Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Haunting Double Bill Featuring Eerie Carnivals and Mysterious Mermaids

Candace Hilligoss and friend in Carnival of Souls
Carnival of Souls (1962) is one of those films that truly fits the definition of the term “cult movie.” Made on a small budget, it retains its reputation as an offbeat exercise in horror. The story concerns Mary Henry, who survives a terrible car accident after a drag race. She then heads to Utah to begin working as a church organist. But as she settles into her new surroundings, a ghostly man keeps appearing to her and haunting her. She also has moments where she feels disconnected from reality, and it seems like no one can see or hear her. Why is she being drawn to an abandoned carnival outside town? Is she being pursued by an otherworldly presence? Or is there an even more terrifying reason why these strange events are centered on Mary?

The ultimate twist in the movie will seem less shocking to today’s audiences, who have seen a host of similar reveals on TV shows like The Twilight Zone, and in modern films like The Sixth Sense. The "surprise" ending works very well in the context of the story. It’s a tribute to the cast & crew that they get so much out of so little in this eerie thriller. There are some truly spooky sequences that really stay with you after seeing the movie. Producer-director Herk Harvey, who had previously worked on educational and industrial films, shot the movie on location in Utah. He employed mostly local actors, except for lead Candace Hilligoss. Amazingly, Hilligoss (who’s excellent in the role of Mary) only made one other film. She also did a handful of TV appearances and some stage work. However, it's this film for which genre fans most fondly remember her.

While it was not a success on its original release, Carnival of Souls gained fans from countless late night TV showings and occasional festival screenings over the years. The movie has influenced many filmmakers, including George Romero and David Lynch. I remember seeing it on late night TV as a kid. It was unsettling, and it left you feeling uneasy, like you'd just seen something very different from the usual horror fare. This is a strange, offbeat film that plays more like a meditation on life and death than a straight ahead terror tale. The movie had fallen into the public domain for many years, and inferior video copies were available in bargain bins at video stores and discount outlets. In 2000, the outstanding specialty label The Criterion Collection released an excellent two-disc edition of the film that includes two versions of the movie, a retrospective documentary and other extras. Criterion also released an updated version of their disc on Blu-ray in 2016. The movie is also available for digital download and viewing on various sites.

Another effective thriller from the same period is Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (1961). While it’s not really a horror film, it’s another atmospheric story that will appeal to old school genre fans. A lonely sailor named Johnny (Dennis Hopper, in an early role) enters a relationship with a woman named Mora, who performs as a mermaid in a sideshow at a local marina. People keep telling him that her previous boyfriends have all met mysterious ends. The ethereal Mora (Linda Lawson) believes she may actually be a mermaid. As their relationship continues, a mysterious woman stalks Mora; she appears to know about Mora’s past, and warns her that her 'true nature' will show itself. Is she really descended from a race of sea people? Who is killing the men Mora’s been dating? What does Murdock, the owner of the sideshow, know about all this?

Linda Lawson and Dennis Hopper in Night Tide
Writer-director Harrington went on to a long career in TV and movies. He also directed the twist-laden mystery Games (1967), which starred James Caan & Katherine Ross. Here he evokes the mist-shrouded style of films like producer Val Lawton’s Cat People (1942). Harrington was a fan of Lewton’s work and his influence on Night Tide is clear; there could be a supernatural explanation for some of the film’s events, but we’re never sure. What is evident is that some of the characters believe there are other forces at work, and that informs their choices in the story. The film is well directed; despite its low budget, the movie manages to convey an effective sense of the uncanny. Night Tide is another film that I recall seeing on WPIX's “Chiller Theatre” in my younger days, and I've always remembered it. I hadn’t seen it in many years, until I recently viewed it again on Turner Classic Movies. The movie has now been released in a new, remastered edition on both Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber Video; extras include a commentary by Harrington and Hopper, and a video interview with Harrington from 1987.

If you haven't seen these films, I highly recommend them. Both Carnival of Souls and Night Tide just might get rooted in your psyche. If you have seen them, perhaps it's time to revisit them. These movies may not be as scary as you remember, but they can still get under your skin, and find their way into the darker corners of your mind. Here are links to the trailers for Carnival of Souls and Night Tide

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Dark Truth of "The Locket"

As a dedicated film fan, I’ll often seek out the movies that have slipped through the cracks, the ones that I’ve missed viewing over the years. I recently caught up with the 1946 film The Locket, starring Laraine Day, Robert Mitchum and Brian Aherne. It’s an intriguing, noir-flavored story of a woman named Nancy, and her relationships with three very different men. As the story begins, Nancy (played by Day) is going to marry her fiancĂ© John. But a man bursts into the house, and demands to speak to the groom. The man is Dr. Harry Blair (Brian Aherne) and he wants to warn the groom about the woman he’s about to marry. In fact, Blair says that HE was married to her, and it led to his ruin. He begs John to listen to his story. And what a story it is!

Thus begins the puzzle-box flashback structure of the film, as Blair relates the details of his relationship with Nancy. But it isn’t just his story. As his tale unfolds in flashback, we move into another flashback showing the story of the man Nancy was with when she met Blair, an artist played by Mitchum. During that story, we flashback even further, to a pivotal moment in Nancy’s childhood, which involves the locket of the title. So it’s a flashback within a flashback, within a flashback. Confused yet? It all works marvelously well in this moody tale of love, lies, deception and murder. Nancy appears to be the woman of these men’s dreams. But she’s a far more complex character than she seems on the surface.

Director John Brahm (who also helmed 1944’s The Lodger) does an excellent job of creating an atmosphere filled with dread and impending doom. He’s aided by master cinematographer Nicholas Musaraca, who also displayed his masterful talents on such classics as Cat People (1942) and Out of the Past (1947). The cast is perfect; Mitchum (who’s on the cusp of stardom here) is good in an atypical role as the artist who falls in love with his idealized image of Nancy, but realizes too late that his image of her is not the real person. Aherne is marvelous as Blair, who doesn’t heed the Mitchum character’s warnings about Nancy’s true nature, and comes to regret it. Laraine Day is excellent as Nancy, whose almost coquettish persona hides the darker shadings of her real self.

The offbeat structure actually works in the film's favor, as each flashback reveals a little more of the truth about Nancy, leading to a twist I won’t reveal here. Suffice it to say that you’ll be asking yourself at the conclusion of the film if her experiences are caused by fate or coincidence. The Locket is something of a “psychological noir,” a trend that was in vogue around the time of its release, along with films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) and the later Robert Taylor vehicle High Wall (1947), featuring psychoanalysis as a pivotal plot point. If you’re in the mood for an old-fashioned thriller, featuring a solid cast and an impressive visual style, seek out The Locket. It’s available on DVD from Warner Archive, and has also aired on Turner Classic Movies, most recently as part of host Eddie Muller’s Noir Alley series.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Ten Best Albums From Elton John

Here's another recent piece I did for CultureSonar, the arts & entertainment website. This time out it's a look at the top ten albums from Elton John. See if you agree with my choices. Follow the link below the picture to access the article, and thanks for reading! You can find my other articles using the search function. Also, please check out the other fine writing from my colleagues on the site!

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Retro Scary Movie: The Sentinel

Did you know the doorway to Hell was located in New York City? No, we're not talking about the plot of Ghostbusters (1984). Let's take a look at the 1977 thriller The Sentinel. Released toward the end of the occult movie cycle which began with films like Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973), the movie tells the story of fashion model Alison Parker, who moves into an apartment in a converted brownstone. She's a distraught young woman who has survived a suicide attempt. The other occupants of the building all act strangely, including an eccentric old man named Charles, who keeps trying to ingratiate himself with her, and insert himself into her life. Weird and disturbing events begin to swirl around Alison; she sleepwalks, has intense nightmares and flashbacks to her suicide attempt. When she complains about the constant noise her neighbors are making, she discovers there really aren't any other people in the building except herself and a blind priest named Father Halliran, who lives on the top floor. But what is causing these odd disturbances?

Alison's boyfriend Michael does some research on the building, and makes a startling discovery. The house is owned by the Catholic Church, and has an odd history. But who is Father Halliran? Is he trying to help Alison or harm her? And what about Michael? A cop keeps visiting Alison and telling her Michael may have been involved in the death of his wife. As the secrets of the building come to light, and the evil forces that are haunting her reveal themselves, Alison's true role in these events becomes clear. One thing is for certain; she has a very important part to play, and her life will never be the same. The Sentinel is perhaps not the best of the 1970s wave of satanic-themed horror tales, but it has some frightening and eerie moments. Directed by Michael Winner (best known for his work on several Charles Bronson films) the movie has what they used to call an "all-star" cast, including Burgess Meredith, John Carradine, Ava Gardner, Eli Wallach, Beverly D'Angelo, Chris Sarandon and Cristina Raines as Alison. You can also spot Jerry Ohrbach, Christopher Walken & Jeff Goldblum in minor roles.

The movie is based on a novel by Jeffrey Konvitz, who also co-wrote the screenplay. He did pen a sequel to The Sentinel, entitled The Guardian, which has not been adapted for the screen. If you're a fan of these types of movies, The Sentinel is worth a look. The location filming in New York City truly adds to the film's overall effectiveness. I remember seeing it on late night TV back in the early 80s, and it definitely creeped me out. It's sort of a combination of the haunted house and demonic sub-genres of horror. The Sentinel would make perfect October/Halloween themed viewing. It is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory with some fine extras: three different commentary tracks, including one by author Konvitz as well as one by star Raines, and another by director Winner. There's also a video interview with the film's assistant director, and some trailers and ad art galleries. Here's a link to the original trailer:

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Adventures of Steed and Mrs. Peel

Speak the words “Mrs. Peel, We’re Needed” in the company of a classic TV fan and you’ll likely bring back memories of The Avengers, which starred Patrick Macnee as government agent John Steed. Although Macnee had several co-stars over the course of the show’s six season run (including Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale) his best remembered partner is probably the lovely and dangerous Emma Peel, played by Diana Rigg. Their sparkling chemistry, as well as the show’s offbeat stories and very British sense of humor, were an instant hit with viewers when ABC began showing the Macnee-Rigg episodes in 1966. That was the first time The Avengers aired in the States, though it was actually the show’s fourth season. If you’re looking for a few episodes to watch to get the flavor of the series, I’d like to recommend these five episodes as a starting point:

Steed & Mrs. Peel go shopping in Death At Bargain Prices
“Death At Bargain Prices” – Season 4
An agent is mysteriously killed at a department store while searching for a missing scientist. Steed and Mrs. Peel are called upon to investigate. Emma goes undercover as a store employee, and Steed snoops around as a customer. As our heroes try to solve the agent’s murder and locate the scientist, they discover a nefarious plot to destroy London. This episode features some of the best scenes of the Macnee-Rigg era, with the usual excellent byplay between the two stars. It’s written by longtime Avengers scribe Brian Clemens, and directed by British cinema veteran Charles Crichton, who later went on to helm A Fish Called Wanda.

“Castle De’ath” – Season 4
It’s an eerie story about dead agents, ghosts, submarines, and the price of fish. At a Scottish castle, Steed is posing as a historian named “McSteed” and Emma as a consultant who wants to turn the place into a tourist attraction. The two brothers who live at the castle are at odds about what to do to honor their family legacy, but there’s more going on at this stately home than meets the eye. The episode gives viewers the opportunity to see Macnee in a kilt instead of his usual tailored suit and bowler, and Rigg wandering the castle in her nightgown. And just where does that iron maiden in the basement fit in? This entry features nice guest turns from British film and television stalwarts Gordon Jackson and Robert Urquhart as the sparring brothers of Clan De’ath.

“What The Butler Saw” – Season 4
Among a group of high-ranking officials, someone is leaking government secrets. In order to discover the culprit, Steed joins a butler training school (yes, you read that correctly) and Mrs. Peel has to cozy up to a womanizing member of the group. Macnee gets to wear a number of disguises in the episode (each a bit more outlandish than the last) and Emma tries something called “Operation Fascination” to land her target among the group. There’s a lot of sharp dialogue, and not so subtle nods to Get Smart’s famous “Cone of Silence,” and perhaps, 007 himself. This Brian Clemens penned outing is a great deal of fun.

“Who’s Who???” – Season 5
Most classic genre shows found themselves doing a body or mind switch tale at some point during their runs, and The Avengers was no exception. Enemy agents named Basil and Lola use an experimental machine to swap minds with our dynamic duo, leaving Steed and Mrs. Peel trapped in their bodies. It’s a delightfully daffy romp as the evil duo make the most of their time in our heroes’ bodies, and Steed and Mrs. Peel have to find a way to get back to where they belong. Kudos to the excellent performances by Macnee and Rigg, who have to act very unlike their normal selves, as well as Freddie Jones as Basil and Patricia Haines as Lola, who do a nice job playing Steed and Mrs. Peel in their bodies. Written by Philip Levene, and directed by John Llewellyn Moxey.

Mrs. Peel tries to solve the mystery of Murdersville
“Murdersville” – Season 5
Emma escorts an old friend to his new home in a small town. Soon after they arrive, mysterious things begin to happen. Her friend turns up dead, the body disappears, and no one will admit to ever having seen him. The townspeople have devised a very unique way of turning a profit by treating certain visitors to a one-way trip. As Emma tries to escape, she reaches out to Steed. Will he get to her in time? Or will she end up the latest casualty in “Murdersville?” This is one of the best episodes of Season 5, and features some wonderfully odd characters among the townspeople. If you're a credits watcher, pay close attention to Mrs. Peel’s phone call to Steed when she names their “children."

Rigg left the show at the end of its fifth season, and was replaced by Linda Thorson as Tara King for the series’ final year. The show was revived in the mid 1970s as The New Avengers, and during its two season run, Steed had a pair of partners, Gareth Hunt as Mike Gambit and a pre-Absolutely Fabulous Joanna Lumley as Purdey. Ironically, three of the show’s leads went on to be prominently featured in the James Bond film series: Blackman in Goldfinger, Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (in which Lumley also appeared, pre-New Avengers) and Macnee in A View To A Kill. The series has lived on in syndication, home video releases and online streaming ever since. All of the incarnations of The Avengers have their fans, except perhaps, the disastrous 1998 film version featuring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman. So sit back, relax, and enjoy some wonderful action-adventure tales featuring witty dialogue, colorful characters and of course, the sophisticated and extraordinary John Steed and Mrs. Emma Peel.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

All Aboard...Hammer's Train of Terror

Christopher Fowler knows his horror film history. His excellent novel Hell Train is set during the mid 60s, when Hammer studios was turning out a cycle of popular horror films starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and a stable of reliable character actors. As our story opens, Screenwriter Shane Carter arrives in England to meet with Michael Carreras, the head of the studio. Carreras wants him to write a film for Hammer. Carter has just worked with Roger Corman on his Poe films, and is looking for a new project. The catch is that Carreras needs the screenplay in a week, so production can begin quickly. What follows is Carter’s vision of the screenplay as the novel’s main story, with some brief interludes set while he’s writing the movie.
Aboard a mysterious train called the Arkangel, we’re introduced to a variety of characters whose fates are intertwined. Once you board the train, you can’t leave until you’re “tested.” A creepy Conductor leads the passengers on a trip whose destination may be…hell itself. Along the way, terrifying creatures and strange phenomena plague the passengers, some of whom are not what they seem. As they struggle with demonic forces, it becomes apparent that not everyone will leave this journey alive…and perhaps some people aboard are already….not among the living. And why does one of the passengers, a young woman named Isabella, seem to find the train so familiar?
Fowler pokes gentle fun at many classic Hammer films (and those of their contemporary competitors Amicus and Tigon; you may find echoes of old favorites like Dr. Terror's House of Horrors) and throws in a freight car full of references and in-jokes for horror film fans. The main story set on the train is chilling; there are some neat set pieces, and some truly frightening moments. The novel is an expansion and re-imagining of Fowler's 2008 short story entitled "Arkangel." I would have liked to have seen more of the framing story, featuring Carter inter-acting with many of the Hammer films family, including a truly memorable scene with stars Lee and Cushing. Fowler could have written an entire novel set within the horror film industry of the 60s, and that really could have been something. Still, this book is head and shoulders above most of what passes for horror fiction these days. If you’re a fan of 60s and 70s horror, and you're looking for some old fashioned, Creature Features style fun, Hell Train is a ride you’ll want to take.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

"One, Two, Freddy's Coming For You......"

The Nightmare on Elm Street films have been very profitable for New Line Cinema. Robert Englund’s portrayal of Freddy Kruger has made the character one of the most iconic in modern horror. Now, a documentary recently released on Blu-ray covers the entire history of the franchise. Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (2010) is a comprehensive look at the movies, from the original entry in 1984 thru 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason. The film runs four hours, and is an exhaustive look at the making of the series. There are in-depth interviews with almost everyone involved with the Elm Street films, including stars Englund & Heather Langenkamp, writer-director Wes Craven, as well as a host of other actors, writers, directors, producers, and make-up and special effects artists.

Executive produced and narrated by Langenkamp, the film begins with a brief history of New Line Cinema’s origins as a company, and then moves on to the conception and production of the first film, 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Each movie is given it’s own “making of” segment and there are behind the scenes videos from the sets of the films, as well as photos, clips and production drawings. There’s even some coverage of the short lived TV series, Freddy’s Nightmares. The stories told by the cast and crew members are fascinating, and if you’re a fan, you’ll really enjoy this documentary. There’s a refreshing amount of candor about the quality of some of the entries in the series, and a frank discussion regarding the tension between creator Craven (who never wanted to do a sequel, much less start a franchise) and New Line executive Bob Shaye.
The better films in the series stood out from the other “slasher” movies because Freddy was a character that got at you through your dreams, a place where you couldn’t truly escape his power. His original motive for killing the children of Elm Street was getting revenge for his own death. Freddy had been a child murderer (softened from his original portrayal as a child molester), who was killed by the parents in an act of vigilante justice. Craven discusses what inspired him to write the original story, and there’s a lot of information regarding how the character and concept was changed, updated and refined over the course of the sequels. Various cast and crew members also discuss the thematic subtexts (some intentional, some unintentional) of the various films in the Elm Street saga.
One of the best films in the series, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), took the story in an entirely different direction. It featured the actors playing themselves as filming begins on a new Elm Street movie; they are threatened by Freddy, who is portrayed as an evil force that seeks to invade the real world and cause mayhem and death. Englund cites this entry as his favorite. The cast and crew also talk about Johnny Depp’s and Patricia Arquette’s pre-stardom appearances in the series. Also included is an interview with the heavy metal band Dokken, who provided the theme for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987); the MTV-era music video for the song included a cameo by Englund. All in all, this is probably everything you ever wanted to know about the Elm Street series, and more.
While this informative film may not appeal to casual viewers due to its length, it is a thorough look at how genre projects are produced, released and marketed to the public. It even makes reference to the fact that Peter Jackson, the man behind the Lord of the Rings films, made an unused story pitch for one of the sequels. It's also noted that without the financial success of the Elm Street franchise, New Line may not have been able to produce the Lord of the Rings movies! Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (2010) was originally released on DVD, and is now available on Blu-ray. Both versions include extensive additional interviews and featurettes as extras. Here’s a link to the trailer for the film: and Dokken's music video for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors: