Horror on TV: Tales From The Crypt 2.16 “Television Terror” (dir by Charlie Picerni)


Tonight’s excursion into televised horror is the 16th episode of the 2nd season of HBO’s Tales From The Crypt!

Television Terror, which originally aired on July 17th, 1990, tells the story of Horton Rivers (Morton Downey, Jr.)  Horton has his own television show, one where he hunts for ghosts and seeks proof of the supernatural.  Needless to say, Horton’s a big fake, a nonbeliever who loathes his audience.  It’s kind of like Ghost Hunters, except for the fact that — over the course of this episode — Horton actually finds something.  Or perhaps we should say that something find Horton…

Needless to say, things do not end well.

Television Terror has a lot of atmosphere and, with its theme of venal television hosts and gullible audiences, it’s probably even more relevant today than when it was first broadcast.

Enjoy!

The TSL’S Daily Horror Grindhouse: Night of the Seagulls (dir by Amando de Ossorio)


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The Blind Dead returned for a fourth and final time in 1975’s The Night of the Seagulls!

That’s right, Night of the Seagulls was Amando de Ossorio’s final Blind Dead film.  After having the Blind Dead somehow turn up on a boat in The Ghost Galleon, Night of the Seagulls returns to the more familiar ground made famous by Tomb of the Blind Dead and Return of the Evil Dead.

That said, it really wouldn’t be a Blind Dead film if there was too much continuity so, once again, we get an entirely new origin story for the Blind Dead.  Yes, they’re still undead Templars and yes, they still practiced witchcraft in the 1400s and were executed as a result.  But now, the Templars apparently rise from the sea every seven years and, for seven consecutive days, they demand that the local villagers chain a virgin to a rock so that she may be sacrificed.

What I’m wondering if how exactly the villagers figured out that this is what the Blind Dead want.  The Blind Dead never speak.  In fact, they’re so decayed that if one of them tried to speak, it’s probable that his lower jaw would fall off.  So, how do the villagers know that every seven years, they have to offer up seven consecutive virgins?

Who knows?  Maybe the Blind Dead are actually just like, “Why do the villagers keep demanding that we kill all of their virgins?  We just want to hang out and chill.  Oh well, we don’t want to be rude so I guess we better do some killing…”

I mean, seriously, it just seems like this entire problem could have been avoided.

Anyway, there’s a new doctor in town.  Dr. Henry Stein (Victor Petit) and his wife, Joan (Maria Kosti), can’t understand why none of the villagers want to talk to them or why the old doctor is so eager to get out of the village.  I think some of the problem may have to do with the fact that Henry is one of the angriest doctors that I’ve ever seen.  When he first shows up at the village, he demands to know where his house is.  When the villagers ignore him, he barges into a bar, grabs one random guy, and tosses him up against the wall.  WHERE IS THE HOUSE!? he demands.

Seriously, Doctor, calm down.  I wouldn’t go to that guy for checkup.  He might get mad and throw something at me if I told him that I occasionally forget to take my ADHD meds.  That would be scary.

Since the doctor and his wife are new in town, they don’t really get the whole virgin sacrifice thing.  In fact, they attempt to keep one virgin from being sacrificed and this leads to the Blind Dead laying siege on their house.  For the most part, it probably would have been better if they had just minded their own business…

Night of the Seagulls can’t really compare to the first two Blind Dead films.  It takes a little bit too long to get going and everyone in the movie is pretty unlikable so you really don’t care whether the Blind Dead kill them or not.  (At the same time, as opposed to Tomb of the Blind Dead and Return of the Evil Dead, no one is unlikable enough for you to root for the Blind Dead insteaf.)  That said, the Blind Dead are still scary and decaying and, after being stuck on that boat all through the previous film, they’re riding horses again!  And yes, they ride them in slow motion and yes, it looks freaking badass!

Night of the Seagulls is an okay Spanish horror film.  It may not be a perfect send off for the Blind Dead but it’s not terrible either.

The Films of Dario Argento: Inferno


I’ve been using this October’s horrorthon as an excuse to rewatch and review the films of Dario Argento!  Today we take a look at one of Argento’s best and most underrated films, 1980’s Inferno!

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“There are mysterious parts in that book, but the only true mystery is that our very lives are governed by dead people.”

— Kazanian (Sacha Pitoeff) in Inferno

When 20th Century Fox released Dario Argento’s Suspiria in 1977, they weren’t expecting this Italian horror film to be a huge box office success.  That it was caught them totally off guard.  Though the studio executives may not have understood Italian horror, they did know that Suspiria made them a lot of money and they definitely wanted to make more of it.

As for Dario Argento, he followed up Suspiria by producing George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.  He also supervised the film’s European cut.  (In Europe, Dawn of the Dead was known as Zombi, which explains why Lucio Fulci’s fake sequel was called Zombi 2.)  When Dawn of the Dead, like Suspiria before it, proved to be an unexpected box office hit, it probably seemed as if the Argento name was guaranteed money in the bank.

Hence, when Argento started production on a semi-sequel to Suspiria, 20th Century Fox agreed to co-finance.  Though the majority of the film was shot on a sound stage in Rome, Argento was able to come to New York to do some location work, hence making this Argento’s first “American” film.  The name of the movie was Inferno.

Sadly, Inferno proved to be a troubled production.  Shortly after production began, Argento became seriously ill with hepatitis and reportedly, he had to direct some scenes while lying on his back while other sequences were done by the second unit.

As well, Argento had a strained relationship with 20th Century Fox.  Argento wanted James Woods to star in Inferno but, when it turned out that Woods was tied up with David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, the studio insisted that Argento cast an actor named Leigh McCloskey instead.  As a performer, James Woods is nervy, unpredictable, and compulsively watchable.  Leigh McCloskey was none of those things.

Worst of all, as a result of a sudden management change at 20th Century Fox, Inferno was abandoned by its own distributor.  The new studio executives didn’t know what to make of Inferno and, in America, the film only received an extremely limited release.  The few reviews that the film received were largely negative.  (Like most works of horror, Argento’s films are rarely critically appreciated when first released.)  It’s only been over the past decade that Inferno has started to receive the exposure and acclaim that it deserves.

Argento has said that he dislikes Inferno, largely because watching it remind him of a very difficult time in his life.  That’s unfortunate, because Inferno is one of his best films.

The Mother of Tears (Ania Pieroni) in Inferno

The Mother of Tears (Ania Pieroni) in Inferno

“Have you ever heard of the Three Sisters?”

“You mean those black singers?”

— Sara (Eleonora Giorgi) and Carlo (Gabriele Lavia) discuss mythology in Inferno

As I stated previously, Inferno is a semi-sequel to Suspiria.  Whereas Suspiria dealt with an ancient witch known as the Mother of Sighs, Inferno deals with her younger sister, the Mother of Darkness.  The Mother of Sighs lives underneath a German dance academy.  The Mother of Darkness lives underneath a New York apartment building.  The Mother of Sighs was a witch.  The Mother of Darkness is an alchemist.

Beyond that and the fact that Alida Valli is in both films (though apparently playing different characters), there aren’t many references to Suspiria in Inferno.  The tone of Inferno is very different from the tone of Suspiria.  If Suspiria was perhaps Argento’s most straight-forward films, Inferno is one of his most twisted.  It makes sense, of course.  Suspiria is about magic but Inferno is about science.  Suspiria casts a very Earthy spell while Inferno often feels like a scientific equation that cannot quite be solved.

The film deals with Mark Elliott (Leigh McCloskey), an American music student in Rome.  After he gets a disturbing letter from his sister, Rose (Irene Miracle), a poet who lives alone in New York City, Mark heads back to the U.S. to check in on her.  (That’s right — Mark and Rose are two more of Argento’s artistic protagonists.)  However, when Mark arrives, he discovers that his sister is missing and it’s obvious that strange inhabitants of the building are trying to cover something up.

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“May I ask a strange question?”

“How strange?”

— Sara (Eleonora Giorgi) and Mark Elliot (Leigh McCloskey) in Inferno

Even more than with some of Argento’s other films, the plot of Inferno isn’t particularly important.  One reason why it’s easy to get annoyed with Mark is because he spends the entire film demanding to know where his sister is, despite the fact that those of us in the audience already know that she’s dead.  Argento showed us her being murdered shortly before Mark’s arrival.  Argento makes sure that we know but he never bothers to reveal the truth to Mark and one of the more curious aspects of the film is that Mark never discovers that his sister is dead.  (By the end of the film, one assumes that he’s finally figured it out but even then, we don’t know for sure.)  The fact of the matter is that Mark and his search for his sister are never really that important.  Argento doesn’t particularly seem to care about Mark and he never really gives the viewer any reason to care either.  (Of course, it doesn’t help that Mark is rather stiffly played by Leigh McCloskey.)

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Instead, Argento approaches Inferno as a collection of increasingly surreal set pieces.  Much as in Lucio Fuci’s Beyond trilogy, narrative logic is less important than creating a dream-like atmosphere.  Often time, it’s left to the viewer to decide how everything fits together.

There are so many odd scenes that it’s hard to pick a favorite or to know where to even begin.  Daria Nicolodi shows up as Elise Stallone Van Adler, a neurotic, pill-popping aristocrat who briefly helps Mark look for his sister.  Eventually, she’s attacked by thousands of cats before being stabbed to death by one of Argento’s trademark black-gloved killers.  After Elise’s death, her greedy butler makes plans to steal her money.  Did the butler kill Elise?   We’re never quite sure.  Does the butler work for The Mother of Darkness or is he just being influenced by her evil aura?  Again, we’re never sure.  (By that same token, when the butler eventually turns up with eyes literally hanging out of their sockets, we’re never quite sure how he ended up in that condition.  And yet, somehow, it makes a strange sort of sense that he would.)

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Cats also feature into perhaps the film’s most famous scene.  When the crippled and bitter book seller Kazanian (Sacha Pitoeff) attempts to drown a bag of feral cars in a Central Park pond, he is suddenly attacked by a pack of a carnivorous rats.  A hot dog vendor hears Kazanian’s cries for help and rushes over.  At first, the vendor appears to be a good Samaritan but suddenly, he’s holding a knife and stabbing Kazanian to death.  Why did the rats attack in the first place?  Is the hot dog vendor (who only appears in that one scene) a servant of the Mother of Darkness or is he just some random crazy person?  And, in the end, does it matter?  At times, Inferno seems to suggest that the real world is so insane that the Mother of Darkness is almost unnecessary.

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Meanwhile, in Rome, Mark sits in class and reads a letter from his sister.  When he looks up, he immediately sees that a beautiful young woman is looking straight at him.  She’s petting a cat and staring at him with a piercing stare.  (She is played Ania Pieroni, who later achieved a certain cult immortality by appearing as the enigmatic housekeeper in Lucio Fulci’s The House By The Cemetery.)  The film later suggests that the woman is the third mother, the Mother of Tears, but why would she be in the classroom?  Why would she be staring at Mark?

When Mark’s girlfriend, Sara (Eleonora Giorgi), does some research in a library, she finds a copy of a book about The Three Mothers and is promptly attacked by a mysterious figure.  When she flees back to her apartment, she meets Carlo (Gabriele Lavia, who was also in Deep Red) who agrees to stay with her until Mark arrives.  Is Carlo sincere or is he evil?  Argento does eventually answer that question but he certainly keeps you guessing until he does.

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Finally, I have to mention the best  and most haunting scene in the film.  When Rose searches a cellar for a clue that she believes will lead her to the Mother of Darkness, she discovers a hole that leads to a flooded ballroom.  When Rose drops her keys into the hole, she plunges into water and swims through the room.  (The first time I saw this scene, I immediately said, “Don’t do that!  You’re going to ruin your clothes!”)  As Rose discovers, not only keys get lost in that flooded ballroom.  There’s a dead body as well, one which floats into the scene from out of nowhere and then seems to be intent on following Rose through the entire room.  It’s a sequence that is both beautiful and nightmarish.  (It certainly does nothing to help me with my fear of drowning.)

In the end, Inferno is a dream of dark and disturbing things.  Does the plot always make sense?  Not necessarily.  But that plot’s not important.  The film’s surreal imagery and atmosphere of doom and paranoia casts a hypnotic spell over the viewer.  Inferno is perhaps as close to a filmed nightmare as you’ll ever see.

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“She writes poetry.”

“A pastime especially suited for women.”

— Mark and the Nurse (Veronica Lazar) in Inferno 

Finally, no review of Inferno would be complete without discussing some of the people who worked behind-the-scenes.

Along with acting in the film, Daria Nicolodi also worked on the script.  As is so often the case with Daria and Dario’s collaborations, there are conflicting reports of just how involved Nicolodi was with the final script.  Daria has said that she would have demanded co-writing credit, if not for the fact that it had previously been such an ordeal to get credited for Suspiria.  Others have claimed that, while Nicolodi offered up some ideas, the final script was almost all Argento’s creation.

(Comparing the films that Argento made with Nicolodi to the ones that he made without her leads me to side with Nicolodi.)

Working on the film as a production assistant was William Lustig, the famed exploitation film producer and director who would later become the CEO of Blue Underground.  Reportedly, during filming, Lustig attempted to convince Nicolodi to star in a film that he was going to direct.  Nicolodi’s co-star would have been legendary character actor Joe Spinell.  Disgusted by the film’s script, Nicolodi refused the role and, as a result, Caroline Munro ended up playing the stalked fashion photographer in Lustig’s controversial Maniac.

Future director Michele Soavi worked on several of Argento’s films.  I’ve always been under the impression that Soavi was a production assistant on Inferno but, when I rewatched the film, he wasn’t listed in the credits.  Inferno is also not among his credits on the imdb.  I guess the idea that one of my favorite Italian horror directors worked on one of my favorite Italian horror films was just wishful thinking on my part.

However, you know who is listed in the credits?  Lamberto Bava!  Bava, who would later direct the Argento-produced Demons, worked as an assistant director on Inferno.  That leads us to perhaps the most famous member of Inferno’s crew…

Mario Bava!

Inferno was the final film for the father of Italian horror.  As so often happens, there are conflicting reports of just how involved Bava was with the production.  It is know that he worked on the special effects and that he directed some second unit work while Argento was bed ridden with hepatitis.  Irene Miracle has said that almost all of her scenes were directed by Mario Bava and that she rarely saw Argento on set.

Mario Bava is often erroneously described as being Dario Argento’s mentor.  That’s certainly what I tended to assume until I read Tim Lucas’s All The Colors of the Dark, the definitive biography on Mario Bava.  Bava was certainly an influence and it’s certainly true that Argento appears to have had a better relationship with him than he did with Lucio Fulci.  But the idea that a lot of Italian horror fans have — that Mario Bava was hanging out around the set of The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and offering Argento fatherly advice — does not appear to be at all true.  (It’s a nice image, though.)  With all that in mind, it’s still feels somewhat appropriate that Bava’s final work was done on one of the best (if most underappreciated) Italian horror films of all time.

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“I do not know what price I shall have to pay for breaking what we alchemists call Silentium, the life experiences of our colleagues should warn us not to upset laymen by imposing our knowledge upon them.”

— The Three Mothers by E. Varelli, as quoted in Dario Argento’s Inferno

Halloween Havoc!: Joan Crawford in BERSERK (Columbia 1967)


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Last year I looked at Joan Crawford’s final film  TROG  during “Halloween Havoc” month, where she played an anthropologist.  This time around, Joan stars in her first movie for schlockmeister Herman Cohen, BERSERK, in which she’s in a more believable role as a circus owner/ringmaster whose big top is plagued by a series of gruesome murders.

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The film starts off with the grisly death of high wire artist Gaspar the Great, whose tightrope breaks, causing him to die from hanging. Frank Hawkins, better known as The Magnificent Hawkins, arrives soon after and replaces Gaspar with his own death-defying act, walking the tightrope while blindfolded over a row of steel spikes. Circus owner Monica Rivers loves the publicity from Gaspar’s demise, which turns off her lover/business partner Durando. Soon Monica takes up with Frank, and Durando winds up with a spike driven through his head!

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The circus acts think there’s a madman among them…

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Horror Film Review: Drácula (dir by George Melford)


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One of the wonderful oddities of film history is that, in 1931, Universal produced not one but two versions of Dracula.  There’s the version that we all know, the one with Bela Lugosi.  And then there was the Spanish language version.

It was a common practice during the early days of the sound era for the studios to concurrently shoot Spanish-language versions of their films.  In the case of Dracula, the cast and the crew for the Spanish version would shoot at night, after Lugosi, Edward van Sloan, Dwight Frye, and everyone else had gone home.  The crew and the actor cast as Dracula, Carlos Villarias, were allowed to watch the dailies, with Villarias being specifically told to model his performance as much on Lugosi’s as possible.

Most of the early Hollywood’s Spanish films have been lost but Drácula has survived.  In fact, among some horror critics, it’s become a bit trendy to declare that the Spanish language version is superior to the English version.  While I was preparing for our annual October horrorthon, I decided to watch Drácula and see for myself.

In some ways, Drácula is indeed superior.  The film uses the same script as the English version and was filmed on the same sets.  But visually, it’s a far more interesting film.  Because director George Melford (who was quite an acclaimed silent film director) had a chance to watch Dracula‘s dailies, he also had the benefit of hindsight when it came to making decisions regarding lighting and camera angles.  If the English language Dracula suffers because its stationary camera work makes it feel like a filmed stage play, the Spanish-language Drácula feels like a real movie.

As well, there’s a passion to the Spanish language Drácula, a passion that often seems to be missing from the English language version.  The English language version often seems to be going out of its way not to offend — the screen fades to black whenever Dracula starts to bite anyone, Jonathan Harker and Mina Seward are both portrayed rather dully, and, with the exception of Lugosi, Dwight Frye, and Edward van Sloan, everyone seems to be a bit too restrained in their performances.

Perhaps because it was specifically being filmed for foreign distribution, the Spanish language Drácula is far less restrained.  We see what Dracula actually does to his victims.  We see Eva and Lucia’s ecstatic reactions to being bitten by the vampire.  As oppose to Dracula, where everyone was very proper and very covered, Drácula embraces cleavage and moaning in the same way that, 20 years later, would make Hammer Studios famous.  The actors in Drácula are far more passionate, emotional, and sensual than their English-language counterparts.  They’re far more … well, Spanish.  Spanish is an exciting language and it’s pretty much impossible for someone speaking it to be boring.

But, unfortunately, Drácula fails where it matters most.  In the role of the count, Carlos Villarias never exhibits the charisma that we associate with the best Draculas.  I get the feeling that he was mostly cast because he bore a passing resemblance to Bela Lugosi.  Since he was instructed to imitate Lugosi, that’s what his performance comes across as being.  While Villarias does a better Lugosi imitation than that guy that Ed Wood used in Plan Nine From Outer Space, it’s still just an imitation.

And unfortunately, you really can’t have a good Dracula film unless you have a good Dracula.  In a perfect world, we would have a combination of the two versions, with Bela Lugosi starring in the Spanish version.  However, we live in an imperfect world but at least it’s a world where we can watch both Dracula and Drácula.

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Horror Film Review: Dracula (dir by Tod Browning)


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It pains me to say it but, of all the classic Universal monster films, Dracula is probably my least favorite.

I hate to say that because I love vampires and I love the story of Dracula.  I have read the book several times, I’ve seen several productions of the stage play, and I’ve seen a countless number of  Dracula films.  (Christopher Lee’s version is my favorite.)  The 1931 version of Dracula — while hardly being the first vampire movie — was still a very important moment in the history of horror cinema.  Every vampire film that has come out since owes a debt of gratitude to Dracula.  Bela Lugosi’s performance set the standard against which almost all vampires are judged.

I always want to love Dracula but … no, the film just doesn’t work for me.

Of course, we all know the film’s story.  Dracula (Bela Lugosi) comes to England from Transylvania.  He turns Lucy (Frances Dade) into a vampire and attempts to do the same thing to Mina Seward (Helen Chandler).  Mina’s fiancée, John Harker (David Manners) and father, Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston), attempt to stop him with the help of Prof. Van Helsing (Edward van Sloan).  Renfield (Dwight Frye) serves as Dracula’s servant and eats bugs.  Dracula tells us that he does not drink … wine.  He talks about the music of the night.  His eyes get wide at the sight of blood and he hides his face when confronted with a cross.

Of course, though Dracula may have first appeared in Bram Stoker’s novel, the film is actually an adaptation of a stage play that was based on the novel.  That’s the main problem with Dracula as a movie.  It’s a very stagey film, one that never seems to quite break free of its theatrical origins.  It’s a rather slow-moving film, one that is full of awkward scene transitions and moments of dead air.  One need only compare it to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu or Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr to see just how visually bland Dracula really is.

Dracula‘s blandness is especially surprising when you consider that the direction is credited to Tod Browning.  Browning directed some of the best horror films of the silent era and, after the release of Dracula, he went on to direct the brilliant Freaks.  Dracula doesn’t feel like a Browning film but perhaps that’s because it actually wasn’t.  Reportedly, Tod Browning was struggling with depression during the filming of Dracula and was rarely on set.  Instead, most of the film’s direction was handled by cinematographer Karl Freund.  Freund had never directed a film before (though he would later acquit himself quite well with The Mummy) and Dracula‘s flaws were largely a result of that inexperience.

Well, that may be true or it may not.  Here’s what we can say for sure: Bela Lugosi’s work as Dracula holds up surprisingly well.  When seen today, it can be difficult to fairly judge Lugosi’s performance.  We’ve seen so many parodies and bad imitations that it’s difficult to imagine the impact that it may have had on audiences in 1931.  Lugosi was recreating his stage performance and it’s a very theatrical performance but, at the same time, Dracula is a character that doesn’t demand or require subtlety.  There’s a power to Lugosi’s performance.  Maybe it’s the piercing stare or the unbridled blood lust that seems to be reflected in his eyes.  Maybe it’s the accent.  Maybe it’s the haughty and arrogant way that he carries himself.  Whatever it is, it works.

No, Dracula does not hold up as well as you might hope.  But Bela Lugosi’s performance remains a classic.

4 Shots From Horror History: La Llorona, The Invisible Man, Maniac, The Bride of Frankenstein


This October, I’m going to be doing something a little bit different with my contribution to 4 Shots From 4 Films.  I’m going to be taking a little chronological tour of the history of horror cinema, moving from decade to decade.

Today, we continue with the 1930s.

4 Shots From 4 Films

La Llorona (1933, dir by Ramon Peon)

La Llorona (1933, dir by Ramon Peon)

The Invisible Man (1934, dir by James Whale)

The Invisible Man (1933, dir by James Whale)

Maniac (1934, dir by Dwain Esper)

Maniac (1934, dir by Dwain Esper)

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, dir by James Whale)

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, dir by James Whale)