Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Six Creepy Mannequin movies

Mannequins are a strange obsession. I remember seeing an episode of "Hoarders" where this guy was so into collecting mannequins, he rented a separate apartment just to keep them all! They're also a recurring theme in horror flicks of all kinds. There's something unnerving about them, especially when they're not entirely realistic. Here's a list of six times mannequins crossed the line from benign retail accessory to shudder-inducing threat!

Scream Bloody Murder (1972) aka My Brother Has Bad Dreams

Originally released in November 1972, Robert Emery's Scream Bloody Murder was eventually retitled My Brother Has Bad Dreams, most likely to differentiate it from another, similar movie called Scream Bloody Murder released merely six weeks after Emery's film. This ultra low budget nightmare is a character-driven drama involving a brother and sister who are still coping with the years-prior murder of their mother at the hands of their father.  Karl is the brother, a young man in his early 20s who still has the mind of a child. Dangerously disturbed ever since he witnessed the mother's murder, the film chronicles Karl's descent into total madness after sister Anna takes a lover, a young drifter named Tony. Karl's obsession with mannequins is one of the film's creepy through-lines; in one scene he smashes one with a fire poker, he sleeps with one he keeps hidden in his closet, and in the film's deliriously downbeat conclusion he 'escapes' with one on a motorcycle, only to meet a tragic end that has to be experienced to be believed.

Tourist Trap (1979)

Probably the first horror movie people think of when you start to talk mannequins, Tourist Trap is a very creepy movie about a group of friends on a road trip who are victimized when they stop at a rundown roadside attraction run by the slightly sinister Mr. Slausen (Chuck Connors). The film makes an awkward but futile attempt to disguise the fact that Slausen is the villain, giving him a bizarre plaster doll mask to wear during the attack scenes, but this is way more than a slasher movie. Slausen is telekinetic, and has the habit of turning his victims into mannequins. It's never quite explained how this occurs, or whether the victims are really dead. One terrifying moment occurs when Slausen, while wearing the mask disguise, chases final girl Molly (Jocelyn Jones) with the disembodied mannequin head of her friend Woody. He holds it up to her and the mouth drops open, Woody's terrified voice emerging and begging her for help. This uncertainty becomes the very thing that gives Tourist Trap its impact, as any attempt to explain it all would have been silly. The film's final image, of an insane Molly 'escaping' with a car full of her mannequin friends, is ridiculously disturbing.

Maniac (1980)

Notorious for its graphic violence, William Lustig's 1980 film Maniac also features a bizarre depiction of mannequins as surrogate companions for a deranged person, this time a serial killer who victimizes beautiful women. Villain in question Frank claims the scalps of his victims as trophies, each of them nailed to the head of a mannequin and displayed in Frank's claustrophobic New York apartment. The film's murder sequences are grueling, but one unforgettable moment comes at the conclusion, when the mannequins come to life and decapitate Frank in a bizarre hallucination sequence.

I Dismember Mama (1972) aka Poor Albert & Little Annie

Harrowing psychological thriller Poor Albert and Little Annie got a reissue a few years after its debut, under the more memorable title I Dismember Mama. Zooey Hall plays the film's lead character, a psychopath with mother issues, although he's no Norman Bates. Hall's character, Albert, acts out with murderous rage whenever he has the opportunity to attack a woman, but he develops a fascination for Annie (Geri "Fake Jan" Reischel), the young preteen daughter of one of his victims. Albert sees Annie as the one female who is untouched by the 'impurity' he finds in most women, and they share an idyllic day trip together. It ends badly, though, as any movie titled I Dismember Mama will. Albert winds up chasing Annie through a warehouse filled with mannequins, many of which are pre-decorated with garish makeup and flashy clothing. Reischel, who was about 12 years old when she filmed this movie, has a scene where she dons a mannequin's clothing, and imitates the exaggerated makeup, in order to disguise herself and hide from crazed Albert.

Lisa and the Devil (1973)

This arty horror tale represents what director Mario Bava chose to do after producer Alfred Leone gave him funding to create his dream project. The (very) loose plot finds a young woman named Lisa, played by Elke Sommer, caught in a dreamlike situation from which she cannot escape. Abandoned by her touring party in a strange country, Lisa encounters a man who seems to mistake her for someone he already knows. After accidentally killing him by pushing him down a stone staircase, Lisa later sees him again, this time as a mannequin carried by Telly Savalas. Confused and terrified by the experience, she seeks refuge in an opulent house presided over by butler Savalas, and containing a strange assortment of characters. But are they mannequins, too? Is she? This final realization predates movies like "The Sixth Sense", "The Others" and "Dead and Buried" by many years, but Bava's film is far more cryptic than those movies. In the most disturbing way, we know even less about what just occurred than we did when the movie began.

Don't Open The Door (1974) aka Don't Hang Up

An obsession with mannequins and dolls is one of the creepy elements of S.F. Brownrigg's Don't Hang Up. Amanda Post (Susan Bracken) visits the creepy 'museum' of collectibles that Claude Kearn (Larry O'Dwyer) keeps, many of which belong to Amanda's family. In desperate fear that she may reclaim the items, Claude makes a bizarre attempt to endear himself to her by showing her a weird tableau he created in an alcove of the museum: a mannequin dressed to resemble Amanda's deceased mother is seated at a dressing table, as if brushing her hair. When Amanda reacts in horror and anger instead of delight, Claude cannot understand why, so deep is he in his delusions. No mannequins come to life in this movie, but there is one moment where the killer switches places with a mannequin in order to surprise an unsuspecting victim.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Children (1980): The nuclear family unit goes up in yellow smoke!

Kids! You never really know what they’ll do, especially when you fool yourself into thinking that you do. We can say we did our best, but there is no such thing as a perfect parent...so, what if our kids one day decided to take revenge on us for grievances both large and small, even for mistakes we didn't realize we made? And what if it could happen in an instant, before we even have time to react?

This is the nightmare scenario of 1980 independent regional freakout “The Children”, a grisly flick that gives us an epidemic of mutant children who are suddenly transformed into deadly, smiling monsters. They seem relatively normal at first, at least when we glimpse them briefly during a bus ride home from school. But then the bus they’re riding in passes through a cloud of noxious yellow gas, the result of a leakage at the local nuclear power plant. The bus is found abandoned on the side of the road, and it takes the townspeople far too long to realize that the children have been transformed into grinning, pallid zombies with black fingernails, now possessing the ability to fry a human being alive in a matter of seconds just by making contact with their hands. Just as contemporary counterpart “Friday the 13th featured a mother’s maternal devotion as a motivation for hideous murders, “The Children” presents parental love for children as a source of unimaginable death.

"Ohhh I'm SO happy to see the children, and
nothing seems weird about this at all!"
Just slightly more outlandish than “Ft13th, “The Children” depicts a small New England town called Ravensback that serves as an unlikely snapshot of the changing family dynamic.  Although on the surface they carry on as respectable people, the adults in the movie are incompetents who bring harm to children, usually without even knowing they are doing so. The first two men we see are workers at a nuclear power plant, and their recklessness is what causes the whole ordeal in the first place; without any respect for the enormous responsibility associated with maintaining a nuclear facility, they decide to cut short their service call and head for a local bar, allowing a malfunction to occur. A thick cloud of yellow gas results, engulfing the countryside until it drifts into the path of an oncoming school bus.  Our female lead, Cathy Freemont (Gale Garnett), is driving alongside the bus, and she too passes right through the toxic cloud, zooming ahead of the school bus.

This becomes important later in the story, when we learn that Cathy is pregnant and that the effects of the gas are only applicable to children, but it’s also indicative of the script’s underlying message: things that seem inconsequential to adults are likely to affect children for the worse, and the adults are oblivious. The five children who were on the school bus represent five local families. Cathy and her husband, John (Martin Shakar from “Saturday Night Fever”), have two other kids, early teen Jenny (Clara Evans) and younger Clarkie (Jessie Abrams). Clarkie avoids being turned into a zombie by staying home from school that day, but Jenny is one of the cursed five.  When Jenny and the other kids don’t come home, sheriff Billy Hart (Gil Rogers) responds to the growing concern about the missing children.

Hart visits the first of the affected families, Dr. Joyce Gould, who lives with her female partner Leslie Button (Suzanne Barnes) and Leslie’s young son, Tommy (Nathaneal Albright). Joyce is a caricature of a man-hating lesbian, berating the sheriff even as he does his best to figure out what is happening. She also keeps Leslie nice and stoned on codeine, and instead of Leslie, she is the one who goes to find out what happened to Tommy.  After parting ways with the sheriff, she is lured into the nearby cemetery when she catches a glimpse of Tommy. Joyce discovers the hideously charred corpse of what was once the school bus driver, and when Tommy suddenly emerges from behind a tombstone and Joyce sweeps him into a reassuring embrace, she is reduced to a smoldering pile of charred flesh and bones in a matter of seconds.  This, true believers, is the awesome power of…The Children!
Proof of the goth aesthetic infiltrating society in 1980.
Another family in Ravensback contains an alcoholic wife and her enabling husband, who are waiting on the return of their daughter, Ellen. She does come back home, fries her mother alive on the front porch, and then presumably does the same thing to her panicked father when she chases him into the house. A third couple are presented as self-obsessed snobs who couldn’t care less about the fact that their young daughter Janet is missing; the mother smokes pot by the pool while entertaining her effeminate pimp of a houseguest, and seems to think the idea of her daughter’s disappearance is “exciting”.  These people are all punished, of course, by being burned alive—their deaths occur offscreen, but the sheriff stumbles upon the scene later in the film and notices that they were making a dinner of lobsters, which of course involves boiling the creatures alive. Poetic justice has been served!
Some mothers just have to play the martyr, don't they?
Even though John and Cathy Freemont are the protagonists in the film, they are just as flawed as the other parents in the town.  Not only does Cathy zoom right past a school bus in her car, but once the shit hits the fan in Ravensback, there’s a scene where she is too stressed out to resist smoking a cigarette, during which she speaks directly to her very pregnant belly and says “Sorry”.  John is cloddish to the extreme, even though he emerges as the machete-wielding hero.  For the life of me, I can’t explain why he discovers that the town is being victimized by murderous zombie children, yet refuses to tell his distressed wife that this is happening. 
"Honey, there's a trail of incinerated corpses from
the cemetery into town, are you sure nothing's wrong?"
"Just smoke another cigarette."
The family of the fifth zombie child, Paul, is headed by a stern farmer who seems like the type who could render a good whipping if he felt the need. There’s also an older sister who is confronted by the newly transformed Paul and doesn’t even notice that anything is wrong with him.  Instead, she starts to berate him for bothering her, which is a familiar behavior for big brothers and sisters everywhere.  Both she and the father end up roasted like the others.

Director Max Kalmanowicz racked up most of his IMDB credits in the sound department, and although he isn’t credited with this task in “The Children”, it’s interesting that the sound design is one of the most effective aspects of the movie. The action is bolstered by strange electronic blips and sighs, and I dare you to forget the weird sounds that the children make when they are vanquished—the only way to kill them is to cut off their hands, and when this happens, they emit a hair-raising animal howl as they die.
"Why did I wait for the table read to look at the script??!"

I already mentioned “Friday the 13th, which was released to theaters almost simultaneously with “The Children”. The two films share a few things in common, most notably a score by Harry Manfredini.  There are a few cues in each film that sound identical. The two films also share Barry Abrams as the director of photography. 

One of the most memorable elements of the movie is the fact that it depicts the death of kids, something that is still mostly taboo, or used for extreme dramatic impact.  “The Children”, however, gleefully presents this in as much detail as its budget allows, which adds to its unsavory atmosphere. The fact that the kids are zombies could have justified this in the minds of the filmmakers, but that doesn’t really change the fact that we see some rather extreme cases of the mutilation of children. A young boy’s hands are cut off on camera, a group of children are seen cowering in a barn while trying to avoid a man who intends to hack them to death with a machete, and there’s a scene where the man does just that very thing to a zombie girl who looks to be about age 9.  We also see a 6 year old boy being chased by a zombie child, and later his parents find his corpse in his bedroom…it’s worth noting that the filmmakers show a little restraint in the depiction of this dead little boy, sparing him the grotesque burned/boiled look of the adult corpses in the film. 

"Tina? Get my agent on the phone, will you?"
The cheapness of “The Children” and its ridiculous premise, however, keep it from being taken seriously, which helps soften the blow of making a movie that contains violence perpetrated by and against kids.  Even though most of the action is played with a straight face, “The Children” contains enough broad humor that it’s clear the filmmakers were laughing with us. I’m sure a lot of viewers still saw this as reprehensible even when it came out in 1980, but here is also a movie that is somehow on the side of its villains. These monster children really are avenging angels who punish their families, friends and neighbors for crimes that include polluting their environment, disregarding their well being, and placing the needs of children secondary to their own selfish interests.  

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

13 Groovy Movies Dying For A Blu-Ray Release!

Everyone's got their list of movies they would love to see restored and reissued on Blu Ray. With great companies like Scream Factory, Severin, Arrow, Vinegar Syndrome, Garagehouse and Code Red rescuing little-seen movies from total obscurity, it seems like anything is possible. So here's my wish list of titles that would make me scream.

- Crazed (aka Slipping Into Darkness) (1978)

One of the most haunting performances I've seen in a film is the sensitive portrait Laszlo Papas creates of a troubled young man with a diminishing grasp on reality. Although heavily influenced by Psycho, the story really lays on the pathos in its grim depiction of the inner turmoil of its two main characters, played by Papas and Beverly Ross.  What Crazed lacks in polish is more than compensated for by its unflinching willingness to show its characters stripped of security and comfort. Most likely not the film that the viewer will expect, but a harrowing experience that should not be allowed to disappear.

Dream special feature: an interview or commentary with Laszlo Papas and/or Beverly Ross.

- The Child (1977)

Carrie meets Night of the Living Dead via The Bad Seed is one way you could describe The Child, but that's not really giving this imaginative movie its due. The material is derivative, but the execution of the film is shockingly good, considering that it appears to have been cobbled together with scotch tape and a glue gun. Something Weird gave this a DVD release, and a Blu Ray could actually end up making this movie look even worse by revealing too much, but since this is a fantasy list, I'd love to see someone give this movie a good going-over with some digital equipment to clean it up as much as possible. Enhance the colors, do your best with the shoddy audio track, and especially clean up some of the visual noise that goes with the territory of filming a movie like this on cheap film stock.

Dream special features: What would Rosalie Cole say today about her youthful acting adventure playing a telekinetic psychotic zombie-loving little girl? We'd love to know. Also, a director's commentary would be great.

- Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby (1976)

Made-For-TV sequel Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby is about as strange as they come. True, the film doesn't equal the original in any regard, and the story doesn't add up in a number of ways, but this full-speed-ahead whacked out movie is as groovy as burnt orange shag carpeting with an avocado couch. It's also got a memorable cast, including Patty Duke, Donna Mills, Ray Milland, Tina Louise, and Ruth Gordon reprising her role from the original film. It needs to be seen on Blu Ray.

Dream special feature: A few TV spots would be sufficient, although it would be far out to hear anybody from this production talk on camera.

- The Folks At Red Wolf Inn (1972)

Is it any surprise this film is on my list? Code Red announced this as an upcoming title about 4 years ago, but it obviously never materialized, and rumor has it a decent print could not be located in order to create the HD transfer. I'm not sure if that's true, but this cannibalism classic is just dying to be rescued from obscurity with a proper restoration.

Dream special feature: A full length commentary with star Linda Gillen, naturally.

- The Pyx (1973)

One of Karen Black's finest roles, she plays a prostitute whose suspicious death is under police investigation, and the story's unique framing device tells the tale in both flashback and present tense. The film's marketing materials made it look like a supernatural thriller, but it's more of a brooding crime drama than Omen-wannabe.

Dream special feature: Karen's original recordings for the songs featured on the soundtrack.

- Don't Look In The Basement (1973)

Where is the deluxe Blu-Ray presentation for this classic drive-in movie? S.F. Brownrigg's work needs to be exhumed and studied for its unique brooding quality, as well as its bizarre sense of humor. Basement is perhaps his best-known film, and it got its first HD presentation as part of a double disc package for the recent Don't Look In The Basement 2 home release. This print, however, was presented grindhouse style, with most of the grain and scratches intact. While I love that idea, I still won't be happy until we get a lovingly restored Blu Ray that gives the movie its due.

Dream special features: The various opening sequences featuring the film's numerous titles, particularly the original title The Forgotten (which would ideally be the print used for the transfer).

- I Dismember Mama (1972)

Originally released as Poor Albert and Little Annie, this nasty little movie was remarketed as a slasher and promoted by giving theater patrons an "upchuck cup" in case they experienced any stomach distress. What they probably didn't expect, however, was that their stomach distress would be caused by a depiction of an adult man attempting to "marry" an 11 year old girl he makes off with after murdering her mother. Zooey Hall's performance rivals that of Laszlo Papas from Crazed in its brutally realistic depiction of a likable young man being consumed by his dark side.

Dream special features: the original and retitled openings, and perhaps an interview with Zooey Hall.

- The Bride (1973)

Prolific daytime TV actress Robin Strasser would probably prefer that this film be forgotten, but her performance as a neurotic young woman who has an epic meltdown on her wedding day is surely one of the more unique items on her resume. Although her screen time in the film is limited, she reaches levels of hysteria in her big scene that rival Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. The Bride also features some unusual art direction, lighting and camera work, particularly the scenes that appear as dream sequences. A full exhumation of this obscure oddity would be great.

Dream special features: various retitled poster gallery or title sequences. If anyone could convince Robin Strasser to talk on camera about this, that would be spectacular as well.

EDIT: Apparently, Code Red has released this film under one of its alternate titles, Last House On Massacre Street! Get it here:

Get it here!

- Warlock Moon (1973)

Another rarely-seen gem, this mixture of cannibalism, witchcraft and Satanic conspiracy is very similar in tone and presentation to The Folks At Red Wolf Inn, but has its own unique atmosphere with supernatural overtones. Laurie Walters is a young college student in trouble when her new boyfriend (Joe Spano) takes her on an adventure to explore an isolated abandoned spa. The location is everything here, with the brooding resort bringing out the best in the actors. One scene between Spano and Walters in an empty swimming pool is a tense moment that plays like improvisation, captured by a handheld camera for an authentic feel.

Dream special features: the complete version of the film, with the brief missing scenes that were omitted from the DVD release.

UPDATE: This has since been released on Blu Ray with the additional footage, get it here!!

- Mausoleum (1983)

This fantastic early 80s monster freakout is all about Bobbie Bresee being either exposed in the nude or defiled with demonic makeup and appliances, the most alarming of which outfits her with a pair of killer breasts. No, I mean LITERALLY killer breasts, each with its own fanged mouth. Although it's played mostly straight, a few wink-wink moments reveal that the filmmakers were in on the joke, too. Marjoe Gortner and LaWanda Page also make this worth looking at. A Blu-Ray transfer would really make the film's colorful presentation pop.

Dream special features: Bobbie Bresee, naturally. She did a commentary for a DVD release, so she's not averse to talking about Mausoleum.

- Horror High (1973)

The out-of-print Code Red DVD for this 1970s "teenage Dr. Jekyll" screamer could use an upgrade to Blu Ray, hopefully one that will accentuate the movie's freaky lighting and color schemes.

Dream special features: the film's weird soundtrack on an isolated audio track, as well as interviews with Pat Cardi and Rosie Holotik. Don't forget to port over the interview with star Austin Stoker, or better yet, bring him back for a commentary with Cardi and Holotik.

- Corpse Eaters (1973)

It goes without saying that a movie about zombies eating people may be inspired by Night of the Living Dead, but this ultra-obscure Canadian zombie flick also seems to be a direct descendant of Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things. Created by a drive-in owner with the express intent to exhibit the film at his drive-in, this movie is unbelievably cheap looking and the scenes are often crudely realized by the actors, but holy moley is this thing weird and unusual. This may be the most unrealistic film on the list, since Corpse Eaters never really received any kind of official release outside of its original drive-in run, but who knows--maybe the fact that it was purchased by a disreputable distributor and then shelved means that there is at least one nice print laying around waiting for be scanned. This movie is in dire need of a Blu-Ray rescue.

Dream special features: Just seeing Corpse Eaters get a restoration would be a dream in itself.

- The Children (1980)

A leak at a nuclear power plant creates a cloud of noxious yellow gas that drifts across the New England countryside; when a school bus drives through it, the children on board are all transformed into murderous zombies that have the ability to burn their victims alive in 15 seconds with the touch of their hands. Although played with a straight face, there are plenty of winks in the film regarding its cynical, satirical statement on familial dysfunction and parenthood gone wrong.  Troma issued a horrible looking DVD that somehow didn't even look as good as the VHS release. Someone really should clean this up this memorable trash classic and give it a definitive release.

Dream special features: an isolated track with Harry Manfredini's score, which is very similar to Friday the 13th.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Strange Love Of "The Bat People"

Relationships aren't easy at all. Sure, love is usually great at first, because we're on our best behavior, but eventually the masks we wear start to slip, our significant others finally see the real us, and the tests truly begin. We grow, we change, priorities can be rearranged, and suddenly your love's in jeopardy, baby.

Flapping around American drive-ins circa 1974 was a strange love story called "The Bat People", a horror flick that was distributed by American International Pictures and was frequently paired with other AIP releases like "Frogs", "The Deathmaster", and "Dr. Phibes Rises Again". It was also released with the title "It Lives By Night" and was featured that way on "Mystery Science Theater 3000", a snarky TV show for people who think it's cute when an audience talks during a movie.

It's true that "The Bat People" is not a perfect film, but it's certainly not one of the worst ever made. The budget is painfully low, and although the actors all have good moments, the quality of the performances fluctuates, leading me to believe the director only had a few takes to work with in each scene. The approach to the monster is minimal in a 1950s sort of way, with only a few brief glimpses of some very cool Stan Winston makeup FX. Interestingly enough, it works especially well when the makeup is shown in closeup, as the two main characters share an intimate moment.

The film does have that essential nightmare dread that was so common in the 1970s, but it comes not from the horror elements. This movie is a romance at heart, with a couple who suddenly find their love threatened by something seemingly insurmountable. Many werewolf type films have this as a backdrop, but the fascinating thing about "The Bat People" is how this seems to be where the script's heart is, and it finds a way to give its formerly doomed lovers the strangest happy ending. It also finds a way to join werewolf and vampire iconography into one creature, similar to the 1950s film "Blood of Dracula". Its main characters are a recently married couple named John and Cathy, who are on a tour of a cave when John is bitten by a bat. Blackouts, seizures and hallucinations follow, and John discovers he is transforming into a bloodthirsty man-bat creature that preys of human beings.

Adding to the sense of disorientation and isolation for the couple is the fact that this all occurs while they are away from familiar surroundings, in a strange place where they've come to combine John's research on bats with a late honeymoon. Although we glimpse others in the area, many of the scenes are filmed in a dark, small town that often seems curiously vacant. John's nightmares and hallucinations are filmed in an arty fashion, with bats and people shot on empty black backgrounds. The expanse of the desert and the hollow caves add a lot of bleak atmosphere to the film.

Once John's crimes have caught up to him, he disappears, leaving Cathy alone and unsure what to do, in a motel room in a strange town that she doesn't even consider leaving without her husband. To ramp up the emotional drama, the sleazy local police sergeant who is investigating John's murders attempts to lure Cathy's allegiances away from John, coming on to her and then reacting violently when she rejects his advances. John himself is, in a strange sense, "running out" on Cathy, as most of his victims happen to be sexy young women.

These other potential "relationships", however, are not for John and Cathy, and even the weird supernatural problem they're facing can't break them up (not to mention that John has now become a murderer). At first John abandons Cathy for her best interest, as he tells her his is happy in this new life he has discovered. But both of them are too devastated to lose one another. John shows up in the hotel room and they make love. When she wakes, John is gone again, but there is something different; either because of something John did to her, or as a realization she makes on her own, Cathy begins to hear the eerie rustling sounds that John heard before he was transformed. She realizes she can change also, and in the strange happy ending, Cathy walks into the cave where she knows John is waiting. The meddling cop is killed by a swarm of bats, freeing John and Cathy to being their new existence together.

It shouldn't go unsaid that, given this film's notoriety as a "bad movie", its poor reputation has a lot to do with the way it was marketed when it was retitled from its early conceptual titles "Winged Death" and "Angel of Fear". The poster art for the wide release of "The Bat People" depicts an entire colony of creatures living underneath a spooky graveyard. OK?? That's totally not this movie, and anybody who really expected it to be the movie on the poster must have felt like every kid who ordered Sea Monkeys and discovered they weren't really humanoid sea people who could be trained to do tricks. Even though the title could be seen as evocative of the film's subtle conclusion, when indeed we learn there will now be not one but two bat people, the title promises more than the humble film can deliver. Nobody really expects the movie to care about the doctor and his wife more than it cares about the horror elements.

Even with some really great Stan Winston creature designs, the film cannot effectively sustain any real terror, and the horror scenes are better at creeping along in the shadows instead of lunging. There are several murders, but they're almost played for laughs, like one victim we see making out in a truck with a boy and complaining that someone sold her oregano instead of weed. The violence is very PG, but there is one disturbing scene where the sergeant's speeding car is attacked by bats that splatter all over the windshield in gory detail, like rotten fruit dipped in red paint.

The bizarre love triangle between Stewart Moss, Marianne McAndrew and Michael Pataki actually comes off better. Pataki is especially good, finding an intriguing mix of brutish hero, corrupt cop and predatory perv. Stewart Moss's character seems to be a hopeless square who finally finds the nerve to give in to his animal instincts. McAndrew's character is required to constantly rationalize her
husband's antisocial behavior, the ultimate loyal wife who not only defends her man's decision to steal an ambulance and endanger the lives of everyone he nearly flattens with it, but also sacrifices her own humanity and transforms as he did, even if her change is not shown on screen.

What MST3K would never tell you is that "The Bat People" has a strange, dreamlike quality just perfect for a late night drive-in movie. There is a cavernous, artful emptiness to it, an atmosphere of existential dread amid the silliness, and the strangest thing of all could be how the script always keeps its focus on the feelings of its two lovers. For something so derivative, it manages to do the unexpected.
*previously published in "Secret Scroll Digest" and the October 2016 issue of Drive-In Asylum.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Baron Blood (1972)

"Baron Blood" was the first film Mario Bava made after 1971's "Twitch of the Death Nerve", which was a much-needed hit for the filmmaker, who had suffered a series of box office flops.  Finally having regained his ground as a commercial director, he delivered the well received "Baron Blood" in 1972. Coming off of the high impact violence of the previous film, "Baron Blood" seems almost restrained, although it is plenty gruesome, and vibrates with Bava's unique presence. Plus it has an energetic, catlike performance by the beautiful Elke Sommer as the chief damsel in distress.

Peter Kleist (Antonio Cantafora) is returning to Austria to "research his family history".  After landing on a swank 747 while elevator music plays, he meets his uncle at the airport and makes a visit to the castle of an ancestor, Baron Otto von Kleist.  Known as "Baron Blood" to the locals, his name is still feared in these parts, as von Kleist had a man-cave full of torture devices and tools for committing violent murder and dismemberment, not necessarily in that order. A serious Vlad-The-Impaler wannabe, the Baron was into decorating the outside of his castle with the bodies of his victims.  But of course the Baron's been dead for hundreds of years, and the castle is being renovated as a tourist trap/hotel.  The project is headed by a man named Herr Dortmund, who appears to be a European counterpart of the swishy interior decorators in "Blacula".  His assistant Eva (Elke Sommer) seems to be in charge of walking briskly around the place while carrying important-looking documents.  She also shoulders what has to be the bulk of the film's wardrobe expenses--I kept a tally of 11 different costume changes for Elke Sommer, and I may have missed a few.

Whatever things Peter had planned to do in Austria, it all apparently becomes moot when he digs too deeply into the Baron's bloody past.  It seems as if a witch placed a curse on the Baron that would bring him back to life.  Now you might wonder how resurrecting someone from the dead could be considered a curse, and dear friend, I did, too.  The only reason I could think of was this: It was in the script.  This is also the reason Peter conveniently has a long-lost document containing the exact incantation that would bring Baron Blood back to life.  He convinces the excruciatingly fashionable but fun-loving Eva to accompany him in his freaked out scheme to read the incantation in the castle and midnight, and some presence makes itself known to them when they hear footsteps and someone trying to get through a locked door.  They hurriedly read the reverse incantation, and the disturbance stops.  Of course they can't leave well enough alone, and the next night they try it again.  This time though, the parchment gets blown into a fire, and they have no way to send the Baron back.  Evil ensues!

The Baron's resurrection scene is very creepy, and reminiscent of Bava's "Black Sunday" in its corpse-from-the-grave moment. Bava also maximizes the use of his iconic style, with layers of colored lighting, sudden focus pulls, and a brilliant scene where Elke Sommer finds herself pursued through the foggy streets of the village. Nicoletta Elmi appears in this film too, she being the little red haired girl who featured in numerous European horror films as a child ("Flesh For Frankenstein", "A Bay Of Blood", "Who Saw Her Die?", "Night Child") and one as an adult ("Demons").

Speaking of "Demons", Lamberto Bava is assistant director on this film, and he used Antonio Cantafora in "Demons 2", where he appeared as Asia Argento's father, who gets slaughtered by demons while she watches helplessly.  Joseph Cotten's presence in the film is one thing that seems a little off; although Cotten appears menacing when he has to, what we really want is the scary, rotting ghoul that was chasing Elke Sommer around those dark streets, and instead our protagonists end up confronting the harmless-looking and unscary Cotten, seemingly bound to a wheelchair but of course revealing his true ghastly identity at the film's climax.

Unlike "Twitch of the Death Nerve", "Baron Blood" is more suggestively gruesome than explicitly gory.  One character is placed inside of a coffin lined with spikes and impaled. There's a shocking on-screen death where the Baron breaks a guy's neck. The Baron's ghoulish persona (before his dapper Joseph Cotten makeover) is quite startling, with his decaying face that looks like he was shoved headfirst into a food processor and his wardrobe that seems borrowed from Vincent Price's shadowy killer in "House of Wax".  Elke Sommer is highly memorable in this film. She has a frenetic acting style here that becomes increasingly pronounced the more afraid she is, with lots of sudden, animal-like sounds and guttural screams when she's startled.  She moves so quickly in the film she almost seems like a large feline, especially when she's running down the narrow village corridors to escape the good Baron.  Bava was so pleased with her performance in this film, he gave her the lead role in the subsequent "Lisa and the Devil".  "Baron Blood" is a high point in both of their careers, and it makes great late night viewing.