by Kristin Battestella
Let's travel across the pond and back a decade or two for these British crimes, English folktales, night terrors, and cult fears. Pip pip!
Bluebeard – Aerial accolades, colorful balls, and a lavish mansion aren't enough for Welsh titan Richard Burton as he creatively works his way through Sybil Danning (Chained Heat), Raquel Welch (One Million Years B.C.), and more dames in this 1972 retelling. Dark room red lighting, old time photography, ink blot artwork, and portraits of the dead add a sinister sense of sophistication as wartime flashbacks and flight disasters explain the flashy facial hair. Unfortunately, tense hunting accidents are too realistic in their animal killings, putting a damper on the well shot action alongside a confusing setting with Nazis talking Aryan beauty, World War I inserts, and a mod mood that feels too sixties. Saucy lace and classy nude women keep every frame pretty, however the famous ladies are dubbed, barely named or developed, and naturally come and go quickly save for singer Joey Heatherton in the first hour. A photograph of each Mrs. with her name and date would have helped heaps in documenting the fatalities rather than haphazard trips down memory lane dragging the middle and stalling the forward discovery. The uneven, meandering focus between the psychosis and a current escape undercuts the audience's emotional attachment – no guillotine pun intended. Burton is having a great time, but we never really get inside the killer's mind thanks to a superficial, lighthearted tone glossing over the potential sexual impetus or mother/son suggestions. Impotence jokes interfere with the women hatred and warped lust deserves death theories, and the prostitute girl-on-girl practicing isn't as tantalizing as it should be – just inadvertently humorous like the score. Dusty suits of armor, wine vats, mysterious keys, secret cameras, and electric chairs do much better in hitting home the peril amid cobwebbed passages, secret spiral stairs, and gruesome taxidermy everywhere. Perhaps the thin points of the original tale are at fault, but this account relies more on the viewer knowing fun deaths are afoot and enjoying the merry-go-round instead of embellishing the story all the way. Despite lacking polish and being a bit too tame, there are fortunately some delightful performances to be had here – especially Welch as a hot nun who seriously got around before the habit.
Fear in the Night – Writer and director Jimmy Sangster (Lust for a Vampire) opens this 1972 Hammer creepy with playgrounds, children singing hymns, and sweet Tudor mansion turned school locales. Judy Geeson's (Mad About You) 22-year-old Peggy should find such quaint idyllic well and jolly good when she moves to the school's cute cottage with her new husband Ralph Bates (Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde). Unfortunately, bathroom break ins, masked attacks, prosthetic arms, and others claiming the intruder wasn't there add mentally unstable doubts alongside prior hospital stays and chats with an unseen therapist. This out of term school is empty – covered furniture, set tables with no one there, little beds waiting – not to mention the creepy sculptures and isolated uncertainty. The viewer is invested in the characters thanks to such underlying suspicious, Latin classroom whispers, and charming but surely up to no good headmaster Peter Cushing. His innocent gentlemanly teacher facade quickly becomes old school imposing with “Do an old man a favor” innuendo when Peggy sits in a child size desk while he compliments her. The audience sees clues she doesn't, but we are also cut away from other attack details, adding to the non-believer questioning. Likewise, pre-Alexis Joan Collins is simply too stern, self-assured, and beautiful to be the little old headmaster's wife. Rabbit hunting, loaded guns, home alone at night fears, and scary noises about the house just don't add up, and although slightly sloppy, the intercut sessions with the therapist askew the timeline, creating more unreliability on what has happened. Interspersed awkward meetings and slow burn tensions are somewhat uneven as well, lowering scenes into a lull before false happiness and then topping the act off with a scare, however the rural setting allows for both large scale frights and smaller, intimate interior terrors. Individual sequences are well shot with tense shadows, staircases, echoes, and odd behaviors accenting the unexplained action, trauma, and twists. Shrewd viewers will peg some of the gaslighting obviousness and psychological games at work and there is a certain dull lack of Hammer panache at times, but the cast and final pursuits give this one an entertaining finish.
The Lair of the White Worm – Sleek Amanda Donahue (L.A. Law), posh prick Hugh Grant (Bridget Jones' Diary), the obviously dubbed princess Catherine Oxenberg (Dynasty), and scientist Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who) star in this 1988 Ken Russell (Lady Chatterley) vampire comedy drawing from Bram Stoker and earlier English tales. Granted, there are no subtitles, making the assorted dialects or cheeky banter tough for some. Folk rock stylings combined with neon and line dances are out of date, too, however the music does provide critical pieces on the eponymous legend. The horror gross buffet winks on English cuisine – setting the quaint country mood alongside a deputy who can't come to the scene because the chief has taken their one car and the lone taxi driver is locked up for drinking. Alas, backyard archaeology uncovers giant, inexplicable fossils amid Roman foundations – leading to vanished parents, cavern evidence, and spelunking for dragon-like earthworms. Ominous short cuts culminate in garter belts, black lingerie, thigh high boots, and steamy baths from one suave ladyship neighbor. The trouser snake and one-eyed monster meets vampire penetrations provide eighties wit and sexy yet absurd self-awareness while nudity and girly temptations accent the creepy paintings and stewardess dream sequences. Fiery flashbacks with nuns, crucifixion, nasty worms, and rapacious Romans look effects poor, yet the bizarre and scary visuals remain effective. Christian versus pagan virgins and scarifies call out both schools as warped angles, hypnotic camera zooms, and well shot frames capture the background crucifix or the monstrous altar in front. Victim paralysis, hissing, lengthy fangs, and spitting venom create a unique reptile design matching the snakes and ladders symbolism and heavy rituals interrupted by the gosh darn bloody doorbell. Although this has a very British, over the top cheerio tone, that bemusing pip pip bungling at times impedes the heroes. It's not scary and snake charmer musical moments are laughable today – but those bagpipes do come in handy! Evil manor surprises result in an intense monster ritual finale complete with green effects, blue body paint, snake gods, visions of bloody bodies on spikes, and a bonus scary looking strap-on giant pointy dildo thing...ouch.
Nothing but the Night – Lovely seaside waves escalate toward explosive cliffside accidents and townhouse suicides in this 1973 ninety minute thriller full of fun seventies interiors and retro British stylings. Funky patterns and zany lamps catch the eye while cool cars, phone booths, tape recorders, old science equipment, teletype machines, and printouts accent the rowdy school bus, suspicious orphanage, and hospital experiments. Meddling newspaper reporters uncover mysterious trust organizations with cult connections, and scholarly doctor Peter Cushing and personally invested police colonel Christopher Lee work together as membership fatalities, red tape, politicking, and aristocratic histories impede the case –leaving a traumatized young girl in the balance. Yes, oft onscreen rivals or villains Big Pete and Our Man Christopher are good guys (!) on the same side (!!) unraveling past traumas and fiery experiences with hypnosis and tender child moments as they battle against a prostitute mother and shady trustees. Both the doctors and the law are trying to do what's right, and Georgia Brown (The Raging Moon) holds her own against misogyny, little woman in the workplace tensions, and some mixing business with pleasure. Fedoras, spotlights, and silhouettes also invoke a noir mood over the seemingly straightforward corruption – initially there really isn't much horror or sinister to the procedural and press conferences. However, freaky deaths, fine child performances, and possibly supernatural twists soon imply something is not right about this island orphanage beyond the converging crimes. Some viewers may find the plot basic with too many layered possibilities lacking a cohesive finesse, and perhaps this should have decided on being all spooky or only straight crime rather than tacking on science and brain talk versus paranormal connections. I also wish Lee's Charlemagne production company had done more films, but the cast, period investigation, increasingly creative kills, and ritual murders do hit home the occult history with shocks, surprises, bonfires, and a crazy good Guy Fawkes finale.