Werewolves on Wheels (1971)

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What on this good earth could possibly be better than a biker film – unless it’s a biker horror film?! Adam (Stephen Oliver) and his crew The Devil’s Advocates (nominative determinism or tempting fate?!) are tooling around as bikers do until he falls under the influence of One (Servern Darden) and his cult… Donna Anders, appearing here as DJ Anderson (confusingly, her real name!) , plays his girlfriend Helen, who doesn’t like the hand of Tarot cards she’s dealt at the story’s outset. When they come across One and his gang in the deconsecrated desert church their food is drugged, she turns into a werewolf and soon infects Adam. (Is this a feminist act?!) They flee but get picked off one by one and when Adam and Helen transform in front of the others, the gang kill them. A few of them return to the church to kill the satanists but they recognise themselves in the procession …Notable for its footage of real-life bikers doing what they usually do, this was co-written by director Michel Devesque with David M. Kaufman. Oliver was best known for playing Lee Webber in TV’s Peyton Place between 1966 and 1968 and appeared in a number of other biker outings:  Motorpsycho (1965), Angels from Hell (1968), and Cycle Psycho (1973). You’ll recognise other cast members from The Last Movie. Cinematographer Isidore Mankofsky earned his stripes shooting for Encyclopaedia Brittanica but after this he made Scream Blacula Scream and in the following years got credits on films as diverse as The Muppet Movie, Somewhere in Time (sigh!), The Jazz Singer, Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer:  a versatile talent.  Likewise Levesque, who followed this with Sweet Sugar, another exploitation outing, but who also had an impressive career as an art director on such fare as Supervixens, Beneath the Valley of the Super-Vixens, Carquake and Foxes. There’s a notable psychedelic soundtrack provided by Don Gere. This is pretty good as biker werewolf movies go, which is to say, what more could you want from such a fabulously preposterous genre mashup?! If you’re hairy you belong on a motorbike! You read it here. PS cat lovers beware.

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The Devil Rides Out (1968)

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London 1929. When the Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) arrives with his friend Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) at the home of his protege Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) for a party he realises at once the young man is involved in devil worship and tries to extricate him from the clutches of the cult led by Mocata (Charles Gray). The other initiate Tanith (Nike Arrighi) is the medium through whom Mocata works and is essential to the plan to bring out the Devil at a ceremony on Salisbury Plain.  In order to defend them, the Duc has to create a protective circle with his niece and her husband that involves Mocata conjuring the Angel of Death to draw out his influence and take the couple’s child as a channel for evil. Dennis Wheatley’s novel is brilliantly adapted by Richard Matheson, and the material as a whole is treated with the kind of seriousness which elevates it from melodrama into  dramatic allegory, a duel between good and evil. This may be the best ever Hammer and the best film by director Terence Fisher. Lee is fabulous as the one strongwilled man capable of testing the forces of destruction while all around him is weakness, scepticism and naivete.  So terrifying.

Midnight Offerings (1981) (TVM)

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Witching hour again! And this time it’s a witch-off between Little House on the Prairie‘s Mary Ingalls (Melissa Sue Anderson) and The Waltons‘ Erin (Mary Beth McDonough), a battle that has an incendiary ending.  Anderson is Vivian Sotherland, the spiteful Mean Girl at Ocean High CA who intimidates male teachers sexually and if they don’t succumb she murders them – we enter as she casts a spell that causes one to crash his car, saving her quarterback boyfriend Dave (Patrick Cassidy) from flunking and thereby keeping him on the team. New (motherless) girl Robin Prentiss  (McDonough) has read about his drunken misdemeanour in the local freebie paper but likes him despite her dad’s objections. They’ve moved from Connecticut following a series of unfortunate events – she has powers too, but no idea how to control them. Vivian can’t read her and starts to attack her dad and Dave and nearly kills Robin in a house fire. Dave is on to her scheme and brings Robin to Emily Moore (Marion Ross, Mom from Happy Days!) to help her ward off evil. Mrs Sotherland (Cathryn Damon) didn’t abort Vivian to stop breeding the 7th daughter of the 7th daughter and blames herself for allowing her to go off the rails so she must intervene before another murder occurs … This is clever, intelligent stuff, as you would expect from long-time Rockford Files writer/producer Juanita Bartlett, responsible for the screenplay. Anderson is very well off-cast in the lead but it’s McDonough who has the more expansive role and she is very good. A newly blonde Kym (Sound of Music‘s Gretl) Karath is the hobbled cheerleader and this is a point of interest – she made her debut in Spencer’s Mountain as a three year old, a film that was the first adaptation of Earl Hamner’s book that of course became … The Waltons. And look fast for Vanna White too. Excellent stuff, thanks to the Horror Channel for resurrecting it. Directed by veteran TV helmer Rod Holcomb.

Legend of the Witches (1970)

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In the annals of Britsploitation this has an appropriately legendary rep – but still seems only available in its truncated 72-minute form. The brainchild of ‘auteur’ Malcolm Leigh, active from the late 60s until 1980, it’s an excuse to stage alleged initiation ceremonies in the altogether – drama documentary I believe it’s called. Accompanied by an unusually restrained voiceover, we are treated to a history of witchcraft through visuals, drawings and illustrations as well as filmed inserts demonstrating links to mainstream religion (ie Christianity) and its supposedly appropriated rituals. One sequence shows a series of illustrations of sex orgies but the voiceover insists that this is not in fact what we are seeing. Show and … don’t tell?  The last section, linking rhythmic sounds and electronica to the patterns in which people fall prey to belief is pretty convincing (I was reminded of a friend who spent a weekend with some headbangers and they spent it chanting and being deprived of food – at which point the captives would have believed in anything just to get protein.) It’s been suggested that the main actress in the staged scenes is Jane Cardew of horror/trash fame, but I’m no expert. All those exhibitionists look the same after a while. Leigh made ‘religious’ drama docs something of a speciality but he’s best known for that foot fetishist’s fave, Games That Lovers Play, starring Joanna Lumley before she became a housewives’ rave. Only for the committed.

The Devil’s Rain (1975)

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Admittedly I am not a fan of the satanic and the rep this film has had in its wake is not good, given that Hollywood’s very own high priest Anton LaVey actually plays one in this occult horror. Which really makes me uncomfortable. There are two principal attractions – William Shatner, if you’re a completionist;  and John Travolta, ditto, although his Danny is not of the Zucco variety and you’ll have to be very sharp-eyed to spot him. There’s a terrific Hieronymus Bosch title sequence and then we’re amid a family meltdown (literally) when Shatner sees his parents victimised and vows revenge – but meeting up with local warlock (Ernest Borgnine) sways his belief. Meantime, Tom Skerritt, Shatner’s younger brother, is on the warpath, with his wife and Eddie Albert, who’s an expert in ESP and the occult. And then we’re back in the 17th century looking at the ancestral origins and everyone’s in their Salem outfits … There’s a book of damned souls, an amulet, and a lot of face-melting. Shatner’s mask of course became the original mask in Scream, if you want some meta info. There’s a hotchpotch of stuff here to the point where you expect it to transform into a western, given the locale and the potential for tumbleweed blowing into your face. I don’t know how Ida Lupino felt about appearing, but Borgnine was utterly spooked. Directed by Robert Fuest, who did the Dr Phibes movies. You have been warned.

The Wicker Tree (2011)

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We mourned the loss of Robin Hardy not long ago but his last film, a follow-up of sorts to The Wicker Man, is no kind of testament to his talent. Two naive born-again evangelicals, a successful ‘Christian’ singer and her boyfriend (Brittania Nicol and Henry Garrett) take themselves and their purity rings from the Bible Belt and go to Scotland because everyone there is lost, apparently. (This might come as a surprise to the locals).  A local laird and his wife take them in, ostensibly to preach but actually for their May Day plans, which of course involve ritual sacrifice. In the meantime, the audience is shocked to see jolly hockey sticks Honeysuckle Weeks (from TV’s Foyle) bouncing around in bed and then luring Garrett to his immortal hell in the local pond for nefarious purposes. Now the dumb Americans are the Queen and Laddie of the May and you know it won’t end well. This had a long and difficult development hell but it’s pretty hellish for the viewer too and the promise of Christopher Lee, who makes a thirty-second appearance, is not sufficient to warrant a viewing of this supposed ‘companion piece’ to the earlier work which however works as a satire on some levels – and is a two-fingered salute to all those Christian films which suffused theatres for a period. Cowboys for Christ indeed.

Ghostbusters (2016)

 

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Is there something strange in your neighbourhood?  You better believe it. I wanted to like this. I really did. But it’s not bad, just butter. Even if there’s a supposedly funny anti-Irish line within the first sixty seconds. There are two reasons to remake a film:  to make it better;  or to reinvent it entirely. It is not (usually) enough to slot characters of another gender into the original roles and just … shoot it again a few decades later. (Ask Gus Van Sant – look what he did with Psycho:  I rest your case.) I love Melissa McCarthy. (Kristen Wiig? Not so much.)  And I love how Paul Feig has made her a superstar – Spy was one of the funniest times I have had at the cinema in the last few years. It radically reinterpreted all the spy spoof tropes and made a woman a real hero – with some game performances from a fabulous supporting cast. The original Ghostbusters was sharply written and both funny and scary. Some of the best comic performers alive were starring in it (and Ernie Hudson). It was genuinely inventive. It had for its time some terrific special effects. It was a treat that anyone of any age could enjoy. It still gets regular screen outings because it is endlessly watchable. It is cleverly put together on every level. The worst thing about it was the theme song. And what have we here? A retread that in the space of 116 minutes made me laugh precisely twice. There are toilet jokes – an unfortunate component of Feig’s humour and so unnecessary. There are ‘bits’ that no more work on the screen than they could have done when being performed. There are scenes that are overlong and silly – not because they’re fun but because they make little sense. There isn’t characterisation worth a damn. The people concerned were so sensitive to criticism of the trailer they reshot some scenes and inserted some ‘funny’ putdowns. Not a sign of security in your work and really not a good idea to take on the paying audience, eh? When the original cast members (with the obvious sad absence of Harold Ramis) do their cameos you greet them with a sigh of relief from the relentless stupidity. Bill Murray does a Tom Wolfe impression as a debunker and when asked if these women are the real thing, barks, Hell no! And the best thing about this? The original song. (Which was the worst part of the first film). All those terrific women put together cannot hold a candle to Sigourney Weaver – underlined by her appearance in the final scene. Note:  maybe I wasn’t paying attention but why were all the neon and Broadway signs during the big confrontation from the Sixties and Seventies? Beyond the Fringe?! Beyond belief. You’ve been slimed!

Something Evil (1972)

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Between Duel and Sugarland Express, Steven Spielberg made this TVM, one of those seriously scary event-movies that prove the television audience was made of tougher stuff forty-plus years ago.  Adman Darren McGavin along with artist wife Sandy Dennis and two youngsters, Johnny Whitaker and toddler daughter, relocate from NYC to rural Pennsylvania. She is haunted by curious sounds of children crying in the night – and they’re not hers. At least not in the beginning. Old Jeff Corey kills chickens and spreads their blood around the garden, and neighbour Ralph Bellamy (a reference to Rosemary’s Baby) is the diabolist who warns her she’s in the wrong house. Hubby shoots an ad at the house and two of his colleagues die in a car crash leaving the property. He stays more and more in the city and things go from hellish to hell:  that red goo in the masonry jar is not gelatin and a negative of the ad shows a pair of red eyes peering out from the house during the commercial shoot …  While this shows the budgetary constraints, there are enough tropes in the staging and the imaginative shooting style to exhibit some of the traits we now see clearly in the more lauded work of the enfant terrible, who spent 5 years of his career in TV. Sandy Dennis is great as the woman falling apart and who can even bear to think of little Johnny Whitaker levitating? Bring a cushion – for hiding, duh.

Masque of the Red Death (1964)

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Writer/producer/director Roger Corman’s Poe cycle was a fine series of interpretations of the Gothic maestro whose work was always incorporated into the high school curriculum – so the exploitation filmmaker knew he had a ready audience of teens! However this lowly ambition was superseded by the sheer good taste and elegance of the productions, seen here at their best in this sumptuous symphony of colour, shot by Nic Roeg when he was still Britain’s best cinematographer (well, along with Oswald Morris). This, the seventh in the series, is written by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell and incorporates the story Hop Frog as a sub-plot. Jane Asher is the mediaeval wench who is kidnapped by tyrannous Prince Prospero as the plague rages outside his fortress and her lover and her father are imprisoned in the dungeons while all manner of devil worship takes place above them, with Hazel Court presiding … Tremendous sense of atmosphere and if not in the same class as The Seventh Seal, bears some narrative similarities. Price is diabolical, as ever, while it’s great to see Patrick Magee as Alfredo, his evil sycophant.

Satan’s School for Girls (2000)(TVM)

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In the early 1990s, there were two cool girls:  Winona for the big screen, Shannen for the small screen (and they were both in HEATHERS!!!!)  Beverly Hills 90210 was an obsession! Brenda! Dylan! Hearts and flowers and heartache. Etc. And years later Aaron Spelling kept Doherty working including on this remake of a much-loved TVM made in 1973 (by himself and Leonard Goldberg, his producing partner) which starred two of his future Charlie’s Angels, Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd. The story is somewhat updated from the original screenplay by Arthur Ross, who had a terrific TV pedigree including 8 episodes of the fabled Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Here it’s Doherty playing the girl who suspects her sister’s death at a New England college is not the suicide the authorities claim so she enrolls there to find she may have died at the hands of a sinister Satanic cult called The Five (was Harlan Coben watching?!) It turns out that her particular magic could give the other cult members the power to take over the world. Bien sur (well, it was shot in Canada as some of the street signs indicate…) In order to lure her into their cabal all Hell literally breaks loose. Doherty was of course one of TV’s Charmed sisters (Prue) and this was made mid-stream those series she was in (she was replaced, eventually). It took me a while to recognise Taraji P. Henson (her eyes are different … ahem). The effects are pretty good but not enough to conceal the skeletal  appearance of Kate Jackson who re-appears as the dean in this version. As with Charmed, and The Craft, there was a spate of witchy movies and TV shows in this era but I’d love to see the original, directed by David Lowell Rich. One can but hope that the Horror Channel might retrieve it one of these dark nights. And hey, it’s Ms Doherty’s birthday tomorrow, 12 April:  Happy Birthday Cool Girl!