Saturday, January 31, 2009

Captain Kronos -- Vampire Hunter

I don’t know that it can really be overstated how nice it was having Hammer around for our horror needs from the 50s through the 70s. Sadly, this film, released in the twilight of Hammer’s existence, wound up being relegated to relative obscurity, despite being one of their all-time best vampire movies.

That admittedly sounds like higher praise than it actually is, as I normally don’t like vampire movies, even ones that have Christopher Lee in them. Still, this one works, perhaps because you almost never see an actual vampire in the film itself, instead getting to witness our totally badass master swordsman Kronos (Horst Janson) as he rains hell on his enemies, wiping out three enemy swordsmen early in the film with only two slashes of his sword, and later killing off what seems to be every last damn man in the village when they foolishly try to rise up against him. Perhaps he’s not quite as rough as the kung fu brothers in Hammer and the Shaw Bros. joint venture Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, but he’s certainly much more badass than Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing ever was.

There’s also some nice humor in the film. About halfway through the movie, Kronos learns that his friend, who had first summoned him to the village in fear of the vampires, has become one of them. Captured and tied to a chair, we are reminded that there are as many types of vampires as there are types of animals in the world, and each needs to be killed in a different way. What then follows, as it must, is a series of scenes of them trying every method of killing him that they can think of, from a stake to hanging to fire, before they stumble across the needed method by sheer chance. Thank goodness the needed method gives him the opportunity to have his hunchbacked assistant (John Cater) craft him a newer, bigger sword.

I sound like I’m making fun of the movie, but I don’t really mean to be. For a company that was in the process of collapsing in on itself, it’s admirable that it was still able to make films of this quality, even with nobody going to see them. If you want a fine Hammer vampire double feature, this would absolutely play great with Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (for a triple feature, you could even throw in The Horror of Dracula), so go check it out.

Rating: ***


Tuesday, January 27, 2009


One of the staples of 70s horror was the Animals Attack subgenre, where our intrepid heroes are menaced by vicious wildlife. The most famous by far, of course, was Jaws, though there were a great many more of varying levels of fame. Bug is one of the lesser-known ones, usually only unfairly known as a joke instead of anything worthwhile. I can understand people making it out like that, as that’s somewhat to be expected when talking about a movie with deadly pyromaniac cockroaches. Still, even if this is the weakest of the three Animals Attack movies in the HROHFYSSBYD series, it manages to be consistently entertaining from start to finish, and that’s all you can ask for.

The film opens every bit as promisingly as one could ask for, with a group of church-goers listening to a fiery sermon suddenly beset by a massive earthquake that makes the floor roll about. While nobody seems seriously hurt at first, the quake has opened up a large fissure from which pours an army of the aforementioned roaches, which soon begin starting fires and burning people to death. Just when most of the initial cast has been wiped out, in strides our hero, Professor James Partimer (Bradford Dillman), who captures a few of the bugs to experiment on and figure out a way to stop them. Here’s where the film takes a dark turn.

He discovers that the creatures are both unable to breed, and are dying out on their own due to the change in atmospheric pressures between the planet’s surface and the deep underground region the bugs came from. This would seem to be a good thing, as the bugs are soon going to die out on their own. Of course, being the budding mad scientist that he is, he can’t leave well enough alone, and so decides he must see if he can successfully breed the new bugs with regular American roaches, creating a new, more intelligent strain.

The film moves along at a pretty steady clip, and makes damn sure to keep us fully icked out by having cockroaches crawling over people at every possible moment. It also makes sure to answer one of life’s eternal questions for us: if you’ve created a race of super cockroaches that are both capable of starting fires, and able to spell out words with their bodies, is it really a wise decision to panic and announce to them that you must destroy them?

Rating: ***


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Blood Diner

The first time I watched this movie, it was very late at night, and I was drifting in and out of consciousness, though the scattered trace remnants of the films I could remember had me convinced that this was a potentially brilliant film, though I had no idea how to connect the various moments I had witnessed into any sort of coherent narrative. Watching it a second time, I began to realize why: this movie is kind of a jumble of not-very-well-connected moments that on their own are good enough to make the whole movie goofy enough to demand a viewing.

The film opens just as it should, with a radio announcer giving a neighborhood warning about a killer in the area, armed “with a meat cleaver in one hand and his genitals in the other.” Sadly, he is soon taken out by the police, but not before he imparts gifts upon his two young nephews and ensures that they will carry on with his occult work. Fast forward twenty years, and the nephews are now the owners of a trendy vegetarian diner, and who have decided that now is the time to dig up their beloved uncle so that he can continue guiding them. Not as a corpse or a zombie, of course – that would just be silly. Instead, they keep his talking brain and eyeballs in a jar, so that he can properly command them on how to resurrect their composite goddess Shitaar. This resurrection involves them killing a great many vegetarians and using their body parts build a Frankenstein-style vessel for her and then luring their remaining clientele for one big feast where they will sacrifice a virgin.

It doesn’t sound like an overly elaborate plot, and it isn’t, so they filled it up with some delightful side jaunts. Their required virgin, for instance, is found when she was the only one in her cheerleading squad who refused to participate in some videotaped nude aerobics (something that, frankly, all movies should include). One of the brothers also has a side job as a pro wrestler, which treats us to a wrestling match against his arch-nemesis Jimmy Hitler. It’s these side jaunts that are the most entertaining parts of the film, though even when they don’t provide enough humor director Jackie Kong helpfully throws in enough blood, body parts, and shameless nudity to get us past any weaker moments.

This was originally planned as an unofficial sequel to Blood Feast. I haven’t seen that movie, as Two Thousand Maniacs left me with little interest in seeing any of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s other films (yes, this does somewhat connect with my comments in Anthropophagus). However, if it’s half as fun as this movie it should be worth at least one watching. Unlike Blood Diner, that has gotten a DVD release (Blood Diner is currently available on VHS or from the website linked in the Youtube video below). With all of the companies devoted to releasing weird horror movies onto DVD nowadays, I have to assume Something Weird Video or Blue Underground – SOMEone – will be releasing this at some point. It’s just frustrating seeing how many terrible DTV films are being released these days while entertaining cult films like this get stuck in obscurity.

Rating: *** ½


Monday, January 19, 2009

Bad Taste

For those that haven’t heard of this film, it’s a bit of important history up there with the original Evil Dead. Much like the Evil Dead was director Sam Raimi’s debut film, paving the way for him to inexplicably make the leap from cheap horror movies to helming the Spider-Man franchise, so here does first-time director Peter Jackson show the promise that would lead to him directing the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Watching this film, it’s easy to understand how that could come to pass.

Set in Jackson’s home of New Zealand, it follows the adventures of a small band of intrepid defenders of Earth known as “The Boys”, who are assigned to figure out what a group of aliens is doing here on Earth and, if necessary (and it so totally is), blast them all to hell. After all, what else are you going to do when aliens come around to turn your species into fast food?

One thing that I always enjoy about this film, perhaps more than I should, is the locations that are used. For the most part, this film actually looks like it’s set in an actual part of the planet. The locations seem to be real places, rather than constructions on some Hollywood sound stage (this is with the exception of the final house, which is at times so absurdly fake looking that Jackson almost seems to be daring you to say something about it). Director Werner Herzog likes to mention his theory of “the voodoo of location”, wherein going out and filming in an actual real location lends a mystical additional power to the film, making it that much easier for audiences to become absorbed in and entranced by the movie. It’s something I can’t really overstate: film at a real place, don’t just build sets or (for the more budget-minded filmmaker) hide the whole movie inside your house!

Now, my rant on film location aside, this movie is extremely over the top and blissfully stupid. It’s the kind of film where a man will dramatically load his assault rifle and storm off after a group of aliens with dramatic action music playing, and then slip in a pile of cow shit. It’s the kind of film where a character will fire a rocket launcher at an alien in a house, only to miss and blow up a sheep instead. It is a terribly brilliant film that absolutely lives down to its title.

Despite that, this isn’t really a very well-known film, except perhaps to die hard horror junkies, and even among them I’ve met quite a few that have never heard of it. The DVD, unlike, well, every other last one of Peter Jackson’s films, has long been out of print, which certainly doesn’t help matters. Seriously, I get that it’s a tad outside the mainstream, but is it really that much more obscure than Forgotten Silver or Meet the Feebles? Really?

Rating: *** ½

P.S. If you watch the trailer, be sure to take note of how filming went on for so long (shot over weekends for four years) that Jackson elected to play not one, but two different characters, one of which is noticeably fatter than the other. We can already witness his love of hobbits and second breakfast forming.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Asphyx

One thing that I rather admire about the British horror films of the 60s and 70s is in how they seem to have a great deal more thought to them than their American counterparts (and much more than the bulk of their European brethren at the time – Spain, France, and Italy may have been making some damned entertaining horror in that time, but intelligent would not be a word I’d use to describe most). Led primarily by Hammer Studios, the films of that time tried both to re-envision classic horror themes in exciting new ways and to try to envision entirely new types of horror films to thrill us with. The Asphyx is one of the latter.

The film is set in the late 1800s (I think), and stars Robert Stephens as Sir Hugo Cunningham, a beloved and respected scientist who makes a startling discovery. It seems that every photograph taken of someone as they are dying features the same dark smudge hovering around them. He soon theorizes that this must be the “asphyx”, the spirit of the dead written about in ancient Greece, and soon sets his scientific sights on finding a way to make the spirit visible when it arrives, and then on finding a way to capture it. This is no minor thing, as capturing it and sealing it away ensures that the dying person or animal that summoned the asphyx will now live forever (or at least as long as their asphyx is sealed away).

One thing that makes this film so unique is in its overall tone. This is partly due to how there is no real villain in this piece, and if Hugo’s efforts transform into a closed-minded obsession after the tragic deaths of his wife and son, well, it’s a totally understandable one. There’s also a great deal more talking than in most horror films. Our main character is a man of ideas, a more benign Dr. Frankenstein, trying to puzzle together a newly-discovered mystery of the universe.

It ends in tragedy, as such a film must, with the deaths of some characters that we truly care about (the effort to capture an asphyx is indeed a risky one, since it requires each person to start to die in order to summon it), but one interesting thing – and I realize this is going to partially spoil the ending, but the opening scene of the movie spoils it anyway so I can’t feel too bad about doing it – comes in how two characters actually do survive to the present day. Of course, as the Greek legend of Tithonus could have informed Hugo, having eternal life isn’t necessarily all that wonderful without eternal youth to go with it, but still. Imagine if Frankenstein had ended with the doctor and his creation making peace with each other, and then continuing on together somewhere else, that’s sort of what this is like. This may not be as flashy or fast-paced as your average horror movie, but if you want something that tries something new and isn’t afraid to have actual ideas in it, you should definitely try to hunt this one down.

Rating: *** ½


Monday, January 12, 2009

Anthropophagus (a.k.a. The Grim Reaper a.k.a. Antropophagus)

One mistake that is often made by people, myself included, is to write off a director that they’ve seen two or three bad films of, in the belief that he will clearly never amount to anything worthwhile. While I’m certainly quite guilty of this, I’m glad I decided to give Joe D’Amato a third chance (after the terrible films Beyond the Darkness and Erotic Nights of the Living Dead – what, you’re telling me you’re not intrigued by the title?), because this is the film where he finally goes as crazy as his reputation warrants.

The film is set on a secluded Greek island, as a group of tourists decide to go on a boat tour of a series of islands in the area, and choose the worst possible island they could as their first stop. While seemingly deserted, the friends soon find that they are being stalked by a mad killer who has already wiped out the rest of the island’s inhabitants. With their numbers dwindling, will the survivors find a way to stop this mad fiend before he kills them all?

Well, okay, this is not the kind of film you watch because it has a really fascinating plot. It’s the kind you watch because it has some crazy scenes of violence (that’s a definite, in this case) and hopefully a creepy mood during those tragic scenes without violence (thankfully, that’s also a yes here). While the film suffers from some pacing problems – the killer doesn’t even show himself until about fifty minutes in, leaving most of the more disposable characters to get offed pretty rapidly – it keeps itself interesting enough through most of the film that I was never bored once they reached the island.

I feel I do have to spoil one of the kills, though, as it’s the kill that made me certain I was going to include this in the HROHFYSSBYD, so if you don’t want to have it ruined for you, stop reading now and just go rent or purchase the movie. Anyway, one of the female characters is heavily pregnant, a situation that never turns out well in such movies. Her encounter with our villain has him choking her a bit, then slowly rubbing his hand across her swollen belly, then reaching his hand down under her skirt and yanking her fetus out through her vagina before eating it. You can’t find movies like that nowadays.

Rating: *** ½


Friday, January 9, 2009

And Soon the Darkness

Two films into the HROHFYSSBYD and already certain biases of mine are shining through. This film, like Amuck before it, is a European film from the 70s. Two films can be a coincidence, of course, but the two I’m throwing in next week are from the same decade and continent, which may make this overall list a tad circumspect for anybody that prefers their horror films to be made in the good ol’ US of A, preferably sometime after they’ve already been born. However, I say nuts to that. You will all be much happier watching these films than some awful Hollywood remake, you have my word on it.

This one especially is pretty damned great, as we follow the adventures of two British girls, Jane and Cathy Pamela Franklin and Michele Dotrice), that decide to go on holiday bicycling through the French countryside. After a minor fight, the two separate for a time, and never meet up again. After a couple hours, Jane grows worried for her friend’s safety, and goes back to find her, only to discover that she has disappeared. She heads back to town for help, but finds that her essentially high school level command of the French language is not overly conducive to obtaining help from the locals. What help she does find, indeed, seems mostly circumspect, as her would-be allies are a woman with a worryingly angry husband that doesn't want her around, a mysterious man in sunglasses that alternates between oozing charm and ridiculously suspicious behavior, and the local gendarme, who appears somewhat eager to help but who is described as “tres trouble”. She also learns from two other locals that another foreign girl on vacation – also a blonde like Cathy – was viciously murdered on the same road that she had left Cathy on. As she tries to find her friend, if she still has a friend left to find, the day is slowly fading away into night…

This is definitely one of the tenser thrillers I’ve seen, aided both by quality direction from Robert Fuest (who would go on to helm The Abominable Dr. Phibes a year later) and from a suitably creepy, unsettling score. The language barrier really ratchets up the tension of the film, as she seems to have nowhere to turn for aid in a thoroughly alien land (made all the worse by how almost every English speaker she encounters seems like a potential killer themselves). It’s a shame this one isn’t more famous, because it easily ranks with some of the major thrillers of the 70s – The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, When a Stranger Calls, etc. As a nice bonus, unlike Amuck, this one is easily availably on DVD, so go check it out already.

Rating: *** ½


Monday, January 5, 2009


Welcome to the debut of the 100 Rare and Obscure Horror Films You Should See Before You Die, or HROHFYSSBYD for short. As mentioned before, these are all done in alphabetical order, so that nobody gets their feelings hurt, and so we begin with an appropriately unknown giallo, Amuck.

Amuck (Alla ricerca del piacere) is one of those films that functions with more of a premise than a plot, and as such it finds itself developing a weird kind of mood as it lingers on moments far beyond what a more plot-intensive film would entail. Barbara Bouchet stars as Greta, a secretary that goes undercover at a mansion to try to discover what has happened to her friend that disappeared there the year before. The bulk of the film is taken up by her growing odd relationship with the two homeowner, Richard and Eleanora (Farley Granger and Rosalba Neri), as she is captivated by them even as she uncovers evidence that one or both of them might have been involved in killing her friend.

There are two main things worth noting about the film. One is that the two leading women are just amazingly attractive. Furthermore, in the grand Italian tradition, roughly two minutes after Greta moves into the mansion, Eleanora seduces her, giving us a fine lesbian sex scene to get the movie started right. Seriously, they start making out almost immediately after they first meet each other, and good on both of them for it. This film keeps the nudity going for the duration of the film, which (to me at least) more than makes up for the film’s big flaw.

That flaw, as you may have already figured out, is that not enough really happens in the film. It does a pretty good job at building mood, but it would have been a better film had a good ten or fifteen minutes have been trimmed from it. Indeed, with such a small cast (only five or six notable characters), two of which are potential villains, there’s not all that much that can happen fright-wise before the climax. Writer-director Silvio Amadio seems to have realized this, though, and dealt with it in the most sensible manner possible: by having Greta fall into some quicksand while duck hunting about halfway through the film. What can I say, not all gialli can be made by Argento or Fulci.

One final note: I had planned on including trailers of each film in the HROHFYSSBYD collection, and yet all I was able to find on Youtube was part of the film’s score. Further proof of the rarity and brilliance of this film! Enjoy!

Rating: ***