Monthly Archives: August 2017

The House That Dripped Blood (1971)

*. Anthology horror from Amicus. You should know what to expect. Short stories with gruesome punchlines. A mostly throwaway framing narrative that also ends on a dark note. A bunch of familiar faces in the cast (here we have Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Denholm Elliott and Jon Pertwee). Script by Robert Bloch, who had done Torture Garden and would go on to write Asylum.
*. The basic conceit here is that all four of the stories are set in the same house. I’ll have more to say about that later, but first a quick glance at what’s on tap.
*. “Method for Murder”: an old tale, or really a hybrid of two old tales (possessed author, conniving spouse), with a nonsensical twist ending. I guess they needed something to make it seem fresh.
*. “Waxworks”: a strained variation on the House of Wax story. So strained that I wasn’t quite sure what the relations were between the three main characters.
*. “Sweets for the Sweet”: the title is a famous line from Hamlet where the Queen is strewing flowers on Ophelia’s grave. What the hell does it mean here? Another fairly traditional story, with a creepy kid tormenting her father (Lee).
*. “The Cloak”: slightly funny, self-regarding tale about a horror star (Pertwee) who is possessed by a vampire cape.

*. The last two stories are the best. The frame involves a police inspector looking in to Pertwee’s disappearance. Apparently he doesn’t know anything about all the other stuff that has gone down in the house, so a real estate agent named Stoker fills him in.
*. The inspector “knows what he’s doing” but, on being told that there’s no electricity in the house, goes out to inspect it, at night, without a flashlight, so he has to lug a giant candelabra around. Forget about his scepticism of Stoker’s stories, he really doesn’t know what he’s doing.
*. There are two connecting threads: one thematic, the other relating to the setting.
*. The thematic thread has to do with wicked women. The wife in the first story is an adulterous, murderous bitch. The Salome woman in the second is dead at the beginning, but is continuing to wreak a malign influence beyond the grave. In the third story Christopher Lee was apparently married to a witch (at least this is hinted at) and now his daughter is a witch too, intent on tormenting and killing him. In the final story Carla is revealed to be one of a coven of bloodsuckers, though this really doesn’t make much sense.
*. I think this theme of wicked women was the reason director Peter Duffell wanted to call the movie Death and the Maiden. This is the popular name for a string quartet by Schubert (which we hear being played in the second story) but it was considered to be too high-falutin’ for producer Subotsky, who went for the more commercially down-market The House That Dripped Blood.
*. Subotsky’s instincts were probably right, but as has often been noted there isn’t a drop of blood to be seen anywhere in this film. All of the deaths occur off-screen. But there’s an even bigger misdirection than this involved.
*. Despite the new title, no attempt is made to make the house itself into a character in any of the stories, or even to give it a bit of personality. It simply provides the setting for our quartet of tales of terror, playing no role and having no agency in them, despite what Stoker claims.
*. An aside: there are several little in-jokes in the script, but one I haven’t heard mentioned (though it’s probably been noticed by lots of people, I’m not claiming originality here) comes when the actor Henderson says he wants to rent the house because “it’s less than an hour’s drive from the studio.” In fact, the building used was the gatehouse at Shepperton Studios, which the label on the fake cloak identifies as where Henderson’s vampire movie is being shot.
*. To return to what Stoker says about the house. What he claims, in a really strained attempt to draw the stories together in some way, is that the house “reflects the personality of whoever lives in it, and treats him accordingly.” This is nonsense. The concept of just desserts can, by my reckoning, only be applied to a couple of the stories, and only then with a lot of work. In each case it seems clear that the tenants bring their problems with them, with the house only being witness to the final acts (and, in the case of the second story, not even that).
*. So the house doesn’t drip any blood. And really there’s nothing that stands out as particularly memorable about this one, aside from the title. That’s irony for you.

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Torture Garden (1967)

*. So if you come to this knowing it has nothing to do with the novel by Octave Mirbeau but that it’s one of the horror anthologies put out by Amicus the first thing you’re likely wondering at is the presence of Burgess Meredith and Jack Palance.
*. Well, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were originally slated to star but since Columbia was supplying the money they wanted a couple of American names, hence Meredith and Palance. I don’t know if Palance took Cushing’s part or if he just jumped up to star billing. It’s not that it’s a big role anyway, though I think Palance is effectively countercast as a raspy connoisseur of Poe.
*. Aside from that quirk in the casting, this is a very typical Amicus product. Direction by Freddie Francis. Script by Robert Bloch (based on stories he had written). Four brief spooky tales bound up in a supernatural frame story.
*. I didn’t find this one very interesting. The main problem, I think, is Bloch’s script. The stories are pretty stupid, the frame is silly, and there’s a real lack of energy to drive things along.
*. That frame consists of Meredith as Dr. Diabolo, a fairground sinister who curates an exhibit of macabre waxworks. One of these is introduced as Atropos the Goddess of Destiny who holds the hypnotic shears of fate. When one of Diabolo’s guests looks at the shears they are offered a vision of their future doom in the form of a dark fantasy vignette.
*. This all seems a stretch to me, even beyond the usual. Here is Dr. Diabolo’s spiel: “There is a theory: the past, the present, and the future are merely different aspects of the same moment in time and space. You understand that theory? Then perhaps you can understand that since a drowning man can view his entire past in a few seconds, he can also view his future by the same rule.” How can you argue with that? After all, he is a doctor.
*. Stretching credulity further is Dr. Diabolo’s commentary that the visions of Atropos are warnings about “things that can be.” But these are not visions about things that anyone could believe actually happening, however far-fetched they may seem. They aren’t like the premonitions of disaster served up in the Final Destination movies. Instead they are weird tales of supernatural occurrences. And why would anyone be frightened by predictions of evil cats or killer pianos?
*. The same concept of prophecy was used in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, which I believe was the first of the anthology horrors Amicus did and which was also directed by Francis. To be honest, I think the idea of having the fates of the characters revealed after the fact, though it leads to some other problems, makes more sense. This was the route Amicus later took with Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror.
*. The first story, “Enoch,” is very dull and predictable. Just another case of the grasping heir getting more than he bargained for with his inheritance.
*. “Terror Over Hollywood” struck me as the best of the bunch, and even stole a march on The Stepford Wives by five years (though the basic idea is nothing new). Beverly Adams is also great as the rising star Carla Hayes.
*. This segment also illuminates an interesting cultural shift. I think a lot of us might ask today what the big tragedy is about Carla’s fate. Hasn’t she wound up with everything she always dreamed of, and more? Success, fame, money, beauty . . . forever? Today, of course, the idea of transplanting (or uploading) one’s consciousness is something a lot of money is being spent researching. If only we knew the secret of Dr. Heim!
*. “Mr. Steinway” is about a haunted piano. At the end of the story it pushes the heroine out of a window. Really. The piano. It was going to take something special to make that work.
*. “The Man Who Collected Poe” is a somewhat interesting idea but it gets a very pedestrian treatment without any real twist. A lot of people like this episode the best but I think they’re just deferring to the leads. There’s nothing special about it.
*. It’s odd that Palance seems to have an almost orgasmic look on his face at the end. Was such a climax not frightening to him, but a consummation to be wished?
*. In sum, the individual stories, though weird in terms of content, are all pretty basic. Greed and ambition are punished (even the girl in the third story is an obnoxious climber, with her “Leo belongs to me now”). The frame ends on a bizarre note, not because of the silly revelation of Dr. Diabolo’s identity but because of his final interaction with Palance. What happens there? What deal have they struck?

*. The production is what you’d expect, and the same goes for Francis’s direction. He shows off his usual affection for depth of field, foregrounding or backgrounding key elements like the shears, a glass of medicine, a trapdoor, the tines of the pitchfork, the mother’s portrait, or the set of keys. But that’s really his only flash of style here.
*. As with all of the Amicus anthologies, it’s not a great movie but you do get something mildly entertaining. If you’ve seen enough of these, you’ll have a pretty good idea why the format never really took off. That’s a shame, as it always had potential (see Dead of Night or Kwaidan). But for various reasons it remained stuck in a rut of inexpensive and formulaic quickies.

Kwaidan (1965)

*. Kwaidan is a movie that vibrates on a string of tension plucked between opposing elements in its design. I know that sounds kind of fluffy, but I’ll try and explain.
*. Most obvious, at least at a first glance (and a first glance is all it takes), is the opposition of nature and art. Kwaidan flaunts its artificiality in nearly every shot. There are only a few scenes that were filmed on location, the rest being shot inside what was a converted airplane hangar (that was being used as an auto warehouse at the time) because there weren’t any studios in Japan big enough for the sets.
*. What gives rise to the tension is that this isn’t a movie of notable interiors but one largely set out of doors, filled with forests and rivers and lakes and dazzling skyscapes. I’ve even heard it suggested that the stories are meant to represent the different seasons, though I have trouble seeing it. In any event, it’s a movie that constantly evokes the natural world, but in outlandishly unnnatural ways. The skyscapes are operatic backdrops (Coppola was obviously a student, borrowing those floating eyes for Dracula), and even the sound of the blowing wind is played on flutes.
*. Another opposition, much commented on by Stephen Prince in his DVD commentary, is between surface and depth. On the one hand there’s what Prince identifies as the imitation of traditional Japanese painting and its “flat, 2-D pictorial space” that mitigates any sense of volume. On the other, there is the frequent use of foreground items, often with a thematic intent (for example, a post or other vertical barrier dividing a pair of characters), or the tunnels of trees, or gates and doorways seeming to open unto endlessly receding vistas.

*. I also think of the use of colour to create a sense of depth and space, which is something Welles did in The Immortal Story (1968). Is it a coincidence that both films were their respective director’s first feature work in colour?
*. Then there is the opposition of sound and silence. Welles too thought that music in film allowed silence afterward, and even suggested that this silence was music’s most important role. As Prince notes, that’s also the function it has here, as the odd score by Toru Takamitsu deliberately loads up calculated intervals of silence. Assistant director Kiyoshi Ogasawara remarks that the point was to show how “silence is also sound.” The one creates the other.
*. Here’s another pair to consider: unity and diversity. Kwaidan is an anthology-horror film, a genre not usually identified with the art house or high production values. Such films are often only loosely held together by a frame narrative, but there is little attempt at that here (or none at all, depending on how you read the ending). This makes the audience wonder what it is that connects them, or if there is any connection aside from their all being adapted from the stories of Lafcadio Hearn.

*. In his Criterion essay, Geoffrey O’Brien writes that “the first three stories Kobayashi chose to include all involve broken vows, broken not through conscious malevolence but through what seem like unavoidable circumstances.” Well, yeah. Sort of. This seems awfully loose to me though. Sort of like “angry ghosts.”
*. Personally, I don’t see much in the way of a unifying theme aside from the fact that all the stories deal with the supernatural. But because they’re all collected here together we instinctively look for ways to combine them, to see what they have in common in less obvious ways. The alternation of horror and sadness mentioned by Ogasawara strikes me as a good insight, but again it’s rather vague, describing a general tone adopted toward the material rather than a guiding principle.

*. Finally, I’d point to the opposition of big and small. On the one hand it’s an epic, the most expensive Japanese film ever made to date, filmed in the vernacular of the historical costume drama and even incorporating a giant naval battle scene. But it’s also a movie that was shot on what I think were just a couple of studio sets, however elaborately designed. In short, it’s a movie that feels cramped and expansive at the same time.
*. These are some of the ways I look at Kwaidan. There are others, like the tension between the Kubrickian exactness and control of the film, its flatness and precision, with its subject matter of heightened emotional states, but you get what I’m saying. It’s a movie that rides a balance between all of these opposites and remains hard to pin down.

*. One of the things that makes it hard to pin down is that it’s hard to connect to what came before or after. I think in particular of how bizarre and extreme Japanese fantasy and horror films were soon to become, from Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968) and Obayashi’s House (1977) to today’s J-horror, but those movies don’t feel anything like Kwaidan despite some surface similarities. If there’s a link to Kwaidan it’s in the anti-mimetic or anti-realistic rendering: the highly artificial sets and nervy music. But still, they seem very different.
*. At three hours, does it go on too long? Of course purists will howl no, but it’s a question worth considering. It was cut in order to be shown at Cannes, and an entire story (“The Woman of the Snow”) dropped for the American release. Only recently was it restored to its original length.
*. I find that the slow, deliberate camera work and pacing does work against the film somewhat, but in ways that I can’t really put my finger on. Obviously Kobayashi isn’t in a rush, and that’s his style, but for all the loveliness of the film to look at I do think that it’s missing something.

*. I mentioned already that’s it’s not a movie that inspires much in the way of a larger interpretation. I don’t see a unifying theme to it. The same could be said of the symbolism. Most obviously there is the all-seeing eye in the sky. What is the meaning of this bit of design? Prince’s commentary takes a stab at it, referring to it as the eye of God and the surveillance state, the “cosmic celestial eye” and the “nightmarish translation of this ideal of imperial divinity and slavish service to it.”

*. Perhaps, but I don’t see what that has to do with the action. My hunch is that the eye is like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s billboard of the eyes of T. J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby. These eyes became the novel’s most famous iconic image, but Fitzgerald may have just thrown them in because he was struck by the original cover art for the novel. I have a hunch the eyes in the sky here might be the same: evocative but perhaps merely whimsical.
*. As for the final image of the man in the urn, that may be meant to be Hearn but I think it’s really Kobayashi himself, waving at us like the image of God that scientists saw in the photographs of the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe. I think it’s a perfect touch to place at the end of such a heavy film. Heavy, and light.

Twice-Told Tales (1963)

*. From the TCM website: “After completing Tales of Terror (1962), Vincent Price took a break from Roger Corman’s low-budget but atmospheric adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories and tried something different with another studio. The result was the United Artists production, Twice-Told Tales.” Wait a second . . . did they say “something different”?
*. This is an obvious sequel to Tales of Terror, from a not-so-obvious source. I mean, The House of Seven Gables? Really? As was done with the stories of Poe in the earlier film, we are talking very, very free interpretations of the source material. Only “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” by the way, was included in Hawthorne’s volume of Twice-Told Tales.
*. Aside from the different sources, there are two other big differences. First: No Roger Corman. Sidney Salkow does a decent job, but you can feel the lack of imagination. Second: No Richard Matheson. There’s no humour or wit in the script, which makes it all seem stuffy and heavy. Is that a distinction we could also make between Poe and Hawthorne? Maybe. But Hawthorne could have a light touch.
*. You’ll tell from this that I didn’t like this one as much as Tales of Terror. I’m not sure moving to United Artists even led to having more money to play with. No one could make a movie for less than Corman, but I haven’t been able to find a budget for either movie reported. This certainly doesn’t look like a movie that cost any more to make. Not that it looks bad — the collapsing house at the end is respectable — but it doesn’t look any better.
*. I wonder what the first house to drip blood was. There would be a lot of them later, but were there any before this? I’m sure there were but I can’t think of them.
*. Is the poison plant acidic or radioactive? Or both? At one point Rappaccini refers to being burned by “radiation from the acid’s heat.” Does this make sense?
*. Poor Vincent. He just kept playing this jealous or bitter loser at love. Three times here. In the first story his mistress marries his friend (so he kills her). In the second his wife leaves him and his daughter despises him. In the third his new bride can’t wait to run into the arms of a rival. I wonder if this thematic consistency was intentional.
*. The first two stories in particular are downers. And the first is rather odd. Price is (sort of) the villain of the piece, but he’s also the sole survivor. Are we meant to feel sympathy for him at the end?
*. I don’t see this as being of much interest to anyone other than a fan of the horror films of this particular period or of Vincent Price. I think more might have been made out of the stories, but it wasn’t. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” in particular really drags (despite Joyce Taylor looking lovely), and it doesn’t have the sort of shocking climax that anthology-horror specializes in. But then nothing about this movie stands out very much, for good or ill.

Black Sabbath (1963)

*. Chekov! Tolstoy! Maupassant! Damn, we’re taking the high road here! Just because it’s a low-budget anthology horror film doesn’t mean it has to be Poe or Lovecraft!
*. Alas, the stories here have barely any connection to the work of these big-name authors. The origins of all three, in so far as they can be said to have origins, come from the pulps. You just can’t dress this genre up and take it anywhere.
*. I guess I should file these notes under the original Italian title, I tre volti della paura (The Three Faces of Fear), since it was released in America as Black Sabbath in a much cut (and indeed rearranged) form by American International Pictures, and I’m talking about the Italian version here. But I’ll stick with what’s most familiar.
*. I don’t think there’s any point denying this movie is trash, but Mario Bava made great trash and seems to have been perversely inspired by a low budget. The first and third stories here are delightful exercises in minimalism and constraint, with lonely women being terrorized by, respectively, a ringing telephone and the sound of dripping water.
*. So forget about the stories. They’re not important anyway. What’s important is the construction of suspense and the theatrical and otherworldly atmosphere evoked by Bava’s signature elements: dramatic zooms, wandering dollies, and garish, pulsing pools of colour.
*. “Death by self-suffocation.” Hm. That sounds a bit like swallowing your own tongue. I’m not buying it.

*. Apparently both Roger Avary and Quentin Tarantino say they were influenced by this film’s structure when writing Pulp Fiction (1994). Tarantino remarked in an interview that “what Mario Bava did with the horror film in Black Sabbath, I was gonna do with the crime film.”
*. I guess this was in the very early going, as I don’t see any connection between the two films in terms of structure at all. There’s no attempt in Black Sabbath to connect the three stories in any way other than the thematic, and even that is pretty loose (with the middle story, about the vampire/Wurdulak, being the outlier).
*. I think the third story is the strongest, with the rictus grin of the dead woman being a truly frightening motif. The first film struck me as rather obscure, especially given how minimalistic it was. The American release version was changed dramatically, and the fact that it could be changed so much tells you something.
*. The middle story, “The Wurdulak,” is the showpiece, with star Boris Karloff (who also does duty as the frame narrator) buried under living-dead make-up and a shaggy wig. Unfortunately it is also the most predictable and doesn’t give us anything more than another vampire tale playing out among the usual Universal-style sets. The shot of Karloff riding his stuffed mount through the night and  the little boy pleading to be let in are the only highlights.
*. The introduction is lousy, but the final pull back, revealing Karloff on his hobby horse riding through the studio, redeems the frame somewhat. I like this way of winding up, especially given Bava’s usual over-the-top manner of presentation. Did he take any of this seriously? Probably not.
*. I’m still not sure I understand this film’s reputation. It has its moments, but I can think of at least half a dozen Bava movies I’d rather watch. I think the English title helped given it a certain cachet. This is weird, as it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the movie, but it certainly caught on and stuck in people’s heads.
*. Today I think a lot of people reference it without knowing the movie very well, or from confusing it with Black Sunday. I’m not even sure if the members of Black Sabbath saw it before taking their name from a marquee they saw across the street from one of their shows. In any event, I think it’s second-rate work, only of interest to hardcore Bava fans.

Tales of Terror (1962)

*. Wherein Vincent Price really finds a home with American International and, more than anything else, with Poe. Because he looks like he belongs in the nineteenth century, and that creepy voice . . .
*. Price is fine here, but I think most of the credit actually should go to Roger Corman. You can argue over whether he was a great director, or could have been a great director had he chosen to go a less commercial route. But the fact is he was always a good director. He wasn’t averse to trying different things and adding a few notes of style, and while these weren’t always successful there’s rarely anything in one of his movies that doesn’t work. He knew how to put a movie together.
*. As examples here I’d note little things like the slight zoom into Peter Lorre’s Montresor as he spies on his wife making love (in the old-fashioned sense) with Fortunato, or the composition of the death-bed formation in the final story, going from a theatrical presentation to a shot through the headboard of the bed.

 *. I also like how the stories are arranged. You usually want to begin and end these omnibus films with your strongest material, but in this case, with only three stories (P.O.E.: Poetry of Eerie would give us 13!) that rule of thumb doesn’t hold. Instead Corman places the strongest, and longest, story in the middle. This is where it belongs because it also has a different tone from the other two stories, being the only one with a clear comic bent.
*. So all-in-all, a solid job of direction by Corman. The only place where I had to cringe a bit was with the shots of M. Valdemar approaching Basil Rathbone appearing totally out of focus. I take it this was to disguise some really lousy make-up effects of the rotting face, which would have made showing the face a loser no matter how Corman chose to do it. Still, I think he should have trusted with whatever effects he had. It would have been better than just blurring the shot.
*. Holy May/December! I thought for sure that Joyce Jameson was playing Peter Lorre’s daughter, not his wife (she was 27 years younger). Ditto for Debra Paget and Vincent Price (she was 22 years younger). Then in the first story, “Morella,” the dead wife literally replaces the daughter. Is this a problem? It’s not unfaithful to Poe, who married his own child bride.
*. I wonder if it’s possible for spider webs to cover as much interior as we see them on in the first story. The dining table looks like it came from Miss Havisham’s house in Great Expectations. I have some experience with cobwebs, having lived for a long time in an old house that I never cleaned. And, well, I think there are limits to how much webbing you can have.
*. Most accounts of the horror-anthology genre refer back to Dead of Night (1945), which is a great movie but is in many ways atypical. What I mainly mean here is the extent to which it foregrounds the frame narrative that introduces the different stories. That was never done as well, and in many later efforts it was almost entirely disposed of. Here we get Price doing a bit of voiceover and some animation, but there’s no attempt made at providing a framing story. In retrospect, that seems to have been more of a British thing, though it was revived by the V/H/S franchise.
*. It’s a good script by Richard Matheson, interpreting the sources with intelligence and economy. Sure it’s a very free-spirited mangling of Poe. But the cross-hatching of “A Cask of Amontillado” with “The Black Cat” makes sense and is done well. And why not? I’m not one of those people who believe that classic texts have to be religiously adhered to. If the changes work, then filmmakers should feel free to interpret and re-interpret. I might not like what Altman did to Raymond Carver in Short Cuts, but it was an Altman movie. This is an AIP production. It isn’t Poe.
*. I’ve always wondered about the exchange in “The Cask of Amontillado” where Fortunato cries out “For the love of God, Montresor!” and Montresor answers “Yes, for the love of God!” What does this mean? Is it just madness? In the film version, when the police discover the walled-up bodies it’s due to the howling of the entombed cat, which leads one of the cops to say “What in the name of God . . . ?” I wonder if the echo was intentional, and if Matheson was puzzling over the original exchange as well.
*. At the time it was easy to sniff at fare like this. The New York Times review, for example: “a dull, absurd and trashy adaptation of three Edgar Allan Poe stories, broadly draped around the shoulders of such people as Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone (who at least bothers to act). Skip it, if possible.” This isn’t even strictly accurate, because it’s actually an adaptation of four stories condensed into three. But while it’s clearly a Corman quickie, I found it to be a good-looking production where everyone seems to have done their part. Price, Corman, and Matheson were nothing if not professionals. Quite a lot of success in art as well as life consists in just doing your job.

Dead of Night (1945)

*. Now this is really something strange. Dead of Night is usually seen as being the first “anthology horror” film, consisting of a bunch of short stories embedded in a frame narrative. Hammer and Amicus would go on to make a lot of these, and in the U.S. there were the Corman-Poe movies in the ’60s and then Creepshow and Tales from the Crypt, with more recently the V/H/S franchise. But I believe Dead of Night was the first, unless you want to go all the way back to Waxworks (1924).
*. What makes Dead of Night strange, however, is the fact that in addition to being the first horror anthology, it is also widely considered to be the best (Kwaidan being perhaps the only other contender). It’s not very often that that happens. You’d think that after inventing the genre somebody else would come along and eventually do it better. But that hasn’t happened.
*. I wonder why. I think in part it’s because nobody wanted to. What I mean by that is that this was a real outlier for Ealing, and even they didn’t do anything by way of a follow up. And when its other imitators arrived on the scene they were more interested in doing something cheaper and more sensational, basically adapting old comic books and pulp fiction rather than more literary sources. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m just saying that I think Ealing were actually trying to make something really good (albeit on a very low budget), while later anthology-horror movies were content to aim lower.
*. As for what makes Dead of Night a better movie than Tales from the Crypt or Creepshow, I think you have to begin with the quality of the frame story. Let’s face it, usually these are only throwaways — perhaps nothing more than an introduction by the Creep or the Crypt-Keeper. The film Asylum actually had a good idea for a frame, but it’s an exception to the general rule.
*. The frame here is wonderful. It’s not just a frame but a story with its own building narrative, so that you actually like getting back to it and seeing how the psychiatrist is gradually becoming unsettled and how the architect’s uncanny “dream” is playing out. The climax, with the architect stumbling through all of the film’s collapsing threads only for the film to implode and reset, is brilliantly handled, leaving us with a sense of mundane dread as things start up again.
*. I can’t think of any other movie that has adopted the same perfect circularity. Of course Groundhog Day is about a man reliving the same day over and over, but that’s different. For one thing, his day can change, and he has total recall. Here we really feel like we’re in an Escher-like nightmare from which there’s no escape.

*. The individual stories probably seem a little tame by modern standards. To some degree they’re not even horror stories but more weird tales of the kind later popularized on The Twilight Zone (which is where some of them naturally wound up). I think they’re all well done though, and they build nicely from the initial hearse-driver story (which is really just a quickie with a punchline) to what is generally regarded as the best of the lot, with Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist possessed by his own dummy.
*. If the final story gets the most love, the penultimate tale about the golfing buddies easily gets the most hate. Basically Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne reprise their Charters and Caldicott roles (introduced in The Lady Vanishes), for which they’d become famous. I actually didn’t mind it at all. It’s silly, but I think the film needed a change of pace after the intense haunted-mirror story, before taking us into the home stretch.
*. Martin Scorsese (placing it on his list of the scariest films of all time): “Like The Uninvited, it’s very playful . . . and then it gets under your skin.” It certainly does. Rather more than The Uninvited does.
*. It gets under your skin and it stays there. I don’t think anyone who has seen this film (and today it isn’t that easy to find) has forgotten it. It has that sort of effect, burrowing down into the mind like a screw, getting deeper with every revolution.

Black Mountain Side (2014)

*. Influence is a tricky business. Done right, it’s an homage or creative re-imagining. Done wrong and it’s a rip-off.
*. Black Mountain Side has several influences (Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter being one of the more obvious), but primarily it’s derived from John Carpenter’s The Thing. An all-male team of scientists stationed in the far north uncover mysterious ancient artifacts. The men seem to be infected in some way by what they have unearthed, leading to an outbreak of paranoia, madness, and murder.
*. Now The Thing is a personal favourite of mine, as I think it is for a lot of horror fans. Black Mountain Side is no Thing, but you can’t hold it to the same standard. It also goes a slightly different route, by choice or by necessity.
*. This makes it, in my opinion, quite an interesting and well managed indie horror. It moves slowly, and quietly, but builds suspense through the gradual ungluing of the team’s mental state. We strain to see what it is they think they’re seeing, we mistrust our own eyes, we are unnerved by absence, suspicious of silence.
*. I’ll add in passing that the DVD has another one of those commentaries (by writer-director Nick Szostakiwkyj and some of the cast and crew) that doesn’t mention the film’s biggest debts. Specifically,I don’t recall anyone referring even in passing to The Thing. I only raise this point because so many commentaries do this. The commentary for Quarantine never once mentions Rec, which it is a remake of. The commentary for We Are What We Are mentions Somos lo que hay, which again it is a remake of, only once in passing. Slither‘s commentary doesn’t mention Night of the Creeps. The commentary for Don’t Breathe doesn’t mention The People Under the Stairs. In at least some of these cases this silence must have been on purpose, but I don’t know what that purpose was. It’s not like the borrowings weren’t obvious.
*. They also don’t say anything on the commentary about the title. The title bugs me. It’s actually the name of a Led Zeppelin song from their first album, but I don’t know if this was a connection anyone had in mind (most of the people involved in the project seem to have been very young, and so might not have even known about it). Is the camp located on a black Mountain? On the side of Black Mountain? I don’t get it.

*. My mouth dropped open when the visiting professor is given the tour of the camp and his cabin is referred to as a cramped “shithole.” They seem like luxury accommodations to me, especially for an archaeological dig out in the middle of nowhere.
*. But then this isn’t the kind of film where you want to examine such matters too closely. I mean, who exactly among all the members of Team Beard are the archaeologists? Seeing as the natives do all the digging, I’m not sure what most of the bros have to do except sit around smoking and drinking. And they smoke and drink a lot. A stronger screenplay gives characters more to do when they’re not actively advancing the plot.

*. That’s enough carping though. As I said, I like Black Mountain Side. It’s a horror film with negative capability, content to leave us in a state of doubt as to what is actually going on. I thought they might all have been hallucinating because of getting into some strange roots. I remember Mark Kermode suggesting the same thing with regard to the supernatural events in The Witch, and it seems even more likely here.
*. In any event, whatever the cause of their madness, because it affects everyone we don’t have anywhere to stand where we can make a clear judgment on it. The actual presence of the Deer Man is left ambiguous. That he looks like a Native deity and speaks lines from the Book of Job suggests some amount of projection is going on, some rising from the depths of the collective unconscious. Beyond that I wouldn’t want to go.

*. The Deer Man is also hard to see. We can see him, but only in the dark or at a distance. Again, this may have been by choice or necessity. The “making of” featurette included in the DVD shows some of the early models for the Deer Man and it was pretty funny. But there’s something truly unsettling about these scary visions that we only see from far away. Distance makes them more disturbing, even though they’re not close enough to be immediately threatening. I was reminded of the vision of Miss Jessel appearing across the lake from the governess in The Innocents. And that was one of the scariest scenes in any movie I’ve seen.

*. Cameron Tremblay, the photographer, has a great eye for darkness. Not painting with shadow so much as digging pits of darkness into the screen. We also get a really impressive long tracking shot with a Steadicam that runs just over two minutes, taking us into and out of a cabin. Setting up the lighting for that must have been a challenge, but it works.
*. Apparently Van Sant’s Elephant was the inspiration for the long take. I told you these were young filmmakers. Tremblay also credits The Social Network for providing a reference for the overall look for the film. That’s one of those links that surprises at first, but when you look into it you see what he means. And seeing is everything.
*. So it’s a film that makes you think of other films, but it’s also quite original both in its subject matter and tone. It doesn’t wrap up neatly but evokes ambiguity, and in doing so it’s genuinely spooky. It’s not The Thing but it borrows the basic premise and takes it in a different direction. Kudos for that.

Stonehearst Asylum (2014)

*. It’s advertised as coming “from the mind of Edgar Allan Poe,” which says less than the title credit, which has it “based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe.” In fact it’s more like one of those cases where a movie is “inspired by” an event or work of fiction. It owes almost nothing to Poe’s 1845 story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” aside from the conceit of lunatics taking over and running an asylum.
*. That’s a concept that has been recycled a few times on film (The Mansion of Madness, Don’t Look in the Basement) but never (at least in my experience) all that faithfully. I’m not sure if there’s enough matter to it, especially when the audience can be expected to already know the set-up.
*. Stonehearst Asylum does try its best to make the story fresh. The reveal that the patients have taken over occurs before the halfway point, so you know there has to be some new angle to make it work. Or two new angles, as it turns out.
*. The second of these has to do with a new twist they’ve added. I won’t give this away, as it comes quite late and I think it’s pretty good. Really far-fetched, but by that point I didn’t care.
*. The other new angle is the way the “real” authorities are presented, from our contemporary point of view, as sadistic morons, while the crazies are erratic but essentially good-natured and enlightened, at least until triggered or provoked. In as backward a world as nineteenth-century England, medicine was the real horror and crazy people were sane. Or at least they know there’s nothing wrong with masturbation. This alone lets us know they’re with us.
*. That’s a simplistic point to be sure, but it does provide a new entry point into the old story.
*. The casting of the representatives of these two respective positions doesn’t surprise. Michael Caine had already played an authoritarian in charge of an asylum in Quills, while Ben Kingsley had been an odd doctor we were never sure about in Shutter Island.
*. They got some good talent on board for this one, though I don’t think Kingsley, and especially Caine, are particularly exercised by their roles. I would say the same for David Thewlis and Brendan Gleeson. You’d think Kate Beckinsale, whose Eliza Graves was originally going to give the film its name, would have more to work with, but at the end of the day the movie doesn’t seem that interested in her. When she transforms into Underworld‘s Selene at the end it’s all a bit much, as though they just threw their hands in the air not knowing what to do.
*. Well, it’s not a terrible movie. It’s just not very good either. That’s all the faint praise I can muster.

Don’t Look in the Basement (1973)

*. Low budget trash, reportedly shot in twelve days on a budget of under $100,000. So of course it looks like shit, but come on.
*. There are a couple of points worth mentioning. In the first place, it was released as part of a double-bill with Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. Now I’m not the biggest fan of The Last House on the Left, but it’s instructive to watch this movie alongside it and see what you were being subjected to at the drive-in at the time, if only to get a sense of the broader cultural matrix that Craven came out of.
*. The other point is that it’s a variation on the Poe story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” The basic idea is that an innocent visitor arrives at an asylum to find the lunatics in charge. It’s been done several times (for example in The Mansion of Madness, which came out the same year, and more recently in Stonehearst Asylum), but it really needs to be put across with more sophistication than it is here.
*. That’s not to say this is a film without any sophistication. I actually thought the introduction of the character of Dr. Masters was quite well done. After the Judge has just sunk an axe into Dr. Stephens she’s an immediately calming influence, and her white coat invests her with authority. Also, at least compared to the other inmates, she seems to have her act together.
*. I also like the random chaos of the Stephen Sanitarium. There’s no sense that the patients are organized at all, or are working together toward the common goal of deceiving the new nurse. They’re all trapped in their own separate realities, and they clang like cymbals whenever they strike up against one another.

*. But this chaos is also the film’s undoing, as the story just wanders from one room and one patient to the next without tightening the screw of the plot. At the end I wasn’t even sure what was going on, or who had killed who.
*. Of course the one black guy is named Sam. He’s a “loveable child” due to a failed lobotomy. Old stereotypes die hard.
*. The biggest problem though is the basic lack of talent involved. The direction doesn’t even try to build suspense, even when it’s available (I’m thinking in particular of the scene where the Judge gets hold of the telephone repairman’s screwdriver). The acting is dreadful, with the lead, Rosie Holotik, being a pretty Playboy covergirl who was presumably cast for that reason. The gore effects just consist of some blood splashed on people’s faces.
*. There was a bit of talk a few years ago about a remake, and this is a rare case where I think that would actually be a good idea. The basic story and characters aren’t bad, and with better production values and just a bit of talent it has potential. I don’t think this movie is one many people will want to bother with though.