Category Archives: * Top 500 Horror list *

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 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…

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.

Vampire Circus (1972)

Director: Robert Young

And we need a bit of Hammer for this month, too, so why not go with one that’s been on the to-do list for a while. This is, obviously, latter-day Hammer, and I gather it’s generally regarded as one of the better such films these days—even Sinclair McKay is quite kind to it in his book on Hammer—although at the time it seems to have been comparatively unloved. Again we have Hammer somewhat stuck in its fading gothic mode, but at least this time they had some new people on board to write produce and direct it, and at least it wasn’t just another Dracula sequel (though there’d be one of those that same year, and the next). It’s a film of kind of limited resources, whose production was kind of hampered by Young’s determination to take his time with it and make it as good as possible; this was the height of presumption at Hammer, and in the end some key scenes never got shot. For the most part, though, I don’t think the film actually suffers too much. Our story is set in some Mitteleuropa village suffering a plague which the townsfolk ascribe to a curse laid on them by a vampire killed nearby some years earlier; somehow, despite roadblocks being place, the titular circus comes to the village and, you know, things don’t get any better from there, cos the circus people are there to fulfil the vampire’s curse and restore him to life. Or unlife, whatever. Kind of bold in some ways (opening with a child as the first victim, and having two more later, gives it a decidedly unpleasant edge) and problematic in various others (the animal attack scene is just terribly done, and there are slips in continuity and logic even I noticed), but generally it’s pretty solid and markedly better than most of the other 70s Hammers I’ve seen.

Young Frankenstein (1974)

Director: Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks himself has characterised this as not his funniest film (he considers that to be Blazing Saddles with The Producers not far behind) but the one that was best written and best made. On re-examination after a lot of years (hadn’t seen this since I was in high school, probably around 1988 or 89), that strikes me as an astute and accurate observation. Having had a megahit with Blazing Saddles, another classic Hollywood genre parody/homage must’ve seemed in order, and his star Gene Wilder came up with the very thing while they were still making that film: an update of Frankenstein where the good doctor’s descendant is appalled by his ancestor’s antics but finds himself drawn into carrying on the old boy’s work. This could, obviously, have been played straight, it’s a decent pulp horror plot, but this is Mel Brooks we’re talking about…

Of course, the most striking thing about the film was that he insisted on shooting in black and white, which was a sticking point for the Hollywood studios who didn’t do that any more by 1974 (it was kind of like Chaplin making Modern Times a silent film in 1936); but he was right to insist on it, cos Young Frankenstein is one of the most beautiful black and white films I’ve ever seen. Outstanding photography of incredible sets (enhanced marvellously by the original lab gear from the 1931 Frankenstein). And yet I think Brooks is right in calling it not his funniest film, cos as well-made as it is, it’s not as continuously laugh out loud as Blazing Saddles was. It’s hugely clever, but it turns more on the strength of Wilder’s performance in particular than anything else. And that’s fine, of course; if it’s not as funny (nor as generally good) as its immediate predecessor, it’s still greatly entertaining, there’s a lot of affection for the genre (and specific films) it’s satirising, and in an age when so few filmmakers manage even one film per year, it’s kind of amazing to look back and see one not only putting out two films in one year, with both of them also among his best work.

The Invisible Man (1933)

Director: James Whale

Apparently H.G. Wells was not exactly thrilled by Island of Lost Souls, and demanded Universal treat his book more respectfully than Paramount had done. I haven’t read the book since the late 80s, and I remember very little of it, so I don’t know how faithful an adaptation it is, but Wells had to approve the script so it can’t have been too far off, I suppose… Anyway, it was interesting to watch this after The Mummy; if the voice of Karloff (originally supposed to star) was a big part of that film, Claude Rains’ voice was, basically, the star of this one. Nothing if not an extraordinary Hollywood debut (Rains had only made one film previously, and that was in 1920), his face doesn’t become visible until the very last shot of the film and he is, technically, naked for much of the film. Of course, this was a James Whale film, his third Universal horror; The Old Dark House (his second one) had displayed an element of weird humour that Frankenstein (his first) hadn’t exactly done, and that is ramped up here. Rains’ scientist, Griffin, is quite mad as a result of his experiments with invisibility, but along with the megalomania and murderousness it also inspires him to a sort of silly prankishness, most notably the golden moment when he steals a policeman’s pair of trousers and is next “seen” chasing a screaming woman terrified of these unnaturally animated pants… Needless to say, all of this required technical marvels that are still kind of stunning, particularly when you consider how difficult some of them would’ve been to achieve in 1933 (the shot of Griffin unbandaging himself in the mirror required four separate pieces of film to be combined); they’re not as flashy as modern CGI would be but they’re still amazing. Invisible Man doesn’t seem to be as well-remembered as Whale’s other horrors, but it was very pleasing to watch again tonight; the mix of horror and humour is certainly peculiar and occasionally disconcerting, but good fun overall.

The Mummy (1932)

Director: Karl Freund

At least there’s no doubt as there is with Dracula as to Karl Freund’s directorship of The Mummy, even if Wiki is correct about him only being hired to direct it two days before shooting started. It does rather borrow in many ways from Dracula, too, although whether that’s a case of Freund applying his alleged directorial experience from that film or just screenwriter John L. Balderston recycling his earlier work is another matter (probably the latter). Also, The Mummy borrows some of Dracula‘s cast, notably Edward Van Sloan as the Van Helsing substitute and David Manners as the somewhat crap male romantic lead. However, there’s one big difference: Karloff instead of Lugosi, and there’s no doubt he is much the best thing in the film… Part of that is down to the quite extraordinary makeup job designed by Jack Pierce; you don’t get to see a lot of it in detail (especially not when Karloff is still wrapped up in his burial bandages), but when you do get close-ups of that impossibly lined face, you see just how remarkable it is. But there’s also this remarkable, underplayed gravitas to his performance as the titular mummy, inadvertently revived in the modern day and now in search of his long-lost love… who has, of course, been dead for 3700 years just like him; fortunately for him, her spirit has reincarnated through various points of history (business which was sadly cut from the film before released) and is currently inhabiting a somewhat troubled young woman (Zita Johann, evidently one of Hollywood’s more extraordinary figures from that era) in Cairo. Karloff plays the key scene in which he shows her their past lives in Egypt with striking conviction and seriousness, much of it conveyed by his voice, which is really quite incredible here. He kind of easily overshadows everything else here, and gives the film its main attraction; I don’t think it’s as memorable on the whole as some of Universal’s earlier horrors, possibly because it is largely refried Dracula, but it does give Karloff one of his finest hours.

Scanners (1981)

Director: David Cronenberg

According to Wikipedia this was Cronenberg’s biggest commercial hit to this point in his career, returned something like $15m on a $3m budget which was fair business… seems also to have been his most straightforward film so far too (though I can’t judge that as I’ve not seen much of his earlier work, just his first two short features and Fast Company, which is… unrepresentative). One thing that is hard to deny, though, is that the film is, rightly or wrongly, known for that one scene, and that one understandably infamous special effect. What surprised me when I first saw the film a few years ago, though, was, well, how not a horror film it otherwise was until you get to the climactic showdown… if anything, Scanners is really more of a conspiracy thriller with a SF undercurrent, involving telepaths created as a side-effect of a pregnancy drug; ConSec, a company dealing in weapons and security, is using these scanners for its own purposes, and finds itself opposed by a rogue scanner (Michael Ironside) basically out to rule the world with the “scanner underground” he’s creating, leading ConSec to send out their last scanner (Stephen Lack) to stop him. Except Lack’s good guy is more like Ironside’s bad guy than he realises… Ironside is fine as Revok, and I just wish the film had used him a little bit more than it did; Lack is more problematic as Vale, because he is, well, kind of lacking. Apparently he is and was better known as an artist than as an artiste; either way he doesn’t exactly bring much in the way of screen presence, does he… I wouldn’t be as harsh as the IMDB commenter suggesting he should’ve got a Razzie for his work, but equally I’m not sure I side with his defenders saying Vale was supposed to be a flat character; it’s a thin line between flat character and just flat acting and I think Lack lands on the wrong side more often than not. He’s a weak link in a film that was already kind of ordinary, and which I think wouldn’t be particularly remembered if it weren’t kind of overshadowed by the exploding head business that the rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to…

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Well, here’s a change of pace, courtesy of SBS (whose October horror films have spilled over into a season of vampire films this month)… given they showed the TV series recently, I suppose it makes sense for them to go back to the source. This really is a particular kind of “none more mid-90s” film, isn’t it? Robert Rodriguez directing, Quentin Tarantino writing, George Clooney starring (ooooh he was young then), plus Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis in supporting roles and a shitload of violence and movie references… and, well, Tarantino trying to act. He’s probably not actually that bad—the character of Richie doesn’t exactly call for subtlety or nuance—but the people at the Razzies and the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards begged to differ, both nominating him for worst supporting actor that year. But he is, obviously, outshone by Clooney (whose magnetism is much more immediately striking) and Keitel (who’s really good as the preacher who’s lost his faith), not to mention Tom Savini’s jaw-dropping crotch piece. I’m presuming this was one of the first films of this kind to be kind of reliant on CGI for certain things, and to be honest I was a bit surprised by the amount of it (I keep forgetting CGI had already been around for quite a while since then; ILM had been doing it since the 80s), though I’m guessing there was still a fair bit of traditional animatronics and so forth… One thing is hard to deny, though: FDTD is a massive cheesefest of a particularly unabashed kind. Shit exploding, vampires on fire, miscellaneous severed body parts, all round carnage, no finer feelings or higher thoughts or greater ambition to be anything other than what it is in evidence, it’s kind of what I was hoping for. If it does anything wrong, it’s probably that it lets the setup—i.e.  the Gecko brothers’ adventures before arriving at the Titty Twister—go on for too long before its gloriously abrupt transition from a hostage thriller into balls-out vampire action, and could’ve done with being trimmed accordingly. On the whole, though, it basically delivers on its ludicrous B-grade promise; no high art, but that’s not always a bad thing…