Monday, October 16, 2017

Don't Look in the Basement (1973), by S.F. Brownrigg



There are a lot of words that go well with Halloween. Isolation. Desolation. Secrecy. It's a holiday which I feel is a lot about mood; it's one of the most primally emotional days of the year. As the barriers between worlds shrink and thin, they expose us to sensations from beyond. Chills up our spine. The rush of leaves in a midnight wind. Perhaps even the chattering of skeletons. Don't Look in the Basement is a movie which also all about mood. I found myself slightly bored while rewatching it for our Spookyween celebrations, but I realized that was because little was happening in terms of plot--in terms of feeling, however, great advancements were happening, and that was what kept me watching. A truly captivating film, Don't Look in the Basement manages to bring me new surprises with every new watching, and I'm sure it'll become an October staple for me.

At a rural mental hospital run by Dr. Stevens, a nurse named Jane is planning to leave. She's become too perturbed by the behavior of the patients to continue treating them, especially after one of them, Harriet, assaults her. However, as she's leaving, one of the patients, a former judge named Oliver Cameron, kills Dr. Stevens by apparent accident. Before Jane can leave, an unseen person steals the baby doll which Harriet believes to be her living child and places it in Jane's room; this leads to Harriet killing the nurse. Fortunately--perhaps--a replacement arrives in the form of Charlotte Beale, former head of the mental health ward at a big-name hospital. She was invited by Dr. Stevens to come out and assist him. In the face of his death, his replacement, Dr. Geraldine Masters, is hesitant to take Charlotte on, but eventually relents. Slowly, the delicate structure of the hospital begins to cave in itself, facilitated by that unseen weirdo, who's now running around snipping phone wires. Plus, more people are turning up dead. Charlotte begins to feel more and more like a patient herself, until at last she learns the truth. The woman she's been working for isn't a doctor. Masters is a patient, and her illness is that she has to believe she's a doctor. Now that word is getting out that this is all just one woman's fantasy, Masters suddenly realizes she has a lobotomy to schedule...

I know that this movie resembles many I've seen before. There's just something about '70s horror movies that just feels '70s, whether it's the style, the dialogue, the film quality, hell, even the shapes of people's faces sometimes. I kept thinking of Criminally Insane while watching this, and the reason is obvious enough from that later film's title alone. Don't Look is considerably more professional than Criminally Insane, seeming, at points, to be (gasp) a real movie. In fact, overall, the acting is really good, as is the cinematography, though the lighting fails at points. It is undeniable that the film is actually creepy. There's enough of a mystery about everything to keep it all going, and even if the patients aren't scary the house they live in certainly is. I always love rural horror movies because I am a spoiled suburbanite and I do sincerely believe that if you go far enough from the cities you can find some dark secrets. (But I also acknowledge the dark secrets my suburban home holds as well.)

I tried thinking about how ableism applies to this movie, and if I'm being honest, I wasn't offended by any of it as a mentally ill person. This is the sort of fantasy mental illness which is just sort of silly if you're in the mood for goofy Corpse Vanishes-style shenanigans. That having been said, this movie is surprisingly sympathetic to the mentally ill. The hospital isn't cruel towards its patients, though admittedly it seems from what we see of him that Dr. Stevens wasn't quite the most stable person himself. The patients are treated as human and accepted for who they are, and they aren't punished for a lack of progress. And characters talk about the patients sympathetically. Now, it may be an intended subversion of this kindness that much of it comes from someone who turns out to be a mental patient herself, and a murderer, at that. But it's hard to say. Dr. Masters was a doctor once, and she's been trying to rebuild herself here steadily. She shows expertise in her field and there seems to be hope for her. It's sort of empowering to view these statements, predating her final mental collapse, as a person with mental illness speaking for themselves. But then she turns out to be crazy and gets killed.

I could be more serious about this, but I want to move on by saying that there's a lot of cheese to balance out the seriousness and make it a genuinely fun ride. For example, when Allyson, the token nymphomaniac, is trying to seduce Judge Cameron, she says, "Do you like strawberries? I taste like strawberries!" And there's also a scene where a character announces that someone has had their tongue cut out, to help explain why the filmmakers couldn't afford an effect that conveyed this outside of filling the actress's mouth with fake blood. It reminded me of the movies I'd make with my friends when I was a kid, where someone's arm would be cut off, to the sound of a dubbed voice shouting, "Your arm is being cut off!!!"

Finally, a good cast is worth remembering. (Almost) all the patients are memorable in some sense: there's Sam, who has become child-like as a result of a violence-curbing lobotomy; the Sergeant, a war vet who can't get over losing his platoon; Harriet, who, again, thinks her plastic doll is her baby; Danny, who's illness appears to be severe Little Shit Syndrome (and whose name I initially misheard as "Denny"); Judge Cameron, who has a lot of other violent obsessions besides justice; Allyson, who has lost so many men in her life that she'll kill for love; and Mrs. Callingham, who just rants about nonsense. Those who don't have at least one likable trait are harmless, except maybe for Denny Danny. Seeing how each of these characters respond to one another will keep you locked on the screen even if nothing much is happening as far as plot momentum.

Brave the boredom, and great Spookyween fun shall be yours. I want to know what you think of it, so give it a shot!

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Friday, October 13, 2017

I Drink Your Blood (1970), by David Durston



Doing a more intensive Spookyween this year has allowed me to obtain a particularly gleeful sense of history when it comes to tone in movies. The '20s produced films of shocking brutality, and the '30s continued that tradition, albeit in a milder sense. By the '40s, the horror genre had been thoroughly gelded, and the '50s produced virtually no horror films at all. I can't succinctly explain what was happening in the '60s, but the '70s saw the cultural upheaval of the hippie movement give agonized birth to the fervent pessimism of the punk era. Didn't take long for a horror movie to pick up an X rating for violence, did it?

I Drink Your Blood tells the tale of Horace Bones and his Family of Sados, who are not at all based on the Manson Family, no sir. They hold a Satanic ritual which is spied on by a local girl from the nearby small town of Valley Hills. This girl, Sylvia, is dating Andy, a member of the Sados, but this status does not spare her from the rape she suffers as punishment when she's caught. When Sylvia's grandpa Doc goes to settle affairs with the Family, he's beaten up and dosed with psychedelics, which causes him to have hallucinations of zombies or skeletons or something. Finally it is Sylvia's ten-year-old brother Pete who takes revenge. Their family runs a bakery, with the aid of Mildred Nash, girlfriend of the foreman of a local construction site--the same construction site, incidentally, which has led to most of Valley Hills becoming abandoned. While the hippies are having a rat barbecue at one of the abandoned buildings scattered throughout the area, Pete finds and kills a rabid dog, and injects its blood into the meat pies his bakery ends up serving to the hippies. Uh-oh. Soon all of the Sados are rabid, and once the promiscuous girl in their group gets to the construction crew, the bakery fam are the only folks in the area who aren't infected. Not everyone's going to get out of this one in one piece.

I'm not drawn into this movie simply because it's the natural double feature with I Eat Your Skin. It is a good movie of its own merits, even if I've recently discovered some differences between the "full" version of the movie and the version I've been watching these last ten years. The 75-minute version I was accustomed to is pretty gristly to begin with, featuring hands lopped off, pregnant hari-kiri, and a ton of real animal violence. The full 88-minute cut that I watched for this review contained not only an additional rape scene (and a truly nasty one at that), but also threw on a downer ending for good measure. What this all means is that I Drink Your Blood pushes more limits that a lot of the other movies that would follow through its native decade, managing to still freak me out after all these years.

Even ignoring its central focus on rabies-induced violence, there are tons of little nods here and there to ramp up the controversy. The Sados do a lot of drugs, naturally, which admittedly for a '70s movie isn't played for horror as hysterically as it could have been. But two moments stood out to me: there's a scene where the Sados end up knocking out Shelly, the guy they all pick on (presumably the father of the Friday the 13th Part III character). They cut his feet open and suspend from the ceiling, swinging him back and forth as a gristly pendulum. The blood from his feet splashes on the Sados, and one of them, Su-Lin, seems to get turned on it. Then, there's the fact that the promiscuous chick, the same who brings doom to the town in what I'm sure was at least a Freudian insertion of misogyny into the script, is also implicitly a pedophile--we see she's totally willing to try to seduce a ten-year-old in order to stop him from looking into what they're doing to his grandpa.

And yet despite their awfulness, I still somewhat enjoy the Sados as characters. The movie understands that it is they and not the townsfolk who are our leads, and therefore it fleshes them out with strangeness as best as it can. It starts on a good foot by having someone be named "Horace Bones" (though the name of his actor, Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury, is almost as good). It helps that Bones acts like an ersatz hippie version of every villain Ricardo Montalban ever played. There's also the fact that the black man in the group is named "Rommel Yates," which a better critic than I could spend days unpacking. Then there's Su-Lin, the group's Asian representation, who dresses like a stereotypical "Dragon Lady" and commits suicide by burning herself like a Buddhist monk (this movie presents race weirdly, at the very least). Each of these characters, save perhaps for Shelly, who is largely there to be tormented and killed, all get faces of their own, in spite of their numbers, making them resemble the New Primitives of Rats: Night of Terror in that sense. And it really is tough to say how much we're supposed to like them. On one hand, they don't seem to take themselves overly seriously, and are largely just hyper-exaggerated caricatures of "wild youth"--Andy even comes right out and says most of it is for show and ego. Somehow they would seem a lot more menacing, at least initially, if they actually believed in Horace's stories of being the son of Satan. But you realize they're actually a lot worse. Cultists do what they do because they believe they're serving a higher cause, a greater authority; even Manson believed he had the God-given quest to provoke a race war. But Horace Bones and his crew have no such illusions. They're doing this just because they can, and because they want to. One gets the impression now and again that there is some philosophical motivation behind their actions--Su-Lin, for example, seems to honestly believe that blood and pain should be viewed by society as positive because they are signs one is still living--but the Family's primary direction in life is chaos and nothing but. This doesn't differ overly from other hippiesploitation flicks from before and after, but by incorporating decidedly more disturbing aspects into its evil hippie characters, I Drink Your Blood makes this sort of recklessness actually unsettling.

I do wonder, though, why they didn't get rabies from the rats they were cooking. It can't be healthy to take a bite out of a wild rat, especially if you don't bother cleaning it first in any way.

I also have to wonder why (trying to wrap things up now) our ostensible heroine, Mildred, is dating the dude that she is. He constantly talks over her, treats her like an idiot, and presumes he's always right. Ah well--he gets what's his in the end. I feel like maybe his bad-character-ness is a set-up for this final cruel twist, making it not so cruel after all.

I Drink Your Blood managed to shock me thoroughly, and I return to it on an annual basis. Stacking beautiful trashiness with sleazy gravitas, it serves effectively as a source of laughs and chills alike. And despite its gruesome content, it does make a good double feature with the comparatively tamer I Eat Your Skin. So draw up your chair, get yourself a meat pie, and dig in.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Orgy of the Dead (1965), by Stephen C. Apostolof and Ed Wood



Does it really need saying that it wouldn't be a proper Spookyween without Ed Wood? No one quite handled the horror genre in the way Ed did. Though he presented his scary stuff in a fashion implying he was being cynical and ironic, Wood actually threw himself into his work and believed himself to be the scribe of hair-raising nightmares--or at least, the custodian of hair-rising nightmares past. His obsession with Bela Lugosi and the Universal Horror movies led him to create films which ended up perpetuating the exaggerated campiness that folks today think all old horror films, Universal included, happened to contain. Once more this is that strange idea of horror as fun--horror as a Halloween children's game. There's virtually nothing actually scary about Orgy of the Dead--in fact it's probably not really about being scary--but it's still a fun watch if you've got both an adult mind and a remnant ribbon of that old Halloween children's spirit.

Orgy of the Dead doesn't burden itself with needy troubles like plot, but since you asked, there are a few incidents here and there. Bob and Shirley are a couple driving through an unfamiliar area. Bob is a famous writer, who is apparently out on the road in search of inspiration. "Most of my books are based off of fact or legend," he says. "That's why they sell in the top spots!" Anyway, Bob's a dumbass, so he ends up driving too fast and goes off the road, ending up in an old cemetery. It is this cemetery which is ruled by "the Emperor," played by Criswell. The Emperor orders numerous dead folk to rise from the grave and dance for him, erotically, if possible. This includes "the woman who died by fire" and "she who loved gold." Then, without warning, a woman in cat footy-pajamas comes out, with holes cut in the pajamas for her tits and booty. We follow a parade of ethnic stereotype dancers, who are commented on by a werewolf and American-accented mummy. This long string of ostensibly erotic dances continues until at long last it comes time for the two intruders to be sacrificed. But then day comes, turning the Emperor and his minions to skeletons, leaving our heroes believing it was naught but a dream.

So yes, this movie is largely about well-proportioned ladies jiggling. Ed Wood presents us this sea of T&A using the only platform he knows--remember, the dude couldn't make a movie about trans rights without putting Bela Lugosi in the vicinity of smoky test tubes and creepy shadows. So of course this movie is "actually" about the secrets of the world of the dead, and their bizarre ceremonies under the full moon when they walk the Earth. Obviously. The thing is, I think old Eddie forgot that he was hired to write sexploitation first and horror second. For while Wood was a master of sleaze, he was primarily a master of dialogue that no one but he found intimidating. That's why we keep cutting from the naked woman on screen to a mummy who says bullshit like: "Back in my days of ancient Egypt, snakes were the stuff of nightmares!" Uh, in contrast to today's harmless snakes, which no one is afraid of?

You watch Ed Wood-penned movies for the writing. Because Lord did that man suck at dialogue. Somehow, however, he is still better at it than Harry Stephen Keeler, and, depending on the day, George Lucas. I've provided a few snippets here and there, but honestly, every single fucking line is pure fucking gold. Somehow, even the most relevant speeches collapse into untamed non sequitur. We critics sometimes complain about having too little material--and sometimes, there are those moments where we're forced to complain about having too much material. I swear to God, Wood's writing is like its own dialect of English or something. Someday we'll find an island of pudgy white guys dressed in angora sweaters, and that's all they'll speak in. Let's try to tackle the line, "She was a zombie in life...so too must she walk as a zombie in death!" What?! A zombie in life?! I mean, technically, voodoo zombies are drugged, hypnotized living people, but still, even those kinds of zombies have been referred to commonly as "the living dead" since the '30s. As far as I'm concerned, most folks in 1965 would have thought you had to die to become a zombie. No, I suspect this is some of Wood's patented social soapboxing. Wood is criticizing this lady's social behavior--she was a social zombie. At least, that's how I read it, and having now read a couple books of Wood's prose on top of seeing most of his movies, I feel I have solid insight. But it's Ed Wood. There is no fucking canon.

Criswell makes this movie lovely. Seeing him in color is a trip and a half. I don't know if he looked  this out of it in Plan 9 from Outer Space, but he's trying pretty hard to hide his age at this point. He has what I call Trump Bags--gross little white rings around his eyes where his obvious fake tan halts its orangeness. His performance varies. Sometimes he's having the time of his life, others he's clearly baffled by the syntax of what he's been asked to say, and a lot of the time he just wishes he was doing bullshit mentalism on TV again. I wonder how much the nudity he was actually present for. I can see someone with a career like his trying to stay away from that. He's joined by a woman who is not Vampira, but is made up to look like her. (No, she isn't Elvira, either.) She does a very good job, a better job than Vampira probably could have done. It is a misplaced acting extravaganza.

So much of Orgy of the Dead is dedicated to tedious and occasionally offensive stripteases that it may drive the ordinary viewer mad. I can't even argue that it's the best Ed Wood movie, as I am much more impressed with Glen or Glenda. But it is an amusing and baffling entry into the Wood corpus, and even if horror wasn't the point of emphasis, it's suitably "spooky" enough for us to celebrate with it this month.

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Monday, October 9, 2017

Serpent Island (1954), by Tom Gries



I'm going to level with you: outside of Daughter of Horror and a few others, there aren't many 1950s horror movies appropriate for the site that I enjoy. That's why I'm sort of cheating with this one--finding material for both the '20s and this decade will be a challenge next year, assuming I pursue the same format for our Spookyween celebrations. My one justification for including Serpent Island on the itinerary is that it features a voodoo subplot, plus a killer creature sequence at the end. Other than that, this movie is a sailing drama about adventure on the high seas, featuring a scurvy underdog hero who gets the girl at the end. Call me a sucker for voodoo, no matter how mild it is, but there's something about this one that feels like October to me.

Peter Mason is an old marine engineer working dockrat shifts out in San Pedro, CA. One day a woman named Rikki Andre comes up to him asking use of his sailing services; you see, her ancestor was Michel Andre, a gold fence who hid a million dollars in treasure out near Haiti. Using the ship called the Constellation, belonging another sailor she's hired, a rival of Mason's by the name of Kirk Ellis (Captain Kirk, huh?), they set off, traveling to the Seas of Padding. This includes things like gut-punch brawls, shark attacks, and the lamest stock footage hurricane ever. When they land, Mason and Rikki consummate their romantic tension in a surprisingly explicit scene for 1954, but of course, there's voodoo afoot. Pete is captured by the voodoo cult where he learns that their leader is an old flame of his, a woman named Ann Christoff, and she's bound to protect the gold--after all, it constitutes the mass of their sacred idol. Rikki is allowed to see the idol, but is attacked by a boa constrictor; Pete saves her, Kirk is killed by the snake, and the two lovebirds escape the island safely.

Serpent Island is largely notable because it's the first movie that Bert I. Gordon had a hand in producing. As is easy enough to point out there are no giant monsters in this one, even if that boa is pretty big. In a sense, this is one of the most successful monster movies Gordon made--not in terms of monster content, of course--because I actually found some horror in the scene where Rikki is attacked by the snake. They managed to make the actress being choked to death look strangely real. I found it grotesque, but maybe I'm a big sissy--or maybe a crusty print does things to me.

I was pulled into this movie because it has a strange self-awareness about itself that makes it and its characters charming. Pete is well-acted as an aging former sailor with extreme cynicism about life at sea. Rikki is strikingly convincing as a young woman who is figuring herself out. And Kirk is a true bastard like any evil ship captain in a sailing adventure film worth his salt should be. We get this sense of winking from the oddities the script insists on indulging in. For example, after Pete stops a thief from stealing the letter that will lead Rikki to the treasure, he says, "We never did find out who the uncommon thief was; I still have my own ideas on the subject." Yet we never learn those ideas; moving on. How about his later zinger: "My dad always said to never fight a man in his own territory. I never listened to him and that's how I became a success in life." Pete has a sentimental sort of narration over the whole of the film, with pseudo-poetic reflections on all they come across, which seems to be a fixture of sailing segment in these types of adventure flicks. Some of these bits of narration reminded me of Infrasexum in their own way. He also makes jokes which appear to be at the expense of the Republican Party, which earns him a thumbs up in my book.

One last note on the dialogue before I move on. Kirk comes up behind Rikki one night and looks her up and down like a creep. She knows he's there without looking and he asks how she knows. She says, cheerily, "You're real quiet, and so when it gets real quiet I know you're around. If that sounds confused, that's because I'm confused. About a lot of things." Wow! You know you're a master scribe if you've got that in your screenplay, folks.

There's a lot to riff here, because it's a '50s exploitation movie. For example, we see what might have been some of the film's raison d'etre during a scene where Rikki runs out on deck in her nightie, and gives us a big face full of hot lingerie'd booty. There's something for the androsexual, as well, as there's no shortage of Pete's weirdly-shaped shirtless torso. I never really thought I'd get a chance to see Rob Liefeld's interpretation of Captain America extrapolated into real life, but I was not disappointed. Finally, we have Jacques, Ann Christoff's voodoo enforcer, who I like to headcanon is a zombie, just 'cause then I can claim this is a zombie voodoo movie. Every time he makes his sudden appearance I remark on his stunning resemblance to a shaved Mr. T. Because it's a '50s voodoo movie, there is trace racism, including white people being afraid of burly black dudes just 'cause they're burly black dudes. Fortunately, it's not even in the same galaxy as West of Zanzibar.

Serpent Island may be one of those movies which can only be appreciated so idiosyncratically that it's almost not worth it. It may also be a movie I enjoy exclusively because I had to go to surprising lengths to find a copy. If you like sailing dramas with a touch of killer creatures and the threat of human sacrifice, this one's for you. Give it a try.

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Friday, October 6, 2017

Valley of the Zombies (1946), by Philip Ford



Doctor X is relatively clunky, because horror in the early '30s was slow. As time went on, however, a more frantic pace could be found as B-movies needed to get their deal over with sooner, as writers took less time in writing, and as studios cut more and more money from these lesser programmers, ultimately reducing features like Valley of the Zombies to the sort of fodder which would play in the ultra-neutered market of TV movies. Fortunately, the existence (and hasty creation) of these B-features means I have lots of short, quick-paced material which is usually primed with the best sort of trashy hilarity. Valley of the Zombies is our shortest stop this Spookyween, at a whopping 55 minutes, but there's worlds to find in it that makes it worthy of looking over during this joyous month.

Terry Evans and Susan Drake are a doctor and nurse who are dating while working their way through their studies. Evans is mentored under Dr. Rufus Maynard, who informs the pair that a large amount of blood has recently gone missing from his supply under mysterious circumstances. After Evans and Drake leave, however, Maynard is visited by a man by the name of Ormand Murks, who appears to have time-traveled a year into the future to get fashion advice from Bela Lugosi in Scared to Death. There's a problem with Murks being here, though--he's supposed to be dead. A former undertaker, Murks was once placed in Maynard's mental hospital for his weird fixation with blood transfusions. As it happens, Murks needs blood because he has learned the secrets of the Valley of the Zombies--he has become the living dead. The vampiric blood-thief decides to take some fresh blood from Maynard himself. Terry and Susan return and stumble upon the crime scene, which implicates them in front of the police. Like you do, the pair decide to exonerate themselves by catching the crook themselves--admittedly, the police aren't much help, as they spend a few hours basically verbally torturing Susan in order to extract a confession, which was a process still pretty legal at the time. They have a clue: Dr. Maynard's body, alongside the body of Murks' other victim (in the form of his brother Fred, who was helping Murks steal the blood vials), has been embalmed. They finally head down to the old Murks Mansion to commence their investigation further, little aware that the last scion of House Murks is waiting for them.

Once more we have the premise not only of a particularly unusual killer abetted by super-scientific principles, but also a film where the primary heroes are also our comic relief. Perhaps taking some backwards inspiration from Nick and Nora Charles, our plucky investigators engage in quite a bit of banter, albeit banter far less sophisticated than the I-Am-Not-Shazam'd Thin Man and his wife ever exchanged. Unfortunately, a lot of this takes the rather sexist form of Susan being scared of everything. Admittedly, if I had spent most of my life training to be a nurse, I'd focus on steeling my nerves against mortal perils like disease and bloodshed, not vampire serial killers hiding in decrepit mansions, so I totally understand where she's coming from. Doesn't mean that Terry has to be a condescending prick as well (though I get the impression maybe we're supposed to find him a bit of an idiot).

What intrigues me the most about Valley of the Zombies is that it is essentially a cinematic form of a Villain Pulp. I'm sure there are plenty of movies out there similar to this (Ogroff possibly counts as one), but let me explain: back in ye olde days of pulp magazines, there were stories which centered around the villain as a protagonist of sorts. Pulp characters were always outlandish, the villains especially so, and with names like Dr. Satan and Dr. Death it was hard to go wrong. So Valley of the Zombies is a Villain Pulp starring Ormand Murks. And he is indeed a pretty neat villain--possibly cinema's only voodoo vampire, Murks is played by Ian Keith, one of the contenders to play Dracula in the Universal film. I think he probably would have done better than Lugosi, but then we'd never have everything Lugosi made after '31. While far from perfect, and hammy to the point where we can't quite take him seriously, Murks has some wonderful moments, including a creepy moment where he gives his best Evil Mastermind face while threaten-asking his brother, "You're going to put me in my grave?" He also embalms his victims for no fucking reason outside of the fact that it abets our protagonists, and because, well...that's what Super Villains do! I love it.

Everything about this movie is lensed in a strange comic melodrama that makes it all feel something akin to a dream. A dull dream at times, unfortunately, but that's a matter of age more than anything. Still, if you want to flash back to the days of nickolodeon B-features and get a whirlwind tour of the weird world of the undead, you can do no better. Valley of the Zombies is the perfect balance of spooky and campy for your cozy Spookyween night.

P.S. I hadn't mentioned its occurrence in the Doctor X review, but that's two for three on films featuring comic relief shenanigans involving pretending to be a morgue corpse. I guess people couldn't get enough of that one in the '40s. Come to think of it, I think I've seen the same gimmick in movies from the '80s as well. I guess some shit never dies...it only waits...to be re-born...

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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Doctor X (1932), by Michael Curtiz



It wouldn't be Spookyween without an Old Dark House. Now, calling Doctor X an Old Dark House film is a bit of a misnomer as the movie takes a little bit to actually get to the ODH in question. But this is the first Old Dark House movie I watched, and if it wasn't for it, then I think I would have developed a migraine over movies I love today like Sh! The Octopus and House of Mystery. These movies were so good at packing in menageries of oddity into their cheap and quick desire to make people laugh and scream that it's hard not to gawk at them today. Plus, with some authentically antiquated creepy visuals and a stellar performance from Lionel Atwill, there are some nice thrills to supplement the trashy hilarity.

For six months, New York has been wracked with murders committed every full moon by the rather dully named Moon Killer. Reporter Lee Taylor, a cowardly klutz, is looking for news on the murders and stumbles across an autopsy on one of the victims led by Dr. Xavier, head of a prominent medical research institute. Not only do the cops learn that the victims are being partially cannibalized, but they reveal that each of the victims was butchered post-mortem by a particular brain scalpel only used in the Xavier Institute. Xavier and all his scientists are now under suspicion. Xavier insists on the privilege of conducting his own investigation to help exonerate his Institute's reputation; this being the '30s, the police agree. We meet each of the doctor's staff in turn. Dr. Wells is a cannibalism specialist, but he lost an arm years ago and therefore isn't really super great at crushing people's tracheae, which is usually how the victims met their end. Dr. Haines is the most capable physically, but he's (initially) the least suspicious, as his deal is just that he reads porn. Dr. Duke is a rude, shrieking bastard, but he's also paralyzed and thus not really the strangle-murdering sort. And Dr. Rowitz gets creepy framing and has scars and an eyepatch, plus a scientific fascination with the moon, but he seems harmless enough. Taylor ultimately finds out where Dr. Xavier's testing of himself and his staff will take place: his creaky upstate mansion, a suitably aged and shadowy locale. Xavier and his scientists, along with Xavier's daughter Joan and his maid and butler, pack themselves into the house, with Taylor not far behind. Xavier will find his killer, alright--but he should know that keeping his killer so close is playing with fire.

Like many an Old Dark House film, Doctor X is part comedy as well as part horror-mystery. This works to varying effects throughout the film. Much of this comedy is centered around our ostensible protagonist, Lee Taylor, a character whom other critics hate so much you'd think he was Jar Jar Binks. I find him sort of charming, but then, I also have severe brain damage from having sat through the vast plethora of comic relief reporters who crop up in horror films from the 1920s through the 1940s. That he ends up with Joan Xavier in the end is something of a male entitlement issue, a conformance to tropes better left dead, but Fay Wray's performance is entirely fitting that of the daughter of a mad scientist, and while she could definitely do better when it comes to bedmates, you'd better believe she's wearing the fucking pants if they go places. I trust her judgment in men, and I do find some of Taylor's shtick at least a little funny, so I'll be kind to him. The movie never made me laugh out loud, but it had a consistent pace and rhythm to it that helped draw me into the experience.

This movie is so old that a character has to explain to us how a joy buzzer works. Contrariwise, this movie also features Prohibition jokes and a character entering what is obviously a brothel, salaciously-clad ladies included. Keep it classy, 1930s. And don't forget, Dr. Haines' "textbook" turned out to be full of "French Art," which is made all the funnier by the fact that Xavier calls Haines a "most studious worker." But this changes, as the movie goes on, and we see that Haines is definitely some sort of sicko. After all, it's not quite professional behavior to stare at the swimsuit-clad body of one's boss for prolonged periods of time, is it? That Haines is physically abled and the seeming meekest of all the scientists makes it stand to reason that he's the killer--he and Xavier himself, who the movie beautifully never keeps above suspicion, especially by having him played by Lionel Atwill. But nope, this is a '30s horror film so of course the real solution to the mystery is something far less comprehensible. Spoilers ahead.

The killer is Wells, and he's able to strangle people because he knows how to make new limbs. While his field is ostensibly cannibalism studies, we find out that he's actually been working on something called "synthetic flesh" (a phrase which he ends up saying in the best voice possible no less than three times in the film's climax). Not only can he recreate his missing arm, but he uses the synthetic flesh to makes a monstrous face and head for himself, resembling something like the handsome older brother of the closet-monster from The Brain That Wouldn't Die. The scene in which he applies the synthetic flesh has some artsy, proto-psychedelic flair to it. He then explains that he wasn't in Africa to study cannibalism, but was instead actually there to use the flesh that natives eat to develop his synthetic flesh.

This makes no sense. If Wells was never a cannibal, or even particularly interested in cannibalism outside of--I don't know--securing meat from the cannibals, why the hell does he start eating the corpses?! Maybe he wants to convince that the public that this killer is a maniac and not a respectable doctor, but this argument falls flat when he considered; 1) Wells also butchers his victims with a scalpel, which is why the Xavier Institute is under suspicion to begin with; 2) Wells is a known expert on cannibalism. That's what he's a doctor in! Also, how does studying the feeding patterns of cannibals provide insight into the creation of an organic flesh substitute? Is synthetic flesh refined in the human gullet or something? Is that why he was taking bites out of his victims...? Maybe that's why the comedy is here--it's conforming to type as an ODH film, but it also helps cover the fact that They Just Didn't Care. Or, perhaps more properly, that It's Just a Show, and We Should Really Just Relax.

Doctor X can fade into a dull sit at times, but it really is one of the best of its kind. Filmed at a time before mass film censorship, it takes full advantage of the guttural sensationalism at the time and comes up with something nearly as fucked up as West of Zanzibar and Murders in the Zoo. It's absolutely not perfect, but I watch it every October. Join me, won't you?

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Monday, October 2, 2017

West of Zanzibar (1928), by Tod Browning



...huh. It's not every week I get to start out with sepia.

But this isn't a usual week, is it? Oh no. This is the start of SPOOKYWEEN '17. This month, we'll be examining no less than twelve horror films taking us from the 1920s to the 2010s to celebrate the Halloween spirit. Kicking things off is a return to Tod Browning and Lon Chaney with the unbelievably brutal 1928 feature, West of Zanzibar--a silent horror film matched only by the uncanny strangeness of The Unknown. West of Zanzibar does its best to break every single taboo in the book, and given its early release date that makes it remarkable, though one finds that the film's age has also given it some truly reprehensible qualities.

Phroso (Lon Chaney) is a magician at a carnival, because this is a Tod Browning movie; he has a beautiful young wife named Anna, whom he loves more than anything. However, Anna's attentions stray and she takes a lover--said lover, a man named Crane, wants to take her out to his ivory plantation in Tanzania, but she realizes who she really loves and doesn't really want to go along. While arguing with Crane, Phroso gets knocked over a railing and breaks his back, and is unable to stop the two from leaving.

Time passes, Phroso discovers that Anna has returned to the city, but she's come here to die. She abandons her daughter, doubtlessly sired by Crane in Phroso's mind, inside a church. Phroso takes her and over the course of several years he commences his lengthy revenge scheme against the ivory-trader. First of all, he uses his stage magic to take over a Tanzanian tribe, and begins directing that tribe, with both authority and performer's tricks (including a fake voodoo monster), to break up Crane's ivory trade. (At this point the ex-performer has taken on the name of rather appropriate named of "Dead-Legs.") As this happens, one of Phroso's minions is busy raising Maizie, Anna's daughter, in her shabby seaside bar/drug house/brothel. Maizie has long desired to escape this place, with its boggy marshes of cheap income and illicit substances, but fortunately, a man has arrived who claims to know who Maizie's father is. We already know that this man is another of Dead-Legs' minions. He takes her out to Phroso's village of horrors, where it is revealed that her happy fate was all a lie, a cover for the world of drugs, drinking, starvation, and rape that Phroso has been setting up all this time. Sure, the former magician's doctor henchman takes pity on her...but this is only the beginning. At last it comes time to capture Crane, and reveal to him the truth; he then intends to kill Crane, which will in turn force the natives to enact their traditional ritual of burning a dead man's family members to join him in the afterlife. Except...well. Crane isn't Maizie's father. Anna never went away with him. She hated him for crippling her husband, so why would she? So who's Maizie's real father, I wonder...?

Yes, West of Zanzibar is very effective. It takes an oddly progressive approach towards using intensified sleaze as a source of horror, predating movies like Bloodsucking Freaks and the H.G. Lewis canon by decades. Sometimes you can get scary out of slimy. We humans don't like our rules broken--we don't like seeing young women left to dry out after being forced on a months-long drinking binge, for instance. We don't like seeing something that was once love turn to hate, and we are terrified of so much of our relationships with our children. All over and throughout, the movie breaks taboos, showing us nary a clean house or tidy city street. Its characters, from their faces down to the clothes they wear, are bitter and gruesome. Tod Browning drives home the fact that grotesquery is the name of the game by showing montages of enormous spiders rising from the waters or tangled in their webs, alongside worms, grubs, and lizards writhing in river mud. It's unpleasant.

But unpleasant is just the first layer. There's one more taboo that Browning decides to break, and that's the race taboo. The exploitation of black people for horror value in movies starts at the beginning of the history of movies and carries on into the present. This is some of the worst racism I've ever seen in a movie. The Africans depicted in the movie embody the most despicable "jungle native" stereotypes white people have ever come up with; they dance wildly, speak broken English, run screaming from "evil spirits," rape white women, and engage in meaninglessly violent religious rituals. For all the likable qualities of this movie, the movie should absolutely be condemned for its attempts to exploit racial fears of its era in an attempt to ramp up its horror elements. Period.

There are still reasons, of course, as to why I reviewed this movie--even besides the fact that there are almost no other '20s horror films appropriate for the site that I like enough. We get to see some glimpses of 1920s carny life, including a strange comedy fire-eating act where a man started smoking both ends of his cigarette, then eats it, decides he likes the taste, and starts gobbling down lit matches. I dunno, the other carnies seem to think it's hilarious. Phroso's act, what little we see of it, is pretty neat as well. But of course, that's because the man playing Phroso is a genius.

Lon Chaney Sr. gives one of his best performances here. He manages to perfectly capture a magician's theatricality in the same rhythm as his petty, mirthful cruelty, and he's more than capable of convincingly turning that cruelty into flat-out barbarism. The Phroso we meet at the beginning is a handsome, well-groomed man dressed in a tux; by the film's end he's wearing greasy rags, shaved himself bald, and worn his face down to an angry snarl. His former soft-spokenness is replaced with the tongue of a cynical dock pickpocket. My favorite part of watching silent films is lip-reading the performances. If you do it with Chaney, I swear you can hear him talk. Chaney's costar, Lionel Barrymore, has seen his performance heavily criticized in the wake of the Internet, but I thought he did fine here as an asshole with basically no redeeming qualities. Browning would get a chance to direct Barrymore in a more complex role in The Devil-Doll, which I'm sure I'll talk about on here at some point.

I also do have to give credit to Edward Rolf Boensnes, who made the soundtrack to the version I saw on Web Archive, available here. The music is catchy and fits the movie's tone of mind-warping horror. If you're going to watch this movie, I definitely recommend the version with Boensnes' music on it.

West of Zanzibar is a tough movie to praise because of how thorough its bigotry is. It's not something we can dismiss easily, either--I can't just tell you to skip past the racist bits and watch the good Lon Chaney parts instead. What should be done is that we should talk about this movie, and learn from it what our society once did wrong and what it's still doing wrong. That this still happens is the scariest Halloween horror of them all! Well, rest assured. Things for the rest of this month are going to be notably less controversial.

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