Monday, September 18, 2017

Stephen King's IT: Facing Your Demons

The Losers Club searches for IT
I’ve been a Stephen King fan since I first started reading his work in my younger years. Novels like Salem's Lot and The Shining, and short story collections such as Night Shift, were some of the most frightening horror fiction I have ever read. But King’s stories have never been just about the things that go bump in the night. He has a knack for creating well-rounded and believable characters that you care about, ones who talk and act like everyday people, the kind you’ve known in your own life. That these strange and supernatural things were happening to these types of characters made his stories that much more believable, and much more horrifying. King's best stories are as much about dealing with your own inner demons as they are about dealing with the actual vampires, ghosts and monsters.

There have been many big-screen and television adaptations of King’s work over the years. Some have been successful, such as Carrie and The Dead Zone, and some less so, like The Mangler and Dreamcatcher. One of the most memorable for many fans was the 1990 mini-series version of IT, King’s 1986 novel about a group of kids terrorized by an evil being who often appears as a creepy clown named Pennywise. The epic novel (the book runs about 1,100 pages) is a favorite among long-time King readers. The TV version starred John Ritter, Richard Thomas and Annette O’Toole. The production was somewhat limited by budgetary constraints and the limitations of special effects technology at the time, but it still managed to be one of the scariest TV films ever made. The miniseries is most fondly recalled for Tim Curry’s chilling portrayal of Pennywise; he managed to steal the movie out from under the rest of the cast. That film's success led to a host of other TV versions of King's work, including The Tommyknockers, The Langoliers and The Stand.

Pennywise surfaces in IT
A new big-screen version of the story, entitled IT, has recently been released, directed by Andy Muschietti, the Argentine filmmaker who also helmed the 2013 horror film Mama. The movie is set in Derry, Maine, where Bill Denbrough sends his younger brother Georgie out to play with a new paper sailboat he’s made for him. A creature that looks like a clown startles Georgie, and pulls him down into the sewers. It’s the latest in a long series of disappearances and deaths that have occurred in the town, but no one seems to be doing much about these tragic occurrences. Bill never gives up on finding his brother, and recruits his friends Richie, Eddie and Stan to investigate what really happened. The group, nicknamed “The Losers Club,” gains several new members as the story continues, and our young heroes eventually discover the truth about the  evil that lurks in Derry. The seven friends unite to defeat this monstrous entity, but the task won’t be easy an easy one. This malevolent creature wants to destroy them first. IT knows exactly what scares each of them the most.

The cast of young performers is excellent; standouts include Jaden Lieberher as Will, Finn Wolfhard (from Stranger Things) as Richie and Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh, the lone female member of The Losers Club. These talented actors convince you of the strong bond that exists between these friends, as they stand together to face the horrifying entity they know as Pennywise. These talented actors generate some moments of real emotion and pathos amid all the scary moments. The group will need all of their strength, as Pennywise plans to use their own worst fears against them. Speaking of the creepy clown, let’s talk about the actor who plays him: Bill Skarsgard takes the horror to a whole new level, in a truly terrifying performance. Combining his sinuous body movements with off-kilter facial expressions, some very effective makeup and costuming, and capped off with an eerie voice, he is the embodiment of evil that King originally wrote about. You won’t soon forget him, or this frightening film, which has a truly eerie atmosphere thanks to the solid direction by Muschietti. It's one of the best King adaptations in recent years.

King stories like IT and The Body (the basis for the film Stand by Me) were certainly part of the inspiration for last year’s hit Netflix series Stranger Things, so its nice to see things come full circle with this excellent new version of one of his best novels. The movie is not quite the letter of the book (nor should it be, as novels and films are two separate entities) but it stands on its own as a solid adaptation, which captures the authentic feeling of King’s book. The novel’s first half was set in the 1950s, but the film moves the action forward to the late 1980s. A sequel, which will be set in the present day, covering the second half of the book, is already planned. It’ll be interesting to see who gets cast as the adult versions of the characters, and how they will fare when they unite once again to face the terror of IT. Here’s a link to the trailer for the current film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKJmEC5ieOk.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Karloff & Lugosi Seek "The Invisible Ray"

Boris Karloff & Frances Drake
Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi made eight films together, several of which are considered essential viewing by classic horror fans. The third of these collaborations, The Invisible Ray (1936), is more of a science-fiction tale than a horror thriller. As the story begins, Dr. Janos Rukh (Karloff) a brilliant but eccentric scientist has made an incredible discovery. He invites several colleagues to his lab in the Carpathian Mountains to view his findings, including Dr. Felix Benet (Lugosi), and Sir Francis Stevens. Rukh has found a way to send a beam of light to the Andromeda Galaxy, which reflects images of past events from space back to Earth. Rukh shows his guests evidence that a large meteorite fell somewhere on the African continent sometime in the distant past. He believes the meteor contains an undiscovered element that may have unique qualities. It just so happens that Benet and Stevens are mounting a research expedition to Africa, and they invite Rukh to join them.

Rukh’s mother, who was blinded while assisting her son in an earlier experiment, warns him not to go. She essentially gets to utter a version of the well-worn “there are some things man was not meant to know” line. Rukh decides to join the expedition, despite her warning. Also going along on the journey are Rukh’s wife, Diana, Sir Francis’ spouse, Lady Arabella, and her nephew, Ronald Drake. Rukh breaks off from the main group, and ends up locating the meteor’s crash site and discovering “Element X.” But there’s a catch; Rukh becomes infected by the substance, and learns his touch can kill. He also glows in the dark! Diana comes to visit him, but he won’t see her, and she returns to the main camp. Rukh later goes to Dr. Benet in secret, reveals his condition and appeals to him for help. Benet concocts a cure, but warns Rukh that it will only temporarily forestall his symptoms, and the continual use of it (along with Element X's stress on his system) may affect his brain.

Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff
Initially, the cure is a success, and Rukh decides to continue his work with Element X, believing it will give him great power. But Dr. Benet and Sir Francis decide it’s too important a find to keep secret, and reveal Rukh’s discovery to the world. He’s angered by this, and accuses Benet of stealing his work. Meanwhile, the lonely Diana has fallen for Ronald Drake, and decides to leave Rukh for the dashing young explorer. The young lovers plan to marry. Benet begins using the power of Element X to treat patients and cure their illnesses, even restoring the sight of a young blind girl. The film moves into its final third, and Rukh (who’s starting to go insane due to over-using the cure, combined with the ongoing impact of Element X on his mind and body) fakes his own death, and starts targeting his enemies. He uses his fatal touch to eliminate those he feels have done him wrong, starting with Sir Francis. Will Dr. Benet realize what’s going on, and stop him in time? Or will it take an intervention from someone else to halt Rukh’s series of revenge-fueled murders? 

The film offers Bela Lugosi the chance to play the hero and foil to Karloff’s more than slightly mad Dr. Rukh. This isn’t the vengeful, justice-seeking Dr. Verdegast that Lugosi played in The Black Cat or the egotistical Dr. Vollin he portrayed in The Raven. Dr. Benet is a conscientious man who just wants to do the right thing: to use Element X for mankind’s benefit. Karloff’s character is the villain here, and he’s very convincing in the role. Rukh sees his discovery as a way to achieve more power for himself. His greed, pride and thirst for vengeance are his undoing. The two actors play off each other nicely in their scenes together in the film. The supporting cast is effective as well; Frances Drake (Mad Love) is good as Diana; Frank Lawton (The Devil-Doll) is appropriately dashing as Ronald Drake. Walter Kingsford is solid as Sir Francis and Beulah Bondi makes the most of her scenes as Lady Arabella. Violet Kemble Cooper, a British stage actress, plays Karloff’s mother, though she was only a year older than he was in real life! And look fast for Frank Reicher (Captain Englehorn in 1933’s King Kong) as an ill-fated scientist killed by Dr. Rukh.

Lambert Hillyer, who was primarily known for his work on Westerns, directed the film. He also helmed another classic Universal chiller, Dracula’s Daughter, the same year he made this movie.  While it doesn’t quite reach the expressionistic heights of The Black Cat or The Raven, or the outright terror of The Body Snatcher, the film is atmospheric, and has some eerie moments, thanks to the cinematography by George Robinson and the impressive work by John P. Fulton, the special effects master behind The Invisible Man. The evocative score is by Franz Waxman, who also worked on The Bride of Frankenstein. You may notice that some of the sets, props and sound effects seem familiar: they were later used in Universal’s Flash Gordon serials. The Invisible Ray is an enjoyable tale of science (and the quest for knowledge) gone wrong. If you’re a fan of Karloff and Lugosi, or the classic Universal films, it’s worth seeing. It might not be the best of the duo's work together, but it's an entertaining tale with good performances from two of our favorite horror icons. The Invisible Ray is available on DVD as part of The Bela Lugosi Collection, and as a standalone disc. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_gsfQS7oxY.

This post is part of "The Movie Scientist Blogathon" hosted by my fellow bloggers Christina Wehner and Ruth at Silver Screenings. I'd like to thank them for having me as part of this celebration of "The Good, The Mad and The Lonely!" You can view the posts and get more info here: https://silverscreenings.org/2017/09/06/moviescientist-blogathon-starts-friday-2/.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Retro TV: A Roy Thinnes Double Feature

The 1970s were the golden age of the TV movie, with all three networks producing original films for television on a regular basis. Many of these made for TV productions fell squarely into the sweet spot for genre fans, including classics such as Trilogy of Terror, Gargoyles and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. One actor who appeared in several of these fright flicks was Roy Thinnes. The Chicago born actor is probably best known to genre fans for his work on The Invaders. Thinnes portrayed David Vincent on that late 1960s TV series, which was produced by Quinn Martin. After witnessing the landing of a flying saucer, architect Vincent discovered there were aliens among us…and they weren’t friendly.  For two seasons, he tried to convince the world that “the truth was out there,” long before Agents Mulder and Scully. But that wasn't the end of his genre adventures on our TV screens.

After The Invaders, Thinnes starred in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, a 1969 big screen sci-fi movie produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, of Thunderbirds, UFO and Space: 1999 fame. He then appeared in several genre films for the small screen during the 1970s, including the creepy The Horror at 37,000 Feet (which co-starred William Shatner and Buddy Ebsen) and The Norliss Tapes, a Dan (Dark Shadows) Curtis production with some marked similarities to Curtis’ earlier project The Night Stalker. Thinnes also managed to play roles on both sides of the battle between good and evil in a pair of telefilm tales of terror: the offbeat western Black Noon, and the memorable chiller Satan’s School for Girls. Let’s take a look at this diabolical double feature:

Roy Thinnes & Yvette Mimieux in Black Noon
Black Noon was first telecast on CBS in 1971. Thinnes stars as Reverend John Keyes, who’s on the way to his new parish, along with his wife Lorna. They have trouble with their wagon, and get stranded in the desert. The pair are rescued and given refuge in the town of San Melas. While Lorna’s recovering from her injuries, Caleb (Ray Milland) the town elder, asks John to give a sermon to their congregation.  The preacher’s words seem to have a powerful effect on people, even enabling a lame boy to walk again! John also learns the town is being terrorized by a black clad bandit named Noon, who lusts after Caleb’s daughter, Deliverance. John stands up to the villain and drives him away. A grateful Caleb asks John to stay on permanently as their pastor, and help them build a new church. But our hero is plagued by mysterious nightmares, and Lorna’s condition never seems to improve. Deliverance, who’s been mute for years due to a childhood trauma (or has she?) takes a shine to John, and tempts him to stay. But why is everyone pushing John to remain? And what is Deliverance up to in that little shack of hers? Certainly not just making candles, as she so innocently claims.

The Old West setting is fairly unique, and the movie has some eerie sequences, courtesy of director Bernard Kowalski. Of course, we know something’s wrong long before John does, and things move along to a deadly conclusion. John finally learns the truth about San Melas (spell it backwards!) but not until it’s much too late. The movie ends with one of those scenes fairly common to 1970s horror tales, indicating that evil just might have won out after all. The cast is quite good; Thinnes is solid as the stalwart John, and Lynn Loring (Thinnes’ real-life wife at the time) is appropriately terrified as Lorna; she knows something’s wrong, but can’t convince her husband of the danger. Ray Milland hits all the right notes as the seemingly kind Caleb, and Yvette Mimieux is effective as the lovely, sensual but very dangerous Deliverance. Old pros Hank Worden, who should be familiar to Western fans from movies like The Searchers, and film noir bad girl Gloria Grahame appear in supporting roles. Veteran bad guy Henry Silva chews the scenery as the evil the outlaw Noon. The film was written and produced by Andrew J. Fenady. Black Noon isn’t screened as much these days as some of the more well remembered TV films of the era, but it's worth a look for genre fans.

Thinnes may have been on the side of the angels in Black Noon, but he’s firmly entrenched in the dark corners of the room in Satan’s School For Girls, first shown on ABC in 1973. After her sister Martha’s mysterious death is ruled a suicide, Elizabeth Sayers (horror film veteran Pamela Franklin) enrolls in the exclusive Salem Academy For Women, where Martha was a student. Elizabeth wants to find out if there’s more to the story of her sister’s odd demise. She’s befriended by several of the students, but even as she settles in, it becomes apparent that there are a lot of weird things going on at this particular school. Strange events and further deaths occur; is the person responsible Mrs. Williams, the ineffectual (and very quirky) headmistress? Or perhaps it’s the acerbic Professor Delacroix, who torments the students in his classes? Maybe it’s the handsome Dr. Joseph Campbell, the well-liked teacher who seems to hold all the students in his class spellbound?

Pamela Franklin & Kate Jackson in Satan's School for Girls
Remember, this is the Salem Academy For Women, and it’s just possible that some of the students know more than they’re telling. As Elizabeth’s investigation uncovers the terrifying truth, it all leads to a fiery finale. Can anyone escape the evil that lies beneath the surface at Satan’s School For Girls? You’ll just have to watch this enjoyable, atmospheric chiller to find out. Thinnes is excellent as Dr. Campbell, who’s popular with his students, and seems to have all the answers about the dark history of the school. His hellish exit at the climax of the film leaves no doubt about his character’s devilish origins. Lloyd Bochner (often cast as a villain on 70s TV series) is delightfully over the top as the ill-fated Delacroix. The cast also includes Kate Jackson and Cheryl Stopplemoor (aka Cheryl Ladd) who would team up once again for producer Aaron Spelling’s later hit, Charlie’s Angels. Directed by David Lowell Rich and written by Arthur Ross, Satan’s School For Girls is a prime example of 1970s movie of the week fare. It's fondly remembered by many of us who saw it on its first run, or subsequent rebroadcasts on the afternoon and late movie showcases later in the decade.

So that’s the end of our Roy Thinnes twin bill. The likable and talented actor continued to appear in genre projects on television throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, including Battlestar Galactica, War of the Worlds, the 1991 revival of Dark Shadows, Poltergeist: The Legacy, and The X-Files. As for the movies covered in this post: Black Noon hasn't officially been released on DVD, but you can find it on YouTube. Satan’s School for Girls has been released on DVD and you can also view the film on YouTube. By the way, Satan’s School For Girls was remade (also as a TV movie) in 2000. The remake starred Shannon Doherty and featured Kate Jackson taking over the role of the headmistress, played by Jo Van Fleet in the 1970s version. The remake lacks the charm and old school fun of the original. If you’re feeling nostalgic and looking for some retro-style scares, you could do far worse than Black Noon or Satan’s School for Girls.

Please Note: If you enjoy reading my work here at Eclectic Avenue, I'm also writing for Culture Sonar, an excellent arts & entertainment website. Please check them out at www.culturesonar.com. Here's a link to one of my recent posts, a feature about TCM's Sunday morning showcase "Noir Alley," hosted by Eddie Muller: http://www.culturesonar.com/noir-alley/. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Dillard & Clark's "Fantastic Expedition"

Country rock came into its own in the late 60s and on through the mid 70s, with artists like Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Poco, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles and even ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith contributing to the genre. One of the best albums to come out of this era is Dillard & Clark’s 1968 release The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark. The group was founded by Gene Clark, a former member of The Byrds (no strangers themselves to the country rock sound) and Doug Dillard, who had just left his family’s bluegrass outfit, The Dillards. They recorded the album with some talented collaborators, including guitarist Bernie Leadon, who later went on to join The Eagles, and bassist Chris Hillman, who had also been a member of The Byrds. Hillman and Leadon would help form The Flying Burrito Brothers, another well regarded and highly influential country rock band.

The album is awash with the sounds of banjo, fiddle and organ, and features some incredible songs, including the opening track “Out On The Side,” and “Train Leaves Here This Morning,” which was later covered by The Eagles during Leadon's stint with that group. Other notable tunes include the haunting “She Darked The Sun,” and Clark's melancholy “Why Not Your Baby?” which is included as a bonus track on the CD version of the disc. The inspired songwriting by Clark, Dillard and Leadon, their stellar playing and achingly beautiful harmonies all combine to make this album a high watermark for the genre. The group recorded one more record together, 1969's Through The Morning, Through The Night. That sophomore release leans even more heavily toward the country and bluegrass side of the road. It wasn’t as well-received as their debut, but there are still some great songs to be found, including the title track and outstanding covers of The Everly Brothers classic “So Sad” and The Beatles “Don’t Let Me Down.” On both of these albums, you can hear the lasting influences these incredible musicians would have on modern artists who have visited these wide-ranging soundscapes in their own careers.

Sadly, Gene Clark died in 1991, and Doug Dillard passed away in 2012. But they left behind a musical legacy that still enchants listeners and fans to this day. I first discovered The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark in the 1990s when I was going through a major Byrds listening phase, and it has remained a favorite of mine. If you’re a fan of country-flavored rock, which has seen a resurgence in recent years with the success of groups like The Avett Brothers, Fleet Foxes, Mumford & Sons and The Zac Brown Band, you owe it to yourself to check out the album. It’s truly an aural journey worth taking. Both Dillard & Clark albums are available on a "two-fer" CD which can be found on Amazon and other online sites. Here are links to the songs “Why Not Your Baby?” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7JqEuUEHxCk and "She Darked The Sun" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_O9QENNNPwQ.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Fantastic Four are "Doomed!"

The Fantastic Four is the title that kicked off the Marvel Age of Comics in the 1960s, and helped start a revolution in the four-color world. But the group’s road to success on the big screen has been a lot more difficult than their battles against super-villains like Dr. Doom and Galactus. While three films featuring the characters have been released to date, none have quite captured the public’s imagination like recent Marvel Studios productions featuring Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor. You may be familiar with the 2005 film Fantastic Four, and it’s sequel, 2007’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Both were somewhat successful at the box office, but were not particularly beloved by fans or critics. A 2015 reboot, Fantastic Four, was a significantly troubled production that was a huge failure upon its release, and a film that quickly disappeared from view.

But did you know there was an earlier cinematic version of the super-team’s adventures, co-produced by B-movie veteran Roger Corman? The labyrinthine twists and turns in the production of this unreleased film are recounted in director Marty Langford’s absorbing documentary Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic FourThe movie features extensive interviews with the cast and crew, who were surprised to find out after completing the project that the 1994 film was never intended for release. Apparently, producer Bernd Eichinger of Constantin Films, who owned the screen rights to the characters, had to make a movie, or the film rights would have reverted back to Marvel. Eichinger partnered with Roger Corman, and they entered into an agreement to produce the film for a budget of one million dollars. 

The cast included Alex Hyde-White as Reed Richards/Mister Fantastic, Rebecca Staab as Sue Storm/The Invisible Girl, Jay Underwood as Johnny Storm/The Human Torch, Michael Bailey Smith as Ben Grimm, with Carl Ciarfalio portraying his alter ego, The Thing, and Joseph Culp as the evil Dr. Doom. The entire crew, including director Oley Sassone, were passionate about the project, and committed to making a film that would be faithful to the comics, despite the relatively low budget. Everyone hoped the end product would be well received by fans of the characters. Comics fandom was still largely in its pre-internet phase at this point, and the age of the big budget superhero movie was in its infancy. The cast and crew made appearances at Comic-Con and several other events in order to promote the film, often paying for their travel expenses out of their own pockets. The fan community was looking forward to the film, with their interest piqued by meeting the cast at comic book conventions. There were also articles in various genre publications articles detailing the making of the film, including Film Threat, whose writer had visited the set and spent time with the crew.

As the film’s opening date drew closer, rumors began to circulate that the premiere had been cancelled, and the movie wasn’t being released. The film's cast and crew were stunned; everyone had given their all to the production, and they had been excited to view the finished product. The behind the scenes dealings of Bernd Eichinger and Marvel’s Avi Arad were ultimately revealed, and the real reasons for the film's shelving came to light. Making the movie had merely been a way of retaining the option on the characters, so a big budget version of The Fantastic Four could eventually be produced. As with many things in Hollywood, this had all been about the money. But the original film version of the FF's origins refused to die. Bootleg copies of the movie began to surface, and the movie gained a second life with fans who still wanted to see this version of the FF's adventures. 

Director Marty Langford examines the entire history of the movie’s ill-fated production, and talks to virtually all of the cast and crew, including producer Corman and director Sassone. The interviews are frank and insightful, and there's a wealth of behind the scenes footage from the set of the film. Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four is an engrossing story that is definitely worth watching for Marvel fans, and movie aficionados who enjoy behind the scenes stories. The film is one of the best documentaries I've seen recently; it's an engaging, compelling, and revealing Hollywood tale. The movie is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and is also available for purchase at http://doomedthemovie.com. Here’s a link to the trailer for Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSgyLDrGgow.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Video Watchdog: An Encomium

It’s always difficult saying goodbye to an old friend. I recently received my copy of the “Farewell Issue” of Video Watchdog magazine. The indispensable “Perfectionist’s Guide to Fantastic Video” has been a part of my life ever since Tim and Donna Lucas began publishing it back in 1990. I remember discovering a copy at my local newsstand, flipping through it, and quickly snatching it up. A publication devoted to all those offbeat movie genres I loved, including sci-fi, horror, and fantasy, which not only took those films seriously, but also provided intelligent writing about them! I was instantly captivated, and in a sense, it was love at first sight. For the next 26 years, VW delighted, informed, amused, thrilled and intrigued me. The comprehensive features, articles and in-depth reviews taught me new things about the filmmakers I already loved, like Ray Harryhausen, Val Lewton and Mario Bava, and gave me fascinating insights regarding my beloved Universal horror films, the Roger Corman Poe cycle, Japanese kaiju movies and the James Bond series, to name a few. VW also encouraged me to check out movies by filmmakers I hadn’t yet discovered, including Jess Franco and Georges Franju. And VW guided me towards additional watching, reading (and listening) with their insightful book reviews, Douglas Winter's fabulous "Audio Watchdog" column, Ramsey Campbell's compelling "Ramsey's Rambles" and Larry Blamire's excellent "Star Turn."

The years between 2006 and 2011 were tough for me, but I could always count on Video Watchdog to provide a welcome diversion during those difficult times. Tim, Donna and their incredible roster of writers never ceased to astonish me with their perceptive and illuminating work. As time went on, and the publishing world changed due to the proliferation of the Internet, normal outlets for newspapers and magazines began to fall by the wayside. I changed from buying my copy of Video Watchdog at Barnes & Noble to becoming a loyal subscriber. The magazine continued to knock it out of the park with extraordinary pieces like the Dark Shadows roundtable in issue 169, an engrossing discussion of the classic Dan Curtis TV series (a personal favorite of mine) as well as an absorbing look at "Quentin Tarantino’s 50 Best Sequels" in issue 171. Basically, every issue and every article was essential reading for me. When Tim and Donna began publishing digital editions of VW, a marvelous magazine become even more magnificent, with added depth and features, and the invaluable ability to view issues of VW on electronic devices. But even those additional benefits couldn’t forestall the effect on traditional magazines the digital revolution had wrought. The publishing world had changed.

When Tim and Donna made their difficult decision to cease publication of Video Watchdog in 2016, I was heartbroken. I realized I would no longer be able to look forward to new issues arriving in my mailbox, and relish the remarkable writing I’d come to enjoy so much. VW has been a part of my life for so long that it was truly like losing a dear friend or family member. Not only did VW entertain and enchant me; it was one of the things that encouraged me to pursue my own writing, something I had long wanted to do. While I’m sad to lose VW, I will always be grateful for the many years of fine work and intelligent writing about the cinema of the fantastic that I’ve been able to savor in its pages. I’d also like to give a special shout out to Donna for her remarkable layouts and production on the magazine, and her awesome work in creating the digital editions of VW. If you’re already a fan of this superb publication, you don’t need me to tell you how incredible it is. If you haven’t checked out Video Watchdog, please head over to their website at http://www.videowatchdog.com, where you can purchase back issues and digitial editions, and check out Tim’s blog. I want to sincerely thank Tim, Donna and everyone who was a part of Video Watchdog over the years for all the joy you’ve given me, and I wish you all the best of luck with your future endeavors.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Horror Hotel: You Might Check In......

College student Nan Barlow needs to complete a paper on the history of witchcraft. Her professor, Alan Driscoll, gives her some advice regarding places where she can go to complete some research. She heads off to the New England town of Whitewood, where a notorious witch named Elizabeth Selwyn was supposedly burned at the stake 250 years ago. She arrives and checks into a local inn, figuring she'll do a little onsite fact-finding. Nan (played by Venetia Stevenson) is warned by Reverend Russell, the local priest (who acts very strangely) not to dig too deep into the town’s past. She ignores his pleas to leave the area, which turns out to be a mistake. Nan ends up getting a very up close and personal look at witchcraft, and learns a lot more than she ever bargained for at the start of her journey. That’s the setup of City of the Dead (US title: Horror Hotel), a memorable 1960 chiller directed by John Llewellynn Moxey. It’s a well-produced British horror film that features genre icon Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Lord of the Rings) in a supporting role as Professor Driscoll.

Venetia Stevenson & Christopher Lee
Nan disappears, and her brother Richard, along with her boyfriend Bill, come to Whitewood to find out what's happened to her. The reverend's daughter, Patricia, tries to help them with their investigation. It seems there's a lot of unusual things happening in this quiet little town. But our heroes don’t understand the evil that surrounds them until it's almost too late. As in films such as Curse of the Demon (1957) and Burn Witch Burn (1962), those who are skeptical about the existence of the supernatural soon learn the truth, with horrifying results. What's really going on in this eerie, fog bound place? Can Richard, Bill and Patricia escape the terrifying forces at work in Whitewood? 

Spoiler alert: skip ahead to the next paragraph if you don’t want a major plot point revealed. Some writers and reviewers have compared the film’s structure to Psycho, which came out around the same time. Like that Hitchcock classic, this movie features a heroine (who appears to be the main character) that checks into an inn early in the film, and ends up dead. Others follow in an attempt to locate her, and discover some deadly and terrifying secrets. It’s likely a coincidence, as City of the Dead began filming over a month before Psycho did, but the two films do make for an interesting comparison. The movie seems much more like an attempt to capture the feel of Hammer's successful horror output than a copycat of Hitchcock's adaptation of the Robert Bloch novel. In fact, the film was released by producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, who went on to form Amicus Productions, one of Hammer's main competitors in the 1960s and 1970s, with movies like Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965) and The House That Dripped Blood (1971).

Director Moxey (who also helmed the classic 1972 TV movie The Night Stalker) and his crew give the film an eerie, atmospheric look, despite its modest budget. He gets good performances out of a mostly British cast; Lee, Valentine Dyall (as a sinister denizen of Whitewood) and Patricia Jessel (in a dual role) are particularly effective. City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel) is an entertaining chiller with some truly creepy moments, including an opening sequence that is reminiscent of the one in Mario Bava's Black Sunday. The movie is firmly lodged in Creature Features territory (for those of us old enough to remember those days) which is where I first saw, and got spooked by, this spine-tingling tale. This "hotel" is definitely worth a visit for those looking for some old fashioned fright film fun. The film is available on video from VCI Entertainment. This edition features the British cut of the film, which has a few minutes of footage cut from the US version. Both the Blu-ray and DVD releases have some solid bonus content, including an interview with Lee and a commentary from director Moxey. Here's a link to the film's trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VF8PaKcJNWQ.