by Kristin Battestella
So many scary movies, so little time! Here’s a quick list of some of the old spooky greats to see again this Halloween. Black and white is so much more atmospheric, is it not?
Abominable Dr. Phibes – Vincent Price venges on with Joseph Cotton (Shadow of a Doubt) in this 1971 cult classic of bizarre visuals, weird music, and mod yet deco design. Perhaps not everyone will like the pseudo psychedelic and dialogue-less 10 minute opening, but the Biblically inspired revenge is oh so sweet and dare I say it dang crafty! Bumbling Brit Inspector Peter Jeffrey (Anne of A Thousand Days) is a little stereotypical and I’m not sure about Cotton’s accent, but Price himself doesn’t even speak until a half hour into the movie-sort of. His silent and obsessive plan, wild looking eyes, and methodically orchestrated kills perfectly exemplify that faint line between mad man and genius. Beautiful and angelic but deadly Virginia North (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) is also delightfully disturbing as Phibes’ assistant Vulnavia. The intelligent-if witty and campy- performances and script unfold layer by layer for a fun and memorable conclusion to a film quite unlike any other. Take in the sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again for more.
The Ape Man –Okay, so they don’t come much more hokey and silly than this 1943 Bela Lugosi (Dracula) charmer. Yes its old fashioned, complete with bad effects, makeup, and war talk. However, the simplistically scary black and white photography and fun mad scientist set design complete the scene nicely. Lugosi is on form as an intelligent man emoting with some animalist overtones. What is he doing locked in a cage dozing on the hay with a male gorilla by his side anyway?! The traditional horror fun and nostalgic style goes a long way as well. The typewriters, candlestick phones, netted hats, and even nosey newspaper dames add atmosphere to the fine story here. This one is also pretty short and easy to find since it’s in the public domain-so no excuses!
Bloodlust- So we’ve more bad effects in this 1961 thriller, and the transfer to cheap DVDs isn’t that good, either. However, this tale based on ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ has plenty of built in, natural horror. It all starts out seemingly in good fun- tropical paradise and gallivanting boat rides. Once stars Robert Reed (The Brady Bunch), June Kenney (Earth vs the Spider), and Eugene Persson (Ma and Pa Kettle) become trapped on a desolate island with deranged millionaire huntsman Wilton Graff (Lust for Life), the tone and atmosphere here quickly becomes dangerous and deadly. Throw in unfaithful wife Lilyan Chauvin (Catch Me if You Can) and some naughty taxidermy hijinks, and that’s plenty enough suspense for 80 minutes. Yes, it’s all a little too quick and there’s some good old-fashioned bad acting, but with a dozen variations on ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ and none of them 100% quality or faithful, we take what we can get.
Race with the Devil – This very dated 1975 satanic rage flick is packed full of RVs, heady music, and badass motorcycles. It’s tough to believe middle aged men Peter Fonda (Easy Rider, Ulee’s Gold) and Warren Oats (The Wild Bunch, Stripes) have such hot young blonde wives Loretta Swit (M*A*S*H) and Lara Parker (Dark Shadows) and yet they’d rather be on dirt bikes! Yes, some bits here are a little too macho- the men never believe the subservient wives in horror films, do they? Thankfully, the mystery and devil worship conspiracy of backwoods
is downright scary. There’s deadly snakes in said RV, swift pacing, claustrophobic filming, and a bizarre sacrifice scene that was later used in The ‘Burbs! Director Jack Starrett (A Small Town in Texas) ties it all together with some great chase scenes and a creepy yet subjective conclusion. Despite being of its time, I seriously don’t think a remake in today’s style is necessary at all. In fact, please don’t! Texas
The Return of the Vampire – Bela Lugosi returns for this 1944 resurrection of his most famous character- sort of. He’s not playing Dracula, but one can’t help but make the comparison. On its own, the moody sets, black and white filming, and spooky atmosphere are quite good. The DVD release is even quality, with neat menus and even subtitles! Sadly, we’re dealing with a really, really crappy looking werewolf! Thankfully, the script is good, with an intriguing science versus vampires angle. We have everything from kids in peril and good and evil allegory to hurrahs for both World Wars and even some Blitz action. I love how the gals take time to put on their robes-despite being called upon by the vampire! The melodramatic music is fun, even if the show is a little short. There’s no fluff here and yet Lugosi’s reveal 25 minutes in is worth the wait. The vampire marks are a little weak, and we don’t see the biting act. However, it’s actually nice that way, allowing for audience speculation on the kinky penetration. The supporting cast is somewhat stock, but blessedly not over the top. The forties style and classic art decoration put the icing on for a zealous ending. Hot Damn!
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936) - The sound on my double bill disc is kind of crappy, but otherwise Tod Slaughter (Maria Marten, The Greed of William Hart) and director George King (The Shop at Sly Corner) craft a fine little film in that macabre Victorian spirit. Even if the then-contemporary thirties bookends are a bit much; the old speaketh, poor London style, and implication that seven apprentice boys have disappeared at Todd’s barbery set the disturbing scene nicely. The seemingly charming and innocent scoring also throws the audience for a loop against Slaughter’s (love that name!) creepy and abusive performance. His delight at death and the fear of capture are well done. Stella Rho (Vagabond Violinist) is also a perfectly annoying and Todd’s wicked match as Mrs. Lovett. Such a little old Hackney lady chopping up bodies for meat pies all on her own! The supposed flair of the 2007 musical isn’t needed when you have spooky and bizarre old stuff like this. I don’t know about some of the stereotypical tribal scenes or the low production values of the time, but the Fleet Street disturbia wins out.
The Vault of Horror – This 1973 anthology film from director Roy Ward Baker (Don’t Bother to Knock) doesn’t have the star power of its precursor film Tales from the Crypt, but its opening premise of five men taking an elevator to a subbasement of judgment to face their darkest dreams is dang cool. The big names here are Tom Baker (Doctor Who) and Denholm Elliot (Raiders of the Lost Ark)- and they don’t appear until the final story- but this lack of flashy names allows the anonymous characters of Curd Jurgens (The Spy Who Loved Me) and Glynis Johns (Mary Poppins) to shine. Five tales in an hour and a half is a little short, but the stories don’t drag and get to the shocking point. The twists and ironies are intelligent and wonderful without being all about sex, nudity, violence, or gore. There’s not a lot of out right horror, but plenty of seventies bizarrity- and that’s refreshing compared to modern remakes and stupidity.
A few of these selections are also streaming or available online for free or subscription at Fancast: