Wild Retro Frights!
by Kristin Battestella
The decades of yore provide this wild trio of shady hep cats, international ladies of the night, evil Hollywood dames, and more. Yowza!
The Black Cat– Lucio Fulci (The Psychic) directs Patrick Magee (The Masque of the Red Death) in this loose 1981 Italian Poe adaptation with English subtitles to match the Tudor manors, cobblestone streets, and superstitious village. Low to the ground cameras provide our feline point of view as the misunderstood cat causes a victim to drive off the road before prowling the rooftops. Fine carpets, stairwells, woodwork, and antique clutter contrast reel to reel tapes, big microphones, and vintage recorders – retro technology trying to contact the dead and capture their ghostly laughter, screams, and sounds of death. Flashlights and exploring exposed tombs reveal creepy tunnels, cobwebs, and shackled skeletons. It's all somewhat random to start with boaters, tourists, concerned parents, motorcyclists, cruising teens, and perky ingenues. However, the air tight traps, foaming at the mouth, and overgrown cemeteries create a sinister afoot amid the country quaint. Growling, mesmerizing eyes, shadows, back alley pursuits – this conniving little pussy knows how to unlock the latch on the door for complete warehouse perils. Gory impalements don't over do the blood, yet there are enough scratches and claws to show how easily a cat can make you bleed. Psychic tips lead to mice and the decomposing deceased, and confounded police call on tourist photographers with old school giant cameras to document the dead. Surely the cute little paw prints at the crime scene can't mean this is all a cat's doing? It's amazing how the slightest feline action can be so deadly – knocking over an oil lamp near the fireplace becomes a face melting inferno. The poltergeist activity escalates, but the police refuse to consider something supernatural. Bound by their hatred or not, this medium should have known one can only telepathically make a cat do his bidding for so long. This cat is pissed and he's not going to take it anymore! Although most of the feline film work is bemusing, there are upsetting moments thanks to poisons and a noose for our four legged nemesis. Who some of the players are and how they all have a connected history also feels lost in the translation, but fortunately, we're here to go with the evil cat and not worry about the details as choice zooms, editing, and shrewd use of that old camera flash match the Edgar appropriate buried alive house of horrors. Bats and blunt violence culminate in twisted retribution, and giallo splatter, Hammer feeling, and Poe demented combine for a creative slasher with claws perfect for anyone who has a love hate relationship with his or her cat. Like me!
Death at Love House – Couple Robert Wagner (Hart to Hart) and Kate Jackson (Dark Shadows) are writing a book on Lorna Love and stay at the Old Hollywood starlet's creepy manor in this 1976 television movie. Gothic gates, winding drives, old fountains, and broken statues accent the past torrid and vintage bus tours, and there's a freaky shrine, too – the preserved corpse of our beauty lying in a glass coffin. Of course this print is obviously poor, but the retro Hollywood scenery, Golden cinema looks, and seventies California style make up any difference. I wish we could see the arches and wrought iron better, but the VHS quality kind of adds a dimly lit ominous to the Mediterranean villa as retro commercials provide a vintage patina. Housekeeper Silvia Sydney (Beetlejuice) isn't very forthcoming about enchanting portraits of the starlet, and newsreels of her funeral show a man in a cape with a black cat among the mourners. Malleus Maleficarum spell books on the shelf, sacrificial daggers, and crusty director John Carradine (Blood of Dracula's Castle) suggest Lorna was more evil than lovely, and talk of mirrors, souls, passion, and rivals like Dorothy Lamour (Road to Bali) add to the character unto herself à la Rebecca. Without over the top visuals or in your face action for the audience's benefit, the performances here carry the scandalous scares – jumping at the horrors as thunder punctuates terrifying encounters in the dark. Apparent heart attack victims, destroyed pictures, and warnings to leave Love House lead to locked doors, gas mishaps, and steamy showers while phonographs provide chilling music as Lorna seems to be looking out from the silver screen film reels with her hypnotic power. Bewitching dreams relive the past and wax on eternal youth as the ghostly obsessions grow. At times, the spiral stairs, red accents, and swanky are more romantic, but phantom ladies at the window and rumors of fiery rituals create sinister. Our husband is said to be going through the scrapbooks but he's not getting any work done, remaining in denial about the basement tunnels, cult altars, pentagrams, and mystical symbols. Although the Mrs. seems calm somehow once the truth comes out, too, the creepy masks and wild reveals make for a flaming finish. There are too many tongue in cheek winks for this to be full on horror nor can one expect proper glam and glory in such a brisk seventy-four minute network pace. However, this is good fun for a late night Hollywood ghost story full of meta vintage.
The Hooker Cult Murders – Detective Christopher Plummer (Somewhere in Time) investigates the death of Karen Black (Trilogy of Terror) in this 1973 Canadian thriller also called The Pyx. Like the giant headsets, adding machines, black and white photographs, and payphones, the print and sound here are poor old school quality. It's tough to see the long falls off tall buildings and hectic crime scene, but the radio chatter, jewelry clues, and casual French accent the Montreal locations. Unfortunately, the morgue attendants are in a hurry with their sarcasm over this seemingly routine dead hooker. Despite strong arm police and whispers of another missing working girl, witnesses aren't exactly forthcoming – not neighbors nor the “manager” of the “entertainment.” Talk of which of one of them is a Catholic, technically, or not that good of one anyway leads to crosses, statues, Latin mottos, sermons, and communion. However, the grand halls and gated arches created a sense of unwelcome outside looking in as flashbacks of the living now deceased include nude trysts, cigarettes, and smitten clients. The creepy dudes and the hysterics are a bit much, but the rules of the brothel are strict and there's a schedule to keep! Drug use leads to a convent and recovery, but our cop's obsessing over a dead hooker doesn't go over well at home, and the disjointed back and forth at times competes with the slow suspense. The mellow euphoric, flat music sung by Karen Black to go along with her shoot up scenes is, however, pretty campy. Memories of horses are meant to be something romantic, but the bemusing, nonsensical lyrics wax on red balloons, and it's all a dream within a dead person's flashback that's also somehow montaged with kids playing near her body chalk line. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Granted the songs are meant to be some kind of feminine character development, but with the bad sound and poor poetry, they detract from the car tailing, evidence in the trash, and drug stash in the sugar bowl. The strung out may insist it's only a little bit and she knows not to over do it, but we know she's in way over her head, foolishly thinking she can say no or choose the john. Swanky appointments and wine lead to promised payments if she tells him her whole history when to strip and reveal the truth about oneself and whether she believes in God is almost a more raw experience. Suspicious phone calls and mysterious men in black cars lead to more murders with blood on the carpet and bodies in the stairwell as the investigation comes together thanks to rough interrogations and upside down cross realizations. Candles, confessions, shootouts – it's wild how we're seeing the slow build up to her death yet it's only been a day since for our detective and the bodies are falling left and right. Sped up, chipmunk chanting is unintentionally funny, but the altars, flesh, and desecration escalate to confrontations perhaps with the devil himself – or just a corrupt dude or maybe some kind of snake thing, it's tough to tell. Tainted beverages, white robes, and black hood rituals mix with distorted visuals and standoffs, culminating in an almost simultaneous, chilling finale. The twofold film style is awkward and the title fronts the horror expectations while giving away the cult surprise, but this remains a fun, interesting romp for fans of the cast.
A Bonus Vincent Price Western!
The Baron of Arizona – Before he was a horror maestro, Vincent Price starred in this 1950 black and white western opening with 1912 cigars and toasts to statehood before recounting the 1872 tall tales of our ambitious swindler. Our eponymous clerk is angry that grandfathered grants give away land to ignorant people, so he forges a fictitious lineage back to 1748 with honorary titles and claims endorsed by the King of Spain. He talks down to Mexicans who can't read, explaining what every big word means as he proclaims an abandoned daughter is heiress to this great fortune, and it's weird that the narrative keeps going back to the men talking about the action to progress the timeline. Inscriptions are carved in stone to prove the barony as the girl is groomed for nobility – it's easy to make a peasant girl believe she is a princess with portraits, gifts, and dresses. Our suave villain, meanwhile, is creating fake graves and traveling to Spain to doctor rare documents. Shadows, black hats, and noir filming add a sinister mood to match the crimes while mission libraries, churches, and the crucifix create what should be a looming sense of guilt for our con, who joins an order just to perfect his forgery. Black hoods, candles, and old tomes at the biblioteca only lead to increased greed, hitches in the plan, daring escapes, and wagon chases with hysterical rear projection and billowing robes. All who encounter the grifter insist they don't know him or why they should trust him, but some flirting finesse leads to hiding out with the gypsy caravan until a rendezvous with the marquesa and a triumphant return with noble papers. The government would have no problem honoring a reasonable grant, but thousands of acres, all mineral and river rights in the territory, and a redrawn boundary with New Mexico understandably cause public resistance. Simple, shabby, sets begat grand manors and large rooms with models, maps, and innovations. Railroad business, irrigation plans, mining opportunities – getting the real local wealthy to invest hundreds of thousands is where the true con lies. And when the government offers to buy the barony for $25 million? Cha-ching! Farmers taking up arms and one on one rivalries lead to lawsuits, but that intruding, patronizing voiceover inexplicably disappears in favor of spinning newspapers detailing the local backlash, violence, and trials as the Department of the Interior comes calling. The pioneers, however, argue that they as white Americans are more entitled to Arizona than the older Spanish grants, and if you speak anything different, you are a traitor. From his grand coach, the gaslighting baron insists he is not taking over the territory for the money but to help these people make his barony great, and it's ironic to see such an obvious swindle then considering today's administration. When his wife the fictitious baroness now grown briefly doubts, he says it's just unnecessary guilt over her privilege, yet we can't take her soft spoken earnest seriously because she's standing by her man as he's convicted of conspiracy to defraud the nation. Confessions and suspect ink lead to a lynch mob finale where our baron's still smiling as he spouts condescending lies from the noose. Of course, the Hayes Code assures his wife still loves in in the end, but this isn't your typical western thanks to Price's carefully orchestrated charm. It's also interesting to look up this real life tale. Have you seen the wild mutton chops on this guy? Obviously we know he doesn't get away with it, but it's delicious to see how close he gets.