The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Circus of Horrors (dir by Sidney Hayers)

About 15 minutes into this film from 1960, Donald Pleasence gets mauled to death by a dancing beer.

Pleasence plays a character named Vanet.  Vanet is an alcoholic who, circa 1947, owns a circus.  He also has a daughter named Nicole (Yvonne Monlaur), whose face is scarred as a result of wounds that she received during Germany’s bombing of London.  When a plastic surgeon named Dr. Bernard Schuler (Anton Diffring) operates on Nicole and manages to “take away” her scars, Vanet is so thankful that he signs over ownership of the circus to Schuler.  Vanet then promptly tries to dance with a bear and gets killed.  Poor Vanet.

It turns out that Schuler is a brilliant plastic surgeon but he’s also kind of insane.  He and his associates (played by Kenneth Griffith and Jane Hylton) are on the run from the police.  However, even with the cops after him, Schuler has to experiment.  His plan is to use the circus as a front.  He’ll recruit scarred criminals, operate on them, and then require them to perform in his circus.  That plan doesn’t really make much sense but I guess a fugitive plastic surgeon has to do what he has to do.  Still, it’s hard not to be amused by Schuler describing his plans for the circus as if he’s just come up with the most brilliant plan ever as opposed to just a bunch of gobbledygook.  At no point do any of his assistants point out that his plan makes no sense so I guess he must pay well.

Anyway. the film jumps forward twelve years and what do you know!  The plan worked!  The circus is a hit!  People from all over Europe come to Schuler’s circus.  The circus is famous for featuring the most beautiful women in the world.  The circus is also famous for several mysterious and fatal accidents.  INTERPOL thinks that it’s possible that Schuler is intentionally killing his performers for the free publicity.  When Schuler makes plans to take his circus back to the UK, Scotland Yard is given a call and a heads up about what Schuler’s been doing.  A nosy reporter investigates while the murders continue unabated….

Circus of Horrors is odd.  It’s as if someone reached into a bag and pulled out random cards that read, “Circus,” “plastic surgery,” and “Word War II subtext” and then did what they had to do to construct a plot out of those three elements.  Of those three elements, the World War II subtext is probably the most interesting.  The majority of Schuler’s patients were scarred as a result of the war (which Europe was still recovering from in 1960) and Schuler is played by German actor Anton Diffring.  It’s easy to see Schuler, with his German name and his love for medical experimentation, as a stand-in for Nazi fugitives like Josef Mengele and Klaus Barbie. Schuler and his circus move across Europe and, in the end, it’s going to take Europeans working together to stop him.  The shadow of World War II hangs over every scene.

Beyond that, Circus of Horrors is a flamboyant mix of horror and soap opera.  The colors are bright, the blood flows freely, and the melodrama is definitely embraced.  It’s like a Hammer film, just without a Hammer cast.  Unfortunately, Anton Diffring is a bit bland in the role of Schuler.  One could imagine an actor like Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing working wonders with the role but Diffring often seems to be bored with the whole thing.  As well, the film sometimes get bogged down with footage of the circus performers doing their thing.  For instance, do we need to see the clowns and the acrobats when what we really want to see is the murderous knife thrower?  Circus of Horrors has its moments but, while watching it, it’s hard not to think about how much more fun it would have been if it had been a Hammer film.

International Horror Film Review: Paganini Horror (dir by Luigi Cozzi)

Yes, this 1989 Italian horror film does deal with the legend that violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini sold his soul the devil in return for his talent.

And yes, it does feature Paganini coming back to life and murdering people.

Listen, there’s a lot of critical things that you can say about this film but you have to love the idea of a slasher film that feature an actual historical figure coming to life and doing the slashing.  I mean, this is no ordinary, masked murderer!  No, this is a murderer whose compositions are still played in concert to this day!

Paganini Horror was written by Daria Nicolodi (who also co-starred) and directed by Luigi Cozzi, two Italian horror figures who — fairly or not — will always be associated with Dario Argento.  Nicolodi co-starred in several of Argento’s films and was his longtime girlfriend.  She’s the mother of Asia Argento.  She also provided Dario Argento with the story that would eventually become Suspiria.  Argento and Nicolodi had a notably bad breakup and, though they continue to occasionally work together, it’s rare that you ever read an interview with Nicolodi where she doesn’t have something negative to say about Argento and his later films.  Luigi Cozzi, meanwhile, is often considered to be a protégé of Argento’s.  Argento produced several of Cozzi’s films and Cozzi has directed multiple documentaries about Argento.  For several years, Cozzi was also the co-owner and manager of Argento’s movie memorabilia store, Profondo Rosso.

Considering Nicolodi and Cozzi’s well-documented relationships with him, it’s interesting that Paganini Horror features a character who appears to be, at the very least, slightly based on Dario Argento.  Mark Singer (Pietro Genuardi) is an arrogant director of bloody horror films who is hired to shoot a music video for a band.  The band, which is in desperate need of a hit, is recording a song that is based on a never before recorded (or heard) composition by Paganini himself.  The band’s drummer, Daniel (Pascal Persiano), purchased the composition from a mysterious man named Mr. Pickett (Donald Pleasence).  We later see Mr. Pickett standing on the roof of a church, grinning maniacally as he throws away Daniel’s money.  Hmmm….I wonder what that’s all about.

Though Pleasence isn’t in much of the film, his performance is definitely one of the highlights of Paganini Horror.  That he’s playing an evil character is obvious from the minute he shows but Pleasence seems to be having so much fun with the role that you can’t help but like him.  There’s something especially charming about the way he smiles while throwing away that money.

The other highpoint of the movie is Paganini himself.  As played by Roberto Giannini, Paganani wanders about wearing a mask and a black coat.  He carries a violin that has a very sharp blade sticking out of the bottom of it.  Yes, it’s totally ludicrous but that’s kind of the point of it.  Paganini was known for two things: 1) being a great musician and 2) the rumors that he sold his soul to the devil.  Paganini Horror may emphasize the rumors about the devil but it doesn’t let us forget that Paganini was a damn good violinist….

Anyway, Paganini Horror is a frequently incoherent film, where characters don’t act logically and the rules of Paganini’s curse seems to change from scene to scene.  Once you get passed the novelty of Paganini being the murderer, this really is a standard slasher film, albeit one that’s a bit more graphic than its American and British counterparts.  That said, I don’t think that it’s quite the disaster that Luigi Cozzi has described it as being.  (Cozzi has consistently cited it as one of his least favorite of the films that he’s directed.)  Donald Pleasence appears to have had a blast playing his role and there are a few memorable shots of Venice.  (Of course, it’s pretty much impossible to find an unmemorable shot of Venice.)  The scenes of the band pretending to perform are also enjoyably silly.  Paganini Horror may not be great but it’s certainly not boring.  If you appreciate Italian horror, you get it.

I watched Paganini Horror on Tubi.  It was an enjoyable 90 minutes.  I have no regrets.


Horror On TV: Baywatch Nights 2.5 “Circle of Fear” (dir by Bruce Kessler)

For tonight’s horror on the lens, how about a chance to watch David Hasselhoff and Angie Harmon battle the forces of dark magic?

That’s right, it’s an episode of Baywatch Nights!  This episode shows what happens when Angie and David investigate the burned book that they found at the scene of an occult gathering.  It’s all a little bit silly but then again, that’s the charm of the show!


Circle of Fear originally aired on October 27th, 1996.

The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989, directed by Bill Bixby)

Still on the run and hoping to find a cure for the condition that causes him to transform into the Incredible Hulk, David Banner (Bill Bixby) is now in New York and using the name David Belson.  He’s grown a beard to keep himself from being recognized.  I guess it’s like when Superman used to put on his glasses.  When David sees a woman being harassed on the subway by two thugs, it’s too much stress for him and he transforms into the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno).  When the Hulk turns back into David, he is arrested and charged with being a mugger.  (No one believes the witness’s account of seeing a huge green man on the subway.)

Despite the title, the Hulk never goes on trial, though there’s a dream sequence where David turns into the Hulk in a courtroom.  (Stan Lee plays the jury foreman.)  Just having a nightmare about turning into the Hulk is enough to cause the transformation for real.  No New York jail can hold the Hulk.

David’s lawyer is blind and yes, his name is Matthew Murdock (played by Rex Smith).  Murdock thinks that the attack on the subway was somehow linked to a crime lord named … yes, Wilson Fisk.  Fisk (John Rhys-Davies) wants to set up a national crime syndicate, as if Lucky Luciano didn’t already do that.  Using the name Daredevil, Murdock tries to prevent that.  David eventually ends up helping.

The Trial of the Incredible Hulk is a huge tease.  It promises the Hulk on trial but, instead, it’s just a backdoor pilot for a Daredevil TV series.  Just like in The Incredible Hulk Returns, the Hulk is forced to make room for a new hero.  But at least The Incredible Hulk Returns actually featured the Hulk working with Thor.  In Trial of the Incredible Hulk, the Hulk is hardly present at all.  Banner encourages Murdock not to give up, even after he’s badly beaten by Fisk’s men, and he works with Matt to help him prepare for a rematch.  But the final battle is almost all Daredevil.  Once he escape from prison, Banner doesn’t turn into the Hulk once.

Rex Smith isn’t bad as Daredevil.  While he’s not as good as Charlie Cox, he’s still better than Ben Affleck.  While the movie does not feature the classic Daredevil costume, it does at least get Daredevil’s origins and powers correct.  John Rhys-Davies hams it up as Wilson Fisk.  One of Marvel’s most intriguing villains is turned into just another generic bad guy in an office.  It’s disappointing.

The Trial of the Incredible Hulk ends with Murdock pledging to protecting the city and Banner again hitchhiking away.  Daredevil would have to wait for another 25 years before getting his own series.  Banner would return in The Death of the Incredible Hulk.


Horror Film Review: Wake In Fright (dir by Ted Kotcheff)

To be honest, it’s probably open for debate whether or not Wake In Fright is actually a horror film.

This 1971 Australian film, which tells the story of a school teacher who becomes stranded in a small town in the outback, doesn’t feature any ghosts or werewolves or vampires or zombies or anything else of a supernatural nature.  The school teacher meets a large number of people in town, the majority of whom are technically quite friendly.  They teach him how to gamble.  They take him on a hunt.  They give him shelter when he doesn’t have anywhere else to stay.  The word “mate” is tossed around so frequently that it soon becomes clear that every man — significantly, there’s only two women in the film and one of them only appears in the teacher’s memories — in the outback is considered to be one.

The people of town of Bundanyabba — or “The Yabba,” as they call it — are also very generous with their beer.  If they meet you for the first time, they expect you to have a beer with them.  If they see you for the first, second, or third time during the day, they expect you to have a beer with them.  They wake up in the morning drinking and they go to bed drunk.  When John Grant (Gary Bond) first shows up in the Yabba, he can barely handle two beers.  By the end of his stay, he’s drinking nonstop.

However, John also discovers that it dangerous to turn down those offers of beer.  Turn down a beer and you might get a strange look, if you’re lucky.  More likely, you’ll get yelled at.  Turn down a beer from the wrong person and you might even get attacked.  Everyone in the Yabba is friendly but everyone is also always on the verge of throwing the first punch.  Refuse a beer and you might be in trouble.  Refuse to enthusiastically take part in a savage and sadistic kangaroo hunt and your mates might starts to talk.  When John first arrives, he’s a bit amused by the town and what he sees as being its backwards ways.  It’s obvious that he looks down on the people around him and one can sense that they realize that.  Perhaps that’s why everyone around him seems to take such joy in watching John slowly lose his identity.

That’s horror at the heart of Wake in Fright.  It’s not the horror of the paranormal.  Instead, it’s the horror of the isolation.  There’s no way to fight the isolation and the madness it brings.  Your only choice is to either surrender to it or be destroyed by it.  The longer John spends in the Yabba, the more the bleakness of the outback gets to him.  It’s a world dominated by brutal men, none of whom are particularly impressed when they find out that John’s teacher and that he has a suitcase full of books.  They view John as being soft and, in order to prove that he’s not, John starts to sacrifice his identity.  He starts to become just as much of a brute as Dick (Jack Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittle).

Having lost all of his money, John eventually ends up staying with Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence).  Doc really is a doctor.  He’s also, as he cheerfully explains, an alcoholic.  When John says that he’s going to find some place else to stay, Doc makes it clear that John isn’t leaving.  The film makes good use of Pleasence’s eccentric screen presence.  Is Doc simply being friendly or does Doc have more sinister motives fueling his insistence that John stay with him?  When Doc gives John advice, is it to help him or is it to further degrade John?  Like John, Doc is an educated man and obviously smarter than those around him.  And yet, Doc seems very happy in the mad world of the Yabba, drinking, hunting, and gambling.  Is John destined to become Doc or can he escape?

John discovers that leaving the Yabba isn’t easy.  Every time he tries, he ends up back in town.  All roads seems to lead back to the Yabba.  In retrospect, perhaps the most frightening thing about Wake In Fright is that no one seems to be surprised by the sight of the increasingly disheveled and unstable John.  Even when he stumbles through town while carrying a rifle, no one gives him a second look.  He’s just another part of the scenery.

No, Wake In Fright is not a traditional horror film but it’s a horror film, nonetheless.  It’s about the horror of not only losing your identity but perhaps not being quite sure what your identity was in the first place.  As played by Gary Bond, John is an often frustrating character but you never stop caring about him.  It’s frightening to watch him lose himself, even while you wonder if he ever knew who he truly was in the first place.  Bond was a stage actor who only appeared in three films.  Wake in Fright was his final film and one of the huge reasons why it’s so effective is because Gary Bond is not an actor who we recognize from other films.  We don’t seen an actor when we look at him.  Instead, we see a person who, for the first time, is discovering just how unsettling life on the fringes can be.

It’s a powerful film and a controversial one.  When John is taken on a kangaroo hunt, footage from an actual hunt was included in the film and it’s a horrific sequence, one that’s made all the more disturbing by the fact that the hunters refuse to acknowledge just how horrific and unjust it all is.  Reportedly, when Wake In Fright was first released, someone in a Sydney theater stood up and shouted at the screen, “This is not us!”  Actor Jack Thompson, who made his film debut in Wake In Fright, was in the audience and shouted back, “It is us, mate!  Sit down!”

For a long time, it was impossible to see Wake In Fright.  Only one known print was known to exist and it was a badly damaged one.  Fortunately, in 2002, another print was found in Pittsburgh and Wake In Fright was rereleased and rediscovered.  When it was first released in 1971, the film’s violence and downbeat atmosphere were both controversial and it struggled at the Australian box office.  (Many Australians, like that theatergoer in Sydney, initially viewed the film as being a bit of a personal attack.)  Rereleased in 2003 and championed by Martin Scorsese, Wake In Fright was embraced by a new generation of critics, many of whom declared it to be one of the greatest and most important Australian films ever made.

Wake In Fright is a powerful and unsettling film, a portrait of a place that seems to be fueled by toxic masculinity and self-destruction.  It’s a disturbing film and not easy to watch.  But if you do watch it, it will stick with you and leave you thinking long after the final credits roll.

Game Review: Six Gray Rats Crawl Up The Pillow (2015, Caleb Wilson as “Boswell Crain”)

You are Rinaldo di Gorgonzola, a spoiled fop living in Renaissance-era Italy.  With the plague shutting down most of the country and with you needing money to pay your rent, you accept a bet.  All you have to do to win is spend the night in the deserted castle of a recently deceased nobleman.

The main challenge of this Interactive Fiction game is to figure out how to get to sleep.  Getting in the caste is easy.  Since there’s only three rooms in the castle, finding the bedroom is easy.  Once you figure out that the command is “enter bed” and not “lie on bed,” getting on the bed is easy.  It’s getting to sleep that’s the hard part.  Not only are there things you have to do — like get undressed, eat, and read — before you can go to sleep but you also have to deal with a series of memories.  This game is unique in that your inventory includes memories that have to be examined before you can go to sleep.  Each memory leads to another memory until you finally reach one memory that will not go away.  The solution for getting rid of that memory is so simple that I’m worried that it took me so long to solve the puzzle.  I might not be as good at these games as I think I am.

The game doesn’t end once you fall asleep.  There’s some other things that you have to deal with.  You didn’t think that spending the night in a dead nobleman’s castle would be easy, did you?  But those puzzles are considerably easier to solve than the puzzle of how to get to sleep in the first place.

Six Gray Rats Crawl Up The Pillow is a well-written and atmospheric game.  There’s a lot of unexpected wit to be found in the game.  At one point, I grew so frustrated with trying to figure out how to go to sleep that I commanded the game “shoot shelf,” just to be reprimanded for always thinking about myself.  Another entertaining thing to do is to try to pick up the corpse of the nobleman.  (Yes, it does seem that the body was just left in the bedroom.)  I liked the way the game incorporated memories into the inventory, though I think some of the memories could have been combined to help the game flow better.  It took me about 40 minutes to play the entire game.  Someone who is actually good at this will probably be able to do it in 10.  It can be downloaded from here.

Horror Scenes That I Love: Donald Pleasence Meets Christopher Lee in Death Line

In the 1972 British horror film Death Line (released in the U.S. as Raw Meat), Donald Pleasence gives one of his best performances as Inspector Calhoun, an alcoholic, somewhat fascistic detective who discovers evidence of cannibals in the London Underground.  Since the British government would rather this information not be revealed, a mysterious man played by Christopher Lee is sent to discuss things with Calhoun.

This scene features a meeting between two icons of horror so, of course, I love it.  Pleasence is wonderfully obsessive and Lee is wonderfully menacing.  Since the film is as much about the class struggle as it is about cannibalism, it’s interesting to see the automatic conflict between the working class Calhoun and the definitely upper class character played by Christopher Lee.

4 Shots From 4 Donald Pleasence Films: Wake In Fright, The Mutations, Halloween, Phenomena

4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

Today, we celebrate the life and career Donald Pleasence!  One of the greatest of all the horror icons, Pleasence was born 101 years ago today and that means that it’s time for….

4 Shots From 4 Films

Wake in Fright (1971, dir by Ted Kotcheff)

The Mutations (1974, dir by Jack Cardiff)

Halloween (1978, dir by John Carpenter)

Phenomena (1985, dir by Dario Argento)

Horror on the Lens: Robot Monster (dir by Phil Tucker)

Today’s horror film is a true classic of its kind, the 1953 science fiction epic Robot Monster.

Now, I should admit that this is not the first time that I’ve shared Robot Monster in October.  I share it every year and, every year, YouTube seems to pull the video down in November.  That sucks because Robot Monster is one of those weird films that everyone should see.  So, I’m going to share it again.  And, hopefully, YouTube will let the video stay up for a while.

As for what Robot Monster is about…

What happens with the Earth is attacked by aliens?  Well, first off, dinosaurs come back to life.  All of humanity is killed, except for one annoying family.  Finally, the fearsome Ro-Man is sent down to the planet to make sure that it’s ready for colonization.  (Or something like that.  To be honest, Ro-Man’s exact goal remains a bit vague.)

Why is Ro-Man so fearsome?  Well, he lives in a cave for one thing.  He also owns a bubble machine.  And finally, perhaps most horrifically, he’s a gorilla wearing a diver’s helmet.  However, Ro-Man is not just a one-dimensional bad guy.  No, he actually gets to have a monologue about halfway through the film in which he considers the existential issues inherent in being a gorilla wearing a diver’s helmet.

Can humanity defeat Ro-Man?  Will Ro-Man ever get his intergalactic supervisor to appreciate him?  And finally, why are the dinosaurs there?

All of those questions, and more, are cheerfully left unanswered but that’s a large part of this odd, zero-budget film’s considerable charm.  If you’ve never seen it before, you owe it to yourself to set aside an hour and two minutes in order to watch it.

You’ve never see anything like it before.


(On another note, this movie was a favorite of TSL Contributor Gary Loggins.  Gary passed away a year ago today so this showing is dedicated to his memory.  We miss you, Gary!)