I’m still catching up on the first few days of the month. So, here we go.
October 4: Dracula AD 1972* (1972)
I adore the films of England’s Hammer Studios. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of the splendor of Hammer’s gothics – probably due to seeing them as a wee kidlet on what was then the Son of Svengoolie show (he’s just “Svengoolie” now) which was beamed into my Indiana home when we could afford cable from that far away metropolis of Chicago. Ah, memories. Through the fifties, sixties and seventies Hammer produced dozens of great horror films starring Peter Cushing as the valiant and grimly determined Van Helsing and the indomitable Christopher Lee as Count Dracula. This is not one of them. Set in 1972, it is Hammer’s attempt to reel in the mod youth of the time who were too busy smoking hashish and, if this film is to be believed, conducting black masses in deconsecrated churches to go to the cinema. Cushing and Lee handle the cruddy material with grace (though Lee is given very little to do) and the premise – a young modster looking for ever more intense kicks is convinced he’s a vampire but is really a serial killer – is interesting. Halfway through, though, it loses all focus and is pulled through the morass by only Cushing’s sincerity. Look for a confoundingly young Stephanie Beacham. One scream for Beacham’s impressive foundational undergarments.
*watched latter half PornStyle™. I had class that night.
October 5: Peeping Tom (1960)
A really intense film for the time, I was very impressed with its modern sensibilities regarding sociopathic behavior and the fragility of human nature. Director Michael Powell’s career all but ended after the release of this film due to the controversy over the subject matter. The story deals with a murderer who captures his victims’ last moments of terror on film. But the movie is much more than a slasher pic. Indeed, it is graphically much more tame than recent films like Silence of the Lambs, but the psychological horror holds up tremendously. The tension, too, is still very thick. There were moments in the film that I watched through my hands, riveted in horror or in shocked grief. The performances are amazing – strong and nuanced. The two leads, Carl Boehm and Moira Shearer, are incredible, and remind us of a time when films featured actors, not movie stars. Four screams, my highest.
October 6: The Creeping Flesh (1972)
A notch above other films in its class, The Creeping Flesh is a bit unusual. It has Cushing and Lee, but it’s not a Hammer vampire yarn. This time, we are left to decide who is good and who evil on our own. Cushing turns a stunning performance as a widowed scientist on the verge of a huge discovery about the nature of evil while battling a misguided devotion to his daughter. He is far less retrained here than in most of his performances and I wonder how much the real-life death of his beloved wife a year before filming factors into the change. A scene late in the film in which he visits the long-ago locked room of his late wife and feels his grief anew is especially moving. But where does all of this creeping flesh come in? The answer is in a yucky early scene, involving a mysterious skeleton and that aforementioned scientific breakthrough. The horror overall is subtle, though a huge shock awaits you at the end – or does it? Lee is superb here as Cushing’s presumably nefarious half-brother who runs the local insane asylum, but I long to see him in a role that requires him to stretch his artistic wings a bit. Overall, a great piece of thriller-art from Cushing and director Freddie Francis. Three and a half screams.
October 7: Dead and Buried (1981)
Dead and Buried came highly recommended by my Videohound guide, so my expectations were way up there before I even loaded the DVD. That was the first problem. The second problem is the consistent lack of any internal consistency in a promising plot. Said holey plot deals with a small New England town that hides a freaky secret behind its friendly facade. The gore is way up there, and there are a few – okay, maybe one – genuine shocks. James Farentino is this close to over the top as the local sheriff trying to get at that secret, but Jack Albertson (the original Grandpa Joe!) is utterly perfect as the town coroner and mortician. He also delivers the film’s best line, “You can’t kill me, Dan. You can only make me dead.” However, his aplomb isn’t enough to save this one from a disappointing two screams.
October 8: Nightmare Castle (1981) and Ice Cream Man(1995)
Nightmare Castle is an Italian import featuring 60s horror goddess Barbara Steele in a duel role – that as a naughty adulteress and also as her half-sister. Bad wigs notwithstanding, she delivers her usual top-notch performance. My copy of the film was badly dubbed into English, but I liked that about it. The plot centers around Steele and her husband, who may have some serious issues with his mother, or maybe long-term bedwetting in his past – either is a bad sign – and what happens when he finds her in the arms of a hunkier guy. Oh, and they live in the titular castle, of course. The pace is a touch slow and I was distrustful of the stability of Steele’s hair, but overall it was an atmospheric little film with a surprise or two. Two and a half screams.
Ice Cream Man is a creature of a another breed entirely. A super crappy breed. The plot doesn’t matter (murderous, messed-up ice cream man stalks neighborhood), the music is appalling (loud, loud, LOUD synthesizer junk), and the acting is atrocious – with a few notable exceptions. Clint Howard, always good in the small roles in his brother Ron gives him, delivers a surprisingly sympathetic performance as the man of the title. But god, what a way to finally get top billing. All the kids in the film are quite good as well – even though the token “fat kid” is really a thin kid wearing football shoulder pads. Jan Michael Vincent shows up as a detective investigating the ice cream guy and his every moment on screen is filled with a sense of deep regret at having accepted the part. The film is also filled with a bevy of baffling cameos from “stars” who should have known better – Olivia Hussey, David Naughton, David Warner, and most confusing of all – the People’s Court’s Doug LLewelyn. The gore was cheap and disgusting enough to put D, who suffered through this with me, off of ice cream for the foreseeable future. At least it was hosted by Svengoolie, so we had him to take some of the pain away, but not nearly enough. This film hated us. It hurt. Nary a scream in sight.
October 9: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
Even though my tape nearly broke over halfway through, I’ve decided I watched enough of this film to qualify it as my movie of the day. John Barrymore stars as the split personality of the title in this silent era classic. Handsome and debonair as the good Dr. Jekyll, his transformation into the dark side of his psyche is really quite excellent for the time. Interesting to note are the pre-Hayes’ office costumes and sensibilities. I found the film engrossing, even with a turgid organ accompaniment, and was very unhappy when my tape started to wrap around the mechanism in the VCR. Ah well. I got my Bio homework done. At any rate, I’ve located a DVD release and hope to view it in its entirety before the month is out. Most likely a four screamer.