Category Archives: Must See
1932’s The Old Dark House is arguably director James Whale’s greatest cinematic feat, a macabre queer comedy disguised as a horror, delightfully acted (by lots of Brits abroad), and fused together with Whale’s stylistic, sardonic humour, well-knit scenario witty and insightful screenplay, and moody camerawork, lighting and production design. It is, quite possibly, the best British horror ever made – in Hollywood.
Taking its queues from JB Priestley’s 1927 novel, Benighted, and the ‘Old House’ chillers of stage and screen, Whale’s storm-driven adaptation finds five weary travellers becoming stranded at the ominous Welsh mansion of the reclusive and very strange Femm family, who are all quite possibly all insane. What follows is a wicked parody of the British class system, and one that features a performance from Ernest Thesiger that outshines even his iconic turn as Dr Pretorius in Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein a couple of years later.
Thesiger plays Horace Femm, a sniffy little man, who is probably wanted by the police (for crimes we can only imagine) and has seething contempt for everything and everyone. He owns the house along with his pious half-deaf sister Eva (beautifully played by Eva Moore), and their scenes together provide the film with its most memorable moments and best lines: like ‘Have a potato’ and ‘How reassuring’.
Gloria Stuart and Raymond Massey play married socialite couple Margaret and Philip, while Melvyn Douglas is their playboy friend Roger. When a landslide forces them off the road, they seek shelter with the Femms; and are soon joined by Charles Laughton (making his screen debut and speaking his in native Yorkshire tongue) and Lilian Bond, who play the self-made businessman Sir William Porterhouse and chorus girl Gladys. But with no beds on offer, they are all forced to spend the evening huddle together around a fireplace after a frugal meal of roast, gravy and – yes- potatoes…
But it’s not long before the Femms skeletons starting coming out of the closet as the lights go out and the group are soon menaced by Boris Karloff’s mute butler Morgan, who hits the bottle and goes on a drunken rampage, which results in the release of Femm’s pyromaniac brother Saul (Brember Wills) from his locked attic room…
Whale’s shows off his perverse sense of humour through the stylistic, expressionistic camerawork (by Arthur Edeson, who also shot Frankenstein) in some very memorable scenes: like when Horace announces, ‘My sister was on the point of arranging these flowers’, then summarily throws them into the fireplace. Another is when Morgan makes his menacing entrance, and a particularly surreal funhouse mirror shot of Margaret and Rebecca, their features distorted in a vanity mirror. Then there’s the terrific trick shot of Morgan coming down the stairs only to reveal the hand on the banister is not his…
Packed to the rafters with morbid mirth and a sly wink at class and society, this is one of the most entertaining horror films of the 1930’s. The Masters of Cinema Series special dual format edition of James’s Whales’ queer comedy horror features a stunning 1080p presentation from the Cohen Media Group 4K restoration (with a progressive encode on the DVD), uncompressed LPCM audio (on the Blu-ray) and optional English subtitles; and includes a collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by Philip Kemp, archival material and previously unseen imagery and ephemera; and Limited Edition O-Card (first run only) featuring artwork by Graham Humphreys, created especially for the 2018 UK theatrical release. The special extras (below), however, are the icing on the cake, making this a must-have for any classic film collection…
• Meet the Femms This video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns is exceptionally executed, with loads of informative back stories on the production, cast and crew, super behind the scenes photos, incuding Whales’ own set designs, and I really enjoyed hearing actors Steven McNicoll and Angela Hardie voicing the various characters in Priestley’s novel, Benighted, as well as the author himself and Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester.
• Daughter of Frankenstein Sara Karloff talks candidly about her father and his work on this production, and has a great story about how Boris and Charles Laughton did not see eye-to-eye.
• Curtis Harrington Saves The Old Dark House This archival interview has the late-director (who became a close friend of Whale’s) recalling his efforts in rescing the film from oblivion back in 1968. Please, someone, give this man a posthumous medal for doing this!
• Commentary by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones This is a great listen, with some interesting bits of trivia like that fact that Karloff was dubbed, and Kim makes a very interesting link between the film’s structure (and its class-based ensemble) to disaster movies. This was made prior to Gloria Stuart’s death (aged 100) in 2010, as the duo talk about her in the present tense, and their comments are all based on viewing an inter-negative print.
• Commentary by Gloria Stuart This is absolutely riveting. Stuart is a joy to listen to and she provides huge amounts of personal insight (the film was a real high point in her acting career): admiring Whales’ sardonic humour, the uncomfortable shooting for the actors, her regrets at being a young 22 upstart making her second film who was unaware of Eva Moore’s pedigree (a suffragette, one of Edward VI’s favourites and the mother of Laurence Olivier’s first wife, Jill Esmond), and shedding light on some truths about why Karloff and Whale weren’t on friendly terms during the shoot.
• Commentary by James Whale biographer James Curtis This has lots of great insight into the film’s production, and I certainly learnt a few things. Did you know that Karloff’s mute butler Morgan became the model for the butler Charles Addams’ New Yorker cartoons? These were subsequently published as Drawn and Quartered, with a Foreward by Karloff and thus effectively the character became Lurch in The Addams Family. Curtis also examines the similarities and differences between Priestley’s novel and Whale’s screenplay – which makes for an interesting analysis.
Here’s the specially commissioned poster artwork by Graham Humphreys, aka Britain’s Quadfather, to accompany the new 4k restoration release of James Whale’s chilling 1932 classic The Old Dark House, which will get a nationwide cinema release in the UK & Ireland.
This atmospheric thriller, which adapts novel Benighted into a nerve-jangling tale that became the template for all spooky-house chillers to come, features an unforgettable post-Frankenstein horror role for Boris Karloff, as the hulking, disfigured butler Morgan. Also starring in early-career roles are Melvin Douglas, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart.
The Old Dark House lands in selected cinemas in the UK & Ireland on 27 April ahead of its dual format release on 21 May as part of Eureka!’s Masters of Cinema Series.
In the meantime, enjoy the brand-new trailer.
When a big black car roaming the desert highways of the American south-west terrorises the residents of Santa Ynez and knocks down and kills the local sheriff, it’s down to police captain Wade Parent (James Brolin) to stop the diabolic driverless car. But can Wade come up with a plan before it picks off more innocent lives, including those of his young family and schoolteacher girlfriend?
1982’s Christine is often seen as the cinema’s definitive demon-car movie, but I have real soft spot for 1977’s The Car – which I revisited last night after reading the review in Son of Unsung Horrors.
The cinema poster for this much-rided 1977 horror thriller asked patrons: ‘Is it a phantom, a demon, or the Devil Himself?’ Actually, it was just a big black car mowing down anyone in its path and kicking up lots of dust before turning into a fireball with a cartoon demon face appearing in the smoke.
With Jaws, Duel and The Exorcist all box-office hits in the 1970s, it must have looked like a great idea to fuse them altogether, with the Utah desert and a Lincoln Continental Mark III standing in for the ocean and a shark, plus some added spooky stuff and some rubber burning. Director Elliot Silverstein, who is better known for the 1965 comedy western Cat Ballou, keeps everyone straight-faced, despite the hokum concept, until the spectacular fireball finale.
Along the way, there’s some domestic drama to get lost in. Brolin (aka Mr Barbra Streisand) has to step up when his superior is mowed down. His girlfriend (Kathleen Lloyd – whatever happened to her?) is the local schoolteacher who succeeds in seeing off the car after it closes in on a party of schoolkids (including sisters Kim and Kyle Richards, who I remember from Nanny and the Professor and Disney’s Witch Mountain films, but who later found reality TV fame as the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills). Meanwhile, the always dependable Ronny ‘RoboCop‘ Cox is the alcoholic local deputy who falls off the wagon when the car rolls in.
John Landis calls the film ‘dumb but fun’, while Guillermo del Toro actually owns a replica of the car that was designed by the legendary George Barris, who also did the Batmobile for the 1966s TV series. With its stunning Panavision desert-scapes, a Planet of the Apes-inspired Leonard Rosenman score, featuring a reworked, orchestral version of the Dies irae Gregorian chant, and it even has a credit to Anton LeVey – how can you not love this Jaws on land offering? Well I certainly do, I even own the highly collectable paperback tie-in.
My copy of the The Car is the excellent 2013 Arrow Video Blu-ray release featuring a HD restoration, which comes with the following special features…
• Audio commentary with director Elliot Silverstein
• Making a Mechanical Monster featurette with special effects artist William Alridge
• Hitchhike to Hell featurette with actor/victim John Rubinstein
• Trailer commentary by John Landis
• Original Trailer
• Reversible sleeve featuring artwork by Joe Wilson
• Collector’s booklet and an Easter Egg
Kill, Baby, Kill (1966) | Mario Bava’s Gothic horror fairytale is a gloriously vivid masterpiece in suspense
In his definitive Mario Bava retrospective, All the Colors of the Dark, Tim Lucas cited Mario Bava’s 1966 Gothic terror Kill, Baby… Kill! (aka Operazione paura) as ‘a perfect synthesis of horror and poetry, realism and surrealism, color and atmosphere, classicism and innovation’. After viewing Arrow’s new 2k high definition digital transfer release, I couldn’t agree more.
In 1907, pathologist Dr Paul Eswai (The Last Man On Earth‘s Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) is summoned to a remote Carpathian village to perform an autopsy on a suicide. The locals believe the town to be haunted by the spirit of Melissa Graps, who died aged seven under tragic circumstances.
When a second death occurs, and Eswai’s assistant Monica (played by Euro scream queen Erika Blanc) has a vivid nightmare involving Melissa, the sceptical doctor heads to the crumbling Villa Graps in search of answers…
Made in just four weeks, with a largely improvised script, Bava’s personal photographic style can be seen in every gorgeously-lit shot (just check out those spider webs tinged in green and purple), and in every skewered camera angle as his constantly moving camera lingers on decayed buildings, creepy corridors and (well, every home should have one) the family crypt.
He captures the essence of fear by conjuring some nightmarishly imaginative scenes like one in which the good doctor has a Groundhog Day moment when he confronts himself in a room full of old paintings before getting stuck in a giant cobweb; or when Monica descends a seemingly-endless staircase, it’s dizzy effect causing her (and the audience) to become paralysed with fear.
This is first time I have seen Bava’s dark Gothic fairytale, and – OMG! I was totally transfixed by its look and feel, and by the atmospheric use of real-life locations – including the Villa Lancellotti in Frascati, which stands in for Villa Graps, and the 14th-century town of Faleria (which Bava’s son and assistant, Lamberto, visits in one of the extras – see below).
Kill, Baby, Kill belongs very much to the same dreamscape as Bava’s Black Sabbath (which I absolutely adore), but its elevated here to the point of pure cinematic art with its skilful surreal touches. Look closely and you’ll see shades of Jean Cocteau (the arm candles from La Belle et la Bete) and Luis Buñuel (in the symbolic use of the ringing bell); while the film’s Gothic narrative reeks of Edgar Allan Poe and even Charles’ Dickens (in the Miss Haversham-styled Countess).
But Bava’s master stroke is Melissa’s creepy bouncing ball. It’s probably one of the greatest visual moments in the history of Gothic horror cinema, and it affected Federico Fellini so much that he did his own take on it in his Toby Dammit sequence in 1968’s Spirits of the Dead.
If you haven’t got it already, then you must add Kill, Baby, Kill to your Euro horror collection – and what better release to have than with Arrow Video’s 2K high definition digital transfer on dual format, which comes with a wickedly delicious features.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS:
• Original mono Italian and English soundtracks
• New English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack
• Optional English subtitles for the English soundtrack
• Introduction by Erika Blanc
• New audio commentary by Tim Lucas (for the last word on the film’s production, influences and legacy – this is a winner)
• The Devil’s Daughter: Mario Bava and the Gothic Child, a new video essay by critic Kat Ellinger
• Kill, Bava, Kill!, a 2007 interview with assistant director Lamberto Bava (This is a must-see ,especially for film location lovers as Lamberto returns to Faleria, now crumbling to dust, to revisit many of the external scenes used in the film, including the church where Melissa tolls her bell, and the Anguillara castle. The big reveal here, by the way, is that Melissa was actually played by a local boy, whom Bario selected only for his protruding, icy eyes)
• Erika in Fear (in this excellent 2014 interview, Erika Blanc talks about how audiences of the day were shocked by the shot of her exposed thigh, and reveals how Bava was a big kid)
• Yellow (this interesting, if a little under-whelming, short film by Semih Tareen pays loving homage to Bava)
• German opening titles
• 1976 Kill, Baby… Kill! (To avoid spoilers, check this super rare photo-comic from Film Horreur after you’ve seen the feature)
• Image gallery
• Original artwork by Graham Humphreys
• Collector’s booklet (first pressing only)
The 1970s rats on the rampage cult horrors, Willard (1971) and Ben (1972) get their UK home entertainment debut in newly-restored versions complete with brand new special features on DVD and Blu-ray in a limited edition box-set, as well as individual releases, on-demand and download from Second Sight Films.
This is the *one* movie you should not see alone!
Meet Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison), a pleasant but lonely young man who lives with his nagging elderly mother Henrietta (Elsa Lanchester) in a run-down LA mansion, and has a subservient position in the company his father once owned.
On his 27-birthday, the socially awkward Willard is humiliated when he’s thrown a party where the only guests are a bunch of senior citizens, while at work, his boss Al Martin (Ernest Borgnine) continues to belittle him.
After befriending a group of rats, Willard discovers that one them (which he names Socrates) will do anything for him, while another (named Ben) proves to be somewhat of a rebel. It’s time for Willard to get even. But it’s not without a cost…
This scary horror was a huge success on its original release in 1971. Bruce Davison, who had starred in the counter-culture film The Strawberry Statement the previous year, is perfectly cast as another angry young man, the meek Willard whose suppressed internal rage against the establishment is finally given release through his friendship with Socrates, Ben and co, who are quite happy (at first) to do his bidding.
Starting off with a harmless prank, Willard’s actions take on a deadly purpose when he becomes desperate to find the money he needs to feed the ever-growing rat population in his cellar. But he hasn’t counted on the devious motives of Ben, who soon turns into a rodent version of George Orwell’s Napoleon in Animal Farm, when Socrates meets a bloody end.
Loosely based on the novel Ratman’s Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert, the film’s screenplay was by Gilbert Ralston, who wrote for countless US TV shows, including Star Trek, and helped create The Wild Wild West. He died in 1999 while battling a lawsuit with Warner Bros over the big-screen adaptation of the cult western spy spoof.
The Stiles’ Queen Anne-style house in the movie is the Higgins/Verbeck/Hirsch Mansion, which was designated a Los Angeles Cultural-Historic Monument in 1988. Among the other films shot there are William Castle’s The Night Walker (1964) and Waxwork (1988).
Sondra Lock makes one of her earliest screen roles as Willard’s potential girlfriend Joan, while this marked the 500th screen appearance for 83-year-old former silent film star Almira Sessions, who retired after making this movie.
Best line: ‘Tear him up!’
Where ‘WILLARD’ ended… Ben begins. And this time, he’s not alone!
While investigating Willard’s murder by a band of rats, LA homicide detective Cliff Kirtland (Joseph Campanella) realises that they are becoming an organised army, and sets out to destroy them. But closely watching from his hiding place is Ben, the leader of the rats, who befriends Danny (Lee Harcourt Montgomery), a young boy with a heart condition, who finds himself in deadly peril when he follows Ben to his new home deep inside the LA sewers…
Director Phil Karlson’s is best known for his 1950s crime noir thrillers Kansas City Confidential and Hell’s Island, and the Dean Martin-starred Matt Helm adventure, The Silencers, and he’s in top form with this no-nonsense sequel that pays homage to the genre as the police pursuit of Ben through the city’s storm drains which could just as easily be a manhunt as a rat-hunt. And Karlson directs the action and its vital elements of harassed policeman (Campanella), sympathetic kid (Montgomery), and fast-talking reporter (Arthur O’Connell) with a brusque intensity against sombre, low-key settings, building steadily to an exciting fiery climax.
There’s also a strong eco horror vibe bubbling away as Ben and his band raid a local shopping mall to feed his ever-growing colony whose attacks on a hospital and a health spa turn the city into a disaster area. Having these scenes taken from the perspective of Ben and the rats only maximises the fear factor, which is stoked by O’Connell’s cries of ‘God help us if we go to war with people with guts like them’, in which his chain-smoking reporter equates the rats actions with Robert Ardrey’s 1966 Territorial Imperative – an hypothesis that described the evolutionarily determined instinct among humans toward territoriality (also also influenced Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and A Clockwork Orange).
Adding to the radical tone informed by the cultural uncertainities of the era are the flame-throwers and guns a blazing as the police take down our anti-heroes in a climax that’s reminicisent of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (which came out the same time).
Best line: ‘Their eating us alive down there’
• New HD transfer and restoration using the best surviving archive print
• Interview with Lee Montgomery
• Commentary with Lee Montgomery
• Theatrical trailers, TV & radio spots
• Stills gallery
This 1982 Canadian psycho shocker maybe somewhat implausible, but it’s so tightly constructed that you soon forget it’s flaws.
Michael Ironside (who made an explosive hit in David Cronenberg’s Scanners the year before) gives a genuinely unsettling performance as Colt Hawker, a closeted homicidal psycho who enjoys photographing his victims as he stabs them to death.
Bearing a deep-seated hatred of women (his mother disfigured his abusive father with boiling oil when he was a small child), he’s incensed when TV journalist and women’s rights crusader Deborah Ballin (Damien: Omen II’s Lee Grant) voices her views on TV over a murder case in which a battered woman claimed justifiable defence against her abusive husband.
Following Deborah home, Colt brutally attacks her – but she survives, and ends up being admitted to a local hospital to recuperate. But that doesn’t stop Colt from gaining access to the hospital, where he begins his killing spree in his bid to corner and kill her…
Now ever since 9/11 security in public facilities like hospitals and government has really stepped up to the max in North America. But even back in the 1980s, you’d expect a major hospital like the one featured in Visiting Hours would have the minimum of security. But it doesn’t. Even the police seem to miss Ironside’s suspicious-looking psycho creeping about.
But if you look past this flaw, then you’ll discover a masterful exercise in suspense from Québécois director Jean-Claude Lord, who brings a claustrophobic, giallo-esque feel to his first English-language film,. It also has some genuine scares and is bolstered by skilful performances, especially Grant, who brings great believability to her victimised Deborah.
In a nice twist to the standard woman-in-peril story, Lord introduces a sub-plot involving kindly nurse Sheila (played by Matlock’s Linda Purl) who also finds herself on Colt’s hit list. This leads to a nail-biting showdown between the maniac and the two women. Wasted, however, is William Shatner, whose only purpose here is getting another star name onto the credits.
Bizarrely, this one featured on the UK’s notorious Video Nasty list, but ended up being shown on ITV uncut in 1989. It was also a firm favourite at my local video rental back in the day. Revisiting it now, courtesy of Final Cut Entertainment’s new dual format (Blu-ray/DVD) release, I’ve not only found a new appreciation for the film itself, but also for the cinematography, which had been previously muddied by inferior VHS transfers. This suspenseful slice of 80s slasher is well worth the revisit.
The Final Cut Entertainment dual format release also includes the following special features:
• Interview with Lind Purl (9 mins)
• Interview with director Jean Claude Lord (15mins)
• Interview with writer Brian Taggert (15 mins)
• Interview with producer Pierre David (17mins)
• Stills Gallery
• Double Sided Sleeve
Dr Cyclops (1940) | ‘Honey, I’ve shrunk the scientists!’ – Technicolor thrills await in the vintage sci-fi adventure
Deep in the South American jungle, physicist Dr Thorkel (Albert Dekker) is using a seam of radium in his mysterious experiments. When his eyesight starts to fail, he invites three scientists from the US to help him to help him complete the project.
Refusing to return home without proper explanation as to the exact nature of Thorkel’s work, the scientists, their mule driver and Thorkel’s assistant end up being shrunk down to doll size. A cat-and-mouse game then ensues as they try to escape Thorkel’s compound…
Based on a short story of the same name by Henry Kuttner, Paramount’s Dr Cyclops was the first attempt since The Mystery of the Wax Museum to use Technicolor in a horror film. It also marked a return to the genre for director Ernest Schoedsack, best known for Most Dangerous Game and King Kong, who really goes to town on the special effects, which would earn the film an Oscar nomination.
In his Classics of the Horror Film, renowned film researcher, collector and regular visitor to the UK’s famed Gothique Film Society, William K Everson, called Dr Cyclops ‘diverting hokum – but one of the wasted opportunities among films’. It’s a bit harsh, but not without some truth.
Yes, there’s virtually no horror on display, with the miniaturised cast mainly running and hiding amongst the oversized props and from a giant hand, and feigning distress in sequences featuring back projection shots of Thorkel’s snarling black cat Satanus (great name) and stock footage of a variety of animals and birds (kookaburras – in the Amazon?). While the lush colours and gay musical score does turn it into something akin to a live action cartoon adventure.
Looking like a cross between Peter Lorre’s Mr Moto and Donald Pleasence’s Blofeld with his shaved head and thick, round glasses, Dekker brings much sympathy to his scientist with a God complex (I blamed the radiation for his increasing mania); while the rest of the cast (Thomas Coley, Janice Logan, Charles Halton, Victor Kilian and Frank Yaconelli) are all effective in their respective stereotype roles.
There are, however, some genuine thrills, notably the death of one of our little heroes (who’s killed when he learns the miniaturisation effects are only temporary), the group’s efforts to train a rifle on their sleeping tormentor, and the gripping climax. Perfect for younger viewers and for revisiting on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Dr Cyclops is available on DVD in the UK from Fabulous Films
The Evil Within (2017) | Andrew Getty’s surreal Poe-esque psychological horror is destined for cult status!
Originally called The Storyteller, this surreal horror was 15 years in the making. Its writer/director Andrew Getty became a virtual recluse as he became consumed by the project, which he self-financed to the tune of some US$6million (courtesy of the family fortune). But he never saw it completed, as he tragically died, aged 47, in March 2015 from a bleeding ulcer. And it’s a real shame, as his twisted tale is more than just a billionaire’s vanity project – it’s a visually arresting psychological horror that’s worthy of cult status.
Special needs LA teen Dennis (Frederick Koehler) suffers from sleep paralysis, in which he sees a demonic entity (The Hills Have Eyes‘ Michael Berryman) at the foot of his bed, and is haunted by a childhood nightmare involving a carnival ghost train that never ends.
When his brother John (Dead Zone’s Sean Patrick Flanery) redecorates his room at their Hollywood Hills mansion [Getty filmed everything at his own home, which was once owned by composer Miklos Rozsa], Dennis gets upset over an antique mirror which he recognises from his nightmares. But the mirror soon begins to exert a malevolent influence over Dennis, who starts conversing with his articulate reflection – that may (or may not be) the demonic entity in disguise.
Offering to ‘fix’ his brain, his ‘reflection’ convinces him to turn to killing: starting first with animals and children, before graduating to adults. But when he’s then told to kill the object of his affection – an ice-cream parlor attendant, Dennis becomes convinced the entity is using him as a pawn to enter the real world… Meanwhile, John has his own inner demons to contend with – and they all rest on guilt. So what is he hiding?
Getty’s weird, disturbing tale is a contemporary fusion of split personality psychological horror, archetypal pact with the devil story, and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. It’s visually inventive, thanks to Getty’s meticulous home-made special effects, which put a spotlight on Dennis’ turmoil of being trapped in a body that is not fully ‘right’ (you’ll discover why as the mystery thickens); while also serving to elicit some genuine scares (beware the giant spider!) and to disorientate the viewer as to what is real and what is imagined. And this really plays out when the film enters The Twilight Zone as John and his girlfriend Lydia (Dina Meyer) wander around a seemingly-deserted LA with only Will & Grace‘s Tim Bagley for company.
But the film rests soley on Koehler, who brings two very distinct characters to life: his awkward but likeable teen Dennis, in which he channels Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo, and his dominate and downright scary sociopath reflection. It’s a mesmerising dual performance that puts everyone else in shadow – even guest star Kim Darby, best known for fighting off goblins in the 1970s TV movie classic Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. I’ve watched this twice now and can’t wait to sit through it again. A true outsider cult hit in the making.
The Evil Within is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK from 4 September 2017 from Screenbound Pictures.
Recently, I got a hold of Universal’s The Mummy: Complete Legacy Collection on Blu-ray, which gave me a chance to revisit not only the Karloff original, but also the 1940’s Kharis Mummy movies, which I had not seen since I was a kid.
Now released in HD for the first time, they sure look great, but – boy! – aren’t they a perfect example of the law of diminishing returns? Here’s a look back at the shuffling mis-adventures of Kharis, the ancient Egyptian avenger…
The Mummy’s Hand, 1940
Starring Dick Foran, George Zucco, Cecil Kellaway.
Director: Christy Cabanne.
Eight years after Boris Karloff donned bandages for Karl Freund’s The Mummy, Universal resuscitated the movie monster (now called Kharis, as Karloff’s Im-Ho-Tep had crumbled to dust) for four new adventures. Cowboy star Tom Tyler is the black-eyed Egyptian avenger restored to life (with the fluid from a handful of Tana leaves) by Andoheb, George Zucco’s-newly appointed High Priest of Karnak, to wreak revenge on the archaeological team who are trying to locate the tomb of the Princess Ananka (whom Kharis tried to raise from the dead back in 1472 BC, but ended getting buried alive with his tongue cut out).
Dick Foran is the archaeologist, Steve Banning, and Wallace Ford is his wisecracking sidekick, Babe Jenson; while Cecil Kellaway is the travelling magician who funds their doomed trip, and Peggy Moran is his daughter who gets carried away by Kharis (literally) when Zucco’s Andoheb decides to make her immortal – much to Kharis’ annoyance.
To save on the budget, Kharis’ back-story incorporates Karloff’s incarceration from the 1932 film, while the temple from Universal’s 1940 adventure Green Hell is also re-used as Zucco’s secret lair in the Hill of the Seven Jackals. Looking at it today, the film is a bit of a joke as there’s no real horror on display, suspense or drama (although Tyler’s weird black eyes still disturb). It plays more like a comical adventure serial, and nobody bothered to double-check the hieroglyphics (which are meaningless), the Arabic (misspelled), or doing any historical research (Zucco’s temple is more Mayan than Egyptian, and his character mistakes the Incas as coming from Mexico).
Except for the odd flash of inventiveness that recall Universal’s 1930s glory days when German expressionism informed its production design, it’s a poor start to the Kharis series. Thankfully, Hammer would put their own macabre stamp on the iconic creature when they used this film and its sequel, The Mummy’s Tomb, as the basis for their 1957 Technicolor version.
The Mummy’s Tomb, 1942
Starring Lon Chaney Jr, Dick Foran, Turhan Bey.
Director: Harold Young.
30 years after the Banning Expedition desecrated Princess Ananka’s tomb in The Mummy’s Hand, Kharis (who survived his blazing demise) is transported to a cemetery in Mapleton, Massachusetts by Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey, aka the Turkish Delight), under the orders of George Zucco’s expiring Andoheb (who somehow survived being shot multiple times in the previous entry) to hunt down and kill the remaining members of the dig and their descendants.
Purists have often wondered whether it really is Lon Chaney Jr all the time under Jack Pierce’s make-up and bandages (as there are three stunt people also credited, including Eddie Parker); and whether playing a role in which he neither speaks nor is recognisable was a wise career choice. His shuffling Kharis is pretty poor. Moving at a snail’s pace with one lame arm, it’s incredible that any of his victims don’t just run away – instead they stay put (as though frozen in fear), or pretend to be cornered so that he can lunge at them with his one powerful arm (he was supposedly restored partially paralysed in the first film because of a lack of Tana leaf juice) and strangle them to death.
To keep the budget small and to fill out the running time, extensive flashbacks from The Mummy’s Hand are used before we get a repeat of the previous film’s revenge plot – only minus the wise cracks and pratfalls. The film does have some atmospheric cinematography and lighting effects, courtesy of George Robinson (Son of Frankenstein, Tower of London), especially the scenes set in the American gothic-styled cemetery. And it all looks a treat in this HD Blu-ray presentation, although it does show up the rubber mask on the Mummy as well.
Like the first film, it ends with a frightened lovely (Elyse Knox) dressed in another stunning Vera West gown being carted off by Kharis, so that the infatuated High Priest can make her his immortal bride. And, once again, the villain is shot while Kharis goes up in flames…
The Mummy’s Ghost, 1944
Starring Lon Chaney Jr, John Carradine, George Zucco.
Director: Reginald LeBorg
My favourite of the Kharis mummy series, this one starts off just the last two, with George Zucco again playing the withered old High Priest (who seems to have more lives than a cat) who tasks another acolyte, this time a youthful John Carradine (as Youssef Bey) with bringing Ananka and Kharis back home to Egypt.
Bizarrely, Ananka’s protectors aren’t the High Priests of Karnak now, but Arkam. However, those Tana leaves are still lurking about – but with added mythology. Just as wolfbane can cure lyncathropy if prepared during a full moon, the fluid taken from the Tana leaves during the same lunar cycle can usher forth Kharis’ ghost (hence the title).
While the film is basically the same plot as the previous two, director Reginald LeBorg does stir things up by having the Princess reincarnated in the shapely form of former pin-up Ramsay Ames. She plays Amina Mensori, a student of Egyptology who is based in the very same town that Kharis shuffled amok years beforehand. LeBorg brings much flair to the proceedings, and there’s a real effort to make Chaney’s Mummy more menacing looking (BTW: his appearance ended up being used as the template for Aurora’s classic glow in the dark model kit that I have had since I was a kid).
In a clever nod to The Bride of Frankenstein, Ames gets a white streak in her perfectly-coiffured bonnet, which turns pure white as Ananka’s soul takes over (causing her to age rapidly) when Kharis ends up carrying her down into the murky depths of a nearby swamp in the film’s climax.
The Mummy’s Curse, 1944
Starring Lon Chaney Jr, Virginia Christine, Martin Kosleck.
Director: Leslie Goodwins.
Five months after the release of The Mummy’s Ghost, Universal rushed out this final sequel for a Christmas release, thus completing Lon Chaney Jr’s trio of turns as the shuffling undead Kharis (although he did spoof the character in an episode of Route 66 in 1962’s Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing). And – except for one sequence – this is the worst of the lot.
Unlike today, Universal had little care for their franchise and totally stuffs up the continuity and mythology by setting this follow-up in Louisiana instead of New England. When the swamp where Kharis and Ananka drowned is planned to be drained the Scripps Museum sends two representatives, Dr James Halsey (Dennis Moore) and an Egyptian colleague Zandaab (Peter Cobb), to retrieve their bodies. Of course, Zanbaab is secretly a high priest of the Arkam set, and he has help in construction worker Ragheb (Martin Kosleck), who has Kharis’ body interred at an old abandoned monastery.
Meanwhile, Princess Ananka emerges from a muddy coffin and ends up a Jane Doe in the care of Halsey and his girl Betty (Kay Harding). Of course, its not long before Kharis arrives on the scene and whisks her away for the final showdown at the monastery… which ends badly for one and all, especially poor Ananka.
This was a rare horror entry from British-born director Leslie Goodwins, who was better at low-budget comedies, and also marked the feature debut of Virginia Christine, who’d go onto light character roles. It’s quite poor, and reeks of racial stereotyping, especially the Cajun Joe character. Chaney only gets one good scene, at the end, as the monastery collapses on him (watch him keep his composure as a heavy brick smashes into his face); and the day-for-night shots are infuriating. But it does have one scene which still haunts, and that’s when Christine’s Ananka emerges from her resting place in the swamp. It’s a striking scene, especially in the way in which Christine plays it.
Of course, Universal couldn’t keep their Mummy down for too long. In 1955, Abbott and Costello got their chance to have a date with Klaris (a pun on Kharis) for their 28th and final film comedy, with Eddie Parker wearing what looks like a onesie decorated with a bandage motif. Except to fans of the comic duo and their verbal gymnastics, this was a poor end to their feature film careers.
Magic Circle (2017) | A trickster theatrical descent into the occult zone with Brother Wolf and Kim Newman
In what must be a first for the British stage, the Brother Wolf theatre company is conducting an arcane magic ritual for their latest production, Magic Circle, a two-handed mystery written by novelist Kim Newman, whose inspirations include real-life magician Aleister Crowley, the weird fiction HP Lovecraft and Dennis Wheatley’s occult masterpiece The Devil Rides Out. And if you are a fan, then you are in for a treat.
It’s circa 1970 and in a room at Calme Manor, where some gruesome murders have taken place, a protective chalk circle has been drawn. Inside sits Professor Harry Cutley (Michael Shon), an academic and occultist who plans to spend the night undoing a dangerous spell cast by a former acolyte.
Outside the intangible barrier stands the no-nonsense Inspector Nicholas Gammell (James Hyland) who doesn’t like having an unsolved case on his books and considers Cutley a suspect. What follows is a battle of wills as Gammell interrogates Cutley and hidden agendas begin to emerge from out of the shadows…
This is the first full-length dramatic work for Kim Newman, best known as the author of the Anno Dracula novels (and comics) and for his insightful film reviews, and I must admit I was crossing my fingers that it would be better than his first stage production, The Hallowe’en Sessions – part of the portmanteau chiller The Ghost Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore – which played at the Leicester Square Theatre but was stifled by mis-direction. But I got my wish, as director Phil Lowe has successfully breathed theatrical life into Newman’s intelligent and witty script (OMG! Sooty’s a satanic avatar!), which explores the power of words via an occult narrative (clever stuff indeed).
The intense proceedings are maximised by the use of the most minimal of sets, equipped with little more than that chalk circle, some ceremonial magic items, and a bundle of clothes neatly folded in a corner of the blacked-out stage – plus a pentagram designed with Newman’s own esoteric symbols. Such minimalism allows the audience to visualise the off-stage action (like the deaths describes in gory detail) and to ponder over the true intentions of Shon’s obsessive Professor of Comparative Religions and Hyland’s skeptical copper, who is trying to lure the hip occultist out of his circle, but never can cross (now why is it?).
Both actors excel in their respective parts, with Hyland’s surly copper coming off like a cross between Alfred Marks’ DS Bellaver in Scream and Scream Again (1970) and Laurence Olivier’s down-at-hell Archie in The Entertainer (1960), while Shon’s hippy occultit possesses the same arrogance as Dean Stockwell’s Wilbur Whateley in The Dunwich Horror (1970). And thanks to Newman’s trickster narrative, the duo get to showcase their vast range as they lure audiences into the author’s eerie mystery – one that’s guaranteed to leave you breathless by the end.
Catch Magic Circle next at…
BARTON UPON HUMBER – ROPERY HALL
Maltkiln Road, Barton upon Humber, North Lincolnshire, DN18 5JT
01652 660 380 www.roperyhall.co.uk
STAFFORD – GATEHOUSE THEATRE
Eastgate Street, Stafford, ST16 2LT
01785 254 653 www.staffordgatehousetheatre.co.uk