The Howling (1981)

Director: Joe Dante

The other werewolf movie of 1981 (yes, there’s Wolfen, but apparently there’s some debate about whether or not that’s actually about werewolves as such), which I must confess to not liking anywhere near as much as American Werewolf in London. Indeed, Rick Baker, the latter film’s make-up/FX man, actually started working on this one before Landis said “hey, I’ve finally got money for my werewolf movie” and poached him for it, leaving Baker’s erstwhile assistant Rob Bottin to handle the lycanthropy on this one. And, to give the young man credit, he did a terrific job on a fraction of the budget of AWiL; the werewolf transformation about two-thirds of the way through is the highpoint of both films, and Bottin’s work holds its own quite capably in its own way. I also rather like the concept of the Colony in this film being a sort of resort where Patrick Macnee’s doctor is trying to kind of rehabilitate the resident werewolves and bring them into the modern world. And it looks remarkably nice, too, there’s a really good use of colour and light and judicious application of fog. So why didn’t I like it more? I don’t know… maybe there’s just something not terribly exciting about it, or maybe it’s the not awfully interesting characters. Maybe it’s the somewhat weak humour, which in this case extends mainly to naming characters after directors of vintage werewolf and other horror films. Maybe there’s something I’m not getting. Maybe it was just me and whatever mood I was in (you can never entirely rule out my useless brain and its vagaries). It’s good. I’m just not blown away by it.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Director: John Landis

So that’s one of the more substantial holes in my acquaintance with horror cinema filled at last… I can’t think of any good reason why AAWiL has eluded me until tonight, cos it’s not like it’s an obscure thing; I’ve always known about it, it’s one of the more famous horrors of the early 80s, it’s never been exactly hard to get, I’ve recorded the fucking thing off SBS twice… but no, until tonight, it was just one of those films I’d never got around to seeing for no real reason. My loss, cos it’s an awful lot of fun. At heart there’s actually something kind of old-fashioned about the story, and I don’t think that’s just because Landis wrote it over a decade before he actually filmed it, I think it might’ve seemed that way had he made it in 1971 rather than 1981… there are a few explicit references to the 1941 Wolf Man, so the film does kind of overtly look back to the Universal films. It’s things like the somewhat bizarre sense of humour (like that Muppet Show excerpt) and the surprising amount of time star David Naughton spends naked (the film’s IMDB trivia page has a delightful detail about why Landis had to be careful about getting Naughton’s tackle in shot) that mark it out as something more modern, but I think it’s the film’s focus on character that’s most notable; I was actually surprised by how comparatively minimal the werewolf action is… it’s nearly an hour before we get to the groundbreaking transformation scene (still pretty stunning), and though the climactic havoc at Piccadilly Circus is terrifically pulled off, it’s also relatively brief. The time spent building the characters up, though, is well spent; Naughton is great as this sort of everyman guy in a pretty fucked situation, which is worse than usual cos Landis adds a neat twist whereby Naughton has to face the spirits of the people he killed on his first rampage and listen to them debate about how he should kill himself (cos his death is the only thing that will let them rest in peace). It’s almost like the werewolf isn’t a tragic enough figure as it is. Great stuff that I really should’ve seen years ago.

The Baby (1973)

Director: Ted Post

Cult Sinema is back in Sydney! It’s been an awfully long time since the Mu-Meson crew ran films at the Annandale; now they have a new home in Petersham, and OY did they kick off the revival in style… Being part of the Drive-In Delirium collection, The Baby is a film whose trailer I’ve seen many times, and so I had some idea of what to expect, i.e. a sort of southern Gothic melodrama (albeit one set in what I presume were rather more northern suburbs) involving the titular baby… who just so happens to be a young adult who never developed beyond infancy. And one day a social worker takes on Baby and his family—mother and two sisters—as her latest client, for reasons that finally become clear at the end. So I was prepared for some strangeness… and yet I was woefully underprepared for just how strange it would get. Put bluntly, this is profoundly fucking warped; there’s an early hint that something untoward happened to a previous social worker who dealt with the Wadsworth family, and it doesn’t come as a great surprise to learn that the rest of the family has even more problems than Baby, but OH MY just how problematic they are is something else. The scariest actually scary thing in the film—which I’m filing under “horror” cos that’s the best I can do with it—is Marianna Hunt’s astounding bouffant hair in the party scene, cos it looks more like 1983 than 1973, but the overall atmosphere of wrongness (enhanced by the film’s bizarre pacing and bravura scenery chewing by pretty much everyone involved, especially Ruth Roman’s matriarch) is the main thing, especially in the last third or so when the emotional temperature goes from merely superheated to positively thermonuclear. This film, basically, is fucked, and I enjoyed it immensely through all the times I had to keep picking my jaw off the floor.

The Undying Monster (1942)

Director: John Brahm

So, in 1941, Universal had a hit with The Wolf Man, and the people at 20th Century Fox decided they should do something like that as well. Except that they apparently saw no need to go the whole hog and make it an A production… but the end result still looks like one somehow. Not sure exactly what they did to save money, but The Undying Monster looks extraordinary when it comes to art direction and cinematography (an early job by Lucien Ballard); apparently a blu-ray is forthcoming and it should look amazing in HD given how good it looked in the OK online copy I watched. The film was adapted from a 1922 novel of the same name, but I suspect the aforementioned 1941 film was really more of an influence… from what I can gather, the film slims down the novel considerably though it does seem to retain the general outline. As the title may indicate, there is a monster afoot (and if, like me, you discovered this film via a reference work like Wm. Everson’s Classics of the Horror Film, you’ll know exactly what it is), but the film keeps it off-screen until the last reel; I imagine that even viewers in 1942 who didn’t know what the monster was were wondering long before then when it would finally appear. But the film is so compact (something like 63 minutes—like I said, this is a 1940s B film we’re talking about) that it doesn’t matter that much, and the only foot it really puts wrong is the comic relief detective’s assistant character (Heather Thatcher has some impressive other roles to her credit, but this was not her finest hour, evidently). Otherwise, it’s a fascinating little late-Victorian Gothic tale (dressed up with some of the finest science 1900 could buy), told with fine expressionist visual flair, and it should be better known than it probably is these days.

The Mummy series (1940-1944)

Over the years I’ve watched pretty much all of Universal’s classic horrors from the Good Old Days, plus a few of the lesser ones, and most of their various sequels. One series I’ve missed until now, though, is the Mummy films of the 40s… they’re not really follow-ups to the 1932 Karloff film (indeed, when Hammer did their own Mummy in 1959, these films were their point of departure rather than the earlier one), so they’re not in the same “cinematic universe” to use that godawful term. In this second phase of “Universal Monsters”, of course, the studio didn’t care as much about their horror films as they did in the early 30s and the Mummy films in particular seem to have only ever been intended as a B programmer series. I have a feeling one entry will be sufficient to cover the four of them…

The Mummy’s Hand (Christy Cabanne, 1940): An unpromising start at best for the adventures of Kharis, sloppy enough that even I noticed errors in it (of which the use of stock footage from the 1932 Mummy visibly featuring Boris Karloff is one of the more egregious; in fact, I think I may have spotted a notable continuity error not listed on the film’s IMDB entry). It’s pulp adventure, basically, nothing inherently wrong with that, and it does actually improve somewhat once the actual expedition to uncover the tomb gets underway, but the whole thing is hamstrung by Cabanne’s evident determination to play for laughs, so when the film’s comic relief is actually a main character you’ll be seeing throughout the film rather than just a secondary walk-on… yeah, not good. I’ll give it points for interesting timing, though, being clearly set in Egypt in 1940 but making no reference (at least that I saw) to a certain war going on, and being released in the same month that the Italians invaded Egypt. Just a few months later and they could’ve been in the film…

The Mummy’s Tomb (Harold Young, 1942): Not only were the 40s Mummy films not in the same “cinematic universe” as the 1932 film, they seem to have been in a different universe to each other. Beginning with a recap of the previous film so long I actually didn’t need to watch it after all, we find thirty years have passed, so it should be 1970… but our hero gets orders at one point to report for war service, which means that like the previous film it’s clearly set the year it was made… leaving some 28 years to be accounted for (not to mention that Wallace Ford’s character has a different name for some reason). We’re getting into Velikovsky territory here… But at least the mummy (Lon Chaney Jr) gets to do more than just lumber around like a stroke victim (indeed, he gives one of his victims a stroke), there’s revenge to be taken after the indignities of the previous film. Notwithstanding the clear padding of the opening reel, this was actually pretty good; Ford’s character is minimised and played straight, and director Young generally handles things with more care and seriousness than Cabanne did. An improvement on the first film (though wouldn’t it make more sense to swap the titles round?), much the best of the whole series indeed; and regardless of whenever it’s supposed to take place, a mob of villagers with flaming torches clearly never goes out of date…

The Mummy’s Ghost (Reginald Le Borg, 1944): Now, this was apparently finished by September 1943, but then it sat on Universal’s shelves for nearly a year. And there may be a perfectly good reason for that (cf. Arsenic & Old Lace: filmed in 1941, couldn’t be released until the Broadway production finally ended in 1944), but it usually seems to indicate a lack of faith in the product… Anyway, the cult that looked after Kharis in Egypt has changed its name as well for some reason, but otherwise we seem to be in the same time frame, whatever that was, of the previous film, maybe a couple of years after, so it could be 1943 or about 1975 or when the hell ever; Kharis’ new keeper (John Carradine, whose stick figure physique and voice are probably the film’s highlights) is tasked with returning him and the remains of Princess Ananka. But this gets tricky when it becomes evident that Ananka has finally latched onto the main plot of the 1932 Mummy and reincarnated… It’s adequately well made, I suppose, although the poor day-for-night filming is extremely distracting and the nice romantic couple kind of dull. Still, if most of the film is really only kind of average, the rather brave downbeat ending provides an unusual and dark twist, and at least there’s no stock footage from the earlier films in this one.

The Mummy’s Curse (Leslie Goodwins, 1944): And so it’s now another 25 years after whenever the Mummy’s last adventure was, and the swamp in which he submerges in the previous film has… well, moved from Massachusetts to Louisiana. Universal were clearly very hopeful that their audiences wouldn’t pick up on not insignificant details like this, weren’t they… anyway, in 1944 or 1997 or WHENEVER, an irrigation project to drain a swamp inadvertently brings Kharis back, a little ray of sunshine inadvertently brings Ananka back as well, and she’s not particularly impressed that lover boy is still pursuing her 3000 years later… Not much more than a fairly empty retread, and not much more to be said about it; probably a good thing the series stopped here, cos I can’t see where else it might’ve gone. Though it could very well have gone to California or something, given the geographic wonder of the narrative…

Horrors of Malformed Men (1969)

Director: Teruo Ishii

No, this wasn’t fucked up AT ALL. I’m a bit wary of “controversial” films, cos they rarely seem to be worth the fuss that they raise. In this case, the controversy seems to have been a matter of political correctness at the level of language; after the film came out there was evidently some sort of reform of the Japanese language in the early 70s, and describing a person as “malformed”—which in Japanese carries connotations that the person is not fully human and you should be mightily afraid of them—became one of the worst things you could say in Japanese. That seems to be a large part of why the film spent decades circulating only in a sort of underground fashion, quite apart from the stories of people being appalled by it enough as it was upon its cinema release… The material mostly comes via Edogawa Rampo (source for Blind Beast that same year, which was also not remotely strange, as you may recall) and fits within the ero-guro tendency, albeit leaning more towards the grotesque than anything else. It’s really hard to properly summarise; a man escapes from a mental institution, goes on the run after being implicated in a murder, and finds himself impersonating a dead man who looks uncannily like him. His “father”, a man said to have webbed fingers, has basically isolated himself on a nearby island. When our hero goes to check the latter, that’s when things REALLY get fucked. Up to that point the film has a kind of general atmosphere of strangeness, but in the second half of the film this just gets exponential; I spent much of the first half of the film wondering what the fuss was about, but I got it in the second. Ishii’s real genius was hiring Tatsumi Hijikata, the inventor of Butoh, as the Dr Moreau figure; his amazingly angular physicality (along with that of his dance troupe, who play his creations; unlike Freaks, there are no actual “freaks” here) adds something totally different to the mix. It’s convoluted (perhaps more so than necessary) and I’m not sure all the details add up, but it’s nothing if not memorable.

Zombie Holocaust (1980)

Director: Marino Girolami

And now for some classic Italian zombie action, albeit using the word “classic” loosely… This would’ve been much more accurately named Cannibal Holocaust, but a certain obscure and barely known other film had already scooped that title by appearing in cinemas just a few weeks earlier, which goes to show how timing can indeed be everything… oh well. This came near the end of a long career for Girolami, who apparently started as an actor in 1941 if his IMDB credits are right; as well as siring future director Enzo G. Castellari, he seems mostly to have worked in comedy as far as I can tell, with a handful of other genre titles, so I’m buggered if I can work how he came to make this. I daresay he had not much idea, either; the whole thing seems to have come from producer Fabrizio de Angelis, who’d looked at the box office returns from the recent crop of zombie films and cannibal films, and decided there was probably money to made from a film with zombies and cannibals. The only thing was, in the end result, we don’t actually see our first zombie until, oh, about 49 minutes into this 84-minute film, and they don’t actually do an awful lot.

But if you’re here for the cannibals, there’s plenty; indeed, the whole film stems from the discovery of a Southeast Asian cannibal dining on corpses at a New York hospital. The investigation regarding same leads eventually to the island said cannibal came from, where a bit of mad doctoring has been going on, which is where the zombies finally come in (being the products of said mad doctoring). This is really not a very good film, and yet there’s something bizarrely entrancing about it that I can’t explain. It’s absolutely derivative and does nothing terribly original apart from the outstanding and applause-worthy use of an outboard motor engine as a weapon, and for all of that something about it remains watchable. Maybe it’s a “so bad it’s good” thing cos I can’t really think of many positive things Zombie Holocaust has going for it, and I found myself enjoying it anyway. Can’t work it out.

Wyrmwood (2014)

Director: Kiah Roache-Turner

This reminds me of Undead in several ways; apart from the whole Australian zombie movie thing, there’s also the whole kind of homemade aspect as well. In this case, the brothers Roache-Turner apparently set out to make their opus in six months for just $20,000; that actually turned out nearer $150,000 and four years. Persistence surely paid off, though, cos—and this is the other way it reminds me of Undead—it’s a shitload of fun. Albeit very thinly explained fun; if Undead‘s alien visitation was clear enough, the meteor shower that somehow triggers an outbreak of zombies in the sticks of Victoria—yeah, we’re going there again for a second night in a row—is somewhat more obscure (one character compares it to the falling star in Revelations, but God Almighty never appears at any point to confirm the theory). And we never do quite find out what the doctor’s experiments are really for, do we… What Wyrmwood may lack in motivation, though, it makes up for in spades with gore, character and overall vigour, and an occasionally black humour that kind of arises from what I can only call the “Australianness” of the thing. This is what separates it from Charlie’s Farm from last night; the latter could just as easily have been set in the US without even having to rewrite the script that much, whereas you couldn’t transplant this quite so easily cos there’s something specifically Australian about the characters, how they behave, how they speak (e.g. Frank’s deathless “this is bullshit”). Leon Burchill as Benny, goddamn. I want to see him in everything now (I now see he’s in Stone Bros, which I was needing to check out anyway). And though you can see various homages to other movies of this sort, this film’s original contributions to the genre—particularly the use of zombie blood as fuel—are delightful. More blase than most films about such niceties as plot, coherence, etc, but an awful lot of fun. Will be interested to see what the RTs do next…

The Black Room (1935)

Director: Roy William Neill

“I can’t believe it’s not Universal!” Yeah, you don’t usually associate Columbia with this sort of thing; I can only assume Harry Cohn looked at the returns from Universal’s horror films of recent years (remember The Black Cat was the studio’s biggest money-spinner just the year before) and decided he should try some of that action. Director Neill and his production team would appear to have taken hints (and, apparently, some of the sets) from Universal and indeed the other studios that had dabbled in the genre, although the mission here was to come up with something less lurid than that, more a period melodrama with Gothic vibes. And Boris Karloff, in what is, effectively, actually three roles: the twin brothers, one of whom kills the other and then impersonates the latter. Basically, Gregor and Anton are the scions of an old noble family with a prophecy attached, that when twins were born, the younger would murder the elder out of spite at, you know, not inheriting anything. However, it’s actually Gregor, the elder, who grows up to be a nasty shit hated by his village folk, while the younger Anton is a kinder, gentler figure who, frankly, doesn’t seem like a murderer at all. But when he returns to the village after years of absence, the plot that unfolds is a bit more complicated than the old prophecy suggests. This is a fairly small and unassuming film in many ways (I assume it was meant primarily as a B programmer) and there’s a couple of possible plot holes if you look closely, but it’s surprisingly handsomely made, perfectly formed at 68 minutes, and of course Karloff is terrific in it; he didn’t always get much chance to demonstrate his actual acting skills in the films he made, but he rightly seizes the opportunity here.

Charlie’s Farm (2014)

Director: Chris Sun

The DVD packaging for this film prints a couple of enthusiastic critical notices, including this one which calls it the very thing the slasher genre was needing… by which I can only assume what the genre was lacking was rural Victorian settings (as in the Australian state, not 19th century Britain), cos otherwise I’m damned if I can think of anything else this film did that was, you know, new in any way. Otherwise it ticks most of the usual cliché boxes… bunch of young folk bumming around rural Victoria go to visit the farm of the title, where some 30 years earlier there was a bit of a massacre… cos the farmer and his wife were, shall we say, fucked, and they liked to kill and eat travellers who came their way. So the locals eventually up and killed them, but they missed the somewhat backwards child, Charlie, who’s said by some to still lurk around the old farm. And those people are right, as our Expendable Meat… er, heroes eventually discover. That other enthusiastic critical notice I mentioned can be found here, “Charlie’s Farm is the R rated film Australia has been dying to see”, and insofar as we don’t actually get a lot of R-rated films any more (I actually just did a check of the OFLC website; of the last 250 decisions listed on the site, I think only 6 things were rated R and only one of those was an actual film. The MA rating covers a lot of the old R-rating’s sins), that may or may not be fair… but if it is, damn, we’re evidently starved for something. I’ll give Charlie’s Farm points for what it does right, mostly Charlie himself—impressively massive and well made-up—plus the gore is reasonable and it nicely… subverts, shall we say, the final girl trope. Good Christ, though, until Charlie does finally go rampant in the last half hour, it’s as dull as duckshit; apart from him dispatching a couple of other backpackers before the credits and the flashback to the townsfolk killing the farmer and his wife, bugger all actually happens. It’s a crushingly long setup to establish some characters of not much interest before they get wiped out, and Charlie himself hardly constitutes a character as such, we’re not dealing with Mick Taylor here… Yeah, a bit bullshit. Director Chris Sun is apparently off to the US soon, where he’ll probably do better churning this sort of crap out than he will here… this does not inspire me to check out his other work, though.