Blood on Satan’s Claw

The British film studios Tigon and Amicus were generally seen as second-rate Hammer;  but that’s not a fair assessment. Both turned out a number of horror films in the late 1960s and early ’70s, many of which also starred Christopher Lee and/or Peter Cushing, but each had a character of its own. The films of all three made up a lot of the late-night TV viewing of my youth.

Peter sees his bride's clawed hand Tigon tended to take risks with less conventional horror stories. Sometimes the gamble worked, and sometimes it didn’t.

For example, Tigon produced the extremely goofy Blood Beast Terror featuring a giant weremoth, as well as The Creeping Flesh with its  philosophical musings on the true nature of Evil.

Tigon also made a couple of interesting films based on witch-hunting in 17th-century rural England with completely opposite points of view.

Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General stars Vincent Price as a chillingly cold-blooded and sadistic man based on real-life witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, who tortures and executes people accused of being witches. There are no real witches in this film, only innocent victims of Hopkins’s lust for money, prestige and power. In Blood on Satan’s Claw, on the other hand, the witches are real and evil, and the men who hunt them are the heroes.

The exact year in which Blood on Satan’s Claw is set isn’t clearly established, but it seems to be circa 1700; there’s a reference to “King James III in exile,” so it must be after the death of James II, when William of Orange or Queen Anne was actually the reigning monarch. The film consists of three separate stories; they were originally meant to be filmed as an anthology, then sewn together to form one plot, although a few gaps show here and there. Although they are original pieces of fiction, they have the flavor of authentic folk horror, the type of tales that might be told around the hearths of country homes during this period.

First folk tale: This farmer was out a-plowing his field, when he found something horrible buried in the dirt…

The film begins on a spring day somewhere in rural England with a ploughman by the name of Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) working in a field belonging to local landowner Mistress Banham. When he notices a number of birds gathered on a spot of ground recently turned up by his plow, he investigates and finds a horrible thing: a collection of bones and a crushed skull with one intact and very fresh-looking eye.

The horrible thing The worm on the eyeball is a particularly grotesque touch and the film makes the most of it, pulling in close to give the viewers the first in a series of disturbing but not gory images.

Ralph runs to the manor-farm, where Mistress Banham (Avice Landone) is entertaining an old friend, a highly placed magistrate (Patrick Wymark. His character is credited as The Judge and doesn’t seem to have a name; I think he’s addressed once as Lord Edmond, but the dialogue isn’t clear).

The Judge is a skeptical gentleman, but he agrees to go out and have a look at Ralph’s gruesome find. When the two get out to the field, there’s no horrible wormy skull to be found. The local parson (Anthony Ainley) is discovered in the underbrush, catching a snake. A harmless proto-naturalist, or is he in league with the devil?

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Bad Medicine: The Picture in the House

The 12th plate from Regnum Congo

“The book fell open, almost of its own accord and as if from frequent consultation at this place, to the repellent twelfth plate shewing a butcher’s shop amongst the Anzique cannibals. My sense of restlessness returned, though I did not exhibit it. The especially bizarre thing was that the artist had made his Africans look like white men—the limbs and quarters hanging about the walls of the shop were ghastly, while the butcher with his axe was hideously incongruous.”

From HP Lovecraft’s The Picture in the House

This third and final segment of the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre audio drama has been  stretched to fit into the “Bad Medicine” category. There is no doctor in the original story, and the physician added to this version seems more helpful than prone to horrific experimentation. But it is a spirited adaptation of an early Lovecraft story that’s never been one of my favorites.

A hapless bicyclist is forced to take shelter in what he takes to be an abandoned house during a violent rainstorm. But the house isn’t empty; its inhabitant is a loathsome old man who has become obsessed by an illustration of cannibals in Filippo Pigafetta’s Regnum Congo (which is a real book, by the way, as is the illustration described in this story) and hints that he’s been giving in to his “craving” for “victuals I couldn’t raise nor buy”.

You can read it online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/ph.aspx.
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Bad Medicine: The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar

Hypnotism booklet coverThe second episode in this Dark Adventure Radio Theatre anthology is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s story, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, in which a doctor uses Mesmeric control over a dying subject to keep him in a sustained trance state–for months after death.

The episode is also kind of a DART rerun. A downloadable MP3 version of this audio drama was made available last fall, and I reviewed it then.

I’m not going to cover the unchanged parts of this episode again, but I’m going to note the differences.

As in the earlier version, the story has been transplanted to the 1930s, but the framing story with the radio interviewer is gone. Instead, Dr. Michael Quinlan (still Sean Branney) is facing an emergency hearing of the New York State Medical Board to review “purported breaches in ethical conduct” related to the experiment with the late M. Valdemar. The Board will decide whether or not to revoke Quinlan’s license based on its findings.
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Bad Medicine: Cool Air

Sonia's notesThis special anthology episode of Dark Adventure Radio Theatre features three separate stories of “horrific healing” and medical science gone mad, two from H.P. Lovecraft and one from Edgar Allan Poe. I’m going to take them one by one.

The first is Cool Air, a Lovecraft story set in New York City during the 1920s. It’s about a Spanish doctor with an odd medical condition that requires him to keep his room very cold. You can read it online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/ca.aspx

The principal change in this audio adaptation is  the sex of the first-person narrator. In Lovecraft’s story, he is unnamed and refers to himself as a “well-bred man”; here, she is a writer of pulp fiction named Sonia (after Lovecraft’s own wife, with whom he lived in Brooklyn for a couple of years in the 1920s).

When we meet Sonia Rudd (Sarah van der Pol), she and her husband Edwin (Andrew Leman) have fallen on hard times. She is nursing her feverish and desperately ill son; dialog indicates that the couple has already lost at least one other child and it doesn’t look like there’s much hope for this little boy. Sonia insists on keeping the room stiflingly warm. The radiator is turned up, blankets are piled on the child, and Sonia won’t let her husband open the window even a crack to let in a little cool air.

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Dark Shadows: The Rage Beneath

This audio drama begins with Maggie Evans speaking, “I remember when it all started. Quentin Collins… came home, and brought the darkness with him.”

Her voice is interspersed with those of other characters–Quentin’s, Angelique’s–but the focus of the story’s introduction remains with Maggie as she summarizes the events of  previous audio-plays in the Legend Reborn series, alluding to the “The Lost,” “Charlotte Howells,” and “the Professor and his army” (which settles my question of when the Christmas Presence occurs).

“But the day I’ll always remember,” Maggie concludes, “is the day the Collins family perished.”

She isn’t referring to the Collinses who disappeared mysteriously before this series began, but to those two who are still around: Quentin and Barnabas.

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The Testimony of Randolph Carter

Carter and Warren on the Gainesville pike“I will not deny, though my memory is uncertain and indistinct, that this witness of yours may have seen us together as he says, on the Gainesville pike, walking toward Big Cypress Swamp, at half past eleven on that awful night. That we bore electric lanterns, spades, and a curious coil of wire with attached instruments, I will even affirm; for these things all played a part in the single hideous scene which remains burned into my shaken recollection. But of what followed, and of the reason I was found alone and dazed on the edge of the swamp next morning, I must insist that I know nothing save what I have told you over and over again.”

From The Statement of Randolph Carter

This is one of H. P. Lovecraft’s early macabre works, written in 1919. It’s a simple, very short story about two men who visit an abandoned cemetery to open up a crypt in the middle of the night. One goes down inside the crypt for reasons he has not made entirely clear to his companion, who remains above ground. The two continue to communicate via telephone equipment they’ve brought with them, and the man on the surface hears some things that shake his sanity… and leave him with a bizarre explanation about what exactly became of his missing friend.

You can read it online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/src.aspx.

The Statement of Randolph Carter was used as the basis for a 50-minute long student film by Sean Branney, Andrew Leman, and their Lovecraft-inclined friends in Denver during the late 1980s. (The same time I was at the University of Colorado in Denver. Small world, huh?)

For this film version, the story’s title has been changed to The Testimony of Randolph Carter–a slight but significant difference. A statement in this context is something a witness or other person with important  information might provide to the police during an investigation. Testimony is given at a trial, which is where we find Randolph Carter (Darrell Tyler) as the film begins.

Seated under a reddish spotlight in a minimalist courtroom set with the also red-lit figures of a judge, stenographer, witnesses, and lawyers around him, Carter is on trial for the murder of his friend.

“Did you kill Harley Warren?” the prosecution asks him bluntly.

The lawyer for Carter’s defense is quick to point out that there’s no proof that Warren is dead; he encourages Carter to tell his story, which provide a frame of narration for the flashback scenes that follow.

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Film Review: The Shuttered Room

August Derleth is a somewhat ambiguous figure in the personal history of HP Lovecraft and his work. On the one hand, Derleth is the reason most people today are at all familiar with Lovecraft. If it weren’t for his Arkham House press keeping Lovecraft’s stories in print, they might otherwise have been lost to pulp horror obscurity. On the other hand, Derleth not only kept Lovecraft’s finished work alive, but contributed posthumous “collaborations” to what he called the Cthulhu Mythos, built on notes or fragments of story ideas Lovecraft left behind… and Derleth wasn’t the writer that Lovecraft was.

He’s not actually a bad writer–he could do some nicely creepy things with the lonely woods and lakes of Wisconsin–but he also had the nerdish need to categorize and rank his monsters. Even in his best stories, someone will pull out a checklist to try and identify the particular Elder God that’s causing all the trouble so it can be dealt with correctly. If nothing else, Derleth’s scope of vision is more narrowly focused than Lovecraft’s and his cosmic horrors aren’t indescribable beings barely comprehensible to the humans who encounter them, but tend to be a tad more localized.

The Shuttered RoomThe Shuttered Room is one of these collaborative works, based on a few sentences in Lovecraft’s notes. I hadn’t read the short story since I was a teenager, nor seen this 1967 film version in nearly as many years. The original story isn’t available online, but as I recall it, a young man, one of the Whateley clan, inherits property in Dunwich, including an old mill that contains the eponymous shuttered room. He is directed to tear down the mill and kill anything living he finds inside. Of course, he doesn’t do this, and the inhabitant of that room manages to slip out and wreak havoc. In spite of the location and Whateley name, the story has more to do with Innsmouth than Dunwich.

The film version gets rid of most of the original story apart from the Whately name (as it’s spelled here) and the central plot idea of a young person inheriting an old mill with a mysterious shuttered room. The Innsmouth connection is lost, but the story still bears some relationship to The Dunwich Horror in a non-supernatural way.

It begins with a little girl saying her prayers before her mother tucks her into bed. After Mom and Dad have gone to their own room and gone to sleep, something unseen opens the door of the room at the top of the stairs and makes its way down.

Red DoorThis door is the most ominous-looking thing in this movie–it’s painted bright red when the rest of the house is in muted browns and greys, and it features a peep-hole ringed with little sharp spikes so that whatever’s normally kept locked in can’t even stick a finger through.

A camera-point-of-view creeps down the stairs to enter the parents’ room and stands briefly beside their bed as they sleep, then goes to the nursery where the little girl wakes and screams.

Mom and Dad awake at the commotion. “You forgot to lock the door!” says Dad as the couple heads downstairs to rescue their child from whatever is menacing her. The mother is attacked and falls to the floor, but the father takes hold of the intruder and, dodging the swipes it makes at his face, firmly guides it back upstairs to its room. The red door shuts.

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Blu-ray Review: The Mummy

Ancient Egypt has been on my mind for some time.  It was the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre audioplay of Imprisoned with the Pharaohs that I reviewed last spring that made me think about going someday.  Curse of the Pharaoh followed, as well as two different versions of Death on the Nile, and various Mummy movies from Hammer and Universal. Eventually, I worked my way back to original film–Universal’s The Mummy from 1932, starring Boris Karloff.

Boris Karloff as The MummyThis movie was filmed in California with stock footage of the Valley of the Kings and  back-screen projections of contemporary Cairo, but very few movies from the early sound era ever filmed on location. Its sets and settings are steeped with imagery and lore from ancient Egypt, though a lot of it is historically confused or fiction created specifically for this story–but one also expects a certain amount of mystical fabrication from a movie about a mummy that’s come back to life. What’s most interesting to me, however, is how little of this movie’s manufactured lore and story template are reused in the numerous sequels and remakes over the 85 years since it was made.

The Mummy begins with the British Museum 1921 Expedition at Thebes. An archeological team headed by a man with the unprepossessing name of Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) has just discovered a previously unknown and undisturbed tomb. With his colleague, occult expert Dr. Muller (Edward van Sloan, basically playing von Helsing from Dracula again under a different name), and an eager young archeologist named Ralph, Whemple examines the dig’s most interesting finds:

  • A 3700-year-old mummy of a man (Karloff, or at least a convincing-looking dummy replica of him at this point). The mummified man did not have his organs removed before burial, as was customary, and shows signs that he was still struggling when they wrapped him up and entombed him. The man’s name, Imhotep, is carved on his sarcophagus, but the sacred spells that would protect his soul in the afterlife have been chipped away. The trio speculates that he must have done something truly horrible and sacrilegious to have been doubly damned in this way. (Ralph quips that perhaps Imhotep “got too gay with the vestal virgins”.)
  • A small casket of gold containing an even smaller box with its seals intact and a warning upon it:  Death and eternal punishment for anyone who opens it.

Sir Joseph: “Good heavens, what a terrible curse!”

Young archeologist: Let’s see what’s inside!

The mummyDr. Muller and Sir Joseph go outside to discuss the dangers of opening the box and unleashing a millennia-old curse; they both already assume that the box contains the Scroll of Thoth, which the goddess Isis herself is said to have used to resurrect her slain husband Osiris. This scroll, which we were introduced to via text at the beginning of the film, is part of that fabricated mythology, although it is loosely based on the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

While they’re talking, the young archeologist gives in to temptation and opens the box. Inside, there is indeed a papyrus scroll, which he sits down to transcribe.

This leads to my second-favorite scene in this movie. It’s a beautiful sequence in  understated horror, analyzed in minute detail by better film critics than I.

Basically:

The young archeologist reads the hieroglyphics he’s copied aloud in a low murmur. Behind him, unnoticed by him, the mummy’s eyes open just a crack, enough that we see a glister of life. The bandage-wrapped arms crossed over the mummy’s chest slowly move downward.

This is all we’ll see of Karloff as the wrapped-up mummy in motion. No long scenes of leg-dragging staggering around in search of victims for Imhotep!

While the oblivious archeologist continues to read, a wrinkled, aged hand bearing a large jeweled ring reaches into the shot and takes the scroll from the table. The young man only now looks up. We don’t see what he sees. He screams in terror and backs up against the nearest wall, then starts to laugh maniacally.

The mummy's hands Hand takes the scroll Scream! The mummy leaves

A couple of trailing bandages are glimpsed going out through the door.

Muller and Sir Joseph, hearing the commotion, return to find an empty sarcophagus, an empty box, a dusty handprint on the work table, and Ralph still laughing as his mind, unable to cope with what he’s just seen, tips over into insanity. “He went for a little walk!”

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Dark Shadows: The Christmas Presence

“Quentin Collins cordially invites you to spend Christmas in his company. On behalf of all those present here at Collinwood… I bid you welcome.”

It’s not the listeners of this audioplay Quentin extends this invitation to in his opening monologue–although, of course, we can feel free to drop in at Collinwood for the holidays too. The people he’s reaching out to, through means both commonplace and esoteric, are “those loyal to the Collins family” in Collinsport as well as “the missing members of our family” in hopes that they might be “reunited in the coming days.”

Christmas Presence

Quentin’s feeling sentimental as he plans an old-fashioned Christmas celebration, and the other inhabitants of Collinwood try to get into the holiday spirit to go along with him. Maggie Evans has come to cook the dinner and tries to get Barnabas (now voiced by Andrew Collins) to kiss her under the mistletoe. But even though he’s in a new body, Barnabas is still a vampire, and vampires don’t kiss; they just give hickeys. Angelique decorates a Christmas tree, and amuses herself with taunting Willie Loomis about how the townsfolk will come to blame him for the disappearance of their children.

A number of Collinsport children have been taken from their homes, from “under their parents’ noses” recently, but their abductor isn’t Willie, nor any mortal man. A scene at the beginning of this drama reveals one child’s abduction after his grandmother leaves him tucked up in bed in his room. Someone who says that he “could be” Santa appears and converses with the little boy, asks him what he wants. When the boy realizes that this isn’t Santa, it reveals its true self. The next thing you know, the child has joined this creature’s choir of voices.

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CD Review: Rats in the Walls

Exham Priory: 1261 -1923“Our host spun quite a ghost story. M.R. James couldn’t do better.”

The Rats in the Walls is my favorite HP Lovecraft story. It’s a wonderful, deeply disturbing tale of a wealthy American named Delapore who restores his ancestral home in England. The sound of spectral rats (which only he and his pet cats can hear) lead him to an ancient stone altar in the sub-cellar of the old priory and a tunnel hidden beneath it; there, he discovers not only the secret that led his ancestor to flee Exham Priory in the early 1600s, but remnants of unspeakable horrors perpetrated by a cult that went on for millennia on that same site, a cult in which his family were only the most recent members.

What I like most about this story isn’t the trappings of old-fashioned gothic horror implicit in the ruins of the priory, nor the eons-old cannibal cult–though both certainly have their charms. It’s that it plays upon the same theme as the Nigel Kneale stories I most enjoy, Quatermass and the Pit, and The Stone Tape: the history of the Bad Place goes back and back through centuries to the earliest days of humanity… and perhaps long before that.

The only thing that mars it for a modern reader is the extremely unfortunate, casually racist name of the narrator’s favorite black cat, who has an important part to play in the story.

You can read it online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/rw.aspx

When I first heard that the latest Dark Adventure Radio Theatre was to be an adaptation of Rats in the Walls, I was delighted, but I wondered how they would handle the cat’s name. When I attended a live, dramatic reading of this same story last summer in Providence, the reader renamed the cat Blackie, and I was perfectly happy with that.

Long before the cat comes into this adaptation, we’re given a sort of meta-textual reassurance about how this element of the story will be handled. This episode begins with a prologue set during the American Civil War. Yankee soldiers are about to seize and burn down Carfax, the Virginia plantation belonging to “Big Daddy” Delapore, a bed-ridden old man. The about-to-be-freed slave-woman who is with him tells him that she’s not going hear that word from him again and makes him say “Please” before she bring him the lock-box containing papers concerning the Delapore family secret.  The old man intends to give the box to his grandson, 7-year-old Matthew, for safe keeping, but the mansion is on fire; the little boy escapes with his Yankee-born mother, but the old man is trapped within the flames and the contents of the box are destroyed with him.

A second prologue jumps suddenly to World War I, where a young American airman, Alfred Delapore, Matthew’s son, is telling this story about the plantation to his British friend and fellow aviator, Edward Norrys (Kevin Stidham, doing an adorable Mancunian accent).

Alfred says that the family secret–the reason why their remote ancestor Walter de la Poer fled England for the American colonies in the wake of a mysterious tragedy at Exham Priory after the rest of his family was killed–was lost forever in the fire and neither he nor his father knows anything about it. But Norrys can tell them quite a lot about the de la Poers; his family was given the abandoned estate by James I, and his uncle is currently the owner of Exham Priory, which has fallen into ruins and is shunned even into the 20th century by the local folk. Uncle has no use for the place and might be willing to sell it.

James I grants Exham Priory to the Norrys familyAlfred is keen to write to his father back in the States, but just then the two young pilots are summoned by their commander to go fly a mission. Continue reading “CD Review: Rats in the Walls”