July 13, 2021

Remembering William Smith and a Rare Horror Role

Poster - Grave of the Vampire, 1972
Now Playing:
Grave of the Vampire (1972)

Pros: At various points the film pays effective homage to classic vampires as well as contemporaneous ones like The Night Stalker.
Cons: Logic lapses and lack of sufficient backstory lead to confusion over characters’ actions and motivations.

I was sad to see the news of actor William Smith’s passing on July 5, 2021 at the age of 88. Although he made a long career out of playing bad guys, I first got to know Smith as Joe Riley, one of a trio of Texas Rangers (rounded out by Neville Brand and Peter Brown) led by the perpetually exasperated Capt. Parmelee (Phillip Carey) in the TV western Laredo (1965-67). Laredo was exciting and fun and didn’t take itself too seriously, and was right up there with The Wild, Wild West as my favorite TV western growing up.

The next time I encountered Mr. Smith, he had donned an eye-patch and a venomous disposition as Falconetti, poor man Tom Jordache’s (Nick Nolte) relentless nemesis in the TV mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man (1976). The memorable part solidified Smith’s status as one of Hollywood’s most reliable, go-to villains.

There were few better suited to tough guy roles than Smith. He was a lifelong bodybuilder, amassing world armwrestling championships, Air Force weightlifting championships, and dozens of amateur boxing wins in between acting gigs.

William Smith as Joe Riley in Laredo, Falconetti in Rich Man, Poor Man, and James Eastman in Grave of the Vampire
The Good, the Bad, and the Toothy. William Smith as (L to R):
Joe Riley in Laredo, Falconetti in Rich Man, Poor Man, & James Eastman in Grave of the Vampire

But his tough guy exterior hid a brilliant mind. Smith became fluent in five languages, including Russian, which led to high government security clearances and hush-hush assignments while serving in the military. He was working on a Ph.d. when the acting bug bit hard in the form of an MGM contract. [Wikipedia.]

Smith got his acting start as a child in the ‘40s, appearing in mostly uncredited roles starting with The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), and then, in quick succession, a number of films that would become memorable classics: The Song of Bernadette (1943), Going My Way (1944), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Gilda (1946), and The Boy with the Green Hair (1948).

By the 1960s, he was bouncing from one TV show to another, flexing his muscles and acting chops in all kinds of genres. By the late ‘80s the TV shows petered out, but offers of tough guy/villain roles in B movies (and frankly, some C, D and Z-grade flicks as well) kept him busy right up to the 20-teens. (Smith is at his B-villain best in the offbeat sci-fi-action-thriller-comedy Hell Comes to Frogtown, 1988; see my review here.)

In perusing Smith’s IMDb credits, I stumbled upon a familiar title, Grave of the Vampire from 1972. I’d long been aware of Grave for its unique premise: that vampires can be born as well as made -- in this case, as the result of a rape (!!) by a centuries-old vampire.

Grave of the Vampire has been in the public domain for sometime, with a long history of home video releases by Mill Creek, Alpha Video and Scream Factory, among many others; it’s also available on the Internet Archive and YouTube. Even so, I somehow managed to avoid seeing it until now.

Grave is one of the few out-and-out horror films on Smith’s long resume. It’s an oddity by anyone’s standards, and perhaps not the best pick to remember William Smith by, but because it’s so odd, it’s a natural for this blog.

The film begins with a scene that plays like the mother of all spooky campfire stories. A couple of quirky college students, Paul (Jay Scott) and Leslie (Kitty Vallacher) have parked their car out by the cemetery in the middle of the night (!?) to be alone so that Paul can propose. As Paul is putting a dime-store-looking ring on his girl’s finger, a prune-faced corpse (Michael Pataki) is waking up from his nap in a nearby crypt.

Michael Pataki as Caleb Croft rising from the Grave of the Vampire, 1972
"Next time I'm getting the satin interior."

Before you can say “never make love next to a cemetery,” the rejuvenated corpse is tearing the door off the car to get to the couple. The living deadman hurls Paul onto a gravestone and proceeds to drain the unfortunate young man of his blood as his girlfriend, paralyzed with fear, looks on. The monster then turns his attention to Leslie, dragging her off to an open grave to do unspeakable things.

As a result of her night of trauma, Leslie is now pregnant, but being the eternal optimist, she is excited to be carrying Paul’s child. Her doctor is less sanguine, telling her that what’s inside her womb “isn’t human,” and urging her to terminate the pregnancy (interesting advice, given that the year is 1940, years before ultrasound imaging and legal abortions became available).

Meanwhile, the police detective working the murder-assault case (Ernesto Macias) is preternaturally open-minded and intuitive, somehow connecting the brutal draining of Paul’s blood with the case of a murderer-rapist in Boston, Caleb Croft, who was electrocuted trying to escape from the police. Sometime afterwards, Croft’s corpse was transferred to the very cemetery where the attack took place. Okaaaaayyyy.

When Leslie’s baby is born, he won’t take his mother’s milk. The midwife is worried, advising the young mother to see a doctor. Leslie refuses to go back to the man who wanted her to have an abortion. By chance, when Leslie accidentally cuts her finger and the baby greedily laps up the drops of blood that happen to fall near its mouth, she discovers just what he needs. She proceeds to draw her own blood to feed her child. Yikes!

Kitty Vallacher feeding her vampire baby in Grave of the Vampire, 1972
"I think you're going to like this. It's full-bodied, with notes of bitter cherry
and tobacco, and a salty, piquant finish."

Fast forward 30 years. Leslie’s child is now to all appearances a handsome, strapping young man, but one who knows he is… different. Calling himself James Eastman (William Smith), he has vowed to track down and destroy the monster who assaulted his mother.

His search has taken him to a college campus and the classroom of Prof. Lockwood (Pataki again), who teaches a class on folklore and mythology. In class, Eastman reveals his deep interest in vampires, particularly a 17th century English one by the name of Charles Croyden, who, after committing unspeakable depredations on his native soil, fled England for the Massachusetts Bay colony and assumed the name of Caleb Croft. Lockwood, who looks suspiciously like a less wrinkly version of the animated corpse who assaulted Leslie, listens to Eastman with apparent interest.

Eastman hooks up with two very attractive fellow students, Anne (Lyn Peters) and Anita (Diane Holden), who get swept up in the young man’s mission to find Caleb Croft and dispatch him to Hades. A series of grisly murders in the college town, in which the victims were drained of blood, seems to be proof he’s on the right track.

Classroom scene with Michael Pataki and William Smith, Grave of the Vampire, 1972
James Eastman (William Smith) gets extra credit from Prof. Lockwood (Michael Pataki)
for his extensive knowledge of vampire lore.

Soon, one of the women will fall in love with Eastman and the other will implore Croft to make her his immortal vampire bride. And things will come to a bloody head when Lockwood/Croft invites his best students to earn extra credit by attending a seance at his mansion.

Like many low-budget horror movies, there are moments of inspired eeriness interspersed with scenes of jaw-dropping battiness.

The opening set-up of Croft awakening in his crypt is so classic as to be cliched, but is well done, especially the make-up, which is exactly how a vampire who hasn’t had a drop of blood in awhile should look.

For a newly awakened, desiccated member of the undead, Croft is amazingly strong and spry. The vampire ripping the car door off its hinges, breaking the young man’s back on a gravestone, and hauling the screaming Leslie off to the open grave is a shocking counterpoint to the languid, classic Dracula-like scene of Croft slowly opening the lid of the crypt.

But the film immediately follows up with its first head-scratching scene. Instead of being a skeptic, the investigating police Lt. immediately smells “Vampire!” Not only that, but he has somehow sussed out of thin air a connection to a certain Caleb Croft, a murderer and rapist who had been plying his nefarious trade in Boston.

Before we’ve had a chance to digest it all -- How does Panzer know so much about a murderer from out East? How did he make the vampire connection? Is he a secret vampire hunter as well as a policeman? -- the film cuts to the tender scenes of Leslie feeding her baby her own blood.

Similar head-scratching ensues with the scene of the first day of Lockwood’s class, when the 30 year-old Eastman regales the professor and the rest of the class with the legend of Croyden/Croft, the peripatetic vampire. What exactly, in his mission to hunt down Croft, has caused Eastwood to be in that town and that class? We don’t know. Eastman acts like he knows that Lockwood is Croft, or at least suspects it, but as things progress, he seems to be more interested in his attractive classmates, especially Anne, than in taking care of the monster.

William Smith and Lyn Peters in Grave of the Vampire, 1972
"I think you're going to like this, I was raised on this stuff!"

There’s also the question of his status as a human/vampire hybrid. He can move around in the daylight and seems perfectly normal. Yet, as a baby, he could only thrive on blood. Is that still the case, or has he become more human as an adult? It seems like the latter, but the film doesn’t provide any definitive answers (at least not until the very end).

In the meantime, as Eastman dithers, Croft is draining local women of their blood. In Grave of the Vampire, women aren’t just unlucky, passive targets, but instead actively participate in their own victimization. Croft seems to exude a powerful animal magnetism. First, a young woman approaches him at night with a proposition to go back to her place. Then later, an attractive librarian lets her hair down in front of him after she’s closed up shop. And the hunky Eastman, seemingly a chip off the old block, has no problem attracting women either.

Croyden/Croft is a somewhat awkward mash-up of two more famous contemporaneous vampires. Like Janos from The Night Stalker (TV movie, 1972), Croft is extremely physical, capable of tearing apart cars and not above using whatever’s handy, including garden tools, to rip open victims’ throats before gulping down their blood. And yet, like Count Yorga (1970), he is refined and attractive, a ladies' man, luring his victims into his lair like a human spider.

Michael Pataki was an interesting choice for Croft. Pataki was one of those familiar TV faces that you could never quite place. Before Grave of the Vampire, he had appeared on such sci-fi favorites as The Twilight Zone, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Star Trek (“The Trouble with Tribbles”), and he even had a small part in The Return of Count Yorga (1972). After Grave, he got a gig as Count Dracula in Dracula’s Dog (1977).

With a face and presence more suited to working class gangster roles than a centuries-old English vampire, Pataki still does a creditable job, especially in the wordless close-ups with blood dripping from his long vampire teeth. However, in the climactic seance scene, he goes over-the-top with a clipped, theatrical voice that sounds like a cheap stage magician trying to be heard in the back rows of a drafty theater.

Michael Pataki as Lockwood/Croft in Grave of the Vampire, 1972
"What? Do I have something in my teeth?"

Smith is a similarly odd choice as the vampire’s son. As the grown-up college student/vampire hunter, he is strangely passive and blank-faced, even when he’s being hit on by his beautiful classmates. It doesn’t help that the film doesn’t provide enough backstory to be able to make much sense of his motivations, or for that matter, where he is on the scale between human and vampire. It’s only at the end that he’s given a chance to get physical and decidedly emotional.

In addition to being thematically dark, Grave of the Vampire is photographically dark, with more than a few extended scenes of silhouettes moving against occasional patches of light. With Grave, it’s more of a feature than a bug. Like the film's juxtaposition of quiet, spooky scenes with bursts of extreme violence, the dark, can’t-quite-make-out-what’s-going-on sequences that stand cheek by jowl with the well-lit scenes of the mundane world (e.g., Lockwood’s classroom) keep the viewer off-kilter and not knowing what to expect.

Considering that Grave was shot in a little over a week for $50,000, it delivers a fair amount of frightful bang for its buck. And for William Smith fans, it’s worth seeing for a rare, quirky horror role that came almost smack dab in the middle of his crazy-long acting career.

Where to find it: With its public domain status, you can hurl a wooden stake in almost any direction and hit a copy. Start here or here

July 2, 2021

I Can’t Believe My Parents Let Me Watch That, Part Two

Way back in February 2020, I wrote about how grateful I was that my parents looked the other way when, as a pre-teen, I stayed up on Friday and Saturday nights to watch my beloved sci-fi flicks and Universal horrors.

I’m sure they had some mild reservations about my viewing choices, and they weren’t above occasionally using TV privileges as a disciplinary tool, but at the same time, the attitude clearly was “so he’s watching old reruns of Dracula and Frankenstein-- how harmful can that be?”

And most of the time, they were right. By the time I started collecting copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland, paging through the dogeared issues while eagerly awaiting the next installment of the local creature feature, I was too old to be frightened by the classic monsters. It was a lot of fun watching them chase their victims around creepy cobwebbed castles and retro laboratories, but really scary they were not.

The Jasons, Freddies, and Michael Myers had quite a few more years to wait before a more relaxed, “oh, whatever” society allowed them to slice and dice their way across movie and TV screens.

Stairs down to dark, scary basement
When I was a kid, I was allowed to watch my late night monster
movies on one condition: I had to watch them in the basement.

By contrast, the classic monsters were born in an age of moral panic. In the 1920s, when Lon Chaney was thrilling audiences with his portrayals of The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in Universal’s first horror cycle, studio moguls were worried that too many thrills -- especially in the form of Hollywood sex and murder scandals, played against a backdrop of scantily clad flappers -- were turning uptight mainstream America off of their products.

Even as Universal was gearing up for its second horror wave featuring Frankenstein and Dracula, Hollywood was attending to its image problem by developing the Motion Picture Production Code to stake out what was permissible and what was not for U.S. audiences. (The code was popularly known as the Hays Code, after Will H. Hays, first chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America.)

By the time the Bride of Frankenstein and Dracula’s Daughter were done strutting their stuff, the Code was in full effect, and Universal took a few years off from monster-making before the lure of profits brought the monsters back in the form of Son of Frankenstein in 1939. The Code’s finger-wagging lasted until 1968, when it was replaced by the Motion Picture Association ratings system, which is still in force.

It’s testimony to the genius of the folks at Universal that they were able to navigate the moral panics and the Code to produce a series of horror films that were long on atmosphere but hardly contained a drop of blood, mostly suggesting violence rather than splashing it on the screen. Even in today’s over-the-top entertainment landscape, the relatively understated Universal monsters are still revered by some and recognizable to almost everyone.

I was barely a teenager when the MPAA ratings were introduced in 1968. Along with a cartoon, theatergoers at the time were treated to a short introduction to the new system, which replaced the Code’s pre-censorship of content with a scheme that theoretically prevented children from being exposed to rough content that was increasingly becoming the norm. The very first letter ratings were:

  • Rated G: Suggested for general audiences.
  • Rated M: Suggested for mature audiences - Parental discretion advised.
  • Rated R: Restricted – persons under 16 not admitted, unless accompanied by parent or adult guardian.
  • Rated X: Persons under 16 not admitted. [Wikipedia]

By 1968, there was plenty of rough content to be protected from. It was the beginning of the of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll era, with a good amount of blood mixed in. Independent filmmakers were finding that almost any kind of transgressive, youth-oriented subject matter translated into box office gold, so theater and drive-in screens started filling up with hot stewardesses and nurses, drug-crazed motorcycle gangs and LSD trips.

On the horror front, Hammer Films had spent the past decade spicing up the classic monsters with heaving bosoms and technicolor blood. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead upped the ante even further, introducing mainstream audiences to zombies munching on human body parts, forever changing what was acceptable to show in your neighborhood theater.

As with most revolutions, it only seemed like propriety and the conservative status quo had been toppled overnight. In reality, there were all kinds of rough and shocking scenes in movies leading up to the late ‘60s that made their way past censors, decency leagues and concerned parents, and eventually wound up on my cherished creature features.

The following are a few more examples of shocking scenes that I watched late at night, and paid for with fitful sleep and a few nightmares. They may not seem much by today’s horror standards, but each was a sort of building block leading to today’s “freedom” of expression. I survived them, and I’m better for it (I think).

Parody of MPAA preview ratings

Cosmic Monsters (aka The Strange World of Planet X; 1958)

At the time, Cosmic Monsters seemed like a perfectly innocuous big bug sci-fi movie, produced by the Brits on a nothing budget, and starring American C-list actor Forrest Tucker (who around the same time starred in such UK productions as The Abominable Snowman and The Crawling Eye).

The highlight of Cosmic Monsters features scenes of soldiers shooting at supposed giant insects, which consisted of insert shots of actual insects doing insecty sorts of things. However, two scenes grabbed my attention. In the first, protagonist Michele Dupont (Gaby André) gets tangled up in a giant spider’s web -- which of course had been done before, but in this version, the filmmakers cleverly integrated shots of Gaby with an actual spider jerking its legs around in real spider-time (not a lame-looking, slow-moving puppet), making for a more shuddery effect.

In the second, a large centipede-looking thing attacks a soldier and chews half of his face off -- needless to say, that got my attention. The only copies of the movie I’ve been able to find show only the aftermath of the giant bug attack, but my memory might not be so shaky after all. According to the movie’s IMDb page:

"The film was originally released in the UK in 1958 with an uncut 'X' certificate as 'The Strange World of Planet X (1958)'. It was then cut down to an 'A' certificate in 1960 and released as "The Strange World", and was missing some shots of Michelle trapped in a giant web and a dead man's face being eaten by an insect."

Speaking of getting caught up in a web of sci-fi intrigue, 20 years before Alien, Beast from Haunted Cave captured hapless humans and spun them up tight in huge webs in order to drain their lifeblood a little at a time.

The first time I saw the scene below, it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end (see my full review of Beast here). Beast from Haunted Cave was shot quick and cheap, but also delivered the stuff of real nightmares.

While The Monster of Piedras Blancas is a poor man’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, it is far from the worst Creature imitator. In spite of the low budget, the producers managed to get Jack Kevan, who had worked on the original Creature suit, to cobble together the Piedras Blancas monster from parts scavenged from other productions (see more about how the suit was created here). The end result is pretty effective.

Nevertheless, the filmmakers decided that they needed something more than a cool suit to lure jaded teenagers to the drive-in, so they gave their creature a predilection for **GULP** decapitating its victims before feasting on them.

This one is really rough, and in retrospect, it’s amazing that by the time I turned 13, I had seen Hypnotic Eye at least twice. The disturbing plot revolves around women in deep trances mutilating themselves with common household appliances and chemicals. Investigators find a common thread: they all had attended a stage hypnotist show and were volunteer subjects.

The film immediately gets down to business with one such incident. It’s perhaps all the more disturbing that, despite the low budget, the movie is well made, with more than a few stylishly suspenseful moments.

In addition to adding copious amounts of blood and boobs to cinematic vampire lore, Hammer Studios transformed Dracula from a smooth, refined nobleman who patiently lured his victims into his trap like a human spider, to a frenetic, bloody-eyed monster who could scarcely wait to put the bite on his prey.

The culmination of Hammer’s feral Dracula was Prince of Darkness, in which Christopher Lee plays the part with silent ferocity, stalking his unwary guests more like a wolf than a spider. The way in which the Count is resurrected was a big eye-opener for me, the first time I had seen a human being trussed up like a side of beef and sacrificed in such a horrific way.

June 17, 2021

Time-release Capsule Reviews, Part Two: Unidentified Flying Horrors

Forget Covid-19. Forget the latest mud-slinging in Washington, D.C. Forget the NBA and NHL playoffs. I’ll tell you what’s really on people’s minds these days: UFOs.

After Luis Elizondo, former head of a Defense Intelligence Agency program to study unidentified aerial phenomena, released videos of the Navy’s encounters with the strange Tic-Tac UFOs (or should I say UAPs) in 2017, the topic went mainstream in a hurry.

It certainly helped that, after some dithering, the Pentagon confirmed the videos as authentic. Suddenly, such sober, authoritative media outlets as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal were treating UFOs seriously instead of poking fun at the credulous rubes. And interviews with rock-solid military pilots who had witnessed the incredible flying whatsits were popping up all over the news.

The dam has broken, and it seems like we’re being treated to a near-constant flood of new videos and images, witness testimonies and Pentagon acknowledgements that there may really be something to this UFO thing after all (but whatever it is, it’s not our secret stuff). 

Still, The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951
"Mr. President, the aliens are here and they're wondering if they can
get a copy of the UAP Task Force Report."

Just recently, 60 Minutes, the soberest, most sclerotic mainstream news program of them all, devoted its first ever segment to UFOs, including a very serious interview with Luis Elizondo. And there’s potentially another big shoe to be dropped with the release of the UAP Task Force report to Congress this summer.

As all the revelations have been piling up, I’ve had my own interesting encounters -- not with aliens, but with regular, down-to-earth people who are intrigued by the serious attention UFOs are getting. My go-to ball cap for protecting my balding head from the sun features a classic grey alien whose bulbous forehead is stitched like a baseball -- one of the logos of the now defunct minor league baseball team the Las Vegas 51s (named of course after southern Nevada’s notorious Area 51).

When I first started wearing the cap, no one, except for the occasional baseball fan, noticed the damned thing. But as more and more UFO stories hit the mainstream news, my cap became a wonderful conversation starter. Now, it’s almost routine when I’m out in public for perfect strangers to spot it and start talking about aliens and government cover-ups and the possibility that not only are we not alone, they’re actually here!

Photo - Las Vegas 51s ballcap
According to my sources, there is no truth to the rumor that aliens use
Spider Tack to get a better grip on their abductees. 

So, in honor of all those curious, somewhat freaked out people and the ongoing UFO/UAP revolution, I’m devoting this installment of capsule reviews to a triptych of “up close and personal” film encounters with aliens and UFOs, from the 1990s to the not-quite present.

The films below are not about epic alien invasions. Invasion flicks are a lot of fun too, and I plan to do a post or two on that subgenre in the near future. So stay tuned, and in the meantime, keep watching the skies!

The alleged alien abduction of forest worker Travis Walton in eastern Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest on November 5, 1975 is one of the most celebrated and controversial accounts in all of UFO lore.

Supposedly, Walton and six other workers were heading home from a hard day of forest thinning when they spotted a saucer-shaped craft hovering near the road. When Walton got out to get a better look, he was enveloped in a bright light and knocked to the ground, unconscious. The rest of the panicked crew hightailed it out of there. After extensive searches, Walton showed up five days later in a nearby town, with a story that he had been abducted and examined by two different species of aliens.

Believers point to the fact that Walton and his co-workers passed polygraph examinations, and have stood by the story for 45+ years (although recently crew chief Mike Rogers has wavered somewhat). Skeptics point out that the polygraph tests, sponsored by The National Enquirer (not the Sheriff’s office as depicted in the movie), were poorly administered, and that Walton and several family members and friends had previously been infatuated with UFOs. 

Whatever your take on it, watching Fire in the Sky will enthrall you and possibly make you a believer, if only for an hour or two. This is not so much Travis Walton’s movie (played by D.B. Sweeney) as it is friend and fellow forester Mike Rogers’ (Robert Patrick). After the shaken crew returns to town without Travis and tells its incredible story to the sheriff, tensions run high for days afterwards as most of the townspeople have concluded that Rogers and the others are hiding something, quite possibly Travis’ murder.

Even Travis’ reappearance and the vindication of the polygraph exams can’t redeem Rogers, who gets divorced and, at the end of the movie, has become a recluse who hasn’t seen his daughters or former friend Travis in years. Patrick is very good as a flawed, but nonetheless stand-up guy who lives constantly on the edge, taking seasonal forestry work to keep the bill collectors at bay and his rusty old truck running. He passionately stands his ground, even in the face of withering skepticism from his family, neighbors, and hotshot criminal investigator Frank Watters (James Garner).

And then there’s the justifiably famous sequence with Walton aboard the alien craft. The film’s IMDb trivia page relates that studio execs found the real Walton’s abduction account too mundane, and had screenwriter Tracy Tormé (son of jazz singer Mel Tormé) jazz it up (pun intended). He and director Robert Lieberman succeeded spectacularly.

I watched Fire in the Sky with some friends a few years after its video release. Two of them reported not being able to sleep that night. I am (ahem) made of somewhat sterner stuff, but there’s no doubt that Fire in the Sky’s depiction of Walton’s close encounter remains to this day the wildest and scariest ever committed to film.

Night Skies

Night Skies is a typical representative of the subgenre of alien siege movies involving small groups of travelers, vacationers and/or locals who, while trying to commune with nature, end up being stalked by scary aliens bent on abducting or dissecting them. (For other examples, see Alien Abduction or Extraterrestrial, both released in 2014).

The movie strains credulity at the outset by asking us to believe that a group of oversexed twenty-somethings on their way to Las Vegas in a humongous rattletrap RV are lost because one of them wanted to take the scenic route... at night.

Rattling down a bumpy sideroad, the driver (Matt, played by George Stults) is distracted by weird lights in the sky, sideswipes a broken down truck in the middle of the road, and careens into a tree. Matt is the movie’s requisite hothead, and deals with the situation by punching the owner of the truck, ex-soldier Richard (Jason Connery) in the mouth.

A bad move, since Matt’s friend Joe (Joseph Sikora) has ended up with a kitchen knife in his back as a result of the crash, and Richard is the only one of the group with medical training (courtesy of the Army). Of course, neither vehicle is in shape to drive, and there’s no cell signal. Unfortunately for the stranded group, Joe’s injuries are just a precursor of what’s to come, as it soon becomes evident that they are not alone in the dark woods.

To its credit, Night Skies tries to add depth to its characters with various backstories: Matt’s girlfriend Lilly (A.J. Cook) is reluctant to tell him she’s pregnant (at least in part because he’s an immature dolt); Richard confides to Matt’s sister Molly (Ashley Peldon) that he was tortured by the Iraqis as a POW in Desert Storm, and his life has been on hold ever since.

The problem is that some of the backstory development slows things at crucial junctures and doesn’t really add anything substantive or explain why the characters act the way they do. However, patient viewers will be rewarded with some effective jump scares, a couple of good effects on what I assume was a shoestring budget (especially the fate of an old cabin), and aliens that won’t scare anybody, but that are pretty well-designed. (The score and the sound design are particularly outstanding, with the subtle, ominous music underscoring the aliens’ skittering and trilling as they pursue their prey.)

Night Skies’ climactic pièce de résistance is a scene that, to be charitable, is very reminiscent of Travis Walton’s abduction experience in Fire in the Sky (some might say it’s a blatant rip-off). The original scene is uniquely terrifying, and those who haven't seen Fire in the Sky may be impressed by Night Skies’ version. But the Night Skies people might have been better advised to come up with something more original.

This strange film goes all out in pretending to be a documentary drama, to the point that at the beginning, it presents lead actress Milla Jovovich as herself, grimly intoning, Dragnet style, that the following story is true and only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. And before the end credits, It throws up blurbs about what happened to the principal characters after the events of the movie transpired.

The title refers to one of the categories of UFO encounters that researcher J. Allen Hynek developed in the early ‘70s, famously popularized by Steven Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (Actually, Hynek only described 3 types of close encounters; UFO researchers have since expanded the list to seven. A close encounter of the fourth kind is abduction by aliens.) 

Jovovich plays Dr. Abbey Tyler, a clinical psychologist and mother of two young children, whose husband was recently murdered in a horrific home invasion. In the course of counseling patients in the remote town of Nome, Alaska, she is intrigued and baffled when a number of them independently tell her the same story of being awakened night after night by an owl that sits outside the bedroom window and stares at them.

When she decides to hypnotize one of her patients to try to figure out what the strange owl is all about, the session reveals a terrifying underlying reality, and unleashes a series of bizarre events that sweeps up Tyler herself and threatens her children. (Believe it or not, the owl-alien connection is a real thing in UFO circles; read all about it: “The Owl-UFO Connection Continues,” Nick Redfern, Mysterious Universe.)

As Tyler delves more deeply into the mystery and conducts more hypnosis sessions, the film frequently employs a split screen to show the supposed “actual” taped footage side by side with the “recreated” scenes involving Jovovich and her fellow actors. Interspersed throughout are segments from an interview conducted years after the events in Nome, in which the “real” Dr. Tyler (played by Charlotte Milchard) defends her interpretation of what happened.

It’s all very meta, but surprisingly effective. For a film about alien abduction that neither shows an alien or a UFO, it still manages to generate a good deal of suspense and dread, especially in the hypnosis scenes. It even manages to insert such concepts as ancient astronauts and Sumerian demons at various points without completely blowing the viewer’s suspension of disbelief.

Milla Jovovich took a break from being an action heroine in the Resident Evil movies to emote as the “recreated” Dr. Tyler, and she’s very good -- including the ability to let loose with a very creditable scream when the scene calls for it.

Perusing the IMDb user reviews, the residents of Nome, Alaska aren’t happy with the way The Fourth Kind depicted their town, but if you can get past that and the film’s cheesy “this is a true story, wink, wink” set-up, there are some legitimate thrills in store for you.

June 3, 2021

Time-release Capsule Reviews: Horrific 21st Century Life Lessons (Part One)

I just want to reiterate that, although I run a blog devoted to lean-budgeted genre movies from the hazy past, roughly ranging from the 1930s to the 1970s, I am not some close-minded old codger who refuses to watch anything new.

Okay, so I’m not a big fan of the current crop of comic book movies or Disney’s endless retreads, but I’m constantly on the look-out for intriguing new films to feed my addiction.

Not to brag or anything, but my wife and I saw a good many of the films nominated for Academy Awards this year, and enjoyed them all to some degree or another. (We also were among a relative handful that watched the awards from beginning to end, but I’m not sure that’s a bragging point.)

Still - Psycho (1960)
Although viewership for the 2021 Academy Awards hit a new low, the show
still managed to do well with the key 100-110 year old demographic.

If you’ve stopped by here before, you may have run across the disclaimer in About this Blog that I will occasionally write about newer films that pique my interest, if only to prove that I’m not hopelessly mired in the antediluvian past.

It’s been awhile since I reviewed something reasonably contemporary, so I’m devoting the next couple of posts to independent, low-budget horror and sci-fi films made in the past dozen years or so that grabbed my attention for their fresh, inventive takes on their genres (and that IMHO deserve more exposure).

I’m calling these “time-release capsule reviews” because a.) I’m releasing myself temporarily from the preference for moldy oldies, and b.) I’m hoping that with these capsule descriptions, I will plant a mind-seed that will tempt you to hit play the next time you run across one of these titles.

A time-release capsule from Hell
Warning: this blog uses time-release technology that will blow your mind.

Poster - Triangle, 2009
Triangle (2009)

“Mind-bending” is a term that gets tossed around a lot by critics, but Triangle earns that description in spades and then some. Jess (Melissa George) is an exhausted single mother of an autistic child who has taken the day off to go yachting with a group of wealthy friends. When their boat capsizes in a freak squall, the survivors, who are clinging desperately to the upended hull, are ecstatic when an ocean liner passes close enough to climb aboard.

Jubilation turns to consternation as the group explores the ship, which seems to be an antique from decades past, and which also is apparently completely deserted. Wandering around the spooky ship, Jess gets an uncanny sense of deja vu. But before anyone can fully process what’s going on, terror strikes in the form of a burlap-hooded killer who is targeting the group one-by-one.

The terror is amplified exponentially as Jess discovers that she and her yachting friends are caught in a time loop, seemingly condemned to repeat the chilling events over and over. Jess has to avoid becoming the hooded maniac’s next victim while trying to figure a way out of her terrifying Groundhog Day from hell.

Triangle is a sci-fi-mystery-action-psychological-thriller that steadily ratchets up the tension and keeps the audience guessing along with its frantic protagonist. It takes the old time loop cliché and transforms it in very disturbing ways. There is one scene in particular, involving one of Jess’s companions, that very graphically illustrates how many trips around the space-time merry-go-round the group has taken (and it’s a scene you’re not likely to forget).

At the start of the film, Jess is something of a mystery. She’s a working class mom, a duck out of water among the toney yuppies that she sets sail with. As things get deadly serious, Jess appears to be another in a long line of B-movie heroines and final girls; down-to-earth, practical types who are far-better equipped to survive than their arrogant, pampered companions. Yet, even as Jess is on the brink of solving her hellish puzzle and emerging triumphant, the film reveals events leading up to the sailing excursion that completely upend assumptions.

Writer-director Christopher Smith also co-wrote and directed Severance (2006), a grisly black comedy about a corporate team-building retreat in the wilderness of eastern Europe that goes horribly wrong. Australian actress Melissa George has done a ton of TV along with the occasional feature film. She is currently starring in Apple TV’s The Mosquito Coast.

Poster - The Shrine, 2010
The Shrine (2010)

While international backpacking has not been a thing recently for obvious reasons, vaccine rollouts are opening up more travel possibilities, and before long restless souls will no doubt once again be tromping around exotic locales on the cheap and staying in crowded hostels.

The Shrine begins with the aftermath of a backpacking trip gone bad. Carmen (Cindy Sampson), a young journalist, is intrigued by a string of mysterious disappearances of backpackers in eastern Europe, the latest of which is a young man by the name of Eric Taylor.

Carmen tries to sell the idea of an investigative story to her editor, but he declines. Undaunted, she interviews Eric’s mother, who gives the journalist her son’s diary that was found after his disappearance. From the diary, Carmen pinpoints Eric’s last known location to a remote village in Poland. Even without management’s blessing, she talks intern Sara (Meghan Heffern) and photographer Marcus (Aaron Ashmore) into accompanying her on a trip to try to find out what happened to Eric.

The trio wind up in a Polish village that seems to be straight out of the middle ages, run by severe-looking priests. At first the sullen, tight-lipped villagers are of no help, except to warn the visitors not to go in the woods where an odd, static fog bank hovers over the trees.

Eric’s diary mentioned the bizarre fog, so of course, Carmen and her companions have to investigate. At first Sara, then Carmen stumble upon a demonic-looking statue located in the center of the fog that appears to be examining them with sightless eyes, leaving them paranoid and disoriented.

Back at the village, one of the locals has a change of heart and leads them to an ancient-looking shrine that contains the bodies of Eric and other unfortunate travelers, each wearing a primitive iron mask suggesting some sort of grisly blood ritual. By trespassing in the woods, the visitors have marked themselves to be the next sacrificial victims, but incredibly, that may not be the worst fate awaiting them.

At first glance, The Shrine seems to be another standard entry in the “Don’t go in the woods!” subgenre featuring naive young campers, hikers and backpackers meeting gruesome demises that Cabin in the Woods parodied so well. But The Shrine cleverly adds yet another layer of horror onto the proceedings, and you’re suddenly not sure who the bad guys and good guys really are.

This culminates in a very effective scene in which Marcus and Carmen, exhausted, terrified, and desperately trying to avoid having metal masks nailed to their skulls, invade a family’s home to try to get the keys to their truck. The language barrier adds to the tension, but the family members, upon seeing the strangers, are panicked beyond what a garden variety home invasion would suggest. At this point the viewer is clued into what’s going on, but Marcus, who just wants to get out of Dodge, is completely oblivious.

The Shrine features some very hard, but important life lessons:

  1. Don’t make snap assumptions about people you don’t know, including those who live their lives differently from you.
  2. If the locals tell you not to go into the woods, don’t go in the woods.
  3. Always be aware of your surroundings.
  4. Sometimes, you have to be cruel to be kind.

Carmen and her crew pay a very heavy price for traipsing into a place they know nothing about in an attempt to solve a mystery for fleeting journalistic glory.

Jon Knautz, also a writer-director, is responsible for The Shrine’s unique take on an old subgenre. Since then, he has directed a pretty well-received “neo-slasher,” Girl House (2014), and a psychological horror film, The Cleaning Lady (2018; expanded from his short film from 2016). Fans of the Smallville TV series will recognize Aaron Ashmore (Marcus), who played Jimmy Olsen.

Coherence (2013)

It’s a sad fact of 21st century life that many people rarely interact with their neighbors except to squabble over fences that encroach on someone’s property or uninvited kids trampling on flower gardens. Coherence is a sci-fi/psychological horror film that asks the question: What would you do if you suddenly encountered the mother of all bad neighbors, and that bad neighbor was.... you!

Eight young suburban professionals are having a dinner party on a night when a comet is passing close to the earth. When the power goes out, the group goes outside and sees that one house in the neighborhood still has power. Two of the men go over to the other house to find out what’s going on. They return with a box containing pictures of them, the eight friends, and a strange story about the place being deserted, but it also being an exact copy of their house, with a dinner table set for eight.

They write a note to tape to the front door of the other house, but then are freaked out by a stranger who approaches their house, then runs off. To their amazement, they find the very same note they had written pinned to their door.

One of the more scientifically inclined dinner guests suggests that somehow, the passing comet has torn open space and time to such an extent that an infinite number of alternate universes/realities are suddenly coexisting together. Naturally, this induces paranoia and distrust in the group -- and all the other alternate groups that are co-occupying “reality.” Things degenerate from there.

Coherence is great example of a film of far-out ideas and suspense, made for next-to-nothing (reportedly around $50k), that grabs you from the get-go, doesn’t let go, and twists you around until you have no idea who’s on first or what’s on second (but in a fun way, I assure you).

The film was released in 2013, just as the possibility of parallel universes was gaining more ground among mainstream physicists, and in popular culture, the notion of the Mandela Effect -- allegedly false memories that make it seem as if the fabric of reality is changing in small but noticeable ways -- was also gaining traction.

But beyond cutting-edge physics or the paranormal, Coherence speaks to some very down-to-earth realities of daily living. It’s a sort of metaphor for how, in spite of the supposed unlimited connectedness of social media and technology in general, we continue to carve ourselves up into smaller and smaller groups of like-minded people who are increasingly suspicious of those who aren’t in the club. The social pods that developed out of the pandemic have only accelerated the trend.

James Ward Byrkit completes this post’s trifecta of writer-directors. This was his first feature film directing job (and the only one to date); he also wrote the screenplay. He is apparently a jack of all filmmaking trades, with producer, art department, visual effects, acting and soundtrack credits on his resume in addition to writing and directing.

Emily Baldoni, who plays Em, the alpha female in the dinner group, has been all over TV since about 2008, with parts in several of the CSI and NCIS series, among others.

May 21, 2021

The Christopher Lee Sweat-a-thon: Night of the Big Heat

Poster, Night of the Big Heat, 1967
Now Playing:
Night of the Big Heat (aka Island of the Burning Damned, 1967)

Pros: Competently directed and acted; Decent attempt at adult science fiction.
Cons: Budget limitations result in a disappointing alien menace.

This post is part of the 2021 Christopher Lee Blogathon, hosted by the inimitable Barry at Cinematic Catharsis and Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews. Check out their sites for an impressive lineup covering almost every aspect of Sir Christopher’s amazing career.

There is a startling, if somewhat depressing, dialog exchange from another British science fiction film, also released in 1967, that sums up Night of the Big Heat quite nicely (not to mention our present predicament):

Professor Bernard Quatermass: The will to survive... it's an odd phenomenon. Roney, if we found out earth was doomed - say, by climatic changes - what would we do about it?
Dr. Mathew Roney: Nothing. Just go on squabbling as usual.
Quatermass: Yes, but if it weren't men?
[Quatermass and the Pit, aka Five Million Years to Earth, 1967]

Since the beginning of science fiction, aliens with “minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic,” have “regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely” have drawn plans to invade it. [From the opening of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.]

The 2021 Christopher Blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and RealWeegieMidget Reviews

Today, considering how far humanity has come in turning the planet into a hot, chaotic mess, I doubt that we'd be high on any alien civilization’s invasion list. But back in 1967, it was still possible to imagine aliens desiring a piece of our big blue marble.

In Night of the Big Heat, the climate (or weather or whatever) is changing rapidly on the remote British island of Fara, aliens are suspected of being behind it (at least by one person), and, as the cynical Dr. Roney predicted in that other movie, all the locals can do is squabble.

It seems that in the middle of winter, while the rest of Britain is shivering in the cold, Fara is experiencing a bizarre heat wave. It’s already in the 90s, and the thermometer keeps inching upward. The locals are wandering around the island with large pit stains, and even larger stains where their souls should be.

The proprietors of the island’s inn and tavern, novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson), outwardly seem to be happily married, but the heat wave is revealing cracks in their relationship.

Jeff has advertised for a personal secretary to help with his writing, and who should show up but Angela Roberts (Jane Merrow), a sultry young woman with whom he had a brief affair on the mainland?

Jane Merrow, Sarah Lawson and Patrick Allen in Night of the Big Heat, 1967
"You've been fiddling with that thing for hours! When are we
going to go swimming?"

The heat is being turned up for Jeff in more ways than one, as Angela is doing everything short of licking his ear in front of his wife in a bid to win him back. Fortunately for Jeff, Frankie is either as dumb as a box of rocks or willfully blind. At one point, Angela sadistically spills the beans about the affair to her, then takes it all back, airily telling her she was just joking. Frankie’s reaction is to exhale a huge sigh of relief.

The befuddled Jeff is alternately attracted to and repelled by his former flame, but unfortunately Angela also attracts the attention of the island’s car mechanic, who, maddened by the heat and lust, viciously assaults her.

Lurking in the background of all the high drama is the enigmatic Godfrey Hanson (Christopher Lee), who is skulking around the island in a white shirt and tie, setting up equipment including cameras with tripwires, then quickly scurrying back to the inn to shut himself up in his room.

When he interacts at all with the locals, it’s to gruffly tell them to mind their own business. Naturally this sets tongues to wagging, fueling speculation that the mysterious stranger himself may somehow be behind the unusual weather.

Christopher Lee as Godfrey Hanson, Night of the Big Heat, 1967
Godfrey Hanson (Christopher Lee) has spared no expense in his mission
to prove the existence of the elusive alien invaders.

In contrast, the avuncular Dr. Vernon Stone (Peter Cushing), a fixture at the inn’s tavern, is a calming voice of reason in the midst of all of the overheated emotion and paranoia. But eventually, even his reason will be tested as people start hearing an eerie whining/trilling noise that pops up randomly all over the island, and several of them wind up dead, fried to a crisp.

Night of the Big Heat was made and distributed in the UK by Planet Film Productions, a small independent that had released a sort of companion film the year before -- Island of Terror (1966) also featured harried islanders (Peter Cushing among them) threatened by mysterious, deadly creatures.

The British Film Institute lists just five movies under the Planet Film banner spanning 1951 - 1967. Night of the Big Heat was their last hurrah. Their 1960s projects, including the vampire horror film Devils of Darkness (1965; see my review here) seem to have been inspired by big brother Hammer’s successes, including the use of Hammer veterans in front of and behind the camera.

Unfortunately, the Cushing/Lee pairing in Night is not particularly notable. They share little screen time together, and their characters at this point (1967) were sort of shorthand representations of the screen personas they had developed in the previous decades: Cushing plays the warm, kindly village doctor who is there to listen and help; Lee is the gruff, imperious stranger who stomps around trying to document the bizarre manifestations, freaking out the locals in the process. But they’re not really antagonists, and each gets a shot at being heroic at the climax.

Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in Night of the Big Heat, 1967
Hanson and Stone debate the relative merits of antiperspirants vs.
body wash when the heat is on.

The film really belongs to the heated love triangle of the conflicted writer, his wife and former girlfriend. The script cleverly ratchets up the physical heat even as Jeff gets weak-kneed and starts to succumb to Angela’s desperate ploys, and block-headed Frankie begins to realize the sexpot is not there to help Jeff keep his papers in order.

The metaphorical pièce de résistance occurs at the tavern, when the beer bottles behind the bar start exploding in quick succession due to the heat. In both love and alcohol, something’s gotta give when things heat up to the boiling point.

Something else that got me smiling while watching Night was the strict adherence to dress code as the heat became more and more insufferable. They say that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. The film further bolsters that reputation and ups the ante, as the characters barely shed a stitch of clothing even as the sweat pours down their faces. Lee’s character goes through the whole film with a buttoned down long sleeve dress shirt and tie. Similarly, Cushing’s doctor sports his suit coat and tie to the bitter end.

Under the same circumstances, Americans would take a millisecond to fling off their clothes and go full-on Beach Blanket Bingo.

Frankie (Sarah Lawson) finally gets wise to her husband's infidelity - Night of the Big Heat, 1967
"Hey Jeff, we need more beer... oh, pardon me, I'll come back when you're not so busy..."

Another oddity is the whole “island of the burning damned” idea that presupposes that everyone is trapped on Fara and unable to get to the mainland for help. The same alien forces that are causing the island to heat up have also incapacitated the phones and two-way radio, but there is no explanation or context given as to why there are no boats around and no way to evacuate.

The events of the film transpire in a single day, which suggests that perhaps there’s a ferry that stops only on certain days, and everyone is SOL at the moment. But there’s a government meteorological station on the island that figures prominently in the climax, and I kept thinking, “surely they have a boat for emergencies!”

This being a low-budget British sci-fi thriller of the ‘60s, the aliens only show themselves at the very end of the movie. Without going into too much detail, they’re not of the rubber-suited humanoid variety, and they’re not particularly intimidating, but they do look suitably equipped to suck up fuel and electricity and other sources of energy (per Hanson’s theories) and spit it back at the unfortunate islanders, turning them into crispy critters.

Based on a novel by John Lymington, this is not a kids’ matinee sci-fi show, but rather a thinking person’s study in human strength/frailty and what it takes to persevere in the face of the unknown and extreme conditions. The suspense comes in trying to figure out who will step up to the challenge, who will fold, and who will get fried. 

The first casualty of the aliens in Night of the Big Heat, 1967
"Uh-oh, I have a feeling I'm one of those expendable characters..."

Making Night of the Big Heat was something of an endurance test for the cast. They filmed on the UK mainland, but in the middle of winter, not summer. Sir Christopher did not have particularly fond memories of the movie:

[Night of the Big Heat] dealt with the invasion of Earth by alien protoplasm. Looking like fried eggs, they ruined the climax. They were as bad a letdown as the Hound of Hell and the Gorgon’s snakes. They rode in from space on a heat ray. We wanted the illusion of 115 Fahrenheit so Peter, Patrick Allen and I worked in shirtsleeves, and the girls had bikinis. That was fine, except that it was the middle of night in winter. To foster the impression of heat we were drenched in glycerine. [Lord of Misrule: The Autobiography of Christopher Lee. Orion, 2003, pp. 226-7]

Joining Christopher and Peter in shivering in the dark was veteran actor Patrick Allen (as Jeff Callum). If you’ve seen more than a few British TV shows or movies from the ‘60s and ‘70s, there’s a good chance you’ll recognize this square-jawed actor. Among a list of credits spanning six decades, he made appearances in The Avengers TV show, Hammer’s short-lived Journey to the Unknown series, and Brian Clemens’ Thriller series. He also appeared in quite a few action and war pictures like Force 10 from Navarone and The Wild Geese.

His wife in the movie, Sarah Lawson, was also Patrick’s wife in real life. I’m happy to say the vicissitudes of making Night of the Big Heat had no effect on their marriage, and they stayed together until Patrick’s death in 2006. Sarah is best known to horror fans as Marie Eaton in Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out. And like her husband, she also appeared in an episode of Journey to the Unknown.

Patrick Allen and Sarah Lawson at the climax of Night of the Big Heat, 1967
Patrick and Sarah go into glycerine-induced shock at the end of Night of the Big Heat.

The third wheel of the love triangle, Angela, was played by Jane Merrow. Shortly after Night, Jane scored appearances in The Avengers and The Prisoner series, and has kept busy ever since, with a credit as recent as 2020.

Rounding out the film’s Hammer connections, directing duties were handled by the great Terence Fisher, who, as we all know, is responsible for some of the studio’s greatest Gothic horrors: Horror of Dracula, The Revenge of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Brides of Dracula, The Curse of the Werewolf, and The Devil Rides Out, to name but a few.

Night of the Big Heat is obviously not preeminent on anyone’s resume, but I would take Sir Christopher’s put down of it with a grain of salt. In the late '60s Lee was frustrated by typecasting and the quality of the scripts he was being offered, so this stage of his career was not a favorite. A few years later, he would be basking in showy roles in blockbuster hits like The Three Musketeers and The Man with the Golden Gun.

Night of the Big Heat is competently directed and acted. It’s main limitation is the budget, which necessitated keeping the less-than-spectacular alien menace hidden until the very end. Nevertheless, it’s a decent attempt at reasonably intelligent adult science fiction.

Do you dare reveal the alien from Night of the Big Heat?
If you dare, click on the question marks above to reveal the 
alien menace from Night of the Big Heat!

Where to find it:
DVD | YouTube  

April 24, 2021

Amazing Animal People #7: The Bat People

Amazing Animal People #7, The Bat People, 1974

On their honeymoon somewhere in the American southwest, Dr. John Beck (Stewart Moss) and his wife Cathy (Marianne McAndrew) decide to take a tour of some caverns before hitting the ski slopes. Cathy suggests that they ditch the tour group and find an out-of-the-way place for some impromptu lovemaking. As she looks for a good spot she promptly falls down a crevice. John scrambles down to rescue her, but climbing back out is a problem. Before help arrives, John is bitten on the forehead by a rogue bat.

Later, as they’re taking a gondola up to the ski run, John has an eye-rolling seizure. Cathy is worried, and even though the incubation period for rabies is a minimum of several weeks, she insists John get treated at once. At the hospital, John has an even more violent reaction to the rabies shot, and is kept at the hospital for overnight observation.

John is not only suffering from severe seizures, but he’s also having terrible nightmares of shrieking bats, and of stalking and attacking people in the dead of night. Sure enough, wherever he goes, he seems to leave a trail of bodies in his wake: first, a night nurse at the hospital whose throat is cut open, then an unfortunate girl living in a trailer park, and finally a homeless man living out in the desert.

Sleazy police sergeant Ward (Michael Pataki) is suspicious of Beck, having found his patient ID bracelet next to the nurse’s body, and begins shadowing the tortured doctor. But Ward seems as interested in hitting on Cathy as he is in solving the string of homicides.

Even as the evidence is stacking up against her husband, Cathy wants to believe that John is just having severe hallucinations as a result of the rabies treatment. Will her love be enough to prevent John from joining the ranks of The Bat People?

Funanimal fact: The Bat People was special effects wizard Stan Winston’s first makeup credit for a feature film (his very first credit was for the TV movie Gargoyles, 1972). He would later go on to do creature effects and makeup for such sci-fi classics as The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), Predator (1987), Jurassic Park (1993), Galaxy Quest (1999) and Iron Man (2008). Along the way, he won 4 Oscars in the categories of Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup. He is just the second special effects person to earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Stars.

Winston is quoted as saying, “I don’t do special effects. I do characters. I do creatures.”

Publicity photo - Stan Winston with some of his creations
Stan Winston (1946 - 2008)

Lobby card - It Lives by Night aka The Bat People, 1974
"Go back to sleep dear, it was only a bat dream."

Animal Crack-up (click on the text to see the punchline):

Bat silhouette
Don't miss these other Amazing Animal People:
Lota from Island of Lost Souls | Paula Dupree, Captive Wild Woman | The Mole People | Leonora the Cat Girl | The Alligator People | The Vulture

April 13, 2021

Amazing Animal People #6: The Vulture

Amazing Animal People trading card #6, The Vulture, 1967

On a dark and stormy night in a remote village in Cornwall, a woman decides to take a shortcut home through a church cemetery. To her horror, something claws its way out of a nearby grave and takes flight on huge wings. Later at the hospital, the woman, whose hair has turned completely white, describes the thing as having the body of a huge bird, grasping, human hands and a horrible human head.

The police discover that the coffin at the gravesite is empty. Local legend had it that the person buried there, Francis Real, had been accused of sorcery by the patriarch of the area’s most prominent family, the Strouds, and was buried alive along with a strange vulture-like pet and a chest of gold coins. Legend also had it that before dying, Real had vowed to rise again and kill off every remaining Stroud descendent.

American nuclear scientist Dr. Eric Lutens (Robert Hutton) and his wife Trudy (Diane Clare) are visiting Trudy’s uncle, Brian Stroud (Broderick Crawford) at his large estate. The police think graverobbers are to blame for the incident at the graveyard, but when Lutens hears the hospitalized woman’s story first hand, he’s not so sure.

The absence of footprints at the gravesite, and a strange feather found there, seem to confirm the woman’s story. Later, a mutilated sheep’s carcass is found high up on a cliff ledge, as if a huge bird of prey had carried it there. Lutens interviews a local scholar and antiquarian, Prof. Hans Koniglich (Akim Tamiroff), who confirms the details of the legend and agrees that there may be an extraordinary explanation for what’s happening.

Will Lutens solve the mystery of The Vulture before the curse claims the lives of the Strouds, including his beloved Trudy?

Funamimal Fact: American actor Robert Hutton was offered the lead in The Vulture while he was in London editing a film he had shot in Lisbon, Portugal. He recalled wanting very much to work with veteran Akim Tamiroff and Broderick Crawford, who was a longtime friend. But on the set, Crawford was not above messing with him:

“In the movie Brod[erick] had a cane with a wolf’s head on it, very highly polished. And I remember I had a long speech by a fireplace and he had to just sit there and listen to me go on and on. During rehearsal he played with that wolf’s head and twisted it around and made it reflect the light. Stealing the scene. And I thought, ‘Now, that’s not right, not while I’m talking -- I’ve got a long speech here!’ So just before we got to the actual take, I said, ‘Brod, are you going to play with that wolf’s head like you did in rehearsal?’ And he said [laughs], ‘No, I was just trying you out.’ He was a wonderful guy." [Interview in Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes, Tom Weaver, McFarland, 1991]


Lobby card - The Vulture, 1967
"So, how long have you been working here?"

Animal Crack-up (click on the text to see the punchline):

Why are vultures reluctant to fly on commercial airliners?

Don't miss these other Amazing Animal People:

Lota from Island of Lost Souls | Paula Dupree, Captive Wild Woman | The Mole People | Leonora the Cat Girl | The Alligator People