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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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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DVD Review: Night/Curse of the Demon

This 1957 film is loosely based on M.R. James’s 1911 short story, Casting the Runes–a story about a warlock who sics a demon on his enemies by secretly passing them a slip of paper with a runic curse on it. The only way his victims can escape a horrible fate is by giving the runes back to him without him knowing it, so that the curse rebounds back on the caster. Although the plot and characters are altered from those in James’s story, this version is generally considered one of the best films adapted from his work, and one of the best horror films of its era.

It’s a British film with a mostly British cast, but with an American star to draw a U.S. audience, which was a common practice at the time. It was released in the UK under the title Night of the Demon and in the US as Curse of the Demon.

The DVD has both versions of this film on it: the 95-minute original UK version and the US release, which is about 10 minutes shorter. The order of the scenes are slightly rearranged in the US version, and two full scenes plus some other little bits here and there are removed.

Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes...Both versions of the film begin with shots of Stonehenge back when it stood alone on Salisbury Plain and wasn’t surrounded by wire fences, visitor parking lots, and gift shops. A solemn narrator tells the viewer:

“It has been written since the beginning of time, even unto these ancient stones, that evil, supernatural creatures exist in a world of darkness. It is also said that Man, using the magic power of the ancient runic symbols, can call forth these powers of darkness–the demons of Hell.”

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DVD Review: The House of Dark Shadows

The House of Dark Shadows is a film based on the popular soap opera, made in 1970 while the show was still running and while some of the original cast were still around. It’s a highly compressed version of the first 100 episodes or so starting with Barnabas Collins’s resurrection, with some events and characters rearranged.

The film begins with Maggie Evans and another young woman whom I don’t know named Daphne searching for David Collins, first around Collinwood–which looks like a real house instead of a collection of flimsy sets. Then Maggie goes over to the abandoned old Collins house to look for the boy. Dialog will later establish that Maggie is David’s governess; Vicky Winters is long gone or else, in this version of the story, never existed.

While at the old house, Maggie runs into Willie Loomis, who apparently works for the Collinses and in his spare time hunts for some long-missing jewels. He tells Maggie about an important clue to their whereabouts and, after David’s father Roger fires him a few minutes later, decides this is the right time to follow up by visiting the Collins family crypt.

Willie gets choked - in color!Willie doesn’t find the jewels, but he does find a coffin sealed with chains, which he opens… and the rest of the scene plays out pretty much as it did in the television version except that it’s in color.

As in the television version of events, all we see of Barnabas is a ringed hand.

Oh, and Daphne? No point in getting attached to her. While leaving Collinwood that evening, she walks down a long and spooky avenue of trees toward her car and becomes Barnabas’s first victim before we’re ten minutes into the movie.
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DVD Review: Night of Dark Shadows

I put this movie into my Netflix queue because of the title, thinking it had some connection the supernatural soap opera. In spite of the title, however, it has little to do with the TV series; the little it does is more of a detriment than than a benefit except in the marketing sense. Changing the names of a few characters and locations would remove the relationship, but improve the viewing experience.

The story begins with Quentin Collins and his wife Tracy (Kate Jackson before she was anybody famous) inheriting the family mansion, Collinwood, from Mrs. Elizabeth Collins Stoddard whom it seems has recently died. The Collinwood seen here doesn’t resemble the house in the series. Instead of flimsy studio sets for the interiors, Collinwood is a now shown inside and out as a handsome and spacious, actual house. This is a reasonable change; the filmmakers had a much bigger budget, so of course they’d want to make use of it with a good location.

The housekeeper, Carlotta, is waiting to welcome the young couple upon their arrival. The Collinses jokingly refer to her as “Mrs. Danvers,” but they don’t know the half of it.
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Film Review: The Whisperer in Darkness

I’ve been waiting for this film to come out on DVD for a long time, since I first saw and fell in love with the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s (HPLHS) 1920s-style silent film The Call of Cthulhu. This latest film from the HPLHS is a talkie, done in the style of an early ’30s horror film.

The Whisperer in Darkness isn’t as close an adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story as Call of Cthulhu. The first thing that struck me when I began to watch it is that there are a lot more people here than appeared in the written story. New characters are introduced, and characters that were no more than alluded to by Lovecraft are present, fleshed out with dialog, and given roles to play in the drama that leads our protagonist Albert Wilmarth to his fate.
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Film Review: The Call of Cthulhu

HPLHS Logo I’d heard about this film some time ago, but only saw it for the first time recently. It’s a silent movie, made in 2005 but filmed as if it were the 1920s.

I’ve seen a number of Lovecraft-based movies over the years–a few pretty good, others passable, and some dreadful–and this is the most faithful adaptation of one of his stories I’ve seen yet.

The story follows the novella of the same name with only minor changes. The main protagonist reads the notes, newspaper articles, and other information gathered by his late granduncle about certain gruesome cults around the world that worship idols of a crouching figure, with “cuttlefish head, dragon body, scaly wings”. Strange events that culminate in March of 1925 suggest that the creature represented, called “Cthulhu” by its cultists, isn’t mythic but lies dreaming in a sunken city in the Pacific.

Cthulhu statue These events are shown in flashback scenes as the protagonist reads about them: his uncle’s conversation with a young local artist who had fantastic dreams of the sunken city and sculpted his own bas relief of Cthulhu; a police raid on a cult in Louisiana swamps; an attack by another cult group in the Arctic on an explorer; and finally the account of the lone survivor of a Norwegian boat lost in the South Pacific about the island risen from the sea that he and his crewmates discovered… and what they accidentally awakened there.

After years of modernized Lovecraft, sexed-up Lovecraft, and Lovecraft dressed up to look like Poe, this is a welcome relief, and a delight to watch.

The film is obviously a labor of love by its makers. I especially liked the care taken with the look of the film:

  • The fonts on the title cards and even the copyright warnings.
  • The scratches and other artifacts on the film to make it look like a long-lost movie from the 1920s.
  • The twisted Cabinet-of-Dr.-Caligari-esque sets for the dream sequences and the city of R’yleh.
  • The shadowed eye make-up on the actors.
  • The stop-motion model of the dread Cthulhu, which reminds me of the work of Willis O’Brien.

For the moMatt Foyerst part, it looks like the 1920s. Some of the actors don’t look quite “period,” however, which makes me ponder exactly what it is that makes some people appear too modern and out-of-place in period pieces. Is it their hair? Their expressions? It’s not always an obvious quality.

But Matt Foyer, who plays the central protagonist, definitively has a face for silent pictures.

I’ve been taking an interest in this type of film, where the filmmakers–usually a small and independent production–use the techniques, sets, and acting styles of an earlier time. Larry Blamire’s spoof and loving recreation of the Old Dark House movies of the 1930s is another example I’ve recently become enamored with.

Dream sceneA friend has suggested that I get some actors to perform a scene from one of my novels and film it for YouTube; my publisher and I have discussed it and decided it’s far beyond our abilities to put together the sets, costumes, and other aspects of production necessary even to film a short fantasy scene competently. I’m therefore all the more impressed when I consider the amount of work and dedication that must go into making an entire independent film.