Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Halloween Picks: Rod Serling's Night Gallery, Part 6

As I breeze through the last of my Night Gallery Halloween picks I should stress that Night Gallery isn't for everyone. Probably a third of them I won't bother to watch ever again. Like most all anthology shows, I find, the quality of production and tenor of story can vary significantly from episode to episode (or in Night Gallery's case, from segment to segment). Issues of time and budget cause many bits to fall short of the sources they are adapted from. Forty years of overlying artistic strata have rendered most of Night Gallery's scares into schlock and it's technically and stylistically quite dated. More is the charm, for some, but not for those strictly accustomed to the gore-fueled excesses of the intervening decades.

Mostly it's up to people who are interested in the place of shows like Night Gallery in horror history to carry it's cult forward. And for those, like me, who have a true nostalgia for the show--based on faded memories--and now have the luxury of being able to reevaluate them in their pristine, commercial-free digital form.

Still, there are several segments that are indisputably quite atmospheric, and others that are fun or noteworthy because of who is cast in them or because the effects were more striking than the norm. The ones that still live in my memory tell me something about my fascination with horror. Or that was my theory. Really, aside from the immortal Night Gallery intro, it was chiefly the (Hammer, and the like) horror movies I saw on Shock Theater (as well as my integral love of Halloween) that seems to have influenced my awe of the horror genre. But I can believe that some of these segments should have scared the devil out of me forty years ago, except that I apparently missed them or was too scared to watch them in the first place.


There's nothing to inspire much terror in episode 2.9, though. The first story is a comedic offing called House--with Ghost (2.9.1), that is only creepy if you consider the fact that the lurid secret life of it's star, Bob Crane (Hogan's Heroes), would come to light when he was bludgeoned to death seven years later. That, and the fact that his wife in House--with Ghost was Joanne Worley, who made a career typed as an uncommonly unappealing woman, a la Phyllis Diller and Ruth Buzzi. Crane's character plans to bump off his wealthy spouse but dithers on the treacherous act until a ghost in their ritzy London flat (Bernard Fox) intervenes in a most unexpected way. (3.5/10)

In another silly tale, Hells Bells (2.9.4), John Astin (Gomez on the original The Addams Family) plays a reckless hippie who, after a fatal car-accident, finds himself plunging into hell while anticipating the infernally groovy sights that await him--only to find that he will there be punished with eternal boredom. Cute, but unfortunately a story about how boring hell is is destined to quickly become...boring. (4.5/10)


2.11.1, Pickman's Model, is based on a short H.P. Lovecraft story of the same name. In this adaptation, Pickman is the name of an ill-reputed painting instructor at an exclusive school who attracts the admiration of a lovely female student. When the wealthy female suitor boldly seeks out the source of his ghastly inspiration she finds more than she bargained for. One curious aspect of this version of the story is that it surrounds a female protagonist, wheras Lovecraft rarely had sympathetic female characters in his stories. The original story was mostly eerie speculations surrounding an artist's paintings, which are populated with loathsome humanoid creatures too uncanny to come from a human imagination. The inclusion of a romantic interest adds dimension to the story and broadens it's appeal. And the monstrous conclusion makes this one of the most memorable episodes of Night Gallery. Regrettably, I don't seem to remember actually seeing it before. (7/10)

 Segment 2.12.1, Cool Air, is also a Lovecraft story and also introduces a love interest to flesh it out a little--though, in my view, to less successful ends. Cool Air concerns a scientist who seeks the secret of eternal life, yet depends on a forbiddingly frigid environment to maintain his own. (5/10)

In Camera Obscura, Rene Ouberjonois plays a cold-hearted debt-collector who is subjected to the gnarly nether-worldly torments of the diabolical optical device by it's designer, mad-scientist Ross Martin (The Wild Wild West). The rather perfunctory set-up is, at least, redeemed by a suitably atmospheric climax. (6.5/10)


Interestingly, one of the best-remembered (for me) episodes, The Painted Mirror (2.13.2), is a little lacking in horror, although it does involve Zsa Zsa Gabor chasing a her toy dog into a mirror-universe, where she is presumably gobbled up by prehistoric stop-motion creatures. Pretty cool as a kid. Not so cool now, though. Zsa Zsa is scarier than the dinosaurs. (5.5/10)

In Episode 15 we come to another segment I remember very well--and which fans of the show seem to remember to a remarkable degree--Green Fingers. This slightly warped moral tale involves an eccentric old lady with a particular talent for growing things (Elsa Lanchester, most famous as the Bride of Frankenstein), who stubbornly refuses to sell her lushly gardened cottage to ruthless industrialist Mitchell Cameron. After finally bumping the old biddy off, the triumphant villain finds that vengeance from the grave is his only harvest. Hooboy this one has a loopy ending. That's probably why I remember it so well. Not as scary now as it must have been then, though. (6.5/10)

Speaking of Bob Crane, the next segment, The Funeral (2.15.2), stars his captor in Hogan's Heroes, Werner Klemperer (Colonel Klink) as a vampire who, with help of funeral director Joe Flynn (McCale's Navy), arranges to have a late funeral, with all of his monster-buddies in attendance. Hilarity ensues. This is technically a "comedy blackout", but it's got enough of a fun, Groovy Goolies vibe to be mildly diverting. (5.5/10)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Jeanette Nolan--Tribute to a Witch


Veteran actress Jeanette Nolan (1911-1998) had a long and distinguished career, starting with the role of Lady Macbeth in Orson Welles supreme adaptation of Macbeth in 1948. Of most interest to horror fans, perhaps, is her role as the voice of Norman Bates' Mother in Psycho (why, I wouldn't even hurt a fly). But the woman seemed to have a knack for playing witches and it's just a pity she didn't do it more often. Here she is as (l to r) the vindictive villain Granny Herrod in a great episode of Boris Karloff's Thriller called Parasite Mansion, as the titular character of La Strega (also Thriller) and as Aunt Ada in the Night Gallery episode titled Since Aunt Ada Came to Stay. Props to a fabulous, unsung screen witch!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Halloween Picks: Rod Serling's Night Gallery, Part 5

In all fairness, there isn't much of anything about the 4th episode of Night Gallery's superior Second Season, Fear of Spiders/Junior/Marmalade Wine/The Academy. for me to recommend it for Halloween viewing, so I'll be brief.

Fear of Spiders involves an aging gourmet food critic (Patrick O'Neal) who finds himself plagued by phantom spiders, as well as an old, one-night stand. (2.5/10)  The very short Junior wastes Wally Cox (Mister Peepers!) as a weary father who has to get out of bed to bring his familiar-looking offspring a glass of water. Completely worthless. (0/10)  Marmalade Wine has Robert Morse (The Loved One) as a lost wanderer who finds shelter in a castle and boasts to his surgeon host--a little too persuasively--that he has psychic powers. The most remarkable thing about this segment is the strangely ornate minimalist set. (4/10) The Academy presents crooner Pat Boone as a wealthy and ruthless businessman who visits an exclusive military school to determine if it's the right one for his troublesome progeny. Not scary, just kind of sad. (2.5/10)

The next episode, The Phantom Farmhouse/Silent Snow, Secret Snow is another story. The famous Silent Snow, Secret Snow, I can say without reservation, is not a Halloween segment. It is recommended, though, for the story and the narration by Orson Welles. It describes the private thoughts of a boy as he progressively shuts out the reality around him in favor of an imagined world of freshly fallen snow. (8.5/10)


 In The Phantom Farmhouse, the investigation of a mental patient's grisly murder at an exclusive sanitarium leads a psychiatrist (David McCallum of The Man from UNCLE) to a mysterious farmhouse that seems to belong to another time. David Carradine plays a patient that knows the secret of the farmhouse and it's strange denizens. Regrettably, many of the stylistic choices by director Gene R. Kearney ground the segment visually in the 70's, detracting somewhat from the Gothic atmosphere intended by the classic source. Still, it delivers a suitable climax. (7/10)


Next, in The Question of Fear (2.6.1), Leslie Nielsen (Airplane!) plays a pompous adventurer who accepts an adversary's wager to spend the night in an extremely haunted house, apparently inhabited by a Nazi ghost! This segment is a better than average spend-the-night-in-a-haunted-house story up until a little after the midpoint when it begins to lurch toward a screamingly idiotic, wasted, non-supernatural twist-ending. Nazis are the protagonists in this one, it turns out. (4/10)


Interestingly, the next segment of the same episode, The Devil is not Mocked (2.6.2), also involves Nazis, though in this case they aren't meant to be the *ahem* good guys.  Let me just say that this is a good segment for Halloween, that features Francis Lederer as a character quite familiar to lovers of the holiday--and not spoil what is a very simple plot. (7/10)


Skipping ahead a bit, Brenda (2.7.2), involves an unruly young girl who befriends a bizarre, hulking, rather mossy monster while on vacation on a tropical island with her parents. I initially thought the squeaky-voiced actress who played the weird little girl several years younger than her true age (Laurie Prange) was going to grate on my nerves, but she really ended up selling the role well and the story is oddly touching. (6.5/10)

Skipping ahead, again, A Matter of Semantics (2.8.2) is another pointless "comedy blackout" with a wasted Cesar Romero as Dracula, trying to make a withdrawal from a blood bank. (3/10)


John Carradine makes a welcome appearance in Big Surprise (2.8.3) as a creepy old codger who promises some local boys that a big surprise awaits them if they have to courage to excavate a box buried under a certain local oak tree. (7/10)

In Professor Peabody's Last Lecture (2.8.4), Carl Reiner plays an intrepid anthropology teacher who dares to read from the dreaded Necronomicon for his aghast class. It goes on a bit long toward a predictable conclusion, but it's nice to see some Lovecraft appreciation in the mix. (6.5/10)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Halloween Picks: Rod Serling's Night Gallery, Part 4

 While it may not be the absolute summit of Night Gallery, the opening segment of Episode 3 of Season 2 certainly satisfies the premise of the show. It was really a pleasure to be re-introduced to it after all these years. It's one of those episodes I don't have a solid recollection of, yet is tantalizingly familiar. In terms of good old-fashioned horror, it's hard to beat Since Aunt Ada Came to Stay.


In this first of three segments, James Farentino plays a professor of the scientific method who is forced to grapple with implications of the supernatural when his wife's weird old Aunt Ada comes to their happy home, presumably to live out her final years. The teacher quickly becomes wary of the old biddy, who seems to have a penchant for vanishing into thin air, killing off vegetation and pushing her special brand of tea on the Mrs, to "calm her nerves". After bringing a sample of the suspect tea to the university for chemical analysis, he is told that it's a seaweed and is referred to a colleague, the Professor of Metaphysics (Jonathan Harris, best known as Dr. Smith on Lost in Space) for information about the alleged medicinal uses of the plant. The eccentric old metaphysician informs him that the substance is known as "witches' weed" and is used to prepare a chosen victim to be possessed by the witch's spirit. And the coming midnight of the full moon, as it turns out, is the optimum time for the ritual possession to take place. Somewhere in here he finds out that Aunt Ada is an imposter, yadda, yadda, yadda, some other spooky stuff happens and let me just conclude by saying that green carnations figure prominently into the plot. (8/10)


Inspired directing from Jerrold Freedman keeps things interesting on the visual front, and best of all veteran actress Jeanette Nolan plays the role she seems ideally suited for: the old witch posing as Aunt Ada. Nolan was so good at playing witches she played them in two great episodes of Boris Karloff's Thriller, Parasite Mansion ( which also stars my good friend Beverly Washburn of Spider Baby) and, a title I'll be looking at later, La Strega. As to the strangely abrupt way in which this episode ends, if anyone knows what the story behind that is, I'd be interested in finding out. It seems like this segment could have been extended if only they'd thought better of including the next one, the mostly worthless "comedy blackout" With Apologies to Mr. Hyde.


There seems to be the potential of something happening in this stale little misfire--it stars Batman's Adam West as Jekyll and Hyde and Executive Producer Jack Laird as his hunchback assistant, and the laboratory setpiece is pretty cool--but it's all for a Laugh-In- quality pun that only wastes a couple of minutes, regardless. (3/10)

Speaking of Laugh-In, the final segment, The Flip Side of Satan stars a regular face on the 1970's variety show, Arte Johnson, as a disreputable disc-jockey who finds his misdeeds rewarded with a graveyard gig at a radio station of the damned. A classic story, this segment isn't bad at all, allowing the actor to exhibit his talents in an exclusively one-man show. On the down side, the shoe-string budget of the short is all too apparent in the rather unspectacular climax. (6.5/10)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Halloween Picks: Rod Serling's Night Gallery, Part 3

Season Two's second four-part episode Death in the Family/The Merciful/Class of '99/Witches' Feast proves an adequate, though uneven, follow-up to The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes/Miss Lovecraft Sent Me/The Hand of Borgus Weems/Phantom of What Opera?--elevated slightly by the appearance of horror legend Vincent Price, along with a few other interesting faces. Unfortunately, the fourth segment, The Witches' Feast, was struck from the episode early on and replaced with another comedy short, Satisfaction Guaranteed. I don't know what that's all about, but since that's what's on the Season 2 DVD, I'll go with it.


In Death in the Family E.G. Marshall (Creepshow) plays as an eccentric mortuary owner and unexpected host to desperate fugitive Desi Arnez Jr. after the wounded criminal bursts into his grim establishment while fleeing the police. The story and performances are quite good and the climax is classic horror. I think I might remember seeing this one back in the 70's. (7/10)

 The Merciful is another short twisteroo with Imogene Coco as a wife who has a plan to improve her domestic situation with a little brick and mortar. Cute but disposable. (4/10)


In Class of '99, Vincent Price plays the stern professor of the titular students, who must be prepared for the brutal realities of a dystopian new world. This was another episode written by Rod Serling. Unfortunately, the anti-war message seems a little on the quaint side, today. But Vincent Price is quite good as the sinister instructor, as is Brandon DeWilde (Shane) as an apt pupil. (4.5/10)

The substitute episode (they shouldn't have bothered) of Satisfaction Guaranteed serves up rotund Victor Buono as the potential customer of an employment agency that seeks to fix him up with an ideal woman--only to find he has oddly discriminating tastes. Besides Buono, the only remarkable thing about this little farce is the head of the employment agency, played by Cathleen Cordell, who fans of the zombie romp Return of the Living Dead will recognize as Colonel Glover's hapless wife, Ethel (who cooked lamb-chops for dinner). (3.5/10)

And lest this review seem incomplete, here's the lost segment called Witches' Feast, which stars Agnes Moorehead and Ruth Buzzi:


Ugh. (3/10)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Halloween Picks: Rod Serling's Night Gallery, Part 2

 Aside from The Cemetery, and a few other segments (The Eyes, The Dead Man, The Doll), the short season one (only six episodes) of Night Gallery did little to arouse my vague sense of nostalgia for the show. The more celebrated season 2 fared better, though I don't seem to clearly recollect most of them, either. Indeed, The Painted Mirror and Green Fingers are the only two segments of the second season that I have unshakeable memories of. Still, the difference in quality between the two seasons was already apparent to me with this episode, The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes/Miss Lovecraft Sent Me/The Hand of Borgus Weems/Phantom of What Opera?--even if this was the first episode to feature the infamous "comedy blackout" segments so hated by Rod Serling and derided by fans and critics alike.

The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes was probably a good choice to launch the first true season of the anthology series. It was one of a handful of Night Gallery segments actually written by Rod Serling (whose actual creative contribution to the show was contractually limited by Universal) and it was similar in tone and plot--more than most of Night Gallery--to Serling's legendary Twilight Zone. The segment involves a boy (Clint Howard, brother of Ron) who seems gifted with extraordinary prophetic powers. When his prediction of a Los Angeles earthquake proves exactly accurate, he is given his own television show with an audience that grows with each amazing prognostication--until a final, dire prediction leaves him with a difficult choice.

One could be forgiven for not seeing this as much of a Halloween episode, per se, but there is an appropriately gloomy sci-fi atmosphere during the conclusion. I don't seem to remember seeing this one as a kid, though, so I can't say if it lived up to my expectations. (7/10)


 Miss Lovecraft Sent Me is a bit of fluff about a bubble-headed babysitter, played by Sue Lyon (Lolita!), who arrives at the creepy abode of her new client (a decidedly Lugosi-esque Joe Campanella), but begins to have second thoughts when the perilous nature of the assignment is made all too obvious.


Not much thought was spared for this lame one-liner of an episode but I kind of like it. I like to think it fits in better when you consider the fact that this was 1971, the same year The Groovie Goolies was on Saturday morning television. Anyway, it's too short to be very objectionable. (5.5/10)


 The third segment, The Hand of Borgus Weems, is a bit more substantive. A sort of reverse variation of The Hands of Orlac, it concerns a seemingly sane man who goes to a surgeon (Ray Milland) with the request that his right hand be surgically removed, it having fallen under the control of a mysterious--and murderous--power.

Of course any story about a person losing control of a limb to supernatural forces has the potential to descend into parody, and this one skirts the line of camp, certainly. But I think it works on kind of a light-weight 70s acid-trip level. (6.5/10)


Comedy Black-out #2, Phantom of What Opera?, comes off as kind of an homage to the famous unmasking scene in Lon Chaney's 1925 Phantom of the Opera with a screwball twist at the climax. But who is that under the phantom make-up? None other than Leslie "don't call me Shirley"/Frank Drebbin Nielsen in an early comic role! (4.5/10)

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Skull

 
It seems as though there's always been something paradoxical about artistic representations of death.  Even in more arcane times, the figure of death loomed menacing over insignificant worshipers in awesome church frescoes, while dancing merrily through the streets in his task in woodcuts, judiciously striking down king and wretched peasant alike.  In less enlightened times, the corpses of criminals were routinely put on public display, and plague, war and famine victims might go unburied for extensive lengths of time.  Death was surely too omnipresent to serve as much of a source of titillation to the common man.  For a good Christian, death meant resurrection.  Reverence of the dead was improper, even pagan , though such rituals were widespread.  The skull represented our mortality and our earthly imperfection.  To the sinner, it represented a greater uncertainty: When would death take them, and where to?
A transition occurred in the perception of death in the West during the Industrial Revolution, when the disposal of the dead became increasingly standardized.  Death was nicely concealed within marble vaults, or in coffins beneath no less than six feet of earth, all surrounded by lush, green parks that inspired a morbid sort of serenity.  A rather odd public affinity with this cryptic aesthetic was born from the new sanitary innovations.  For a time, it was fashionable for mother's to pose for pictures with their sunken-eyed dead children, or whole families seated together with their dead patriarch.  Upper-class women would visit mediums, hoping to make some connection with the world beyond.  From gothic poetry, heavy with funereal atmosphere and ruminations on death, emerged Romantic Literature, which routinely challenged conventions on the subjects of death, religion and morality.  An age of growing skepticism about the benefits and validity of religion was in full bloom.  It was time for some long held taboos to recede.

One change seems to have been the depiction of death.  Yellow newspapers of the 19th Century catered to those with a fascination for lurid murder stories.  Spectacles of death, murder and iniquity could be enjoyed at Guignol theaters of France.  Ghost stories and "penny dreadfulls" dominated popular writing.  All permitted those, who had a desire to, to open the casket lid and catch a glimpse of that terrible, secret thing, properly  hidden from public view: The visage of death.  Surviving this encounter, the reader feels exhilarated and, contrary to reason, even more alive.
With modes of entertainment that required less education and imagination to enjoy forever in demand, it was the ideal time for moving pictures to give visual dimension to this evolving death fetish.  Filmmakers like Murnau (Nosferatu), Todd Browning (Dracula) and Paul Leni didn't hesitate to put visions of death and the grotesque on the screen for thrill-loving audiences.  To lend atmosphere, the skull and the skeleton became fundamental props.  A hidden pirate cove, a physicians study and a warlock's ritual chamber couldn't be represented without the occasional skull and bones.  Becoming such a commonplace prop meant that the impact of the sight of a skull lost it's intrigue.  The skull becomes something of an abstract image and, by itself, patently un-scary.  In Bride Of Frankenstein, when Ernest Thesiger's Dr. Praetorius shows such little reverence to the bones in the crypt, the act imbues the familiar props with significance they would otherwise lack to the movie-phile of 1935, as well as helping to define Praetorius as a somewhat sinister character.
In 1925, screen pioneer Lon Chaney made up his face to look like a disfigured, Phantom Of The Opera, whose face had been horrifically scarred by fire.  The effect is that of a skull face with hideously bared teeth, a shriveled nose and callow eyes beneath a bald pate.  Implicitly, the reclusive figure is among the dead: A vengeful phantom haunting the theater where he was once a respected composer.  In hiding his face under a skull mask at the masked ball, he perpetuates the idea that he is a ghost, to be feared and avoided.  Grotesque make-ups like those of Chaney's in The Phantom Of The Opera are said to have been inspired by survivors of terrible war wounds, of which there were a fair quantity in the wake of WWI.  Disfigured, grim-reaper-like maniacs would become a staple of  horror entertainment, notably in such movies as House Of Wax, The Virgin Of Nuremberg, The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Nightmare On Elm Street. as well as countless adaptations and variations of Phantom.
Skulls rarely make feature appearances in films, for obvious reasons, but the low-budget shocker The Screaming Skull (1958) is a curious exception.  The movie is prefaced by a publicity "disclaimer", wherein a closed casket is shown, accompanied by a guarantee by the makers of The Screaming Skull to pay for the funeral services of any unfortunate individual who dies of fright while watching their movie.  As the story begins, a meek  newlywed bride, isolated nights in her husband's gothic southern mansion, finds herself stalked by a disembodied skull, ostensibly the ghost of the husband's late wife, who died under unusual circumstances years earlier.  Eventually it's revealed that the husband has been using a plastic skull and hokey theatrics to push his new wife over the edge, in a plot to have her committed and steal her money.  This scheme, which seems fairly improbable and cheap-jack, nonetheless appears to be working up until the feeble-minded gardener finds the dime-store prop and reveals it to the local pastor.  Finding exhibit A missing from it's hiding place, the husband strangles his bride, not apparently noticing that his wife had actually been running from his murdered previous wife, returned from the grave as a genuine skull-faced apparition.  Morphing into a flying ghost-skull, the vengeful spirit runs him down and proceeds to rip his throat out with it's teeth.
In House On Haunted Hill, Vincent Price successfully uses a life-like skeleton marionette in his own plot against a treacherous shrew of a wife.  In the climax, believing that her husband has been thrown into a pit filled with acid, the wife is confronted by a walking skeleton, speaking in the voice of her recently dissolved husband.  Screaming in terror, she backs away from the maddening vision, inevitably toppling into the acid pit herself, no doubt to be reduced to bones (a fitting punishment for someone who was fooled by a puppet gliding along on easily visible strings).  As a publicity stunt, director William Castle provided theater owners with their own fake skeleton-on-a-string  to fly over the heads of the audience at the appropriate moment.
In the most unintentionally amusing moment of Larry Cohen's camp classic Horrors Of The Black Museum (1959), demented criminologist Michael Gogh disposes of his meddling psychiatrist in the same way, careful that the skeleton not stay in it's acid-bath too long and fall apart.  He hangs the intact skeleton up on a hook, evidently meaning to exhibit it in his "Black Museum" of crime curiosities.
The haunting, primal aspect of the skull is exploited in the strange 3D flick The Mask (1961), where a psychiatrist visits the realm of the unconscious mind through the use of a mystical skull-faced Aztec mask.  During these stark, hallucinogenic experiences, he beholds many death images- such as a skull with snakes coming from it's eyes, a fire-breathing figure wearing the skull mask, himself as a rather quizzical zombie, and so on.  In the end, the mask drives the psychiatrist to homicide.
The cursed skull of the Marquis De Sade has a similar effect on anyone who possesses it in The Skull (1965).  In spite of it's deadly reputation, as well as an ominous, Kafka-esque dream he'd suffered shortly after first laying eyes on the skull, collector of diabolical curiosities Peter Cushing feels oddly compelled to own it.  As determined to keep the skull away from him, however (convinced that it's genuinely evil), is his rival Christopher Lee.  Cushing kills his old adversary and steals the skull, which has seemingly taken control of his will.  Prompted to sacrifice his sleeping wife to the skull, Cushing balks, and is punished in the same way as the murderous husband in The Screaming Skull: The skull pounces on him and tears out his throat. Why the skull of the Marquis de Sade should have this effect on anyone is not closely examined.
The horror represented by human bones in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is probably the most potent and immediate in horror movie history.  Besides routinely robbing graves, and making sculptures from the bones, the cannibalistic Sawyer family makes food of stranded motorists.  Victims waiting their turn might spend agonizing moments contemplating the skulls of those who went to the slaughter before them.  One inspiration for Tobe Hooper's highly influential low-budgeter was the exploits of real life serial killer Ed Gein, who's home, when arrested, was found to be decorated by the corpses of his victims, along with other remains dug up from the local graveyard.
In Return Of The Living Dead, the bumbling manager of a medical supply warehouse reveals to his young trainee the fact that all skeletons available for purchase come exclusively from India, and jokingly suggests that this might be evidence of "skeleton farms" there.  Shortly after the release of this popular zombie-movie spoof, the government of India abruptly banned the trade of skeletons.  It can only be surmised that the publicity generated by the revelation of these insidious skeleton farms existing in India- a country where large numbers of skulls still occasionally turn up in places as unlikely as bus stops (this is not a joke) -precipitated an official crackdown.  Sounds like a pretty good idea for a horror movie...

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Halloween Picks: Rod Serling's Night Gallery, Part 1



 While catching up recently on episodes of Night Gallery, unseen since the early 1970's, I was surprised how few of the them I actually remember watching.  I think as a kid I was completely captivated by the familiar opening blurb--the short, ominous Night Gallery theme accompanied by overlapping images of horrible distorted faces and creepy works of art--but by the time Rod Serling's eerie exposition gave way to the subject of that week's morbid masterpiece, my youthful disinclination to follow storylines more complex than Scooby Doo must have generally driven me to whatever else was competing for my attention that evening. Or maybe I was just too terrified to go on watching those less familiar episodes. Actually, that might have been the case with some of the episodes, seeing them today. All I can be sure of is that the original pilot episode's first segment, The Cemetery, is one episode that was burned into my memory exactly because it was so freaky.

 
The Cemetery (1.1.1) involves a scheming wastrel, played with a wonderful villainous zeal by Roddy McDowell, who bumps off his ailing millionaire uncle for the inheritance, only to find his sanity threatened by his uncle's seemingly haunted painting of the nearby family cemetery--a changing canvas which promises a hideous retribution from the grave. (7/10)


 Frantic with terror, the evil nephew rips the phantom painting from the wall and stumbles down the staircase, breaking his neck. It turns out that the rich uncle's faithful butler Portifoy (played by Ossie Davis) arranged for an artist to make several copies of the painting which progressively showed the uncle emerging from his grave and coming to the front door. No sooner than Portifoy--who is the old man's alternate heir in case of the nephew's untimely demise, naturally--can drink to his ill-gotten fortune than the painting begins to change for him, this time for real. This strange turn--that the nephews undead vengeance should be genuine while the uncle's had to be fabricated-- deepens the the absurdity of the plot, but I don't suppose I gave that much thought as a kid.
 

The second and third segments of the Night Gallery pilot are memorable, too, but a little depressing for Halloween viewing, in my opinion. In fact, I'm going to skip ahead to the far superior season 2 for my next pick, which happens to be the four-part first episode: The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes/Miss Lovecraft Sent Me/The Hand of Borgus Weems/Phantom of What Opera?

Monday, October 3, 2011

The following are notable appearances of witch hunting in motion pictures.  Long a rather taboo subject for filmmakers, there is a dramatic increase in these movies in the 1960's and 70's, when interest in witchcraft and the occult reached an all time high.


The Woman Who Came Back (1945)
Descended from a holy inquisitor, a woman is troubled by the suspicion that she is reincarnated from a burned witch, and history might repeat itself.

The Thing That Couldn't Die (1958)
A warlock in Spanish California has his head cut off by the inquisition and buried at the base of a tree in a small chest.  The chest is found in the 20th century by a girl gifted with psychic powers while dowsing for water.  The warlock's head is alive, and can hypnotize people to do his bidding.  The head is finally reunited with it's body, but dies after being shown the holy amulet that binds him to the grave.

The Haunted Palace (1963)
The heir of a hated warlock arrives to move into the family palace, and finds himself possessed by his grandfather, who put a curse on the nearby village for burning him at the stake.  Vincent Price plays a dual role as the diabolical warlock and his descendent.  Remarkable for it's H.P. Lovecraft source mythology.


The Devil Rides Out (1967)
Modern witch-hunter Christopher Lee witnesses a colorful black mass complete with the "goat of Mendez": an anthropomorphic goat demon, such as described in the accounts of accused witches.



The Devils(1971)
A convent of nuns under the influence of mass hysteria (in scenes reminiscent of 1922's Häxan) attract the attention of inquisitors, and ultimately get debauched priest Oliver Reed burned at the stake.  Based on a true story.
 
The Touch Of Satan (1971)
A woman invokes the powers of Lucifer to save her sister from burning at the stake, but has to tell everyone that the horribly scarred sibling is her granny.  A couple of centuries later, the eternally young witch falls for some guy, and decides to finish the job on her burdensome, and compulsively homicidal, "granny".
 
 
The Reincarnation Of Isabel (1973)
Amid a literal orgy of blood, a cult of vampires use lurid rituals to avenge and resurrect a long-dead witch, an affair that merits an appropriately harsh reception by the locals.
 
The Night Stalker (TV) (1974)
(Episode: The Trevelli Collection) The interminable newspaper reporter Carl Kolchack foils an ambitious sorceress of the fashion industry by publicly accusing her, which, we are given to believe, is the customary method for destroying a witch's power.
 
Inquisición (1976)
A witch-finder is brought under the spell of an enchanting witch, and ends up burnt at the stake himself.
 
The Pit And The Pendulum (1990)
A witch prepares for her burning at the stake by stuffing her mouth with gunpowder, resulting in a nasty surprise for the unwary spectators.
 
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Based on a recurring dream, Ichabod Crane seems to have witnessed his sorceress mother's death in an iron maiden.


The Undead (1956)
Under hypnosis, a modern-day prostitute channels back in time into the body of an accused witch with an appointment on the stake.




The Naked Witch (1961)
A German community in the hills of Texas is terrorized by a scantily-clad witch of ill-fame after a bonehead tourist from modern times visits her grave and pulls the stake from her heart.


She Beast (1965)
A particularly unpleasant-looking witch, swearing to return from the dead and seek vengeance on her persecutors,  is fixed to a dunking stool and drowned in the lake.  Her prophecy is fulfilled in the 20th century when she possesses the body of lovely Barbara Steele.  Fortunately, the locals kept the ducking stool around for good measure.

Mark Of The Devil (1969)
This German counterfeit of The Conqueror Worm is both more repulsive in it's protracted depiction of torture, and strangely, much duller.  Herbert Lom plays a sexually impotent inquisitor who gets his jollies by breaking witches on the rack.  As a publicity stunt, promoters distributed "Stomach Distress Bags" for queasy patrons.


Tombs Of The Blind Dead (1971)
Members of the infamous, allegedly satanic, order of the Knights Templar are blinded and burned at the stake, only to come back to life in modern times as visually-impaired vampire zombies.
 

Horror Rises From The Tomb (1972)
A warlock with an extensive rap-sheet has his head cut off and buried separately from his body.  Too evil to stay dead, he returns from the grave in modern times to dispatch the descendents of his treacherous brother, and is reunited with his body before being killed by a binding amulet.
 
 
Curse Of The Devil (1973)
A curse of lycanthropy is put on descendants of the knight responsible for the burning at the stake of a vampire witch.
 
 
The Antichrist (1974)
A woman is possessed by her vengeful ancestor- a witch burnt at the stake.
 
 
The Devonsville Terror  (1983)
Inhabitants of a small community suffer the effects of a delayed witch's curse in response to a brutal purge at the site in colonial times.
 
Buffy The Vampire Slayer (TV) (1998)
A corruption demon enchants the locals, turning adults of Sunnydale into a zealous witch-hunting mob intent on the slayer and her friends to the torch.  After a narrow escape, Buffy manages to impale the beast on the stake that was meant for her.
 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

It's not unusual for a horror movie to take us on an adventure in history; to a time when life was ghoulishly harsh, and one man with a sword and a banner to fight under was far more monstrous than any nightmare manifestation that could be found lurking under a child's bed.  Witness in the past the mass murders perpetrated, not by werewolves or vampires, but bold, religious and political movements, fueled by ignorance and intolerance, and leaving vast swathes of death, devastation and hurt feelings in their wake.  For us, these dark events provide an almost unlimited supply of smashing horror movie scenarios.  When the fascist leviathan of the Nazis nearly succeeded in overrunning the earth, it was a cinch that they would have a monopoly on mad-scientist roles for all time to come.  One example that really lies in the roots of horror itself, though, is the phenomenon of the Burning Times.  From the Spanish Inquisition and first widespread witch crazes in Germany and Scotland in the 13th century, until end of the 15th century, when the witch trials of colonial Salem, Massachusetts marked the general abolition of the practice, the putting to question and consigning of witches to the flames had become a sort of theological spectator sport.  The number of accused witches who were hung, burned, crushed, drowned or tortured to death during this time remains a point of disagreement, with estimates from a mere hundred thousand to the rather more sensational figure of forty million.
Even now, in the 21st century, witches have been burned in lawless regions of Africa and Indonesia, with episodes of religious mass hysteria still surprisingly prevalent for the age of genome mapping.  But for most of us, the burning times represents an ethos that is difficult to ponder.  We like to think that frail old women, far from being able to bring down satanic pestilence and misery upon their communities, are really quite harmless, and that torturing and burning them would accomplish nothing.  There is something compelling about images so alien coming from our shared past.  Our adventure in history brings us to a cinematic nightmare.  What has come to be known as traditional horror often features witches being burned at the stake, shouting curses at the ignorant villagers or religious tribunal that had conspired against them.
Benjamin Christensen's quasi-documentary silent film Häxan (1922) seems to be the first film to delve unflinchingly into this forbidden subject, and it's fair to say that it's the most striking cinematic rendering of the burning times to date.  The startling visuals would inspire notable witch hysteria films like Ken Russel's The Devils, and Michele Soave's The Church (with imagery echoing Häxan's distinctive black mass scene).  Häxan is not surreal in the way of the German expressionism of the time, but alternates between historical representations of the burning times, and a world of fantasy and dementia; a dimension teeming with demons, iniquity and black magic, as envisioned, no doubt, in the fanatical minds of the zealot inquisitors.  A pitiable vagrant woman is accused of witchcraft and driven by torture to confess to the leering tribunal that she bore children to Satan, and attended black masses.  Christensen boldly presents this exhibition of lunacy in all of it's starkly lurid glory, with witches kissing the ass of a lewd Satan figure, spitting upon a cross and sacrificing an infant.  It's clear that Christensen intended some of this diabolical imagery to be comic in it's excess.  The movie visits all the sites, from torture chambers, to orgies, to a convent plagued by demonic influences, leaving no stone unturned, and ultimately leaving no mistake as to Christensen's intended statement.  Beyond it's satirical nature, Häxan endeavors to illustrate how such horrific events as these could come to pass.
1935's The Black Cat does feature a satanic cult, lead by Boris Karloff, but audiences were largely spared from the horrors of the witch hunts; particularly in the years after World War 2, with it's eerie parallels.  It's actually a comedy, I Married A Witch (1942)- later the inspiration for the 1960's sitcom Bewitched- that stands alone in this era of popular cinema as having the subject of the witch hunts for a major plot point. Witches, Jennifer (Veronica lake), and her father are condemned to death by the inquisition only to rematerialize in modern times, to exact vengeance on the male descendent of the head prosecutor, Wallace Wooley (Fredrick March), a community pillar who is running for local office.  Lake accidentally drinks the love potion she intends for Wooley, and falls madly in love with him, much to her warlock father's distress.  The endearingly troublesome witch does manage to lay waste to Wooley's short political career and drive away his frigid fiancé, but she ends up marrying Wooley herself, and is forced to banish her father back to the astral plane for threatening to spoil their poison-induced marital bliss.
Mario Bava's The Mask Of Satan (released in America as Black Sunday), marked the horror maestro's directorial debut, as well as the film that launched Barbara Steele's career.  One of the roles Barbara Steele plays in Black Sunday, a 17th century Ukrainian princess named Asa, is, as the movie begins, about to be condemned to death by the Inquisition, for consorting with a known, local warlock, Igor Javutich.  Asa swears satanic vengeance on her killers before a hideous bronze mask lined with spikes is hammered onto her face.  As the two malefactors are about to be put to the torch, however, there is a fortuitous cloudburst, and the inquisitors elect to bury Javutich in unconsecrated earth, while entombing the princess in the family's castle.  This establishing scene is striking and evocative, and has been mimicked by many horror productions great and small since.  The story leaps forward to the late 19th century, as one of the protagonists manages to stumble upon Aja's crypt, removes her mask and inadvertently revives her by getting cut on glass and bleeding into her sunken eye-sockets.  Igor crawls up out of his grave in dramatic fashion that night, but Steele's witch character is largely immobile for the rest of the movie, able only to issue commands to fellow vampire/witch Igor and grimace freakishly from her slab, her face still scarred by the spikes of the mask.  In the stories conclusion, the rejuvenated Asa is tracked down by the peasantry, tied to a ladder, and burned once and for all, reverting back to her original state as she succumbs to the flames.
It's so hard to justify a witch threatening the distant descendents of her Inquisitors, that it's no surprise that the device isn't seen much in good horror movies.  Asa, at least, intended to steal her descendant's body for her own.  Why a witch would want to come back as a severed head, as in The Thing That Couldn't Die and Horror Rises From The Tomb, challenges the imagination.  In the shlocky Mexican horror The Brainiac, the evil warlock Baron Vitellius returns to earth as a hideous, brain-sucking beast , dropped off by a passing comet after 300 lonely years in space.  Why does the witch never use her awesome power to save herself from being put to death in such a horrible manner as burning at the stake?  How many inquisitor descendants would be found living in the same basic area centuries later?  Would the prospect of harm coming to these strange, far-flung, descendents make the inquisitors regret their actions in any tangible way?.  How do you bring your witch, or other gothic horror, to the present day to threaten protagonists we have some chance of identifying with?  Alas, seldom very convincingly.
1960's City Of The Dead opens in the square of the dismal and fog-enveloped colonial town of Whitewood, Massachusetts, where a torch-bearing mob has brought condemned witch, Elizabeth Selwyn for sentencing and execution.   Selwyn, an older woman, is grimy, haggard and has clearly endured weeks of torture at the hands of her captors.  She is secured to the stake, and the tinder is lit.  A man in the crowd, evidently Elizabeth's consort, quietly beckons Lucifer to come to her aid.  With unnatural speed, storm clouds gather and darken the sky.  Even as the flames rise up to envelop her, Selwyn utters a curse upon the village and it's inhabitants, and vows to live eternally in service of Satan.
This curious tableau is revealed to be a mental evocation of creepy, present-day anthropology professor Christopher Lee, a man who clearly feels strongly about the subject of witches, and visibly bristles at the suggestion that witchcraft isn't real.  One of Mr. Lee's students, a lovely blonde named Nan, is intrigued enough to accept her teacher's invitation to write her term paper on the witches of Whitewood.  She finds Whitewood to be unusually desolate; a veritable ghost town, aside for the strange people who stay at the local Raven's Inn, an abode at the site of the infamous burning of the professor's story.  It turns out that the professor is in truth one of a coven of modern Whitewood witches, lead by the not-so-modern Elizabeth Selwyn herself (who hasn't aged a day in 300 years), and has cleverly lured his student to the remote town for sacrifice in a satanic ritual.  Unfortunately, Nan's little excursion wasn't a secret to her boyfriend and her science-professor older brother, both of whom have a natural suspicion of her oddball teacher.  The boyfriend goes off of the road on the way to Whitewood after the illusory image of Elizabeth Selwyn, burning at the stake, appears in the road in front of his car.  He eventually makes it to the town, just as the coven is about to take another victim at the cemetery there, at the clock strike of thirteen.  Learning that the shadow cast from a crucifix can kill the witches, the mortally injured boyfriend picks up a grave marker and uses it to immolate them in it's shadow before perishing from his wounds.
The fictional town of Whitewood is obviously modeled after Salem, Massachusetts, though no witch cult was known to exist in the Americas.  Nor, in fact, is there substantial evidence that any such religious movement existed in the seventeenth century, or was in any way at the roots of the witch hysteria at large.  Witches were usually, low, ill-reputed women, completely helpless in the face of their politically advantaged accusers.  Their stories of  black masses and intercourse with the devil were merely lurid fabrications made under torture, likely scripted by the inquisitors themselves.
 
Salem, Massachusetts is today celebrated for it's infamous Witch Trials of 1692, the cornerstone of the city's tourism trade.  The last great witch hysteria began when a pair of pre-teen girls, minister's daughter Elizabeth Parris and her older cousin Abigail Williams began to exhibit signs of demonic possession, starting a panic that ultimately sent 20 accused witches to the gallows.  Hundreds of people were accused and over 200 arrested and interrogated before the incident drew to a close.

There is no witch cult or black magic hexes in AIP's The Conqueror Worm (1968); the monster of the story is rather a corrupt magistrate during the chaos and anarchy of the English Civil War, who exercises his authority in the practice of witch-hunting, for fun and profit.  Mathew Hopkins (Vincent price), was indeed a dreaded inquisitor of the period, and the movie does portray him, as far as I can tell, as no more villainous than he must have been in life.  That said, The Conqueror Worm (a.k.a.: Witchfinder General) is basely exploitative, indulging in scenes of torture and violence, where any real dialogue or character development would be drowned out by piercing screams, anyway: A priest under question is repeatedly stabbed with pins by interrogators looking for his "devil mark"; a woman is beaten to a pulp before being burned alive in front of an astonished township; "witches" (actually just people deemed to be Catholic sympathizers) are bludgeoned, whipped, stabbed, drowned, hung, raped and burnt.  In between is mostly men engaging in fisticuffs and gunplay, along with occasional tidbits of historical exposition.  It's outlook is pointedly nihilistic, with children with sticks poking the bones of the burnt witch in the embers, and a climax in which it's made clear that there are no winners, and nothing better to hope for.

   
 To be continued...