Tag Archives: horror films

Have a Boris Karloff Fourth of July

karloff fourth of july

You don’t necessarily think about Boris Karloff, king of the Universal monsters, on the Fourth of July.

You do think about drive-in movies on the Fourth, and here’s a Karloff-centric drive-in quintuple feature ad.

It’s likely this drive-in Karloff marathon took place in 1965. The top-billed picture, “Die, Monster, Die,” was released that year. All the others were older.

Karloff had been well-known as a horror film actor for decades by that point, since 1931’s “Frankenstein,” and continued to appear in movies and TV up until his death in 1969. Beyond his death, actually. Although his health had declined over the years and he was often confined to a wheelchair, Karloff worked on movies late in life and some of those were released as late as 1971, two years after his death.

In 1965, when this quintuple feature was released, he was considered a horror movie elder statesman at age 77.

Karloff wasn’t known to a new generation of fans, by the way, until he narrated “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” in 1966.

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Classic drive-in horror: ‘The Vampire Lovers’

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When i was a pre-teen and young teen, “The Vampire Lovers” was something of a holy grail.

If by holy grail you meant a Hammer horror film that not only featured Peter Cushing, a favorite actor, but also actress Ingrid Pitt and a bevy of actresses in various stages of undress.

And making out.

I didn’t see the 1970 movie in theaters or even a drive-in, a venue in which I assume it excelled. I saw it years later on HBO or Cinemax or on home video.

But for a while there, I was fascinated at the thought of seeing this R-rated movie.

A big part of the reason for my interest was this picture:

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This “Vampire Lovers” publicity shot of Ingrid Pitt – or at least one like it – appeared in an issue of Cinefantastique magazine and guaranteed I would jump at the chance to see the movie when I could.

Of course, in the days before home video or the Internet, that meant waiting for it to come around to a theater again – something that didn’t happen with British horror movies – or for it to show up on HBO or some other pay channel.

I saw it back then, which it finally showed up, and I watched it again this afternoon.

It’s an odd movie and presented something of a risk for Hammer – best known for the Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” movies – and its U.S. distribution partner, American International Pictures.

That’s because while the movie had all the trappings of Hammer’s successful horror movies – period setting, costumes, good production values and blood, all in living color – and it had Cushing as a good guy, it had a couple of offbeat elements.

Chief of them was the movie’s sexually-charged villainess, played by Pitt. As Carmilla, Pitt is a vampire very much like Dracula – including his taste in victims.

Carmilla, you see, is a lesbian vampire.

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Sure, she seduces and kills, with fangs sinking into throats, a couple of men in the movie. But it is her attraction and seduction of women in the film that sets it apart from other monster movies of the day and is, to a great degree, why it became a cult classic.

Pitt – who appears fully nude in the film – spends most of the movie seducing, bedding and biting female acquaintances including nubile Emma (Madeline Smith, who appeared in several Hammer films). She even appears to fall in love with the young woman, which proves to be her downfall.

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Hammer made a series of erotic female vampire movies, of which “The Vampire Lovers” was the first. The others were “Lust for a Vampire” and “Twins of Evil.” Pitt also played the title role in “Countess Dracula” in 1971.

If you’re just seeing “The Vampire Lovers” for the first time, be aware there is fairly extensive nudity – all female cast members of course; sorry for those hoping to see Cushing at least bare-chested – and scenes that are sexual in nature.

In other words, that publicity photo of Pitt didn’t lie.

Lee, Carradine, Cushing and Price

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I’ve seen this photo and others like it a lot in recent days since the death of iconic horror film actor Christopher Lee.

This pic and similar ones show Lee, John Carradine, Peter Cushing and Vincent Price – probably half the pantheon of horror film greats (the others being, arguably, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr.) in one photo.

The four appeared in only one film together, the 1983 thriller “House of Long Shadows.” The movie was – for such an old-fashioned assemblage of actors – an old-fashioned story about mysterious goings-on in a “haunted” house and was based on the 1913 “Seven Keys to Baldpate” by Earl Derr Biggers.

I saw the movie in theaters – i was reviewing back at the time – and remember enjoying that it included the four actors in the cast but didn’t think much of it beyond that. It starred Desi Arnaz Jr., for pete’s sake.

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But with Lee’s passing being a reminder to us that an era is over – maybe a couple of eras, considering that Carradine’s time in movies extended back to “Bride of Frankenstein,” as the huntsman who scares Karloff’s monster out of the blind man’s cottage – “House of Long Shadows” takes on special affection and significance for us.

Christopher Lee: Last of the legends

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When I heard earlier today that Christopher Lee had died at age 93, I thought, “That can’t be right, can it?”

After all, it was only within the past few years that he was playing the evil wizard Saruman in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” movies, and just a few years before that when he played Count Dooku (sigh) in the “Star Wars” prequels.

This was a man who – even though he had certainly earned his rest at 93 – had always seemed invincible.

During World War II, Lee fought on the side of the angels, serving in various British military roles and, most amazingly, as a Nazi hunter for Britain’s Registry of War Criminals.

His film career was as lengthy and varied as his contemporary and frequent co-star, Peter Cushing, who often played Van Helsing to Lee’s Dracula in Hammer films beginning in 1958.

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Although Lee had a busy career in recent years, it was as Dracula – and Frankenstein’s monster and the Mummy – in Hammer films that made his reputation as an actor in horror outings. Sometimes Lee’s Dracula was little more than a snarling creature, but in his last outing as the Count – “The Satanic Rites of Dracula” – he had something of a dual role, playing a reclusive billionaire who wanted to bring about the end of the world … and just happened to be Dracula.

I still vividly remember going to see the 1973 movie, which was released stateside as “Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride,” at a theater here in Muncie. I was almost alone in the theater. Maybe Hammer’s brand of horror seemed old fashioned by that point. After all, “The Exorcist” was released that year and introduced a new type of horror movie to the masses.

But Lee – and Cushing, and Vincent Price, and all the rest, gone now – will always typify the horror genre to me.

We’ll miss you, Mr. Lee.

Classic shlock: ‘Curse of the Crimson Altar/Crimson Cult’

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In the final years of his life, before his death at age 81 in February 1969, Boris Karloff had become a beloved figure in movies and TV. The man who played Frankenstein’s monster in 1931 continued working for decades, ensuring himself a place in entertainment history not only with his early work but with vocal performances aimed at children and the entire family, as in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” in 1966.

Although he was in frail health late in life, Karloff continued working, turning out four movies that were released in 1968 alone. One was “Targets,” a poignant drama in which Karloff played a veteran horror movie actor whose fate is intertwined with a modern-day horror, a murderous sniper.

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1968 also saw the release – at least in the United Kingdom; the U.S. release came in 1970 – of “Curse of the Crimson Altar,” known in the U.S. as “The Crimson Cult.”

This movie’s plot is familiar to those who remember “The Wicker Man” and other movies about cults that thrive in small-town England: An outsider comes to town looking for his missing brother. Little does he know that the lord of the manor who welcomes him into his home is the leader of a crazy cult (is there any other kind?) that worships a long-dead witch. The crusty local professor is able to help provide some clues, but it’s only a manner of time until our hero is trussed up in a dungeon, waiting to be sacrificed.

Mark Eden is fair to middling as the hero, but the reason for this movie to exist are the headliners who draw from two generations of horror film superstars.

Karloff plays Professor Marsh, the witchcraft expert, and Christopher Lee is Morley, the leader of the cult. Karloff is frail here, spending much of his time in a wheelchair. But his voice is as rich and strong as it was at any time in his career and he brings a touch of class to the movie.

Lee is likewise good as the cult leader, although anyone hoping to see him invoking demons and sacrificing virgins had better look elsewhere. Lee skulks through his mansion, urbane and threatening by turns, but the cult scenes for the most part look like they could have been shot anytime and anywhere. Except for the presence of Eden in a couple of them, the cult scenes look like they could have been shot years and miles apart from the rest.

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At least those scenes are presided over by Italian horror superstar Barbara Steele. Steele’s painted green here, for some reason – more witchlike? – but looks great.

The movie has many of the loony elements you’d expect from a movie about sinister witch cults released in 1968: A witch (that’s a given), a cult (well …) human sacrifices in a dungeon, implements of torture, women in pasties with whips (!) and guys in, well, I’m not sure how to describe these outfits. Maybe leather onesies with the arms cut out?

Random observations:

The movie, upon release in the U.S. by American International Pictures, was rated “GP,” the forerunner to PG. And while it’s hard to believe now, the movie shared one quality with other PG-rated movies of the 1970s and even 1980s: Nudity. It’s not much more than you can see on some cable TV shows right now, but if a PG or even PG-13 movie came out today and contained nudity, people would go nuts.

Likewise, the movie features scenes of “wild and groovy” parties, complete with dancing girls in mini skirts and people painting each other. In retrospective, the scenes come off like something from an “Austin Powers” movie.

Although Karloff comes off all gruff and sinister – and he’s Boris Karloff, after all, the original Frankenstein’s monster – he’s on the side of the angels here. Despite the looming, grimacing visage in some of the movie’s posters.

 

Cushing, Price and ‘Madhouse’

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Today, May 26, was the 100th anniversary of the birth of British actor Peter Cushing – best known in some quarters as Imperial Gov. Tarkin, who holds Darth Vader’s leash rather loosely in the 1977 classic “Star Wars” – so I marked the date by watching one of his later horror films, “Madhouse.”

It isn’t a great role for Cushing, who died in 1994 after a long, distinguished and beloved career. He’s a supporting player to Vincent Price, who stars as Paul Toombes, an aging actor lured out of retirement to reprise his role as Dr. Death, anti-hero of a series of horror thrillers.

Released in 1974, “Madhouse” had the distinction of being the last movie Price made for American International Pictures, home of the classic adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe in which Price starred in the 1960s. The movie business was changing even by then and AIP was looking to replace Price with Robert Quarry, who was the third male lead here. Quarry had made a little splash as Count Yorga, a modern-day vampire, and it’s said AIP and producer Samuel Arkoff thought he, rather than Price, was the future.

But horror movies were about to see a huge change. Long the province of a particular breed of actor, like Price and Cushing, and director, like Roger Corman, and producer, like Arkoff, horror films were proven to be worthy of mainstream attention in 1973 when “The Exorcist” was a huge hit. Low-budget horror movies were still drive-in theater fare and would be for several years to come, but by the time “Madhouse” rolled around, people were looking for the new, the young and the shocking in their horror films.

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“Madhouse” also held the distinction of being able to evoke the nostalgia, perhaps the last of its kind for its type of film, for earlier horror films. It could do this because of Price’s long-running screen presence. At various points, Cushing and Quarry screen some of Toombes’ earlier horror films, and they show scenes from some of Price’s films, particularly the Poe pictures conveniently (and inexpensively) owned by Arkoff and AIP. The presence of those clips led director Jim Clark to acknowledge former Price co-stars Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff in the opening credits. It’s a nice gesture but also makes me wonder: Did Clark and Arkoff think the presence of those old-school names would add to the luster of “Madhouse?”

Cushing, whose role as Toombes’ longtime friend is so obviously an attempt to mislead that the final shot has someone referring to a red herring, might be a familiar face to legions of filmgoers from “Star Wars” but is best known to his many fans for his roles in British horror films made by Hammer studios beginning in the 1950s.

Cushing – whose fan club I belonged to in the 1970s and 1980s – sometimes played Dracula nemesis Van Helsing and sometimes played monster maker Dr. Frankenstein in the Hammer outings. He and cohort Christopher Lee always added a touch of class to every movie in which they appeared.

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Happy birthday, Peter.

‘Shocking’ developments in horror movies chronicled

If I live to be a hundred, I don’t think I’ll forget the anticipation I felt waiting to see the 1973 thriller “The Exorcist.”

The movie, which had opened just after Christmas in big cities, had made its way to Muncie movie theaters by early 1974 and my friends and I at Cowan High School were eager to see it.

Eager? We were positively nuts about seeing the movie.

I was a horror movie fan from childhood, having grown up on classic Universal horror films and fun-but-sometimes-camp 1960s Vincent Price/Roger Corman flicks.

But “The Exorcist” was something else entirely. A big-studio movie, it was being promoted through a high-profile TV and newspaper ad campaign and the kind of word of mouth that money couldn’t buy.

Newspaper and magazine articles recounted the audience reaction to the film, about a pre-teen girl apparently possessed by the devil. People who saw the movie were fainting and wretching in theaters when confronted by scenes of the girl — played by newcomer Linda Blair — vomiting green bile and backhanding priests. Not to mention that crucifix scene.

My friends and I talked and joked about the movie incessantly. When we finally went to see it, some of the joking stopped. As we waited in the crowded theater for the movie to begin, I could hear a very anxious woman behind me, expressing concern that the movie might be too much for her. I sat forward in my seat, worried that she might throw up on me.

“The Exorcist” was in many ways typical of the new wave of more realistic, more controversial horror movies that were released in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, a period documented in Jason Zinoman’s new book, “Shock Value.”

Zinoman covers a lot of ground and a lot of personalities in his book. The big, well-known movies and names are here, as well as the players who had great influence on the new wave of horror films but who were little-known outside Hollywood circles.

One of them is Dan O’Bannon, who, while a student at USC, made a funny science fiction movie called “Dark Star” along with a friend and fellow student, John Carpenter. The ultra-low-budget movie, about the growing madness among members of the crew of a deep-space mission to destroy unstable planets, is odd and funny and made the best of its shoestring budget. The movie’s alien is a spray-painted beach ball with feet. Seriously.

Carpenter, as some of you might know, went on four years later to direct “Halloween,” the 1978 classic that changed horror movies and influenced generations of filmmakers.

O’Bannon co-wrote another classic, “Alien,” but found his career eclipsed by Carpenter. Plagued by medical problems and a bad reputation in moviemaking circles, O’Bannon died in 2009; his memorial service was attended by relatively few of his contemporaries. Zinoman’s book portrays him as a pivotal but tragic figure in modern-day movies.

“Shock Value” touches on many of the best and most notorious movies and filmmakers of the period, from “Night of the Living Dead” and its director, George Romero — I’ll tell you about my interview with Romero in another blog entry — as well as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and its director, Tobe Hooper. Like O’Bannon, Hooper was responsible for one of the most influential movies ever made. And as was the case with O’Bannon, Hooper found himself struggling to equal his early successes.

I was a movie fan and, later, a movie reviewer during much of the period documented in the book and even interviewed some of the leading characters from Zinoman’s story, including Romero and Carpenter. But “Shock Value” told me things I didn’t know, including the shady reputation of the people who financed “Chainsaw Massacre” and some of Carpenter’s inspirations for “Halloween.” If you’ve ever seen the 1961 ghost story “The Innocents,” for example, you’ll appreciate when Zinoman quotes Carpenter about the effectiveness of placing macabre characters in the far background of a shot.

In these days of the Internet and instant updates on movies while they’re still in production, it’s refreshing to find a scholarly but accessible look back at some classic scary movies and the people who made them. “Shock Value” is both enjoyable and informative.