Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Guru, The Mad Monk (1970), directed by Andy Milligan.

The Middle Ages were hard times for mad monks. Father Guru (Neal Flanagan) is a corrupt chaplain in the 15th Century, employed in a bizarre prison complex. Assigned to deliver the last rites to condemned prisoners, Guru also carries out punishments like heating up an iron cross and then searing the flesh of sinners while they kneel before him. When prison guard Carl's girlfriend Nadja (Judith Israel) is locked up, accused of murdering her newborn baby, Carl (Paul Lieber) appeals to Guru to save his girlfriend from execution. In return, Guru enlists Carl's help to acquire corpses to sell to medical schools for profit. Carl also finds himself indebted to Guru's secret mistress, Olga (Jacquelin Webb), who gives him the drugs necessary to fake Nadja's death.  Olga demands that Carl allow her some alone time with all the recently deceased corpses at the prison so that she may drain their blood for use in her 'experiments'. What she really meant to say was "meals", since she is a vampire.

Are you still following this?

"Mirror on my chamber wall, who's the maddest monk of all?"

Guru, who not only likes to date vampires but also has two-person conversations with himself in the mirror, is resentful over the fact that the mother church refuses to send more money to his parish. When Nadja is revived, they hide her in a tower chamber, where she spends her days looking out the window and noticing that people keep coming to the church and never leaving. Sometimes Guru kills them for Olga, and sometimes Olga kills them herself, but Guru has a knack for picking the right ones, especially when they say things like "Nobody knows I came here." Nadja can't wait to tell someone about it, bored in her tower chamber while Carl is on a long body-collecting journey for Guru. She also befriends Guru's hunchback assistant, Igor, who is clearly so in love that he can hardly speak around her.  He has a memorable freakout moment when she shows him the slightest bit of interest and cheerfully asks him questions about himself.

"Igor, I swear to you, my interest in you as a person has nothing to do with the
fact that I'm currently a prisoner in a church tower and you're the only one I ever see."

I've always thought of Andy Milligan as the John Waters of horror movies. Although he lacked recurring stars as outrageous as Divine, Edith Massey and Jean Hill, his films are driven by a similar manic energy. Not as earnest as Ed Wood's cinematic output, Milligan movies usually don't aspire to be better than they are, they just want to wallow in despicable behavior for an hour and then move on to the next feature.

"Guru the Mad Monk" is one of the better examples of the way Milligan's films take the more ridiculous aspects of the plot for granted. The plot goes on and on with daytime drama involving true love, religious convictions, and the abuse of power, with very little regard given to the fact that one of the characters is a fucking vampire. We are just supposed to accept that she's a vampire, with no explanation given other than a throwaway line when Guru makes reference to when she was "bitten by that animal!" I kinda want the movie to be about that, ya know? But instead, you just have to go with it, because the movie charges full speed ahead right past it. Don't worry, it runs just short of a full hour, so it won't waste too much of your time.

"This won't hurt a bit, my sinning child!"

Like Waters, Milligan has a way with dialogue that has to be heard to be believed. I won't accuse the actors of delivering bad performances with stilted delivery, because actually they are rather convincing in these hopelessly bullshit roles. There's nothing at all going for this movie without the performances, and I was not disappointed by these actors. Judith Israel is particularly good, channelling Mia Farrow from her hairstyle right down to her crisp, accented diction.

"Hey pal, watch the headgear!"

A period picture is an ambitious concept for an ultra low budget film, and "Guru" has Milligan's usual Halloween costume look to it. It's supposed to be the Middle Ages, yet the women all wear modern cosmetics and the lead actress has lovely hair that probably took her Middle Ages hairdresser about an hour to shape for her. I wonder if they came to her tower to do her hair right there. Don't let your guard down or you may catch yourself thinking this is one of the best ways to spend an hour of your life.

Friday, February 28, 2020

8 Traumatic Animal Deaths in Scary Movies

You know how it goes - people can die in horror movies and that's A-OK, but when it happens to an animal, suddenly it feels like things suddenly got way out of control. Here's my own personal gallery of terrors where a much younger version of me was traumatized by the representation of horrible death occurring to an animal.

8. COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) - Erica eats her cat.

This movie has its share of campy vampire action, but there are a few genuine shocks within its reels, one of which is the moment when Count Yorga's victim Erica is discovered holding her dead, bloody cat in one hand while she (presumably) sucks its blood. It's a revolting and disturbing moment I never forgot!

7. HORROR HIGH (1973) - The janitor's cat gets it!

When "Horror High" started appearing on TV, it was retitled "Twisted Brain". Some of the film's most gruesome violence had been trimmed from the original R rated theatrical cut to make a PG version for theaters, namely the removal of an on-screen decapitation with a paper cutter. But for me, the most horrible thing in the entire movie is the death of a gorgeous black cat. It belongs to a mean janitor that works at the school in the movie, and why an employee would be allowed to bring his pet cat to school when he's working is beyond me, but the cat has this fatal hankering to attack whiz kid Vernon's guinea pig, Mr. Mumps. Unfortunately for kitty, Vernon is testing his Jekyll/Hyde formula on Mr. Mumps, who turns into a monster guinea pig and destroys the bully cat. We don't see it happen on screen, but when Vernon discovers the body, he ends up dropping it on the floor where it lies there in a puddle of blood. Instant distress!!

6. DEAD OF NIGHT (1974) - Andy throttles the family dog.

Bob Clark's 1974 creepfest "Dead of Night" (reissued in 1976 with a new title "Deathdream") is about a young soldier named Andy serving in Vietnam who appears to be killed in action, then mysteriously reappears back home as a decaying zombie that needs fresh blood to survive. One of the first things Andy does is to kill the family dog, Butch, when it starts barking at him (because that's what dogs do when they sense that you are an evil zombie). Not only this, he cruelly does it right in front of a bunch of terrified, crying kids. Seeing this happen right there on TV as a child was a real unexpected gut punch.

5. LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971) - The little mole is no more. 

One of the most effective elements of this cult fave is the engaging performance delivered by Zhora Lampert. She seems like a genuinely nice person, and when somebody loves animals, that's usually a good sign. Jessica spots a mole while she's out doing gravestone rubbings - ok, she's a little morbid, but still really nice - and she decides she wants to take it home and keep it as a pet. It may be a little misguided of her to keep a mole trapped in a large jar for her own amusement, but something truly uncalled for happens when an unseen person takes a large knife and abruptly puts the mole out of its misery at being imprisoned by a well-meaning woman. Jessica finds it the next day, screaming horribly as she holds the bloody corpse in her hand. Really, Jessica? When our outdoor cat used to bring dead moles home and lay them on our front porch, I never got the urge to pick it up.

4. FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) - Snake: it's what's for dinner!

OK, probably not everybody is disturbed by the idea of killing a snake, but this was the first time I had ever seen an animal killed on screen, for real, in a movie. Never mind the faked throat gougings, the decapitation, the killer arrows, the cast iron skillet used as a bludgeon - this murder is REAL!

3. BEWARE! THE BLOB (1972) - Samuel's last meal.

In this sequel to  "The Blob", an absolutely effervescent Marlene Clark has an adorable little kitten named Samuel. Unfortunately, her husband has just brought a frozen chunk of the blob home, where it thaws out and eats Samuel just when he's digging into a big serving of tuna. Hey, I guess it's a blob-eat-cat world after all. I was simply traumatized when this happened!

2. THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE (1976) - Gordon's terrible fate.

This movie is disturbing on several levels, but I'm still not completely over the scene where Martin Sheen, playing the scuzziest perv ever, tortures Jodie Foster's pet gerbil with a lit cigarette and then hurls it into the fireplace. It just seemed to come up so unexpectedly, although I was about 8 years old when I saw this so I could be forgiven for not seeing it coming.

1. RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975) - Ginger has a bad trip.

This is the big one, the very first time I can remember being traumatized by an animal's death in a movie. Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Swit and Lara Parker piss off some devil-cult members by witnessing a human sacrifice, and find themselves on the run when the cultists start following them. They go out to a bar one night and when they return, they are horrified to find their dog has been killed and gruesomely strung up on the door to their RV.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Fly (1958): Life's A Bitch And Then You Fly

"Honey, I heard that once there was a
woman who swallowed a fly..."
I never gave this movie much thought as a kid, but a lot of the film's concepts are more interesting when you think about them as an adult. For instance, we all know the plot concerns a scientist whose arm  and  head  are  swapped  with  a  housefly  during  a  teleportation  experiment he conducted on himself. As a kid, I was waiting for the moment when we'd glimpse the bizarre makeup effects. But now I can't get past the fact that this movie  is  told from the perspective of a woman who was living a life of privilege and happiness, and in an instant her life is shattered. Not only is her husband doomed to die, but it's a hideous death where he loses his very humanity.

"Darling, I think my tab just kicked in..."
"Mine, too."
Of course, you could also point out that this privileged life she leads is what has really destroyed her family. Both her husband and his brother have "more money then they know what to do with" (their words), and their lives are the picture of luxury. The family electronics business has given our fly-headed scientist the wealth to maintain a stately mansion with a staff of servants to cook his meals and look after his child and fetch whatever gowns his wife would like to wear, but unfortunately it also finances the expensive equipment necessary to build a machine that can swap a human's head with that of a common housefly. Rich people problems.
"Why do you leave me alone with these servants all day, that
nosy maid's been reading my mail again, Darling I hate her!!"
I want this in my house. I NEED this in my house.
And perhaps worst of all, she is complicit in her husband's death due to the fact that she doesn't pay enough attention to her own child, who desperately tries to tell her about the strange housefly he's captured. She ignores the kid and orders him to release the fly, but after she learns about her husband's unplanned body modification, she also learns that the fly her son miraculously happened to catch could have held the key to returning her husband to his old self again. If only she didn't have her expensively coiffed head in those blindingly white clouds of happiness. 
"Mummy, if there weren't any poor people in the world,
would we have to scrub our own toilet?"
She learns the hard way what happens to people who suddenly don't fit into this society where it's so important to be like everyone else: you wind up with your head and arm crushed under a machine press, while your widow is forced to feign madness and go to an insane asylum just to spare your good name. In true 1950s fashion, a cop-out ending is forced on us, when what's left of her husband ends up saving this shining example of a 50s housewife from an extended vacation in an institution, and the fly with his head and arm is spotted by the detective who previously thought she was crazy.
Fly Vision
"Honey, when I gave you 50,000 Euros to buy patio furniture,
I didn't think you'd spend it on this tacky bamboo shit."

Friday, December 6, 2019

The Slayer (1982) - Vacations can be murder!

If you ever get the opportunity to take a vacation on a secluded island -- the kind you can only access as a passenger on a small private aircraft -- it's probably a good idea to first make sure there isn't a hurricane headed that way. You should also be certain that it isn't haunted by a strange apparition that wants to kill you and anyone else who is with you.
"This reminds me of that time I had an earache, went to the doctor,
and while I was in the waiting room a roach crawled out of my ear."
This is the case with Kay (Sarah Kendall), a successful artist whose work has been negatively influenced by recurring nightmares she's had her entire life. She dreams of a spectral humanoid creature committing gruesome murders in an unknown location, and she finds that the nightmares are happening more and more frequently. Her brother Eric (Frederick Flynn) arranges a visit to a small island off the coast of Georgia for a vacation getaway, and joining them are Eric's wife Brooke (Carol Kottenbrook) and Kay's husband David (Alan McRae). When they arrive, however, Kay is alarmed to discover that the deserted resort that still stands there is the actual location of these terrible dreams, even though she's never been there before. Is it possible her dreams are prophetic and the murderous beast is real, too? Let's consult the Magic 8-Ball:

The pilot who drops them off, Marsh (Michael Holmes), warns them of an impending storm, effectively stranding them there, and from there it's only a matter of time until they start being slaughtered. It only happens when Kay is asleep, though - the first to go is a random fisherman we never got introduced to. This happens while Kay is napping on the beach. Then that night while she's sleeping, David does some classic horror movie poking-around-the-basement-with-a-flashlight and is decapitated by a storm door. 
"I'll never doubt her again when she says there's a Slayer."
The next day, Kay dreams she wakes up with David's severed head, but then she wakes up for real and discovers him missing. Eric refuses to believe that anything is wrong (apparently he can't wrap his head around the fact that 4-1=3), but eventually foul play is confirmed when David is discovered hanging around headless, and suddenly they realize they're in a survival situation. Kay catches on that the killer only attacks when she's asleep, so what do Eric and Brooke do? Give her a sedative, of course. I have to admit, sometimes I love it when bad things happen to stupid people.

"We gave her that sedative because it was in the script, jerk.
Also, my resemblance to Gaylen Ross is purely coincidental."
When all is said and done, Kay is left alone and desperately tries to stay awake long enough to avoid being murdered in her sleep. She barricades herself into their lodge as best she can, but someone breaks in -- she kills him with a flare, but of course it turns out to be Marsh, who is still on the island for some reason. The house goes up in flames, and when she tries to escape she is confronted by the monster, which turns out to look like a cross between adult Macaulay Culkin and an anglerfish:
This is it! Don't be scared now!
But instead of seeing Kay murdered by the monster, we instead see her as a child, waking up from another nightmare of The Slayer. Was the entire movie we just witnessed a dream? Is this a flashback? Was the Slayer real, or were the murders committed by a human being? It's possible Marsh was the killer, or was it Kay herself, since she's the one with all the problems? Let's ask the 8 Ball again...

It's just as I thought: despite the fact that we stuck with the movie through its entire runtime, we get no definitive answers. We're not meant to know. 

This could have been an actual artistic choice, or it could have been a creative way to avoid using any action footage that didn't look all that great once they saw it in the dailies. The creature does look cool, but it only rears its ugly head for a few seconds during the climax, and even then it's just standing there looking at Kay. I don't mean to suggest that the makeup FX aren't great, because there are a few standout moments here, the greatest of which is an on-screen pitchfork murder worthy of Tom Savini himself. I wish we'd seen more of the monster though, and that ending really feels like a cheat.
"Hey, did you ever hear the one about the isolated vacation spot haunted
by a Slayer? It was a nice place to visit, but you could never live there!"
Small price to pay for such a creepy, atmospheric experience, though. The locations are extremely effective, as well as the sense of isolation and doom. I was reminded of the movie "Ghostkeeper" while watching this, which also had a similar plot, except it took place at a snowbound resort in the mountains instead of a deserted island. Together they'd make for a great night of Travelogue Horror, just add your favorite movie where people are trapped in an isolated vacation spot, and voila!
"Hey Darlin', I love your nails. Maybe you can do mine sometime."

Sunday, December 1, 2019

"Mansion of the Doomed", eye've been looking for you all my life and eye didn't even know it. My eyeballs finally landed on you, and eye want you to know that eye really see you. Eye get you. Eye love you. You made me forget all about "Eyes Without A Face", because you have the chutzpah to be everything that movie wanted to be but couldn't. Ubiquitous character actor Michael Pataki, eye also love you to my very core. Scenery-hungry Richard Basehart, tragically miscellaneous Gloria Grahame, lusciously skeezy Vic Tayback, perpetual wino Arthur Space, very young Lance Henriksen -- you all warm my heart and rattle my eyeballs. You do.

"Are you questioning my ability to overact?"
Basehart plays Dr. Chaney, the kind of arrogant surgeon who really needs something terrible to happen to him, maybe because he's uncomfortably attached to his beautiful young daughter, Nancy (a cheerful Trish Stewart). A minor car mishap causes her to bang her head off the windshield, and POOF, she's blind. This is the kind of thing that happens to *other* people, though, not the children of wealthy shithead doctors with vague European accents. Dr. Chaney quickly gets over his ethical resistance to performing experimental transplants with living human donors, lures Nancy's surgeon boyfriend Dan (Henriksen) to the house, drugs him, removes his eyes, and transplants them into Nancy's head. Fortunately his palatial bougie house came equipped with a cell in the basement, so he imprisons Dan there. Because even though he doesn't think twice about removing someone's eyes without their consent so his own daughter can regain her vision, it's not like he's a murderer or anything.

Well, Nancy has her moment where she wakes up and suddenly she can see again, and she's back to being as cheerful as the daughter of a wealthy surgeon should be -- although she's just a little concerned about why her fiance is suddenly missing, when he never told her he was going anywhere. But alas, tragedy strikes again -- when she's enjoying daddy's Olympic size swimming pool, her sight dims and POOF, blind again. And so begins Chaney's cycle of abducting victims and transplanting their eyes into his daughter. The first surgery doesn't leave much scarring, but after the second one, her face starts to look like she used a tumbleweed for a pillow. Plus, she doesn't really know what's going on anyway, since daddy doesn't tell her how he's getting these peepers for her.

"Can someone get me my Clinique products, and hurry??"
Meanwhile, the cell in the basement gets more and more crowded with unfortunate victims who now have empty eye sockets. "Mansion of the Doomed" conveniently avoids depicting how these unfortunates are dealing with their own humanity, i.e. where are they...eliminating? What are they eating? How are the men shaving? They do a lot of moaning and screaming, and even a little singing. Lance Henriksen does a lot of bellowing, too.

"Doctor, I've been having a little trouble in the sack lately...."
Gloria Grahame's character is Katherine, Dr. Chaney's second wife and Nancy's stepmother. She dutifully assists Chaney in these gross violations of ethical behavior, but eventually she sort-of grows a conscience and urges Chaney to stop (he doesn't). Unfortunately, this is not as juicy a role for her as 1971's "Blood and Lace", and I hope she at least got a decent paycheck. Her "Blood and Lace" castmate Vic Tayback shows up in a do-nothing role as a detective, but it's the kind of police department where someone can disappear and the police just say things like "Well, maybe he went to the country..." and that's the end of it. Even when one of the victims escapes the basement and is killed after running blindly into traffic, the cops are troubled by her carefully removed orbs, but they don't even seem to suspect the eye surgeon who lives right down the street.

First day on the set, Gloria Grahame finally looks at the script.
The thing you will remember most about "Mansion of the Doomed" is the excruciating eyeball violence that occurs. We see numerous instances of surgical removal of eyeballs, gaping eye sockets that aren't even covered by bandages, and one character suffers a gruesome fate involving the less careful removal of his eyes via an angry assailant's thumbs.

"Surely I don't need bifocals already??"
"Sorry lady, I only deliver the paper, I don't help people running screaming down the street."

"Your agent got you WHAT!??"
There really is something special about 70s-era exploitation films, and "Mansion of the Doomed" is a perfect example of how good bad things can get. Forget "Eyeball" or "The Headless Eyes", this is the one that will scratch that elusive itch you're feeling when you long to see someone's ocular cavity laid bare. Eye promise!

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Halloween Faves: Salem's Lot (1979)

1979 flick "Salem's Lot" seems to have been a watershed moment in many a horror fan's experience. Stephen King's name was already turning into a trademark, and the reputation of horror as a genre in marketable media was beginning to grow. That year in films alone gave us such unforgettable properties as "Halloween" and "Dawn of the Dead" (both 1978 films received their widest theatrical exposure in 1979), major studios put out "ALIEN", "Prophecy", and "The Amityville Horror", and director John Badham followed up his smash hit "Saturday Night Fever" with a big budget remake of "Dracula".

That theatrical release was, along with the simultaneous "Nosferatu the Vampyre" remake by Werner Herzog, one of the biggest reasons why "Salem's Lot" was eventually relegated to a TV movie. Originally George Romero was on board to direct, but the task eventually fell to Tobe Hooper, who apparently wasn't as intimidated by the restrictions of network television as Romero.

The fact that it was a TV movie was actually great news for me, since there weren't any adults in my life who were likely to take me to a theatrical horror film, especially if it was rated R. Since TV movies were always watered down and edited for language and violence, I don't think anybody was prepared for how scary the movie actually is. Most horror movies can gather a decent reputation as long as there's at least one memorably scary sequence. Put in two really scary parts, and that's a movie people will be talking about. But "Salem's Lot" has so many scary moments you can begin to lose count, and these high points are fairly well paced throughout the film's 3 hour runtime. There are a couple of early scares that are rather vague, some of them ending with a TV movie freeze-frame before any frightening characters are revealed. Hooper saves most of his fireworks for the final third of the movie, at which point they begin booming left and right. Nobody could forget the appearance of the vampire children in this movie, floating in the air outside bedroom windows, scratching at the glass to be let in. There's a frightening resurrection scene, where a gentle, small town everywoman comes back from the dead as a snarling, hissing witch while two of our formerly disbelieving heroes look on. The first full reveal of the main vampire, Barlow, is a pants-pissing moment where suddenly this demonic face is thrust into the camera with a guttural roar, and the reaction of the on-screen victim is the same as ours.

I must also say that this movie has the best representation of vampires that I can think of. One of the staples of vampire cinema is usually to have vampires that can 'pass' for normal when they have to, and often they'll suddenly morph into a hideous monster whenever the script needs a good scare. Not so in "Salem's Lot", where none of the vampires could ever pass as normal, and they are forced to lurk in the shadows and wait for the right moment to victimize people, manifesting whenever their would-be victims are alone and vulnerable.

The only thing that takes the wind out of the sails a little is the overly abrupt and far too pat conclusion, which also makes the mistake of moving the fate of a major character to a completely original denouement. This final scene was clearly added to give the producers of "Salem's Lot" the opportunity to spin it off into a series, and we can only image what might have been if this had become a reality. We'd most definitely have one of those rare series that vanished after a handful of episodes, never to be seen again (like the brief TV series follow-up to 1973 flick "Paper Moon"), but what a treasure that would be.

In addition to being just plain scary, "Salem's Lot" has got all your Halloween needs: a spooky "haunted" mansion full of cobwebs, more mist than a London fog bank, evil monster children, and that monstrously frightening blue-skinned vampire.