Moldy Horror: FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (Warner Bros/Amicus 1973)

I’ve discussed the Max Roseberg/Milton Subotsky Amicus horror anthologies before on this blog. All are good, if uneven, little entries in the genre, and FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE is no exception. This was the last of the Amicus tales of terror, a quartet of creepiness based on the work of British horror writer R. Chetwynd-Hayes. I’ll admit I’m not familiar with Mr. Cheywynd-Hayes’s work, so I couldn’t tell you if the movie’s faithful to it or not. I can tell you FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE is about 50/50 in the chills department.

An all-star British cast gives it a game try, though. The segments are linked by horror icon Peter Cushing , looking rather gaunter than usual as the proprietor of Temptations Ltd., an antique shop which serves to set the stories in motion. Unfortunately, the part is a waste of Cushing’s talent; I could see him in any of a number of roles in the stories ahead to far greater effect.

The first involves David Warner as a man who purchases an antique mirror, then gathers his friends around to hold a séance. Warner gets more than he bargained for when he’s possessed by a murderous spirit trapped on the mirror’s other side. This segment is particularly gruesome, and Warner is good as always, but so predictable that it failed to satisfy the horror lover in me.

Next up we find Ian Bannen as a drudge married to a shrewish wife (zaftig Brit ex-sexpot Diana Dors ), who steals a Distinguished Service Medal in order to impress an Army veteran-turned-beggar (Donald Pleasence ). Bannen’s invited to dinner at the beggar’s flat, and becomes spellbound by his daughter (Pleasence’s real-life daughter Angela). This one’s got a pretty neat twist ending that I didn’t see coming, which is rare for a hard-core horror fan like me. Kudos!

We turn now to comedy, with Margaret Leighton as a dotty psychic who aids a couple (Ian Charmichael, Nyree Dawn Porter) rid themselves of an Elemental, a mischievous, malevolent spirit trying to possess the husband. Despite some cool special effects during the exorcism scene, and Leighton’s fun turn as the clairvoyant, this segment was just okay.

Finally, we come to Ian Oglivy , who buys a door with a strange-looking carving on it. Bringing it home to wife Lesley-Anne Down, he installs it as a kitschy cupboard door, only to discover upon opening it that it leads to a mysterious blue room where evil and black magic dwell. This was a very good, scary piece with a Corman/Poe type atmosphere, and for me ranked as the best of the lot.

FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE suffers most from the pedestrian direction of Kevin Connor, making his feature debut. Connor would go on to a fairly pedestrian career, helming the Amicus/Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations; of his filmography, only MOTEL HELL is a real standout. The movie, as I said, is about half successful, and I’d recommend DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS or TALES FROM THE CRYPT as better representatives of the Amicus horror anthologies. But for genre fans, it’s worth a look anyway.

Hidden Gem: Natalie Wood in PENELOPE (MGM, 1966)

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When I first recorded PENELOPE, I thought it would end up in one of my “Cleaning Out The DVR” posts. But after watching this hidden gem, I’ve decided to give it a full review. PENELOPE not only gives Natalie Wood a chance to show off her comedic skills, it’s a perfect time capsule of mid-60s filmmaking. The movie bridges the gap between the old screwball comedies and the more modern attitudes to come. That’s not to say PENELOPE is a must-see classic, but it’s an underrated film that I recommend to anyone who likes comedy, 60s style.

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Penelope Elcott is a scatterbrained kleptomanic who, feeling her husband James (Ian Bannen) is neglecting her, robs his bank. She tells it to her shrink, Dr. Mannix (the always funny Dick Shawn), who doesn’t believe her until she shows him a wad of cash. Flashbacks (including one with Jonathan Winters) reveal Penelope’s criminal history. Penelope takes the yellow Givenchy dress she escaped in to a thrift store, where an unscrupulous couple (Lou Jacobi and Oscar winner Lila Kedrova) buys it for seven bucks. Police Lt. Bixbee (Peter Falk, preparing for Lt. Columbo) is on the case, and has his suspicions about the banker’s wife.

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Dr. Mannix, who’s also in love with Penelope, persuades her to give him the cash so he can return it to the bank in their night deposit box. But when he tries to do the deed, a cop siren scares him off. The loot is picked up by a hooker named Honeysuckle Rose, who subsequently gets pinched for the robbery. Penny feels bad for her and tries to confess, but no one will believe her. The scheming couple from the thrift store find a magazine clipping of Penelope wearing the yellow outfit and try to blackmail her. But she’s more than happy to let them tell James and the cops, so they figure something’s fishy and destroy the evidence. Perplexed Penelope then asks James to throw a cocktail party, where she plans to return all the jewelry she’s stole over the years. None of the victims will take it back, and Penelope runs away, later figuring out a plan to make everyone believe she’s a thief in the films madcap conclusion.

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Critics of the day unfairly savaged PENELOPE, sinking it at the box office. It deserves another look for many reasons. The cast is hilarious, balancing amusing dialogue with slapstick humor. Besides those mentioned, standouts in small roles include Arthur Mallet, Carl Ballantine, and Arlene Golonka (as the hooker). Even veteran Fritz Feld shows up in one of the flashbacks to give us his patented “pop”. The witty screenplay is by George Wells, writer of several Red Skelton vehicles, and movies like TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALLGAME (1949), ANGELS IN THE OUTFIELD (1951), and his own Oscar winner, DESIGNING WOMEN (1957). Speaking of designing women, Edith Head deserves special mention for her work, making Natalie Wood more beautiful than ever (if that’s possible). Director Arthur Hiller has done more recognizable movies (THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY, LOVE STORY, THE HOSPITAL, SILVER STREAK), but PENELOPE shouldn’t be forgotten. Obviously I liked it, and I think you will, too. It’s a pleasant surprise for comedy buffs, fans of Natalie Wood, or even casual viewers. It can be purchased on Amazon, viewed online, or occasionally on TCM. Catch it when you can, you’ll thank me for it!