Madhouse

This 1974 film is on the flip slide of the Theatre of Blood DVD. If not for that, I don’t suppose I would’ve known about it or been able to watch it repeatedly. I’m certain I never saw it when I watched these kinds of movies on late-night TV in the 1970s and ‘80s. It’s an AIP/Amicus collaboration, featuring one major horror-film icon from each studio: Vincent Price and Peter Cushing.

Dr. DeathWe start with a scene set 12 years ago at a New Year’s Eve party in Hollywood, although it doesn’t look much like the early ‘60s. Horror-film star Paul Toombes (Price) is showing the latest film from his wildly successful series of Dr. Death movies.

AIP’s contribution to this film wasn’t just Vincent Price for the current project, but Price’s earlier work. The clips from the Dr. Death movies that we’ll see throughout Madhouse are actually from Roger Corman’s mostly Poe-based AIP films. These were the movies I did watch on late-night TV in my youth, so part of the fun in watching this is being able to identify them.

The film shown here is the ending of that Poe’d-up adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” Haunted Palace (which I really am going to review one of these days; I’ve been saying so for years). It’s been edited to dub in a line or two about Dr. Death and to insert shots of Price in his distinctive Dr. Death makeup.

After the film is over, Paul announces his engagement to Ellen, an actress much younger than himself. Among the people there to congratulate the couple is an old acquaintance of the prospective bride, Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry); he’s is a slimy producer who makes adult films, and he immediately spoils things by cheerfully informing Paul that Ellen began her career by working for him in nudie movies. Paul is horrified and takes this to mean that she’s “on the make” and only marrying him for his money. The engagement is off, which puts a damper on the party.

Paul goes off to sulk and Ellen goes upstairs to cry and powder her nose at a fancy and well-lit vanity table—and then get murdered by someone dressed in the Dr. Death cloak, fedora, and black gloves, wearing a skull-mask.

Dead Ellen

After the opening credits, Paul realizes that his fiancée’s early career has nothing to do with her feelings for him and goes to apologize to her for being an ass. He finds her sitting at the vanity table just at the stroke of midnight, but when he touches her, her head falls off.

This beheading has left surprisingly little blood on the fluffy white carpet or furniture.

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Fade to Black

I remembered this movie being much better than it is. Now that I view it again after a lapse of nearly 40 years, I think that some of what I recall actually came from a novelization that I read around the same time; there are scenes and snappy bits of dialog not in the DVD version that I have. I’m sorry they didn’t use whoever wrote that for this screenplay.

In 1980, Fade to Black was Dennis Christopher’s follow-up after the success of Breaking Away. I had a mild crush on him after that film, and he is easily the best thing in this one, playing a shy film geek who one day snaps and starts to identify too closely with some of his favorite screen legends. But he’s got a difficult and somewhat incoherent script to work with.

Dennis Christopher

The DVD I bought of this film comes from Italy; it’s in English, but there are captions in Italian that pop up to translate any street signs, book or film titles, or other text that appears on the screen. Thinking of this as gialli helps me cope with the incoherence and some of the other plot problems. If you watch enough Italian horror, you get used to it not making any sense. Plus, it’s got the elaborate sort of set-piece murders that Italian horror movies enjoy so much (but without all the gore).

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The Legacy

The Legacy is one of those sophisticated devil-worshipper films that were popular during the 1970s following Rosemary’s Baby. While it has some narrativeBestowing the ring flaws, it was one of the staples of my late-night TV viewing as a teenager and I still have a fondness for it.  The story plays out as if it were an old-fashioned, country-house murder mystery and features a number of  grisly, magically induced baroque deaths. But there’s really little doubt about who’s responsible in the end.

Los Angeles architect Maggie Walsh (Katharine Ross) receives a job offer in England. The work itself isn’t clearly defined, but the letter encloses a check for $50,000 as a retainer–a massive amount of money in the 1970s–and asks that Maggie be in the UK by a specific date a couple of weeks away.  Her business partner and lover Pete Danner (Sam Elliott)* is dubious about taking a job they know nothing about, but the check is certainly real.

Maggie decides to accept. In fact, she wants to go right away to spend a few days as a tourist and to look up “where her English blood came from” before meeting with her client.

During the opening credits, accompanied by the movie theme song sung by Kiki Dee, we see Pete and Maggie in London, then zipping around the countryside on a motorcycle. They pass through a charming little village, stop to have a picnic lunch beside a stream, then ride down a narrow lane where they swerve off suddenly into the trees to avoid a crash with a Rolls Royce coming up the other way.

Motorcycle crashThe owner of the Rolls (John Standing) is extremely apologetic as he  checks the couple for injuries. They aren’t hurt, but the motorcycle is a bit banged up.

The gentleman offers to take them to his house for a spot of tea while the local mechanic comes for the bike and repairs it. Only when they’re actually in the back of the limo does he introduce himself as Jason Mountolive.

After a brief stop in that village for Harry the chauffeur to speak to the garage mechanic, they drive on to Jason’s house, Ravenshurst, which is a lovely old mansion on a grand estate.

Jason sends his guests in through the front door, telling them that “Adams” will take care of them. He stays in the car as it goes around to the back. While he seemed perfectly fine while talking to Maggie and Pete after the accident, something is seriously wrong with him; he’s very weak, and the chauffeur has to help him out of the car and up the back stairs to his room.

Maggie and Pete, meanwhile, are impressed by the gorgeous interior of the house. They see no sign of Adams or anyone else, apart from a white cat with mismatched eyes like David Bowie–one green and one blue.

The drawing room

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Theatre of Blood

This is one of my favorite Vincent Price films. I’ve heard that it was one of his too.

It’s a bit gruesome, but played for comedy and a lot of fun. Some of Britain’s finest actors queued up to play the critics/victims in this film and have their own vicarious revenge. I know it’s a Dr. Phibes knock-off, but I prefer it. With my background in English Lit, I’d rather watch a movie about a hammy actor committing a series of baroque Shakespearean-themed murders to a disfigured doctor committing Biblically-based ones.

Critics Circle Awards 1970

The film begin with Michael Hordern (last seen here as the skeptical and nearly incoherent Mr. Parkins in Whistle and I’ll Come to You) as London theatre critic George Maxwell. He and his wife are having breakfast in their flat overlooking Hammersmith Bridge and the newspaper he’s reading informs viewers that the date is March 15, 1972.

Maxwell’s reading the latest of his own scathing reviews is interrupted when receives a telephone call asking him to come to an empty tenement that’s about to be torn down to help evict some squatters. As chair of the local housing committee, he sees nothing remarkable with this request apart from his needing to be present so the police can see the squatters off the property. His only concern is whether or not it will make him late for his Critics Circle meeting.

His wife, whose name is not Calpurnia, gets into the theme of the movie before we even know what it is by warning him not to go; she’s had dreams of a disaster befalling Maxwell. Dismissing her fears, off he blithely goes.

When he arrives at the abandoned building, two people dressed in policemen’s uniforms are waiting for him. In spite of the abundant facial hair both wear to conceal their features, their voices are distinctive and easily recognizable. They escort Maxwell up a couple of floors to where a group of tramps and meths drinkers are lying about on filthy pallets. But when Maxwell tries to shoo them out, they rise up, smashing the bottles they’ve been drinking from orMaxwell dies taking up other sharp objects, chase him until they trap him, then stab him viciously.

Bleeding, Maxwell staggers toward the taller of the two policemen, who have stood by watching while all this has been going on. Instead of saying anything to the point, the man begins to recite a speech from Julius Caesar.

Maxwell falls down (the camera looking up through the slatwork floor beneath him); the supposed policemen stands over him, still reciting. Stripping off his helmet and false mustache, he reveals himself to be… well, it’s Vincent Price. Like his voice didn’t make that obvious the instant he  spoke.

Maxwell has just time to choke out, “You… but you’re dead,” before he dies himself.

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Murder at the Vanities

“Pre-Code” isn’t an accurate name for movies made in the early 1930s. The Hays Office Production Code was initially introduced in 1930, outlining what could and couldn’t be shown as well as said in the new, talking pictures, but the Code wasn’t rigidly enforced. In fact, it was pretty much ignored during those early years as filmmakers continued to test its  limits and see how far they could go. Only in 1934, when Joseph Breen organized a boycott with the Catholic Legion of Decency, did the film studios concede and start making movies that conformed to one specific vision of a world where nobody swore or used illegal drugs, criminals received their just deserts,  and even married couples always kept one foot on the floor.

Rita shows Lt. Murdoch her favorite hat pinThese so-called Pre-Code movies are often crude and sometimes still have the power to shock, but they also have a breezy freedom and brash cynicism that feels more natural than their later, more heavily censored counterparts. They seem to me to reveal a more honest picture of what people in the early 1930s were really like.

Murder at the Vanities was released in the summer of 1934, just before censorship of films became more stringent. It’s not a great musical of the era, like 42nd Street or Golddiggers of 1933, but there’s a lot going on here that wouldn’t be allowed in movies even a few months later, plus a murder mystery that occurs between (and during) the musical numbers.

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Dark Shadows: The Mystery of the Missing Pen

ds-pen When I first watched Dark Shadows via Netflix, Collection 3 of the pre-Barnabas Beginning series wasn’t available. I skipped from the end of Collection 2, concerning the murder of Bill Malloy, to Collection 4, where the case is wound up, and missed most of the actual mystery story in between.

Since I got the entire Dark Shadows series on DVD for Christmas, I’m finally able to watch that missing section–episodes 71 through 105, about 7 weeks of airtime from the autumn of 1966.

Quick recap of the backstory: The body of Collinses’ cannery manager Bill Malloy washed up on the rocks below the cliffs of Collinwood, but the police believe that he was actually killed at a place a little farther up the coast called Lookout Point. His broken watch suggests that this happened at 10:45 pm, halfway between the last time he was seen alive at 10:30 by his housekeeper Mrs. Johnson, and the 11:00 Roger, Burke, and Sam waitingmeeting at the cannery, where Roger Collins, Burke Devlin, and Sam Evans were expecting him. Of course he never showed up.

Since Malloy intended to produce evidence that proved that Burke wasn’t driving the car during that drunken hit-and-run accident that sent him to prison for manslaughter–and that Roger was driving–Roger is very naturally the prime suspect. And Roger makes the most of it by trying to look as suspicious as possible.

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Christmas Mysteries

For years, I collected different film & TV versions of A Christmas Carol on DVD and watched them around this time of year, until I got thoroughly sick of Tiny Tim and Jacob Marley and “Humbug!” and the rest of it.

I began to look around for other holiday-themed viewing, and eventually turned to the extensive number of mystery stories I have on the shelves. How many of them are set at Christmas, so I could watch bodies pile up at English country houses and missing jewels turn up in weird places over a holiday weekend? Quite a few.

The Blue Carbuncle

The Blue CarbuncleActually, I have two TV versions of this classic Sherlock Holmes story on DVD–one from the Jeremy Brett series from the 1980s, and the other from a series made in the late 1960s starring Peter Cushing. Several episodes of the latter have been lost, but a handful including The Blue Carbuncle survive.

The story: A famous gemstone is stolen from its owner at a posh London hotel. The man sent in to repair the heating is immediately arrested for the crime in spite of his protests that he’s innocent; he doesn’t have the big, blue gem on him and a reward is offered for its return. Then the gemstone turns up in the crop of a Christmas goose, which was dropped in the street by one Henry Baker along with his hat. Who’s this Henry Baker and what connection does he have with the theft? How did the stolen gemstone get from the hotel to the insides of the goose? Have the police got the wrong man? Holmes investigates by tracing the history of the goose from the place where it was purchased to the yard where it was raised to find the true thieves, and all on a frosty Christmas Eve.

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DVD Review: A Dark and Stormy Night

This is one of my favorite movies, right up there with A Room With a View and Horror Express. Watching it for the first time led me to start hunting down movies from that genre, and eventually led to my watching and reviewing Dark Shadows.

SuspectsThis 2009 film was Larry Blamire’s last–and I really wish he’d do some more. As his previous works were loving parodies and recreations of the low-budget sci-fi movies of the 1950s and ’60s, A Dark and Stormy Night spoofs the Old Dark House movies that were popular from the 1920s through the ’40s. Not only is it in black and white, but the actors’ performances, the sets, the musical cues, and even the opening credits are very much in the style of that period.

The plot particularly follows that of one of the very first Old Dark House movies, the 1927 silent film The Cat and the Canary, which shows how little the template for this genre has diverged over 80 years.

Hand A family and various other suspicious people assemble at a huge and spooky old house for the reading of a will during a stormy night. There are multiple murders, secret panels all over the place, and even a phantom arm coming through a bedroom wall to snatch at a hapless young woman in bed.
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