Halloween Havoc!: REPTILICUS (AIP 1962)

Are you ready for some Danish horror? Well, don’t get too excited; REPTILICUS is a giant monster flick that doesn’t really deliver the goods. The monster itself is on a par with THE GIANT CLAW , the film’s stuffed with stock footage and needless padding, the acting and dialog are way below average. Yet I’ve always liked this loopy movie; it has an endearing charm of its own, and is entertaining in spite of its limitations.

“High above the Arctic Circle”, copper miner drilling into the Earth’s crust hit flesh and bone. Scientists are called in, and sample’s are sent to the Copenhagen Aquarium. A piece of tail is kept in a refrigeration unit, until a sleepy scientist forgets to lock the door tight. The tail begins to rapidly regenerate, and turns into a giant prehistoric lizard dubbed Reptilicus. The giant lizard gets loose and begins to wreak the usual giant lizard havoc! How can the military stop Reptilicus without blowing it to bits and creating a shit-ton more giant monsters??

Two versions of REPTILICUS were made, one for Denmark and one for America. Producer/director Sid Pink, the man behind such classics as THE TWONKY and the 3-D BWANA DEVIL (both written and directed by Arch Obler), the Spaghetti Western THE CHRISTMAS KID (with Jeffrey Hunter ), and the sexy spy comedy THE MAN FROM O.R.G.Y, turned in a version that AIP honchos Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson absolutely hated. They turned to the film’s screenwriter Ib Melchior to make major changes. Melchior was a science-fiction writer who once claimed Irwin Allen ripped off his unproduced script SPACE FAMILY ROBINSON for the TV show LOST IN SPACE (which is probably true). The writer did the best he could do to turn REPTILICUS into something watchable, but I can just imagine how bad it originally was if this is “the best he could do”!! Anyway, Melchior had better luck writing and directing THE ANGRY RED PLANET, and providing the screenplays for ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS and Mario Bava’s PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES. His short story “The Racer” was later turned into the cult classic DEATH RACE 2000.

Unless you’re familiar with Danish cinema (which I’m not), you won’t recognize any Familiar Faces here. I’m pretty sure the actors are grateful for that! The guy playing the American General overacts, and so does the guy who dubbed his voice! The handyman Petersen is just a total doofus, characters seem to appear having no bearing on the plot (what there is of one), and the women are just there for window dressing, basically Danish pastry to droop over. There are some nice touristy shots of Copenhagen in the early 60’s however, and an interlude in a nightclub where we get to hear the jazzy bossa-nova number “Tivoli Night”:

…which again has nothing to do with the plot. It’s just padding! REPTILICUS is slow going at first, and… what am I saying? It’s slow going all the way, except for the all-too brief appearances of the giant lizard.

Somebody over at Charlton Comics must’ve like the movie though, because they made a comic book version of REPTILICUS that lasted two issues, until their copyright ran out. They then changed the title’s name to REPTISAURUS, which continued another six issues. The latest incarnation of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 300 featured REPTILICUS as their debut episode, and it’s easy to understand why. There’s loads of unintentionally funny stuff going on in this flick, and you can have a ReptSILLYcus good time watching it all unfold.

Advertisements

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!: 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!: BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB (AIP/Hammer 1971)

Hammer’s ‘Mummy’ movies never really did it for me, but BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB is a shroud of a different colour. Adapted from Bram Stoker’s novel “The Jewel of the Seven Stars”, the movie suffered some behind the scenes setbacks, which contribute to its choppy nature. The backstage chaos began when original star Peter Cushing’s wife passed away after only a day’s filming. He was replaced by Andrew Keir (QUARTERMASS AND THE PIT). Then before shooting was complete, director Seth Holt (TASTE OF FEAR, THE NANNY) died of a heart attack, and Hammer veteran Michael Carreras had to step in to finish the film. Despite all this, BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB is one of the better latter-day Hammers, picking up steam as it goes along, with a great performance by sexy star Valerie Leon.

Leon plays Margaret Fuchs, who was born the same day her father Professor Julian Fuchs (Keir) opened the tomb of Egyptian Queen Tera. Margaret grows up to be not only a dead ringer for the evil queen, but is given a large ruby ring on her birthday for protection. But the ring pulls Margaret under the spell of Tera’s power, and soon she and her boyfriend (who goes by the name Tod Browning!! ) get involved with supernatural shenanigans courtesy of dad’s former expedition partner Corbeck (James Villiers, THESE ARE THE DAMNED), gathering up ancient lost relics taken by other expedition members.

The murders are fairly gory, and there are some good frights along the way to the climax, when Queen Tera rises from the dead and battles Margaret for dominance. This was Leon’s only starring role, and she makes a fine Scream Queen. I’m surprised Hammer didn’t use her for other horror entries; instead she continued appearing in the CARRY ON series and a pair of James Bond flicks (THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN). Also in the cast is George Coulouris, veteran of such classic films as CITIZEN KANE, FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, and WATCH ON THE RHINE.

I’m not saying BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB is a great horror flick; it’s far from perfect, and the behind the scenes tragedies hurt the continuity. But Leon and the cast somehow make it all work, and I’d choose it over the 1980 remake THE AWAKENING, with Charlton Heston and Susannah York trapped by a moldy script. At least this version has Valerie Leon to ogle, and she delivers a treat for your Halloween viewing.

 

Halloween Havoc!: SUGAR HILL (AIP 1974)

The worlds of Horror and Blaxploitation intersected frequently during the 70’s, beginning with American-International’s BLACULA . The vampire tale spawned a subgenre of black oriented riffs on familiar themes: BLACKENSTEIN (man-made monsters), DR. BLACK, MR. HYDE (Stevenson’s classic novel updated), ABBY (demonic possession), and SUGAR HILL, a crazy voodoo-zombie revenge tale that’s creepy, outrageous, and entertaining as… well, as hell!

Foxy lady Marki Bey plays foxy lady Diana “Sugar” Hill, whose boyfriend Langston runs the voodoo-themed Club Haiti. Southern-fried gangster Morgan (Robert Quarry) wants to take over the club, and sends his goons to ‘persuade’ Langston. When he refuses, they stomp him to death in the parking lot, leaving Sugar no recourse but to return to her ancestral home and ask ancient voodoo queen Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully of THE JEFFERSONS) for help. Mama conjures up voodoo god of the dead Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), who gives Sugar control over an army of zombies to enact her revenge on Morgan and his cohorts.

A series of weird set pieces follows, as Sugar and her zombies kill off the gangsters one by one. The machete-wielding zombies mutilate and decapitate one, feed another to hungry pigs (!), lock a goon in a snake-filled coffin, and give a zombie massage to lead goon Fabulous (Charles Robinson, NIGHT COURT). Sugar’s ex-boyfriend, police detective Valentine (Richard Lawson) suspects Sugar’s doing that voodoo that she do so well, but can’t prove it, and winds up hospitalized when he gets too close to the truth. Sugar saves the best for last as Morgan and his racist ho Celeste (Betty Ann Rees) get their just desserts.

Colley’s over-the-top Baron Samedi makes a great supernatural villain (Geoffrey Holder played the Baron in the James Bond film LIVE AND LET DIE). Miss Bey, if not the greatest of thespians, sure does looks sweet as Sugar. In the middle of the film, there’s a wild cat fight between Sugar and Celeste that serves no purpose but is a lot of fun! The zombies are appropriately eerie-looking,  and the murders are done well, though not as gory as later zombie flicks.

SUGAR HILL was filmed in Houston, standing in for New Orleans. The backlot swamp is peppered with stock footage of gators, crawling snakes, and assorted swamp critters, and some familiar film sound effects, including that classic kookaburra that pops up in every jungle pic:

Too bad the kookaburra is only indigineous to the wilds of Australia! This was Quarry’s final AIP film; the studio had tried to build him into the next Vincent Price in COUNT YORGA VAMPIRE, RETURN OF COUNT YORGA, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN , and DEATHMASTER without much success. Director Paul Maslansky shows a steady if unspectacular hand; he went on to produce the POLICE ACADEMY movies, which were a horror of another kind! And we can’t have a Blaxploitation flick without a funky theme song, “Supernatural Voodoo Woman” by Motown’s The Originals:

SUGAR HILL is a sweet (sorry) entry in the Horror/Blaxploitation  field, and it’s overblown insanity, sense of fun, and downright spooky atmosphere makes it a worthy Halloween treat for lovers of both genres.

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: THE RAVEN (AIP 1963)

Let’s kick off the third annual “Halloween Havoc” with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Hazel Court, young Jack Nicholson , director Roger Corman , screenwriter Richard Matheson , and an “idea” by Edgar Allan Poe. How’s that for an all-star horror crew? The film is THE RAVEN, Corman’s spoof of all those Price/Poe movies he was famous for, a go-for-the-throat comedy guaranteed to make you spill your guts with laughter!

Sorcerer Erasmus Craven (Price ), still pining for his late, lost Lenore, hears someone gently rapping on his chamber door… er, window. It’s a raven, a talking raven, in reality Adolpho Bedlo (Lorre ), who’s been put under a spell by the Grand Master of magicians, Dr. Scarabus (Karloff ), who like Craven is adept at “magic by gesture”. After Craven mixes up a potion to reverse the spell, Bedlo tells him he’s seen Lenore alive at Scarabus’s castle.

The two wizards decided to make the trek to Castle Scarabus so Craven can learn the truth. Daughter Estelle Craven (Olive Sturgess) insists on accompanying them, as does Bedlo’s inept son Rexford (Nicholson). The Grand Master, a former rival of Craven’s father, greets them warmly at the door, a seemingly kindly old gent who clears up the matter by introducing his servant, who’s pretty but not Lenore. Scarabus invites the entourage to a convivial dinner, where Bedlo drunkenly challenges him to a duel of magic. The soused mage’s magic backfires, and he’s turned into a pool of raspberry jam!

A storm is brewing outside (because of course it is!), and Scarabus invites them to spend the night. Rexford suspects foul play, telling Estelle he saw Scarabus use his hand gestures during the duel to put the kibosh on his dad. During the storm, Craven sees what he thinks is Lenore looking in his window. He’s right… Lenore (Court )is alive and well, deviously plotting with Scarabus to learn the secrets of Craven’s powerful magic! Soon we discover Bedlo’s alive too; the treacherous wizard has been in on it all along!

All four (including the duplicitous Bedlo) are captured by the evil Scarabus, and Bedllo, begging to be freed for his loyalty, is turned back into a raven. Grand Master Scarabus threatens Estelle, forcing Craven to engage in a magical “duel to the death”, a comical, special effects-gimmicked battle of prestidigitation. The younger sorcerer is ultimately victorious, and they escape as Castle Scarabus is consumed by flames.

Price gets to show off his slapstick skills, continually walking headlong into his large telescope, and his acting opposite the bird is, well, Priceless! Lorre is just naturally funny, whether taking a pratfall, going off-script with some ad-libbing, or exclaiming as the raven in his accented voice, “Ooo, these feathers itch!” Karloff, as the villain of the piece, doesn’t get much in the comedy department, but manages to get off some good one-liners, calling Lenore “my little viper”, for example. Young Jack isn’t as bad here as some critics have pointed out, and he and Lorre are a funny father/son act. Les Baxter’s score, complete with whimsical music cues, adds to the fun, as does Pat Dinga’s special effects bag of tricks.

There are plenty of film references and in-jokes crammed in by Corman and Matheson. The name on Craven’s dad’s coffin is Roderick, Price’s character name in FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER . That film’s ending is also referenced in the final destruction of Castle Scarabus. And when Craven defeats Scarabus, it’s the symbolic passing of the terror torch from Grand Master Karloff to the new King Price. The raven itself was trained by Mo Disesso, who later provided the trained rats for both WILLARD and BEN. THE RAVEN is more fun than a barrel of spiders, a creepy and kooky Gothic send-up with the Three Titans of Terror in rare form, and will delight genre fans of all ages. Except for maybe poor Poe, who’s probably still spinning in his grave!!

Fun in the Sun: BEACH BLANKET BINGO (AIP 1965)

You’d think by the fourth entry in American-International’s ‘Beach Party’ series, 1965’s BEACH BLANKET BINGO, the formula would be wearing a bit thin. Frankie and Annette are still trying to make each other jealous, Eric Von Zipper and his Rats are still comic menaces, and the gang’s into yet another new kick (skydiving this time around). But thanks to a top-notch supporting cast of characters, a sweet subplot involving a mermaid, and the genius of comedy legend Buster Keaton , BEACH BLANKET BINGO is loads of fun!

Aspiring singer Sugar Kane skydives from a plan into the middle of the ocean and is “rescued” by surfer Frankie. But not really… it’s all been a publicity stunt by her PR agent ‘Bullets’. Sugar is played by lovely Linda Evans, right before she landed on TV’s THE BIG VALLEY, and ‘Bullets’ is none other than the fantastically sarcastic Paul Lynde. But wait… Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) and his motley crew have spied Sugar, and the Head Rat immediately declares she’s “nifty”, and Sugar replaces his idol, “Marlo Brandon”.

Frankie wants to try skydiving, and so does Dee Dee (our girl Annette, for those unfamiliar with the series), but macho Frank thinks a woman’s place is in the kitchen. The gang heads to Big Drop’s Skydiving school, run by ‘Mr. Warmth’, the late, great Don Rickles . Instructors Steve and Bonnie (real-life husband and wife John Ashley and the delectable Deborah Walley ) cause romantic complications for Frankie and Dee Dee, because that’s just the way things go in these films. Meanwhile, big goofy Bonehead ( Jody McCrea ) opts out of the skydiving scene, and winds up meeting and falling in love with Lorelei the mermaid, played by marvy Marta Kristen (LOST IN SPACE’s Judy Robinson).

Things get real (or about as real as they can in a drive-in flick) when Von Zipper kidnaps Sugar, only to be snatched from him by his no-goodnik pool hall pal South Dakota Slim (the one and only Timothy Carey !). Slim takes her to his “bubby” house (he calls everyone “bubby”) and ties her to a buzzsaw, resulting in a silent-film style slapstick ending straight outta THE PERILS OF PAULINE. That ending, along with other comic bits, was devised by Keaton, who’s Big Drop’s “assistant”, and it’s obviously the comedy master’s handiwork. Buster has some wonderful sight gags spread throughout the film, like having troubles casting his fishing line in the surf, chasing (and chased by) Bobbi Shaw along the seascape, doing his own crazy version of the watusi, and hanging from a tree limb during the sped-up race to Slim’s sawmill. Buster Keaton still did his own stunts here at age 69, and his dedication to his comic craft, even in a low-budget teen movie like this, is a testament to his considerable talents.

Lynde and Rickles each get to showcase their own comic personas, with Rickles doing some of his stand-up insult comedy while emceeing Sugar’s singing performance, and it’s one of the movie’s comic highlights (Don to Frankie: “You’re 43, Frank! You’re old!”). Donna Loren returns to sing “It Only Hurts When I Cry”, surf rockers The Hondells appear, and even Lembeck and his Rats get a musical number, “Follow Your Leader”. Famed (at the time) columnist Earl Wilson plays himself, 1964’s Playmate of the Year Donna Michelle is one of the surfer girls, and Michael Nader (later Evans’ costar on DYNASTY) is Frankie’s pal Butch. BEACH BLANKET BINGO is perfect for a hot summer night when you’re looking for some mindless laughs, with a bevy of beauties, harmless musical interludes, and some fine comedy from Lynde, Rickles, and especially Buster Keaton. Kowabunga!