Wednesday 24 April 2013

Legends of Horror & The Hays Code

Recently at Probert Towers we’ve been having fun with the Hays Code. Or rather, we’ve been having fun watching movies made before and just after this compromising, restricting, subjective set of rules was brought in to govern the content of Hollywood movies in the mid nineteen thirties to “protect” audiences from scenes of excessive violence, sexuality and good old Deviant Behaviour.
If you want to see for yourself what kind of effect this censorship had on films of the time then you need go no further than the MGM LEGENDS OF HORROR DVD boxset. For your money you get the pre-code horrors of Karl Freund’s MAD LOVE, Boris Karloff in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, and Michael Curtiz’s DOCTOR X, as well as post-code movies THE DEVIL DOLL and MARK OF THE VAMPIRE from Tod Browning, and THE RETURN OF DR X starring Humphrey Bogart.
The precode movies range from the excellent (MAD LOVE) through to the more ordinary (DOCTOR X) but are never less than interesting. The sight of Peter Lorre pretending to be the Rollo the guillotined knife thrower with his head strapped back on is still pretty unsettling, and the tortures devised by Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu suggest that left unchecked Hollywood may have ended up making the SAW movies in the forties rather than the noughties. As examples of their type they’re not bad at all, and if you like these then you should certainly check out the nasty and naughty MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933) and the Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi double-headers THE RAVEN and THE BLACK CAT (both 1935), all of which contain nastiness that Hollywood wouldn’t be allowed to include in its product for many years following.
Was the Hays Code responsible for a decline in quality? Probably not, in fact I suspect that all it did was prevent ludicrous ‘B’ programmers from adding unpleasant cruelty to their already ludicrous, incomprehensible and badly-researched plotlines. THE RETURN OF DR X (1939) stars Humphrey Bogart as a medic back from the dead after going to the electric chair because he “wanted to see how long a baby could go without eating for”. Hardly the genius surgeon (there must have been far better, exotic and more lurid ways to end up executed, even post-Code, and I bet Lionel Atwill would have known what they were) he comes back to life as a result of blood transfusions. The lecture we get on blood groups is as if Karl Landsteiner, the world-famous scientist who actually discovered this stuff, never existed, and Bogie’s back from the dead just long enough to take a pretty nurse off to his matte painting of an old shack in the swamp where he promptly ends up shot and uttering an ‘important’ last line that’s about as meaningful as the rest of this twaddle.
Certainly the Hays Code didn’t lead to a decrease in daftness or elderly actors dressing up in women’s clothing, as THE DEVIL DOLL testifies. Based on Abraham Merritt’s novel BURN WITCH BURN (you can read my review of that, along with its precursor SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, on the Vault of Evil website) the film starts off bonkers and gets worse. Lionel ‘I’ve had the bit of my brain removed labelled “restrained acting”‘ Barrymore escapes from Devil’s Island with a friend. Lionel wants revenge on the men who caused him to be unjustly imprisoned. Thankfully his friend has altogether more utterly ludicrous ambitions that involve shrinking the population of the world to the size of little dolls to solve the world’s food problems. He shows Lionel some plastic models of dogs and then, in a bit of fairly ambitious special effects for the time, we get to see the miniaturised dogs walking around. The serving girl gets the treatment next, which as well as shrinking her cures her of her ‘mental retardation’ for no reason that’s explained. Lionel’s friend dies of a heart attack, which is Lionel’s cue to go to Paris, dress up as an old lady, and use the doll-making device to create miniature assassins and in one case at least to presumably assuage his boredom (there’s no other reason for him shrinking a horse and where the hell does he get the room to do that anyway?) Clearly far too comfortable in his old lady getup Lionel finally clears his name and we get a rather odd coda that’s presumably Browning’s nod to the Hays’ Office to let him off the blatant female microphilia we’ve seen in the swampland laboratory scene.
However daft THE DEVIL DOLL may be it’s neither as patchy nor as ultimately unsatisfying as MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, made by Browning a year earlier and featuring another performance from Lionel Barrymore who has obviously been told to forego his usual timidity and really play things up. Bela Lugosi’s in this one too, in all the scenes that get used as stills, and with just one line. The vampire bits are superbly atmospheric but once we get on to plot it’s almost as stagy as Browning’s DRACULA and you get the feeling his heart wasn’t in it.
Watching a box set like this makes one wonder what would have happened if a similar code had been brought in for literature. In the UK the main fiction to suffer would probably have been Christine Campbell Thompson’s NOT AT NIGHT series, Charles Birkin’s CREEPS and of course the dear old PAN BOOK OF HORROR. Some would argue that this might not have been such a bad thing, but on the other hand without those stories I wouldn’t have become the horror fan that I am and consequently you wouldn’t be reading this now. But all of that is quite another story…

Friday 19 April 2013

The Lords of Salem (2013)

I’ve always found the films of Rob Zombie a bit of a mixed bag. While I admire his enthusiasm for the genre, I found THE DEVIL’S REJECTS impossible to like as it tried and failed to encourage me to find some sympathy with a bunch of degenerates with few redeeming features. Having watched it twice, I can also state that I think his remake of HALLOWEEN is disastrous as well. On the other hand, I loved the playfulness and outrageous carnival atmosphere of HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, and oddly enough I find his HALLOWEEN II a very interesting and worthwhile film (although it does help to pretend it has nothing to do with any kind of HALLOWEEN franchise).
LORDS OF SALEM, however, is absolutely marvellous.
Heavily criticised in some quarters for its over the top imagery and its lack of historical accuracy, I actually find it hard to believe that, in view of his oeuvre so far, anyone could now view a film by this director and expect a restrained, sensitive faithful account of anything, especially if it meant having to cut down on the gore, mayhem and general lunacy.
Gleefully crazy, insanely over the top, and deliciously unnerving, Rob Zombie’s LORDS OF SALEM is what might have happened if Ken Russell in his heyday had directed a feature-length episode of Brian Clemens’ THRILLER TV series. Sheri Moon Zombie plays radio DJ Heidi. An LP is sent to her at her studio as a gift from ‘The Lords of Salem’. The music recorded on it is so simple and yet so gut-churningly effective it’s not surprising that once she plays it things start to take a turn for the weird, especially when it turns out that the boarding house where Heidi lives is also host to Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace and Patricia Quinn - three reincarnated witches burned at the stake at the time of the original Salem witch trials who have plans to bring back the rest of their coven (including an almost unrecognisable Meg Foster). As Heidi’s hallucinations begin to worsen the stage is (literally) set for the return of the Lords of Salem and it doesn’t look as if anything is going to be able to stop them.
It’s been said that Rob Zombie has always worn his influences on his sleeve and if that’s the case this is very much his hymn to EuroHorror. It doesn’t necessarily make sense, or even pretend to, but there’s enough fantastically weird imagery on display here that it doesn’t matter. Some of it is too far over the top, but to be honest I’d rather have that than something half baked that isn’t trying its absolute hardest to weird me out. There are echoes of everything here from Russell to Fulci to bonkers Italian devil worship moves like BEYOND THE DOOR and DAMNED IN VENICE. A huge divider of opinion at Glasgow FrightFest earlier this year I have to confess that I loved it. LORDS OF SALEM isn’t going to be to everybody’s taste. In fact it may not be to most people’s taste, but if you’ve missed the extravagance of movies like LISZTOMANIA, and burned faceless corpses wandering through graveyards on a dreary afternoon fill you with anticipation rather than dread you will have a ball with this one.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key (1972)

Could this be the longest movie title on this site? It's actually a line from a previous Ernesto Gastaldi - Sergio Martino collaboration, THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS WARDH. This time we find them collaborating on a story that is, according to the credits, based loosely on The Black Cat. If Edgar Allan Poe had a penchant for crates of J&B, attractive ladies wearing very little, and motorcycle racing this could have been the most faithful adaptation of the story yet. Somehow, though, I suspect that he didn’t, although he might have enjoyed the decadent party held by decadent writer Oliviero Rouvigny (Luigi Pistilli) that opens this rather decadent movie. 
      Luigi lives in a lovely old mansion in the country where he hosts bizarre soirees that allows Sergio Martino to cram in both nude dancing (a tiny part for FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN and PHENOMENA’s Dalila de Lazzarro) and a horrible hippy song into the first ten minutes. Luigi is married to Irene (Anita Strindberg). His heavy drinking and womanising ways have caused her hairstyle to take on the appearance of a cormorant’s nest, and not a very house proud cormorant at that. Luigi’s having an affair with one of his ex-students from his teaching past who now works in a local bookshop. Romantic old devil that he is, he arranges to meet her in the local quarry after dark. Those of us who have seen this sort of thing before know that the chap in the far distance wearing black gloves and wielding a machete isn’t there for a bit of chiselling and pretty soon we’re witness to the first of several gory murders, including  Luigi’s maid and a local prostitute. 
      During all this Luigi drinks J&B, strokes his black cat ‘Satan’, drinks more J&B, beats Irene, and drinks yet more J&B. In fact the stuff is delivered to his house by the crate load by motorcycle scrambling enthusiast Dario (Riccardo Salvino). Half an hour in and disgruntled Edwige Fenech fans may be wondering where the top billed actress has got to. She finally appears in short skirt and short hairstyle to show Anita how it's done, and sets about getting into bed with almost everyone in the cast, including Dario, who manages to charm her into his sleeping bag in a dusty old attic after one especially muddy escapade while Luigi watches from the shadows. 
      Ivan Rassimov, in black leather coat and grey wig, has been watching from the shadows occasionally throughout the picture as well, but it won't be until just before the end that we get to find out why he’s there. By then naughty old Satan the cat has eaten Irene’s doves and had his eye cut out in homage to Poe, and we’ve had the typical final giallo fifteen minutes of everything going completely crazy before almost everyone ends up dead. Of course I’m not going to tell you who the killer is because that would spoil half the fun, suffice to say that the climax is every bit as wonderfully mad as giallo fans the world over have come to love.
YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM isn’t the best of Martino’s gialli - that’s always going to be TORSO, with STRANGE VICE close behind and ALL THE COLOURS OF THE DARK a very creditable third, but it is worth watching for the ever lovely Edwige Fenech and one of Bruno Nicolai’s best scores. In an interview Martino has said that this is a movie about provincial Italy and the film certainly has a different, gloomier, less glamorous feel than more cosmopolitan fare such as ALL THE COLOURS OF THE DARK. The title doesn’t have any relevance to the story, the murders are horrible, the women are beautiful, the music is great and there are more shots of J&B in the first twenty minutes than in the whole running time of any other giallo (probably). What’s not to like? In fact, what’s not to love?

Friday 5 April 2013

Dead Sushi (2012)

From Noburu Iguchi, director of ZOMBIE ASS: TOILET OF THE DEAD (yes I know - I haven’t seen it either and with a title like that I think it can probably wait) comes this Japanese horror comedy inspired by Alexandre Aja’s PIRANHA 3D (hooray!) and ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES. Those with lesser constitutions where comedy horror is concerned have probably already stopped reading, as well they might. In fact even people who love the early gore comedies of Peter Jackson such as BAD TASTE and BRAIN DEAD may come away from DEAD SUSHI with the opinion that it was all far, far too silly. Japanese horror comedies really are a subgenre to themselves, often characterised by ridiculous situations, over the top gore and almost non-stop screaming and shouting. In fact probably the best way to enjoy them is to consume a vast quantity of caffeine or other suitable stimulant and vibrate insanely along with all the principle players. At least you can be guaranteed to sleep well afterwards. Titles like VAMPIRE GIRL VS FRANKENSTEIN GIRL (which I found unbearable) and TOKYO GORE POLICE (I made it to the end of that one, but only just) can safely be avoided by all except the most avid enthusiasts of demented entertainment, and if you liked those, you’ll probably love DEAD SUSHI as well.
The film begins with Keiko (Rina Takeda) being taught how to be a sushi chef by her father who explains that apparently the art of preparing raw fish is just like practising martial arts, with similar levels of violence. Unable to satisfy her father’s high demands Keiko leaves home & gets a job working in an inn as a waitress. On her first day the establishment is visited by a party from Komatsu Pharmaceuticals. Unbeknownst to everyone the tramp lurking outside the building is actually an ex-Komatsu scientist employed to find ways of reanimating dead tissue. He was successful but the goat he reanimated ran amok and he was blamed for the carnage it caused. By way of revenge he shoots up the sushi in the restaurant with his serum and pretty soon everyone is getting attacked by tiny pieces of flying fish that have grown teeth and are basically little finger puppets. The rest of the film is a combination of outrageous situations, over the top gore and enough bra, breast and nudity gags to make the unwary wonder if they’ve wandered into CARRY ON SUSHI. Whether or not you will enjoy this will depend a lot on whether or not you find any of the following funny, including naked Japanese men being spun round by something attached to their penis while they scream ‘This is so utterly embarrassing’, talking egg sushi that gets bullied by the other sushi, the previously mentioned rogue employee dying and being reincarnated as a massive tuna (i.e. a bloke in a costume) or a battleship made of California roll that flies through the air attacking people. The presence of blood drenched naked Japanese girls will be mentioned here because it’s possible there may be someone out there who might benefit from that knowledge. There’s no point in telling you the climax because as well as possibly spoiling the film it makes absolutely no sense at all anyway. To get the best effect from DEAD SUSHI it’s probably best watched after something like MARTYRS to really appreciate the total unsubtle insanity of the entire enterprise. Strictly for people who like this sort of thing, and for those who’ve never tried, by about two minutes in you’ll know if it’s the thing for you.

Monday 1 April 2013

The Raven (1935)

There are a lot of movies around that have used the title of Poe’s famous poem to go off at tangents, be a bit mental, and in fact do anything but adapt the literary work in question. Probably the earliest version of note (and certainly the earliest worth a look) is this smashing 1935 Universal picture. It bears no relation to the poem at all, but it does star Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in a mashup of the lurid conte cruele and an old dark house mystery. 
Lugosi is brilliant surgeon Dr Richard Vollin, who has forsaken his practice to live in a big house with an organ, rooms that can move about and a dungeon filled with torture devices from Poe’s stories. He’s a Poe obsessive, you see, which means he gets to recite a bit of the poem itself at the beginning while explaining to the nervous chap who has dared to suggest he might like to sell his Poe collection that the large stuffed bird on his desk that’s casting the most splendid shadow on the wall is his good luck charm. This chatty little introduction is interrupted by Judge Thatcher (Samuel S Hinds). It turns out his daughter Jean (Irene Ware) has been involved in a car accident and Vollin is the only man who can save her brain-damaged dancer’s life. Vollin agrees, saves Jean, and then gets a bit obsessed about her being his ‘Lenore’. In true mad doctor fashion he decides that the only way he can make her his is by inviting her and her friends including fiance Jerry Halden (Lester Matthews) to a dinner party where afterwards he’s going to torture and kill them. His plan is helped along by the arrival at his house of Edmond Bateman (Karloff), a convicted murderer who wants his face changed so the police won’t recognise but also in the hope that if he’s made less ugly he may not ‘do ugly things anymore’. Vollin agrees but instead does something naughty to Bateman’s right facial nerve, turning that side of his face into a wrinkled monstrosity that’s revealed in the cruellest and most dramatic way possible before a wall of mirrors. Karloff shoots at the glass while Lugosi does a lot of silent film-style mugging from his observation window well away from the enraged criminal. Vollin promises to restore Karloff’s face if he will serve him. 
The dinner party ensues, Karloff kidnaps the judge and Lugosi traps him beneath a swinging pendulum blade. The film is only an hour long and in the last ten minutes Jean and Jerry get trapped in a room with crushing walls, Bateman rebels, gets shot for his efforts, Jean and Jerry and the Judge are saved, Lugosi gets to say ‘Poe - you are avenged!’ before laughing maniacally and then being dragged into the crusher by Karloff who then drops dead form the bullet wounds inflicted on him by the mad doctor.
Universal’s THE RAVEN is barking mad and absolutely worth watching, if only for the performances by the two leads - Karloff the consummate professional actor and Lugosi the unique presence that even in this film seems to be out of touch with modern cinema. Louis Friedlander (later Lew Landers) directs the proceedings pretty well, with the previously mentioned mirror scene a standout. What prevents it from being considered one of the best Universal horrors is its descent into cliched old dark house shenanigans near the end, but it should still be on the must see list of any discerning horror film fan, even after nearly eighty years.