Creepy Crawlies: WILLARD (Cinerama 1971)

Rats are not cute’n’cuddly little creatures. They’re disgusting, disease-infested vermin that should be avoided at all costs. But don’t tell that to WILLARD, title character in this 1971 chiller that started a regular revolution of “animals run amok” horror movies. Bruce Davison, later to become one of his generation’s finest actors (SHORT EYES, THE LATHE OF HEAVEN, LONGTIME COMPANION), is a regular rodent Dr. Doolittle here, not only talking to the animals, but handling them fondly while he trains them to kill his enemies. Rats – yuck!

Willard Stiles is a lonely loser who shares a rambling, decrepit manse with his  domineering mother (Elsa Lanchester) and works for bullying boss Martin (Ernest Borgnine ), who stole the family business from Willard’s late father. Office temp Joan (Sondra Locke) feels sorry for Willard, but the socially awkward nerd is uncomfortable around people, preferring instead to spend time with the rats in his yard, befriending and training them, then letting the varmints move into his cellar. His best furry friends are white rat Socrates and black rat Ben.

When Willard’s mom finally kicks the bucket, a tax lien is put on the house. None of the mother’s elderly friends want to help financially, and mean Mr. Martin wants to buy the property and erect apartment houses. Socrates is killed by Martin when the little bugger is discovered hanging out in the company storeroom (Willard takes he and Ben to work with him!), and Martin decides the only way to get that property is to fire Willard. This pushes young Willard over the edge, and he extracts revenge on Martin in gruesome fashion. Then Willard, realizing he can’t keep his home, drowns his remaining furry partners in crime. But he forgot about Ben, who carries out his own brand of vengeance…

Davison reminds me a bit of Anthony Perkins in PSYCHO; he’s definitely got some of that Norman Bates vibe, and his slow descent into madness is a bloody good time. Borgnine is a real prick as Martin, and his death scene is as creepy as it was when I originally saw this flick in the theater long ago. I’ve sung the praises of Sondra Locke on this blog before; her part is small, but her presence is always welcome, as is that of THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN herself, Elsa Lanchester, as Willard’s mom.

Daniel Mann directed some powerhouse dramas in the 50’s and early 60’s: THE ROSE TATTOO, I’LL CRY TOMORROW, TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON. But after 1960’s BUTTERFIELD-8, his career declined, though on WILLARD he does a fine if unspectacular job. No matter; the material could’ve been directed by anybody (or a nobody) and would’ve worked, and it actually holds up rather well. Alex North delivers an eerie score, and the rats were well-trained by Moe DiSesso, a Hollywood animal trainer who worked with the bird in THE RAVEN , the dogs in THE HILLS HAVE EYES , and lovable Sandy in the musical ANNIE. Dogs and birds I don’t mind, but far as I’m concerned DiSesso can keep his nasty, gnawing little rodents. Rats – yuck!

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Killer Christmas: HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (ABC-TV Movie 1972)

Four daughters reunite at the old family homestead during Christmas to visit their estranged, dying father. Sounds like the perfect recipe for one of those sticky-sweet Hallmark movies, right? Wrong, my little elves! HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS, originally broadcast as part of ABC-TV’s “Movie of the Week” series (1969-1975) is part proto-slasher, part psycho-biddie shocker, and a whole lot of fun! It plays kind of like a 70’s exploitation film, only with a high-powered cast that includes Sally Field, Eleanor Parker, Julie Harris , and Walter Brennan, a script by Joseph (PSYCHO) Stefano, and direction courtesy of John Llwellyn Moxey (HORROR HOTEL, THE NIGHT STALKER).

Rich old Benjamin Morgan (Brennan) has summoned his daughters home on a dark and stormy Christmas Eve, claiming his second wife Elizabeth (Harris) is slowly poisoning him to death. Elizabeth was once ‘suspected’ of poisoning her first husband (though never proven) and spent some time in an insane asylum. The girls haven’t been back since their mother committed suicide nine years ago, and believe dear ol’ dad drove her to it. There’s seemingly level-headed Alex (Parker), pill-popping lush Freddie (Jessica Walter), multi-times married Jo (Jill Haworth), and sweet young grad student Chris (Field).

Freddie, drunk and stoned, has a freak-out when she enters her late mother’s room, and tries to commit hari-kari of her own with broken glass. Jo decides to split the scene, and is followed to her car by someone wearing a yellow rain slicker with red boots and gloves – items owned by Elizabeth! When Jo discovers her keys aren’t in the ignition, she turns back to the house, only to get impaled with a pitchfork! Freddie, recuperating in a hot bath with a bottle of vodka, is dragged under the water and drowned – by someone wearing those same red gloves! The phone is dead, the roads are washed out, and it’s thundering and lightening like crazy, so Chris gets the bright idea to try and make it through the woods to the nearest neighbor’s house a mile away.

Chris is stalked by that slicker-wearing, pitchfork wielding someone in a scene reminiscent of slasher movies to come, with some ominous piano and strings in the background. Ducking away, in a panic now, she heads back home, only to trip over Jo’s corpse! She hides in her father’s room, when Elizabeth enters and says “He’s dead”, causing her to go screaming into the night. Running down the dark country road, a car driven by Alex pulls up, and the real killer is revealed… and it’s not who you think (or maybe it is, if you’ve seen enough of these films!). This penultimate scene is followed by a cool twist ending which I wouldn’t have seen coming had I not watched the movie before.

Angelic young Sally Field makes a darn good Scream Queen… could be the kid has a future in pictures! Uptight Julie Harris, always skulking about and peering through windows, is as obvious a red herring as Bela Lugosi in a butler’s uniform! Triple Oscar nominee Eleanor Parker steals the show with her histrionics at the end, Jessica Walter goes over the top (but in a good way), and neither Brennan nor Haworth (BRIDES OF DRACULA, HORROR HOUSE)  get much to do, but add to the star power. I’ve been looking for something a bit different than the usual holiday fare this year, and HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS certainly fills the bill. If you’re craving your Christmas goose with a dash of arsenic this season, check it out, it’s available on YouTube!

 

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!: 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! Extra: The Mind-Warping World of EC Comics!

William M. Gaines’ graphic and gruesome line of horror, crime, and science fiction comics helped turn America’s youth into mouth-foaming, homicidal Juvenile Delinquents until they met with a horror of another kind – Dr. Fredric Wertham and the U.S. Congress! These beasts effectively destroyed EC through censorship and propaganda, ending one of graphic arts’ most creative eras. But EC still lives in the hearts and minds of horror fans everywhere, so here’s gallery of ten spine-chilling covers from the Golden Age of EC Comics! Spa Fon!

 

Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (Universal 1932)

We can’t have a proper ‘Halloween Havoc!’ without inviting Bela Lugosi to the party, now can we? After all, his 1931 hit DRACULA practically invented the horror movie as far as ‘talking pictures’ go. Both Bela and director Robert Florey were slated to work on producer Carl Laemmle’s next horror opus FRANKENSTEIN, but Laemmle wasn’t satisfied with their version, handing it over to James Whale, who hired a bit player named Boris Karloff to portray the monster of science, and the rest is history. Lugosi and Florey were instead given MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tale, to bring to screen life. This was the first of Bela’s “mad doctor” role, a part he would essay twelve more times in films of varying quality.

It’s Carnival Night in 1845 Paris, and med student Pierre Dupin takes his girlfriend Camille L’Espanaye to make merry watching exotic belly dancers, “wild” American Indians, and other ‘oddities’. Oddest of all is the grotesque Dr. Mirakle and his ape Erik, “the monster who walks upright… the beast with a human soul”. The sophisticated, imperious Mirakle espouses his theory that  man is descended from apes, leading to cries of “Heresy!” from the gathered masses. Erik seems to take a shine to Camille, grabbing then caressing her bonnet, and gripping Pierre by the throat in a jealous pique. Mirakle apologizes to the mademoiselle, yet sends his henchman Janos to follow her.

Later, Mirakle’s carriage comes across a knife fight by two ruffians over the affections of a prostitute. Both men die on the fog-shrouded, dimly lit waterfront, and the frightened hooker is scurried away by Mirakle, taking her to his hidden lair, where he puts her in bondage on a makeshift tilted cross, determined to make her “the bride of science”, mingling Erik’s blood with her own to see if she’s worthy. Under the microscope, Mirakle screams the prostitute has “rotten blood” (what did he expect?), and she dies on the cross, a martyr to mad science, released through a trap door into the River Seine.

Pierre, besides being a med student, is also an amateur sleuth, and has been investigating the murder of the girl and two other “ladies of the evening”. He discovers a mysterious “foreign substance” in their blood samples, and learns it is ape’s blood. He tracks down Mirakle at the carnival, who answers curtly to Dupin’s questions, telling Pierre he’s about to leave for Munich. Pierre discovers this to be a lie, and follows Mirakle and Janos to an abandoned warehouse down by the docks.

Soon Mirakle comes calling on Camille, only to be rebuffed at the door. Never one to take no for an answer, he sends Erik to kidnap the girl, killing her mother in the process and stuffing her up the chimney. Pierre happens to be in the vicinity, and hearing the screams, he rushes upstairs. The police prefect conducts an inquiry, receiving three different answers from three different witnesses (and an excuse for some ethnic comedy relief). Pierre is exonerated when Madame L’Espanaye is found up the chimney, her hand clutching ape hair, and they race to Mirakle’s secret lair. He’s about to inject Erik’s blood into Camille when the simian escapes his cage and throttles his master to death, scooping up Camille and escaping via the rooftops of Paris, where brave Pierre finally shoots the beast and saves his lady-love from certain doom.

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE has it’s good and bad points. The best is obviously watching Lugosi at the height of his acting prowess, his continental charm not quite masking his unibrowed, demonic countenance. Bela’s startling performance as Dr. Mirakle ranks among his finest film roles, and you’ll be mesmerized once again by his talent as an actor. Karl Freund’s cinematography is a marvel of nourish lighting, accentuating the eeriness of the expressionistic sets. A scene set with Camille on a swing pushed by Pierre, the camera positioned in her lap, is quite innovative, and that aforementioned scene involving the prostitute (who’s played by Arlene Francis, later of TV’s WHAT’S MY LINE? fame) is one of the darkest in early horror cinema, a scene that could only be made during the Pre-Code era, as is much of the material here.

Among the film’s bad points, holding it back from being a true horror classic, are the cloyingly sweet lovers Pierre and Camille. Their romancing is sickeningly sappy to behold, and Sidney Fox (Camille) has such a squeaky voice you wonder what Pierre sees in her. Leon Waycoff was just starting his film career, and quite frankly he isn’t all that good; the actor got better as time went on, after changing his name to Leon Ames . The rest of the cast is hit and miss; Noble Johnson and D’Arcy Corrigan among the hits, Bert Roach, Torbin Meyer, and Herman Bing the misses.

Charlie Gemora once again donned his “gorilla suit” to portray Erik, as he did in countless other films: SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, BLONDE VENUS, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, SWISS MISS, ROAD TO ZANZIBAR, WHITE WITCH DOCTOR. I’ve no complaints about Gemora; however, close-up stock footage of Erik features different species of apes at different times, negating the effect. MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE didn’t do well at the box office, as apparently audiences were turned off by all the talk of evolution and interspecies mating. Florey went on to an interesting career as a ‘B’ auteur, while Lugosi… well, we don’t have to rehash his descent into lower-case pictures again. We all know whatever script he was handed, Bela gave his all for his art. That’s why, 86 years after beguiling the world in DRACULA, Bela Lugosi still reigns supreme in Hollywood’s Horror Valhalla!

Halloween Havoc!: THE DEVIL DOLL (MGM 1936)

Producer/director Tod Browning’s THE DEVIL DOLL is a film reminiscent of his silent efforts with the great Lon Chaney Sr. This bizarre little movie doesn’t get the attention of Browning’s DRACULA or FREAKS ,  and the ending’s a bit on the sappy side, but on the plus side it features Lionel Barrymore dressed in drag for most of the time, some neat early special effects work, and a weird premise based on a novel by science fiction writer A. Merritt, adapted for the screen by Guy Endore, Garrett Ford,  and Erich von Stroheim (!!).

Barrymore stars as Devil’s Island escapee Paul Lavond, and he pretty much carries the picture. Lavond and fellow con Marcel (Henry B. Walthall ) make it to Marcel’s home, where wife Melita (a pop-eyed Rafaela Ottiano) has been keeping the faith on her hubby’s experimental work… turning animals miniature, to solve the coming food shortage and better mankind. But their brains shrink too, and the critters can only act when a human imposes their will on them (by thinking real hard, apparently).

Servant girl Lachna (Grace Wood), an “inbred peasant halfwit”, is next in line for testing, but when things go awry, Marcel dies of a heart attack. Lavond takes this opportunity to travel with Melita and (now) tiny Lachna to Paris, to exact revenge on the three banking partners who framed him for embezzlement and murder. Posing as the elderly dollmaker “Madame Mandilip”, Lavond goes after his crooked former friends, hoping to win back the love and respect of daughter Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan ), who grew up hating her convicted criminal father.

Like Chaney Sr. in Browning’s THE UNHOLY THREE, Barrymore is more than convincing as the old woman, and seems to be having a field day all bundled up in ladies’ garments. His tour de force performance is what makes THE DEVIL DOLL worth watching, as sadly the rest of the cast is lacking. Ottiano overacts as Melita, Frank Lawton is bland as Lorraine’s cabbie beau Toto, Walthall is wasted (and looks terrible; he died a month before the film’s release), and bad guy bankers Robert Greig, Arthur Hohl, and Pedro de Cordoba are stereotype villains. Only O’Sullivan as Barrymore’s daughter and Ford as the shrunken Lachna shine in their supporting roles. Look real quickly for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit by comedian Billy Gilbert as a butler… I’m wondering if he originally had a bigger part that got cut from the movie. Any film fans know the answer to this mystery?

The special effects can best be described as “early Bert I. Gordon“, done with superimposing and rear projection. No doubt cutting edge for their time, they don’t stand up nearly as well as John P. Fulton’s work for Universal or Willis O’Brien’s marvelous KING KONG . THE DEVIL DOLL isn’t on a par with the best horrors of the 30’s, but curious fans of Tod Browning and/or Lionel Barrymore will want to take a look. Browning would make one more film, 1939’s MIRACLES FOR SALE , before retiring. Barrymore continued his thespic career as cranky Dr. Gillespie in the ‘Dr. Kildare’ films, and he’s fondly  remembered for his role as mean Mr. Potter in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Now Henry Potter… that was one really scary dude!