The Leech Woman (1960)

The Leech Woman (1960) movie poster

director Edward Dein
viewed: 10/09/2016

I like a good double feature when I can arrange one, and as the fates would have it, I found myself with the 1960 horror film The Leech Woman alongside 1982’s Parasite.  Tonight was gonna SUCK!

The Leech Woman seems to be the last of the original run of Universal Horror films, and as you would expect from the last of a dying breed, it’s not spectacular.  It’s also a bit of a misnomer because there is no leech in the picture.  There is blood-drinking, African stereotypes, and stock footage animals, but no leeches.

Somewhat like Roger Corman’s The Wasp Woman (1959), we’re faced with a sort of proto-feminist horror, the crisis of the loss of youth in female beauty in a society for whom a woman’s looks are her everything.  Here Coleen Gray is June Talbot, the alcoholic wife of a heartless doctor who has lost all feeling for her save cruelty.  When the doctor stumbles on a potential formula for renewed youth, a formula that must be traced to deepest, darkest Africa, he pulls her along as well.

It turns out though that this formula is a mixture of parts of a very obscure orchid and fluid from some gland at the back of the human skull, obtained only in murder!  June quickly sacrifices her husband to gain her youth, getting some revenge for his coarse misogyny.  What happens next is a brutal slaughter of the denizen of this obscure village so that the two white people can escape alive.

June also finds that this formula is not one meant for long-time use and has some pretty bad side-effects as well.

I don’t know that there is or isn’t a feminist critique inherent to the film, though I think one can read it for those things.  The period racism is painful, but hardly original, sadly.

Overall, though it lacks much in the way of thrills (or even a real leech woman), there is a level of pathos to the human element of the story.  Alcoholism, female sexual desire, revenge…it’s rife with those “adult situation” that the MPAA is always talking about.  A bit more complex than you might initially give it credit.

Monster on the Campus (1958)

Monster on the Campus (1958) movie poster

director Jack Arnold
viewed: 10/01/2016

Of all of Jack Arnold’s wonderful 1950’s horror-scifi, Monster on the Campus is probably the silliest.  This is the man who delivered It Came from Outer Space (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge of the Creature (1955), Tarantula (1955), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and The Space Children (1958), a ranging list that includes a few true classics.  But even if you throw in 1957’s The Monolith Monsters, which he provided story but didn’t direct, Monster on the Campus is still a winner for silliness.

This might be one of the only coelacanth-oriented horror films out there.

A professor at a small state college lands himself a coelacanth specimen upon which to experiment, only to discover that the fish has been irradiated in shipping.  This modern form of sterilization might not sound too bad initially, but it results anything that ingests, injects, or even smokes the blood of the coelacanth suddenly reverts to their own prehistoric form.

For a German shepherd, wolf-life fangs and a nasty personality.  A dragonfly turns gigantic.  For the professor, he reverts to a gruesome, murderous troglodyte.  Though we are eventually given a transformation scene, showing make-up fades into progressive hairiness, it’s a rubber mask monster in its full form, a pretty ugly one at that.

What tends to the hilarious is just how the professor manages to take in this coelacanth  blood.  The first time, he cuts his hand on the dead fish’s teeth.  The second time, blood dripping from the knife with which he skewered the giant dragonfly, drops into his pipe, and he winds up smoking it.  Though that is probably the most hilarious of events, he does later twice inject himself with coelacanth blood, finally to prove to the authorities that he is the “monster on the campus” who needs to be gunned down.

Like The Monolith Monsters, and like a lot of Arnold’s movies, I grew up with this one on TV, and even though it’s a lot more silly than a good horror film of the period should be, it still found a soft spot in me.

She-Wolf of London (1946)

She-Wolf of London (1946) movie poster

director Jean Yarbrough
viewed: 07/15/2016

She-Wolf of London loses points right off the bat for being a monster movie without a monster.  Part of the Universal Horror canon, it fits better with other random general horror films than with The Wolf Man (1941).  It’s a bait-and-switch that can only disappoint.

A young June Lockhart stars as Phyllis Allenby, a young heiress who thinks she’s a werewolf, killing folks in the London fog near her stately home.  You’d have to be half-blind to not realize at least halfway through that she’s being set up by her seemingly kind Aunt Martha (Sara Haden).  If you could even care, after waiting for the fuzzy-faced monster to show herself, you’re a different kind of film-goer than I am.

You know, knowing it’s not a monster movie might make it a decent little film, but it’s hard when you think you’re getting a werewolf when no werewolf exists.

It comes from Jean “The Devil Bat (1940), King of the Zombies (1941), House of Horrors (1946), The Brute Man (1946), Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967)” Yarbrough and a Universal horror branch running low on ideas.

The Monolith Monsters (1957)

The Monolith Monsters (1957) movie poster

director John Sherwood
viewed: 02/21/2015

The Monolith Monsters was one of those classic 1950’s sci-fi/horror films, from Universal Pictures no less, that I grew up with from Saturday afternoons and the spate of old films on 1970’s television.  I’d like to say that I loved it, but I didn’t, really.  I liked it.  It has a lot of those elements of the time and character of the films of the 1950’s, the drama, that image of 1950’s America, the strange science.  But the thing is, the film is about an invasion of fast-growing rocks that come to destroy Earth.  It’s kind of like the most boring idea for a monster ever employed seriously in a film.  As good as it gets, it’s still rocks.

That said, it’s still pretty good.  Crafted from a story by the great Jack Arnold and Robert M. Fresco and capably directed by John Sherwood for Universal, it’s really a pretty good B-movie.  And frankly, the main credit may go to the special effects by Clifford Stine, because those crystal-like monolithic rock formations have their moment, coming through a river valley, descending upon a small Southern California town.

The kids and I watched this film “live,” if you will, on MeTV, this channel deep in the cable box that plays almost entirely classic television shows from the 1950’s-1960’s, the stuff I grew up watching in reruns, later on Nick at Nite, and now have this total sentimental hankering for nowadays.  The film was part of a horror film show, hosted by Svengoolie.  For a movie whose running time is 77 minutes, there were an additional 43 minutes of corny jokes and mesothelioma commercials (much more the latter), which stretched the experience out well beyond endurance (I say literally this because both kids zonked out before the end.)

I recall, even as a pretty young kid, pondering this film after watching it, examining its disappointments and yet still vividly recalling it.  The image of the small town on the edge of the mountains with the giant black rock crystal towers falling upon them, still significantly lingered in my mind.  The milieu is very Jack Arnold, really.  It could be the same small town as in Tarantula (1955) or It Came from Outer Space (1953).  A couple of Stine’s effects were lifted from the latter film.

Strangely, it seems almost a more pure 1950’s science fiction affair.  It’s easy to envision the images on a pulp magazine from that decade or even prior, some unknown element brought to Earth on a meteorite, spelling untold science-y horror and doom for mankind.  That said, the science was probably dubious even in 1957, with these unrecognizable rocks sucking silica from the environment, growing when doused with regular old H2O, but stopped by salt water.

I have to say it, I love this period and genre of horror/sci-fi.  And I think I kind of love this movie, too.

Cult of the Cobra (1955)

 

Cult of the Cobra (1955) movie poster

director Francis D. Lyon
viewed: 10/19/2014

The DVD format might have been short-lived in its marketplace, usurping VHS, then usurped by BluRay and slowly eradicated by non-physical formats, I am possibly of a minority that appreciated aspects of the form.  The best DVD’s have typically come from Criterion, not just new prints and repaired versions of films, but with really valuable additions like commentaries by scholars with solid historical or critical value or mini-documentaries to accompany films with valuable information.

But there have also been these odd box sets and double features, which sometimes make for some solid companionship.  More recently I watched The Monster that Challenged the World (1957) and It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), which was a sweet little double feature.

Now, Cult of the Cobra would actually probably make a better double feature with something different than Dr. Cyclops (1940), but it’s still kind of cool to get two for one.  The old fashioned double feature, put together by someone.  Really, these films have little in common, but I still enjoyed getting to see them both.

Cult of the Cobra, the B-side, is a sample of Universal Horror, though perhaps a more obscure and lesser pic than many.  It stars an array of actors who would go on to star in televisions shows in the 1950’s and 1960’s, as a group of army dudes in post-war “Asia” (it’s actually amusing how nonspecific the film is about where this all apparently happens.)  Intrigued by stories of a cult that believes that they can turn people into snakes, they bribe a member to take them to a ritual, though they promise to go incognito and not take any pictures.

Well, one yahoo does snap some pictures, outing them and getting their guide killed and the whole gang cursed (by a very non-Asian Edward Platt).  The same yahoo tries to steal a basket from the ceremony and gets bitten by a cobra.  They are then all hunted down one by one upon their return to New York by a mysterious lady who turns into a snake.

There are some relevant comparisons to Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942), which also involves a mysterious woman and animal transformations, but Curse of the Cobra is no Cat People.  Now that might be a good double feature still.

The fact of the matter is that there is a kind of nonchalant portrayal of American GI’s behaving badly and insensitively in a foreign country.  This really isn’t explicit nor is the punishment explicitly a critique of the insensitivity (the yahoo notes that he must have had a few too many to act the way he did as if chagrin is enough for insulting the religious practices of the foreign country).  I was actually thinking that this could be re-made today with a more biting (ha!) cultural critique if someone dared.

It’s a B-minus B-picture, but has a good cast and is certainly none too shabby.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) movie poster

director Rupert Julian
viewed: 11/02/2013

I have a very fond memory from childhood of my mother taking me to see a double feature of Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera with his The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) on the campus of the University of Florida one night.  It’s fond in particular because my mother knew how into horror films I was and that I longed to see these films as I longed to see all the classics of the horror genre (or “monster movies” as I thought of them at the time).  And she discovered that they were playing these films and took me to see them there, something I can’t recall ever happening again, seeing movies on campus, much less silent classics.  She was always keeping an eye out for films showing up on television, but this trip was unique and now for me eternally special.

I don’t know if I got to see the films again very many times.  I don’t recall many silent films playing on television.  And I think I eventually saw the films again as an adult.

Still it had been a long time.

TCM is such a great network, showing such amazing films in their entirety uncut and uninterrupted by commercials, and their On Demand options are terrific too.  They had so many great movies on over October that it was indeed an embarrassment of riches for a horror film fanatic.  And I took the opportunity to see one of the most iconic horror films of all time.

The film has a great elegance to it, but when it comes down to it, it’s Lon Chaney and his amazing make-up effect that make the film what it is.  The distorted, skull-like visage of Erik, the phantom who haunts the opera house and lusts for the beautiful Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin) is just an image as indelible as any in cinema.  Chaney’s performance is far more than just the make-up, since he spends time in various masks.

No mask is more effective and memorable than the scene at the Bal Masqué scene in which the phantom appears in a skull mask and vivid red costume.  I don’t know if the versions that I saw as a kid contained a colorized sequence or not.  I’m assuming the version that played on TCM was the one with the restored color, though it’s hard to know for sure.  This was originally an early Technicolor sequence, vastly vivid and super effective.

It’s an amazing film most any way you take it.  Chaney’s make-up is as special an effect today as it was in 1925.  As artful and horrific as any image in cinema, it’s fascinating that the monster is simply a man, Chaney’s characters were all human, not supernatural largely (though I would love to have seen London After Midnight (1927)).  It’s the corrupt humanism of the villains that grounds them in the natural world, a physical monster but more so a corrupt and moral monster as well.  One of the reasons that Chaney is such an enduring actor, though his work was crafted so long ago.

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) movie poster

director Robert Florey
viewed: 10/07/2013

Compared to Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934), this 1932 Béla Lugosi version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” is downright exacting.  But only because the Ulmer film has zero relationship to its source material.

Murders in the Rue Morgue was Poe’s first detective story and perhaps the first detective story of all time.  It’s typically crazy, wherein a “locked room” mystery (a murder is committed in a room that is locked from the inside entirely — how did it happen?  how did the killer escape?) but with the weirdest explanations ever.  It was an escaped orangutan!  Of course!

Well, that simply wasn’t weird enough for Robert Florey and crew.  This time the animal (a gorilla not an orangutan) is the henchman for a crazed sideshow exhibitionist (Lugosi, with a hilarious monobrow), who is kidnapping beautiful women and trying to inject them with ape blood for reasons unknown.

It’s some pretty seriously weird stuff.  And quite passable and diverting as well.  Apparently it was pared down rather heavily, from 80 to 61 minutes, and one can only imagine what hair-raising bizarreness failed to pass the “Pre-Code” Hollywood code.

The Invisible Ray (1936)

The Invisible Ray (1936) movie poster

director Lambert Hillyer
viewed: 10/05/2013

After watching the very short, weird and wacky The Black Cat (1934) with Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff, I directed Clara and I to their 1936 collaboration, The Invisible Ray, in part because I thought it looked a little easier to follow.

I’m pretty sure that I had seen this before as a kid though not one bit of it jangled any memories.

In this one, Karloff is a mad, loner scientist who has found a way to peer into the past by following some form of atomic rays from ancient stars and then “looking back at Earth”.  Really wonderful weird science that.  He notices that this asteroid hit Earth somewhere in Africa some millennia ago and heads off with Lugosi and some other interested parties to locate the space fragment.  His “Uranium X” as he calls it turns out to be super powerful but super deadly.  It imbues him with the power to glow in the dark and to kill anything he touches.  Also, having harnessed the ore, he has a deadly ray that he can use to destroy whatever he likes.

But the radiation is killing him and driving him mad.

He shares his discovery with Lugosi, here playing the good doctor to Karloff’s mad villain, and Karloff becomes incensed when his wife leaves him and others begin tapping into his discoveries to use to help others.  He winds up seeking revenge on all of those who went on the African trip together.

The “glowing” is the film’s main effect, and it’s kind of cheap but effective.  The story is a lot more linear than that or The Black Cat, so in a ways less interesting, but a decent yarn for sure.   I thought it was pretty good.  Lugosi and Karloff sport odd facial hair in this one, with Karloff also wearing a weird dark, curly wig.  I’m still curious to know how much the kids picked up from this and if they could pick either man out of a line-up yet.  (Felix slept through it so I doubt he would.)

The Black Cat (1934)

The Black Cat (1934) movie poster

director Edgar G. Ulmer
viewed: 10/05/2013

Sort of like I did with Vincent Price, I decided it was a good time to familiarize the kids with Béla Lugosi and by proxy Boris Karloff as well.  I’d actually queued up this disc for this film, The Black Cat, in particular because it is also an Edgar G. Ulmer movie.  It was Ulmer’s biggest budget production and biggest commercial success.  It was also Lugosi’s biggest post-Dracula (1931) commercial success.

It’s quite the cult film too.  Featuring all sorts of “out there” elements including “necrophilia, ailurophobia, drugs, a deadly game of chess, torture, flaying, and a black mass with a human sacrifice.” (per critic Philip French)  It’s pretty far out, perhaps far outre.

It’s also a rambled, jambling mess.  I mean, I’m a fully cognizant adult and I felt like the story just kept turning, each step of the way, like it was making it up as it was going along.

Lugosi shows up as Dr. Vitus Werdegast, a vengeful doctor, fresh from fifteen years in a cruel prison, seeking the man who ran the prison and stole his wife and daughter.  He runs into a honeymooning couple on a train, but with whom he survives a motorcar crash and winds up on his nemesis’, Hjalmar Poelzig’s (Karloff), doorstep.  Poelzig had indeed run off with Werdegast’s wife, but then she died so he’s had her frozen in time in a glass case.  And then married her look-alike daughter.  And then runs a Satanic community.  In the location of the former prison, which is built on a pile of dynamite.

The weirdest aspect of the film is the only nod the film gives to its utterly non sequitur title.  Though one would assume that this was adapted from the Edgar Allen Poe story, the only thing that a black cat has to do with this film is that Werdegast is inexplicably mortally afraid of black cats and tries to kill them or has a nervous breakdown when they show up.

It’s all weird and convoluted and still quite campily charming.

For the kids, though, it was probably just confusing.  Felix actually fell asleep.  Clara had a myriad of questions, some of which I could answer, others of which I could not.

The Invisible Man (1933)

The Invisible Man (1933) movie poster

director James Whale
viewed: 08/05/2012

Considered one of Universal Studio’s cavalcade of “monsters,” The Invisible Man, based on the H.G. Wells novel, is more of a crime thriller than a horror film.  The great James Whale (Frankenstein (1931) , Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Old Dark House (1932)) directed, certainly one of his classics that established Universal and the “Universal Monsters.”

It’s a lean picture, with a 71 minute runtime, one of the great qualities of many of the pre-code era films is their concision.  The movie jumps off to its brisk pacing from the start, as the bandaged stranger arrives in a small town English pub, holing up and abusing his hosts.  The chemical potash that has rendered him invisible has also rendered him utterly a-moral.  He’s more bent on wreaking havoc and being a master criminal than returning to his loving, concerned ex-girlfriend.

Whale peppers the film with his mordant humor, from the classic reactions and screaming of the inimitable Una O’Connor, to the playful torments to which he subjects the police and general populace.  He’s a mean-spirited, not very likable anti-hero, but we are meant to enjoy his rebellious pranks and shenanigans.

It’s a classic, fun, and vibrant film.