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.”

Continue reading “DVD Review: Night/Curse of the Demon”

BluRay Review: The Quatermass Xperiment

a.k.a. The Creeping Unknown.

It Creeps. It Crawls. It Kills!

Soon after the BBC version of The Quatermass Experiment had finished airing in the summer of 1953, Hammer film studios obtained rights to make a movie version and started planning. Prior to this point in Hammer’s history, the studio had primarily made comedies and crime dramas; to market their films in the United States, they often used American actors in starring roles.

Hence Brian Donlevy’s being cast to play a very un-British Bernard Quatermass in this particular film. Quatermass’s creator Nigel Kneale did not like this at all.

In compressing the 3-hour BBC series into an 80-minute film, director Val Guest, who co-authored the revised script, also took other liberties with the story. Kneale didn’t like these either, especially the altered ending.

But we’ll get to that part when we come to it.

This film version begins with what would become a horror-movie trope: a couple necking. Not being American teens, they aren’t parked in a car in some Lover’s Lane, but have made themselves comfortable in a haystack on the farm belonging to the girl’s father. A deafening roar like a jet engine interrupts their kissing and they run like hell for the inadequate shelter of the farmhouse.

The next thing you know, there’s a rocket sticking nose-down into the pasture like a giant lawn-dart. The QI Rocket

We meet Quatermass and the key members of his Experimental Rocket Group–Judith Carroon, Dr. Gordon Briscoe*, and Marsh–along with a querulous guy from the government office funding them, as they drive up to the crash site together in a VW minibus.

Their conversation covers the basic info from the first episode of the series: the rocket was missing and out of contact for 56 hours. They don’t go into why an American is heading Britain’s space program, but it’s obvious right away that the character of Quatermass has changed in more ways than his nationality can account for. This is a man who goes ahead and does whatever he decides is right and doesn’t listen to anyone else once he makes that decision. He launched his rocket, the QI, before he received final approval because he got tired of waiting for the bureaucrats to make up their minds.

After the exterior of the rocket has cooled down, the hatch is opened and Judith’s husband Victor emerges to collapse once he’s outside. His only, whispered, words are “Help me” before an ambulance takes him away. He reflexively clenches and unclenches one fist.
Continue reading “BluRay Review: The Quatermass Xperiment”

DVD Review: Five Million Years to Earth

Since I’ve already covered the plot of this story in detail in the 6 episodes of the BBC television version from the 1950s, I won’t go over it again except where there are significant or interesting differences.

This Hammer film version of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit was filmed in 1968. It was revised by Kneale himself to cut it down to less than half its original length, but I don’t think he has anything to do with the new, alternative title that was used in the U.S. However, as nonsensical as Five Million Years to Earth is as a title, the first difference I make note of is that, in this version, there really isn’t a Pit either. The deep hole of the Knightsbridge construction site is gone; this time, our story begins in the Hobbs End Underground station, which isn’t very far underground. But the phrase “the Pit” also has certain connotations beyond a simple hole in the ground, suggestive of Hell and demons in keeping with the nature of the creatures discovered buried there. “Quatermass and the Renovated Tube Station” doesn’t evoke that same note of horror.

Ape-man skull At the Hobbs End station, workers are extending the train line when they dig up the fossilized skeletal remains of some hominids. The strange object that Dr. Roney’s team first takes for an unexploded bomb is discovered less than 7 minutes into the film, opening credits included.

Both the fossils and the object are found in the clay in the back wall behind the subway tracks, so there is no sense of remarkable archaeological chronology here–more a sense of surprise that things so close to the surface weren’t dug up ages ago.

Captain Potter of the Bomb Squad (Bryan Marshall) is still too young to have WWII experience. In this version, he’s the one who seeks out Colonel Breen (Julian Glover, who was born in 1935 and is way too young himself to be playing a crusty old WWII vet at this point in his career). After the meeting at the War Office where Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) is told that his Rocket Group is about to be handed over to Breen, Breen receives Potter’s phone message and Quatermass comes along with him since the two were intending to thrash the matter out over dinner. This little bomb problem is just a stop on their way… until they get a look at the thing that obviously is no bomb. And when the undamaged skull turns up inside the sleek and shining black hull, Quatermass is drawn into the mystery whether Breen wants him there or not.

Tiny 'pentacle' on the ship's hull

Dr. Roney and Quatermass aren’t previously acquainted, but they bond quickly over their mutual dislike of Col. Breen.
Continue reading “DVD Review: Five Million Years to Earth”

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.
Continue reading “DVD Review: The House of Dark Shadows”

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.
Continue reading “DVD Review: Night of Dark Shadows”

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.
Continue reading “Film Review: The Whisperer in Darkness”

A Cottage on Dartmoor

This is a long overlooked British silent film, directed by Anthony Asquith in the early days of his career. I’m posting my review of it here because the cottage reminds me of Orlan’s at the end of the novel–one large room below, and a partial loft above. The story is not at all similar.

A man breaks out of Dartmoor prison and runs across the darkened moors to the title cottage, where a woman is putting her baby to bed in the loft. He breaks in just before she comes downstairs. When she sees him, she is naturally alarmed… but they call each other by their first names.

Most of the rest of the movie is a flashback to when the escaped prisoner was a barber and the woman a manicurist at a posh hotel barber’s shop; he is smitten with her in a shy-but-slightly-creepy way and believes she returns his affections due to a misunderstanding about some flowers he sent her. When she falls in love with one of their regular customers, he goes into full-blown jealous stalker mode and follows the couple on a date to the movies (They’re in a silent movie, but they’re going to see a talky).

The scene in the theater is one of the movie’s high points: we never see what the audience is watching, but we observe all their reactions. I guessed that the short before the main feature was a Harrold Lloyd comedy from the way a boy in the audience reacts to Lloydish-looking man in glasses sitting near him. At one point, the scene features enough quick cuts to keep the shortest of modern attention spans happy. And while nearly everyone else is the theater is enthralled by the movie–and the manicurist and her boyfriend are cuddling up during the suspenseful parts–Stalker-guy is seated in the row immediately behind them and never takes his eyes off them.

The next day, the boyfriend comes into the barber shop for his usual shave and manicure. While the couple flirts as she works on his nails, guess who is holding a straight razor near his throat? This scene is a forerunner the sort of suspense work we’ll later see from Alfred Hitchcock. And since the man holding the razor escaped from prison at the beginning of the movie, the tension of the moment increases only toward dread.

The movie is worth seeing just for these two sequences alone.

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.