The Haunted Strangler(1958); Dir. Robert Day. Criterion Collection DVD(2007)

I cannot say that I had very high expectations for this movie but I found myself thoroughly enjoying the story and film making despite a somewhat convoluted plot and some overeager acting. It would be easy to classify The Haunted Strangler as a B-movie horror picture and dismiss it as having a limited scope and all the trappings of its genre. However, that would be overlooking the wonderful performance that Boris Karloff gives as the social reformer/novelist James Rankin who sets out to prove the innocence of the man hanged for being The “Haymarket Strangler” twenty years ago. Karloff’s performance plays on the contrast between the polite and compassionate English gentleman and the murderous monster that literally paralyzes Rankin when he grasps the ominous surgeon’s scalpel which appears throughout the movie as a symbol of terror.

Boris Karloff makes the transition from gentleman to monster with the ease of an actor who is greatly skilled at tapping into the dark recesses of human nature while at the same time remaining sympathetic and vulnerable. What is impressive is that Karloff is able to convey this transition with virtually no makeup and you really feel like you are watching a monster emerge out of this character. There is a scene at the end of the film where Rankin is strangling his daugther Lily and he suddenly comes out of his trance like paralysis and realizes what he is doing. The pitiful look and anguish he conveys is very moving and captures the torment that Rankin feels as he is trapped between these two personas. The fact that no one wants to believe him until it is too late makes his torment all the more palpable and even early on in the film when Rankin is following the trail of the mysterious Dr. Tenent there are cues from Rankin that he might be onto something that could be a horrible truth.

Where the problems in the film seem to arise is from the unclear nature of the “Haymarket Strangler” and his origins. It is never clear whether the knife that keeps disappearing and reappearing in the film has some curse on it that makes the person holding it kill or if holding the knife triggers some psychotic response in the form of murderous impulses and paralysis. What the actual nature of the evil is never really gets defined and that makes it a little hard to keep up with and takes away from the impact of some of the scenes. There is one scene between James and his wife Barbara that reveals where James Rankin came from but this comes so late in the film that rather than moving the story along, it seems to confuse it and leaves the viewer even more unclear of what the “Haymarket Strangler” is supposed to be. It is never really clear if the murderer is supposed to be a split personality or a force of supernatural possession or some strange mixture of the two but it does feel like the film makers can’t decide which it is and this makes things a little muddled as the story plays out.

The way the violence plays out is also an interesting aspect of the film. While it is not overly graphic it is very unsettling the way the camera alternates between close-ups of the victim being strangled and the contorted face of the murderer. These scenes use the point of view shots very effectively to heighten the atmosphere of the killings. Some of the best scenes are those where Rankin lurks in the shadows watching his victim, as he does when he is at the dancehall. The dark presence and heavy breathing establish an unsettling apprehension of what is to come even when it is predictable. Some of the predictability comes from the fact that the story seems to take a lot of cues from the Jack The Ripper story.

Since it is a Criterion disc, there are some great features that are worth watching along with the movie. One is a series of taped interviews with cast and crew of the film talking about the experience of working on the movie and about working with Boris Karloff. It is very interesting to hear about Karloff and how kind of a man he was. Another feature of interest are original radio spots for The Haunted Strangler along with the double billing of the film with Fiend Without A Face. A few of the radio spots feature Boris Karloff and it is really interesting to listen to since they don’t do that type of promotion anymore. From a historical point of view, the features are really very interesting. Being an early example of a slasher film makes this movie very interesting but it also avoids being just a curiosity, mostly due to Boris Karloff’s performance.  

Well, this is not related to the movie at all but here is a link to Stan Lee reading Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” Something fun for halloween!

http://www.quickstopentertainment.com/2008/10/30/halloween-havoc-2008-stan-lee-presents-the-raven/

Up Next The October Horror Movie gets a little funky with William Marshall and Pam Grier in 1973’s Scream, Blacula, Scream!

Charles;

vanheck123@hotmail.com

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The Legend of The 7 Golden Vampires(1974); Dir. Cheh Chang & Roy Ward Baker. Anchor Bay DVD(1999)

Not released in the United States until 1979 under the title The 7 brothers Meet Dracula, this film is a unique coming together of the Hong Kong based Shaw Brothers Studios and England’s Hammer Studios.  These two genre studios represent the best of martial arts and horror films respectively and the collaborative effort they have produced, while not being a great film, is an exciting and action packed movie that plays to both genres very effectively.

Again assuming his iconic role as Dr. Van Helsing, Peter Cushing encounters his arch-nemesis Count Dracula(played with a little too much make-up by John Forbes-Robertson) in the Chinese village of Peng Kwei after Dracula took the form of a high priest who came to his castle in Transylvania to ask for his help. Of course, Count Dracula will not have any of that, and takes the form of the high priest in order to control the 7 Golden Vampires who have been terrorizing the town for many years.

The beginning of the film sets up a very nice prelude to the rest of the story, showcasing the standard but always atmospheric Hammer studio set of the cobwebbed Transylvanian castle as Dracula rises from his crypt and goes to the village of Peng Kwei. This provides a nice contrast for the rest of the film as we are introduced to Van Helsing giving a lecture to history professors at a university in China. Van Helsing relates the story of an unknown village where there is a legend of 7 vampires who arise every 7th moon and attack the villagers. Van Helsing has come to China to do research on vampires but he meets with resistance and disbelief and decides to give up when he is visited by a man from the village who confirms the legend and asks for Van Helsing’s help in vanquishing the 7 golden vampires. 

Here the martial arts elements of the story come into play and dominate the majority of the films’ action sequences leading up to an impressive final battle that is wonderfully choreographed.  Hsi Ching, his six brothers, and sister, all skilled with different weapons, enlist Van Helsing’s help and go with him, his son Leyland, and a Scandanavian heiress who is financing the trip, on a journey to the village. Along the way they battle armies of the undead, a mercenary army, and their own fear as they draw closer to the village and the source of the terror.

The fighting sequences are very stylized, as you would expect a Shaw Bros. production to be, and the characters tend to take a back seat to the action although there are parallel romance stories that are developed in a very standard, side plot fashion. It is nice to see Peter Cushing resuming his role as Dr. Van Helsing. He does not do anything new with this role but because he seems so comfortable in the role of Van Helsing, it also seems to come very naturally for him and he shows his ease with the character even though the direction of the film is not the standard one usually taken for vampire films. Also of note in this film is the makeup done by Wu Hsu Ching who has had a long and distinguished career as a makeup artist for many Shaw Brothers productions and a film that Quentin Tarantino released through his Rolling Thunder Pictures Mighty Peking Man.  The masks of the 7 Golden Vampires and the undead demons are wonderfully decrepit and the scenes of them dissolving and turning to ash are great stop motion effects which enchances the feel of the movie.

Up next for The October Horror Movie Series Boris Karloff is a novelist possessed by the spirit of a murderer in The Haunted Strangler 

Charles Jacob

vanheck123@hotmail.com

Black Sunday(U.S. Title) or The Mask of Satan(1960); Dir. Mario Bava. Anchor Bay DVD(2007)

There are movies that elicit such a strong emotional response that trying to relate to them on any other level proves to be very difficult. Sometimes it is good to gain some distance from a film before allowing an opinion to really take shape and crystallize. But often there are movies which cause an immediate response  and I think that this was the case when I was watching Black Sunday. I found myself haunted by the imagery and poetic dreaminess of Mario Bava’s cinematography and storytelling. The images of the forest and old ruins where Princess Asa and the Prince were put to death and buried after being found guilty of witchcraft and serving the devil come to life in the rich black and white tones which emphasize shadow and fog.

In the later parts of the film the Prince, awakened from the dead to bring vengeance on the family that murdered him and as he looms out of the darkness and wanders through the eerie castle where the present day Vajda family lives oppressed by the curse that had been placed on them two centuries before, the haunting presence of the Princess Asa is almost subconsciously drifting through the film. We are given brief shots of her lying in her coffin which was disturbed by Dr. Andre Gorobec and Dr. Thomas Kruvajan who at first do not pay attention to the superstitions of this Eastern European town they are passing through on their way to Moscow. Even though it is not till the end of the film that she becomes a dominant aspect of the story, Mario Bava conveys her hold over the characters through beautifully constructed atmospheric details.

The haunting imagery of the movie plays wonderfully with the performances of Barbara Steele as both the Princess Asa and the girl Katia Vajda who happens to look just like Asa, Prince Vajda who is tortured by his family’s past, and Prince Constantine who finds himself dragged down by the curse which plagues his family. They are as dark and mysterious as the scenery that surrounds them and Mario Bava’s camerwork really brings out the turmoil that stalks them and shows how Dr. Gorobec and Dr. Kruvajan are gradually drawn into horror that has a hold over these people. The entire story plays out as poetically as a Shakespearean tragedy as it shows the ruin of these characters and their inability to prevent this oncoming doom. Of course, Black Sunday ends more like a Shakespearean comedy with an element of sadness and loss, but this comes more as a relief after such an oppressively dark film rather than feeling forced or contrived.

While every shot pays special attention to the broad spectrum of shadow that black and white film making offers, it also emphasizes the supernatural elements of the story which Mario Bava shows through violent storms, wind, and primal elements which denote impending evil. However, it is not a story about good vs. evil in the traditional sense. Two highly educated and scientific doctors who are not able to understand supernatural phenomenon and dismiss everything as superstition are inept at confronting evil when they come face to face with it. In fact Dr. Kruvajan is seduced by it and becomes a servant to it. Other characters in the story, such as the Vajda family, are not good or bad, they simply exist as people who face retribution. There are many aspects of this film that are played as a simple revenge story but it is interesting and very effective how Mario Bava turns the people who are seeking revenge into the villains of the story and brings to the forefront many of the themes that work on a much deeper level in the film.

Up Next The October Horror Movie Series fights a different kind of vampire in the Hammer Studios and Shaw Brothers co-production of Peter Cushing in The Legend of The Seven Golden Vampires.

Charles Jacob;

vanheck123@hotmail.com

Poltergeist(1982)-Dir. Tobe Hooper; Warner Brothers 25th Anniversary Edition DVD(2007)

Poltergeistis a perfect blend of Stephen Spielberg and Tobe Hooper. It manages to be both a special effects bonanza that retains a certain amount of nostalgia while at the same time expressing Tobe Hooper’s horror sensibility. I am assuming that it is Hooper’s sensibilities since we have never really seen Spielberg work in that medium again but this is a film in which it is hard to tell where Spielberg the producer stopped and Hooper the director took over. It certainly feels like a Spielberg movie, for the most part, but then again, isn’t a good collaboration about creating a seamless project that doesn’t reveal who worked on what?

 It is also one of the rare horror movies that has achieved blockbuster status. It is a movie that you almost feel obligated to see because it has worked its way so deeply into America’s popular culture psyche. So much so that Heather O’ Rourke’s character Carol Anne sitting in front of the television saying “they’re here” along with Craig T. Nelson have been adopted for the switch to digital television ad campaign.  Particular scenes, the characters, and lines of dialogue from the movie are as iconic as many of the other films Spielberg has worked on.

The film is also unique because of the fact that it is a special effects ghost story done in a way, thanks to Industrial Light and Magic, that hadn’t been seen before. Horror movies usually are not the films to get the budgets and that is usually a blessing in disguise. But in this case there is no way the story that Spielberg wanted to tell could have been brought to the screen without them; being able to combine a few scenes of visceral scares with the impressive effects of a house disappearing into a sinkhole, a closet that open up and sucks everything into it, and beams of light moving through a house are all pretty impressive. What is impressive too is that we don’t lose track of the characters. They manage to remain at the forefront through the whole movie. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams play perfectly in Spielberg’s suburban fantasy( a theme he has mined on several occasions-most notably in the almost simultaneous 1982 release of E.T.) as the relatively easy going typical suburban parents and their typical suburban kids  whose lives are disrupted when their house becomes the center of not so typical spectral activity. 

Throughout the whole movie, the creepy and alarming things that go on in the house, even Carol Anne’s disappearance, are handled in the same matter of fact way that Steve Freeling argues with his neighbor over the t.v. remote signals crossing during the football game or the children sitting around the table at breakfast. The only indication of something being wrong at first is the way that Craig T. Nelson’s character looks after JoBeth Williams’ character excitedly shows him what the chairs can do in the kitchen. At this point in the movie we are left wondering if Steve Freeling is the only sensible person in the house or just an adult who works too much and has no connection to the childhood fantasy world.  I don’t think that question is every properly answered but it does become clear as events take a supernatural turn for the worst that there are no adults equipped to deal with the evil that is wrecking so much havoc. That is really no comfort for any child being terrorized by a dark force but the film suggests in several not so subtle ways that adults have as much control over events as children do in some cases, and sometimes even less than we like to think.

Whatever your opinion of Stephen Spielberg and his films might be, whether you see him as just an example of a bloated hollywood system that churns out special effects movies, or as someone who just has a natural gift and the “magic touch” when it comes to creating images and movies that resonate with popular culture, Poltergeist seems to exemplify a little of both sides of the argument.  That being said, if you haven’t seen it yet, watch it, for no other reason than to be able to be a little more literate in film and culture.  Besides, how often do you get to see ghosts and giant monsters rampaging around the house?

Up Next the October Horror Movie Series movies from haunted houses to haunted ruins as we pay a visit to the Tombs of The Blind Dead(La Noche Del Terror Ciego); the first film in Amando De Ossorio’s 1970’s blind dead series.

I would also like to extend a warm welcome to my good friend Jennifer Sutphin who has joined me here on the movie series staff. She will be helping design the page, contributing movie titles, and many other things.