December 23, 2019

December 12, 2019

It's a Wonderful Afterlife

Poster - Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
Now Playing: Beyond Tomorrow (1940)

Pros: Good cast of B-movie veterans; Has its share of genuinely touching moments.
Cons: Tests viewer patience with a naive, pseudo-Horatio Alger storyline.

In 2008, a poll by the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion revealed something startling: 55% of the 1700 respondents believed that at some point in their lives, they had been “protected from harm by a guardian angel.” According to Time magazine’s report, this majority belief held up “regardless of denomination, region or education.” (The percentage declined to 37% for those making $150k or more a year - not really a surprise, as many studies have found a strong correlation between lower incomes and religiosity.) 

Perhaps it’s an artifact of a particular time and social climate. In 2008, the nation was on the cusp of the Great Recession and embroiled in a fractious presidential race that was a big, noisy warning of even greater divisions to come. You can forgive people in uncertain times for grabbing any mental lifesavers they can, including the long-shot belief that their as*es just might be saved by a benevolent angel looking down from above.

Maybe it’s time for Baylor to do a follow-up. One wonders if this sort of belief would still hold firm, with church attendance on a steep decline over the past decade. On the other hand, even though the mainstream media keeps braying that the economy has recovered and unemployment is at near-record lows, Americans seem to be jumpy and gloomy and ready to tear into each other at the drop of a hat. More than ever, we could all use a kindly angel to whisper in our ear, if only to persuade us to put down the smartphone for a few minutes.

If these times call for guardian angels, then the 1930s and ‘40s must have required a mass mobilization in Heaven. Predictably, Heavenly guardians and divine intervention figured into more than a few movies of the era. The protagonist of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) is given a new body and sent back to earth after he’s mistakenly called up to Heaven too soon. In A Guy Named Joe (1943), dead pilot turned guardian angel Spencer Tracy looks after fellow pilot Van Johnson even to the point of helping him romance Irene Dunne.

Jimmy Stewart and Henry Travers in It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
"A word of advice Clarence, when you appear before the House
Un-American Activities Committee, just take the Fifth."
And then of course there’s the most popular guardian angel of them all, Clarence from Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), who earns his wings by showing George Bailey the value of his life. Considering its current iconic status as one of the most popular holiday films of all time, it’s interesting to note that when it was first released, critical reception was mixed, and it actually lost money -- around $500,000 -- for RKO. To add insult to injury, it even attracted unwanted attention from the FBI, which circulated a memo accusing the film of giving aid and comfort to the communists by “attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters," among other thought crimes. 

In spite of its perceived commie sympathies, It’s a Wonderful Life would eventually earn its wings and take off in the hearts of audiences yearning for a bit of innocent, sentimental nostalgia. It’s perhaps no coincidence that as the country in 2008 entered the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, reruns of Capra’s ode to small town America were all over TV during the holidays, and Paramount issued a “collector’s edition” DVD set and blu-ray the following year. 

Of course, not every cinematic angel became a super-star like Clarence. Six years before Capra’s novice angel worked his magic, jovial industrialist turned ghost/guardian angel Michael O’Brien (Charles Winninger) would similarly try to save a lost soul from himself in Beyond Tomorrow (1940). Although the film has been a staple of holiday TV for years and has seen a number of home video releases, it hasn’t quite warmed viewers’ hearts to the extent its younger cousin has.

C. Aubrey Smith, Harry Carey and Charles Winninger in Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
"I've only got a twenty, does anyone have change?"
Beyond opens on Christmas Eve, with wealthy industrialists George Melton (Harry Carey) and Allan Chadwick (C. Aubrey Smith) obliviously working on plans for a new project in the spacious library of their townhouse. Enter jolly old Michael bearing presents and a festive mood in anticipation of a dinner party with invited guests. The household is a relatively large one, with the three wealthy bachelors, Madam Tanya (Maria Ouspenskaya), a Russian countess who fled the communist revolution and who now manages the house for the trio, and a loyal butler, Josef (Alex Melesh).

When the dinner guests cancel at the last moment, Melton, who is a morose cross between Scrooge and Eeyore, is convinced that it’s because of his involvement in a recent scandal (we’re not given details). To cheer everyone up, Michael proposes a fun game of “wallet fishing” (my name for it). The three bachelors each pony up a wallet with a card with their name and address and a $10 bill (the equivalent of around $100 today) in it. From the balcony, they throw the wallets out onto the sidewalk. If anyone returns a wallet, they become an instant dinner guest.

True to form, Melton bets that none of the wallets will be returned. At first it looks like Melton’s pessimism will be confirmed, as a prosperous party girl (we’ll see her later) finds the first wallet and frivolously hands it over to her chauffeur as an impromptu Christmas bonus. But O’Brien is ultimately vindicated, as two honest, not-so-prosperous people show up to return the other two.

Jean Parker and Richard Carlson in Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
Jean patiently waits for slow, awkward James to propose.
Honest citizen #1 is James Houston (Richard Carlson), a cowboy from Texas whose “aw shucks” demeanor and drawl mask a world-class singing voice (which he uses to wow everyone at the last-minute Christmas party). #2 is Jean Lawrence (Jean Parker), a sweet, dedicated caretaker at a local children’s clinic. Both are alone and near destitute in the big city. After the party, the three bachelors practically adopt the two naifs, having a blast bowling with the pair and playing dress-up and parading around with the children at the clinic. Of course, James and Jean fall in love, with James proposing in that stumbling, awkward way so dear to lovers of old Hollywood romances.

Then, tragedy strikes. The three benefactors have to fly out of state to attend to some business. As they board the plane, Madam Tanya has a premonition that something bad will happen and pleads with them to take a train instead. Sure enough, their plane crashes into a mountain, killing all three.

As their friends and compatriots grieve, word gets out that the wealthy men provided a significant financial nest-egg for Jean and James. The newspapers are intrigued by the human interest angle, and as a result of all the attention, James’ singing aspirations are uncovered.

Faster than you can say “American Idol,” the Texan is invited to demonstrate his talents on a nationally syndicated show, meets singing star Arlene Terry (the posh woman who couldn’t be troubled to return the wallet at the beginning of the film; played by Helen Vinson), and is promptly signed up for Terry’s new touring show. Naturally, as his fame and fortune grows, the once awkward country boy gets stars in his eyes and forgets his engagement to poor Jean.

Maria Ouspenskaya as Madam Tanya in Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
Madam Tanya senses the presence of her ghostly friends.

In the meantime, the ghosts of the three bachelors have convened back home. They seem to be earthbound for some purpose, and can see that things are going south for Jean as James is increasingly seduced by showbiz and the glamorous Arlene. But being incorporeal spirits, they’re not sure what they can do. It’s left to perspicacious Madam Tanya, who senses the spirits’ presence, to advocate for old fashioned virtues in the face of glittery temptations.

It soon appears that the ghosts’ mission has been called off, as one-by-one they’re summoned to their other-worldly destinations. Old curmudgeon Melton is first, and he stoically shuffles off amidst terrifying thunder and lightning -- it seems that the mysterious scandal has earned him a ride on the down escalator. Stiff-upper-lipped Brit Chadwick is the next to go, as his soldier son -- who obviously preceded him in death -- appears and beckons his dad to join him at a heavenly version of the old colonial post where Chadwick spent his happiest years.

Charles Winninger and C. Aubrey Smith in Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
Chadwick prepares to join his dead son in reporting
for eternal duty at Shangri-La.
O’Brien is the last spirit standing (floating?) as things start to come to a head for James. The cowboy's glitzy new life has caused him to cross paths with Arlene’s alcoholic, washed-up singer of an ex-husband (who, to add insult to injury, James replaced on Arlene’s show). When the jovial Irishman is suddenly summoned to his final destination, he demurs, insisting that James is in big trouble and needs his help. The summoner tells him that if he doesn’t go, he’ll be earthbound forever. In spite of the consequences, he decides to stay and do what he can as James’ self-appointed guardian angel.

In contrast to It’s a Wonderful Life, with its depictions of malicious, greedy bankers and alternate reality capitalist hell-holes, there is very little in Beyond Tomorrow that J. Edgar Hoover could have objected to. The film’s wealthy businessmen are mostly kind, charitable, and fun to be around. (Melton, with his dark secret, is grumpy and pessimistic, but down deep has a heart of gold.)

The needy characters at the beginning of the film, James and Jean, aren’t resentful of their lot in life. Like 1940s-era Horatio Algers, they don’t look twice and happily seize on the opportunities afforded by their new benefactors. Similarly, Madam Tanya, who left everything behind fleeing Soviet Russia, seems to want nothing more than to run the household for the bachelors.

I can visualize the old, puritanical J. Edgar giving the film a huge red, white and blue seal of approval. And that’s part of the problem. Beyond Tomorrow is filled with such All-American sweetness and light for so much of its running time, that the eyelids start to droop.

James (Richard Carlson) sings his way to fame and fortune in Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
"I'm dreaming of a white limo..."
While It’s a Wonderful Life also indulges in gooily sentimental scenes, it at least has a scene-chewing villain in the form of crabby, avaricious Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) to give it an edge that Beyond sorely lacks. Beyond Tomorrow wants us to hiss at star singer Arlene Terry as a hussy and temptress, but she makes a pretty weak villain -- she has no idea James is engaged to Jean, and she has her own cross to bear with an alcoholic ex-husband who can’t let go.

In fact, James is far worthier of the viewer’s ire. Unaccountably, after the benefactors are killed in the plane crash, James moves into their cushy townhouse while Jean continues to stay in her drab room at the clinic. Once his career takes off, he’s too cowardly to tell Jean the marriage is off to her face, sending her lame excuses by telegram instead.

Everyone -- especially guardian ghost O’Brien -- is fretting about how the poor, guileless Texan is being seduced by Terry and showbiz, as if he’s a child with no control over his life. In contrast, George Bailey’s big mistake is a kind of selfless one -- he concludes that everyone will be better off without him.

Like in many movie romances, the lovers themselves are either boring or irritating. Jean wallows in stoic martyrdom while James follows the women in his life around like a puppy dog. It’s the characters around them that propel the action and elicit the smiles. Beyond Tomorrow is redeemed by the rich “uncles,” who, despite being textbook character types -- the sour businessman with a heart of gold; the stiff-upper-lipped Brit; the jovial Irishman -- are fun to watch with their betting, bantering and matchmaking.

Their ultimate fates in the afterlife provide some of the film’s most intriguing moments. At first, when the three gather back home as spirits after the plane crash, it seems clear that they’ve been given a short time on earth to try to save James from himself. But when Melton and Chadwick are called to their final destinations before the mission is completed, we’re left wondering just what their spirits were doing on earth in the first place.

A shining glimpse of the Great Beyond in Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
O'Brien is summoned to that great Christmas tree lot in the sky.
Each apparently has a different, personalized eternal fate in store. As the Irishman is summoned, the trees before him light up like a heavenly Christmas theme park, and a bright guiding light shines above. It’s especially poignant when O’Brien forsakes such a beautiful eternity to stay on earth to help James.

When Beyond Tomorrow was released, Harry Carey (Melton) was the biggest name, having picked up an Oscar nomination the year before for a supporting role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). He was a huge cowboy star in the silent era, later graduating to more diverse character roles. C. Aubrey Smith (Chadwick) was also very familiar to audiences of the time, having made a career out of playing upper-crust British military men and politicians in such films as The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) and The Four Feathers (1939).

Regular visitors to this blog (you are out there, aren’t you?) are no doubt familiar with Maria Ouspenskaya (Madam Tanya), the sorrowful gypsy woman in The Wolf Man (1941), and Richard Carlson (James), who was everywhere in ‘50s sci-fi. Richard battled the Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), alerted the world to the existence of aliens in It Came from Outer Space (1953), and even directed and starred in his own space opera, Riders to the Stars (1954).

But Beyond Tomorrow belongs to Charles Winninger as Michael O’Brien, who brings buoyant energy to a somewhat stereotypical role, and provides the film’s most touching moment. His character lays everything, including his own eternal peace, on the line for a friend, and we can’t ask for a better example of the Christmas spirit than that.

Where to find it: See for a number of different DVD editions; it's also streaming for the moment on Amazon Prime.

November 25, 2019

Holiday TV Ads for Monsters

In that alternate universe where monsters are the norm rather than the terrifying exception, holiday TV ads are different, yet disturbingly familiar:

Black Friday at Wailmart

Wailmart courtesy of Son of Frankenstein (1939)
It’s not too early to start lining up at your local Wailmart for screamin’ Black Friday deals. We’ll throw open the doors at the stroke of midnight. Don’t miss out on your chance to get body parts, brains, electrical equipment, chemistry sets, lab coats, lab tables and much, much more at unbelievable prices! The first 500 through the door will get a free pitchfork!

Every Kiss Begins with Canines ™

'Every Kiss' courtesy of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)
Forget the diamonds. This holiday season, show how much you really love her by giving her the gift of eternal life. With every purchase of our "Take a Bite out of Life" plan, you’ll get a deluxe, satin-lined coffin and soil from her hometown.*
*Requires signing over her immortal soul at checkout

Charnel No. 13

Charnel no. 13 courtesy of The Devil Bat (1940)
You love hanging around morgues. You can’t resist the earthy aroma of a freshly dug grave. You prowl the night searching for that sublime stench of rot and decay. Charnel No. 13 is the fragrance for you, the sophisticated ghoul.*
*The only perfume endorsed by Dr. Paul Carruthers, foremost scent expert

Monstercare Advantage Plan, Part X

Monstercare Part X courtesy of Man Made Monster (1941)
Most Monstercare advantage plans cover Parts A, B, C, and D for things like replacement brains, limb reattachments, and various elixirs and potions, but Monstercare Advantage Plus is the only one that covers Part X: eXperimental procedures. Are you dead and need to be revived? Do you need to become an indestructible human dynamo by being charged up with huge amounts of electricity? Monstercare Plus X will cover these experiments, and even ones that haven’t been dreamed up yet!*
*Enroll now - deadline is December 7.

A & C Shipping

A & C Shipping courtesy of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Do you absolutely, positively need to get that body to its destination in time for the holidays? Rely on A & C Shipping, with over 70 years of experience! Owners Bud and Lou personally inspect every shipment, and make sure it gets there safe and sound!*
*A surcharge may be added for bodies over 7 feet long. .

November 15, 2019

Martin “Thanos” Scorsese vs. the Marvel Universe

This is truly the age of faux controversy. I never cease to be amazed at the ability of the social media behemoth to take a fairly innocent celebrity comment, strip it of all context, and blast it out there to get all those thumbs furiously tapping out as many knee-jerk tweets, texts and posts as possible. I was particularly interested when King of the Movie Nerds Martin Scorsese caused a major kerfuffle with a comment on Marvel superhero movies in an Empire magazine interview:
“I don’t see them,” he says of the MCU. “I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well-made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
(By the way, I mean no disrespect in using the term Nerd; quite the opposite. Not only does Mr. Scorsese, well into his ‘70s, work his butt off making great movies, he spends his time off the set tirelessly advocating for film preservation and the richest possible viewing experience. Recently, he’s tackled the arcane tech issue of motion-smoothing on newer TVs that changes the way movies look on the small screen, and is working with major manufacturers to develop a “film mode” that better replicates the look that filmmakers are going for. It takes a passionate nerd to step in and do the nitty-gritty work so the rest of us can take it for granted that our favorite films will be there for us.)

Home viewing night with popcorn
Martin would prefer you watch his movies in a theater, but if you
have to watch at home, turn off that motion-smoothing setting.
There’s nothing new or particularly outrageous in Scorsese’s remarks. Lots of people have been comparing the blockbuster comic book and sci-fi movies to amusement park rides since at least the early 2000s. Heck, I’ve said it more than once on this blog -- in fact, it’s enshrined as part of my “About the Blog” statement (revised in November 2018):
“Theaters compete [with Netflix and Amazon Prime] with CGI-infested blockbusters that more resemble amusement park rides than traditional movies (and desperately try to deliver on ever-more exorbitant ticket prices). It’s Cinerama all over again, trying to woo jaded consumers away from the net, if only for a couple of hours. An increasingly desperate Hollywood pushes every franchise entry, re-boot, re-make or sequel as an “event,” with accompanying big ticket prices, leading to empty wallets and growing cynicism.”
Scorsese tries to be as gentle as possible with his fellow filmmakers -- “ well made as they [MCU movies] are, with actors doing the best they can…” -- while simply expressing a personal preference. That this should become such a huge news story, with all the theatrical hand-wringing and head-shaking (e.g., “James Gunn ‘Saddened’ by Martin Scorcese...”) is characteristic of a culture that needs to stoke controversy and outrage over everything, 24/7, to capture eyeballs and sell ads.

Variety’s coverage of the teapot tempest featured a number of prickly, defensive tweets from the usual MCU suspects, but I smiled when I saw this very sensible reaction:

To be fair to the MCU fans whose feelings got hurt, I think saying that superhero movies aren’t “cinema” is somewhat closed-minded. Even if you privilege art over industry in your conception of Cinema with a capital C, just because a movie doesn’t plumb a group of characters’ psychological depths doesn’t mean there’s no art or cinematic value there.

The purpose of the art is just different -- in the case of superhero movies, to create worlds that inspire wonder and awe as backdrops to basic conflicts of good and evil. You can complain about the techno-fetishism, or the over-reliance on digital effects, or even simply that they’re loud and dumb (and believe me, I do), but hey, to give the Devil his due, they are also the result of small armies of highly talented, passionate people who work long hours at their art.

Poster - House of Frankenstein (1944)
When I was kid, we'd never heard of a "shared
cinematic universe," but we sure did love the
Universal monster rallies.
Also, if we think of cinema as having an enduring value and relevance for audiences over longer time frames, then we have to pay respect to the good-vs.-evil melodramas that, on the face of it, seem so puerile. After all, millions of people still enjoy the fruits of the very first cinematic universe -- the Universal monsters -- decades after they first appeared in theaters, while many of the “adult” dramas of the period are all but forgotten. (If home video releases and streaming availability are any indication, then the monsters win hands down.)

In a recent Den of Geek article, "Universal Monsters, How the Wolf Man Created the First Cinematic Universe," David Crow writes,
"Over 80 years since it began, the Universal Monsters legacy continues to stretch into a new century, spreading celluloid immortality like a juicy Transylvanian kiss. The Universal Monsters did it first, and in many ways, their blunt directness had a special charm that is sorely lacking in the self-seriousness currently masquerading in their bloodless, caped descendants."
I doubt Scorsese would hold up the Universal monsters as a model of good cinema, but at least a few current film writers appreciate the “ancient” (by 2019 standards) antecedents of today’s multi-billion $ fantasy and sci-fi franchises.

Scorsese’s crime was expressing an off-the-cuff, mild prejudice that we all indulge in from time to time: Comic book movies aren’t cinema; George R.R. Martin’s novels aren’t literature; Andy Warhol didn’t create “art.” You don’t have to agree to see where the person is coming from.

Lithograph reproduction - Andy Warhol's soup can
I don't know if this is art, but I know
what I like, and I like soup.
Maybe true “cinema” should engage audiences more directly with deep, meaningful takes on the human condition. Maybe superhero movies don’t cut it. So what? My advice to MCU fans is to walk away, decide not to engage. You don’t need to have the whole world behind you, and certainly not dear old Martin, to enjoy your movies. Take the high road. Watch The Irishman when it comes out. Cleanse your palate by enjoying a more down-to-earth drama or comedy. Maybe track down an old genre flick or two just to get a sense of how movies have evolved (the classic Universal monsters might be a good place to start). Then get back to your passion, refreshed and relaxed, and watch some superheroes artfully kick ass.

October 31, 2019

A Tale of Two Thrillers: Special TV for Halloween Edition, Part Two

Title card - Thriller TV series, 1960-1962
Now Playing: Thriller (US TV series, 1960-1962)

Pros: The series set a high point for Gothic horror on American television.
Cons: Never established a consistent identity; Vacillated between Alfred Hitchcock-style suspense and supernatural horror.

You’ve seen it a million times before. It’s a dark and stormy night. There’s a car, and it’s broken down, or caught in the mud, or can’t go anywhere because the bridge is washed out. Sometimes it’s just a solo traveler, sometimes it’s a couple, and occasionally, a group of people. But always, there’s the old dark house just up the road, that, while looking ominous, is the weary traveler’s only option to get out of the storm or phone for help.

The “father” of Frankenstein, director James Whale, made the definitive old dark house movie back in 1932, appropriately titled The Old Dark House. Starring Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas and Charles Laughton, it told the tale of five travelers who seek refuge from a raging storm at a remote estate, only to be subjected to the terrifying lunacy of the owners and their manservant.

Some people, this blogger included, think that the ultimate haunted house movie is The Haunting (1963), directed by Robert Wise, a former protege of the master of B-movie horror Val Lewton. The Haunting substitutes a group of paranormal investigators for the standard-issue weary travelers. The group is headed up by a professor played by Richard Johnson, and includes a pair of women with psychic abilities (Julie Harris and Claire Bloom).

Wise used the lessons learned working with Lewton to set up his haunted house. His philosophy was that ghosts should be heard and not seen, and that, under the right circumstances, a shifting shadow or a sound that’s not supposed to be there can be far more frightening than a specter that jumps out at you. The result was a masterwork of suspenseful horror that continues to fascinate and terrify to this day (and is an enduring Halloween fixture at my house).

Still - Opening scene - Pigeons from Hell, Thriller TV episode (1961)
Another weary traveler is about to make the mistake
of going into an old, dark house.
These days, traditional ghosts and haunted houses are few and far between in movies and TV, because they don’t lend themselves to the sort of action-horror that audiences crave and filmmakers love to depict with digital effects. Where they do materialize, contemporary ghosts are more like poltergeists on steroids, with the ability to throw hapless humans around like rag dolls.

Fortunately for fans of more traditional, atmospheric horror, classics of the past are always turning up in unexpected places around the media world: a DVD release here, a Blu-ray release there, a streaming service or two, and if all else fails, retro broadcast TV like Me-TV or Decades.

Last post I talked about ordering a DVD set of what I thought was the great Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller TV series, and instead being introduced to Brian Clemens’ Thriller, originally broadcast in the UK in the 1970s. That was an intriguing series in its own right, but no substitute for old Boris.

The quest for the elusive US Thriller finally came to an end when Image Entertainment finally released the complete series on a beautiful 14 disc set in the summer of 2010. I jumped on that opportunity immediately. Unfortunately, the set is already out of print, but the floodgates have been opened, and now Boris the Thriller host keeps popping up in places like Decades TV marathons and (for the moment) Youtube.

Based on material by such diverse writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Bloch (Psycho), and Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan), the US Thriller’s 67 episodes featured familiar actors and actresses too numerous to count. Such notable directors as John Brahm (The Lodger, Hangover Square) and actress-director Ida Lupino (The Hitch-hiker) also lent their talents.

As I noted in the last post, the US series is almost a mirror image of its UK namesake. Whereas Brian Clemens’ series specialized in such down-to-earth menaces as psychos, murderous spouses, and serial killers (with a few supernatural episodes thrown in the mix), Boris’ Thriller started out with a lineup of Alfred Hitchcock-style thriller-mysteries, then went all in for supernatural horror in the latter part of season one.

As for haunted houses, Thriller had more than its share in its two season run. Here are two of my favorite episodes. Each one starts out in the classic way with hapless or stranded travelers in an old dark house. But each house is haunted in a unique, eerie way.

Pigeons from Hell. Originally broadcast June 6, 1961

Pigeons is based on a short story by the legendary Texas pulp writer Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian. In this one, a pair of tourists, brothers Tim (Brandon De Wilde) and Johnny (David Whorf), get their car stuck in the swamp trying to take a shortcut.

Johnny wanders off looking for a large branch to use for leverage, and promptly stumbles upon a deserted plantation manor (the location is somewhere in the deep South). As he walks up to the ominous looking mansion, a flock of pigeons suddenly takes flight, swirling around and attacking as if to warn him not to go into the house.

Gregarious Tim laughs off Johnny’s hesitation, and, as the sun is setting, the pair fetch their sleeping bags for a stay-over in the old dark house. They get a roaring fire started in the fireplace, but Johnny is on edge over the constant rustling of the unseen pigeons.

Then, in the middle of the night, Johnny seems to sleepwalk up the grand staircase to the second floor, following the sound of the pigeons and something else, something that sounds like the eerie ululation of a human voice.

Brandon De Wilde as Tim in Pigeons from Hell, US Thriller TV episode, 1961
"Hey bro, I said I wanted to borrow your Axe body
spray, not an actual axe!"
Tim wakes up to find Johnny’s sleeping bag empty. As he gets up to see where Johnny has gone, he hears a blood-curdling scream from upstairs. Running up to the landing, he sees Johnny woodenly advancing out of the shadows toward him, his head a bloody mess and gripping a hatchet in his raised hand.

On the stairwell Johnny swings the hatchet at Tim and misses, burying it in the wall. Tim flees for his life, finally stumbling and falling unconscious near the swamp. When Tim wakes up, he finds himself in the cabin of a local hunter, who has summoned the sheriff (Crahan Denton).

Perplexed by Tim’s story that his “dead” brother tried to kill him with a hatchet, Sheriff Buckner takes Tim back to the manor to investigate. When they find Johnny’s body in front of the fireplace, still gripping the hatchet, Buckner thinks it’s an obvious case of an argument getting out of hand. Tim desperately asks the sheriff why he would make up such an unbelievable story for an alibi. When the pair cautiously make their way up to the second floor to try to figure out what happened, things get weird enough that the sheriff starts to believe Tim’s story.

At this point, the episode becomes a sort of supernatural who-done-it. There are bloody trails around the house, a piano covered with dust except for the keys (suggesting it had been played recently), and a mysterious dark room which snuffs out the light of any lantern that crosses its threshold.

And then there’s the strange history of the manor, and the three sisters -- the last of the family line -- who occupied it. There were rumors about their cruelty to the servants, and how two of the sisters disappeared under mysterious circumstances. And, this being the deep South, there are also rumors of sinister Voodoo practices.

The episode’s structure is somewhat unique, in that the biggest shock scene -- the bloodied corpse of Johnny, hatchet in hand, emerging from the shadows to go after his brother -- comes at the beginning of the episode. After that, it relies on creepy atmosphere and a slow reveal of the plantation’s dark history. Unfortunately, the final reveal is somewhat anticlimactic compared to Johnny’s debut as a murderous zombie.

Buckner (Crahan Denton) and Tim (Brandon De Wilde) investigate the old mansion in Pigeons from Hell (1961)
"Aw heck, I just had that car washed and detailed!"
Also, the titular pigeons flocking about don’t add much to the suspense -- for most of us, the biggest menace pigeons represent is being bombarded with poop. They aren’t a natural symbol of supernatural evil, but I suspect that Robert E. Howard was better able to make them forbidding in his story.

Brandon De Wilde as Tim and Crahan Denton as Sheriff Buckner are both very credible as the inadvertent paranormal sleuths -- De Wilde with his wide-eyed desperation, and Denton with his gruff skepticism that turns into bewildered acceptance as the evidence for supernatural evil piles up. De Wilde earned fame (and an Oscar nomination) as a child actor, portraying the young Joey who idolizes Alan Ladd’s Shane (1953). Tragically, he was only 30 years old when he died in a car accident in 1972. Crahan Denton was busy in the ‘50s and ‘60s, mostly in TV, but also had roles in such films as The Parent Trap (1961) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

The director was John Newland, the host of and creative force behind One Step Beyond (1959-1961). In addition to four Thriller episodes he directed a ton of TV into the early 1980s, including episodes of the original Star Trek, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Night Gallery, and the cult favorite TV movie Don’t be Afraid of the Dark (1973) with Kim Darby. With his experience directing One Step Beyond’s “true tales” of the paranormal, Newland was a natural for Thriller’s even darker, eerier subject matter.

The Incredible Doktor Markesan. Originally broadcast February 26, 1962

Boris Karloff introducing the Thriller episode The Incredible Doktor Markesan (1962)
Host Boris seems to be afraid of his own shadow...
or his doppelganger, the sinister Dr. Markesan.
This episode is another highly-rated fan favorite, and also features a pair of travelers stuck in a spooky old house. It came late in the series’ second and last season, and was the last of the five episodes in which Boris Karloff starred in the story itself as well as supplying the introduction to the episode and the players (in his introduction, he playfully observes, “You know, there’s something vaguely familiar about that Doktor Markesan… creepy and sinister sort of chap, don’t you agree?”)

Fred and Molly Bancroft (Dick York and Carolyn Kearney), are a young married couple who intend to enroll at Penrose University as graduate students, but the two are broke and need a place to stay until they can get jobs and get back on their feet. They arrive at the estate of Fred’s favorite uncle, Conrad Markesan, a former member of the science faculty at the university, but find it in an advanced state of decay: no working lights, cobwebs and dust everywhere, and rats crawling in the cupboards.

At first they think the house is deserted, but Markesan finally emerges like a specter from the library. The good doktor (the German spelling lends an additional bit of Gothic touch to the story) is as unwelcoming as the house, with a ghostly white pallor, thick dust on his coat, dead, staring eyes, and a demeanor to match.

Markesan tells the two that he’s recently been away and will be traveling again soon, so they won’t be able to stay. He offers them money, but Molly, her pride wounded, insists they didn’t come to beg. When Markesan learns that they will be enrolling at Penrose, he changes his tune, saying that it wouldn’t do for his former colleagues at Penrose to find out he had been so uncharitable to his nephew.

Boris Karloff, Carolyn Kearney and Dick York in The Incredible Doktor Markesan (1962)
"Why uncle, what a ghastly pallor you have!"
He agrees to take them in on two conditions -- that they never disturb him for any reason and that they stay in their rooms from dusk to dawn or vacate the house completely for the night. The first night, they’re surprised to find the room bolted shut from the outside. When they check the window, they find it barred. Out the window, they see the old man shambling toward the cemetery in the back of the estate. Molly is willing to make the best of a bad situation, but just barely. Having found no edible food in the house, she wonders aloud, “how does your uncle live, what does he eat?” She insists that Fred talk to his uncle about the outside lock on the room.

The next night, they again find themselves locked in. Waiting until his wife is asleep, Fred takes a piece of coat hanger wire and manages to jimmy the outside bolt open. He cautiously tiptoes down to the first floor, where he surreptitiously witnesses a bizarre “conference” being conducted in the library. Markesan is seated at a table with two other men, while another stands, reciting some sort of rehearsed testimony in a croaking, other-worldly voice.

Markesan has an evil glint in his eye, and he seems to be controlling the guests like a diabolic puppet-master. When Fred finally gets a good look at the other men, he’s startled to find that they look like corpses fresh out of the grave. Clearly, something monstrous and infernal is going on at the good doktor’s house.

Old Boris is just the man to haunt this episode’s old dark house. The story echoes the high Gothic strangeness of the original Frankenstein, with a scientist conducting secret experiments in the middle of the night. Even though he was well into his seventies by this point, Karloff is as ominous as ever in the role: he moves noiselessly around the decrepit mansion like a ghost, and his cold, dead stare when confronting the unwanted visitors has more than a little of the Frankenstein monster in it.

Dick York and Carolyn Kearney as the down-on-their-luck couple are also very good. They are not your typical blissfully happy newlyweds. Just like any real-life couple, the lack of money is causing tensions. Even as they arrive at the Markesan house, they’re arguing about the long car trip and Fred’s Hail Mary plan to stay with his uncle.

After meeting the supremely creepy uncle and getting his consent to stay, Molly tries to make the best of it -- she goes to town to buy food and look for work at the university. But being locked in their room at night is too much, and the anxieties escalate. Little do they know that being locked in will be the least of their worries.

Zombie professors on parade in The Incredible Doktor Markesan, 1962
"Hey there Latimore, there's a special sale on
lint rollers going on at Walmart!"
A few years before her Thriller appearance, Carolyn Kearney appeared in The Thing that Couldn’t Die (1958; about a devil-worshipping conquistador who is dug up in the present day and goes on a mission to reunite his severed head with his body). Dick York is familiar to many as the original Darrin, husband to Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) in the Bewitched TV series. He left the series in 1969 due to chronic pain from a back injury he sustained on the set of a film years before. After retiring from acting he founded a charity for other actors in similar circumstances.

Another distinguished actor is the house itself. The creepy old manse, located on a Universal Studios backlot, was featured in countless films and TV shows, including the Pigeons from Hell episode. Its biggest claim to horror fame came when it was served as a backdrop to the fiery climax of The Mummy’s Tomb (1942).

The episode was directed by Robert Florey, a former contract director for Universal who was initially slated to film the original Frankenstein with Bela Lugosi from his own script, but lost the assignment when the studio reacted negatively to the test footage and Lugosi backed out of the role. By the 1950s he was directing exclusively for TV, and in addition to Thriller, helmed episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits.

With episodes like Pigeons from Hell and The Incredible Doktor Markesan, Thriller represents a high point for Gothic horror on American television. In their DVD commentary on Markesan, authors Gary Gerani (Fantastic Televison; Top 100 Horror Movies) and David J. Schow (The Outer Limits Companion) compare Thriller to The Twilight Zone, which was going strong when Thriller debuted. While Rod Serling’s show often featured the bizarre and extraordinary intruding into everyday life, Thriller’s horror stories flipped the script and featured ordinary, everyday people (like lost travelers) stumbling into shadowy, bizarre netherworlds.

Where to find it: If you’re like me and know almost every Twilight Zone episode by heart, you might try looking up the Zone’s long lost companion from the early ‘60s. For right now, decent copies can be found on Youtube.

October 14, 2019

A Tale of Two Thrillers: Special TV for Halloween Edition, Part One

Title screen - Brian Clemens' Thriller TV series, 1973-1976
Now Playing: Thriller (UK TV series, 1973-1976)

Pros: Created by British master of suspense Brian Clemens; Features many recognizable faces from TV and movies of the ‘70s; Adds new twists to old suspense cliches
Cons: Limited budgets and sets led to many episodes being place-bound and static; Could have benefited from more out-right supernatural stories

Once upon a time, I was surfing the internet (on a desktop computer no less!) when I stumbled upon a DVD collection for sale that got my blood pumping. I thought I was ordering the old Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller TV series (1960-1962) which I had heard great things about.

Imagine my surprise when I got the discs, and there was no trace of old Boris anywhere on the cover art. Turns out, it was the complete British series from the mid-seventies, created by Brian Clemens of The Avengers fame (British TV series of the ‘60s, not the Marvel superhero franchise).

My memory is fuzzy. Either in my excitement I didn’t look closely at what I was ordering, or the seller misrepresented the product. Since the former makes me look bad, I’ll go with the latter.

Anyway, instead of returning the thing, I decided to give it a chance. After all, it was the brainchild of Brian Clemens, a behind-the-scenes legend in his own right, and a writer not only of scores of Avengers episodes, but of such classics as Danger Man (aka Secret Agent), See No Evil (1971), Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), and Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1974), to name just a few.

As I watched the episodes over the next couple of months, I was very happy that I decided against returning the set. Clemens, who wrote most of the teleplays from his own stories, was a master of eliciting terror from otherwise humdrum middle class life. His somewhat mundane, relatable characters encounter all kinds of cliches like old, dark mansions, escaped lunatics, mysterious disappearances, and even mad doctors, but he provides plenty of twists and turns along the way to keep the material fresh.

DVD cover art - Thriller (UK, 1973-1976)
The ghoulish face on this early DVD
promised a bit more horror than
the actual series delivered.
Clemens also had a knack for writing believable, sympathetic female characters. Well before the “final girl” became a boiler plate element in horror films, he eschewed cardboard victims in favor of ordinary women who, when faced with extraordinary peril, often find the strength and resilience within themselves to face it down. And, to keep things interesting, he also sprinkled a few female monsters and psychos into the mix.

Unlike the Karloff-hosted U.S. Thriller, which started off featuring human killers and psychos and progressively turned to the supernatural and outright horror over the course of its run, Clemens’ Thriller mostly stuck to earthly menaces with a few spooky episodes thrown in here and there. Many were what I would call contemporary Gothics: newly married women who come to suspect their husbands are not what they seem; students dealing with creepy, sinister neighbors at an old boarding house; baffled relatives investigating the mysterious disappearances of loved ones; women being stalked at every turn by menacing figures.

With an eye toward the U.S. market, the producers hired recognizable B-list American actors for many of the episodes, including Paul Burke (Naked City, Valley of the Dolls), Gary Collins (The Sixth Sense), Kim Darby (True Grit, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark), Barbara Feldon (Get Smart), Lynda Day George (Fear No Evil, Mission Impossible), George Maharis (Route 66, The Satan Bug), and Donna Mills (Play Misty for Me, Knots Landing), among others.

Notable Brits appearing in the series included Ralph Bates (The Horror of Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde), Denholm Elliot (The Vault of Horror, To the Devil a Daughter), Edward de Souza (Kiss of the Vampire), Pamela Franklin (The Legend of Hell House), Richard Johnson (The Haunting), Patrick Magee (Tales from the Crypt, A Clockwork Orange), Hayley Mills (Tiger Bay, In Search of the Castaways), Helen Mirren (Prime Suspect), and Richard Todd (Asylum, Doctor Who), among countless others.

Donna Mills as Chrissie Morton in Someone at the Top of the Stairs
"Don't go in the attic!" Sure enough, by the end of the
episode, Chrissie (Donna Mills) will go up to the attic.
A good example of one of the few outright supernatural episodes, and one of the more highly rated on IMDb, is Someone at the Top of the Stairs, first aired in the UK in April, 1973. It features Donna Mills and Judy Carne (of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In fame) as students looking for cheap accommodations in London, and who stumble on a boarding house that seems too good to be true. The prim and somewhat strange caretaker, Mrs. Oxhey (Alethea Charlton) seems to have been keeping a room available just for them (or someone just like them, she says with a wink), and is willing to let them have it very cheaply.

Chrissie’s (Mills) relief at getting a screaming deal (pun intended) on a room turns to unease as she interacts more with the house residents. They include a retired military man, a middle-aged couple with a young son, and a young man who doesn’t seem to have a job.

They’re all nice enough at first, but Chrissie starts to get distinctly odd vibes from her fellow boarders. They all use the word “marvelous” a lot, and they have an odd habit of making a triangle with their index fingers and thumbs.

The oddness soon turns menacing. First, Chrissie tries to do a good turn by giving the young boy a kitten. The next night, she is awakened by an animal scream. After she discovers the body of the kitten in the trash, she confronts the parents, who give her a story about the animal falling from their second floor window.

Scene from Someone at the Top of the Stairs, Thriller (UK, 1973)
A prospective tenant is surprised at how low the rent
is at the spooky old boarding house.
Next, as she’s trying to take a bath, she’s startled to see someone looking through an eyehole where one of the pipes enters the bathroom. She rousts the offender, the boy, from an adjacent closet. The father makes a show of taking the boy to the apartment to be disciplined, but as she turns to walk away, she hears the whole family laughing behind the closed door.

Chrissie’s sense that something is off is confirmed when she answers the front door bell one day and talks to a concerned father looking for his missing daughter, who he thinks had taken a room somewhere in the area. He leaves a photo with Chrissie, and later she notices that the girl in the photograph is wearing the very same pendant that Chrissie found in a dresser when she moved in. Mrs. Oxhey insists that the girl never stayed at the house, but Chrissie is now very suspicious.

Hovering over the strangeness at the boarding house is the mysterious, unseen Mr. C, who lives in the attic room, apparently never leaves it, and has been there as long as anyone can remember. Moreover, Chrissie points out to her roommate Gillian (Carne) that she has never seen Mrs. Oxhey or any of the other residents leave the house. Gillian and Chrissie’s new would-be boyfriend Gary (Francis Wallis), a fellow student, try to get her mind off the house and its weird occupants, but Chrissie’s growing unease turns out to be entirely justified. And the source of all the weirdness seems to come from the enigmatic attic room and its shadowy occupant.

Someone at the Top of the Stairs is a slow burn of accumulating “whodunit”-like details and escalating weirdness. The supporting cast of the boarding house residents do a great job of playing normal, everyday people who, while seeming to be nice and welcoming on the surface, are decidedly “off.”

Judy Carne in Someone at the Top of the Stairs, Thriller UK TV series
Gillian (Judy Carne) is guest of honor at a weird party being
thrown by the oddball residents of the house.
It seems appropriate that the visiting American student Chrissie, already a stranger in a strange land, is almost immediately alert that something about the house is not right. Her native friends, the roommate and the boyfriend, chalk it up to the ordinary eccentricities of their fellow Brits long after the alarm bells should have been going off.

All of the creeping tension, however, is somewhat dissipated with the big reveal of house’s secret at the climax. At least it’s a legitimate supernatural explanation, and not a “let’s conspire to drive the new girl insane” sort of cheat.

While the concept of the supernatural menace is clever and eerie enough, the execution is mundane and not chilling in the least. After spending almost the entire episode as an unseen, forbidding presence, when we and Chrissie finally meet the mysterious Mr. C, it’s about as scary as being trapped at a dinner party by an old, conceited windbag who wants to tell you the story of his life.

Still, all of the accumulating weirdness leading up to the climax is well done, and the cast, especially the eccentric house residents, is excellent.

Thriller is all about simmering psychological suspense, created and written by a master. As a bonus, there are several episodes sprinkled throughout the series to satisfy the cravings of those who prefer supernatural horror. Due no doubt to the limited budget, many of the episodes come off like videotaped stage plays. These “parlor room” mysteries may become tedious for viewers accustomed to more action-oriented stuff. But the beauty of the series was the way Clemens could twist and subvert conventional mystery-thriller cliches using familiar faces and relatable characters.

Where to find it: If you’re in the mood for hour-long suspense TV and love British accents, check out Amazon Prime or the DVD collection.

Stay tuned for Part Two, where I will cover some of my favorite haunted house episodes from the U.S. Thriller series...

September 25, 2019

Blood of the Vampirish Streaming Service: Special Netflix Cancellation Edition

Poster - Blood of the Vampire (1958)
Now Playing: Blood of the Vampire (1958)

Pros: Plenty of Gothic atmosphere; helped reboot Gothic horror in the late ‘50s.
Cons: Lacks action and chills; the villain is more of a dumpy burgomeister-type than a horrifying menace

I finally did it -- I canceled Netflix. I’ve been complaining intermittently about Big Red on this blog for years (along with cable companies, satellite TV and other assorted big media miscreants). So, after a long period of growing disenchantment, I put my money where my mouth is.

It was one of those classic relationships gone sour. In the beginning, I was head-over-heels in love with it. We had our first date back in the day of big box video rental stores. What wasn’t there to love? It had a DVD library no rental store could match, you could keep the discs as long as you needed without penalty, all you had to do was walk to your mailbox to pick up your discs, and you didn’t have to deal with snotty, pimply-faced clerks demanding their pound of replacement fees for a disc you know you returned.

I finally made the decision to dump Netflix
It's a sad fact that familiarity often breeds contempt, and at least for me, it wasn’t long before Netflix’s bright red logo started to turn around the edges. First, there was the company’s bungled plan to divide its DVD-by-mail and streaming services with separate websites and an inane renaming of the DVD service to “Qwikster.” Predictably, there was a hike in fees to “better serve customers.”

By 2011, the handwriting was on the wall, and streaming was the future. I made the executive decision to go exclusively with the streaming option, as it was priced right and there were still some hidden gems here and there of interest to old movie farts like me. Netflix was still furiously trying to build its streaming catalog by going after anything that they could license quickly and cheaply.

I remember being impressed that they had the old 1945 Republic jungle-vampire chiller The Vampire’s Ghost ready to stream (see my review here). If that was part of the catalog, then anything was possible! But time marches on, and with it, Netflix’s streams changed course. Netflix decided the real money was in original programming and reruns of popular TV shows. Theatrical movies were shoved into the background, and the classic movies almost disappeared altogether.

Now Big Red is a would-be monopolist, throwing money around the entertainment world like a drunken tourist at a Tijuana titty bar, trying to entice subscribers with content only they can deliver. I get it -- things change, corporations are in business to make money, not cater to the oddball tastes of nerds like me, etc., etc.

It’s not you Netflix, it’s me. You changed, I didn’t. Now you’re off to woo all those twenty-somethings with edgy original content and sitcoms like Friends that the kids can watch on their smartphones as they stand in line at the Apple store. It’s okay, you gotta be you. I’ll get by just fine. I’ve been seeing someone else. She’s an Amazon, and her name is Prime. Yes, it’s purely a commercial relationship, and she works for a megalomaniac who looks like a bad knockoff of Dr. Evil, but I can’t bring myself to hold that against her.

Mike Myers as Dr. Evil; Jeff Bezos as himself
Dr. Evil and his clone (aka Jeff Bezos) contemplate world domination.

She has the usual Emmy-bait shows and exclusive, “can’t-live-without” content, but she still loves classic movies -- she’s got a ton of them -- and she can let her hair down and enjoy a really cheesy B movie when the mood strikes. Plus, she’s always giving me presents, like free music and cloud storage, and all for less than Netflix’s basic subscription. Knowing that nothing good lasts forever, I will enjoy this relationship while I can. It’s satisfying that I can access a pretty decent library of oldies without having to sell blood to pay for it.

Speaking of selling blood, Blood of the Vampire (1958) is a good example of the kind of cheesy old B movie that you can still find on Prime. Over the years it’s been misidentified as a Hammer picture, as it was scripted by the same man, Jimmy Sangster, who wrote Hammer’s Horror of Dracula (1958) and The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), and it came out around the same time as Hammer’s first Dracula. It was produced by a company called Artistes Alliance Ltd., and while the name sounds a bit pretentious for the product they were turning out, their timing seems to have been impeccable.

It has that familiar Hammer look-and-feel, being set in a creepy castle turned prison-for-the-criminally-insane in “Carlstadt” in 1880. It also features the lovely future Hammer scream queen Barbara Shelley. Unfortunately, the film’s pace is lackadaisical compared to Hammer’s energetic Gothic horror adaptations. Worse yet, the titular vampire is one in name only, being more a case of mistaken identity.

It seems the forbidding Dr. Callistratus (Donald Wolfit), like Hammer’s Victor Frankenstein, ran afoul of the superstitious locals with his infernal experiments in transfusing blood. Condemning him as a vampire, they hauled him out to a remote burial spot and drove a stake through his heart. Fortunately, Callistratus’ Quasimodo-like assistant Carl (Victor Maddern) rescued the body and took it back into town, whereupon a local doctor, trained by Callistratus, performed a heart transplant and revived the mad scientist.

Donald Wolfit and Victor Maddern in Blood of the Vampire (1958)
"I'm telling you Carl, mainlining Bloody Marys
is the only way to go!"
Fast forward to 1880 and Carlstadt, where Callistratus has gotten himself a gig as the head honcho of the maximum security castle-prison. Very much in the Hammer Frankenstein tradition (and a bit like Dracula), he is using the prisoners for his diabolic experiments, including draining them of their blood to keep himself alive.

The film cleverly sets up a hero who is the mirror opposite of Callistratus. John Pierre (Vincent Ball) is also a doctor, and just like Callistratus, has gotten himself in trouble with the locals with his medical experimentation. Unlike Callistratus, he was trying to save a life by performing a blood transfusion, but the patient died. He is charged with “murder by medical malpractice,” convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Callistratus, needing help with his research into blood groups, arranges for Pierre to be transferred to his den of horrors. Not realizing that his sentence has been overturned due to the post-trial testimony of an old medical colleague, Pierre agrees to help the diabolical doctor. But he soon realizes that Callistratus’s research is not for the benefit of humanity, only himself, and that the hopeless prisoners are very expendable in his quest for immortality.

Laboratory scene, Blood of the Vampire (1958)
John Pierre (Vincent Ball) wonders what the bloody hell
is going on in Callistratus' laboratory.
Barbara Shelley plays Pierre’s plucky fiance Madeleine, who has been told Pierre was killed in a failed escape. When she learns otherwise, she gets herself hired as a new housemaid at the castle to get to the bottom of the deception. The pathetic, mute hunchback Carl of course falls for Madeleine, which greatly helps the lovers at the climax.

Blood of the Vampire is long on atmosphere, but short on horror. It’s more of a Gothic romance, with Callistratus as the dark master of the castle, lording it over his alter-ego Pierre and the beautiful Madeleine.

Carl is horrifying to look at, and he’s willing to kill at his master’s orders, but he ends up being a softie. There are intermittent shots of manacled prisoners and skeletons and the mad scientist’s creepy laboratory, but Callistratus himself is more reminiscent of a stout burgomeister from a Universal or Hammer movie than a sinister menace. He does, however, sport some pretty rad eyebrows and vampirish widow’s peak.

Aside from the bloody experiments that are done mainly offscreen, the biggest menace is the pack of vicious Dobermans that Callistratus keeps on the grounds to prevent escapes. They account for a good portion of the film’s action -- what little there is.

Blood of the Vampire is kind of like a Halloween haunted house attraction that has invested a lot in hanging skeletons, static torture devices, cobwebs, rubber spiders, etc., but the organizers forgot to include things to jump out at you. You can admire the production design, but the thrill just isn’t there.

Callistratus' dungeon in Blood of the Vampire (1958)
"Hey Maddy, this party is a bore -- let's go hang out somewhere else!"

Still, the film has a bit of history going for it. It debuted in 1958 along with Hammer’s Horror of Dracula, and contributed in its own small way to the rebirth of cinematic Gothic horror. And according to the movie’s IMDb page, it was one of the first, if not the first, horror films to be released on VHS.

Where to find it: You can see it courtesy of my friend Amazon Prime, or buy it on a double-feature DVD here.