November 19, 2018

TV Ads for Aging Monsters

The classic Universal monsters we all know and love are getting up there in age: Dracula and Frankenstein are 87, the Wolf Man is 77, and the youngest of the litter, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, almost qualifies for Medicare at 64.

Thanks to DVD, Blu-ray and retro shows like Me-TV’s Svengoolie, there’s some life in the old monsters yet. Speaking of retro TV, I’m fortunate to live in a large enough metro area that I pull in quite a few channels through the digital antenna (yes, I cut the cable cord a few years ago): Me-TV, Movies!, Grit, Decades, Comet, This-TV and several more. For someone of my age and tastes, it’s a cornucopia. The downside has been having to train myself not to DVR everything in sight. Even in retirement, there are just so many hours in the day, and old men cannot live by old movies alone.

And if you believe the commercials that air on those retro channels, it’s hard for old men (or women) to live at all -- at least not without a lot of help from vultures companies specializing in scams products and services aimed at the elderly. The profile of the average retro TV viewer is not a pretty one: (S)he is decrepit, arthritic, wears adult diapers, takes a variety of expensive meds, needs a scooter to go more than few yards, is contemplating a reverse mortgage, can’t get up once (s)he’s prone on the floor, and is constantly worried how loved ones will cover funeral expenses when (s)he goes.

This got me to thinking -- now that the classic monsters are firmly in this age category, what would ads aimed specifically at their needs look like? Here’s my take on the Mad Men’s ad campaigns for aging monsters.

New and Improved! Ultra-adjustable Laboratory Table!

No mad doctor's laboratory should be without one! With just one touch of your cold, dead finger, adjust your table from horizontal to 90o in seconds! Order today and get two tables for the price of one, complete with premium gold-buckled restraining straps!*
*Pay separate shipping and handling

Hair Club for Wolf-Men

There's nothing like a full head of hair to restore confidence and bring out a new, better you! We don't use implants, weaves or wigs -- just pure, natural moonlight. Make an appointment today and we'll cover your whole body with luxurious hair at no extra charge!

Imhotep's Age-Denying Skin Cream

Use this revolutionary new product and erase 3,000 years of fine lines and wrinkles in no time! Compare with creams costing hundreds of goat skins more! Try it today -- you're worth it!

Allstake's Supplemental Death Insurance

There are more zealots with wooden stakes out there than ever. If you should get staked, are you sure your hypnotized flunkies will have the means to bury you in unhallowed ground? Allstake's insurance plan costs mere pennies a day, there are no Dr. Van Helsing exams to go through, and your premiums will never go up. Enroll today for those poor lost souls who've done so much for you -- after all, you didn't pick them because they were rich!

Monster Alert is On Call 24/7

"Help! I'm being chased by a monster, I've fallen, and I can't get up!"TM There's nothing more frightening than being sprawled on the ground, ready to be scooped up by a slavering monster. Now, B-movie victims have only to touch their Monster Alert pendant button,* and one of our trained staff members will alert the authorities 24/7, 365 days a year.**
* Also comes in a handy keychain!
** Response times and quality of first responders may vary

October 31, 2018

Haunted Halloween Nights, Part 3: Modern vs. Medieval

Poster - Night of the Devils (1972)
Now Playing: Night of the Devils (La notte dei diavoli; 1972)

Pros: Adds a new twist or two to the visitor-stranded-in-an-old-dark-house cliché.
Cons: Inconsistent gore effects and day-for-night cinematography undercut the eerie atmosphere.

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
  ― Robert Frost


...Unless you are a ravening creature of the undead, a vourdalak, in which case you might want to do everyone a favor and find a nearby Super8 motel to park your rotting carcass. Unfortunately for the eastern European family in Night of the Devils, what is usually considered a strength -- family loyalty -- contributes to their dreadful undoing.

The film opens with a man stumbling out of the woods. With his torn coat and long, bloody scratches running down his face, he looks like he’s about to join the ranks of the undead (or maybe just the plain old dead). He collapses by a picturesque stream.

Cut to the local hospital where the doctors have hooked up the semi-comatose man to a science-fictiony brain-scanning device. Still in a state of shock, he sees disturbing visions including a maggot-infested skull, a woman’s head being blasted down to the bone, and an operation conducted by two spooky, skull-faced figures who cut the still-beating heart out of a body.

Neither the doctors or the police inspector can get anything out of him, except to note that his expensive clothes indicate that he is a wealthy foreigner (the locality being 1972-era Yugoslavia). The main physician also comments to the inspector that the patient becomes quite agitated when it gets dark, and that every night he stands at the window “looking into the darkness like a scared, cornered animal.”

That night, an attractive young woman, Sdenka (Agostina Belli), shows up at the hospital claiming to know the mystery man. She identifies him as Nicola, a lumber importer. The doctor takes Sdenka to see him, but when Nicola catches sight of her, he tears himself away from the orderlies and flees in terror down the corridor.

Back in his bed and now wearing a straight-jacket, he starts to remember how he got into his predicament…

On a bright sunny day, Nicola (Gianni Garko) is driving along forlorn country back roads to his business appointment. In classic horror movie fashion, he becomes lost, takes a turn down an unpromising road, almost hits a mysterious woman in black, and disables his car running up an embankment. As he tramps through the lonely woods to find help, the sight of huge black boars rummaging through the brush and the sounds of strange cries and moans tells him he’s not in Kansas (or contemporary east Europe) anymore.

Gianni Garko as Nicola
Some days, it just doesn't pay to get lost in the
godforsaken wilderness of eastern Europe.
The help he manages to find is hardly reassuring. He discovers a ramshackle old house, home to the extended Ciuvelak clan, who are just coming back from burying the brother of the patriarch, Gorca Ciuvelak (William Vanders). When Nicola asks for a ride to the nearest village, the stern old man tells him it will have to wait until tomorrow, as night is approaching and the woods are not safe after dark.

Accepting Gorca’s offer to stay the night, Nicola finds himself in a kind of time warp, as the house, lit only by candles and gas lamps and heated by the fireplace, seems to be something out of the 19th century. And the family is definitely odd. They bar the doors and windows at night, yet insist that they’re the only people left in the god-forsaken place.

Gorca’s eldest son Jovan (Roberto Maldera) tells Nicola that he learned auto mechanics in the army, and that he can probably fix the car (although where he is going to get the parts is not made clear).

The next morning, as Jovan works on Nicola’s car, Gorca announces that he is setting out to hunt down and destroy the “living dead” witch who has seduced his brother, caused his death, and brought a curse down upon the family (and who incidentally caused Nicola to crash his car). Jovan solemnly informs his father that if he’s not back by sunset, he is “finished.”

Nicola becomes more unsettled as he learns from the little girl Irina, Gorca’s niece (Cinzia De Carolis), all about the witch’s doings and her uncle’s mission to destroy the woman, and the deadline that Jovan has set.

William Vanders as Gorca
"Why father, what a long face you have!"
Gorca arrives at the house just as the mantle clock finishes chiming 6 o’clock. There is doubt among the family members -- did he make the deadline or not? -- but it’s dispelled when he dumps the bloody hand of the witch he has killed on the table and announces that the curse has been lifted.

Later that night, Gorca’s lovely and innocent daughter Sdenka declares her love for Nicola, clearly hoping the handsome stranger will take her away from the mad household. He reciprocates her feelings and takes her to bed.

The respite from high strangeness doesn’t last very long, however, as within a few hours the family learns that Gorca has spirited his niece Irina away in the night, and turned her into a living dead revenant like himself. Nicola watches in horror as Jovan plunges a wooden stake through Gorka’s heart.

Little does he know that in short order, he will be battling a whole family of vourdalaks, and wondering if his beloved Sdenka has also become a monster.

Night of the Devils was the second film inspired by Aleksey Tolstoy’s novella The Family of the Vourdalak (1886), the first being the “I Wurdalak” segment of Mario Bava’s classic Black Sabbath (1963). Mario Bava’s version is set squarely in the 19th century, and not only features a truly creepy atmosphere decorated, lit and shot by a master film craftsman, but also boasts one of Boris Karloff’s most chilling performances.

Night is a longer treatment, and takes a different approach in framing the story of the doomed Ciuvelak clan with the very contemporary scenes of the hospital. Nicola becomes a man lost in space and time, an ordinary modern businessman encountering near-medieval strangeness. The framing/flashback device serves to accentuate the film’s dreamlike aspects.

Roberto Maldera as Jovan
There's nothing better than a good stake after
a hard day of vourdalak hunting.
Where the film excels is not so much the bloody action scenes but rather the quieter interludes between the blood and gore: Nicola’s first walk through the woods accompanied by strange cries and moans; the alarmed forest animals fleeing in the wake of the witch as she roams about; the menacing grimace of patriarch Gorca as he returns from his witch hunt; Nicola slowly backing away in fright and confusion from the lovely Sdenka, whom he now believes to be a vourdalak.

Typical of eurohorror of the period, there is the requisite blood and gore. Some of it works, some doesn’t. The camera lingers too long on Jovan’s staking of Gorca through the chest. Similarly, each time a vourdalak is dispatched, seconds tick by as we’re treated to an excruciating close-up of the creature’s face as blood pours from the eyes and its flesh dissolves.

One of the gorier scenes is the most effective. Upon returning to the house and finding that the entire clan has been turned into slavering vampires, Nicola tries to flee in his car. Irina’s mother Elena (Teresa Gimpera), now a hungry monster, grabs the driver’s side door before he can shut it. They play a desperate game of tug of war before Nicola manages to slam the door on her hand, severing most of her fingers. Undaunted, the vampire woman laughs maniacally as she stabs the car window repeatedly with the bloody stump of her hand.

The effects were the work of Carlo Rambaldi, who would later become famous for creating the far gentler E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982). Manuel Berenguer’s cinematography is generally competent, especially with the interior scenes, where he manages to create a creepy, shadowy atmosphere in the candle-lit old house. However, in many of the exterior scenes, the obvious day-for-night photography undercuts the supernatural ambience.

Teresa Gimpera as Elena
Elena is out for a late night snack

Director Giorgio Ferroni had done horror before, contributing something of a minor classic, the creepy and atmospheric Mill of the Stone Women (1960), to the Eurohorror canon. However, he was better known for the spate of sword and sandal and spaghetti western pictures he made in between the horror films. Similarly, up to that time Gianni Garko’s experience was in westerns and costume epics, with an occasional spy thriller thrown in the mix. Agostina Belli was a little more experienced in the horror genre, having recently appeared in Scream of the Demon Lover (1970) and the giallo The Fifth Cord (1971) leading up to her gig in Night of the Devils.

In Jonathan Rigby’s comprehensive treatment of European horror films, Euro Gothic: Classics of Continental Horror Cinema (Signum Books, 2016), the author offers a fairly lengthy analysis of Night of the Devils, and wraps it up with a compliment:
“Ferroni’s crescendo of paranoid horror is splendidly sustained, and the film itself -- bolstered by Giorgio Gaslini’s excellent score and Manuel Berenguer’s delicate Scope photography -- is ripe for reappraisal as a small classic of Italian horror.” (p.248)
Where to find it: Rent or buy from Amazon. It's also available through Kanopy - check your local library for availability.

October 25, 2018

Haunted Halloween Nights, Part 2: Reason vs. Ritual

Poster - Burn Witch Burn, aka Night of the Eagle (1962)
Now Playing: Night of the Eagle (aka Burn, Witch, Burn; 1962)

Pros: Establishes a very spooky atmosphere of escalating menace.
Cons: Wraps the story up too abruptly and neatly.

Amidst all the sound and fury and scandal of American public life these days, a quiet revolution is brewing. Millennials are becoming increasingly skeptical of established institutions, especially organized religion, and are turning to alternative lifestyles and philosophies in droves.

One huge beneficiary of this sea change is the Wicca religion (or if you prefer, Pagan Witchcraft). Surveys indicate that Wicca membership has exploded from around 8,000 in 1990 to over a million today.

One of the aims of Wicca is to dispel the negative connotations that surround the word “witchcraft.” Another is to promote a better balance between humanity and nature that has been lost with the cult of technology. According to Wicca.com,
“Witchcraft in ancient history was known as ‘The Craft of the Wise’ because most who followed the path were in tune with the forces of nature, had a knowledge of Herbs and medicines, gave council and were valuable parts of the village and community as Shamanic healers and leaders. They understood that mankind is not superior to nature, the earth and its creatures but instead we are simply one of the many parts, both seen and unseen that combine to make the whole.”
The Witches' Sabbath - Francisco Goya
I don't think this is the kind of image
the Wiccans are going for...



I think part of the appeal is that Wicca is proactive, asserting that adherents have the power to change things for the better here-and-now, as opposed to waiting for their reward in an afterlife.

Assuming the surveys are accurate, a million believers is nothing to sneeze at. If there’s anything at all to the new white witchcraft, then I say more power to them -- a better balance between soulless technocracy and life-affirming spirituality is just what the witch doctor ordered. On the other hand, people being what they are, you can be damned sure that not all practitioners are of the positive, tree-hugging type.

A long time ago in the forgotten America of the mid-twentieth century, author Fritz Leiber anticipated the rise of Wicca with his story Conjure Wife. First published in 1943 in the pulp magazine Unknown Worlds, Conjure Wife conjures up a world in which women are secret witches, manipulating daily life with spells and incantations while the clueless men putter about, thinking that they are somehow masters of their own fate.

Over the years, Conjure Wife has gained a reputation as one of the better pieces of 20th century fantasy fiction. Its theme of secret, behind-the-scenes witchcraft in contemporary society has been taken up many times, most recently in the third and current seasons of the anthology TV series American Horror Story, featuring powerful witches.

The first film adaptation, Weird Woman (1944), was part of Universal’s Inner Sanctum series, and starred Lon Chaney Jr., Anne Gwynne and perennial Universal scream queen Evelyn Ankers. Witches Brew (1980), featuring Richard Benjamin, Terri Garr and Lana Turner, apparently took the material and made it much more whimsical and light-hearted. By all accounts, Night of the Eagle is the best adaptation of the lot. Filmed in the UK, Night combines scenes of comfortable, prosaic middle-class life with a creeping atmosphere of dark, unseen menace.

Night of the Eagle features yet another champion of science and reason, psychology professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde). The film opens with Taylor lecturing his class on the roots of superstition. On the blackboard he has written “I do not believe” -- words that he asserts can vanquish such forces as the supernatural, witchcraft, superstition, and psychic phenomena. Taylor sees such beliefs as futile attempts to “control one’s environment and the forces of nature.”

Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) lecturing on the supernatural
"Excuse me professor, is this going to be on the test?"
Taylor is secure in his pompous rationality -- so much so, that even though he hasn’t been at the college long, rumor has it that he is the favorite to nab a coveted department chair position. He is young, dynamic, and life is clearly going very well for him. However, Taylor’s beautiful wife Tansy (Janet Blair) hasn’t gotten the memo, especially the part about witchcraft being “futile.”

It seems that while the couple were on sabbatical in Jamaica, Tansy had learned all about the powers of “conjure magic” from a local shaman. She senses that behind the humdrum facade of college life evil lurks, waiting to strike. She has placed all kinds of charms and talismans around the house in order to protect her oblivious husband.

When the good professor accidentally discovers the extent to which Tansy has larded the house with magical items, in a fit of self-righteous rationality he forces her to destroy them. Which is a big mistake. Suddenly, his once charmed life takes a big turn for the worse. A female student accuses him of sexual assault. Her boyfriend pulls a gun on him at his office. Worse yet, he’s no longer on the fast track to the department chair gig.

Janet Blair as Tansy Taylor
"Omigod, I forgot the bats' wings and eyes
of newt in my grocery order!"
Tansy is beside herself with dread at what her husband has inadvertently unleashed. Things go from bad to worse as elemental forces besiege their humble home with sudden windstorms and raging fire. It seems someone who also has intimate knowledge of witchcraft is willing to go to any length to prevent the couple from settling into a comfortable, successful life. And before the night is out, Tansy will offer herself as a sacrifice to stem the evil tide, and Taylor will be dragged kicking and screaming into unmitigated belief in the supernatural.

Night of the Eagle very effectively takes the primeval/gothic horror elements of witchcraft, curses and talismans and relocates them to the most pedestrian of settings, a sleepy 20th century college community. The atmosphere of menace builds slowly at first. At a bridge party that Taylor and Tansy hold for their fellow faculty members and spouses, the conversation turns to campus politics and the open department chair position. Jealousies are revealed that, rather than petty, may be quite serious.

After Taylor pigheadedly strips himself and Tansy of their protections, the dark magic assaults begin in earnest. Fittingly, the secret malefactor uses the devices of the rational, technological age -- Taylor’s phone and tape recorder, and at the climax, the college’s PA system -- to try to destroy the haughty professor.

In one very effective night scene at the Taylor house, the professor is listening to a tape recording of one of his lectures when a curious eerie trilling sound issues from the machine. Tansy realizes that it is something unnatural and evil, and switches off the recorder to Taylor’s consternation. No sooner has she dealt with recorder, than the phone rings. Panicked, she yells at her husband not to pick it up. He brushes her away and then frowns in confusion as the sound emanates even more loudly from the receiver.

Tansy (Janet Blair) and Norman (Peter Wyngarde) look at the phone apprehensively
"Whatever you do, DON'T ANSWER IT! It's AT&T trying
to sell us their internet and home security bundle!"
The lights go out, and at the same time something very large, making frightful sounds, seems to be right outside the front door. She just manages to pull the plug on the phone before her clueless husband can open the door onto the horror that is waiting outside. With the cessation of the eerie trilling, all the manifestations disappear.

The eldritch assault using the technology of supposed science and reason crescendos at the climax, as the auditory black magic summoning is piped over the college’s PA system. This (apparently) animates the very medieval-looking stone eagles that are placed around the grounds and the buildings. One chases the now-terrified Taylor into his classroom, where, ironically, “I do not believe” is still seen on the blackboard.

Night of the Eagle is a very well-constructed, spooky ride up to this point, but there are a couple of knocks on it. First, the shadowy evil-doer is pretty obvious from the get-go. Secondly, the villain’s comeuppance is very abrupt, and the way it comes about is too blatantly ironic. (Another possible objection, if you won’t make allowances for the era in which the film was made, is the absurdity of women with magic powers deciding to use them exclusively for the benefit of their blundering men.)

Still, it’s a very decent entry in the familiar science vs. superstition meme. Film historian William K. Everson, in his enjoyable horror film survey Classics of the Horror Film (Citadel Press, 1974), called out some of the film’s weaknesses, but also praised it for “several chilling sequences,” and especially for Janet Blair’s acting. He also hilariously used the film as a cautionary case study in reading too much into directorial decisions:
"The occasionally somewhat erratic editing was at least partially attributable to the hero’s [Peter Wyngarde’s] insistence on wearing indelicately tight trousers, forcing the director to shoot him in extreme long shot or extreme closeup much of the time! (This trivia information is recorded only to prevent future auteurists from discovering a definite pattern to the photographic style, and determining that medium shots for the wife and none for the hero are metaphors symbolizing a lack of communication between the two!)" (p. 239)
Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) runs in terror from dark forces
Peter Wyngarde threatens to bust out of his skinny jeans
as he runs in terror from a stone eagle.
Oh the horror, the horror!

Where to find it: If you have Amazon Prime, you can stream Night of the Eagle right now, for free.