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.

September 7, 2019

Dracula vs. the Hippies: Special '70s Hammer Horror Edition, Part Two

Poster - Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)
Now Playing: Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)

Pros: Peter Cushing’s gravitas offsets some of the cringe-inducing aspects of the film; Stephanie Beacham is very good as Cushing’s granddaughter, Jessica Van Helsing.
Cons: The film’s attempt to capture the look and lingo of ‘70s London youth culture descends to near-parody.

In part one of my examination of Hammer’s early ‘70s attempt to crack the youth market, I reviewed Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970). Despite the lurid title, the film was a not-so-subtle dig at the establishment, what with almost all the adult characters being corrupt or incompetent, and a climax that had the young protagonists saving the day without any help from their useless elders.

Just a little over two years after Taste the Blood, Hammer released Dracula A.D. 1972, which on the surface looked to be an extreme concession to the youth market, set in the (then) present day and full of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. And yet, the underlying message is a mirror image to the previous film’s -- this time, it’s the younger generation’s turn to be almost uniformly corrupt and/or incompetent, and the old guard’s turn to save their butts from the evil they’ve unwittingly released.

Dracula (Christopher Lee) scores his first victim in Dracula A.D. 1972
"Hmmm, dense and full-bodied, with overtones of weed,
barbiturates and vodka, and just a hint of espresso..."
As for resurrecting Dracula, by 1972 Hammer had boiled it down to a few simple steps.

“Bloody Dracula” Recipe (with apologies to Bloody Mary)

1 vial of Dracula’s ashes
Liberal amount of blood from an acolyte or sacrificial victim
1 de-sanctified church
A group of bored, corruptible disciples
1 Black Mass
Optional: Dracula’s cape or ring


Mix the first two ingredients while celebrating the Black Mass with your disciples in the de-sanctified church. Wearing Dracula’s cape and/or ring is not required, but it looks cooler. Skol!

The creepy instigator in A.D. 1972 is Johnny Alucard (hmmm, that name seems familiar somehow), played by Christopher Neame. Johnny is part of a group of “with it” kids who have grown bored with their usual routine of crashing adult parties, smoking pot, and hanging out at bars until the wee hours.

Johnny proposes that they do something “way, way out,” by celebrating a black mass at the local abandoned, de-sanctified church. Most of the group thinks it might be good for some “giggles,” but Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham) and her boyfriend Bob (Philip Miller) are leery of playing around at something so dark and twisted. Still, they relent and everyone agrees to meet at midnight at the church.

Little do they know that Johnny is a deadly serious descendant of a disciple of Dracula’s, and intends to resurrect the Count on the 100th anniversary of the battle between the vampire and Lawrence Van Helsing that resulted in both their deaths.

Jessica and Bob are even more weirded out when they discover Van Helsing’s grave marker in the churchyard (Jessica is a great-granddaughter), and realize the significance of the date. But, peer pressure being what it is, they participate anyway.

Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) presides over the Black Mass, Dracula A.D. 1972
Johnny violates the laws of God and Man, and London's
regulations banning smoking in public places.
In this 1972 version of the Black Mass, Alucard, wearing a monk’s cowl (and Dracula’s ring!), presides to the accompaniment of weird music playing on a tape deck. His band of unwitting disciples are sitting around a pentagram drawn on the floor, swaying to the primeval beat. In one of the film's more embarrassing moments, Johnny exhorts them to “Dig the music kids!”

Johnny wants Jessica to come to the altar to complete the ritual, but she freezes like a deer in the headlights, knowing that something is definitely not right. Jessica’s friend Laura (Caroline Munro), gets caught up in the moment and enthusiastically volunteers (a decision she will very quickly regret).

Before you can say “Alucard,” there is the glint of the ritual knife, pouring blood, and Dracula’s ashes boiling up like an infernal stew. When Johnny pours the bloody mess all over Laura’s heaving chest, the other kids scatter to the four winds. Jessica doesn’t want to leave the sobbing Laura behind, but Bob’s self-preservation instincts win out and he drags her away.

Johnny delivers the coup-de-grace when he removes the stake (the splintered carriage spoke that killed Dracula a century before) from the Count’s remains, which were surreptitiously buried on the church grounds near Van Helsing’s.

Laura learns an important life lesson -- never voluntarily lie on a de-sanctified altar during a Black Mass -- but unfortunately it goes to waste as she becomes the revivified Count’s first victim. Her body, drained of blood, is discovered at a construction site near the church. Meanwhile, Johnny, who witnessed her demise, coolly tells his friends that she’s gone off to visit family.

Lorrimer (Peter Cushing) and Jessica (Stephanie Beacham) have a heart-to-heart talk in Dracula A.D. 1972
Jessica tells her grandfather all about the peer pressure
to smoke, drink, do drugs, and conduct ritual sacrifices.
To investigators, a body drained of blood and dumped near a de-sanctified church has all the earmarks of a cult ritual killing. When they identify the victim and connect the dots to her friends, Jessica’s name pops up. Lead Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) is intrigued, recalling that Lorrimer, Jessica’s grandfather and a respected anthropologist and expert on the occult (Peter Cushing), had helped Scotland Yard previously on a case involving modern-day witchcraft. Jessica and Lorrimer suddenly become persons-of-interest.

The inspectors interview Lorrimer first, who, upon learning that Laura’s body was drained, schools the skeptical policemen on the “positive proof” of vampires and his own grandfather’s battle with Dracula. “There are dark corners, horrors almost impossible to imagine, even in our worst nightmares,” he informs them. However, Lorrimer’s academic interest in a possible case of vampirism turns into real concern when he learns that his granddaughter is involved.

Scotland Yard turns out to be the least of their concerns, as Dracula, with the aid of disciple Johnny, begins hunting down the kids with the ultimate aim of wreaking vengeance on all living Van Helsings.

In Taste the Blood of Dracula, the young Londoners were both the instrument of Dracula’s revenge and his undoing. The corrupt, hypocritical Victorian establishment was responsible for the Count’s resurrection, and only incorruptible youth could save the day. Fast forward to 1972, and it’s now the establishment’s turn (in the form of Scotland Yard and the astute, scholarly Lorrimer Van Helsing) to save London from the actions of clueless youngsters.

Bar scene in Dracula A.D. 1972
Sex, drugs and black masses don't seem to be doing the
trick for the callow youths of London.

In both films, Dracula is the dark, merciless Karma that catches up with the hypocritical hedonists of the leisure class, young and old. Both are subversive in the sense that, in spite of the obvious suffering of the victims, there’s a little piece of us (or maybe a big piece) thinking that they're getting what they deserve.

A.D. 1972’s counter-counterculture message is that the kids are definitely not alright, that in their selfishness and hedonism they are nothing but spoiled lambs to the slaughter in the face of evil -- with the exception of Jessica of course, who after all, is a Van Helsing. Jessica’s head and heart are in the right place, but she has problems resisting peer pressure.

Stephanie Beacham is very natural and authentic portraying a girl torn between pleasing her less cautious, less intelligent friends and living up to her grandfather’s faith in her. Peter Cushing is a delight as usual as the refined, empathetic Lorrimer, surrounded by books and artifacts accumulated over a long academic career, yet willing to step up and be a man of action when the circumstances call for it. Their scenes together -- he, the doting, concerned grandfather; she, grateful for the concern but also feisty and wanting to live life on her own terms -- save the film from being just a cheesy horror genre rip on youth culture.

** SPOILERS: PROCEED WITH CAUTION! **

A.D. 1972 once again calls for Van Helsing to put aside his books and gentlemanly manner and become a man of geri-action. Since Cushing was pushing 60 at the time, he wasn’t required to get quite as physical as in earlier roles, but in vampire hunter mode he still is stabbed with a switchblade, chased up the old church stairs, and generally thrown around like a rag doll (okay, so I'm sure there was a stunt man involved, but still...).

Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) confronts Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) in Dracula A.D. 1972
Johnny is upset about missing his morning nap.
Of course, as every vampire slayer knows, you kill ‘em with brains, not brawn. Disciple Johnny, who by this point has been turned into a vampire, is first on the list. After Johnny stabs Van Helsing in the arm with a switchblade (I guess new vampires often revert to the tools they know rather than relying on their super-strength or sharp canines), it looks bad for the vampire hunter. But as the morning sun’s rays stream through the curtains of Johnny’s apartment, Lorrimer cleverly throws a bible and cross into his coffin, then uses a makeup mirror (vain boy, that Johnny) to direct the light onto the hapless lad and force him into the bathroom, where there is plenty of sunlight and clear, running water from the shower to dispense with him.

Sidebar: At the Monster Bash convention in Mars, PA this past June, Christopher Neame was asked about his experiences on the set of A.D. 1972. Being only 23 at the time, he recalled that the slender, self-effacing Cushing was as "strong as an ox,” during filming of the fight scenes. He also laughed about his death scene. Back in the day, English film crews observed strict union rules and hours. Once the director yelled cut, everyone cleared out, leaving him soaked and in full makeup.

With one disciple down, Van Helsing must confront Dracula in his lair, the abandoned church, where Jessica is hypnotized and laid out on the altar. Before it’s all over, he will have to pull out all the stops and all his vampire-fighting tools, including holy water, a silver-bladed knife, and a special surprise trap in the churchyard. The coup-de-grace he administers to Dracula is particularly brutal.

Dracula (Christopher Lee) is repulsed by the silver cross Jessica (Stephanie Beacham) is wearing in Dracula A.D. 1972
Jessica Van Helsing does her best imitation of the lady
on all those truck mudflaps.

Dracula A.D. 1972 is a competent, traditional Hammer vampire story wrapped up in Mod packaging in a fairly cynical attempt to keep the kids flocking to the theaters and drive-ins. The depiction of London youth culture is as phony as a three-dollar bill (or should I say three pound note?), dreamed up by middle-aged writers and producers who seem to have done their research looking at tabloids and bad TV shows.

Still, if you can get past the cringey pandering, there are good performances (especially Cushing and Meacham), touching scenes between grandfather and granddaughter, and exciting action sequences.

As mentioned previously, Christopher Neame was a newcomer at the time, having only appeared in a small role in Hammer’s Lust for a Vampire (1971) and a couple of TV series before scoring as pasty-faced Johnny Alucard. He since has done dozens of movies and TV series, including stints on Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. He’s still working, having recently made the Hammer homage House of the Gorgon (2019) with scream-queen icons Caroline Munroe, Veronica Carlson, and Martine Beswick and independent filmmaker Jamie Kennedy.

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee go at it in the final confrontation of Dracula A.D. 1972
"Look here Van Helsing, this is how you do the Monster Mash!"
Stephanie Beacham is also still working, with a similarly lengthy list of TV shows and movies on her eclectic resume, including Pete Walker's Schizo (1976), Horrorplanet (aka Inseminoid; 1981), and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I’ll leave the final word with Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes, the “biographers” of Hammer Films:
“[T]he film has long-suffered a reputation as a monumental misjudgement. … Dracula A.D. 1972 gets more entertaining with the passing of time, and is perhaps best enjoyed as an endearing, if naive, picture of an era that never was.” The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films, Titan Books, 2007, p. 157.
Where to find it: Dracula A.D. 1972 shares space with Taste the Blood of Dracula on a disc in the 4 Film Favorites: Draculas collection, available here.

August 27, 2019

Dracula Exploits the Generation Gap: Special ‘70s Hammer Horror Edition, Part One

Poster - Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
Now Playing: Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)

Pros: The backdrop of Victorian-era vice and hypocrisy is different and engaging; Ralph Bates is wonderfully hammy as a depraved aristocrat
Cons: The final confrontation with Dracula is something of a letdown
Generation Gap. Noun. : the differences in opinions, values, etc., between younger people and older people
-- Merriam-Webster.com
Merriam (may I call you Merriam?) further elaborates:
“The most famous generation gap is the baby boomers, many of whom came of age in the 1960s, and their parents, who grew up around the Great Depression and tended to have traditional values.

This generation gap was clearly evident in the rapid evolution of music during the 1950s and 1960s, when rock music, the Korean conflict and the Vietnam war forced many of America's young people to question many basic values. The beginnings of the women's movement, civil rights and the growth in birth control reinforced the baby boomers' controversial sense of self-determination that changed the course of the next several decades.”
As a boomer who was alive and somewhat sentient in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I can attest to that “controversial sense of self-determination.” We were gonna end the war, man, and shed all those bogus hang-ups, man, and live in peace, love and flower power, dig it?

Christopher Lee's first appearance in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
The youthful rebels of the late '60s and early '70s
had the establishment seeing red.
Then, as the ‘70s wore on and the bloom came off the counterculture rose, some of us looked around and realized that all that we’d accomplished was to participate in the greatest fashion catastrophe of all time, with its hideous polyester shirts, bell-bottoms, mini-skirts, go-go boots, and platform shoes. I challenge anyone my age to look at photos of themselves from that period and not wince at least a little.

At first The Man made fun of all those long-haired freaky people, but then realized he could pick their bell-bottom pockets just as easily as their parents’. Of course, all those regrettable clothes were a gold mine. On the entertainment front, pics like Beach Blanket Bingo and The Horror of Party Beach gave way to full-on youth rebellion stuff like the Hells Angels on Wheels and The Trip on drive-in screens.

Across the pond, Hammer Films, the birthplace of technicolor Gothic horror, was a little slow on the uptake. Motorcycle gangs and LSD trips weren’t their cup of tea, and were never going to be. But they did see the youth market’s writing on the wall, and gradually acknowledged it without abandoning the horror genre for which they were famous.

Taste the Blood of Dracula is set in Victorian-era London and is replete with Hammer’s signature costumes and mannered acting, but it also has a counterculture, don’t-trust-anyone-over-30 vibe to it. William Hargood (Geoffrey Keen) is an upper-crust patriarch who rules his home with an iron fist. He’s particularly hard on his sweet, innocent daughter Alice (Linda Hayden), having taken a visceral dislike to her intended suitor Paul (Anthony Higgins). He keeps her under practical house arrest to prevent the two from seeing each other.

The snake dance scene from Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
Hargood and his friends are busy doing their "charity" work
rescuing orphaned boa constrictors.
Although appearing to be a grim paragon of rectitude, Hargood leads a double-life. On the pretense of doing charity work, he and two other outwardly respectable partners in vice, Samuel Paxton and Jonathan Secker (Peter Sallis and John Carson) go slumming periodically in the brothels of London’s East End.

But alas, after all the debauched binging, the trio have become jaded and bored. Not even watching a voluptuous exotic dancer (Mailaika Martin) and her pet boa constrictor can properly wax their mustaches, if you know what I mean. Enter Lord Courtly (Ralph Bates), a dissolute libertine who’s been disowned by his aristocrat father and mooches off of his equally corrupt friends.

A drunken Courtly barges into the trio’s private brothel room during the snake dance. After some initial outrage, the glib Courtly piques Hargood’s and his friends’ curiosity when he promises an experience beyond their wildest imaginations. He takes them to a shady merchant (Roy Kinnear) who has the infamous Dracula’s cape and ring, and a vial of his powdered blood. Courtly convinces his new-found wealthy friends to purchase the items for a small fortune, which they will use to celebrate a black mass -- everyone’s favorite way to stave off boredom.

They find an abandoned, de-consecrated church to conduct the ceremony. Officiating at the altar, Courtly, wearing Dracula’s cape, cuts open his hand and bleeds into his and the other men’s chalices, each containing a portion of the powdered blood. As the cups begin to boil like witches’ cauldrons he rails at the cowards to drink up.

Ralph Bates leads the Black Mass in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
It's happy hour at the old de-consecrated church, with two-for-one Bloody Marys.

It’s all too much for Hargood and his crew, who refuse to partake of the bloody concoction. After Courtly lustily downs his brew he collapses to the floor, gagging and flailing. Disgusted, the wealthy reprobates beat him to death with their canes and hightail it out of there.

That’s not the end of it for the trio, as Courtly’s body transmutes into Dracula, who once again is dead-alive and kicking and looking to exact retribution on the wealthy slummers for killing his acolyte. (On the other hand, Courtly’s body was the mechanism for Dracula’s resurrection, so maybe they did him a favor.) Dracula goes after the men one by one, using their own children to seal their doom.

The film gives more than a passing nod to the era’s youth rebellion zeitgeist. All the adults -- with the exception of Hargood’s well-meaning wife Martha, played by Gwen Watford -- are either corrupt hypocrites, actual monsters, or officious incompetents. Most of the young cast are victims drafted into Dracula’s small army of revenge -- Alice is seduced by Dracula and held in his thrall; Lucy Paxton (Isla Blair) and Jeremy Secker (Martin Jarvis) are outright turned into vampires. Only Paul is left to combat the evil that has seized his upper-crust world.

Paul Higgins and Michael Ripper in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
Cobb is a graduate of the Inspector Clouseau
Detective Academy.
There is no cool, collected Van Helsing to save the day. The cops are worse than useless. When Alice goes missing, Inspector Cobb (played by veteran Hammer character actor Michael Ripper) dismisses Paul’s concerns with girls-will-be-girls flippancy.

** CAUTION: SPOILERS (SORT-OF) **

Ultimately it’s the kids, Paul and Alice (conveniently rescued at the last minute from Dracula’s spell), who save their little corner of London armed with only youthful purity and a cross. Unfortunately, the fateful climax in the abandoned church is one of the film’s disappointments. Without going into detail, dispatching the centuries-old Count is surprisingly easy. Dracula is reduced to throwing objects from the balcony like a toddler having a temper tantrum.

Another big head-scratcher is Dracula’s failure to turn sweet Alice into a vampire. He has two opportunities, but is distracted each time before he can do the deed. In his thrall, she has committed one murder for him and helped in another. I suppose a hypnotized human assistant is as good as vampire for a lot of things, but his lack of follow-through comes back to bite him in the end.

Linda Hayden and Christopher Lee in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
"You are completely under my spell Alice. Now go
and detail my car. Here are the keys."
On the plus side, Ralph Bates’ few minutes of screen time as the degenerate wastrel Courtly is a treat. Courtly is blithely arrogant, yet smooth enough to talk Hargood and his buddies into turning over vast sums of cash in order to finance their kinky predilections. At the Black Mass, Bates positively chews the scenery (in a good way) as he browbeats the faltering men to drink from their cups of blood.

According to Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes (The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films, Titan Books, 1997), when a reluctant Christopher Lee demanded a share of the gross to do yet another stint as Dracula, Hammer decided to turn the youthful Bates, only 29 at the time, into a new vampiric menace. Bates had a few TV series under his belt, but had yet to do a feature film.

The American distributor balked at the substitution, pointing out that they had co-financed the picture on the condition that Lee return as Dracula. Hammer execs had to backtrack and convince Lee to do the film. As a result, Bates’ role was drastically scaled back. (pp. 130-131)

Linda Hayden and Anthony Higgins (billed as Anthony Corlan) are fine as the young lovers. Hayden’s ‘70s horror resume includes The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), Night Watch (with Elizabeth Taylor, 1973), and Madhouse (with Vincent Price, 1974). Higgins/Corlan would go on to star in the excellent Vampire Circus (1972) as a handsome shape-shifting bloodsucker (see my review here).

Linda Hayden and Anthony Higgins at the climax of Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
"Alice, did you remember to bring the wooden stake? Alice?..."

James Bond fans will probably recognize Geoffrey Keen (Hargood) as the Defence Minister who appeared in 6 Bond films over the course of a decade, starting with The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and ending with The Living Daylights (1987).

Although Lee vowed this would be his last movie for Hammer, he was dragged back 3 more times to portray the evil count for the studio: Scars of Dracula (1970), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1974). Scars is a throwback to Hammer’s signature 19th century, Central European setting. But A.D. 1972 is set in (then) present-day London, and takes the youth culture themes that Taste the Blood dabbled with and explodes them into a generational war: Dracula vs. the hippies.

Stay tuned for Part Two, where we will dig up more generational conflicts in Dracula A.D. 1972.

Where to find it: The 4 Film Favorites: Draculas collection, including Taste the Blood of Dracula and Dracula A.D. 1972 is available here

August 12, 2019

Fear of Flying: Special TV Movie Double Feature Edition

They say that for many things in life, it’s better not to know how the sausage gets made. That may be doubly true if you find yourself in a jetliner 5 miles up, cruising along at 500 mph. All the little headaches that are a standard part of flying these days are probably a blessing in disguise. If you’re distracted by the guy on your right who snores like a jumbo jet revving up, and by the old lady’s “comfort” dog on your left that nips at you every time you move in your cramped seat, then you probably don’t have time to dwell on the fact that U.S. jet manufacturers are allowed to “self-certify” that their planes meet FAA safety standards, and that many airlines outsource their aircraft maintenance to uncertified mechanics in places like Mexico and China.

Poster - The High and the Mighty (1954)
The desire to avoid thinking about how safety gets fed into the industry meat-grinder perhaps explains why we don’t see too many airliner-based disaster movies these days. It’s interesting that during the heyday of air travel, when it was as well-regulated, safe and comfortable as it’s ever going to be, Hollywood brought out so many hair-raising airplane movies.

Way back in 1954 John Wayne got the ball rolling (or should I say the crippled plane flying?) with his production of The High and the Mighty, about a disgraced co-pilot (Wayne) who has to step up when the airliner he’s on loses an engine mid-way through their Hawaii to California run, and the pilot (Robert Stack) loses his marbles. With an all-star cast of characters and more dramatic backstories than you can count, the film eventually set the stage for a whole host of 70’s disaster epics, especially the Airport series that began with the megahit Airport in 1970 and ended on a flat note with The Concorde: Airport ‘79. The cycle would return to its roots when Airplane! (1980) directly parodied The High and the Mighty to hilarious effect (and as an added homage included Robert Stack in its all-star supporting cast).

Before audience demand for airplane disaster flicks crashed and burned, TV producers decided to get in on the act. For some people, the idea of a machine weighing several hundred tons flying miles above the earth seems unnatural, if not downright uncanny. Here are two TV movies from the ‘70s that add supernatural horror to an already uncanny, unnerving situation.

DVD cover art - The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)
Now Playing: The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)

Pros: Features an "all-star" cast of familiar faces from the '60s and '70s
Cons: The “horror” is a big letdown

This CBS TV movie starts out like so many disaster pictures of the period, with an assortment of passengers from different walks of life (an architect, an ex-priest, a businessman, an actor, a doctor, etc.) assembling at London’s Heathrow airport to board a special red-eye flight to New York. There are only about 10 passengers sharing the very spacious 747 cabin, as it’s mainly a cargo flight.

As some of the characters' backstories are explored, we learn that most of the cargo hold contains pieces of an old abbey that wealthy architect Alan O’Neill (Roy Thinnes) and his English wife Sheila (Jane Merrow) are transporting to New York to reassemble at their mansion (the abbey was part of Sheila’s ancestral estate). Also on the flight is Mrs. Pinder (Tammy Grimes), an English busybody who opposed the O’Neill’s plans to break up the abbey, and who threatens to sue them in U.S. court in a last ditch effort.

Russell Johnson in The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)
Flight engineer Hawley doesn't like the selection
of frozen entrees.
Mrs. Pinder ominously warns the O’Neills that they’ll be sorry they ever touched the old ruins, and sure enough, things start to get very weird very fast. First, the flight crew headed by Captain Ernie Slade (Chuck Connors) finds that the 747 is caught in the biggest headwinds ever, and the plane is making no progress at all over the Atlantic. When they try to turn around to head back to Heathrow, there’s still no progress, as if they’re caught in a whirlwind that’s keeping them stationary.

The next shoe to drop is in the cargo hold, where things are loudly banging around. A stewardess (Darleen Carr) who is preparing passenger meals in the galley next to the cargo hold is freaked out by strange noises, electrical power surges, and ice forming next to the cargo hatch. When the Captain and the flight engineer (Russell Johnson) go down to investigate, all heck breaks loose.

The problem with The Horror is that it’s not all that horrible, or even very spooky. Given the made-for-TV budget limitations, what we get is some weird music, some disembodied chanting, freezing ice, and something that looks like liquified silly putty that bubbles up from the plane’s lower decks.

William Shatner, Roy Thinnes and Jane Merrow in The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)
Paul toasts his fellow passengers for joining Satan's
Mile High Club.
Midway through, Mrs. Pinder turns extra creepy. She gleefully tells the O’Neills that the part of the abbey they’re shipping was built over an altar used by ancient Druids for unspeakable sacrifices to “the Old Ones.” To make things more interesting, it’s the Summer Solstice, when witches and all manner of evil entities are unleashed to run riot over the earth. Apparently the spirits attached to the abbey like to play with the thermostat and their own version of silly putty.

The other problem with The Horror is that it shamelessly telegraphs its climax. When we learn that Paul Kovalik (William Shatner) is a defrocked priest who has lost his faith and prefers anesthetizing himself with alcohol to facing his inner demons, we know for certain that he will have to redeem himself by facing the actual demons that have taken over the plane.

Paul Winfield is also on hand as the prim Dr. Enkala, the requisite voice of science and reason. His role is to hem, haw, look concerned, and be pretty much useless as panic takes over.

Buddy Ebsen, Lynn Loring and France Nuyen in The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)
"Oh Mighty Old Ones, we humbly offer up this Chatty Cathy
to you... A $29.99 value at finer department stores!"
The rest of the cast -- Buddy Ebsen as a no-nonsense businessman, Lynn Loring as sad-sack Paul’s companion, Will Hutchins as a B-list Hollywood actor, France Nuyen as a beautiful, sophisticated model, and Mia Bendixsen as an innocent little girl traveling on her own (!?) -- are set pieces to demonstrate in dramatic fashion how perfectly normal, rational people can degenerate into blithering, superstitious idiots in the face of supernatural evil.

In an odd scene, the desperate group decides that their only chance is to offer a sacrifice to the Old Ones to get them to back off. At first it looks as if they’re going to go after the helpless little girl, but instead snatch her doll away to dress it up in a scarf and a lock of Mrs. O’Neill’s hair. Then they offer it up to the bubbling green slime to propitiate the evil entities. Yikes!

The writers were obviously trying to elevate the proceedings with a serious message about the weakness of science and reason in the absence of faith, or something like that, but at this particular point their credibility with me bubbled away like so much demonic silly putty. They needed to invest a little less in the cliched message and a little more in a scarier supernatural menace. But that’s just me -- your results may vary.

Where to find it: A decent streaming upload can be found here, or the DVD here.


Video cover art for The Ghost of Flight 401 (1978)
Now Playing: The Ghost of Flight 401 (1978)

Pros: Generates nail-biting suspense in recreating a real-life airliner crash; Cast is top-notch
Cons: The ghostly scenes are creepy, but too brief; Much of the movie centers around various employees trying to convince the airline executive played by Gary Lockwood that the hauntings are real

Ghost aired on NBC in February of 1978. Based on the book by John G. Fuller, it is based on the real life crash of Eastern Airlines flight 401 in the Florida Everglades on December 29, 1972. The pilots and flight engineer were all killed, but 8 out of the 10 attendants and 67 (out of 163) passengers survived.

While the producers changed the name of the airline and many of the characters for the movie, it provides a nail-biting and apparently pretty accurate depiction of the run up to and aftermath of the crash. In this case, something very small -- an indicator light for the nose landing gear -- caused an enormous tragedy. When it fails to light up on their approach into Miami International Airport, the Captain (played by Russell Johnson in his second TV air disaster/horror movie of the decade) dispatches flight engineer Dom Cimoli (Ernest Borgnine) to the “hellhole” underneath the cockpit to try to visually determine if the gear is deployed or not.

Kim Basinger in The Ghost of Flight 401 (1978)
Kim Basinger appears as flight attendant Prissy Frasier
With the flight engineer busy below and the pilot and co-pilot obsessed with troubleshooting the indicator panel, they fail to notice that the autopilot has been disengaged in their holding pattern and the plane is steadily losing altitude.

The movie also accurately depicts the heroic efforts of an airboat operator (Robert "Bud" Marquis in real life) who was out hunting frogs in the vicinity, and who rescued many of the passengers.

Somehow Cimoli survives the initial crash but dies of his injuries later at the hospital. Borgnine as Cimoli adds poignancy to the story, portraying a very likeable, selfless colleague (he trades with another engineer for the fatal flight) and a loving husband. Carol Rossen is also effective as Cimoli’s wife, who has a bad feeling about the upcoming flight, but can’t talk her straight-arrow husband into calling in sick.

Most of the post-crash part of the movie is Gary Lockwood’s, playing Jordan Evanhower, a former pilot, close friend of the Cimolis, and an executive with the airline. Evanhower is a man caught between loyalty to his bosses and his good friends when those friends -- attendants and even experienced pilots -- report that Cimoli is still reporting for duty on various flights.

Ernest Borgnine in The Ghost of Flight 401 (1978)
The ghost of Dom Cimoli reports for duty with an
important message about the virtues of recycling.
Evanhower’s skepticism and company loyalty are tested when it appears that Cimoli is showing up on airplanes that have been fitted with recycled parts from the crashed plane. Even by the end of the movie, when he’s attending a seance aimed at trying to put Cimoli’s ghost to rest (held by a fellow pilot and spirit medium, no less!), Evanhower is battling conflicting emotions.

Fans of straight out horror may not find that much to whet their appetites here, as the ghost makes only a few brief (but effective) appearances. Much of the movie is about company politics and Evanhower’s soul-searching. Still, it provides some very suspenseful scenes of a disaster in the making, and the ostensibly true story is intriguing.

A posting in IMDb’s Trivia section maintains that the claims made in John G. Fuller’s source book have all been debunked. Other user posts on the movie’s page assert otherwise. Whatever you believe, The Ghost of Flight 401 is a tight drama with some very good performances and a couple of genuine chills thrown in for good measure.

Where to find it: A watchable streaming upload can be found here.