Halloween Havoc!: ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (Paramount 1932)

Universal Pictures kicked off the horror trend of the early 30’s with DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN , and soon every studio in Hollywood, both major and minor, jumped on the terror train. Paramount was the first to hop on board with an adaptation of Stevenson’s DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE , earning Fredric March an Oscar for his dual role. Soon there was DR. X (Warners), THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (RKO), FREAKS and THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (both MGM), and THE MONSTER WALKS and WHITE ZOMBIE from the indies. Paramount released ISLAND OF LOST SOULS at the end of 1932, a film so shocking and perverse it was banned in Britain for over a quarter century, and still manages to frighten even the most jaded of horror fans today.

Based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells, the film begins with shipwrecked Edward Parker being rescued by The Covena, a cargo ship carrying a freight of wild animals to the uncharted island of Dr. Moreau, located in the South Pacific. Moreau is called “a scientific genius” by his associate aboard ship, Dr. Montgomery, but though ship’s Captain Davies labels him a “grave robbing ghoul” Parker gets into an altercation with the drunken captain, who strands him on the island. As Montgomery leads Parker through the jungle to Moreau’s home, the young man notices something strange about the island natives, something he can’t quite put his finger on.

It is now we meet Dr. Moreau: a white-suited, whip-cracking, portly figure who’s beard gives him a Satanic visage. The courteous Moreau invites Parker to spend the night, and leave with Montgomery in the morning, yet he has sinister ulterior motives. Moreau is a vivisectionist who has been experimenting with “organic evolution”, turning animals into half-human monstrosities in his ‘House of Pain’. The natives Parker encountered were the results of those mad experiments, but Moreau’s had more success with Lota, half-human/half-panther, and wants to find out how much human emotion she has by introducing her to the handsome Parker, hoping perhaps they’ll mate!

When Parker finds out about Moreau’s deviant research projects, he tries to escape with Lota (not yet realizing she, too, is half-human), but they’re stopped by the Manimals. Moreau rescues the pair, cracking his whip and forcing the beasts to recite The Law (“Not to spill blood”, “Not to eat meat”). After explaining his scientific discoveries to Parker, it’s discovered the schooner has sunk, leaving Parker no alternative but to stay longer. Lota has caught feelings for Parker, and they kiss, but to Parker’s horror, he feels large panther claws digging into his back! She’s reverting back to animal state, and Moreau returns her to his ‘House of Pain’. Meanwhile, Parker’s fiance Ruth has arrived with Captain Donahue, and Moreau’s plans to mate a human with his weird creations changes…

Shock follows shock in this gripping, gruesome film from director Erle C. Kenton, who began his career back in 1916. Kenton and his cinematographer Karl Struss use shadows and light to create an eerie ambiance, with that trademark Paramount early 30’s filmed-through-gauze style. Struss was well noted for shooting F.W. Murnau’s Expressionistic classic SUNRISE, and became one of the studio’s ace cinematographers. Kenton was strictly a ‘B’ director, and ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is probably his greatest film achievement. He later helmed Universal’s 40’s Monster Rallies (GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN,  HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN , HOUSE OF DRACULA ) and Abbott & Costello comedies (PARDON MY SARONG, WHO DONE IT?, IT AIN’T HAY), as well as the 1948  exploitation drama BOB AND SALLY, which covered everything from abortion to alcoholism to VD in a little over an hour!

Charles Laughton  gives a bravura performance as Moreau, outwardly charming and cultivated yet harboring a deep rooted insanity. A lesser actor would’ve went over the top with a part as juicy as Moreau, but Laughton shows great restraint in bringing the mad doctor to life, even when uttering the tempting line, “Do you know what it means to feel like God?”. Laughton’s Dr. Moreau is up there in the pantheon of 1930’s horror performances, and though he’d give us more fine film roles (Henry VIII, Ruggles, Inspector Javert, Captian Bligh, Quasimodo) his Moreau remains my personal favorite.

Square jawed hero Richard Arlen has what’s probably his most unusual role of his career as Parker (except maybe his Cheshire Cat in ALICE IN WONDERLAND , but as usual he nails it. Bela Lugosi appears, almost unrecognizable except for that Hungarian voice, as the hairy-faced Sayer of the Law, leader of the Manimals. Leila Hyams isn’t given much to do as Ruth,but she’s always a welcome presence. Arthur Hohl (Montgomery), Stanely Fields (Davies), and Paul Hurst (Donahue) offer strong support.

Then there’s Lota the Panther Woman. She’s played by 19 year old Kathleen Burke, who won a talent contest in Chicago for the chance be in the film. Burke brings a savage beauty to the part, and is quite good for a novice in her first time out. Miss Burke altogether made 22 films, among them MURDERS IN THE ZOO (another horror effort, starring Lionel Atwill), LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER (as a Russian seductress), THE LAST OUTPOST, and BOY OF THE STREETS, before retiring in 1938 and returning to Chicago. Kathleen Burke passed away in 1980.

Those half-human monstrosities were created by makeup wizard Wally Westmore and Charlie Gemora (who also appears early as a gorilla in a cage). Each and every Manimal is unique unto itself, which must have been painstaking work for the makeup department, but well worth the effort. The revolt of the Manimals against Moreau is one of the most chilling scenes in early horror history, and ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU is a bona fide horror classic that genre lovers do not want to miss.

 

Creature Double Feature 6: FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (Hammer/20th Century-Fox 1967)/FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (Hammer/Warner Bros 1969)


Hammer Horrors were a staple of Boston’s late, lamented “Creature Double Feature” (WLVI-TV 56), so today let’s take a look at a demonic duo of Frankenstein fright films starring the immortal Peter Cushing in his signature role as the villainous Baron Frankenstein.

FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN was the fourth in Hammer’s Frankenstein series, made three years after EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN. The Baron is back (after having apparently been blown to smithereens last time around), this time tampering with immortal souls rather than mere brain transplants. The movie features some ahead-of-its-time gender-bending as well, with the soul of an unjustly executed man transmogrified into the body of his freshly dead (via suicide) girlfriend, now out for vengeance!

Young Hans (Robert Morris), who watched his father guillotined as a child, grows up to work for muddle-headed alcoholic Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters , in an amusing performance), who revives the cryogenically frozen Baron Frankenstein. The Baron has changed tactics, and is now interested in trapping souls before they leave the body, to be transplanted in new hosts. Hans is dating the crippled and disfigured Christina (Susan Denberg), daughter of the local innkeeper. A trio of rich, arrogant young pricks harass the pathetic Christina, and Hans defends her honor, until finally restrained by Daddy Innkeeper. The rash Hans demands he be let go, threatening his prospective father-in-law, who isn’t very fond of Hans anyway.

The three jerks break into the inn after hours for some more drinking, and wind up beating the innkeeper to death. Hans is arrested for the murder, but refuses to provide an alibi (he was having a go at Christina at the time). He’s   tried, convicted, and guillotined (like father, like son!), and the distraught Christina kills herself by jumping off a bridge. The Baron takes all this as an opportunity to prove his theories, and transmits Hans’s soul into Christina’s body, then performs surgery to fix her deformities. The now beautiful Christina has no memory of her past life, until the sight of the guillotine triggers her (his?) mind, and she (he?) sets out for revenge on the three young wastrels…

The far-fetched but clever script by John Elder (a pseudonym for Anthony Hinds) is intelligently directed by Hammer’s workhorse Terence Fisher, who began the series with CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and ended it with 1974’s FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL. Cushing by now had the imperious, cocky Baron down pat, still retaining his enthusiasm for the part. Susan Denberg impresses as Christina, making a remarkable transformation from the shy, deformed barmaid to cold-blooded killer. The former model, who was a Playboy centerfold in August 1966, had a brief acting career that included the interesting but flawed AN AMERICAN DREAM and an episode of STAR TREK as one of “Mudd’s Women”. FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN is by far her biggest (and best) role, though her thick Austrian accent was dubbed by Nikki Van der Zyl, who performed the same task for Ursula Andress in DR. NO and Claudine Auger in THUNDERBALL .

Two years later, the Baron was at it again in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, a gruesome little tale filled with sex and violence. Fisher again directs and Cushing stars, this time staying at a rooming house run by the fetching Anna (Veronica Carlson ). Anna’s fiancé Karl (a pre-stardom Simon Ward) works as an intern at the local insane asylum. Frankenstein’s former colleague Dr. Brandt is locked up there, and the Baron needs to unlock his mind to discover his secret for freezing brains before death sets in (or something like that). Frankenstein finds out Karl’s been selling the asylum’s drugs on the side to help pay for Anna’s mum’s residence there, and the cagey Baron blackmails the young man into helping him kidnap Brandt (the randy Baron also helps himself to Anna, violently raping her when Karl’s away).

The duo abscond with Brandt, who winds up suffering a heart attack, so Frankenstein and Karl abduct asylum director Prof. Richter (Freddie Jones, FIREFOX) and transplant Brandt’s brain into his body. Brandt’s wife (Maxine Audley, PEEPING TOM ) recognizes Frankenstein on the street, and he takes her to see her husband wrapped in bandages (not realizing he’s in Richter’s body now). Brandt awakens later, discovers what horror he’s been put through, and seeks revenge, resulting in a fiery finale ripped straight from a Corman/Poe film!

Cushing is a charmingly chilling Baron in this one, a thoroughly unlikable scoundrel who’s introduced in a pre-credits scene wearing a Michael Myers-looking mask and lopping off a man’s head with a scythe! There are plenty of good frights to be had, including the scene where Brandt’s dead body pops up from the garden when a water main bursts. Thorley Walters once again adds comic relief as an inspector on the wily Baron’s trail. FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED is my personal favorite of the Hammer Frankensteins, but both of these films are worthy for fans of Hammer Horrors. In fact, together they make a perfect Creature Double Feature!

Halloween Havoc!: REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (Universal-International 1955)

The Gill-Man  made his second appearance in REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, a good-not-great sequel that finds The Creature out of his element and in the modern (well, 1955) world. In fact, The Creature is the most sympathetic character in the film, as he’s hunted, ripped from his home, chained up, tortured, and treated like a freak-show attraction. The humans, with the exception of heroine Lori Nelson, are your basic 50’s sci-fi hammerheads who fear what they don’t understand and try to force The Gill-Man to their will.

Old friend Captain Lucas is once again heading down the Amazon to the Black Lagoon, in his new boat The Rita II. Joe Hayes and George Johnson of Florida’s Ocean Harbor Oceanarium are out to capture The Creature and use him as a theme park attraction. Underwater dynamite charges stun The Gill-Man into a coma, and he’s trussed up and transported stateside. Professor Clete Boyer is on hand to study The Creature and use behavioral modification to try to tame him; also on hand is pretty grad student Helen Dobson, who’s doing her Master’s thesis on ichthyology, and whom Professor Clete immediately hits on!

Clete uses an underwater cattle prod to “teach” the poor Gill-Man proper etiquette, though Helen begins to feel sorry for the lonely humanoid. The Creature is feeling something too, as he’s obviously crushin’ on Helen! The Gill-Man gets tired of all this abusive treatment and finally snaps his chain, literally, killing Joe and running amok at Ocean Harbor before heading back to Mother Ocean. A search proves fruitless, but that doesn’t stop Clete and Helen from having a night on the town, which The Creature rudely interrupts by snatching Helen and sending everyone into a panicked frenzy…

Riccou Browning is back as The Creature for all the underwater sequences, while stuntman Tom Hennesey plays him on land. There’s a scene at the Oceanarium featuring “Flippy, the Educated Porpoise” – could this have inspired Browning to co-create the FLIPPER TV series? Marineland in Florida stands in for Ocean Harbor, still a popular destination today. Like it’s predecessor, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE was shot in the 3D process, but the “comin’ at ya” scenes are a bit more distracting here. The basic premise of this movie served as ‘inspiration’ for another aquatic horror… 1983’s JAWS 3D.

John Agar  (Clete) plays the “hero” in much the same way as he did in countless 1950’s/60’s sci-fi movies, the macho know-it-all who tries to hook up with the leading lady the minute he lays eyes on her! Lori Nelson (Helen) made her film debut in Anthony Mann’s BEND OF THE RIVER with The Creature’s original “crush”, Julie Adams. John Bromfield (Joe) starred in Curt Siodmak’s CURUCU BEAST OF THE AMAZON and TV’s SHERIFF OF COCHISE before retiring from acting in 1960. Nestor Paiva returns as Captain Lucas in the Amazon River scenes at the film’s beginning. And there’s another Familiar Face here…


Clint Eastwood , making his extremely short film debut as a lab assistant who’s mislaid a white rat (it’s in his pocket!). Clint’s brief bit was designed to introduce him to audiences by Universal-International, but the actor failed to impress the studio or the audience (he’s pretty green), and he was released from his contract a short time later. I think most readers would agree with me that Clint’s improved a lot since those early years!

REVENGE OF THE CREATURE is a solid entry in the saga of The Gill-Man and was a box office success, so naturally Universal-International followed up on its cash cow with a third sequel. Next up: THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US!

Halloween Havoc! Extra: Bela Lugosi in THE DEVIL BAT (PRC 1940) Complete Horror Movie

Today, we celebrate the birth of a true horror legend, the great Bela Lugosi! 

Bela Lugosi helped usher in the horror era in 1931’s DRACULA , but nine years later, the Hungarian actor was taking whatever roles he could get. I’ve told you before how much I love THE DEVIL BAT (just click on this link to find out!), an entertaining little fright flick despite its rock-bottom production values and some really bad writing. Only Bela Lugosi could make a film like this work, and he does so brilliantly! Grab some popcorn, put your feet up, and enjoy horror’s first icon Bela Lugosi in THE DEVIL BAT!:

Halloween Havoc! Extra: The Horrific Humor of Gahan Wilson

For over half a century, Gahan Wilson’s macabre cartoons have been sending shivers of laughter down the reader’s spines in magazines like Playboy, National Lampoon, The New Yorker, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Here is a gallery of ten ghastly giggles from the wonderfully warped mind of Gahan Wilson:

Halloween Havoc!: BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (Universal 1935)

James Whale’s brilliant BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is one of those rare occasions where the sequel is better than the original… and since the original 1931 FRANKENSTEIN is one of the horror genre’s greatest films, that’s saying a lot! Whale’s trademark blend of horror and black humor reached their zenith in BRIDE, and though Whale would make ten more films before retiring from Hollywood moviemaking in 1941, this was his last in the realm of the macabre. It turned out to be his best.

Mary Shelley’s got a story to tell…

William Hurlbut’s screenplay start with a prologue set during the proverbial dark and stormy night, with Mary Shelly (Elsa Lanchester ), Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Walton), and Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon ) discussing Mary’s shocking novel “Frankenstein” as clips from the 1931 film are shown. Then Mary tells them there’s more to the story, and we pick up where the original left off, the burning mill that spelled the end of The Monster. Hans, whose daughter Maria was killed in the “floating flower” scene, is determined to see the creature’s charred bones, despite his wife’s protests, and falls through the wreckage, discovering it’s alive! The wounded Monster kills both of them, frightens Frankenstein’s maid Minnie, and wanders off into the forest.

The peculiar Dr. Pretorius

Henry Frankenstein, recuperating at his castle with bride Elizabeth by his side, is payed a late night call by the gaunt and sinister looking Dr. Pretorius, his former philosophy professor, “on a secret matter of grave importance”. Pretorius has also been experimenting with “the mysteries of life”, and brings Henry to his humble abode, where he unveils his creations… several homunculi, miniature people he keeps in jars, dressed as a king, queen, archbishop, devil, and mermaid. He wants to take Henry’s work to the next level by creating a mate for The Monster, but Henry balks at such a dangerous suggestion.

The Monster and his friend (O.P. Heggie)

Meanwhile The Monster, wounded and scaring every living thing in the woods, is spotted, and the local Burgomaster leads the villagers on a hunt. The brute is captured, trussed up like Christ on the cross (one of many Christian images used during the film), and chained up in a dungeon. But mere chains can’t hold Frankenstein’s unholy creation, and he escapes, leaving a murderous swath in his wake. Returning to the primeval forest, alone, hurt, afraid, he stumbles onto the hut of a blind hermit, who befriends the beast, nursing him to health and teaching him a rudimentary vocabulary. They lead an idyllic existence until a pair of hunters (one of whom is John Carradine ) intrude, ruining the friendship, leaving The Monster once again alone in the world.

Two Universal Monster Icons

Hunted again, The Monster hides in a graveyard crypt, where he meets none other than Dr. Pretorius, who tells him of his plan to make a mate, someone like him… stitched together from the dead. Pretorius uses the creature to coerce Henry into collaborating by having The Monster kidnap Elizabeth. Together they reprise the creation of life, bringing forth a female (“She’s alive! Alive!”), who is totally repulsed by the sight of The Monster (“She hate me, like others”). The pitiful Monster sends Henry and Elizabeth away, ordering Pretorius and his intended Bride to stay (“We belong dead”) as he pulls the lever which blows the mountaintop laboratory to smithereens.

Boris Karloff  didn’t like the idea of having The Monster speak, but he pulls it off with his usual great acting ability, making the patchwork man seem all-too-human. His scenes with the blind hermit (O.P Heggie) are memorable, although Mel Brooks’s YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN parody flashes through my head whenever I watch it! The Monster is both terrorizing and tender here, with Jack Pierce’s makeup still giving audiences the shivers. Colin Clive returns as Henry Frankenstein, a ball of nervous energy, but 18-year-old Valerie Hobson replaces Mae Clark as Elizabeth. Ernest Thesiger as Pretorius is a sight to behold, as mad a scientist as they come, and he gets all the best lines (“Do you like gin? It is my only weakness”). Una O’Connor annoys the crap out of me as Minnie, the “comic relief” maid, but I l do like E.E. Clive as the pompous Burgomaster (“Monster, indeed!”). Dwight Frye, Fritz in the original, is back as Pretorius’s assistant Karl, who’d rather kill than rob graves.

The Bride

But it’s Elsa Lanchester as The Bride who shines brightest. Her herky-jerky, birdlike movements, balletic pas de deux with Clive in the laboratory, and repulsed hiss at seeing The Monster make her brief part one of horror’ most iconic, aided in large part by Pierce’s genius with makeup. The bride of actor Charles Laughton, Miss Lanchester had a fifty-plus year career in film and television; some of her many credits are THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII, LADIES IN RETIREMENT, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, COME TO THE STABLE, THE INSPECTOR GENERAL, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, MARY POPPINS, and WILLARD .

Franz Waxman’s  score is one of the most memorable of horror’s Golden Age, or any age for that matter. Whale and DP John J. Mescall’s use of chiaroscuro lighting, along with the Expressionistic sets by Art Dircetor Charles D. Hall, show the heavy influence German films had on Whale’s style. And of course we can’t forget Kenneth Strickfaden’s electrical marvels, working their magic to bring The Bride to life. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN not only tops the original, it is one of the all-time great movies, a horror fantasy for the ages that gets better and better with repeated viewings.

 

Outrageous Fortune: Vincent Price in THEATER OF BLOOD (United Artists 1973)

Vincent Price  traded in Edgar Allan Poe for William Shakespeare (and American-International for United Artists) in THEATER OF BLOOD, playing an actor’s dream role: Price not only gets to perform the Bard of Avon’s works onscreen, he gets to kill off all his critics! As you would imagine, Price has a field day with the part, serving up deliciously thick slices of ham with relish as he murders an all-star cast of British thespians in this fiendishly ingenious screenplay concocted  by Anthony Greville-Bell and directed with style by Douglas Hickox.

Edward Lionheart felt so slighted by both scathing criticism and once again being stiffed at the prestigious Critics’ Circle award, he broke up their little soiree by doing a swan dive into London’s mighty Thames. His body was never found, and everyone assumed they had seen Lionheart’s final performance, but unbeknownst to all he was fished out of the river by a band of drunken derelicts. Two years later, a series of gruesome murders based on Shakespeare’s plays begin to strike down the critics one by one, baffling Scotland Yard, until critic Peregrine Devlin puts two and two together and comes to the realization Edward Lionheart is alive and well and hell-bent on sweet revenge…

The murders get more and more ghastly as the film moves forward, as Lionheart rewrites Shakespeare to fit his bloody agenda and pick off some of England’s finest actors as the critics. His ragged followers descend on Michael Hordern ala JULIUS CAESAR, Dennis Price is speared and dragged behind a horse (TROILIUS AND CRESSIDA), Arthur Lowe is decapitated in a scene from CYMBELINE that’s reminiscent of Price’s Dr. Phibes films, Harry Andrews has a pound of flesh extracted (THE MERCHANT OF VENICE), Robert Coote’s  drowned in a vat of wine like the Duke of Clarence in RICHARD III (a part Price played in Universal’s 1939 TOWER OF LONDON, later graduating to essay Richard in Corman’s 1962 version), a neat twist on OTHELLO features Jack Hawkins and Diana Dors , Price’s future wife Coral Brown is burned to a crisp under a hairdryer in a campy take on HENRY VI, and flamboyant Robert Morley gets served his just desserts in a terrifying retelling of TITUS ANDRONICUS. Ian Hendry as Devlin is spared during a swashbuckling scene from ROMEO AND JULIET, only to have to be rescued at the finale in a nod to KING LEAR.

Price claimed THEATER OF BLOOD was one of his favorite roles, and it’s easy to understand why. Not only does he get to recite Shakespeare, he has the pleasure of offing his critics with gleeful delight! His contract with AIP had expired (though they would release the similar Amicus production MADHOUSE with Price the next year), horror films were beginning to go in a new direction, and Vincent Price was the last man standing of the classic horror era. He gives the part of Edward Lionheart his all, as he always did, playing to the balcony to deliver the gory goods his fans paid to see. THEATER OF BLOOD is the last of what horror fans consider the “Vincent Price Movie” subgenre, begun with his late 50’s William Castle shockers and continued with Roger Corman’s Poe films. It’s a fitting coda, though Price would keep making movie and TV appearances right up until his death twenty years later.

Diana Rigg gets a fun, showy role as Lionheart’s daughter/accomplice Edwina, a special effects person who aids and abets dear old dad on his murder spree. Rigg matches Price in the ham-slicing department, no small feat, and the Shakespearian trained GAME OF THRONES actress is a delight. Milo O’Shea and Eric Sykes represent the law, and Hammer veteran Madeline Smith is on hand as Devlin’s secretary. Yet everyone takes a backseat to Vincent Price at his bombastic best, making mincemeat out of his critics and making THEATER OF BLOOD a whole lot of fun for horror fans in general, and Price fans in particular.

(And don’t forget… the 4th annual “Halloween Havoc!” Horrorthon begins Tuesday, Octobrrr 1st here at Cracked Rear Viewer! 31 horror classics in 31 days!)

Grandma Guignol: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE (Warner Bros 1962)

Joan Crawford  and Bette Davis had been Hollywood stars forever by the time they filmed WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?. Davis was now 54 years old, Crawford 58, and both stars were definitely on the wane when they teamed for this bizarre Robert Aldrich movie, the first (and arguably best) of what has become known as the “Grand Dame Guignol” (or “psycho-biddy”) genre.

Bette is Baby Jane Hudson, a washed-up former vaudeville child star with a fondness for booze, while Joan plays her sister Blanche, a movie star of the 30’s permanently paralyzed in a car accident allegedly caused by Jane. The two live together in a run-down old house, both virtual prisoners trapped in time and their own minds. Blanche wants to sell the old homestead and send Jane away for treatment, but Jane, jealous of her sister’s new-found popularity via her televised old films, descends further into alcoholism and madness, torturing Blanche and keeping her a literal prisoner. Delusional Jane thinks she can revive her old act, going so far as to hire a down-on-his-heels piano player to accompany her. Things quickly degenerate when Jane murders Blanche’s loyal housekeeper Elvira and sinks deeper and deeper into insanity….

Bette Davis goes gloriously over-the-top as Baby Jane, chewing every piece of scenery with gusto. She’s rude, crude, and vulgar, yet still managers to convey  pathos with her Oscar-nominated performance. Joan is a bit more subdued as the victimized Blanche, seemingly angelic and rational, but has her moments of dramatic flourishes. The scene where Jane serves Blanche’s pet canary for lunch is just the first of many shocks to follow (“You know we got rats in the cellar”, cracks Jane, cackling like a madwoman at Blanche’s horror). The two old pros offset each other perfectly, though Bette really steals the show here; her croaking rendition of the song “I’ve Written a Letter To Daddy”, dressed in her “Baby Jane” outfit, is an off-key highlight.

Victor Buono, in his first credited film role, was also Oscar-nominated as Edwin Flagg, the failed musician and mama’s boy who answers Jane’s ad for an accompanist. The part made him an instant in-demand character actor in films like FOUR FOR TEXAS HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (both directed by Aldrich), and BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, not to mention his villainous King Tut on TV’s BATMAN! Veteran Marjorie Bennett plays his overbearing mother, Maidie Norman shines as housekeeper Elvira (who receives a hammer to the head for her troubles), and Anna Lee plays snoopy neighbor Mrs. Bates. Wesley Addy, Murray Alper, Robert Cornthwaite , Bert Freed, B.D. Merrill (Bette’s daughter), Bobs Watson, and Dave Willock lend their Familiar Faces to various smaller roles.


Director Aldrich, known up til then for more macho fare like KISS ME DEADLY and THE BIG KNIFE, took a chance with BABY JANE, and scored not only a huge hit, but created an entirely new genre in the process. Soon the market was flooded with “Older Women Doing Horror”: there was LADY IN A CAGE (Olivia de Havilland, Ann Southern), THE NIGHT WALKER (Barbara Stanwyck), DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! (Tallulah Bankhead), WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE (Geraldine Page, Ruth Gordon), SAVAGE INTRUDER (Miriam Hopkins), WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (Debbie Reynolds, Shelley Winters), and a slew of other psycho-biddies. But WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE was the first, and stands severed head and shoulders above the rest.

 

Forever Young: Ingrid Pitt in COUNTESS DRACULA (20th Century Fox/Hammer 1971)

Iconic Ingrid Pitt became a horror fan favorite for her vampire roles in the early 1970’s.  The Polish-born actress, who survived the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp as a child during WWII, played bloodsucking lesbian Carmilla in Hammer’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, based on the classic story by J. Sheridan LeFanu, and was a participant in the Amicus anthology THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD opposite Jon Pertwee in that film’s best segment. Finally, Ingrid sunk her teeth into the title role of COUNTESS DRACULA, a juicy part where she’s not really a vampire, but a noblewoman who gets off on bathing in blood, loosely based on the real life events of Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory.

Portrait of the real Elizabeth Bathory

Bathory (1560-1614) was the most infamous female serial killer in history, officially found guilty of 80 murders, yet a diary allegedly found puts the count as high as 650! Bathory was a sadistic woman who delighted in torturing young women, through beatings, burning, freezing, and cannibalism. She was found guilty of her atrocities and imprisoned until her death. Local gossips claimed she delighted in bathing in her victim’s blood, but there is no proof. The film uses that part of the legend as it’s starting point, and Bathory’s story  becomes just another Hammer Gothic horror tale.

Elderly Countess Elizabeth Nadasdy (Bathory’s real married name), shortly after her husband’s death, accidentally discovers bathing in the blood of virgins restores her youth and beauty. With the aid of her long-time lover Captain Dobi and nurse Julie, she procures young women to kill and keep her young, going so far as to have daughter Ilona kidnapped so she can impersonate her. The Countess has designs on young Lt. Imre Toth, and must maintain her bloody ritual in order to have him fall in lover with her. Castle historian Fabio becomes suspicious, and discovers the truth, but is hanged by Dobi before he can alert Toth. Ilona escapes, and Elizabeth is willing to kill her to obtain that precious virginal blood and stay young… .

The movie was a bit disappointing to me. The horror quotient is low, with more bare boobs than bloody murders (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Pitt is good as always (though her heavily accented voice was dubbed) in a part where she’s more a Jekyll & Hyde character than vampiric countess. Her old age makeup hides her beauty, which is revealed whenever she takes her blood baths (with a giant loofa!). Other cast members include Nigel Green as Captain Dobi, Lesley-Anne Down as Ilona, Sandor Eles (EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN) as Lt. Toth, and Peter Jeffrey as the local inspector.


Director Peter Sasdy came from the ranks of British TV, and among his horror credits are TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, HANDS OF THE RIPPER , DOOMWATCH, and NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT. His COUNTESS DRACULA isn’t one of his better efforts, it moves too slow and doesn’t have enough horror to keep an enthusiast like me interested. The only thing that truly held my interest was Ingrid Pitt’s performance, and if you’re a Pitt person, you’ll want to watch this one. Otherwise, go find a copy of THE VAMPIRE LOVERS.

A Quickie with The King: Boris Karloff in DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (AIP 1965)

All you Cracked Rear Viewers know by now my affection for the King of Monsters, Boris Karloff . His Universal classics of the 30’s and RKO chillers of the 40’s hold an esteemed place in my personal Horror Valhalla. Karloff did his share of clunkers, too, especially later in his career. DIE, MONSTER, DIE! is one such film, it’s good intentions sunk by bad execution.

It’s the second screen adaptation of a story from the fertile mind of author  H.P. Lovecraft; the first, 1963’s THE HAUNTED PALACE, was a mash-up of Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe as part of the Roger Corman/Vincent Price series. Corman’s longtime Art Director Daniel Haller made his directorial debut, and the film certainly looks good. Veteran sci-fi writer Jerry Sohl contributed the screenplay, which was then tinkered with by Haller. Therein lies the problem; Haller’s changes drag down what could have been an exciting little horror tale to junior high level.

 Boris plays Nahum Whitley, a wheelchair bound curmudgeon living in a creepy old mansion in the English town of Arkham. Nick Adams is Stephen Reinhart, summoned by Nahum’s bedridden wife Letitia (Freda Jackson) to take daughter Susan (Suzan Farmer ) away from the strange happenings occurring at the house. Nahum keeps demanding the young man leave., as he’s been experimenting with a weird, radioactive meteor and tampering with forces beyond his control.

This all leads to Steve and Susan sneaking into Nahum’s mysteriously glowing greenhouse, where they discover giant vegetation growing – Susan is even attacked by a strangling plant! The ill Letitia becomes a monster, and attacks the two, then Nahum takes an axe to the meteor, unleashing horrors from the Other Side, and turns into a mutated demon out to kill. He is then killed himself and the movie ends with the obligatory Cormanesque conflagration as the house burns down.

Karloff at age 77 still commands power as Nahum, even though he’s confined to his wheelchair through much of the film. The King was still The King, an actor of great presence dominating every scene he’s in. Unfortunately, he’s not given a lot to do except skulk about and looks mysterious. His mutant monster is actually a stunt double, as arthritis and emphysema had taken their toll on his body, but even without much mobility, Karloff’s the best thing in this one.

Nick Adams was Oscar-nominated just two years before for TWILIGHT OF HONOR, but personal problems had caused his star to swiftly fall; from here, he went on to star in kaiju eiga movies in Japan. Farmer has nothing to do but look pretty and say “Oh, Steve” about ten times too often. DIE, MONSTER, DIE! goes for cheap chills (a tarantula, bats attacking Adams, weird noises) instead of Lovecraftian horrors, and winds up as just another “old, dark house” movie with a radioactive twist, falling far short of its source material. Haller made another Lovecraft-inspired film, 1970’s THE DUNWICH HORROR , before turning to TV; it took twenty years and Stuart Gordon’s RE-ANIMATOR to finally do cinematic justice to H.P. Lovecraft on the screen. For Boris Karloff fans, DIE, MONSTER, DIE! stands as a flawed failure, interesting only because of The King.