Rebel Rebel: Paul Newman in COOL HAND LUKE (Warner Brothers 1967)

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The Sixties was the decade of the rebellious anti-hero. The times they were a-changin’ and movies reflected the anti-establishment mood with BONNIE & CLYDE, EASY RIDER, and COOL HAND LUKE. Paul Newman starred as white-trash outsider Luke Jackson, but it was his co-star George Kennedy who took home the Oscar for his role as Dragline, the king of the cons who first despises then idolizes Luke.

War vet Luke gets busted for “malicious destruction of municipal property while drunk”, and sent to a prison farm in Florida. The non-conformist Luke butts heads with both the “bosses” (prison guards aka authority) and Dragline, a near illiterate convict who runs the yard. Dragline and Luke decide to settle their differences in a Saturday boxing match. The hulking Dragline beats the shit out of Luke, but the smaller man keeps getting up for more. Dragline finally walks away, and Luke earns both his and the other con’s respect. Luke gets a visit from his mom Arletta (Oscar winner Jo Van Fleet of EAST OF EDEN), who’s dying and wants to see him one more time. This poignant scene is one of the best as Luke and Arletta discuss his upbringing, and we can see despite the hardships endured in their lives, there’s a strong loving bond between mother and son. The scene’s done without any maudlin Hollywood bullshit, and well handled by Newman, Van Fleet, and director Stuart Rosenberg.

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Then there’s the memorable egg-eating contest, where Luke bets he can eat fifty hard-boiled eggs in an hour. Dragline backs his play, and the prisoners all put up their money as Luke devours egg after egg, winning the bet in a funny scene. The shot of him lying on the table, surrounded by eggshells, in a crucifixion pose is one of many Christ-like tableaux featuring Luke throughout the film. It gets a little heavy-handed, but it works in this case. Luke gets word his mother has died, and he’s not allowed to attend the funeral. He’s put in “The Box” (a sweltering shed the size of an outhouse) so he doesn’t get “rabbit blood” and try to escape. This only triggers his thirst for freedom, and he attempts a series of escapes, each time getting caught. The punishments get brutaler and brutaler but Luke’s indomitable spirit keeps him going until the tragic end.

Newman and Kennedy head up a great cast,with Strother Martin (“What we have here is failure to communicate”) as The Captain leading guards Morgan Woodward, Luke Askew, and Robert Donner. The cons are played by J.D. Cannon, Wayne Rogers, Dennis Hopper, Ralph Waite, Harry Dean Stanton, and Joe Don Baker, among others. Then there’s Joy Harmon in a brief bit as a local lass washing her car on a hot Florida afternoon. She knows the men on the road gang are watching her, and she’s obviously getting off on turning them on:

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Thank you, Joy!

Stuart Rosenberg began his directing career in the 50’s with the syndicated series DECOY, starring Beverly Garland as a female cop. He moved on to THE NAKED CITY, THE UNTOUCHABLES, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, and THE TWILIGHT ZONE before COOL HAND LUKE, his first feature. Rosenberg was a talented director who wasn’t very prolific, but the films he did make were well done. He worked with Newman in three more movies (WUSA, POCKET MONEY, THE DROWNING POOL) and also did LOVE & BULLETS (with Charles Bronson), THE (original) AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE, and another prison drama, BRUBAKER, starring Newman’s pal Robert Redford.

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As for Oscar winner Kennedy, COOL HAND LUKE made him a star after years of hard work in small roles. Kennedy was featured in all the AIRPORT and NAKED GUN movies, and had roles in THE DIRTY DOZEN, BANDOLERO!, FOOL’S PARADE, CAHILL US MARSHAL, and THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT. He starred in the TV police dramas PRIEST and THE BLUE KNIGHT, and the first four seasons of DALLAS. George Kennedy is still with us at age 91, semi-retired but popping up as recently as 2014’s THE GAMBLER with Mark Wahlberg. COOL HAND LUKE is a must-see for fans of 60’s cinema, with another fine Newman performance and a star-making turn for George Kennedy. Put it on your watch list!

Say goodnight, Joy!

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Curiouser & Curiouser: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (Paramount 1933)

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Lewis Carroll’s 1865 children’s classic ALICE IN WONDERLAND was turned into an all-star spectacular by Paramount in 1933. But the stars were mostly unrecognizable under heavy makeup and costumes, turning audiences off and causing the film to bomb at the box office. Seen today, the 1933 ALICE is a trippy visual delight for early movie buffs, thanks in large part to the art direction of William Cameron Menzies.

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Menzies’ designs are truly out there, giving ALICE the surrealistic quality of the books themselves. He actually storyboarded his ideas right into the physical script, earning a co-writer credit along with Joseph L. Mankiewicz . Menzies was the cinematic wizard whose art direction brought the magical 1924 THE THIEF OF BAGDAD to life. He was co-director and special effects designer for 1932’s CHANDU THE MAGICIAN, and the title of Production Designer was invented for him on the classic GONE WITH THE WIND. Menzies also directed a few films; especially of note are the science fiction entries THINGS TO COME and INVADERS FROM MARS.

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You all know the story: young Alice is snowed in and bored, daydreaming away the time. She falls asleep, and dreamily takes a trip through the looking glass, where everything is backwards, and the chess board comes to life. Alice goes outside and follows the White Rabbit (Skeets Gallagher) down the hole, where she encounters a strange world inhabited by Caterpillar (Ned Sparks), Frog (Sterling Holloway ), The Duchess (Alison Skipworth) and her baby (Billy Barty), The Cheshire Cat (Richard Arlen), The March Hare (Charlie Ruggles ), The Mad Hatter (Edward Everett Horton), The Doormouse (Jackie Searl), The King and Queen of Hearts (Alec B. Francis, May Robson), Gryphon (William Austin), The Mock Turtle (Cary Grant), The Red Queen (Edna May Oliver), The White Queen (Louise Fazenda), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Roscoe Karns, Jack Oakie), Humpty Dumpty (W.C. Fields ), and The White Knight (Gary Cooper ) on her madcap journey through Wonderland.

Alice In Wonderland (1933) | Pers: Alison Skipworth | Dir: Norman Z. (M) Mcleod | Ref: ALI012AJ | Photo Credit: [ The Kobal Collection / Paramount ] | Editorial use only related to cinema, television and personalities. Not for cover use, advertising or fictional works without specific prior agreement

Nineteen year old Charlotte Henry stars as  twelve year old Alice, and she’s perfect in the part. In fact, she was too perfect, as she became so closely identified with Alice it was tough for her to get other roles. After costarring as Bo-Peep in Laurel & Hardy’s BABES IN TOYLAND (retitled MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS), Henry appeared in CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA (with Boris Karloff) and the Frank Buck serial JUNGLE MENACE before retiring from film at the age of 28.

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Film fanatics will be able to recognize many of the stars by their distinct voices. Grant, Cooper, and Fields (who’s my personal favorite) are easy, but true movie afficianados won’t have trouble finding Oakie, Ruggles, Horton, Holloway, or Oliver. Leon Errol Roscoe Ates , Baby LeRoy, and Mae Marsh also take part in this hallucinogenic fantasy directed by Norman Z. McLeod. The director was a comedy specialist, working with greats like Fields (IT’S A GIFT, IF I HAD A MILLION), The Marx Brothers (MONKEY BUSINESS , HORSE FEATHERS), Bob Hope (THE ROAD TO RIO, THE PALEFACE), and Danny Kaye (THE KID FROM BROOKLYN, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY), and helming the classic ghost comedy TOPPER.

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Besides the Fields and Cooper segments, one part of the film I really enjoyed was when Tweedledee and Tweedledum relate the story of The Walrus and The Carpenter to Alice. Here the movie veers off into animation by Hugh Harman and Rudoph Ising, a pair of Disney veterans who’d later inaugurate Warner’s Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. It’s a cute little vignette done by the animation pioneers, who later created such characters as Bosko and Barney Bear. ALICE IN WONDERLAND probably won’t appeal to those who’re enamored of CGI, but it was way ahead of its time, and is historically worth a look. After all, it isn’t every day you get a chances to see Cary Grant as The Mock Turtle or W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty, now is it?

 

One Toke Over the Line: REEFER MADNESS (G & H Productions 1936)

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I’m writing this post while battling a nasty case of the flu, so it’s probably going to be a short one. That’s okay though, because really, what can I say about REEFER MADNESS? It’s terrible filmmaking, and dull as dishwater. There are plot holes so wide you could drive a semi through them. This little exploitation number would’ve been long forgotten after making the rounds on the grindhouse and roadshow circuits, until it was rediscovered by the stoner crowd in the 70’s and turned into an ironic midnight cult movie.

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The movie itself finds stodgy Dr. Carroll lecturing the local School-Parent Group to help “stamp out this frightful assassin of youth” marijuana. He recounts what happened when some kids got hooked on the stuff. Seems this gang of drug pushers were out to corrupt American youth by turning them on at an apartment run by no-goods Mae and Jack. Sweet Mary’s brother Jimmy and her beau Bill get caught up in the sleazy goings-on at Mae’s place. Jimmy makes a run to cop more weed with Jack, but he’s so stoned he runs over a pedestrian. Bill gets involved with Blanche and ends up deflowering her while they’re both high. Mary goes looking for Bill, and is almost raped by wild-eyed stoner Ralph. Bill comes into the room and begins to throttle Ralph when Jack bursts in with a gun. There’s a scuffle, and Jack ends up shooting Mary. They convince Bill he did it, and he goes on trial. Meanwhile, Ralph freaks out about the whole thing, cracks up and beats Jack to death with a poker. The cops raid the place and Blanche spills the beans on the whole sordid situation. Bill is freed, Blanche commits suicide by jumping out a window, and Ralph is sent to a home for the criminally insane, yet another victim of the marijuana epidemic.

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Director Louis Gasnier was once famous for the pioneering 1914 serial THE PERILS OF PAULINE, but had fallen on hard times, and this was his last film. The cast isn’t well-known, but does feature Dave O’Brien as the hophead Ralph, whose career I covered in my post on THE DEVIL BAT . His maniacal laughter and deranged crack-up scene are the only good things about the film. Dorothy Short (Mary) married O’Brien shortly after making the movie, and was featured in another pothead exploiter, ASSASSIN OF YOUTH. Thelma White (Mae) appeared in B-films and shorts with Edgar Kennedy and Leon Errol. Lillian Miles’ (Blanche) brief career was notable only for the 1934 Astaire/Rogers vehicle THE GAY DIVORCEE. Carleton Young (Jack) had a long film career, though; his best known are THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, and THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. Oh, and the actor who plays the judge at Bill’s trial is Edward LeSaint. As I was watching, I thought to myself, “I’ve seen this guy somewhere before”, and I was right. He was the judge in the Three Stooges short DISORDER IN THE COURT. And since my post’s so short, why don’t we just watch Moe, Larry, and Curly in one of their best comedies, and forget about REEFER MADNESS. Enjoy!

 

Pre Code Confidential #4: Boris Karloff in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (MGM 1932)

“Rooted in medieval fears of Genghis Khan and the Mongolian invasions of Europe, the Yellow Peril combines racist terror of alien cultures, sexual anxieties, and the belief that the West will be overpowered and enveloped by the irresistible, dark, occult forces of the East”- Gina Marchetti, Romance and the Yellow Peril: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (University of California Press, 1994)

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First, a brief history lesson: The Yellow Peril was a particular brand of xenophobia that spread in the late 19th/early 20th century. Named by (of all people) Kaiser Wilhelm II of  Germany, and given credibility during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, this “fear of the unknown” basically said those “inscrutable” Chinese were going to come over and slaughter all the good white Christians and rape their women. Popular culture of the times played on these fears by depicting villainous Oriental characters as barbaric, opium-smoking deviants who lusted for nothing less than racial miscegenation and total world dominance! Comic strips featured evil adversaries like The Dragon Lady (Terry and the Pirates) and Ming the Merciless (Flash Gordon) and the pulps were filled with Eastern devils such as Wu Fang and Dr. Yen Sin.  But the granddaddy of them all was Sax Rohmer’s insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, who terrorized Western Civilization in a series of novels from 1913 to 1959. Fu first came to the screen in two silent British serials with Harry Agar Lyons as the megalomaniacal doctor.  Paramount Pictures brought Fu Manchu to Hollywood in 1929 in THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU, starring Warner Oland (the future Charlie Chan). Oland returned to the role in the aptly titled THE RETURN OF DR. FU MANCHU, and later had what was pretty much a cameo in DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON, with Fu’s fiendish spawn (played by the sexy and tragic Anna May Wong) handling most of the villainy.

All of which brings us to THE MASK OF FU MANCHU. And boy, if you thought MGM laid the perversion on thick with KONGO , wait’ll you get a load of this one! Never mind the rampant racism, this movie’s chock full of  blatant sexual lust, drug use, gruesome tortures, and possibly even incest. Wow! Don’t get me wrong now, I enjoy all this stuff, I just don’t expect to see it in a film from 1932. It’s part of what makes rediscovering these Pre-Codes so much fun.

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The plot’s fairly simple: A British expedition is sent to Asia to find the tomb of Genghis Khan before Dr. Fu Manchu gets his hands on the treasures there, including Khan’s golden mask and scimitar, which Fu will use to claim he’s the rightful heir of Khan and kick off a race war. Sir Lionel Barton is sent by British Intelligence, led by Sir Nayland Smith, to lead the dig, but he’s kidnapped by Fu’s minions in the British Museum disguised as mummies! He’s strapped under a bell and tortured while Fu toys with him, eventually killing the old boy. Sheila, Barton’s daughter, and her oversized boyfriend Terry go with Sir Nayland and his crew to search for Sir Lionel, where they’re captured by Fu, along with his “ugly and insignificant daughter” Fah Lo See, and placed in various torture devices. Sheila is set to be sacrificed to Fu’s gods, as he implores his followers to “Kill the white man and take his women!” Of course, our stalwart heroes foil the “hideous yellow menace” and the British Empire makes the world safe for Caucasians everywhere. (See, fairly simple!)

The movie’s serial-like pacing keeps things zipping along. Director Charles Brabin, husband of silent screen vamp Theda Bara, was an old pro, having been in pictures since 1911. His career was mainly in the silent era, though he did do a few Pre-Codes before retiring, including the gangster flick THE BEAST OF THE CITY with Walter Huston and Jean Harlow. MGM gave this one a pretty big budget, with Cedric Gibbons providing some stunning art direction, and famed electrical wizard Kenneth Strickfaden designing Fu’s weird scientific machinery, as he did in FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

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Speaking of Frankenstein, Boris Karloff is sensational as Fu Manchu. He exaggerates his natural lisp, making Fu sound like a slithering serpent. Cecil Holland’s makeup has Karloff looking like a grotesque characture of a Chinaman, with his drooping moustache and long claws. Boris delights in punishing his enemies, gleefully torturing them by dangling Smith over a crocodile pit, shooting up Terry with spider venom, reptile organs, and dragon blood to control his will, and placing another in the old “walls closing in” device, only these walls are full of sharp silver spikes! Dear Boris has a field day as he wickedly attempts to “dispatch (them) to (their) cold, saintly Christian paradise”, and conquer the world. He’s obviously having a blast in the role, and is a depraved delight.

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That “ugly and insignificant daughter” is none other than Myrna Loy, and she’s great as the lascivious Fah Lo See. From the moment she first appears on camera, her braless headlights beaming, we know Fah Lo See’s a wanton woman. The scene where Terry’s being whipped while Fah Lo See watches, practically drooling, commanding her slaves to go “Faster, faster!” is a highlight of Pre-Code excess. Nora Charles was never this horny! The two romantic leads, Karen Morley (SCARFACE, OUR DAILY BREAD) and Charles Starrett (better known as The Durango Kid), aren’t nearly as interesting as Fu and his daughter. Lewis Stone (Andy’s dad Judge Hardy) plays Nayland Smith as a staunch, macho defender of the Crown and all things Anglo-Saxon. Jean Hersholt, Lawrence Grant, and David Torrence round out the cast, but all eyes will be on Karloff and Loy at their deranged, pain-inflicting best.

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The Yellow Peril fervor switched from Chinese madmen to Japanese war mongers in the 1940’s, and there’s plenty of filmic evidence of racist sentiments in the ultra-patriotic movies of that era. But the Chinese supervillain stereotype continued well into the 60’s, influencing everything from James Bond’s DR. NO to Marvel Comics villain The Yellow Claw to a new series of Fu Manchu films starring Christopher Lee. THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, despite its racist elements, is one of the most devilishly fun Pre-Codes around, and features yet another star turn for the great Boris Karloff. Definitely worth watching for the sheer madness of it all!

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 6: All-Star Horror Edition!

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As many of you Dear Readers know by now, classic horror has always been my favorite genre. From the Universal Monsters to Bug-Eyed Aliens to Freddie Krueger and friends (fiends?), a good scary movie is a good time! Even a bad scary movie can be fun, if I’m in the right mood. So here are six (count ’em), yes six horror films I’ve recently watched, with some great horror actors and directors at their best (and worst!):

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MIRACLES FOR SALE

(MGM 1939, D: Tod Browning)

The first great horror director, Browning teamed with Lon Chaney Sr. in the silent era to shock audiences with films like LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT and THE UNHOLY THREE. He kicked off the Golden Age of Sound Horror with DRACULA, followed by the controversial FREAKS. MIRACLES FOR SALE was his last film, and while it’s more of a locked-room mystery, it’s loaded with those bizarre Browning touches. Robert Young stars as The Great Morgan, ex-stage magician who now devises tricks for others, in this occult-flavored whodunit involving a beautiful blonde damsel in distress, a phony mystic, a demonologist’s murder, and magic tricks aplenty. There’s some chills to be had here, and Browning fans will enjoy seeing the old master at play one last time. (Fun Fact: Universal horror vets Henry Hull (WEREWOLF OF LONDON) and Gloria Holden (DRACULA’S DAUGHTER) play key roles in the mystery.)

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SCARED TO DEATH

(Screen Guild 1947, D: Christy Cabanne)

Move over, Ed Wood…this may very well be the worst movie ever! A dead woman on a morgue slab narrates the tale of how she died. The story’s told in flashback, with occasional annoying cuts back to the corpse for a brief sentence. Bad acting, non-existent direction, rotten writing…even the cheap Cinecolor process is atrocious. Horror icons Bela Lugosi and George Zucco are wasted, as are character actors Douglas Fowley, Nat Pendleton, and Joyce Compton.  And I have no idea what midget actor Angelo Rossito is supposed to be doing except being a midget! SCARED TO DEATH may bore you to death! (Fun Fact: It’s your only chance to see Lugosi in a color film…but don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

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FRANKENSTEIN 1970

(Allied Artists 1958, D: Howard W. Koch)

Boris Karloff  plays a descendant of Dr. Frankenstein instead of the monster in this quickie. A television crew visits Castle Frankenstein to shoot footage for the 250th anniversary of The Monster’s creation. There’s a strong Hammer influence, as we see onscreen body parts, though they’re kept in a fridge and gotten rid of via garbage disposal! Karloff slices up the ham pretty thick here, but the spooky atmosphere and some creepy scenes almost make up for his overacting (almost). The King has done far better films, but this one’s OK for a rainy day with nothing better to do. (Fun Fact: Former cowboy star Donald “Red” Barry plays the obnoxious TV director.)

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THE VALLEY OF GWANGI

(Warner Bros 1969, D: James O’Connelly)

This sci-fi-Western hybrid is much more fun than the recent COWBOYS & ALIENS, thanks to the genius of special effects master Ray Harryhausen . A failing Wild West Show  travelling through Mexico stumbles upon the Forbidden Valley, where prehistoric dinosaurs still roam the Earth, and capture a T-Rex in this film that owes a lot to KING KONG . James Franciscus loses his Texas accent about halfway through, Gila Golan’s Israeli accent had to be dubbed, and Lawrence Naismith camps it up as a British paleontologist, but it’s not about the acting, it’s about those marvelous Harryhausen monsters. Always fun to see his Dynamation dinosaurs engage in a roaring battle. A good if not great little gem. (Fun Fact: 50’s sci-fi icon Richard Carlson (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE ) plays rodeo boss Champ in his last film role.)

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SHOCK

(Laser Films 1977, D: Mario Bava)

Mario Bava directed some classic Italian horror and giallo films (BLACK SUNDAY, BLACK SABBATH, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE…hmm, I sense a pattern here!) and his last, SHOCK, is an eerie and uncomfortable thriller about a creepy little kid (David Colin Jr of BEYOND THE DOOR) who’s possessed by the spirit of his dead junkie father and tries to drive his mother crazy. Bava’s familiar themes of sex, death, and horror are in play, as is his eccentric cinema wizardry.  A truly twisted swan song from one of the world’s most unique filmmakers, well worth checking out. (Fun Fact: Daria Nicolodi who plays the mother, is the real-life mother of actress/director/cult figure Asia Argento)

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THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY

(Fulcia Film 1981, D: Lucio Fulci)

Believe it or not, this was my first time viewing a Lucio Fulci film. It won’t be the last!! THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY took me back to the days when I’d go see movies like DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT and CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, great loopy masterpieces of cinema schlock. A family rents a home in a quaint suburban Boston town while the husband completes some research by a colleague who committed suicide. Unfortunately, the house is still occupied by Dr. Freudstein, a disgraced (and deceased) turn-of-the-century surgeon who lives off his victim’s body parts. There’s gore galore and plenty of frights to be had here, and Fulci does a good job with the New England atmosphere, including nods to local supermarket giant Stop & Shop. And that scene with the bat scared the piss outta me! (Fun Fact: this was the final entry in Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” trilogy…you know I’ll be looking for the other two!)