Archive for the Horror (Mostly Gothic) Category

Irene Ware: The Best of Both Worlds

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Women with tags , , , , , , , on November 6, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Irene Ware (Irene Catherine Ahlberg, 1910-1993). And what are the “both worlds” of which we speak in our headline? Why, classic horror and chorus girl musicals, of course. What other worlds are there?

In this dichotomy, Ware’s career is not unlike Mae Clarke’s, although in different proportions. The stenographer daughter of a New York saloon keeper, she became a beauty queen at age 18, winning Miss Greater New York, Miss United States and Miss Universe in rapid order. She was featured in the 1928 edition of Earl Carroll’s Sketchbook, working her way up to the Vanities by 1930, where she remained through the 1932 edition. Then she moved to Hollywood, where she was immediately tried in starring parts. She is mostly remember for starring opposite Bela Lugosi in the horror classics Chandu the Magician (1932) and The Raven (1935, also with Boris Karloff), and in murder mysteries like Rendezvous at Midnight (1935), The Dark Hour (1936) and Murder at Glen Athol (1936). Gold Diggers of 1937 brought her back to her roots.

The Raven was the crest of her career — while much admired today, it didn’t do well at the time. She lost leading lady status, and became relegated to support roles and B pictures. She retired in 1940 to start a family.

For more on show biz  historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Hall of Hams #107: Edward Van Sloan

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of useful character actor Edward Van Sloan (1882-1964).

If only he’d been born a few hours earlier! He’d fit so neatly into all our October Halloween-Month horror movie blogging. And yet…Halloween is actually All Hallows Eve…and today All Hallows Day...and so we make room for one more spirit.

Van Sloan was of Dutch American stock and came from Minnesota. He trouped in the theatre for years before landing the part that would seal his fate and make him forever associated with the Universal stock company: he was cast as vampire hunter Dr. Abraham Van Helsing in the 1927 Broadway production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Van Sloan and Bela Lugosi were the only members of the stage production to be cast in the 1931 film version. In the early days, it was almost as if Universal didn’t dare make a horror movie without Van Sloan or a Van Sloan-esque character. In Frankenstein (1931) he played Victor Frankenstein’s mentor Dr. Waldman. In The Mummy (1932) he is Dr. Muller. He returns as Van Helsing in Dracula’s Daughter (1936). And he plays the Spy Chief in the Bela Lugosi serial The Phantom Creeps (1939). Other relevant films included Murder on the Campus (1933), The Infernal Machine (1933), The Black Room (1935), A Shot in the Dark (1935), and The Last Days of Pompeii (1935).

Van Sloan has credits through 1950, although in later years he is playing mostly bit parts, mostly uncredited. This is interesting to me, for Universal’s horror division got a new shot in the arm with 1941’s The Wolf Man , giving older franchises like The Mummy new life. But Van Sloan was not part of this resurgence. Perhaps his very old school staginess was considered too artificial for these later movies. But nowadays that is just what we love about his performances!

Vampires, Ghosts and Witches Among My Relations

Posted in Halloween, Horror (Mostly Gothic), ME, My Family History with tags , , , , , , , , on October 31, 2016 by travsd

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Happy Halloween!

Today we continue our series of family background posts by relating some relatives with a spooky connection. I’m not really close kin to most of these characters, but I’ll lay death’s heads to door-knockers I’m closer than most. So if I happen to get menaced by actual Halloween monsters this year, I am hoping I can drop the names of these supernatural relations to talk my way out of it. (Although I hasten to point out that in just about every example below, it was a less a case of someone being a monster than an example of ignorant, paranoid relatives, neighbors and strangers terrifying themselves, pointing at someone or something else and screaming “Monster!” — which is essentially the story of mankind.)

VAMPIRES

Actually both of these famous Rhode island vampires I’ll be discussing are closer to “nosferatu” than they are conventional vamps as codified in films, i.e. they were “plague-bringers” as opposed to “blood-suckers” . But just as undead, baby, just as undead! Both of these legendary tales are lain in the town of Exeter, which is about 15 minutes from the house where I grew up. (As it happens, my parents are buried in Exeter, although in different graveyards from the legendary creatures)

Why such an inoffensive little stretch of road as Exeter would be home to the walking undead at first seems mysterious, but scholars have been working on this a while, and I found this 2012 article from Smithsonian to be most illuminating.

It turns out 19th century New England “vampires” (especially Rhode Island vampires) are a thing. The scholar in the article has identified upwards of 80 cases similar to what you’ll find described below. The participants most likely never used the word “vampire” — that terminology was imposed by outsiders and the press in describing the strange goings on. It’s a phenomenon not unlike the witch hysteria of a century and more earlier, although with a different set of contributing factors, which are these:

Consumption. The microbes that cause the horrors of tuberculosis were unknown at the time. People saw their friends and neighbors wasting away, feverish, fatigued, pale, sweating and red-eyed. They drew conclusions about the cause that were within their own belief system, which was steeped in…

Superstition. Naturally rural folk are more more prone to be superstitious, but there was a particular reason for those of Rhode Island to be even more superstitious. An ironic one. Rhode Island had been founded as a refuge for dissenters, with complete religious freedom. In the early years it was no less a religious place than the surrounding colonies, just with far less official oversight about personal belief. Providence became the birthplace of the Baptist church; Portsmouth and Newport were havens for Quakers and Anabaptists. But that also meant that folks were also allowed to worship NOTHING. Unlike most of New England, Rhode Islanders were not required to attend church, let alone a certain church. In time, a situation existed where the vast majority attended NO church. This left room for a vacuum of sorts. While many modern people make a false assumption which equates religion with superstition intrinsically, Protestantism (in the period after the witch trials, at least) was theoretically about reason, regarding superstitious beliefs as false and unenlightened. In Rhode Island, however, all bets were off.

A couple of potential sources for the ritual practices mentioned below exist. One, is (as a newspaper quoted a local man of the time as saying) that the beliefs came from local Indian Tribes. Another (and I find this one especially compelling given the time line) is a “mysterious foreign quack” who appeared in the town of Willington (Northeastern Connecticut) in 1784, and whose ungodly prescriptions were condemned in the pages of the Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer.

Thanks to Rory Raven for having first introduced us to these local legends during our walking tour a couple of years ago. These are just two of the most famous cases of the so-called New England vampires. I’m likely to be related to others, but I haven’t looked into their coffins yet.

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SARAH TILLINGHAST

I am one of the thousands descended from Pardon Tillinghast, one of Rhode Island’s earliest settlers and an important minister at the famous Baptist Church of Providence. And so too is the family in question:

In 1799, Rhode Island farmer Stukely Tillinghast had a dream that half the trees in his orchard had failed. Like Joseph in the Old Testament, this dream was taken to be a portent; even more would be read into it later…after he lost half his family. Sometime after the dream, Tillinghast’s 19 year old daughter Sarah contracted consumption and died. Shortly thereafter a son James also came down with the disease. But (undoubtedly in a delirium) he also made the nettlesome claim that the recently deceased Sarah had visited him in the night. And you can see where that might cause trouble. James died. Then four other of the Tillinghast children (of a total of 11) also became ill and died — after claiming that the dead Sarah had also appeared to them. And this happened to some of their neighbors, as well. By the time Tillinghast’s wife Honor came down with consumption and claimed to be seeing her dead children, the farmer decided something must be done. (He was a Yankee farmer — it took him a while to get off his butt).

We don’t know where Stukely got the idea, nor even how true it is, we only know the lore. And according to the story, he exhumed the coffins of his recently dead children and Sarah’s was found to be curiously…well-preserved. In comparison with the remains of the others, there was a troubling lack of decomposition. And (this is the oft quoted detail I find hard to give any credence to) “the heart was full of fresh blood”. Oh, yes — did I mention that Stukely cut the heart out of his own daughter’s corpse?  And then, as someone told him to do, he then burned it, to make Sarah’s spirit go away. And as the story goes, Honor recovered after this measure was taken, and there were no more illnesses or deaths.

The family is buried at Rhode Island Historical Cemetery #14. Stukeley’s headstone has been removed, and the children have stones with no writing on them, but you can find Honor’s, which is marked only with “H.T.” Go to this link and a man will take you right there. 

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MERCY BROWN 

This next story happened in the same town of Exeter almost a century later. Almost everyone who tells these stories has a weird, infuriating tendency to either gloss over or ignore what I take to be a highly significant fact: same thing, happened twice, same town. Naturally these two stories are far more related to one another than people tend to stress. I hardly think it is a coincidence that a second outbreak of the same hysteria occurred in the same tiny town as the initial one. I’d go so far as to speculate that the 1892 incident was inspired by surviving local stories of the 1799 one.

Yes — 1892. One might think that that is very, very late for something of this nature to be happening in the civilized Northeastern United States. But then, yeah…no. Guess what? Where I live (New York City) scarcely a year goes by that one doesn’t read in the paper about some superstition-based murder, often linked to voodoo, or Santeria. I cast no aspersion against those fascinating religions, especially in light of the bloody lapses of those who practice my own faith. (Conversion by the sword, anyone?) I’m just referencing a parallel, similar phenomenon — there are still people around who believe in evil spirits that much.

And as for the “civilized Northeastern United States” — here’s a little known fact. In the late 19th and early 20th century, New England’s population outside the cities had drastically declined. Evidence of that is still with us. Walk through any New England forested area and before long you will run into a stone wall.  (Don’t run too hard!) You also see stone walls surrounding houses and farms, of course, but how mysterious to find them in the middle of the woods. The explanation is that those wooded areas were once farms, which subsequently were abandoned, became overgrown and reverted to nature. Population in the area was lost due to westward migration and the Civil War. And while immigration later increased American population overall, rural New England was not where most of the newcomers settled, at least not for a long time.

It’s gradually dawned on me that an unlikely reporter on this phenomenon is H.P. Lovecraft. For the longest time I would read his stories and not go along for the ride because I couldn’t imagine the New England countryside being as eerily secluded as he describes it. But it seems that in his time it was, after all.  This makes for an interesting parallelism between the European and American Romanticisms. The Europeans had their ruins; and we too, after a fashion, had ours.

So Exeter, Rhode Island, a backwater to begin with, was an even worse one at the time of which I write. Its population in the 1820s had been well over 2,000. By the 1890s it was down to only about 900. This is why I’m pretty comfortable speculating that I’m related to this family of Browns. Brown is a much more common name than Tillinghast, but like the latter family, it is also the name of one of the founding families of Rhode Island (who started Brown University and much else). I am related to these Browns; and I find it likely that so are the Browns of Exeter, a town with so little population influx prior to the late 20th century.

The Keep, where the corpse was kept at the Exeter cemetery prior to Mercy's examination

The Keep, where the corpse was kept at the Exeter cemetery prior to Mercy’s examination

The Brown story is remarkably similar to that of the Tillinghasts. It began with Mary the mother‘s death by consumption in 1883, followed by the death of a daughter, also named Mary, six months later. Then nine years passed. Mercy came down with consumption and passed away in 1892. Her older brother Edwin came down with it a few months later, and that’s when the hysteria broke out this time. In this case, the community demanded an exhumation. Mercy’s father George Brown didn’t believe in the superstition and agreed to it only reluctantly. In an interesting and modern, if somewhat illogical, twist, a physician was called to examine Mercy’s body. He noted that her hair and fingernails had continued to grow after death. (Though that happens to most bodies). Be that as it may, Mercy’s heart was cut out, burned, mixed with medicinal herbs and put into a potion for Edwin to drink to ward off the bad spirits. He died anyway.

1892 is essentially the modern era. The difference between this case and most of the earlier New England vampire cases is that this one was widely reported. Newspaper men from the Providence Journal were on the scene and papers carried the story around the world. Soon the 20th century would dawn: movies, radio, television. Even rural places like Exeter began to have some dim awareness that such things as vampires were not real. And perhaps the wide reporting on the Brown incident was something of an embarrassment. So no similar incidents followed. Because of this, Mercy Brown is often known as the “Last New England Vampire.”

H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Shunned House appears to draw from both the Tillinghast and the Brown incidents, and some of have speculated that news of the Mercy Brown story had also reached Bram Stoker, whose Dracula was first published in 1897, just five years later.  And there are those later tales of New England vampires, Dark Shadows and Salem’s Lot to chew on…

GHOSTS

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THE OLD ARNOLD ESTATE (A.K.A. THE CONJURING HOUSE) 

This house was the real-life basis for the 2013 horror film The Conjuring. I’m going to bore you by sticking closer to the known facts than the film, books about the topic, and lots of what you will find online will tell you; my main source for the factier facts is this investigative web site.  Also, most accounts of the story start with the haunting (1970-1980) and work backwards and keep it vague. I’m going to go chronologically and try to be a little more specific.

What I know is that the Old Arnold Estate was built in Harrisville, Rhode Island in 1736. Harrisville is part of Burrillville, and adjacent to my mother’s hometown of Putnam, Connecticut. Many, many generations of Arnolds lived on the farm. And tragedies happened to at least three members of the family, although not all of it happened on the property. A Susan Arnold hung herself in the house in 1866. 11 year old Prudence Arnold was raped and murdered (throat slit) by farmhand William Knowles in 1848 (this happened across the state line in Massachusetts). And an Edwin Arnold was found frozen to death on the nearby property of Smith Aldrich after a night of carousing at the pub.

Then there is the case of the Arnold’s next door neighbor Bathsheba Sherman (1812-1885). If you squint at the photo above, which was taken on the Arnold estate, some have speculated that the woman in the center foreground is Bathsheba. Bathsheba was the daughter of Ephraim Thayer and Hannah Taft, and the wife of Judson Sherman. She had four children, only one of whom lived past early childhood. About Bathsheba there is much lore, most of it of recent vintage: that she was secretive, evil, mean, a witch, a Satanist, and that she killed a baby by driving a knitting needle into the back of its skull. There doesn’t seem to be evidence for any of this. When she died, she was given the usual Christian burial next to her husband, although it seems as though some puddingheads decided to vandalize her grave marker:

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At any rate in 1970, a nice modern American family named the Perrons acquired the Old Arnold Estate and, by their testimony, things began to happen. Objects, including beds, levitated. Voices and noises were heard. A woman in a grey dress appeared and said “Get out!” People were slapped and pinched by unseen forces. And one of the family was stabbed by an invisible needle which drew blood. Who you gonna call? Why Ed and Lorraine Warren, of course, America’s most famous psychic investigators, and the folks who also cleaned up the cobwebs at the Amityville Horror House. The Perrons and the Warrens seem to have decided many things about whom those spirits may have been and then decided to tell the world. Andrea Perron wrote her three volume account House of Darkness, House of Light. And Hollywood made The Conjuring, which turned into an entire multi-million dollar franchise.

What’s my connection to all this? Well, as I mention above, my mom is from just a few miles away and I am related to all of those families historically connected with the house and the area: the Arnolds, the Shermans, the Thayers, the Tafts, and even the Aldriches. all of them are names in my family tree. All of them, it seems, but the Perrons and the Warrens — and that’s okay by me.

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59 Church Street, Charleston, said to be haunted by Ladd

DR. JOSEPH BROWN LADD

My great-great-great grandmother Almira Kirtland Ladd of New London was one of a hugely prolific clan of New England Ladds. These Ladds were fruitful and multiplied. Many of them were famous (I’ve written about some, and I’ll write about others). And, it turns out, my first crush in high school was also one of them! And, so too was Dr. Joseph Brown Ladd (1764-1786). Ladd was born in Newport, Rhode Island but through a curious set of circumstances he would go on to become one of the most famous ghosts of Charleston, South Carolina.  (Only yesterday I read of another Rhode Island family with a foothold in Charleston, the Hazards, founders of the village of Peace Dale. A likely explanation for a social corridor between the two distant locations is the slave trade, which flourished in both locations in the 18th centuries, though I hasten to point out that the Hazards would come to be prominent slavery opponents in the 19th century. But this is a digression!)

Ladd apprenticed to a local Rhode Island physician at age 15. By 1783 he was a doctor himself, and moved to Charleston with references from Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene, one of the most prominent Rhode Islanders of the time. (The war had ended just a weeks before Ladd made the move) But, when Ladd relocated to Charleston left something behind. He loved a young lady of Newport named “Amanda” (or so he calls her in his writings). He pursued her with all the fervor of youth. The love was not requited (largely through the interposition of Amanda’s unscrupulous guardian), and Ladd’s reputation was besmirched, so moved to Charleston. But he could not forget her. He wrote numerous poetic epistles to her which he called “The Letters of Arouet to Amanda.”

Ladd was well-liked and successful in Charleston. Unfortunately his easy progress got on the nerves of one of the first friends he’d made there, a man named Charles Isaacs who’d saved him from a robbery when he first arrived in town. In the intervening months, Isaacs decided Ladd was getting too big for his britches. It came to head one evening after the two met following a performance of Richard III at a Charleston theatre. The men quarreled over an actress in the play. Isaacs made unkind insinuations and then insulted Ladd publicly. To save his reputation, Ladd was forced to duel. In the exchange his kneecap was shattered, a wound that was painful, possibly crippling but also maybe survivable. But it is said that he refused treatment and died a few days letter in his rooms at 59 Church Street.

Today his spirit is said to haunt both the Church Street address and Philadelphia Alley, also known as Dueler’s Alley, where the fatal contretemps went down. Ladd is known as the “Whistling Ghost” or the “Whistling Doctor” after his lifelong habit of whistling. Because of the sad affair with Amanda, his is thought to be a mournful spirit, forever walking the earth in sadness.

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GHOSTS IN THE TOWER OF LONDON

This is a bit farther back, but the connections are just as real. It’s well known that the former fortification and prison is reputed to be haunted by the ghosts of the unhappy souls who were locked away and executed there by their enlightened monarchs. As a descendant of Royal Stewarts and other nobility I am related to many of the famous ones, including King Henry VI; the “Two Little Princes” killed by Richard III (Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury); Queen Ann Boleyn; Margaret de la Pole, Countess of Salisbury; Lady Jane Grey; and Lady Arabella Stuart. It must be crowded there, what with the bunch of them roaming the halls and moaning and sobbing and playing ninepins with their heads or whatever they are said to do. Learn more about the specifics here. 

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THE WHITE LADY

There are too many ghosts nicknamed “The White Lady” in the world to count. This one is said to reside at Highlow Hall in Heathersage, Derbyshire, where my (15th) great grandmother Elizabeth Eyre (1470-1495) is from. Highlow Hall was the ancestral home of the Eyres from 1340 to 1842.

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WITCHES 

Sir Thomas De Ashton (born circa 1403)

Sir Thomas is unique in history for having been licensed to practice sorcery or something like it. In 1446, he was given special dispensation by King Henry VI, to transmute precious metals, i.e. practice alchemy, often considered a dark art in those times. The document states that the King’s subjects are forbidden to molest Ashton for flouting God and the natural order in this way. I imagine he was counting on getting some of that gold for himself.

Alice Young (ca. 1600-1647)

A distant relation, Alice (also rendered as “Alse” or “Achsah”) Young was the first person executed for witchcraft in Colonial America, at least in the written record. Young was born in England, and moved to Windsor, CT sometime prior to her daughter Alice’s birth in 1640. She was hung for witchcraft in Hartford’s Meeting House Square in 1647. This was nearly a half century before the witch hysteria in Salem. Learn a (very) little more about her here. 

Alice Young Beamon (1640-1708)

My (13th) great grandmother, accused of witchcraft in Springfield, Massachusetts circa 1677, and acquitted.

Alice Ireod Lake (1616-1651)

My (10th) great grandmother, who claimed to have seen her dead baby come back to haunt her was accused of witchcraft, compounded by the crimes of pre-marital sex and attempted abortion. She was executed at Dorchester; follow the link above for more on her.

Robert Williams (1607-1693)

My (9th) great grandfather twice over (I am descended from two separate lines leading from him, one from each of his daughters, both converging in my maternal grandmother’s line, the Cadys). He was the first accused witch I discovered in the family tree, although very little is known about him. (Though he’s mentioned in many books, including one that used to be on my shelf, Drawing Down the Moon). Williams was accused and acquitted in 1669, but convicted and punished for lying. These events took place 23 years before the Salem trials.

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Susanna North Martin (1621-1692)

I wished I known about this one on our recent trip to Salem, I would have done more fact-finding with respect to her. Oh, well, all the more reason to go back! I hadn’t found her earlier because she’s not a direct relationship…she was the mother-in-law of my (9th) great grandfather James Hadlock (his second wife — after my own 9th great grandmother had died — was Abigail Martin. Still a relation, if by marriage!). This is through my maternal grandfather’s line, the Herindeens.

Susanna had first been accused of witchcraft (and of giving birth to a bastard and an IMP) in 1669. Her husband died in 1686, leaving her poor and unprotected at the time of the witch hysteria. She was 71 years old when she stood in the docks, and was not about to take any shit. Among other things, they accused of her of changing herself into a cat, jumping through a window and strangling a man while he slept. Cats aren’t generally known for their strangling abilities. but sense was not on anybody’s agenda. They also accused her of changing into many other animals, including a black hog. By all accounts she was a tiny woman. I’m sure there were many times when she would have LIKED to have been able to transform herself into a nice large, intimidating hog.

By all accounts, she laughed at her accusers, called their bluff, and never caved in as so many did to the fiction that was going on all around her. Further, she quoted the Bible in her defense. But to no avail. They hanged her in July of 1692. Read more about the brave old gal here. 

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Sarah Good (1653-1692)

Likewise, I only discovered this one recently. Sarah Good was one of the most famous of the Salem “witches” and one of the first three accused. I am related to her by marriage. She was one of the village cranks: homeless, in debt, angry, and just in general an inconvenient person to have around, one of the explanations for her having been one of the first accused. Read more about her at the link above.

Captain John Alden, Jr. Accused

John Alden, Jr. (1626-1702)

No less than the son of Pilgrims John Alden and Priscilla Mullins was accused of witchcraft! He was the brother of my (8th) great grandfather David Alden. Fortunately he broke jail and ran for his life. But clearly nothing was sacred, if they were accusing HIM. Learn more about him here .

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Okay, that about wraps it up! And speaking of which, “Aren’t you related to any mummies?” you may well ask, “I mean, after all, you have vampires, ghosts and witches, surely there’s a line or two that leads back to Imhotep!” Undoubtedly, but it’s four thousand years back. Give me time, give me time!

Tomorrow: Addams Family Bash at Loew’s Jersey

Posted in Halloween, Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies (Contemporary), PLUGS, SOCIAL EVENTS with tags , , , , , on October 28, 2016 by travsd

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In Which I Get My Witch from “The Witch”

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , on October 26, 2016 by travsd

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Last year, when I read the terrific nonfiction book The Witches: Salem 1692, my over-riding takeaway was that I’d love to write a horror screenplay that worked off the mindset and belief system of the people who testified at the witch trials, the people who actually believed in witches. Almost all witch movies tend to be silly toothless comedies (Hocus Pocus, The Witches of Eastwick) or tedious stories of Satanism from the 60s and 70s (usually made by AIP, Hammer or the Italians) where the payoff at the end of 90s minutes of boredom is that the nice people one has suspected all along are in the basement dressed in cowls and chanting in Latin. To date my favorite witch movies have been The Wizard of Oz (the villainess in which is so archetypal and comes to us so young it triggers nightmares in the lizard brain), I Married a Witch (which though it is technically a screwball comedy manages to evoke a dark, dream-like and Halloweeny atmosphere) and above all Haxan, which is the only movie heretofore that features the terrifying imagery that I want, but has the drawback of being a silent Scandinavian documentary nearly a century old.

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The imagery in Haxan, like the testimony in Stacy Schiff’s book, is drawn from primary sources…and what people back then said they saw, or thought they saw is terrifying: baby killings, bathing in blood, levitation, hags in the forest, visitations from demons disguised as animals. I very much thought I’d like to see a period movie where people believed these things could happen because they were true. But it turns out I don’t have to write this movie. Robert Eggers made it last year. A few days ago we watched his debut feature, The Witch, and I am extraordinarily impressed — I can’t imagine that it’s not a movie I’ll watch annually for the rest of my life. Not just because it accomplishes what I’ve just described, but for a long list of reasons beyond that. On a personal level it hits my sweet spot. It’s set in the Massachusetts of 1630; characters refer to “the plantation” which we may assume to be Plymouth, though it is never thus specified. Just as one of our scariest ghost stories also happens to be a Yuletide yarn (A Christmas Carol), this scary witch tale has thematic connections to Thanksgiving. As someone with deep ancestral connections to the Pilgrims, it speaks to me.

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But so much more than this, because if the director had done a lousy, cursory job I wouldn’t give two hoots about the movie. Eggers’ film is awe-inspiring. Everything about it. His background is as a production designer for theatre and film, and he has brought to the table here a level of careful research and attention to detail that is rare and glorious to behold, from the rich, Jacobean language of the screenplay; to the thick Yorkshire accents of the principal characters, to the religious, social and moral attitudes of those characters; to the design and architecture of every building, household object, and costume. Shot in the wilds of Ontario, it’s one of the few films I’ve seen that truly makes you feel like you are in the isolated frontier of 17th century America, a time when ten miles from the Atlantic ocean may as well have been the Amazon rain-forest.

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While the experience is never less than gripping, the plot is simple: the head of a Puritan family (Ralph Ineson) runs afoul of the authorities over a matter of doctrine. Rather than change his beliefs, he moves his small family (wife and five young children) outside the plantation stockade and starts a farm in the distant wilderness. Almost immediately, horrible bad luck starts to strike in wave after wave, most of it apparently centered around the family’s oldest daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy). According to their belief system, Satan and witchery are afoot, and while the daughter appears the most obvious suspect, the father bears a certain amount of blame for the family’s misfortunes himself. I won’t reveal who the titular witch is, or what forms the horned one takes, but just know that, as in powerful classics such as The Exorcist and The Omen, the devil and his minions do prove to be quite real. And several audacious, unthinkable things happen all in a row. Most directors would be afraid to “go there” — Eggers goes there again and again, and with total effectiveness, because we believe it.

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At any rate, Eggers knows how to do horror as well as he knows how to do history and we await his next movie with keen anticipation. I am delighted to read this morning that it is a remake of Nosferatu. 

The Horror and Sci Fi of Steven Spielberg

Posted in Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , on October 22, 2016 by travsd

As TCM is screening Jaws and its sequels tonight I thought it would be interesting to look at Steven Spielberg’s work in horror, fantasy and science fiction in isolation. As I opined in my earlier post, though Spielberg makes films in other genres, such as war films, historical dramas and the like, with a couple of notable exceptions, his strongest suit remains the one he started out in. This survey will look at both his television and film work, and works he produced as well as ones he directed. This is my second in a series of posts about horror films by mainstream New Hollywood directors not normally regarded as “horror directors”. The first was about John Landis. I am also planning similar ones about Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma. (If I don’t get to them this year, look for them next October!)

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Night Gallery episodes (1969-1971)

Two of Spielberg’s earliest directorial credits were on Rod Serling’s Night Gallery series, less horror per se than stories in the writer’s patented “weird tales with an O. Henry twist” tradition. Amazingly, the 21 year old Spielberg’s first professional directorial assignment was “Eyes”, a segment in the 1969 Night Gallery feature length pilot starring none other than Joan Crawford as an evil, rich blind woman who pays a desperate gambler (Tom Bosley) for his ocular organs (she’s blackmailed a doctor into performing the unsavory operation). The rub is that she will only enjoy sight temporarily (she’s that evil) and the twist is that when she opens her new eyes after the operation it is evening — in the middle of a power black-out.

Two years later, Spielberg was asked back to direct a second episode, entitled “Make Me Laugh”. This one is a riff on the Midas myth. Godfrey Cambridge is a comedian who wishes for the unfailing gift of making people laugh. A swami (Jackie Vernon) gives him more than he bargained for. Now no one will stop laughing at whatever he says, even when he’s serious! Tom Bosley plays his agent, and Al Lewis a club owner. Both these episodes were penned by Serling himself. Spielberg’s gratitude for his career having been launched in such a fortuitous manner would be evident in his tributes Twilight Zone: The Movie and Amazing Stories a decade later.

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L.A. 2017 (1971)

Spielberg’s first feature length script was presented as an episode of the series The Name of the Game. It is set in a then-future Los Angeles where everyone lives underground due to air pollution, and America is now a fascist-corporate state where the police are all psychiatrists. The cast includes numerous old-guard Hollywood vets, including Gene Barry, Barry Sullivan, Edmond O’Brien, Paul Stewart and Joan Crawford. We’ll be returning to the subject of this telefilm in a couple of months for reasons that should be obvious from the film’s title.

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Duel (1971)

Widely regarded as Spielberg’s first “masterpiece”, one of the best tv-movies of all time, and the film that put Spielberg on the map. Duel was an ABC Movie of the Week written by the legendary Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, Shrinking Man, The Night Stalker, numerous Roger Corman collaborations, as well as a Twilight Zone vet).  It concerns a motorist (Dennis Weaver) who is being run down by a malevolent trailer truck driver on an isolated stretch of desert highway. The driver is never shown, so the truck itself begins to take on an identity like some sort of Moby Dick like predatory creature animated by the devil himself, an impression magnified by the psychological toll the ordeal begins to take on Weaver. The streamlined shape of this telefilm is especially impressive. It is all harrowing action, just a ride from beginning to end, paving the way for much of Spielberg’s later work.

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Something Evil (1972)

I have informally retitled this early telefilm Something’s Missing. At this stage of his career Spielberg was still just a journeyman tv director. While Duel happens to be pretty great, Something Evil is more in line with a lot of his early work — straightforward storytelling with a few artistic touches here and there. He is struggling with a not-very-compelling story, and one that was done to death in the early 70s: a family moves into a house that is inhabited by the devil. This one is helped by an interesting angle: it is set in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania and the events revolve around what happens when you tamper with those painted witch pentacles that the Pennsylvania Dutch put on barns to ward off evil. And it is likewise made more watchable by a cast that includes Darren McGavin (who’d done The Night Stalker pilot the year before, though the series wouldn’t be launched until 1974, Sandy Dennis, Johnny Whitaker (fresh off of Family Affair), Ralph Bellamy, and Jeff Corey as the obligatory creepy old codger and caretaker. Much that happens is “unseen”, possibly in Sandy Dennis’s mind, and that gets to be tiresome after a while, but there are also scenes where those unseen forces move stuff around, anticipating the terrific scene before the toddler is abducted in Close Encounters. And there’s lots of early mother-child stuff that register as the beginnings of Spielberg’s career-long thematic preoccupation with that theme.

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Jaws (1975)

As we wrote in our earlier post, we consider this Spielberg’s best movie bar none. Though it doesn’t seem to often be characterized as such nowadays (probably because Spielberg rapidly became known as an all-around Hollywood auteur), Jaws is a straight-up horror film and was certainly marketed and received as such when it came out. Unlike most graphic horror movies of its day (or any day, really), it is extraordinarily strong on character. The movie would have already been extremely effective as an amusement park ride strictly on how it is shot, edited and scored. That’s basically what people were lining up to buy tickets for in 1975 — the bloody spectacle of seeing people get gobbled up by a great white shark. But what gives Jaws its real staying power as a classic are the performances by Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfus, Robert Shaw and (the sometimes neglected but very important) Murray Hamilton (the mayor). People quote lines from the film. Shaw’s performance will intrigue me to the end of my days — he put a LOT into this role. Not just the film’s most harrowing scene where he is unable to stop himself from slowly sliding into the shark’s open mouth and then shrieks in a way that we imagine is almost TOO realistic…but also subtler stuff, like his drunken monologue about his ordeal after the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. And above all, Spielberg’s genius in making the shark a “character” (I believe the robot’s nickname was “Bruce”). Most “animals gone wild” films fail on multiple levels. This one succeeds superlatively, both as horror and as a story about people.

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Transmuting fear to wonder

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) 

As a UFO buff in my childhood, I was obsessed with this movie when it came out. Its brilliance is in the turning on its head the old 50s “alien invaders from outer space” genre, and plugging it into 70s concerns. While the flying saucers thrill us with fear for most of the movie, that feeling gets transmuted to innocence and wonder by the end, and in essence paranoia and secrecy (by the government authorities) becomes the enemy. So many chilling moments in the film. Richard Dreyfus alone on a country road being “measured” or “read” by the aliens. That terrifying scene in Melinda Dillon’s house when the toys and appliances come to life and despite her best efforts her baby is kidnapped. The scene where the dude who is running with them to Devil’s Tower gets gassed. And the then-revolutionary realization of the aliens, obviously informed by modern eyewitness accounts by people who claim to have encountered aliens, making it seem, in an odd way “realistic”.

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Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels (1981, etc) 

Raiders is obviously a tribute to the old mystery and adventure serials of the 1930s and ’40s, a form which was closely related to horror. In fact, almost all of the classic horror actors also starred in these kind of mystery and suspense pictures, usually as the villains. Raiders gives us scares both natural (spiders, snakes, headhunters, Nazis) and supernatural (mummies, ghosts and an Angel of Death with the power to melt the faces of villains and turn his henchmen to dust). Temple of Doom has black magic and crocodiles. The Last Crusade, like Raiders has Nazis and booby traps, but also the magical Holy Grail. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has the titular telepathic item, from the head of an alien, a nuclear bomb, and a hill of fire ants.

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E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)

The outlines of this film certainly make it a science fiction story, but in reality it’s too warm and fuzzy to be much but a kid’s movie, though widely regarded as a classic one. I was much disappointed to discover that though when I saw it upon its first release. Though it has some thrills in the early beats, ultimately it’s a “family film”, which of course is perfectly valid if you like that sort of thing.

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Poltergeist (1982)

This one was produced by Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, though by all accounts (and it seems evident from the final product) Spielberg maintained an iron grip on the production, essentially directing the thing himself by making Hooper do everything he wanted.  With its fetishization of suburban living it looks like a Spielberg film. As with E.T., the promising title produced inevitable disappointment in me. I was a ghost buff. A film with the ballsy name Poltergeist damn well better be the archetypical poltergeist tale, which this one is anything but.  Your basic poltergeist yarn centers on an unhappy, awkward adolescent, whose violent energy attracts and fuels mischievous spirits who perform what are basically acts of vandalism. The one scene in the film that reminded me of that is the memorable scene where the kitchen furniture moves around of its own accord. But the rest of the movie is cockamamie — an exercise in ineffective excess and dumb ideas. It’s TOO Much. Ghosts in the tv. Some sort of dimensional door in the closet. An evil tree. An evil clown doll. A mysterious psychic little person. The physical theft of children by whatever-this-is. I find none of it scary because its just a bunch of claptrap and nonsense not rooted in anything. However, I do find the movie interesting and effective in a completely different way — as satire. It’s very rewarding to watch nowadays from that perspective. There is much about Reagan’s America here. Selfishness and privilege, and ultimately greed. The characters are all suffering because the subdivision was built on graves. The spectacle of JoBeth Williams dumped into a flooded basement full of muddy corpses is indeed one of the most powerful images in the film, both as satire and as horror.

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Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

Co-produced with John Landis, and co-directed with Landis and Joe Dante. Spielberg’s contribution to this tribute to Rod Serling’s landmark tv series is a predictably warm and fuzzy tale of senior citizens longing for youth called “Kick the Can”. It was based on an episode from the original series.

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Gremlins (1983)

Spielberg was executive producer of this silliness, written by Chris Columbus and directed by Joe Dante. I’ve never been a fan, it’s too dumb to be scary and yet I wouldn’t describe it as funny either. Like Close Encounters, E.T., and Poltergeist though it shares an obsession with suburban tract housing.

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Amazing Stories (1985-1987)

I LOVED this tv series, created and executive produced by Spielberg. Every Sunday, I would annoy my family by switching the tv audio settings to “stereo” so it would play through the speakers for maximum aesthetic impact. Spielberg came up with most of the story ideas himself, and the episodes were directed by him and other major directors like Martin Scorsese, Bob Clark, Clint Eastwood, Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis, DannyDeVito, Tobe Hooper and Paul Bartel. It was thrilling to have something so high quality on network television. Like all such “weird tales” anthology shows, some episodes are horror, some fantasy or science fiction, some merely have an ironic twist.

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Arachnophobia (1990)

Spielberg was executive producer of this enjoyable bug movie, starring hundreds of large, deadly spiders and Jeff Daniels as a small town doctor who suffers from the titular condition. Much smarter and more rollicking than this kind of movie usually is.

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Jurassic Park and sequels (1993, etc) 

The original Jurassic Park is near the top of my favorite Spielberg films, and is easily the king (the T Rex, if you will) of all “Lost World Dinosaur” movies, a minor horror subgenre that goes back to the days of the silents. This is thanks to the relentless research and impeccable realism of the special effects, and (as with Jaws) the three dimensional characters. Nearly every moment in this film is riveting and memorable, and many are terrifying. Each succeeding sequel gives diminishing returns of course, which is not so very unusual.

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The Haunting (1999)

Spielberg executive produced this widely panned remake of the 1963 Robert Wise film based on the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House. Starring Liam Neeson as a scientist who invites several people (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, Owen Wilson) to a haunted castle under the pretense of a “sleep study” — which turns out to be a fear study. But soon Neeson’s contrived spookery gets overwhelmed by ACTUAL spookery since the house is really haunted. As an added bonus — the caretakers are Marian Seldes and Bruce Dern. 

Like "The Wizard of Oz", but grim and cheerless!

Like “The Wizard of Oz”, but grim and cheerless!

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

An interesting experiment, half Stanley Kubrick and half Steven Spielberg, and all cold and lifeless. I only saw it the once, when it came out, but I found it so bleak and black, visually impressive but with nothing really to latch on to, not just for comfort, but at all.

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Minority Report (2002)

Based on Philip K. Dick material, and like much of hiss writing, is less science fiction and more like a futuristic mystery/crime story. Here Tom Cruise is a detective who has been accused by two out of a committee of three psychics of committing a murder in the future. He escapes in order to find the third psychic (who provided the titular report) and clear his name. While it’s full of interesting technology, neither the story nor the star are my cup of tea at all.

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War of the Worlds (2005)

I thought this movie was incredible and that Spielberg nearly achieved the impossible — out-doing the original 1953 screen adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel, which is one of my favorite movies. Spielberg’s vision of the alien craft, the sound they make, their rays, their effect on humans, the behavior of crowds, are all riveting. I especially loved the first half of this movie; I’ll undoubtedly watch it many more times. What ultimately spoils it for me is the casting of the soulless cipher Tom Cruise as the star, and a screenplay with so much toxic energy in it. It’s enough that people have to battle aliens. I detest the current Hollywood Orthodoxy that every movie needs to carry the additional baggage of patching up families at the same time they save the planet or whatever.

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Super 8 (2011)

Spielberg co-produced (co-wrote the story for) this J.J. Abrams film, which is funny, because it is such a tribute to both Close Encounters and E.T. I especially loved it because in the same year the film is set (1979) my friends and I (the same age as the kids in the film and the same age as Abrams) made a Super 8 feature movie of our own. (Ours was a James Bond style spy story). The alien aspect was less interesting to me, but still gave me nostalgic feelings due to the obvious relationship to the aforementioned films.

Jurassic World (2015) was executive produced by Spielberg, and his most recent relevant credit. He also has announced films out through the end of the decade, although most of them look like bullshitty sequels. It has been over 20 years since his last horror masterpiece (Jurassic Park) and a decade since his last horror near-masterpiece (War of the Worlds). And while I very much enjoyed his recent historical dramas like Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, I’d equally love to see if he can pull out at least one more mind-blowing thrill ride.

Tonight and Tomorrow on TCM: A Horror Grab Bag

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies with tags , on October 21, 2016 by travsd

Tonight on TCM, and into the wee hours of tomorrow, a continuation of their tidal wave of classic horror films for the Halloween season.

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8:00pm (EST): Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

This is easily the least of the three major classic Hollywood adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s influential horror tale. Far better are the silent one with John Barrymore and the 1932 Frederic March version. Still, this one remains worth watching at least once, and may be seen as a kind of indispensable experiment. This is the Spencer Tracy “realistic” version, directed by Victor Fleming. The make-up is much more subdued, as is Tracy’s performance as Hyde. There is a sort of quiet menace about the character, but it doesn’t really possess the scenery chewing one wants and expects. Tracy is best in the early scenes, when we get to know and like Jekyll. The dinner table scene where he defends his work always stands out in my mind. After the opening scenes, the screenplay clings VERY closely to the 1932 version, at times, almost like they were filming the same script, scene by scene. An unrecognizable Lana Turner plays Jekyll’s nondescript fiancé. Donald Crisp is her father (one of the film’s better elements). Ingrid Bergman is horrible as a dance hall girl, with her combination Swedish-Cockney accent. And silent film comedian Billy Bevan is a lovable cop!

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10:00pm (EST): Eyes Without a Face (1960)

A French/Italian co-production about a mad plastic surgeon who steals the faces of kidnapped women in order to graft them onto the face of his daughter, whose face was destroyed in an accident. The titular faceless faces are masks, which the women wear to hide the atrocities beneath. That’s the cool part but it wears thin quickly. It sounds more exciting than it plays out.

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11:45pm (EST): The Body Snatcher (1945)

One of the better (perhaps the best) of the Val Lewton horror pictures for RKO, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale (which was in turn based on the real life story of Burke and Hare.) Set in Edinburgh in the 1830s. Boris Karloff plays a grave robber who helps a famous surgeon (Henry Daniell) obtain the corpses he needs to do his research. Like Burke and Hare, Karloff’s character has taken to killing people to get the corpses he needs.  As a subplot the surgeon’s assistant really wants to help a little crippled girl walk. The situation both drives the need for new corpses (for research) but also provides tension. Is she in danger? Will the ghoul come for her? In the end the surgeon kills the grave robber, then accidentally takes his corpse one night. As they ride on a road one night, the surgeon hears the grave robber’s voice, cracks the wagon up and has a fatal accident. Karloff’s performance in the film is great. Bela Lugosi plays a creepy servant.

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1:15am (EST): Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954)

A Technicolor 3-D remake of  The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) done very much in the style of House of Wax (1953), with Karl Malden as the villain. It’s all highly silly — the mechanism that controls the ape is a ringing bell on a bracelet…and the sound designer feels compelled to include that noise in every scene in which the bracelet is present, which is most of the scenes in the movie.

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2:45am (EST): Macabre (1958)

William Castle’s first outing as a horror impresario. An inkling of how he gets off on a characteristic foot: nothing depicted on that poster above actually happens in the movie. But rest assured there’s a gimmick – – Castle claimed to have insured the picture to pay out in case any audience members died of fright. And the plot too was a typical gimmick. A doctor’s little daughter has been kidnapped and buried alive. She’ll suffocate unless he finds her in five hours. And then he proceeds to waste a LOT of time looking up blind alleys. To give you some idea of the tone of the film: JIM BACKUS plays a menacing sheriff. In years to come Castle’s films would become more enjoyable as he truly went off the deep end of gimmickry. This one falls more in the “suspense” genre — but it’s still a good time.

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4:00am (EST): The Corpse Vanishes (1942)

In this Monogram cheapie, Bela Lugosi is a mad scientist who sends poisoned orchids to brides on their wedding day so he can steal their mysterious virgin essence of youth and beauty, and transplant it to his wife!  I’d say that this one marks a new low for him, but then he’d already made The Devil Bat! On the other hand, at least The Devil Bat has a Devil Bat! And fortunately that one’s playing as well! (see below)

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5:15am (EST): The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962)

Hilarious low budget film about a scientist who performs gruesome Frankensteinian experiments. One day he is riding with his girlfriend in the car and they get into an accident. She dies but he carries her head home in a bag and keeps it alive with tubes. Then he goes looking for a woman to kill so he can put his girlfriend’s head on it. Several great scenes with burlesque dancers, beauty pageants, and finally an art model makes the “cut”. Meanwhile his girlfriend is not at all grateful about having been kept alive. She sits there in a muffin pan and rolls her eyes and conspires with Whatever’s Behind That Locked Door (apparently an earlier failed experiment). I’ll tell ya what’s behind that locked door! It’s Eddie Carmel, the Jewish Giant! 

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6:45am (EST): The Killer Shrews (1959)

Surprisingly, this one is not an AIP/ Roger Corman production. It would make for a perfect double feature with Night of the Lepus, but for the fact that no one would sit still for two movies like this. The plot: a supply boat puts in on an island where a scientist has been experimenting with a serum that would shrink humans (in order to solve world hunger). Instead, he winds up growing shrews, and the shrews get out of hand. Played by puppets and dogs in costumes, the giant shrews look silly indeed.

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8:00am (EST): The Devil Bat (1940)

This movie is unspeakably awesome…down in the Ed Wood category of Grade Z films. Bela Lugosi is a mad scientist who has not only artificially grown a bunch of super-sized bats (through radiation of course) but has also trained them to attack whoever wears a certain cologne. (His ostensible job is inventing colognes). One of my favorite exchanges in cinema: Innocent victim: “Goodnight, doctor!” Lugosi: “GoodBYE, Jimmy”. The bat of course is shown is separate shots which give no idea of scale (a real bat), or presented as a big plastic swooping kite-like prop on a wire. I have seen this film perhaps ten times.

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9:15am (EST) The Seventh Victim (1943)

A teenager looks for her missing sister/ guardian and her detective work leads to a Satanic cult in the heart of Greenwich Village. Features Kim Hunter and  a pre-Beaver Hugh Beaumont. The film doesn’t go as far into superstition as it ought to to make it interesting and so does not scare us. Feels more like a noir, a melodrama or a spy thriller than horror. The Satanists seem more like Nazis, just some kind of a secret group of callous, plotting people. At the climax they try to coerce the missing sister into committing suicide but she won’t. Later she does, but then only because she wants to — not because she is being forced to. On the other hand, check out the sister’s rad, Bohemian haircut, a sort of Betty Paige/ Morticia Addams mash-up.

 

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