Stars Do 70s Horror!
By Kristin Battestella
Often at the cusp of their fame – or sometimes at the end of it – film and television stars could frequently be found in the bowels of seventies saucy, scary, and exploitative horror movie making. Here’s a quick list of before they were famous actors and classic elder statesmen dabbling with the creepy and demonic.
Daughters of Satan – A pre-Magnum P.I. Tom Selleck stars in this 1972 art meets torment tale full off kinky nudity and rituals, sunshiny classic cars, early seventies fashions, creepy antiques, and of course, mustaches. Although the dated, stereotypical action chases and twangy music are a little over the top, the Manila locations are jungle exotic enough for the danger but also fun and unique. Sickly, mousy housewife Barra Grant (Love Hurts) is somewhat annoying to start, but likewise she gets creepier as the plot grows stranger – from dogs coming out of freaky paintings and knife wielding housekeepers to witchy apparitions and ornery widows. The fire and red symbolism matches the crosses, inquisition, whips, evil numbers, and other religious imagery as the disbelieving coven talk and ancestral connections mount. It is tough, however, to see some of the Christian desecration portrayed, and most of the plot points are quite goofy if you think too much. The poor night photography and occasionally off film speed may be amusing as well, but fortunately, there is enough suspense, boobs, sauce, occult twists, and ironic Magnum similarities to be entertained here.
Dead of Night – This 1977 TV movie anthology from Dark Shadows director Dan Curtis makes for a very atmospheric and eerie trio. Longtime fans will hear pieces of Robert Cobert’s Dark Shadows music motifs, and the opening narration introduces the spooky in over the top but solid fashion. I actually kind of like that there is no frame story attempting to tie these offbeat tales together – even if it means a shorter 75 minute run time. Despite his touch too heavy-handed inner monologue, Ed Begley Jr. (St. Elsewhere) anchors the first story “Second Chances” along with cool classic cars and bizarre time twists. “No Such Thing as a Vampire” adds some bloody fun thanks to Patrick Macnee (The Avengers), Elisha Cook Jr. (House on Haunted Hill), demented Victorian brooding, and all around period charm. The final tale “Bobby” is a wonderfully warped and scary mix of occult, death, and thunderstorms – with Joan Hackett (Will Penny) and Lee Montgomery (Burnt Offerings) playing out the violence, creepy, and secrets in a sweet looking mod house. I know I’ve been fairly short but it helps to go into anthologies like this relatively cold. All scripting here is by the late Richard Matheson (The Twilight Zone), too, so fans of similar, chilling tales like Trilogy of Terror will have a good time.
How Awful About Allan – Joan Hackett strikes again alongside Anthony Perkins and the late Julie Harris (The Haunting) in this Aaron Spelling produced and Curtis Harrington directed (What’s the Matter with Helen?) 1970 television film from writer Henry Farrell (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?). The suspense gets right to it with a fire, screaming, survivor guilt, resentment, and hysterical blindness. The intriguing, disorienting, blurry film focus and dark camera photography match Perkins’ sightless actions and mannerisms as his eponymous victim becomes obsessed with trying to prove his new, unseen roommate wants to do him harm. Yes, the Victorian house and post-institution, possibly crazy reclusiveness will seem too obviously Psycho to some viewers, but the increasingly angry tape recordings, crazy carness, heavy music, and scary whispers provide plenty of fearful spin. Retro décor and old, wintry styles accent the seemingly sunshiny household, but the nighttime paranoia and scary inability to see intensifies the strange noises and point of view eerie. Why aren’t there more visually impaired horror protagonists? This tiny 73 minutes makes you love your glasses a little more! Though not billed as a horror movie per se and the end loses a touch, this taut thriller has all the suspense, lightning, creepy family implications, and desperation needed.
Lady Frankenstein – I’m not normally a fan of classic film star Joseph Cotton (Citizen Kane), but his blend of grave robbing, unethical desperation, and father/daughter compassion is perfect for this 1971 Italian twist on the Shelley theme. “Man’s will be done,” Cotton says, but it is Rosalba Neri (99 Women) doing the titular monstrous mayhem, evil deeds, and uniquely saucy spins instead of just being the cliché horror victim or resurrected bride. Ethical debates about money, man, and God accentuate dialogue of radical Victorian science and a woman’s place in the medical profession. The gothic mood, snow, and firelight work wonderfully with the cool mad scientist laboratory – complete with clockworks, bubbling Rube Goldbergs, and perfectly timed thunder and lightning of course. Ugly blood, surgeries, and reanimated monsters smartly contrast the feminine wiles; the progression of the experiments and escalation of the monstrosities are well paced, too. Though the sound is poor and I would have liked more of Mickey Hargitay (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) as the deducing inspector on the crimes, this is a good looking, well done film. Unfortunately, there are various editions in need of a proper restoration – including an edited 85 minute print in the public domain and a longer 90 minute plus Shout Factory release splicing together several foreign versions. Perhaps this isn’t as depraved as we might expect nowadays and a little too quick toward the finale, but this macabre period delight is worth the pursuit.
And for Some Lighthearted Fun!
Young Frankenstein – “It’s Fronkensteen!” This all in good, spooky fun 1974 Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) romp has all the subtle quips, dialogue jokes, Glenn Miller winks, accent twists, bad puns, funny asides, and physical comedy gags for which one could ask in homage to the Universal greats. So what if it isn’t all that scary? Dynamite co-stars Madeline Kahn (Clue), Terri Garr (Tootsie), Peter Boyle (Everybody Loves Raymond), Marty Feldman (Yellowbeard), and Gene Hackman (The French Connection) deliver the wit to match the black and white mood, angry village mob, and stormy atmosphere. Cloris Leachman (The Last Picture Show) is the most fun I think, “Ovaltine?” The colorless photography, updated mad scientist labs, vintage equipment, gothic castle designs, and period costumes all invoke this ode to thirties horror perfectly – not bad for a $2 million budget! – and early filmmaking techniques and acting mannerisms are played for both humor and authenticity. I’m not really a Brooks fan beyond Dracula: Dead and Loving It and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and I wonder if the fine story, well paced scenes, smooth plot progression, and fun finale here isn’t due to his not being onscreen and Wilder’s co-writing. Why aren’t more films made this way, and what would have happened if this had been a straight, full on scary tale? Some comedy audiences may be disappointed by the lack of laugh out loud, riotous moments here, but hysteria isn’t really the point either. Although being familiar with the classic Frankenstein features helps in getting all the jokes, the entire family can get behind this cute, charming, star-studded terror tribute.