Terror-Creatures from the Grave (1965)

Terror-Creatures from the Grave (1965) movie poster

director  Domenico Massimo Pupillo
viewed: 06/16/2017

Terror-Creatures from the Grave is the most Ed Wood-ian non-Ed Wood, Jr. horror title I can think of. It’s original Italian 5 tombe per un medium (or Five Graves for a Medium), while more accurate, I guess wasn’t an American marketing person’s idea of a seat-filler.

This was the final film in my mini-Barbara Steele marathon, but not necessarily the best to end on. A Barbara Steele film isn’t JUST measured by the amount of Barbara Steele in it, but it is indeed an impactful scale for assessment nonetheless.

Here, the disembodied hands of plague victims long-dead come to life in one of the film’s more vivid moments. Outside of this, the anniversary of the death of Steele’s character’s husband brings about a mysterious call to a notary/attorney from beyond the grave to pay witness to the deaths of all present at the husband’s demise.

Though I’m far from having completed the Barbara Steele 1960’s Italian horror cycle, I’ll stop here at present and catch my breath a bit.

The Ghost (1963)

The Ghost (1963) movie poster

director Riccardo Freda
viewed: 06/14/2017

I’ve already noted the Giallo bent of some of these 1960’s Italian Barbara Steele horror vehicles, flitting between the inexplicable and the evil’s more man-made. I’ve also noted the Hitchcockian qualities therein, especially on the more human-wrought horrors. Director Riccardo Freda apparently like to pay his homage quite clearly. The characters of The Ghost, like his earlier Steele picture The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962) are homonyms of the “master of suspense.”

Interestingly, per WikipediaThe Ghost channels a different suspense master, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955). I guess that is a semi-spoiler if you’re waiting to find out whether or not the doings are spiritual or more of this earthly plane.

The story has a somewhat convoluted scenario with an ailing Dr. Hichcock, swinging between suicide and a will to live, while rescued and followed by attempted murder by his wife (Steele) and his physician.

Maybe the least interesting of my Barbara Steele mini-marathon, though fitting so well within this continuum, wives and husbands and murder and ghosts, and that damn solarium, I don’t know what else to say.

Nightmare Castle (1965)

Nightmare Castle (1965) movie poster

director Mario Caiano
viewed: 06/13/2017

When you’ve seen one 1960’s Italian Barbara Steele horror picture…you’ve seen a glimpse upon a continuum. Themes, ideas, locations, so many things recur in ways rewoven into new cloth though certainly not whole cloth. And yet the power of Barbara compels you!

Nightmare Castle has a lot of that, but features nasty sadistic torture, doppelgangers (in brunette and blonde), psychological torture and ghosts! The Steele 1960’s Italian horror line interweaves with notions of the growing giallo genre, zipping in and out of man-made mystery and the supernatural. Though it’s more Gothic than anything Hitchcock did, the murder of your wife and her lover, followed by the marriage to her insane younger sister who you attempt to drive completely over the edge…is quite something that the Master of Suspense would have approved.

It’s easy to see how these movies could get conflated in one’s mind, even watching them relatively back-to-back, the films are so littered with similar tropes that it’s kind of easy to get lost between them.

And yet this is only the mid-point in my little Barbara Steele mini-marathon.

Castle of Blood (1964)

Castle of Blood (1964) movie poster

directors  Antonio Margheriti, Sergio Corbucci
viewed: 06/12/2017

After watching The She Beast, I found myself falling headlong into a mini-Barbara Steele marathon. That face. Those eyes.

I really liked Castle of Blood. The version I watched on Fandor switched at brief times from English to French, which added a hint of surreal to this tale of a castle haunted by the ghosts of those murdered there, reenacting their demises and seeking fresh blood to carry on.

Black and white Italian 1960’s horror never looked so good outside of Mario Bava.

Castle of Blood tips its hat to Edgar Allan Poe, but pipes in its own gothic airs of eerie merriment. It is infused with that nightmarish sensibility, in which glimpses of things appear and disappear, happen out of nowhere. Really quite good.

The She Beast (1966)

The She Beast (1966) movie poster

director  Michael Reeves
viewed: 06/11/2017

Known mostly for his last finished film, Witchfinder General (1968), Michael Reeves didn’t live long enough to build much of filmography. But it is the quality of Witchfinder General that has endured and thus made Reeves’s tragically short life one of those obscure tidbits of horror film history.

It’s also what led me to dig up The She Beast.

Actually I started to watch an incredibly beat-up version of the film on a DVD, only to really bethink myself that I was willing to bet a better version was out there on YouTube. And indeed there was. If anything, it’s underscored the importance of making sure that any worthwhile film is seen in its best available context and further reason that film restoration is so important.

Because The She Beast, even restored, isn’t a great film. But it’s interesting, slightly weird, and vaguely comic. And the restoration done makes a world of difference.

It stars the magnificently gorgeous Barbara Steele though there is all too little of her in it. It’s about a hideously ugly witch who was drowned in a lake (somewhere in Transylvania?), brought back to life by a doddering Van Helsing, and possessing a young newlywed (Steele).

I have no idea if it was seen by Roman Polanski, but it seems quite the template for his The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), strange semi-gothic horror comedy that it is.

Surely, no one would be remembering Reeves if this was his only film, but as part of what might have been, not the worst starting point for a directorial career.

Shivers (1976)

Shviers (1976) movie poster

director David Cronenberg
viewed: 11/28/2013

Shivers, whether you’ve seen it or not, is the kind of movie that one thinks about when one thinks about David Cronenberg’s “body terror” period.  It is, of course, Cronenberg’s first feature film, interestingly, produced as was Rabid (1977) by Ivan Reitman.  It’s about sexually transmitted lust parasites and the 1970’s monoculture that they infect.

A lot of Cronenberg’s early work in body terror has been considered prescient of things like the AIDS virus, medical experimentation, and other societal events that have given further interpretation to his films.  And it’s fair enough to make that jump.

Really, Shivers has within it a critique of the free swinging 1970’s, some orgiastic culture, falling victim to a new disease attached to its transmission and intersections.  What seems especially interesting is that where the zombie film and in general, the zombie concept that some disease that transforms a living being into a dying, undead thing, has become such a pop culture staple, here we have disease that doesn’t kill but creates lust.  You don’t eat people.  You rape them.

It’s seriously a much more perverse scenario.

In the film, it all takes place in a modern mega-building, a self-contained world on an island in Montreal, a fancy high-rise with its own grocery, restaurants and physicians.  Only it’s also got the mad scientist who does vivisection on his student, creating this parasitic aphrodisiac organism that starts getting all over the place.  No doubt the constraint of limiting the story to a single structure offered some cost-effectiveness, but the setting seems yet another critique of modern urban life.  That said, the people of the building are all quite nice and normal, not monsters at all, until they are infected.

The film features two notable, gorgeous actresses.  The beautiful Barbara Steele, of so many great horror films of the 1960’s.  And Lynn Lowry, less well-known, but unique-looking, she appeared in Radley Metzger’s Score (1973), George A. Romero’s The Crazies (1973), and even Paul Schraeder’s Cat People (1982).

Between Shivers and Rabid, you’ve got vintage Cronenberg.  Movies of the Canadian horror auteur that are films that only he could have made, weirder and more compelling than most anything from the period.

Piranha

Piranha (1978) movie poster

(1978) director Joe Dante
viewed: 11/13/10

Before going to see Alexandre Aja’s recent re-make Piranha 3D (2010), I’d been wanting to watch the original Roger Corman-produced, John Sayles-written, Joe Dante-directed original.  Actually, I not only wanted to watch the original but also its sequel, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981).  But the DVD gods were not cooperating.  Between Netflix (which still doesn’t carry the original) and GreenCine (which had a long back-log for it), there was no Piranha to be had besides the shiny, 3-D new-fangled version.  Until just recently.

Made three years after Jaws (1975), and clearly marketed along those lines (just look at the poster!), the film is often referred to as a comedy or a parody.  While the film has some comic moments, and a few really good lines, it is an earnest effort in its own right.  Not nearly the exploitation orgy of the re-make, the film’s charms are a little deeper.  It has a good cast, including a number of great character actors (featuring Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Dick Miller, Paul Bartel, and Barbara Steele), and with Sayles on the script, the film ends up having, if not depth and insight, a lot of character and cleverness, as well as some well-managed low-budget effects.

The story starts off with two young hikers, heading up a mountain in rural Texas, breaking into a fenced-off military testing site, and foolishly going for a swim in a pool that they know little about.  Of course, they don’t make it past the first scene, either one of them.  But when a female detective comes looking for them and drains the pool into the local river, the pool’s residents, genetically altered super-piranha are unleashed on an unsuspecting populace, streaming down toward a summer camp and a lake front park that is about to open.  Oh the humanity!

Actually, the humanity gets a good munching on.  And to a greater extent than in Jaws, kids are not just endangered, but attacked, eaten, and killed.  A long while back, I read an article in Film Threat that discussed Steven Spielberg’s penchant for putting children in danger and it cited Jaws as the one film in which he’d actually followed through on the threat and had any children harmed.  In Piranha, we’ve got scads of summer camp kids in inner tubes in a swimming race getting nibbled, chomped, and de-fleshed by the hungry fishes.   Later, the fish move on to the more adult-themed lake front resort, and while there’s not nearly Aja’s level of tongue-in-cheek T&A, you can see the model for the film that Aja wound up making in the end.

While the story cites military abuses of science, other interesting and timely issues spring to mind.  As the fish are introduced into the river system, one is reminded of the Asian carp (and other invasive species) issues that plague the United States today.  And while it’s not really about eco-horror, it’s amusing that what they use to exterminate the fish at the end of the film is toxic waste.  They “pollute them to death”.  Of course, that had it’s own timely commentary in the 1970’s, but still, it plays with added poignancy today.

In the scientist’s office, there is a strange, stop-motion animated creature who is never explained and who drops out of the story, presumably the further results of experimentations.  Curious but just a little aside more than anything.

Of course, the film paved its way for a sequel, which I’ve queued up for myself.

It’s another quality Roger Corman production.

8 1/2

8 1/2 (1963) movie poster

(1963) dir. Federico Fellini
viewed: 04/07/08

I often note that no matter how many films a film fan, student, scholar, or cineaste has seen, there are going to be huge gaps in the list of major films or major filmmakers’ works that one has seen.  Federico Fellini has been one of my major blind spots in my litany of the major filmmakers of the 20th century whose work I have seen so little of.  Up until this point, I’d only seen three, The Clowns (1970) (which is pretty anomolous I gather), I Vitelloni (1953), and La Dolce Vita (1960).  While La Dolce Vita is one of his major works, I think I was unaware of his early style (Italian neorealism) versus his later surrealistic style that seems to have developed starting with this film.  When someone says that something is “like a Fellini film”, they usually mean the bizarre, the dwarfs, the clowns, the weird stuff.  I don’t think I’d ever seen one that met that criteria.

From the opening sequence, in a traffic jam in a tunnel, which evolves into a fantasy sequence of escape and floating in air, I realized that I was finally seeing what equates more to the typical consideration of Fellini and his work.  That said, the film still maitains a realism that contrasts back with the fantasy sequences, which is a singular part of the film’s workings.  is a film about a filmmaker’s mid-life crisis, in his work, in his marriage, in his religion, and his culture.  The breaking with the narrative, the sequences of internal fantasy, memories that eventually give way to the creation of the film, the dance of all that is part of Fellini’s ego, his self, his world.

It’s a very mid-20th century vision.  Very Jungian, very modernistic, still steeped in the Catholocism and the beginnings of therapy and self-analysis, rife with a sexism that also is open to not quite feminism, but something.

The film has been so influential that many films and filmmakers come to mind throughout the unreeling of it.  There is a brilliance, the novelty of its time, the breakthrough creatively that a film about the suffocation of “writer’s block”, the breaking the wall between life and the creative process, and the psychosis of the director’s world, the world of filmmaking.

The funny thing, too, for me, is that almost was one of the first “art films” that I ever saw.  It played on HBO or something back when I was an early teen, and I remember being intrigued by it, as I was beginning to develop an interest in “film”, in exploring stuff that I have not been familiar with.  Strangely enough, more than 20 years later, I finally get to see it.  I consider what my reaction would have been at the time, what influence it might have had on me.  It’s interesting.

It finally came up for me as part of my broken “numbers” films, watching movies whose titles began with a numeral, rather than a word.  This little whim of a festival brought it to the top of my queue, even though in the end, I didn’t watch all the number films in a row.  Well, for whatever reasons I finally got to see it, I am grateful.  And I am now more interested in seeing others of his films, including the documentary that came out a few years back about him called Fellini: I’m a Born Liar (2002).  If you haven’t seen it, it truly earns its mark in the filmmaking of the 20th century.

Black Sunday (The Mask of Satan)

Black Sunday (1960) movie poster

(1960) dir. Mario Bava
viewed: 11/05/07

The second feature of what would have been my Halloween night fright fest was another fantastic choice (sound of self being patted on the back).  In fact, my only regret is that I didn’t actually watch them on All Hallow’s Eve or however you put it.

Mario Bava’s first feature film, Black Sunday in initial U. S. release but also released as The Mask of Satan in both English and Italian is a iconic film from the Italian film industry, a well-crafted, beautifully-shot near-masterpiece of high Gothic horror and the father or grandfather of so many films hence.

The story is adapted from a Nikolai Gogol short story, though I do not know how much it resembles the original.  The opening sequence is at the crucifixion of two witches/vampires in the 16th century in rather bloody effects.  The female vows vengeance on the family of her persecutor and then has a “mask of Satan” (with nails pointing inward) hammered onto her face.  The story picks up 200 years later with the reviving of the two witches/vampires and their played out revenge on the family that killed them.

The most striking thing by far is the cinematography and framings of shots.  The black-and-white film is gorgeous, in its elements of shadow and the crumbling ruins of abbeys and graveyards.  Bava’s camerawork and the film’s edgy gore and violence (for 1960) is tremendously effective.  The film would have been an excellent compliment to The Old Dark House (1932), which I meant to play it directly after.  It’s the classical type of horror film, but this one with more genuinely supernatural elements.

The commentary on the DVD was quite good from what I listened to (about 20 minutes or so), by film historian Tim Lucas, elucidating much of Bava’s work and influence as well as some critical points that could be interesting on further investigation.  I’ve been pretty put off by commentaries and only sample them when I am inspired by curiosity.  All in all, this is a very good horror film, well worth its reputation and only corny on occasion.