Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Dunwich Horror (1970)

Before AIP’s The Dunwich Horror, a 1970 film adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror novella of the same name, not a whole lot had been done yet to try and bring Lovecraft to the screen. The Haunted Palace from 1963 is partially based on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward; Die, Monster, Die! from 1965 is a loose adaptation of The Color out of Space; The Shuttered Room from 1967 is an adaptation of August Derleth's story of the same name that was inspired by Lovecraft, and The Crimson Cult from 1969 only takes mild inspiration from Dreams in the Witch House. As far as I can tell, The Dunwich Horror is the first film to be a faithful attempt at a direct title adaptation of an HP Lovecraft story. Not surprisingly some liberties were taken with this film, such as updating it for the late '60s, early '70s, but that’s always to be expected. I do think the The Dunwich Horror movie, for its era, does do Lovecraft justice, even if it doesn’t quite live up to the novella.

It was filmed in Mendocino California, a small coastal community that kind of passes for a New England looking town. I don’t think there was any kind of ocean near Dunwich in the original story, but the seaside connection is suitably Lovecraftian and serves the film well, as it’s usually filmed at night to look dark and ominous with unseen horrors.

The stylish occult and satanic animated intro credits set to the classical and catchy main theme by Les Baxter is a great start that gets you into both a ‘70s and a Lovecraft mood. It has a cartoony and imaginative way of painting the ceremonial birth of the main character Wilbur Whateley on Sentinel Hill. Even the film's detractors agree that this animated segment is terrific.

When I originally read the book, I imagined the Whateley house to be more of a worn-down farmhouse, but it is quite the colorful, stylized gothic mansion in the film, something I found to be very Bava-esque; in fact, The Dunwich Horror was originally slated to be a Mario Bava project in 1964, with Boris Karloff starring. It wasn't until around 1969 that the production finally moved forward, with director and lead actors revamped.

Apparently, several actors were in mind to play villain/protagonist Wilbur Whateley, such as David Carradine and Peter Fonda, who turned it down, but the role ultimately went to Dean Stockwell (Quantum Leap). Directing ended up going to Daniel Haller, who also directed Die, Monster, Die! 

Sadly, Wilbur Whateley isn’t the physically half human, half creature here that he is in the book, but Stockwell, a Lovecraft fan, has an interesting ‘70s creeper occultist approach, and I really did sense his commitment to his take on the character; his heart is in it. I also love his shaggy, curly hairstyle (it kind of matches mine when I let it grow out).

Academic themes and settings usually abound in Lovecraft tales, and this film manages to touch upon that motif with a passable looking Miskatonic-like University and its library that houses the fabled Necronomicon under lock and key. The University’s visiting Ph.D, Dr. Henry Armitage, the appointed hero with enough of an understanding of the occult and the unsavory Whateley family history to be Wilbur’s foil, is ably played by Ed Begley, his last film before passing away shortly after. Somewhat ironically, Dean Stockwell played Dr. Henry Armitage in the 2009 version of The Dunwich Horror.

Nancy (Sandra Dee- Gidget 1959), a character not from the original story, fills the role of love interest for Wilbur Whateley in a classic Hollywood romance way, almost like a requisite to make The Dunwich Horror more watchable as a film to 1970s audiences.

Nancy is a coed trusted with watching over the Necronomicon at the University Library. One day, Wilbur shows up, politely asking if he could read the forbidden book for a while. Nancy's friend Elizabeth (Donna Baccala) turns him down, but something about him makes Nancy trust him, so she lets him peruse it for a while. I like to think Wilbur hypnotized her with his eyes. When Nancy’s criticized for it by her friend, her reasoning is his great eyes, as if someone with such beautiful eyes can be trusted.

When Wilbur reads the text aloud (mildly paraphrased actual text from Lovecraft), looking mesmerized, about the Old Ones and Yog-Sothoth, I feel like it is stuff he should already know. Dr. Armitage interrupts Wilbur’s perusal, insisting he put it back, warning him of the great value of the book and the fate of one Oliver Whateley who was publicly hanged in the Dunwich town square. After Wilbur informs Dr. Armitage that he is a Whateley and Oliver is his Great Grandfather, Wilbur, Dr. Armitage, Elizabeth, and Nancy get together for a friendly dinner. Wilbur misses his bus (probably on purpose), and so Emily kindly offers to drive him a long way back to his house in Dunwich, where he invites her in for tea.

Wilbur and Nancy might have some sort of chemistry, and she does seem legitimately attracted to him. Too bad Wilbur turns out to be a toxic jackass. He acts sweet and kind to Nancy at first, and she finds him interesting, but Wilbur is a charming, manipulative sociopath with an ulterior motive, as indicated by the way he drugs her tea (which keeps her in a kind of lethargic state and gives her nightmares) and rips a part out of her car engine without her knowing to keep her stranded at his mansion with him. She’s fond of her captor, for a time, but I wouldn’t call it Stockholm Syndrome, since she doesn’t know she is captive. Elizabeth and Dr. Armitage come out to Dunwich to find Nancy, but she assures them she is enjoying her time spending the weekend with Wilbur.

Nancy and Wilbur enjoy pleasant walks in the Dunwich oceanside country and have deep conversations about her dreams, but Nancy is sometimes half-comatose and is plagued with nightmares of horrors from another dimension where she is menaced and chased by strange orgiastic hippie people who are most likely the Old Ones Wilbur is so fond of trying to bring back to our world.

Nancy is way too trusting, even when Wilbur gets creepy and starts taking her up to the ceremonial alter in the Devil’s hop-yard on Sentinel Hill. Of course, it is likely her drugged tea Wilbur keeps giving her that makes her partially unaware and submissive for the ceremony he wants to use her for. In something that feels like a dream sequence, she’s suddenly in an ancient ceremonial robe and in another hazy world surrounded by dark hooded figures. Wilbur disrobes revealing a full body of ancient alphabet symbol tattoos. There’s an ambiguity if she’s dreaming or not. Wilbur is sure he’ll succeed with the ritual this time, stating that the previous girl resisted and died, suggesting that the submissiveness of the sacrificed is key to the success of the ritual. I love that moment when Wilbur appears among the hooded cultist in Nancy’s ceremonial vision.

I ultimately decided that I did like the film's interpretation of the mountainous invisible monster featured in the book that escapes the Whateley Mansion to wreak death and destruction on Dunwich. Seeing that the monster in the original story was mostly invisible, since it existed between worlds, we did get vague descriptions from Lovecraft, and consequently the film does give vague glimpses of something tentacle-based with multiple heads. Instead of growing to take up the entire house though, the monster is only locked away upstairs in what I’m assuming is an attic room. Of course, the filmmakers are unable to achieve a monster of a visual horror that Lovecraft mostly hinted of, but it still works in a fun ‘70s B-monster movie way. When it first attacks, after Elizabeth unwittingly releases it, it’s an insane mess of unnerving sounds, edits, and tentacle slapping. 

The way the monster stalks and attacks in POV is acceptable, complete with heart beat, inhuman breathing, and film-negative vision to give it a more otherworldly perspective. When we do get somewhat of a look at the monster at the end, it reminded me of the Malboros from Final Fantasy.

To give the film even more Lovecraft flavor, a mental institution that houses Wilbur’s mother Lavinia (Joanne Moore Jordan) is included. Lavinia went insane five years after giving birth, and lives out her remaining days in a violent state, gibbering in her white padded room about her sons and opening a gate. Also, an interesting note, a pre-Adrian Talia Shire is here as a comely nurse and inevitable monster fodder. 

The presence and workings of the whippoorwills, the birds in the book that flock by night to catch the souls of the newly departed, are handled and executed nicely here when certain key characters pass away.

The Dunwich Horror hits a lot of the right notes for me, despite the usual pacing issues and what many consider to be a weak ending. I suppose I would agree in a way that the first half is a bit more intriguing and engaging until it gets more into the actual sacrificial ceremonial stuff towards the end that probably could’ve been more climactic. It does start to seem a little tired after it becomes pretty obvious what is going on, but the inclusion of the monster saves the second half a little. It’s still really cool stuff in my opinion, a nice ‘70s filmic materialization of Lovecraft. You can tell the scriptwriters researched the book thoroughly. It’s by no means a direct retelling, but it ends up being an interesting take on the novella. Despite its current 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I still feel it’s a classic in its own right and a graceful early attempt at adapting The Dunwich Horror to film. 

© At the Mansion of Madness

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sex of the Devil / Il sesso del diavolo - Trittico (1971)

How could any Eurocult horror fan resist being attracted to a movie with a poster like this and a title like Sex of the Devil? Whether or not the movie delivers what it promises on the cover is another matter, but when beholding such an epic, suggestively satanic, occult, and erotic poster like this one (centering on what I thought looked a little like a possessed Mia farrow), a spectacular fantasy of a movie is birthed in the mind of the observer, one that is often very different from the movie in reality, for better or worse. I admit to initially being attracted and baited in to this film based solely on this poster. Sex of the Devil not surprisingly turned out to be something other than I had imagined, and if it weren’t for that advertisement I may have never found it. So basically, the movie poster did its job, and I slowly fell in love with another movie.

Despite not being what I expected and bearing the usual pacing and plot resolution issues, Sex of the Devil still delivered the goods, and, in the end, it ended up delivering what it promised on the poster as well.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

A Whisper in the Dark / Un sussurro nel buio (1976)

A Whisper in the Dark is a personal favorite of mine. It has been referred to as the Italian The Turn of the Screw (1898) and is a subtle take on the haunted family category of storytelling, focusing on a wealthy family living in a gorgeous and at times spooky villa that’s like a hotel resort (probably because it was filmed at a hotel, the five-star Hotel Villa Condulmer near Venice). It’s got that gothic horror aesthetic but downplays the horror in favor of exploring family dynamics with shades of the supernatural that are symbolic of unresolved family problems. The supernatural is always kept ambiguous; almost everything strange that happens can be explained, but the circumstances do leave a lot to the imagination. As is usually the case, the ambiguity is the film’s strength and its weakness.

The cinematography by Claudio Cirillo is really the main attraction, and with Marcello Aliprandi’s direction, the visuals, coupled with Pino Donaggio’s sweet and melancholic score, end up being the stuff of fairytales, comprising some of the most majestic locations and set pieces. The villa and its somber exterior and grounds, dating back to the sixteenth century, have a deep, haunting presence, a rich sense of past generations emanating from it. And the children’s ball is an enchanting segment, with costumes and constantly falling confetti, which concludes with a phantasmagoric night time burning of an effigy floating on the river. According to Cirillo the different weather conditions, such as the foggy atmosphere seen during the opening credits, were by chance. Listening to Cirillo vibrantly talk about his craft on the NoShame DVD interview, you can tell the man is an artist.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Daughter of Dracula / La fille de Dracula (1972)

Jess Franco filmed Daughter of Dracula back to back with the preceding film Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein (1972). These two films seem similar and for me were sometimes easy to confuse with one another, but after reviewing them both back to back, I realize they are quite different in many ways. Unlike the previous film, the eroticism is amped up this time around, particularly with the love/feeding scenes between Franco regulars of the era Anne Libert and Britt Nichols. It isn’t necessarily the monster mashup like the previous film since for monsters we just have Dracula, a femme vampire, and a mystery killer. Perhaps it’s more of a Eurocult genre mashup, as this one has a reputation for being confused as to whether it wants to be an erotic vampire horror film or a giallo-like murder mystery.

Daughter of Dracula doesn’t quite reach its potential, but it’s nonetheless a relaxing Gothic horror with a captivating modern ‘70s setting in an old-world location that provides the right ambiance us Eurocult fans can’t get enough of.

Howard Vernon reprises his role as his own odd, unique, near-lifeless version of Count Dracula from Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein. He’s even less active here, but Britt Nichols and Anne Libert get more to do this time around, even if Nichols’ vampire scenes may’ve soared a little more in the preceding movie.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein / Dracula contra Frankenstein (1972)

Jess Franco had already covered Dracula by directing a movie adaption of Bram Stoker’s seminal Gothic horror vampire novel from 1897 a couple years prior. So, what does Jess do next when returning to make another Gothic Count Dracula movie?... Take the Universal route and throw Dracula in with other classic monster figures, like Frankenstein and The Wolfman, to have a go at it and see who would win in a fight.

With Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein, the familiar monster mashup style gets the Jess Franco treatment, which is essentially Classic Universal horror in color with Franco’s flavor of visual and hypnotic storytelling, yet for a Jess Franco film, the eroticism is quite tame, with no nudity to be found. It adapts certain elements from Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the Dracula angle, but the Frankenstein angle borrows more from Franco’s own The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962) and less from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Curiously, the opening text, credited to David H Klunne (a Franco pseudonym), is pretty much a poetic and short synopsis of the film, rather than some sort of backstory setup to get viewers up to date, like an opening Star Wars crawl. That’s OK, because there isn’t really a whole lot to spoil, since the experience of the film, in this case, is a little more important than the story, which I think isn’t necessarily hard to follow, but it doesn’t really sink in either since there is a lot of visual depth, atmosphere, and cool ideas in what is a slow and thin plot.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

School of Fear / Il gioko (1989)

‘80s Italian horror TV movies aren’t always the most memorable and have a tendency to be a little underwhelming in comparison to the classic gialli and Eurohorror films from the ‘60s and ‘70s golden era. By the late ‘80s, we were at, or were even beyond, the tail end of the horror boom, with many Italian directors making movies more for television. Lamberto Bava directed a lot of TV movies throughout his career. His ‘80s horror TV movies paid a lot of homage to the classic gialli and horror films that sculpted the genre like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Inferno (1980), House by the Cemetery (1981), his father’s Black Sunday (1960), and even his own Demons (1985). A lot of times his TV films could be a little mediocre and almost feel like near-pointless rehashes, like Demons 3: The Ogre (1988), but Lamberto Bava also had a tendency to catch you by surprise with TV movies like Demons 5: The Devil’s Veil (1989), the hilarious and ‘80s satirical Dinner with a Vampire (1989), and the (previously) hard-to-find School of Fear.

Aside from being an interesting take on the evil kid trope, School of Fear / Il gioko does present a lot to chew on, and like Demons 5: The Devil’s Veil and Macabre (1980) is a little more of what I prefer from director Lamberto Bava. Don’t get me wrong, Demons and A Blade in the Dark (1983) are awesome too, but I honestly lamented for a time that we never really got something as twisted, different, and well-made as Macabre. It’s still no Macabre, but School of Fear feels a little more in the right direction towards something twisted and different.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Count Dracula's Great Love / El gran amor del Conde Dracula (1973)

Paul Naschy had a lot of success in a wide range of film genres, playing an even wider range of characters, but he is mostly remembered for his brand of gritty and beautiful Spanish gothic horror films. These movies had their low budget and pacing issues, but there was still something so attractive about them, with a reverence for the classic monsters, most especially the wolfman, and the inclusion of plenty of female vampires and femme fatales in general. Plus, with his charisma and sincerity to the material, it’s always a joy just seeing Naschy; whenever he makes an entrance in these movies, he causes viewers’ eyes to light up like they’re seeing a dear old friend. For me, it was always interesting to see what a zombie movie, or a mummy movie, or a cannibal movie, or even a giallo would be like after getting the Paul Naschy treatment.

It was my tendency to read other people’s takes on Paul Naschy movies, be they positive or negative, that inspired me to eventually take up the quill to see if I’d have anything interesting to contribute as a genre film blogger.

With Count Dracula’s Great Love, a costume horror drama with a satiable amount of violence and eroticism that according to Naschy in his memoirs was a critic and box office success, we have one of my favorite classic monsters done by one of my favorite filmmakers. It was directed by Javier Aguirre (Hunchback of the Morgue) but was written by Paul Naschy who also stars as Dr. Wendell Marlow and (forgive the spoiler) Count Dracula. I believe it is also the first in a short but notable line of horror films with Naschy and actor Victor Barrera (sometimes credited as Vic Winner or Victor Alcazar); the other three Naschy movies with Barrera are Hunchback of the Morgue (1973), Horror Rises from the Tomb (1973), and Vengeance of the Zombies (1973).

Monday, November 13, 2017

Lips of Blood / Lèvres de sang (1975)

With his first four full length films, between 1968 to 1971, Jean Rollin forged his own brand of erotic and poetic vampirism. The one of a kind auteur painted over the ‘in vogue’ gothic horror tropes, changed up the rules, and gave his vampires reign over dark and melancholic vistas far removed from the familiar world. The experience ends up being fantastically vampiric while also seeming at odds with the classic notion of a vampire movie.
Rollin would shed his brand of tragic vampire lore for a time to experiment with new dark takes on death (The Iron Rose (1973)), adventure, and revenge (The Demoniacs (1974)). To compensate for box office failures, and in order to have steady work between more personal projects, Rollin also directed several porn films under a different name (Michel Gentil).

In 1975, Rollin returned to vampires with the exceptional Lips of Blood, which also ended up being a commercial failure, and so to try and bring in money, Lips of Blood was reformatted with new hardcore pornographic inserts and transformed into the more exploitative movie Suce moi vampire (1976). For me, the existence of Suce moi vampire undermines the significance and spirit of Lips of Blood, and, kind of similar to my feelings on House of Exorcism (1975) (the reworking of Bava’s masterpiece Lisa and the Devil (1973)), I don’t have much interest in seeking it out.
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