Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 11, Number 1: January 2011

Offtopic Perspective

Legends of Horror Part 2

Disc 7

The She-Beast (orig. La sorella di Satana), 1966, b&w. Michael Reeves (dir.), Barbara Steele, Kohn Karlsen, Ian Ogilvy, Mel Welles. 1:19.

We start with a drunken guy lurching down a tunnel, picking up an odd semi-book and reading about the death of a witch in 1766—not an innocent this time, but an evil woman who killed children. The townsfolk, led by the priest, grab her, tie her to a dunking chair, pound a stake through her and then repeatedly dunk her in a lake as she curses the entire town—although you’d think the stake would have done the job. The townsfolk seem to be doing some early version of The Wave or some odd form of aerobic dance while this is happening. Meanwhile, a little person and a regal sort watch this from a nearby hillside.

Back to the present, where a handsome young couple of Brits find themselves lost in Transylvania (where the flashback was also set), getting out of their Beetle to check maps. A loutish cop happens by on a bicycle and points them to the nearby town with “lots of hotels,” only one of which is open. They go to this dump of a hotel, where they find a loutish hotel owner and the drunk (now sober and regal in bearing) swinging on an adult-size swing set. Since it’s 40 miles to the next town and getting dark, they decide to stay the night—on what turns out to be their honeymoon. The hotel owner is also a voyeur (and, we later find, would-be rapist), and things start getting strange…and the next morning as they drive off, the car won’t steer properly and they end up in the lake. She’s drowned (presumably), he’s not—and the trucker who saw the accident takes both of them back to the hotel, saying not to call the police because they’ll just cause trouble.

That’s just the beginning. The witch has taken on the spirit of the wife; the regal guy—who turns out to be Count Von Helsing, the Von Helsings having stayed around since offing the vampires to deal with other demonic issues—brings her (now in witch form) back to life as part of some convoluted exorcism scheme (she wasn’t properly exorcised the first time around), and she escapes and starts killing descendants of the original villagers. Von Helsing drives a bright yellow Model T (or some other crank-started car), for what that’s worth.

So far, a straightforward horror film…but then it descends into a combination of farce, presumed commentary on the incompetence of Communist officials (this was set in Romania), car chases (with scooters involved), Keystone Kop antics and more. Eventually, things work out, but it’s a truly odd third-rate flick that seems to have started out as horror, run out of plot ideas (or money?) and turned into a strange mélange. In case you’re a Barbara Steele fan: She’s barely even in this movie, there for perhaps ten minutes total. The print’s not very good, the acting’s no better and I honestly can’t give this mess more than $0.75.

Manfish, 1956, b&w (this print). W. Lee Wilder (dir.), John Bromfield, Lon Chaney, Jr., Victor Jory, Barbara Nichols, Tessa Prendergast. 1:28.

Airplane (propeller-driven) lands at Montego Bay airport. Guy gets off, goes to constabulary, says he’s come from Scotland Yard to pick up a prisoner. The local cop says he can’t have the prisoner and tells a story…which is the picture (although people getting on the airplane show over closing credits).

The story: Four guys on a turtle boat (people who grab and sell giant turtles, presumably still legal in 1956), with it becoming clear that the captain is sort of a jackass—he’s a gambler, doesn’t pay his crew, is about to lose the boat over debt. The name of the boat? Manfish, thus the name of the movie. The two divers discover a skeleton in the water, panic, return to boat. The captain finds the skeleton, takes a bottle and message out of the bony hand. The message is half of a treasure map written in French.

All else evolves from that, and includes an aged Brit living on an out island with his local woman, who turns out to have the other half of the map. The two (plus the boat’s skipper, regularly derided as stupid and ignorant by the captain but clearly the best man of the lot) go hunting for the treasure—and find it, the old guy only staying alive because he’s memorized the map and burned both halves, and says there’s more (and much bigger) treasure elsewhere.

A big portion of the film has to do with a murder, the long time required to hide the body and a leaking scuba tank that gives us a Tell Tale Heart scenario (yes, the movie credits say it was based on that and another Poe story, The Gold Bug). Murder eventually does out, and the only character I found at all sympathetic—the skipper—ends up doing the best of anybody.

This is a slow-moving, almost languid film, with lots of scuba diving in coral reefs, climbing over scenic rivers and waterfalls and other scenery. (Never mind the director’s bizarre method of cutting—rapid sweeps from one scene to another.) I thought: “This would be a much better film in color”—still seriously flawed, but at least a decent flick. Then we get to the very last credit: Color by Deluxe. Not in this print it ain’t, and the print’s badly damaged at points as well. Too bad. Color scenery (in a really good print) would have helped a lot. As it is, the best thing this has going for it may be Lon Chaney—appearing with that name, although it’s apparently Lon Chaney, Jr. Charitably, $1.

The Devil Bat, 1940, b&w. Jean Yarbrough (dir.), Bela Lugosi, Suzanne Kaaren, Dave O’Brien, Guy Usher, Yolande Donlan, Donald Kerr. 1:08.

Bela Lugosi as a mad scientist—mad in both the “really upset about something” sense and the slightly deranged sense: Check. Absurd method of taking revenge on one’s enemies—in this case, by getting them to test a new and fairly pungent after-shave lotion (or perfume), then releasing a humongous bat (made larger by electrical stimulation in a classic mad scientist’s lair) that hates the scent and kills the victims: Check. Generally implausible plot and second-rate acting: Check.

And yet, this one’s not so awful. OK, it’s thoroughly implausible—Lugosi is portrayed as the Beloved Family Doctor who’s also the Brilliant Chemist whose concoctions form the basis for the town’s primary employer, a cosmetics company whose founders paid him $10,000 for the formulas because he didn’t want to be part of the company. (But he frequently speaks as though he’s part of the company, and is still concocting formulas for them.) He feels cheated, so he’s out to slay the two founding families. Enter an out-of-town reporter and his photographer sidekick (nicknamed “One-Shot” and I think he only manages one good shot in the entire movie). Oh, did I mention a beautiful young woman who’s part of a founding family, and who has a nice-looking maid? Do I need to go further? (The less said about the quality of the special-effects bat, the better.)

Somehow, it works better than most of Lugosi’s mad-scientist, low-budget horrors. I’ll give it $1.25.

The Devil’s Messenger, 1961, b&w. Herbert L. Strock (dir.), Lon Chaney Jr., Karen Kadler, Michael Hinn, Ralph Brown, John Crawford. 1:12.

A curious trilogy of temptation, framed by the gateway to Hell, with Lon Chaney Jr. as the friendly old gatekeeper (or Satan, maybe) who greets people, looks them up in his big Rolodex, comments on what got them there and sends them through the open door to the fiery pits. Lots of people waiting in line coming down rocky stairs…

There’s a young woman, Satanya, who took her own life. The gatekeeper offers her a deal: Make a delivery Back Above (which turns out to be three deliveries) and The Tribunal will consider her case—after all, suicide doesn’t hurt a bunch of other people. So she does, and each delivery leads to murder and death. First, there’s a photographer who, when he meets a beautiful woman at a snowy farmhouse where his agent has ordered him to vacation, somehow finds it necessary to kill her…and deals with the ghostly outcomes badly. Second, there’s a frozen woman found in a glacier by Swedish miners and one scientist’s obsession with her. Finally, Satanya goes back to deal with the former lover whose rejection caused her suicide, in a tale that involves crystal balls (always the tool of the devil, don’cha know). Apparently, this is a feature version made from three episodes of a Swedish TV series; it’s assembled into a not-too-bad combination (although Chaney doesn’t do much of anything). The tacked-on ending is, well, a waste of footage.

Unfortunately, the sound’s frequently distorted and the print badly digitized. That makes what might otherwise be a nice little trio of horror tales difficult to watch and reduces its score to $0.75.

Disc 8

Shock, 1946, b&w. Alfred L. Werker (dir.), Vincent Price, Lynn Bari, Anabel Shaw, Frank Latimore, Stephyen Dunne. 1:10.

Young lady arrives at a San Francisco hotel excited because her husband, assumed dead for two years but really a POW, will be meeting her—but they’ve lost her reservation. The manager finds her a room (a suite) for one night only. As she’s waiting for her hubby, she goes out on the balcony and sees, inside a nearby room with the drapes open, an argument that ends with a husband clubbing his wife to death with a candlestick.

Does she call the desk? Notify the police? Nope—she goes into shock. When her husband arrives much later (the plane was delayed), he finds her sitting on the sofa, wide-eyed but unresponsive. A doctor checks her over and says it’s mental—but what luck! There’s a great psychiatrist in the hotel. Who just happens to be the wife-killer. And who takes her to his asylum…where his nurse (and lover) would just as soon make sure she doesn’t get well.

That’s the plot. It also involves an odd crisis of conscience, in which one person murders another because of unwillingness to kill a third. Vincent Price is Vincent Price. The sound is occasionally distorted, but the print’s pretty good. All in all, a middling $1.00.

The Island Monster (orig. Il mostro dell'isola), 1954, b&w. Roberto Montero (dir.), Boris Karloff, Franca Marzi, Patrizia Remiddi, Carlo Duse. 1:27 [1:25].

The sleeve gets the plot wrong—and maybe that’s because the plot is incoherent, as is this mystery in general. (It’s not a horror film, but Boris Karloff is a Legend of Horror…) It involves Italian drug smuggling on Ischia, a seeming benefactor who’s really the villain (guess who?), a police undercover agent whose wife is so jealous she insists on, essentially, blowing his cover and making his daughter a suitable kidnapping target, and ever so much more.

I won’t attempt to summarize the plot or how it progresses. It’s badly dubbed (I could almost see the English-speaking dubbers sitting around a table, cigarettes and drinks in hand, reading from the script as the footage flashed on a screen), badly acted, just plain bad. At least the dubbers found a mediocre Karloff voice impersonator. I see IMDB reviews average out to 2.2 points on a 10-point scale—and that may be generous. (Turns out it is: One crazed Karloff fan gave it 10 points, balancing out all the 0, 1 and 2 point scores). For anyone who likes either good movies or so-bad-they’re-good movies, this is one to avoid completely, but for Karloff completists only, I’ll give it $0.75.

The Lady Vanishes. Previously reviewed. $2.50

Rich and Strange. Previously reviewed. $0.75

Disc 9

All previously-reviewed Hitchcock films: Easy Virtue ($1.00), Secret Agent ($2), The Skin Game ($1.25), The 39 Steps ($2).

Disc 10

This disc points up why I probably shouldn’t be doing these reviews. I loathe gore flicks and what now seem to be standard slasher horrorshows with their oodles of “blood” and crazed killers. I almost stopped watching the first flick 20 minutes in—and that might have been the right decision. If you’re a fan of stupid bloody horror, ignore these reviews. If you’re a true connoisseur of “holiday axe murderers” and the like…I really don’t want to know about it.

Silent Night, Bloody Night, 1974, color. Theodore Gershuny (dir.), Patrick O’Neal, James Patterson, Mary Woronov, Astrid Heeren, John Carradine, Walter Abel. 1:28 [1:21]

The idiocy starts at the beginning, as a man whose coat is on fire runs from a house into a snow-covered field—and doesn’t drop-and-roll, even by accident. Nope. No matter how often he falls down, he always falls forward (so the coat can keep burning) and he gets back up and keeps running as he’s burning to death.

That’s a flashback. Today, we have a long-abandoned house about to be sold. A devil-may-care adulterous lawyer has come up with his hot French girlfriend to sell it for quick cash, by order of an owner he’s never met—and, of course, they stay the night in the abandoned house, not in the motel the town council suggests. People always respond to mystery messages by going, one at a time, usually unarmed, to meet their fates. =If you want to stretch things far enough, you could conclude that Only The Good Survived…

Awful, awful, awful. Badly filmed, poorly acted (John Carradine doesn’t help matters and Patrick O’Neal is a joke), crappy direction, poor production and a worthless screenplay. Maybe the one good thing it has is the opening music—a minor-key arrangement of Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht that’s surprisingly unsettling. I’m being exceedingly generous to give this piece of trash $0.25.

Horror Express (aka Panic in the Trans-Siberian Train), 1972, color. Eugenio Martin (dir.), Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza, Julio Pena, Angel del Pozo, Telly Savalas. 1:28.

This is a cross between science fiction and horror, beginning with an expedition in China but with all the action taking place on the Trans-Siberian Express. A British anthropologist has discovered a “fossil”—some sort of caveman or missing link encased in a block of ice. Another scientist is returning with his assistant. The train also includes a count, countess, their crazed Russian priest, a beautiful spy and a police chief—and an engineer who studied under Tsiolkovsky, the early Russian rocket theorist.

All of which comes into play as we get one corpse and another, in both cases with wholly white eyes. After one scientist (who’s also a medical doctor) notes that the eyes on a steamed fish at dinner are wholly white, he does an autopsy on the second victim—and finds that the brain is entirely smooth, which (he intuits) means that their memories have all been sucked out. Okay…well, things continue, and we learn much more along with quite a few deaths along the way, all with the same briefly horrible eye-bleeding/eye-whitening scene, always in the dark or near dark. I won’t give more of the plot away, such as it is, except to note that it ends with a deliberate train crash but also most potential victims saved. We get mind/being transfer and even blind zombies of a sort.

Telly Savalas as a scenery-chewing Cossack. A strong cast (Lee and Cushing are the two scientists), interesting script and decent acting. It’s entirely on a train ride (after the first few minutes)—always a good way to enhance mystery and suspense. The print is a little wonky at times and never all that good. All in all, $1.50.

The Nightmare Never Ends (orig. Cataclysm), 1979, color. Phillip Marshak (and others, dir.), Cameron Mitchell, Marc Lawrence, Faith Clift, Richard Moll, Maurice Grandmaison. 1:34 [1:28]

Life really is too short. I gave this half an hour, which is probably 15 minutes too long. Given the miserable quality of the print (soft, with bad colors—it’s not clear whether the bad colors are deliberate), lousy production (from what I could see) and incoherent plot, direction, script and acting, I couldn’t see watching the whole thing.

What I could get of the plot up to that point: There’s a famous (Nobel laureate!) professor who’s an atheist and has just published his most important work, God is Dead. His beautiful wife is a doctor and a devout Catholic, who firmly believes in God and Satan. There’s a Las Vegas fake clairvoyance act, where the admittedly phony clairvoyant dies (or is murdered) immediately after getting the wife to visualize her nightmare around a Nazi dinner party. There’s an old Jewish Nazi hunter who’s almost entirely incoherent but who believes a young man is actually one of his targets from 35 years previous—and who gets his face ripped off as he’s being killed.

I’m sure there’s more, but I found it unwatchable because of the print and the movie itself. Cameron Mitchell’s cop isn’t terribly well played but stands out among the rest of this. Looking at IMDB, it appears that it isn’t just a bad print or digitization; it’s a lousy film with bad production values and terrible acting and plot. It gets a rare $0.

Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride (orig. The Satanic Rites of Dracula), 1973, color, widescreen. Alan Gibson (dir.), Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Coles, William Franklyn, Freddie Jones, Joanna Lumley, Richard Vernon, Barbara Yu Ling. 1:27.

The final Hammer film with Christopher Lee as Count Dracula and Peter Cushing as Dr. Von Helsing, presented in wide screen (not anamorphic, but a zoom mode should work) and in a decent print (with damage in a few spots). Contemporary setting, with Dracula as an industrialist poised to unleash a much more deadly version of The Plague. Some nudity (mostly as part of a Satanic ritual), some violence, lots of female vampires, evil in high places.

Pretty good as these things go—after all, with Lee and Cushing in a Hammer film, how far wrong can you go? Some of the plot is a little bizarre (why would Dracula want to destroy the entire world?) and the addition of hawthorne trees (not just stakes) as deadly to vampires seems odd, but, well… As to the title: It involves Von Helsing’s beautiful granddaughter (Joanna Lumley) and is a little misleading, but there you go—the original title makes more sense. $1.50.

Disc 11

It’s Never Too Late (or It’s Never Too Late to Mend), 1937, b&w. David MacDonald (dir.), Tod Slaughter, Jack Livesey, Marjorie Taylor, Ian Colin, Laurence Hanray, D.J. Williams, Roy Russell. 1:10 [1:07].

This film is a horror, all right—another example of Tod “Snidely Whiplash” Slaughter’s astonishing range of acting, from V to Villainous to…V for Villainous. The excuse for this one is that it’s supposedly based on a book that exposed the horrors of 19th-century British prisons and caused Queen Victoria to clean them up. Maybe, but prison scenes (as brutal as they are, with the “visiting justices” apparently competing to see how vicious they can be towards prisoners) aren’t all of the film.

The plot? A young woman loves a young man who’s having trouble making a farm pay off. The Squire, a typical villain-tending-toward-insanity Slaughter role, wants the young woman for his own. He fails in framing the young man for poaching (which leads to most of the prison scenes, since an innocent friend of the young man “confesses” to prevent the frame), but the young man must go off to Australia to win his fortune, without which the young woman’s father will forbid the union.

The Squire, also the local Justice of the Peace, suborns the postman to assure that no letters between the two ever reach their destination, cultivates the father, and variously twirls his mustache and otherwise sneers. Oh, in the end, he fails, of course…another hallmark of a Slaughter flick.

The only reason I’d give this any rating at all is for Slaughter fans (which apparently include every IMDB reviewer of this piece of…well, never mind.) In that case, I guess it’s no worse than most. As a revelation of bad conditions in prisons, it’s apparently several decades too late and mostly consists of sneering. As a Slaughter film, after which I had to go wash my hands and brain…well, kindly, $0.75.

The Bowery at Midnight, 1942, b&w. Wallace Fox (dir.), Bela Lugosi, John Archer, Wanda McKay, Tom Neal, Vince Barnett, Anna Hope. 1:01.

It’s an hour long. It stars Bela Lugosi in a role with two names. It’s…an incoherent mess, and maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. The only plausible explanation I can see for the way this movie doesn’t work is that it’s a summary version of a bad serial—but that seems not to be the case. It’s surely a bad movie. This time Lugosi’s not a mad scientist; he’s a professor of psychology who, in the evenings, runs a soup kitchen up top and an incredibly evil gang down below—a gang that pointedly leaves one of its members as corpse at each robbery.

Or does it? The has-been doctor who’s a support person (I guess) for this gang (which, at the point of the film, has maybe two members at a time) seems to be doing things with their bodies. Near the end, a bunch of fatalities seem to be taking care of the evil mastermind. I’d say “oh good, zombies,” but the very end has one apparent fatality reunited with his girlfriend.

Awful, awful, awful. Also, portions of the print are so faded as to be nearly unwatchable and some dialog is missing just enough syllables for unintelligibility—which, fortunately, doesn’t harm this picture all that much. (Reading some of the IMDB raves for this trash…I guess true fans are true fans.) For Bela Lugosi completists, maybe, charitably, $0.50.

Number Seventeen. Previously reviewed, $1.75.

The Face at the Window, 1939, b&w. George King (dir.), Tod Slaughter…and what else do you need to know? 1:10 [1:04]

Mercy, I beg of you, mercy: Not another Slaughter melodrama! I tried. Honest, I did. And when the nobleman played by Slaughter attempted to woo the young woman half his age and began laughing His Laugh when informed she was in love with someone else…I snapped. No more, no more: Even 40 minutes more of Tod Slaughtering another role was too much.

The plot, from the sleeve: “The Wolf” is murdering people in Paris with no clues—and is, well, who else? I can predict the rest: The nobleman does his best to ruin the young man, does various evil deeds, and is eventually caught out, with good triumphing. Some of the same cast as The Ticket of Leave Man. Since I gave up part way through, I’ll just say that I hope never to encounter endure another Slaughter melodrama. $0.

The Shadow of Silk Lennox, 1935, b&w. Ray Kirkwood & Jack Nelson (dir.), Lon Chaney Jr., Dean Benton, Marie Burton, Jack Mulhall, Eddie Gribbon, Theodore Lorch. 1:00.

Another one that involves a “Legend of Horror”—if Lon Chaney, Jr., deserves that moniker. This one’s a gangster mystery/musical of sorts, featuring Chaney as a nightclub owner whom everybody assumes, correctly, is a gangster. The sleeve description seems entirely offbase: Everybody knows he’s a gangleader, and he doesn’t start killing off associates until one of them doublecrosses him.

The key, such as it is, is that he’s got locals in his pocket, making sure he’s bailed out and intimidating witnesses so nobody faults him (one sequence shows just how easy that is when anybody’s allowed into a lineup). But then the G-men arrive and things go wrong. There’s one plot line that appears to be a red herring and an undercover agent who’s accepted far too readily as being a safecracker who can also escape from jail. And there are musical numbers—quite a few of them for a one-hour flick. Unfortunately, the sound track’s extremely noisy through much of the film (the print’s also damaged at times).

Chaney Jr.’s not that impressive, and neither is the movie. I suppose it’s worth $0.75.

Disc 12

All previously-reviewed Hitchcock films: Champagne, $1.00; Juno and the Paycock, $0.75; The Manxman, $1; Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Chaney Vase, $0.55; Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, $0.

Summing Up

What a relief: That’s all there is. I knew going in that I wasn’t much of a horror fan, but I think only the most dedicated old-“horror”-movie fans would care much for this assortment—or maybe early Hitchcock fans who don’t know about the 20-movie set with its added near-hour of trailers for other Hitchcock films.

Perhaps being generous, I gave two flicks in this half of the set $1.50: Horror Express and Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride. That’s two more than in the first half—but I couldn’t find a single flick worth $1.75 or $2. Adding up non-Hitchcock values, I get $6.25 for movies I thought were at least mediocre and $10.75 if you include the losers. That makes $14 even for the whole box or if you’re a glutton for punishment, $24.

If you’re a completist for Tod Slaughter or Lon Chaney Jr. or Bela Lugosi or Barbara Steele, this set might be worth the $22.50 Amazon currently sells it for. Otherwise, I’d say skip it.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 11, Number 1, Whole # 136, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford.

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