitch Brenner and newspaper heiress Melanie Daniels “meet cute” in a San Francisco pet store (where Hitch has his cameo as a man walking his dogs). Melanie, intrigued by the handsome Mitch, decides to follow him to Bodega Bay, an idyllic coastal town where he lives with his widowed mother and younger sister. The blonde practical joker purchases a pair of love birds, and sneaks into Mitch’s house, leaving them behind as a present for his sister Cathy. While observing his reaction from her motor boat, Melanie gets bashed in the head by an errant gull. It’s no mere accident, just the first sign of things to come.

The birds begin their attacks in earnest at Cathy’s outdoor birthday party, flocks and flocks of them reigning down on the innocent children. Hitchcock ratchets things up from there, as the audience never knows when the creatures will strike next. They fly down the chimney at the Brenner’s home, terrorizing them. Later, Mrs. Brenner discovers her neighbor’s dead body, his eyes horribly pecked out. The scene at the schoolhouse is one of the most iconic in both the Hitchcock and horror canons: as Melanie sits outside the school, the birds begin to gather, first one, then another, perching on the monkey bars and swing set, as the children sing an innocent song in class. Melanie and teacher Annie Heyworth, Mitch’s ex-lover, line up the kids, telling them we’re having a fire drill, marching them out slowly. The birds then attack, and the children make a mad dash for safety, the birds pecking and clawing at them with frenzied abandon, the children screaming as their flesh is rended from their arms and faces.

Melanie and Cathy make it to the safety of the local restaurant, where we get some relief from the tension as some minor characters (an ornithology expert, a fisherman, and a souse) expound on what the hell is going on. Bodega Bay is now under siege, and Mitch boards up the family homestead to keep Melanie and his family safe. Outside, we hear the shrieks and caws of the birds, hundreds of them, as they try to break through the wood. After everyone else falls asleep, Melanie hears something upstairs (Hitchcock’s famous staircase motif is revisited). Opening the door to a bedroom, she recoils in horror as the birds have broken through the ceiling. Trapped now, Melanie is viciously attacked by the demonic birds, as they mercilessly bite and rip at her. Mitch awakens to pull her out of this assault, but it’s too late – the woman is now in total shock from her frightening ordeal.

There is no musical soundtrack in THE BIRDS. Instead, an electronic early synthesizer is used to create the sounds of the avian monsters, to chilling effect (though composer Bernard Herrman is credited as ‘sound consultant’). Sound plays an important role in conveying the sense of dread and fear, with technicians Remi Glassman, William Russell, Oskar Sala, and Waldon Watson all contributing. The special effects hold up surprisingly well for a film made over fifty years ago, thanks in large part to the contributions of Disney animator Ub Iwerks and matte artist Albert Whitlock . DP Robert Surtees , working on his 11th of 12 movies with Hitchcock, delivers his usual fine job. The eerie blending of both sound and visual effects combine to raise the terror quotient to heights never matched before, and rarely since, despite all the technological advances.

The cast is well-chosen, with stalwart Rod Taylor as Mitch and former model Tippi Hedren making her film debut as Melanie (Miss Hedren named her child after her character in THE BIRDS, actress Melanie Griffith). Jessica Tandy is outstanding as Mitch’s domineering yet sympathetic mother, Veronica Cartwright (later of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and ALIEN) is little sister Cathy, and Suzanne Pleshette, always a welcome presence, plays Annie. Familiar Faces in support include Malcom Atterbury, Richard Deacon, Ethel Griffies (as the bird expert – she even looks like one!), Charles MacGraw (the fisherman), Ruth McDevitt, Dal McKennon, William Quinn, Karl Swenson (the drunken doomsayer), and Doodles Weaver. Look for little Suzanne Cupito, later known as Morgan Brittany, as one of the frightened children.

Hicthcock directed from a script by Evan Hunter, better known by his pen name Ed McBain (of the ’87th Precinct’ novels), adapting his screenplay from a story by Daphne DuMaurier, whose novel REBECCA inspired Hitch’s first American film. THE BIRDS is a true classic of the horror genre, dealing as it does with the unexpected, the unknown, the unexplainable. After you finish watching it, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief, knowing it couldn’t possibly happen. Or could it? Don’t forget what happened to me on Martha’s Vineyard all those years ago. As Scotty said in Howard Hawks’ THE THING  , “Watch the skies! Everywhere! Keep looking!”. And have a frightfully Happy Halloween!

Halloween Havoc!: MAN MADE MONSTER (Universal 1941)

Lon Chaney Jr.  made his first foray into Universal Horror with MAN MADE MONSTER, the movie that led to his studio contract and immortality with THE WOLF MAN . Both films were directed by George Waggner, who also wrote the script here under the pseudonym Joseph West. Lon’s large and in charge as the electrical monster, but top billing and acting honors go to Hollywood’s maddest of mad doctors, the great Lionel Atwill .

A bus crashes into high tension wires on a rain slicked highway, leaving all aboard dead save one. He’s Dan McCormick, a carny performer known as ‘Dynamo Dan, The Electric Man’. His seeming imperviousness to electricity piques the interest of scientist Professor Lawrence, who invites the jovial Dan to stay with him and his young niece June. Lawrence wants to run some experimental tests on Dan, but when he leaves for a medical convention his assistant Dr. Rigas takes control.

Using Dan as a guinea pig to prove his theories, Rigas gives Dan massive doses of electricity, causing him to become dependent on the daily jolts. Rigas’s final treatment gives Dan an eerie (superimposed) glow, as well as superhuman strength, forcing him to don a rubber suit to contain the electric power coursing through his veins. Lawrence returns to this, and the mad Dr. Rigas rails about creating “the worker of the future”, an army of electric zombies that will do his bidding, and proves his point as he commands Dan to kill the scirentist.

June and Mark return to the house to find her uncle dead, with Dan only able to repeat “I.. killed.. him”. McCormick is put on trial and found guilty of murder, and sentenced to… the electric chair! This has the reverse effect on Dan, as the voltage revives his superstrength, and he escapes prison and runs rampant, causing havoc and destruction as he makes his way back to Dr. Rigas and a date with destiny…

Lon is full of piss and vinegar in the early scenes, just a big, good natured lug who likes nothing more than horsing around with the Lawrence’s dog Corky. Chaney, who was a well-known dog lover in real life, has fun in the part (as, I assume, did Corky!). After getting zapped into zombiehood, ‘Dynamo Dan’ becomes just another mindless monster, showing no emotion thanks to the devious Dr. Rigas. But the role secured his spot at Universal, and Chaney became the studio’s top horror star of the 40’s, playing all the Universal Monsters at one point or another – that is, except for The Invisible Man and the Bride of Frankenstein!

Lionel Atwill steals the show as Rigas, chewing the scenery with gusto, his eyes popping from behind those crazy goggles. When Lawrence states he thinks Rigas is mad, Atwill gleefully replies, “I am! So was Archemedes, Gallileo, Newton, Pasteur, Lister, all the others who dared to dream!”. Lionel Atwill, who could give Bela Lugosi a run for his money in the mad doctor department, elevates this programmer to lofty horror heights, and woukd team with Chaney again for GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN , and HOUSE OF DRACULA.

A Universal cast is worth repeating, and here we have his grey eminence Samuel S. Hinds as kindly Prof. Lawrence, Anne Nagel as June, and Frank Albertson as the reporter. And of course, Corky, whose other films include MY FAVORITE WIFE, IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE , and CRISS CROSS . Much ado was made about the movie being filmed on the same set as Lon Chaney Sr.’s silent classic PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, with Junior ready to take the mantle of his famous father. It didn’t quite turn out that way, but young Lon did enjoy a long career in both the horror and Western fields, despite his alcoholism. MAN MADE MONSTER is definitely lesser Universal Horror, but worth checking out for Chaney’s initial horror role and the bravura stylings of mad doctor Lionel Atwill. Oh, and Corky’s pretty good, too!

Halloween Havoc!: I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (RKO 1943)

Val Lewton’s  I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is, despite the exploitative title, one of the most moody and atmospheric horror films of the 40’s. This was Lewton’s follow up to the highly successful CAT PEOPLE (1942), with Jacques Tourneur again in the director’s chair. Though screenwriters Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray based their script on a story by Inez Wallace, producer Lewton had them add elements of Charlotte Bronte’s JANE EYRE, making this a  Gothic zombie movie!

Nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is summoned to the West Indies isle of St. Sebastian to look after Paul Holland’s (Tom Conway ) catatonic wife Jessica. The cynical Holland has an air of melancholy about him (“There’s no beauty here”, he states on the sea trip to the island, “only decay and death”). Upon arrival, Betsy meets Holland’s stepbrother Wesley Reed (James Ellison), a jovial sort until he gets in the presence of Holland. Reed runs the family sugar mill, from which eminate the almost constant “mysterious, eerie” beat of the islander’s jungle drums.

That night Betsy hearing weeping and moaning, and follows the sound to Fort Holland’s tower, where she observes Jessica, dressed in a flowing white shroud, looking like the Angel of Death herself, walking, silent, as if impelled by a force beyond her control. Servant Alma (Theresa Harris ) explains Jessica’s condition: “She was very sick, and then she went mindless”. Jessica’s doctor (James Bell) ascribes her condition to a spinal cord injury that left her with no will of her own. But the island natives have another word for Jessica… zombie!

There’s much more to the story, but I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen this classic horror tale. Tourneur keeps the pace deliberately slow, layering the film with a sense of dread rather than shock after shock. The use of sound and silence, a familiar element in Lewton’s horrors, plays a large part in establishing the mood, especially during the scene with Betsy and Jessica walking through the cane fields in the eerie moonlight. DP Roy Hunt works wonders with shadows and light, Roy Webb’s score hits all the right notes, and Mark Robson’s superb editing helped him earn his spot in the director’s chair a year later with THE SEVENTH VICTIM .

The cast is a cut above your typical 40’s ‘B’ horror players. Frances Dee was a star at Paramount during the 30’s who was seriously curtailing her career at the time to raise her sons with husband Joel McCrea. Tom Conway, like his brother George Sanders, always projected a melancholy, cynical figure onscreen (and off). James Ellison never quite cracked the A-list, but  was always a dependable actor. Theresa Harris shined in every role afforded to her, from BABY FACE to OUT OF THE PAST. Edith Barrett plays the pivotal part of Mrs. Rand, mother to both Conway and Ellison. Calypso singer Sir Lancelot brings his talents to the table, and Darby Jones makes a terrifying zombie.

Lancelot and Jones reprised their roles when RKO returned to Saint Sebastian for ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY , a sort-of sequel/spoof starring Bela Lugosi and the comedy team of Brown & Carney. But forget about that piece of nonsense, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is the film you want to see this Halloween season, the perfect Lewton “quiet horror” tor satisfy your taste for the macabre.

Halloween Havoc!: CHRISTINE (Columbia 1983)

Stephen King turned 70 last month, and the Master of Horror’s grip on the American psyche is stronger than ever, thanks to the unprecedented horror hit IT!, now playing at a theater near you. King’s macabre novels have been adapted for the screen since 1976’s CARRIE with  varying degrees of success; some have been unabashed genre classics, others complete bombs, most lie somewhere in the middle.

Top: Stephen King 1983
Bottom: John Carpenter 1983

Director John Carpenter had a string of successes beginning with 1978’s seminal slasher film HALLOWEEN, but his 1982 remake of THE THING, now considered a masterpiece of the genre, was a box office disappointment. Carpenter took on King’s novel CHRISTINE as a work-for-hire project. I recently watched it for the first time, and think not only is it one of the best adaptations of King’s work to hit the screen, it’s one of Carpenter’s best horror outings as well.

Nerdy Arnie Cunningham and his best friend, jock Dennis Guilder are your typical late 70’s high school students, obsessed with cars, sex, rock music, and football. Arnie is the target of school bully Buddy Repperton and his posse of thugs, who get suspended after pulling a switchblade on the poor sap. But things change for Arnie when he’s drawn to a battered old ’57 Plymouth Fury, nicknamed ‘Christine’, which he buys from its creepy owner, elderly George Lemay, who inherited the wreck when his brother committed suicide in it.

Soon a change comes over Arnie, as he spends all his time lovingly restoring “Christine” to her former glory. He starts gaining confidence, and soon is dating the hottest chick in school, Leigh Cabot. His appearance and attitude also begin to change, morphing into a 50’s-style JD greaser, complete with pompadour and leather jacket! Strange things begin to happen when ‘Christine’ is around: Dennis gets injured on the football field, and Leigh is trapped inside the car at a drive-in, choking on her burger! When Buddy and his bullies extract revenge by trashing ‘Christine’, smashing it with sledgehammers and taking a dump on the dash. But ‘Christine’ and Arnie have developed a psychic bond: he tells the auto “Show me”, and Christine herself morphs back to her old self, dead set on revenge…

CHRISTINE is a whole lotta fun, with some marvelous, murderous set pieces devised by Carpenter. King’s material and Carpenter’s style mesh perfectly, aided and abetted by Bill Phillips’ pedal to the metal script and Donald M. Morgan’s crisp photography. ‘Christine’ herself, according to carponents.com , was played by 23 different autos, including a couple of modified Plymouth Belvederes and Savoys, allowing Ted Allen, Roy Arbogast, and the rest of the special effects team to create their “twisted” regeneration scenes. The roaring engine sounds were actually dubbed from a 1970 Ford Mustang!

Carpenter peppers his score with snippets from classic 50’s artists to accentuate the mood, including Johnny Ace (“Pledging My Love”), Danny and the Juniors (“Rock and Roll is Here to Stay”), Dion and the Belmonts (“I Wonder Why”), Thurston Harris (“Little Bitty Pretty One”), Buddy Holly (“Not Fade Away”), Ritchie Valens (“Come On, Let’s Go”), Larry Williams (“Bony Maronie”), and Little Richard (“Keep A-Knockin'”). You’ll also hear ABBA, The Rolling Stones, George Thorogood, and Tanya Tucker on the soundtrack, just not on ‘Christine’s’ radio – she only plays 50’s rock!

The cast was deliberately made up of at-the-time unknowns, chief among them Keith Gordon as the nebbish Arnie. Gordon went behind the cameras as a director of films (MOTHER NIGHT, WAKING THE DEAD) and television (DEXTER, HOMELAND). John Stockwell (Dennis) played in MY SCIENCE PROJECT and TOP GUN; he’s also a director today. Alexandra Paul (Leigh) is best known as Lt. Stephanie Holden on TV’s BAYWATCH. William Ostrander (Buddy), who looks like a cross between Jim Morrison and Vinnie Barbarino, later appeared in RED HEAT and MULLHOLLAND DRIVE. Oh, and speaking of Vinnie Barbarino, Kelly Preston has a role as hot-to-trot cheerleader Rosanne.

The adults in the cast include Robert Prosky as the gruff garage owner where ‘Christine’ is stored, Christine Belford as Arnie’s nagging mother, Roberts Blossom as the weirdo Lemay, and the late, great Harry Dean Stanton as State Police Detective Junkins, who’s investigating all the outlandish murders. CHRISTINE puts Stephen King and John Carpenter together for the first and only time, and it’s a match made in… well, you know! Add it to your Halloween viewing list, kick back, and enjoy the ride.

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: THE HILLS HAVE EYES (Vanguard 1977)

Wes Craven (1939-2015) left us with many nightmares: LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, SCREAM. But you haven’t lived until you’ve met Papa Jupiter and his feral family of cannibals in Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES, as outlandish and frightening a horror film as there ever was. HILLS was so shocking the censor board gave it an X rating until it was cut enough to qualify for an R. It still packed enough violence and brutality to make even the heartiest exploitation enthusiast squeamish.

The Carter clan has travelled from Cleveland to the Nevada desert on their way to California. They stop at a gas station where an old geezer is about to leave. The geezer warns them about his son, born mutated and mean as the devil, living somewhere in the hills. While driving down the long. lonesome highway, fighter jets from a nearby airbase cause the Carter’s stationwagon and trailer to run off the road, breaking an axle. Stranded in the desert, miles from nowhere, with buzzards circling overhead, Big Bob heads in one direction looking for help, while son-in-law Doug goes in the other, leaving Ethel, Lynne, Bobby, Brenda, baby Katie, and their two dogs behind. Unbeknownst to them all, they’re being watched…

There’s some truly sick shit going on in this movie. Craven, who also wrote the film, pulls out all the stops, piling on the horrors as thick as blood.  Among the gruesomeness is the attack on Big Bob, who’s nailed to a cross and set aflame; the brutal rape of Brenda inside the trailer, followed by the murders of Ethel and Lynne; and the kidnapping of baby Katie for Jupiter and his brood to  cook and eat! Sick shit, indeed! Survivors Doug, Bobby, and Brenda fight back, however, and what they do to Jupiter and his cannibalistic clan (Pluto, Mars, and Mercury) turns the suburbanites as savage as their attackers. Even German shepherd Beast gets into the act, chewing up Pluto (Michael Berryman). Doug gets his vengeance with the assist of feral Ruby, smashing Mars’ head in with a rock over and over and over, until… the screen turns blood red, abruptly ending the film.

THE HILLS HAVE EYES was the second screen appearance of Dee Wallace, who made her debut in 1975’s THE STEPFORD WIVES, and became a latter-day Scream Queen. Her resume of horror includes THE HOWLING, CUJO, CRITTERS, SHADOW PLAY, and THE FRIGHTENERS, not to mention playing the mom in Spielberg’s ET THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL. Miss Wallace is slated to appear in the upcoming DEATH HOUSE, an all-star horror show written by the late Gunnar “Leatherface” Hanson , which all fans of 80’s slasher flicks are eagerly awaiting!

Violent and unnerving as hell, THE HILLS HAVE EYES will not be for everyone. But it’s a near perfect example of unrelenting Grindhouse horror for those with strong stomachs. It’s not as stylized as Craven’s later work, much closer in spirit to his early exploitation shocker LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT than, say, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET or SCREAM. If you’re CRAVEN some un-PC horror this Halloween, THE HILLS HAVE EYES will be right up your dark alley.

 

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.