31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 28- Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 28- Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

As soon as I saw that this 1965 Amicus film was directed by Freddie Francis I knew that the direction and photography would be beautiful. And I was right! I was also excited as I knew that this was a horror anthology film and starred two heavyweights of the genre, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

As well as Cushing and Lee the cast also includes Alan ‘Fluff’ Friedman, Donald Sutherland and Roy ‘You’re a Record Breaker!’ Castle. We even get Kenny Lynch appearing in a cameo role.

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Travellers in a train compartment are joined by the very sinister Dr Schreck who whips out his deck of tarot cards and tells each of his fellow traveller’s fortunes. Each fortune told is a separate episode in this anthology.

The separate stories involve vampirism, a vine seemingly related to a Triffid that comes to life, lycanthropy, voodoo and black magic and a severed hand. I want to give more details away about each segment but there are so many brilliant twists and turns that writing any more would be like trying to tiptoe through a field full of landmines.

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Each episode is completely different from each other, taking place in a real breadth of locales and circumstances which keeps the film as a whole really varied and interesting.

This film has all the ingenuity of five separate mini episodes of Tales of the Unexpected. Each concept is unpredictable, genuinely ingenious and likely to surprise most viewers.

A joy from start to finish with perhaps the biggest twist coming after each of the characters fortunes has been told.

****and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 23- Halloween 4- The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 23- Halloween 4- The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

I remember when this was released on home video in 1988. I couldn’t wait to watch it as the poster alone harked back to the original film, it’s mythology and the very Panaglide soaked vision that helped make it such a masterpiece. I was hoping for the film to be just as impressive. If they could have a decent stab (pun not intended) at reproducing the feel of the first film with it’s excellent first sequel taking place in Haddonfield Memorial Hospital then they could do it with this new film. 

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Notice the imaginery on the poster- Michael’s mask and the view of the house over the road as Tommy Wallace would have seen it in the original film. The illustrations are great too.

However, the film was closer to the tacky UK poster made for the film. I saw H4 on home video and HATED it! Would I feel the same when I embarked on watching it recently as I did in 1989?

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The tacky poster for the UK release of H4. Take the great illustrations made for the original, add horrible fonts and an inappropriate and clumsy pic of Myers from the film.

The answer is ‘Yes’ I still hated it but with many more years of film criticism under my belt I was better equipped to articulate why I despise it so much.

So what is Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers? It’s part teen drama, part TV Movie of the Week, part very violent episode of Goosebumps and last but certainly not least, it’s a cynical horror franchise sequel for idiots who wouldn’t know a decent horror film if they tripped over it.

The plot of the film goes like this- both Dr Loomis and Myers sustained horrific injuries after the literally explosive ending of Halloween 2 but both survived (of course). Mikey Boy has been in a coma for the ten years following this (the action takes place here during Halloween 1988) and is just about to be (stop if you think you’ve heard this one before…) transferred between hospitals. In the ambulance during this journey he hears that he has in fact got a niece and as she’s unlucky enough to be within the female line of the Myers family tree he kills his escorts and escapes to try to get to his niece to finish her off.

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This is all so reminiscent of the first film that already the film shows that it’s been made to give the fans exactly what they want but whilst not adding anything new when it comes to the plot. It also very quickly establishes that everything that made the first film a masterpiece doesn’t get a look in.

Halloween 4 really is just a man in a Michael Myers mask (and a crap one at that) stalking and killing people. No art, all base level vacuous nonsense. Not that a horror film has to be ‘art’ but a sense of tension, imagination and innovation are always welcome within a horror film project. Even making a blatant cash cow of a film project can still have all of these qualities whilst still giving the fans what they want and making a decent film at the same time.

And what’s worse, Michael’s niece, Jamie is so unlikeable that you’re just praying for Uncle Mikey to accomplish the job very quickly indeed.

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Annoying niece

Not even the odd mildly entertaining moment such as the lynch mob killing the wrong guy instead of Michael can save this stodgy mess. The ending is so bad it’s laughable. In fact, for a terrible moment the filmmakers even suggest with such an ending that a whole slew of movies which would feature Jamie as the killer. Now that would be REAL horror. 

You know you know nothing about horror or filmmaking in general if you walked out at the end of Halloween 3 and your first response was ‘Where’s Michael?!’ instead of marvelling at it’s brilliant cinematography, direction, soundtrack let alone being blessed enough to have spent an hour and a half in the company of Tom ‘The Man’ Atkins.

Halloween 4 is the film made for people who just watch horror films because people are killed in them, without knowing anything about what makes a great horror movie. Halloween 4 is the anti-Halloween 3. And that’s one of many reasons why I hate it so much.

*out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 21- The House With Laughing Windows (1976)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 21- The House With Laughing Windows (1976)

A young man who can restore frescos (ancient works of art) arrives to restore one such artwork but finds events within the remote town to be far from normal. Indeed, they are downright bizarre. Does the fresco hold any clues? Does it depict what people have been led to believe it shows? Will the events directly affect Stefano?

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This Italian film is one hell of a gorgeous (and VERY disturbing) journey. Not only do we get the backstory of the artist who first painted the fresco but also the freaky events that are happening in the Valli di Commacchio area that the action takes place in. 

With all the best of Italian horror/gialli, it also makes you want to go to Italy and experience such a seemingly fantastic and aesthetically pleasing way of life. The photography is magnificent. I’d love to see this film on the big screen. 

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The locales are sumptuous, the characters are left field to the max (at times I kept think of the films of Jodorowsky) which all adds to the overall vision and atmosphere of this gorgeous film.

I’d love to speak about the conclusion of the film but that would massively spoil the entire film for those of you who haven’t been lucky enough to see it yet. Also, if I tried to write down what happens you probably wouldn’t believe me. Just to say- it’s surreal, can’t be predicted and gets under your skin and inside your head and remains there long after the actual film has ended. Fantastic.

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****and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 19- Dawn of the Dead (2004)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 19- Dawn of the Dead (2004)

A remake of the much loved and revered masterpiece Dawn of the Dead was always going to be sneered at by fans and film scholars alike when the project was announced.

I actually saw the film on it’s release when I was visiting Glasgow and was expecting to roll my eyes constantly whilst saying ‘Psst!’ under my breath a few hundred times (but not too loudly…) during the film’s running time. I was pleasantly surprised though. Whilst it was no worthy competition for Romero’s original film in terms of it’s coveted place in horror history, it was far from mediocre. In fact, it was really rather good!

The opening scenes show central character Ana finish a long shift as a nurse at her local hospital and return home. The next day a little girl from her neighbourhood comes into her house and shows that all it not well. She has changed into a zombie and fatally attacks her partner, ripping out a chunk of his neck with her teeth. Very quickly, he then springs back to life and also in a zombiefied state like the girl who attacked him.

Ana gets to her car and we then see that the very fabric of society has broken down almost completely. People are either dead and running around as zombies and trying to kill others, or they are still human but have either gone completely crazy (witness Ana’s neighbour armed with a gun) or are in ‘survival of the fittest’ mode with no regard for anyone else around them (someone attempts to hijack Ana’s car by trying to jump into it).

After running off the road, Ana crosses paths with cop Kenneth who, with other characters (one of them pregnant!), goes to the neighbouring mall for refuge.

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The mall is where the majority of the rest of the movie takes place just like the original. There’s even a nod to the first film with a sign for a shop called Gaylen Ross. The theme of a crisis bringing out the best and worst in a person’s character is explored well here with the security guards who are already in the shopping centre having marked it as their territory and only letting the new arrivals take refuge if they surrender their weapons and adhere to their rules and laws. This is very Lord of the Flies.

The next day even more characters are interjected into the narrative by way of a delivery truck and we now have our cast in place for the rest of the film. And this is one of the major strengths for the remake and that is that the characters are so brilliantly sketched and well rounded. There is a fantastic diversity and range within the characters with some changing by the time of the film’s conclusion so that our expectations are constantly being challenged and contradicted with seemingly vile people redeeming themselves and vice versa.

The film also perceptively displays human relationships at work. On first arrival most of the characters rub along pretty well. But being in a confined space together soon causes divisions and differences to develop and flare up. The film soon becomes something akin to events in a season of Big Brother but with, obviously, more at stake.

As well as great characterisation we also get great make up and effects. The special effects for the film were actually by the company owned by Heather Langenkamp aka Nancy Thompson from the Nightmare on Elm Street films! She should be very proud with the results as they are fabulous.

Scott Reiniger, Ken Foree and Tom Savini from the original all get cameos well as the Gaylen Ross reference/homage.

The zombies in this film move a lot faster than their blue-skinned counterparts from the original which massively divided fans with Romero himself saying that he didn’t like this aspect. I personally think it doesn’t really bother me as it’s something new just like the film itself. There’s also a new rule regarding the dead turning into zombies with there being a set time of a few seconds before the dead arise again. I thought this was also an interesting new aspect of this remake/reimagining.

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There is also some great humour in the movie also. Witness the ‘Celebrity Squares’ game that Kenneth plays with his gun shop buddy who is trapped on the roof of his business nearby. This also blossoms into a great moment of camaraderie and dare I say bromance between the two characters. Again, this echoes the same kind of relationship that Scott and Peter had in the original. I thought that it was great that this was reproduced in the remake.

I have to say though that on watching this film again for this review after seeing it on it’s original release brought diminishing returns this time around. It was almost like when you know what to expect with this remake half of the fun has gone.

This remake will never come close to the original film. But on first viewing it was interesting, innovative and had some artistic merit. It’s also a great rollercoaster ride that didn’t make me roll my eyes once.

***and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 18- Children of the Damned (1964)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 18- Children of the Damned (1964)

A sequel to Village of the Damned which is less a continuation of the plot and instead like a film containing characters who possess the same powers as the children in the original but under different circumstances.

Whereas the original took part in a countryside idyll, the action within this film is based in London. A gifted child called Paul is studied and observed by the relevant governmental authorities. Other almost supernaturally gifted children are also discovered and brought to the city so that UNESCO researchers can witness them at work. They are brought from places as varied as China, Russia and Nigeria.

These gifted children then abscond from each of their respective embassies that they are staying in and take refuge in an abandoned church. It’s here that the authorities and the army find them and have to decide whether to try to coax the children out or destroy them if they pose a threat to humanity. It’s here that a tense standoff encroaches.

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This film as opposed to the original is firmly on the side of the children who we see as persecuted and in need of human support. The original depicted them as inhuman, devoid of emotion and empathy and very much as villains in a horror film. Children of the Damned elicits sympathy and compassion for the children who are shown as unjustly discriminated against, ostracised and treated as freaks in many ways. Having high levels of intelligence and other powers such as telekinesis are gifts but also hindrances. Witness the speech Paul’s mother shrieks at him that she should have destroyed him before she took him in her arms for the first time.

I made the mistake of reading the reviews for this film before I actually watched it. The few examples I could find were derogatory and very unflattering. They were also wrong, in my humble opinion. Children of the Damned may not be as good as the original film it is a sequel to but is still a vivid, well written, engaging film that is well worth a view. The shots of 60’s London are beautiful. A special mention to Ian Hendry (Repulsion) who heads a stellar cast.

***and a half out of *****

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31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 12- Frightmare (1974)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 12- Frightmare (1974)

***TRIGGER WARNING!!!*** This is a Pete Walker movie.

In 1957 Dorothy Yates and her husband Edmund are convicted of murder and cannibalism (!) and sent to an asylum until the film’s present day (1974). They are then released supposedly fully cured and living a quiet life. But are they? The answer, of course, is no! The film shows Dorothy not being cured at all but using the cover of giving tarot readings to people who she then kills and eats.

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The film also deals with Jackie (Edmund’s daughter from a previous marriage) who regularly visits the couple offering gifts of animal brains whilst falsely telling them that they are actually human remains and that she is actually killing people so that her stepmother doesn’t relapse and remains free. It is also revealed that her father had actually faked being complicit in the crimes and faked madness so that he could stay with his wife. Jackie lives with Debbie, a wayward 15 year old who is the actual daughter of the couple who was placed into an orphanage as a baby just after her parents were institutionalised. She has recently been expelled from there as she is too much for the authorities to deal with and so spends most of her time with her boyfriend who is the leader of a violent biker gang.

Wow. There’s a lot going on in this film that is typical Pete Walker fare in that it’s dark, violent and dares to go to the places that other milder horror films dare not go. Which is exactly why I love him. He knows exactly what horror fans want and he delivers it in spades.

But there is more than meets the eye. Frightmare is also blackly funny, almost (and intentionally) vaudevillian at times and extremely intelligent. This is not just a horror movie but also a funny and very perceptive satire on family values and blood (pardon the pun) being thicker than water.

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Add to that gorgeous cinematography, amazing locales (loving the London scenes and surrounding area shots) and a moment in time being captured not just on film but also regarding film (this was a boon time for British horror with Hammer, Tigon, Amicus and directors like Walker all making great horror movies which would do amazing business at the box office).

I love the scene where Jackie drags her new boyfriend out of a screening of Blow Up. What a great statement on art movies which were then in vogue in some quarters of the mainstream.

All of the characters are brilliantly drawn and portrayed fantastically well with Walker regular Sheila Keith playing Dorothy with twisted relish. She is also able to be completely nuts one minute and then change into a repentant innocent little wife persona when her husband has seen what she’s done.

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The magnificent Sheila Keith

Kim Butcher as Debbie is also great when it comes to portraying a young girl with the quality to make others do her evil bidding for her. This is shown when she tells her biker boyfriend about the barman who wouldn’t serve her but then embellishes the story. Her boyfriend and his biker friends wait for him after the nightclub they are in has closed up to give him a good hiding. She reminds me of Chris Hargensen from Carrie.

The film hits every target it aims for with a bullseye and is pretty much perfect. I honestly think Frightmare is a twisted masterpiece.

***** out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 8- Hellgate (1989)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 8- Hellgate (1989)

A movie that was on the other side of my DVD of the (much better) film, The Pit. This direct to video movie concerns a young woman who is snatched by a gang of bikers and brutally murdered. Her father then discovers a crystal that can bring the dead back to life and uses it on his previously dead daughter.

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I read reviews of this film that mentioned that it’s so terrible it’s one of the worst films ever made. I’d like to say that these people obviously know nothing about cult cinema! This film has it’s own vision that is completely intentional and not the result of inept incompetence.

The whole film feels like it’s been filmed through a haze of Mogadon. The brightly lit diner scenes at the start look so hazy it’s like theres actually a fog on the set! Yes, some special effects are cheap and look it! But this is a low budget production aimed at the ‘straight to video’ market. Do the armchair film critics think all productions should be slick multi-million dollar affairs devoid of character or idiosyncracy? This feels like a feature length episode of The New Twilight Zone from the mid to late 80’s. It also has a feel of Night of the Comet with it’s own spaced out feel and atmosphere.

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There’s also a Phantasm feel about proceedings with Josie (the resuscitated young lady) killing any unfortunate young men who visits her town at the behest of her father. It reminds me of The Tall Man turning into a young voluptuous woman to bump off young men in the graveyard attached to his mortuary.

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This movie is like no other. Weird? Yes. A true one-off? Yes. Bad? Certainly not. File under ‘curio’.

** out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 6- The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 (1984)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 6- The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 (1984)

I remember seeing this on video shortly after it was released way back when. The original Hills Have Eyes wasn’t on video at that time and so seeing this was the next best thing especially in hindsight as there are LOADS of flashbacks to the first film. Yes, even a dog from the first movie who reappears in the sequel (‘the best character in the sequel’ someone wrote on YouTube!) has a flashback!

In fact this is the greatest thing about The Hills Have Eyes Part 2- it makes you want to watch the first (and far superior) film. It does this really early on and so I doubt many people have watched more than half an hour of the sequel. I watched it all the way through for this review. Do I deserve a medal for this as it sooo bad? Not really. Don’t get me wrong, this film isn’t good. But it’s passable. If you flicked onto it whilst bored, it would pass the time for you.

But as a sequel to a (in my opinion) masterpiece and the film that in my opinion is Wes Craven’s best, this could have been a lot better. Craven said he only made this for the money. That’s not really good enough. There was loads that could have been explored within this film but wasn’t.

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An ad for HHE2 from 1984

It’s great to see the characters of Bobby, Ruby (now renamed Rachel), Pluto and Beast. But the rest of the cast are largely wacky (i.e. irritating) teens and deserve to be dispatched much quicker in the movie. The motorbike plot device holds no interest to me whatsoever.

Even Harry Manfredini’s soundtrack is sub-par sounding like trimmings from his far better music scores he’s composed for other movies especially the Friday the 13th films.

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A trade magazine ad for The Hills Have Part 2

New mutant cannibal family member The Reaper is pretty good. He features prominently on the film’s artwork. In fact I’m guessing it’s this artwork which persuaded viewers to rent the video. Never judge a video by it’s cover. 

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Some films that I watched on VHS as a kid in the 80’s have stood the test of time really well and become some of my favourite films (take a bow Halloween 3). But then others may have been passable or even enjoyable when watched through a child’s (i.e. not yet jaded) eyes but The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 isn’t one of them. Strangely I feel kind of reassured that such a clunker of a movie still got a deluxe release from Arrow Video. Even rotten films are loved by somebody and deserve the best treatment possible. 

*and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 4- Abby (1974)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 4- Abby (1974)

A Blaxploitation Exorcist rip-off.

A pastor goes to Nigeria and accidentally unleashes an ancient malevolent spirit. Oops. His daughter-in-law back in America then starts to change from being a God-fearing, wholesome wife to becoming a possessed randy harlot. 

This film is such good fun. The pastor is played by William Marshall who was already known to Blaxploitation audiences as Blacula. Austin Stoker also stars who would later feature in John Carpenter’s masterpiece Assault on Precinct 13 a couple of years later. But it’s Carol Speed as Abby who steals the show. She seems to truly relish her role and brings some much needed spice and vigour to it.

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There’s groovy interiors, snappy dialogue and effects that look cheap and nasty even by Exorcist rip-off standards. In fact they make Beyond The Door’s FX look highly innovative by comparison. But that’s all part of the fun.

I love the fact that the exorcism at the film’s conclusion takes place in a downtown bar.

This film made loads of money at the box office but was abruptly taken out of circulation when Warner Bros. issued a lawsuit as they stated that the film ripped-off The Exorcist a bit too much. Abby’s director William Girdler never denied this. The only existing prints are in very bad condition and it’s rumoured that a decent print hasn’t surfaced yet as possibly the lawsuit is still in place which prevents a decent DVD/Blu ray release. It’s also rumoured that the lawsuit also involved all copies of the print to be confiscated by Warner Bros. so that they could destroy it.

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I hope this isn’t true. I’d love this film to be released after being restored. In fact, I’d love a Blu ray box set containing all of Girdler’s films. He deserves to be recognised as one of the leading auteurs of brilliant exploitation films. 

*** and a half

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 2- The Honeymoon Killers (1970) ****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 2- The Honeymoon Killers (1970) ****

Fat nurse Martha Beck is joined into a lonely hearts club by her best friend Bunny. Almost instantly she starts to correspond with a man called Raymond Fernandez. Their correspondence grows more intense with the bond between them being so strong that Martha invites him to her home in Mobile, Alabama. After a night of wild passion he leaves her to go back home but not before he has secured a loan from her.

She then receives a letter from Ray breaking up with her which causes Bunny to ring him to say that Martha is suicidal because of this. When Ray is relieved to find out that neither of them have involved the police, he invites Martha to New York to visit him. When she gets there he lets the cat out of the bag- he is a professional hustler who cons lonely women out of their money and moves onto his next target. Martha is so in love with Ray that she stays by his side and even becomes his accomplice as he commits his next crimes.

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This movie is based on the true life crimes of a couple dubbed The Lonely Hearts Killers with the film using their real names. The film was also originally to be directed by a young director named Martin Scorsese (wonder what happened to him) but he was fired several days into the shoot as he was just taking so much time getting master shots set up whilst not shooting any coverage shots (according to himself. He even went on to say that it wasn’t probably for the best for the film that he was fired as the film was made on a low budget and needed to be shot quite quickly). Leonard Kastle stepped into the breach instead and does a phenomenal job. The film looks gorgeous and is framed to perfection. It’s almost like any frame from the film could be hung in an art gallery and admired. The monochrome look of the film is also astounding and reminds me (as does the film as a whole) of Brian De Palma’s masterpiece Sisters.

The cast are exceptional also with Shirley Stoler utterly iconic in her role as Martha and Tony Lo Bianco also iconic and perfect casting as the money-hungry lothario Ray.

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This movie is on The Criterion Collection as it deserves to be. In fact, when I rewatched the film for this review I was getting strong John Waters’ vibes from it. It was almost like a lost Waters film from around the time of Multiple Maniacs (also deservedly on Criterion) and I could imagine either Divine or Edith Massey playing Martha and Tab Hunter playing Ray. Maybe in a parallel universe this movie was made.

Apparently Francois Truffaut named this movie was his favourite American film. And if that doesn’t act as a high enough recommendation for you to see the film then I don’t know what will.

When the film first played in the UK it was as part of this double bill

**** out of *****