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Monthly Archives: September 2006

David Naughton is An American Werewolf in London, 1981.

From the video case: Starring David Naughton, Jenny Agutter and Griffin Dunne, this classic horror/comedy tells the beastly tale of two American youths whose European adventure turns to terror after they are attacked by a werewolf. One of the travelers is killed, but the other’s fate is worse than death as every full moon now seems to “bring out the beast in him.” (1981, color)

Mark says: 1981 was a great year for me. Not only did I graduate from high school, but two of my favorite werewolf flicks were released. One was The Howling, which I’ve already reviewed, and the other was An American Werewolf in London, which I have the pleasure of reviewing now.

An American Werewolf in London has a lot going for it: a simple but intriguing story, a strong script and good direction, characters we care about, and perhaps most of all, groundbreaking special effects engineered by Rick Baker. The film is both written and directed by John Landis (Twilight Zone: The Movie, Animal House).

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The Howling, 1981.

From the DVD case: Severely shaken after a near-fatal encounter with a serial killer, TV newscaster Karen White (Dee Wallace) takes some much-needed time off. Hoping to conquer her inner demons, she heads for “the Colony,” a secluded retreat where her new neighbors are just a tad too eager to make her feel at home. Also, there seems to be a bizarre link between her would-be attacker and this supposedly safe haven. And, when, after nights of being tormented by savage shrieks and unearthly cries, Karen ventures into the forest to find answers, she makes a terrifying discovery. Now she must fight not only for her life, but her very soul! (1981, color)

Mark says: 1981 was a stellar year for werewolf movies. Lycanthropes were featured in such ground-breaking films as Wolfen and An American Werewolf in London. But first out of the gate was The Howling, based on the novel by Gary Brandner and directed by Joe Dante.

The Howling is a living tribute to everything that came before it. Not only are roles given to classic horror/sci-fi stars like John Carradine (Invisible Invaders, House of Frankenstein), Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Kenneth Tobey (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Thing from Another World), and Dick Miller (It Conquered the World, A Bucket of Blood), but there are enough cameos here to endlessly entertain film buffs. My favorite cameo is by famed horror producer/director Roger Corman, featured, in a reference to his miserly approach to film producing, checking a pay phone’s coin slot for spare change. Also look for Forrest J Ackerman (creator/editor of “Famous Monsters of Filmland”) as a bookstore customer.

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Jack Palance is Dracula, 1973.

From the DVD case: Filmed in England and Yugoslavia, it [Dracula] stars three-time Academy Award nominee and 1991 Best Supporting Actor Jack Palance as the immortal vampire, Count Dracula, whose centuries-old existence is threatened after he attacks the lovely Lucy Westenra (Fiona Lewis). When Lucy’s fiance (Simon Ward) calls in Dr. Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport) to investigate, a spine-tingling hunt for the vampire follows. (1973, color)

Mark says: Fans of monsters and TV are lucky that Dan Curtis came along. Not only did he bring the vampire series Dark Shadows to the small screen, but he also produced innovative TV movies like The Night Stalker and 1968’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In 1973, Dan Curtis directed and produced Dracula, casting Jack Palance (who also starred in the Jekyll and Hyde TV movie) as the famous bloodsucking Count.

What Curtis brought to the Dracula table is romance. He believed Dracula needed proper motivation to pull up his Carpathian Mountain roots and transplant himself in England. That motivation, in Curtis’ version, comes in the form of Fiona Lewis (Dr. Phibes Rises Again, The Fearless Vampire Killers) as Lucy Westenra. Lucy is a (ahem) dead-ringer for Dracula’s true love from the 1400s. In fact, Curtis suggests that Lucy is the reincarnation of Dracula’s long-dead lover.

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From the DVD case: William Shatner stars as veterinarian “Rack” Hanson in this cult classic about an Arizona town infested with eight-legged killers, which turn on the humans whose insecticides have depleted their normal food supply. Woody Strode is Rack’s friend, rancher Walter Colby, whose livestock first fall victim to the angry arachnids. Entomologist Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling) arrives and tries to help Rack deal with the crisis, but with the big county fair fast approaching, Mayor Connors (Roy Engel) refuses to let them quarantine Colby’s ranch. Soon, the remaining residents are barricaded at Emma Washburn’s (Lieux Dressler) lodge, fighting for their very lives, in this skin-crawling chiller featuring Shatner’s then-wife, Marcy Lafferty, as his sister-in-law, Terry. (1977, color)

Mark says: It would be easy to dismiss Kingdom of the Spiders as another schlocky 70’s B-movie, except for the fact that so many of the scenes are genuinely creepy. Viewers ultimately find themselves laughing and cringing throughout the picture. Though the acting is what you’d expect from a low-budget production, I have to give the cast credit: almost all of those spiders crawling on them are real tarantulas. Reportedly, 5,000 of the creatures were wrangled for the film.

Kingdom of the Spiders features a strange love triangle between “Rack” Hansen (William Shatner), his late brother’s wife, Terry Hansen (Marcy Lafferty), and entomologist, Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling). Though Shatner is supposed to be a macho, witty, irresistible, down-home fellow, he comes off as rather lecherous. Rack’s amorous interludes with his sister-in-law are particularly disturbing. If I were an actress, I think I’d prefer to have the spiders crawling on me.

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Dennis Weaver in Duel, 1971

From the video case: A traveling businessman (Dennis Weaver) is suddenly menaced on the highway by a huge diesel truck. Although he can never see the psychopathic driver of the truck, he soon realizes that this guy is out to kill him! Duel is a classic of the action-suspense genre which helped launch the career of director Steven Spielberg. (1971, color)

Mark says: After seeing Duel for the first time as a child, I had sore muscles from tensing up so often. Thank God for commercials, or I may have petrified permanently. Viewing the film as an adult, I am still struck by how much suspense Mr. Spielberg conjures with a simple story and sparse dialog.

Duel was originally a 74 minute made-for-TV movie that later, with added footage, became a cinematic film distributed throughout Europe. Spielberg cast Dennis Weaver in the lead role of David Mann after seeing him in the movie, Touch of Evil. Of course, most of us fondly remember Mr. Weaver as Chester from the old Gunsmoke TV series, or as the title character in TV’s McCloud.

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Darren McGavin is The Night Stalker, 1972

From the video box: Las Vegas is a town where the unusual is considered normal. However, when former top reporter, Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin), meets with police reluctance while covering the murder of a showgirl, his curiosity is aroused.

Suddenly, there is a series of murders, apparently committed by the same killer. When the police again refuse to reveal any facts, Kolchak gets the details on his own and begins to put the deathly pieces of the puzzle together. However, the police and his own editor, Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), make every effort to suppress what Kolchak has learned. The closer he gets to the truth, the less he is able to reveal and the more frightened he becomes. (1972, color)

Mark says: A lot of people remember Darren McGavin as the father from A Christmas Story, but I will always primarily remember him for his role as Carl Kolchak in The Night Stalker.

I was 10 years old when The Night Stalker was released as a made-for-TV movie. I still remember the anticipation of its airing. The TV ads teased us with the scene where Kolchak yells at his editor, “This nut thinks he’s a vampire! He has killed four, maybe five women! He has drained every drop of blood from every one of them!” The Night Stalker did not disappoint, and it left an indelible mark on the psyches of almost everyone who saw it.

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Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, 1974From the DVD case: In a small village in the remote English countryside, several young maidens have been found dead – their beautiful young faces horribly aged almost beyond recognition. Suspecting a supernatural evil at work, the local doctor calls on Army friend and famed vampire hunter Captain Kronos, an expert swordsman formerly of the King’s Imperial Guard. Aided by his expert assistant Professor Grost, the two quickly confirm the gruesome murders are the work of a unique type of vampire, one who drains its victims not of their blood, but of their youth! (1974, color)

Mark says: Captain Kronos was meant to have been (and should have been) the beginning of a Hammer Films’ series, similar to their Dracula productions. Unfortunately, feeble box office sales kept the series from being realized.

Being a bit of a dullard, the originality of Captain Kronos was lost on me in my boyhood (I was 12 when it was released). The concept of a vampire which drains its victims of youth rather than blood was confusing to me, and Captain Kronos, being a swashbuckler rather than a Peter Cushing-type vampire slayer, seemed odd and unpalatable.

Now, as old age creeps up on me like a bat on the back of a chair, I find the concept of a “youth vampire” more menacing. I’ve also come to appreciate the comic book approach to the film. Captain Kronos is a true adventurer, complete with sidekick in the form of Prof. Hieronymos Grost.

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From the video case: After a team of surgeons botch his beloved wife’s surgery, leaving her for dead, the emotionally distraught Dr. Phibes creatively concocts a fatal prescription for revenge. Using the Good Book as his guide, Phibes unleashes a score of Old Testament atrocities – from a plague of locusts to an attack of rats – on his enemies that climax in what may be one of the eeriest endings on screen record. (1971, color)

Mark says: When my sister and future brother-in-law took me to Dr. Phibes at a drive-in theater as a kid, the playfulness of the story was lost on me. I just thought it was one of the scarier Vincent Price movies I had ever seen (I was already a fan by the age of 10).

As an adult, you can’t miss the wonderful tongue-in-cheek quality of the film. It could have been played as a straight horror, and been moderately effective, but it’s the skillful combination of horror and dark humor that makes this film so unique and memorable.

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Count Yorga, 1970

From the video case: Two lovers, Paul and Erica, make a grave mistake. When they park their van outside of a foreboding, vine-covered manor, the new owner – a vampire – decides to feed on the trespassers. The next morning, Paul has a terrible headache and Erica has two mysterious puncture wounds in her neck. Now, Paul must figure out just what happened before he loses the love of his life – and his own life – forever! (1970, color)

Mark says: Though this is not my favorite vampire movie, it does have some redeeming qualities.

Count Yorga is probably one of the first films to bring vampirism into the modern day. The setting is Los Angeles during the 1970s. In an opening scene a truck hauls a coffin-shaped crate through city streets. As we watch the truck weave through traffic, the narrator (George Macready) informs us of vampire legends and suggests that vampires may not only be an ancient phenomenon, but a modern one as well.

Though Count Yorga is full of vampire cliches (howling wolves, flashes of lightening, a spooky mansion, etc.) it also provides some unusual backdrops. The juxtaposition of Count Yorga, in full vampire attire, climbing into a Volkswagen Minibus to attack a pair of lovers is somehow startling, and a bit amusing, at first. However, I have noticed with more frequent viewings, that a vampire in a minibus does not seem that out of place.

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Moon of the Wolf, 1972From the DVD case: After several locals are viciously murdered, a Louisiana sheriff begins to suspect that he may be dealing with a werewolf. (1972, color)

Mark says: The first thing that grabbed my attention regarding this movie, is that it stars one of my favorite scream queens from the 1950s, Barbara Rush (It Came From Outer Space, When Worlds Collide). She’s a bit older in this film, and dressed in a ridiculous 70s wardrobe, but she still maintains her scream queen charm.

This made-for-tv movie features some recognizable character actors as well: David Janssen is Sheriff Aaron Whitaker; John Beradino is Dr. Druten, and Geoffrey Lewis plays local hillbilly and werewolf victim, Lawrence Burrifors.

Because Moon of the Wolf was made for television, I’m giving it more slack than I would give a theater release. The acting is solid and the plot line is not too ridiculous, though it does have some soap opera elements.

Moon of the Wolf fails as a mystery, because it is quite obvious early on which character is the werewolf. We are given three suspects to ponder, but any novice tv detective could solve this case blindfolded. The main clue is that the killer is left-handed, and Sheriff Whitaker wastes no time in asking each suspect if he is a southpaw.

The werewolf does not actually show himself until nearly the end of the story. There’s no transformation scene, and when we finally do get a good look at the critter, we are apt to laugh. The poor beast looks like someone rubbed black shoe polish on his nose.

Still, this is a fun movie, and worth a view especially if you are a fan of werewolf flicks. I picked up this DVD gem, brand new, for only $2.50 at a local video store. I would say the entertainment value was certainly worth the price of admission.

Directed by Daniel Petrie.

Scene to watch for: Dr. Druten and Sheriff Whitaker don’t seem to have any qualms about drinking hard liquor on the job.

Line to listen for: “Well, we’re lucky you ain’t got a pocketful of dimes, aren’t we?”

Mark’s rating: ! ! ½ out of 5.


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