The Skull (1965)

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All I can say to you is keep away from the skull of the Marquis de Sade! This adaptation of Robert (Psycho) Bloch’s short story by producer Milton Subotsky whose Amicus Productioons made this is a credible chiller. Directed with his usual visual aplomb by the cinematographer Freddie Francis who made so many horrors and shockers as a director, it tells the story of esoterica specialist Dr Maitland (Peter Cushing) who acquires said skull from his usual source Marco (Patrick Wymark), paying no heed to the warnings about its peculiar effect on the owners including nineteenth century phrenologist (Maurice Good), the graverobber who boiled down the trophy and became the first in a series of men who turn into maniacal killers under its influence. Maitland wishes to return the skull when he learns it was stolen from fellow collector Sir Matthew (Christopher Lee), who doesn’t however want it back after the effect it had on him.  Maitland pays no heed … This boasts an array of cheaply achieved but remarkably atmospheric effects with the use of the point of view shot (from the skull!) a simple solution for both ramping up the tension and suggesting something diabolical at work. There’s a terrific kidnapping sequence which may or may not be a nightmare – including a red room! And a judge! Well played by a wonderful cast that includes Jill Bennett as Maitland’s wife, Nigel Green as the credulous Inspector and the leads are of course the stuff of legend. Beautiful to look at with an interesting score by avant garde composer Elizabeth Lutyens, who did several for Amicus.

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The Shout (1978)

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Psychiatrist Graves (Tim Curry) is keeping score at a lunatic asylum cricket game where the doctors play the inmates. He tells the story of a wandering man Crossley (Alan Bates) who insinuates his way into the home of an avant garde composer/sound engineer Anthony Fielding (John Hurt) and his psychiatric nurse wife Rachel (Susannah York) and uses his aboriginal magic acquired while living in the Aussie Outback to take over their lives and steal Rachel from Anthony.  He lures Anthony to sand dunes at the beach and shows him how his magical shout can kill people … This weirdly engrossing supernatural horror is the second British production from Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski – he had previously made The Deep End and the deeply atmospheric story takes its lead from the sounds that Anthony records (there’s an amazing soundtrack by Tony Banks) and unusual shot framing that makes the deep Devon countryside appear quite sinister. An odd work that repays multiple viewings.  Adapted from Robert Graves’ story by the director and Michael Austen.

Bewitched (2005)

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Way back when, a friend saw a movie before me and her review was succinct:  “The fireplaces were marvellous.” And, aside from a wonderful cat called Lucinda who greatly resembles my own lovely Frodo, for a while that’s pretty much how I felt about this Nora Ephron outing – exacerbated in no small way by the fact that at the screening I attended there was a soundtrack of contemporary music for the first 10 minutes – the projectionist’s personal choice. So much for postmodernism – for that’s exactly what this is, an interweaving of the old TV show with a modern interpretation of how a reboot is put together by egomaniac freshly divorced and failing film star Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) who bumps into the best nose-twitcher in LA, Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman). She’s a newbie to the Valley in an effort to enter the mortal realm and be normal – so she becomes an actress. Only in LA. She falls hard for Jack but his weaselly agent Ritchie (Jason Schwartzmann) rubbishes the idea in her hearing. She wants to put a spell on him and it works, for a while. The scriptwriter (Heather Burns, who also acted for Ephron in You’ve Got Mail) gives her great lines and shows up Jack/Darrin. “Nobody likes Darrin!” he whines when the preview numbers are in and she’s a hit and he’s not. Nora and Delia Ephron wrote this with Adam McKay who’s long been house writer/director of that bromance crew led by Ferrell. Here, warlock dad (Michael Caine) isn’t too impressed with the real world translation of immortal shenanigans but co-star Iris playing Endora (Shirley Maclaine) literally puts a spell on him because she’s got a witchy secret of her own. Halfway through Isabel rewinds her spell on Jack and their story re-starts – right in the middle of his guest interview with James Lipton, which is absolutely appropriate. Steve Carell and Carole Shelley have nice bits as Uncle Arthur and Clara, Ferrell gets to go naked in front of Conan and Nicole has a ball in a light as air souffle, just as Ephron would have served up for one of her carefully constructed meals, with an I Love You scene that perfectly fuses the structural ambitions of this postmodern romcom. Are Isabel and Jack in love with each other? Their characters? The idea? Themselves? That is the question … “I’m about to be killed by a fictional character!” squeaks Jack at one point. Well, duh. And the kitchen is marvellous!

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.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

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It was a dark and stormy summer night on Long Island when I first saw this and I can barely re-watch it to this day. The story of serial killer Freddy Krueger and the teens whose dreams he inhabits was an epoch-defining event in the horror genre and made Wes Craven’s name as well as starting a profitable franchise and introducing Johnny Depp to the world (although he’s soon swallowed by his own bed.) Heather Langenkamp is the cop’s daughter who draws the short straw and has to lure Freddy out so he can be captured …  Don’t fall asleep. Don’t take a bath. Don’t unplug the phone. And don’t be the child of a vigilante! Perfect Halloween horror.

Addams Family Values (1993)

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Those paragons of the paranormal are back. Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) are entirely unhappy at the arrival of moustachioed Baby Pubert and plot his death at every possible opportunity so Morticia (Anjelica Huston) and Gomez (Raul Julia) hire a nanny. Problem is, Debbie (Joan Cusack), always with the ready quip, has eyes on Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd) and persuades the folks that summer camp is the place for the kids while she commences her seduction. The scenes at camp are a hoot, with Wednesday falling for geeky Joel (David Krumholtz) and causing total havoc at an unforgettable Thanksgiving show run by horrifically perky Peter MacNicol and Christine Baranski. This is a scream from start to finish with killer lines like, where all those Addams men come from: “It has to be damp.” Ricci delivers a peerless performance – what an extraordinary child she was! Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld from a screenplay by Paul Rudnick, adapting the Charles Addams characters in a slightly more macabre fashion than the original. Extremely funny indeed.

The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

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Or, Disney’s version of a horror movie. This adaptation of the novel by noted Gothic/YA author Florence Engel Randall was quite the thing when I was knee-high to a grasshopper and Bette Davis was there for the connoisseur. My Disney idol was Kim Richards but it’s her little sister Kyle who features here as Ellie the younger of two girls (the elder being Lynn-Holly Johnson as Jan) whose family has relocated to England.  They lease an old country house and the girls are haunted by the spirit of old crone Davis’ daughter who disappeared thirty years before, in what appears to have been some sort of teenagers’ initiation ceremony in a derelict church during a solar eclipse. Jan bears a startling resemblance to the missing girl, Karen, and sees flashes of blue light in the woods while Ellie appears to be hearing voices coming from the new family dog whom she has christened Nerak – which spells Karen backwards. The messages come frequently and they have to try to rescue Karen from another dimension during the next eclipse … Children’s author Mom (Carroll Baker) has to deal with the problem while composer Dad (David McCallum) heads to London to produce a musical. Director John Hough had some form with this blend of supernature and sci fi – being a veteran of the Witch Mountain movies starring Kim Richards and featuring one Bette Davis in the second entry, Return From Witch Mountain. There was some issue with the concluding scenes and in the second version the effects happened too quickly to make sense of the story while Vincent McEveety was then drafted in to do a version that was released in 1981. Personally I was thrilled to see my old heart throb Benedict Taylor turn up in the cast – remember him in Beau Geste on Sunday evenings? And The Far Pavilions! And My Brother Jonathan. And A Perfect Spy…  Dominic Guard appears (uncredited) in Ian Bannen’s role in the flashbacks. Guard is now a children’s author himself, amongst other things. I’m almost as thrilled to see Kyle Richards on a Raleigh Chopper. (And Georgina Hale as Karen, of course!)  Adapted by Brian Clemens, Harry Spalding and Rosemary Anne Sisson, soundtracked by Stanley Meyers and nicely shot by Alan Hume. This is quite fascinating.

Vampyr (1932)

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Aka The Strange Adventure of David Gray, Not Against the Flesh, The Castle of Doom. One of those unique films that a film snob such as myself extols above all others. After the extraordinary Passion of Joan of Arc, Danish auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer worked with Christen Jul on a more-or-less adaptation of Irish writer Sheridan le Fanu’s short story collection In a Glass Darkly (mainly Carmilla and The Room in the Dragon Volant) to come up with the story of Allan Gray, a dreamer (that old German trope) and student of the occult investigating phenomena in the village of Courtempierre, a place haunted by a vampire’s curse. For financial reasons, the film had to be shot in French, German and Italian, and this presented problems with dialogue so that was cut to the bone, with one of the financiers, Nicholas de Gunzburg, starring under the pseudonym Julian West. Sound was a new technology and French cinema was having trouble adapting so title cards were used where possible, contributing to the effect of the silents. The unique atmosphere is partly conjured by primitive effects, partly by the soft focus shooting style deployed by Rudolph Mate (returning from Joan of Arc) and the production design by Hermann Warm (ditto) and in part again by the ensemble of freaked-out weirdos populating the cast. If you ever wondered where that grain silo scene in Witness was lifted from, you have to watch the last reel …  Dreyer had directed his locations assistant to scout for “a factory in ruins, a chopped up phantom, worthy of the imagination of Edgar Allan Poe. Somewhere in Paris. We can’t travel far.” Except in the mind. To die for.

Suicide Squad (2016)

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I’m the first to admit I’m not the target audience for this episode in what is the DC Extended Universe … extended to a third episode. A bunch of irredeemable villains are assembled by a secret government task force led by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis)  to take on the  Enchantress (Cara Delevingne doing a Zoolander) who possesses archaeologist Dr June Moone with whom Colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) has fallen in love… and there are so many of them, so many interracial, interspecies, horrible villains. At least with The Dirty Dozen you know what you’re in for:  twelve. And using that construction, recruiting, training (a trial run) and then conflict, you have your brain sucked out through your eye sockets and you remember you have a grocery list to write. If you can stand to sit it out you’ll think Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn the former psychiatrist is the best thing in it.  Jared Leto is doing the Joker and it’s more like a cameo and in a new context so you won’t really remember Heath Ledger (different class). Will Smith is back in a moneymaker as Deadshot with the cute daughter to guilt trip him. There are  … loads of them, and there’s a sequel to come, apparently, with the same writer/director, David Ayer. I wouldn’t have thought this was written so much as smeared.

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.