DART Review: The Lurking Fear

One of my favorite Lovecraft titles, if not one of my favorite stories. Written in 1922, The Lurking Fear is the tale of a long-abandoned house in upstate New York that once belonged to a reclusive and xenophobic old Dutch family all with mismatched eyes like David Bowie (one blue, one brown), horrible and mysterious deaths that occur during thunderstorms in neighboring rural shantytowns, and an intrepid investigator who brings along some extremely unfortunate companions and takes a heck of a long time to figure things out.

It does, however, have some terrific horror images that will stick with you.

Letter unfolded, article and report

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

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The House

This 1954 episode of the otherwise long-forgotten suspense TV show, The Web, is one of the special features on the DVD for the documentary about Dan Curtis,  The Master of Dark Shadows. It’s noteworthy because it was written by future Dark Shadows writer Art Wallace and its story bears more than a passing resemblance to one of the soap opera’s earliest plots.   Viewers of the show will find a lot that’s familiar here.

Walt Cummins at (not) The Blue WhaleThe House begins when a stranger (Charles Dingle) enters a bar in a small New England fishing village. He tells the bartender that his name is Walt Cummins and talks a bit about warm, English beer to indicate that he’s a traveler, before  mentioning that he’s been here before but not in many years.

Would the people he used to know still remember him? In particular, he asks after a woman who lives in a big house at the edge of town, Elizabeth Stover (not Stoddard).

Sure, says the bartender, Mrs. Stover still lives there with her daughter Louise even though the place “is about ready to fall down”. The funny thing is that Mrs. Stover refuses to leave her house, has stayed there for 25 years since her husband John walked out and took her jewelry with him. Everyone in town supposes that she’s waiting for him to come back some day.

Mr. Cummins smirks and says that he’ll be “a real surprise” to her.

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The Unnamable

H.P. Lovecraft’s 1925 short story The Unnamable, about something too horrible to be named that dwells in an ancient and abandoned house,   provides a basis for this 1988 low-budget horror film.

The original story is very short. You can read it in about 5 minutes online at: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/u.aspx.

The Face in the Window So brief a story naturally needs some filling out to become a feature-length movie. In this case, I’m sorry to say they took the unimaginative route of making another standard-template slasher movie–which came thick and fast throughout the ’80s following the success of  Halloween and Friday the 13th; I watched more of them in those days than I can remember now. But it does have one really good feature that shows some creativity.

We start off well enough, with an historical flashback. Going by the costumes and later dialog (as well as the dates given in the original story), it’s the 17th century. An old man has locked some unseen creature that breathes with a loud, purring noise like a lion into a room in his attic. The heavy door features a huge padlock and chains, and a small perforated peephole (recalling the red door from The Shuttered Room).

While he’s downstairs in his study–or perhaps a laboratory given the jars of colored liquid and powders–attempting to read from his collection of quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore, the thing in that room continues to thump on the door and make howling noises.

Wizard WinthropFinally, he goes upstairs to speak to it, addressing it as a “denizen of Hell” and promising that someday he will find the means to enable it to walk in the daylight. Then he unwisely unlocks and opens the door, and gets his heart torn out of his chest.

The next day, a group of men including a clergyman of unspecified denomination gather the mutilated body up into a sheet. They call the old man a wizard, and the clergyman places some kind of religious invocation on the house, declaring that the evil within it will never be able to pass its walls. The men carry the wrapped-up body out to the adjacent cemetery, quickly lower it down inside an above-ground tomb that’s ready and waiting, and place the stone slab over the top. After the others scurry away, the clergyman remains to complete a short funeral service; he glances repeatedly and nervously up at the attic window of the house behind him, then hastens away as well.

From there, we jump to the same churchyard about 300 years later–that is, modern times. This is the part of the film that sticks most closely to Lovecraft’s story, except there are three young men sitting against the tombstones instead of two.

In addition to our Lovecraft stand-in, Randolph Carter, and his friend Joel Manton, the third boy is named Howard. They’re all students at good old Miskatonic U, the campus of which is just a short walk away.

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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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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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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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DVD Review: The Undying Monster

The Undying Monster is a 1940s old dark house mystery concerning a family legend about a werewolf. It was directed by John Brahm, who also did two much better movies in the “gaslight” thriller genre in the 1940s: The Lodger, and Hangover Square. All three came together in the same boxed set, which is how I got hold of this less well-known work of his.

Hammond Hall

After an opening voice-over that introduces the legend of the Hammond Monster and sets the story we are about to see in 1900, the movie takes us around the interior of an old mansion somewhere on the English coast.

The clock is striking 12 and chords of ominous music play. We end up in the drawing room, lit only by the fire in the fireplace.

Arm A woman’s arm is seen dangling limply over the edge of the sofa. An enormous Great Dane lies sprawled on the carpet. Are they both dead? Victims of the Monster?

No–it’s just a little directorial fake-out. The butler comes in a minute later and both the dog and the woman wake up. “I must’ve fallen asleep,” the latter says apologetically.

Great Dane

This young lady is Helga Hammond, who was waiting up for her brother Oliver’s return from the laboratory of a doctor friend who lives nearby. Oliver isn’t usually out this late. There is some conversation about poachers on the family estate and the butler quotes an old poem about the Hammond Monster: When there are “Bright stars, frost on the ground” (as there are on this particular night), “beware the bane on the rocky lane” (the path Oliver is most likely to take home). The Hammond siblings’ grandfather died on the cliff path along the sea coast 20 years ago–after seeing the Monster, the butler maintains.

Helga scoffs at the old family legend. She believes her grandfather killed himself. She doesn’t seem very worried about her brother, even after the Great Dane barks at something outside before running away into the frosty night, but she does telephone the doctor to confirm that Oliver did leave his house some time ago. She is about to go up to bed when a dog or wolf is heard howling in the distance.
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DVD Review: One Body Too Many

So, have you ever been watching The Wizard of Oz and find yourself looking at the Tin Woodsman and thinking, “Mm–that Jack Haley. I’d like to see him naked holding an armload of adorable black kittens.” No? Me neither. But if there’s somebody out there that’s had that thought, then I’ve found a movie for you.

One Body Too Many is a 1940s comedy that plays with the standard formula and tropes of those Old Dark House movies I’ve been hunting down during the last few years. Haley plays Albert Tuttle, a nerdy but ambitious insurance salesman who has an appointment to sign up a new client, Cyrus Rutherford, an eccentric millionaire so obsessed with astrology that he’s built an observatory on top of his mansion. What Albert doesn’t know is that his prospective client has no need to buy life insurance; he’s just dropped dead.

We cut to the familiar old scene of the family gathered at the mansion to hear the reading of the will–only, it isn’t a will. Cyrus Rutherford’s lawyer instead reads a preamble to his will, which leaves amounts from $50,000 to $1.50 for cab fare to the various people in the room–Rutherford’s sister and her husband, a collection of nieces and nephews, the astrologer who helped Rutherford design his observatory, the housekeeper and butler. (This last is played by Bela Lugosi, who doesn’t really get much to do in this movie besides play out a running joke by offering everyone cups of coffee which the viewer has reason to believe he’s poisoned to get rid of “all the rats.”) The preamble to Rutherford’s will also features some snarky comments about these people so that we get some quick sketches of their characters and can sort out the nice ones from the nasties… for the most part, anyway.

According to the terms of the preamble, Rutherford’s coffin is to be placed in a glass vault on top of the observatory so that he can always gaze up at the stars. This vault will take a few days to be built. No one can leave the house before then without forfeiting their inheritance. Once the body is in its final resting place, the will will be read. If, for some reason, the body isn’t placed in the vault according to Rutherford’s wishes, then the terms of the will will be reversed–that is, the people who were to receive the largest amounts of money will get pocket change and the original recipients of the small amounts will be rich. At this point, no one has read the will and don’t know what they are going to inherit, but from the snarky remarks in the preamble we can all guess who Rutherford did and didn’t like.

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DVD Review: Dark Shadows: The Beginning (first episodes)

Dark Shadows: Collinwood at nigtAs a little girl in the early ’70s, I would come home from school every day and turn on the TV to watch reruns of what we called “Barnabas Collins,” the show about the vampire.

I don’t recall very much about the show itself, however, except that one featured character named Maggie was played by an actress named Kathryn Leigh Scott–a name I am unlikely ever to forget or misspell. Nor can I say that I gave the show much thought in the last 40 years, until the first 200 episodes of Dark Shadows from 1966 and ’67, before the appearance of Barnabas Collins, became available on DVD in the wake of that very silly film remake.

The original concept for the show sounded like the sort of Old Dark House movies I’ve taken an interest in lately, atmospherically spooky and not so overtly supernatural as it later became. I thought I’d rent the first two sets of disks from Netflix and give it a look.

The first episode begins promisingly with a night-time view of a neo-Gothic house on a hill and a woman speaking in voice-over, at once evoking both The Haunting and Rebecca.

When the young woman speaking is introduced, her story also seems vaguely Jane-Eyrish.

Victoria WintersHer name is Victoria Winters (as she will announce at the beginning of nearly every subsequent episode). She was abandoned as an infant and has grown up in a New York orphanage. The only clues she has to her background are a note that was left with her as a baby, bearing her first name, and anonymous envelopes containing money for her care which have been sent regularly from Bangor, Maine, over the past eighteen years.

Vicky has just received a job offer from a woman named Elizabeth Collins Stoddard of Collinsport to be a governess to her nine-year-old nephew.

Vicky has never heard of the Collinses or Collinsport and has no idea how Mrs. Collins Stoddard has come to know about her, but Collinsport is only 50 miles from Bangor. Vicky has accepted the job in hopes of solving the mystery of her own past. We meet her on a train headed for the little coastal town.

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Film Review: Edgar Wallace’s “The Terror”

Edgar Wallace is known for his crime dramas that often feature brutal and grotesque acts of violence. A number of films were made from them through the 1930s through the ’60s in the UK and Germany. Not my usual cup of tea, but this film featured a haunted house, so I put it in my queue to watch.

The Terror‘s story begins with two career criminals named Joe Connor and Soapy Marks (the latter played by Alastair Sim) who have just participated in the theft of a large shipment of gold in transit between Paris and New York; before they can enjoy their ill-gotten gains, however, they are betrayed by their unseen third partner-in-crime, known to them as Micheal Shea. It’s Shea’s phone call to the police that leads to the arrest of Connor and Marks, while he keeps all the gold for himself.

Ten years in prison give Connor and Marks more than ample time to think about revenge. The police, meanwhile, are still searching for the gold, which has never been recovered; they believe that the two about-to-be ex-cons know more about its whereabouts than they admit. Marks and Connor don’t know, but they do have some idea of where to hunt for Shea once they’ve been released.
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