The following article was originally published in Films and Filming (London), November 1957 and then reprinted in Castle of Frankenstein #14, 1969. A very special thanks is due to regular reader and commenter, Paul Bollenbacher, for sending me this article in its entirety.
I dislike the word “horror” yet it is a word that has been tagged to me all my life. It is a misnomer…for it means revulsion. The films I have made were made for entertainment, maybe with the object of making the audience’s hair stand on end, but never to revolt people. Perhaps terror would be a much better word to describe these films, but alas, it is too late now to change the adjective. My films even prompted the British Censor to introduce a certificate in the early 30’s known as H…for horror.
Early in 1931 when the first Frankenstein film was released the Universal publicity department coined the phrase “A Horror Picture” and from that day on the “horror film” was here to stay. This genre of film entertainment obviously fulfills a desire in people to experience something, which is beyond the range of everyday human emotion. This conclusion can be drawn from two facts.
First, from the tremendous success financially and otherwise of the early Frankenstein films and subsequent pictures of a similar type. Secondly, because of an incident on the set of Stranglehold, a British “horror” film which I have just finished making at Walton Studios. We were about to shoot a sequence in which a man is fogged. Suddenly the set was crowded by studio workmen and office girls all eager to have a look! There is a violent streak in all of us: and if it can be exploded in the cinema instead of in some antisocial manner in real life, so much the better.
Perhaps the best possible audience for a “horror” film is a child audience. The vivid imagination with which a child is gifted is far more receptive to the ingredients in these pictures than the adult imagination, which merely finds them artificial. Because they have vivid imaginations we must not underestimate children…they know far more than we think they do.
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From the DVD case: When Helga Hammond (Heather Angel) hears of a legend that an unholy alliance was formed between the devil and her family, whereby a male member of the family is to be sacrificed every few years, she discounts it as nonsense. But a series of attacks at the family estate by a horrific beast – part man and part wolf – seems to give credibility to the legend. When Helga’s brother Olvier (John Howard) is attacked, it appears that the legend is true. As Scotland Yard Inspector Robert Curtis (James Ellison) investigates the link between the werewolf and the family, he uncovers a shocking secret! (1942, b&w)
Mark says: The Undying Monster was produced to capitalize on the success of The Wolf Man, released a year earlier, and at first we think we’re watching a film that may rival the Universal classic.
Immediately we are drawn in by the atmospheric cinematography of Lucien Ballard and the superb direction of John Brahm (Hangover Square, The Lodger). As a clock strikes midnight, we are given mysterious views of Hammond Hall with each gong. We move from a coat of arms, to a woman’s limp (lifeless?) hand, to a Great Dane, to a suit of armor, and so on. Already, we are treated to a certain amount of apprehension and curiosity.
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From the DVD case: The world has just been decimated by an unstoppable, merciless army of killer robots, and millions of innocent souls have been wiped out! Only a handful of survivors have managed to escape the deadly alien apocalypse, and they must endure a non-stop struggle to save themselves from destruction, and somehow find a way to defeat the marauding death machines before the entire human race becomes extinct! (1964, b&w)
Mark says: The Earth Dies Screaming is only one of a handful of films Terence Fisher (Horror of Dracula, Island of Terror) directed outside of England’s Hammer Studios. Fisher was uncanny in the way he could construct richly atmospheric films on shoestring budgets. Unfortunately, even Fisher’s skills could not save this movie from looking incredibly cheap.
The Earth Dies Screaming begins interestingly enough, with people falling over dead for apparently no reason, and a string of unexplained calamities. A locomotive speeds off the tracks; a plane nosedives and explodes; a car drives full speed into a wall. I was instantly put in mind of the 1960 film, Village of the Damned, in which an entire community is rendered unconscious by an unseen force. In fact, it appears a few of the opening scenes in The Earth Dies Screaming are suspiciously similar to scenes in Village of the Damned (e.g. compare the scenes featuring the plane crashing behind the tree line and the car driving into the wall). Regardless, we later discover these people aren’t simply unconscious, but stone-cold dead.
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From the DVD case: Director Edward L. Cahn teams with another great writer, Bernard Gordon (using his blacklist nom de plume, Raymond T. Marcus) for this delightfully loopy adventure about a sunken ship’s cargo of diamonds guarded by its zombified crew members. And wouldn’t ya know it, there’s a bunch of foolhardy scavengers who aren’t scared of the swimming dead. (1957, b&w)
Mark says: The DVD description gives us a hint as what to expect from Zombies of Mora Tau. It’s never favorable to hear a zombie flick described as a “delightfully loopy adventure.” It makes you think the film might feature Abbott and Costello (which it doesn’t).
What Zombies of Mora Tau does have is a strong cast of B-movie regulars. Most notably, Allison Hayes (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) stars as Mona Harrison, a greedy and voluptuous vixen. Mona has her eyes set on Jeff Clark, played by Gregg Palmer (From Hell It Came, The Creature Walks Among Us), even though she is married to George Harrison (Joel Ashley). Morris Ankrum (Kronos, Earth vs the Flying Saucers) portrays Dr. Jonathan Eggert, a man more interested in a story than diamonds. Marjorie Eaton (The Reincarnation of Peter Proud) is a Maria Ouspenskaya-like character (see The Wolf Man) known as Grandmother Peters. You’ll also recognize Gene Roth (Twice-Told Tales, Attack of the Giant Leeches) as Sam, the chauffeur.
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From the DVD case: In an act of cosmic irony, an enormous bird from outer space descends upon the Earth and begins chowing down on people. As usual, scientists and the military must team up to save our planet. This hysterically feathered fable stars sci-fi icons Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Morris Ankrum, and Robert Shayne, and is directed by Fred F. Sears. (1957, b&w)
Mark says: It was such a treat to find this movie on DVD. As a devoted fan of 1950’s schlock entertainment, I knew The Giant Claw was legendary in its appalling production values and “special effects.” I’ve seen stills and I’ve read articles, but until recently, I had never actually seen the film. I must say, it was worth the wait.
The Giant Claw starts out like countless other cheap sci-fi/horror flicks of the time. We get a lot of stock footage of military operations and rotating radar dishes. A narrator sets the scene: “An electronics engineer. A radar officer. A mathematician and systems analyst. A radar operator. A couple of plotters. People doing a job, well, efficiently. Serious. Having fun. Doing a job. Situation: normal. For the moment.”
Oh, we know its going to be bad, but there’s no way to anticipate how wonderfully terrible it’s going to get.
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From the DVD case: The sleepy seaside village of Antonio Bay is about to learn the true meaning of the word “vengeance.” For this seemingly perfect town masks a guilty secret – a past steeped in greed and murder. Exactly 100 years ago, a ship was horribly wrecked under mysterious circumstances in a thick, eerie fog. Now, shrouded in darkness, the long-dead mariners have returned from their watery grave to exact a bloody revenge. (1980, color)
Mark says: John Carpenter’s The Fog is actually a charming little tale about ghosts, betrayal, community, and revenge. Sure, there’s a lot of bloodshed, too, but what makes the movie work for me is the familiar Carpenter theme of a group of people coming together to combat a supernatural force. In this way, it reminds me of some popular films of the 1950s like The Monolith Monsters and The Thing from Another World (which Carpenter would successfully remake as The Thing in 1982).
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From the DVD case: This Halloween is very special for good ol’ Charlie Brown. He’s finally been invited to a party! Snoopy gets to join the fun, so look out, Red Baron! Linus will find out once and for all if the Great Pumpkin will rise up out of his pumpkin patch “with his bag of toys for all the good children.” (1966, color)
Special Note: The following isn’t so much a review as unabashed gushing praise for a Halloween favorite from my childhood. True fans of horror/science fiction may choose to skip this particular entry and wait for my next review. However, if you share my love of this cartoon, be sure to click on the words in bold to view images that would not fit within the confines of these meager paragraphs.
Mark says: I know what you’re thinking. What is a Peanuts cartoon doing on a site devoted to reviewing vintage sci-fi/horror films? Well just take a gander at the screen capture above and note how viciously (and gleefully!) Lucy chops into that pumpkin. This was years before slasher flicks like Halloween and Friday the 13th became popular. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that those movies weren’t directly inspired by Lucy’s sadistic assault on that pumpkin. Not to mention that opening sequence where the Peanuts gang is chased by skeletons, ghosts, floating pumpkins, a black cat, and witches. If that isn’t the true essence of horror, I don’t know what is.
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From the DVD case: A lovely blind and deaf teen reaches for a plate she just set aside. It’s gone. She reaches again and it’s back in its original place. Someone is playing a cruel game with her. That someone is the serial killer terrorizing Miami in this shocker from the production company behind the original Friday the 13th. Making memorable movie debuts are Jennifer Jason Leigh (Single White Female) as the impaired but not helpless girl, and Lauren Tewes as her TV newscaster sister whose investigation inadvertently leads the killer to her home. (1981, color)
Mark says: The most frustrating element of Eyes of a Stranger is that it reminds me of at least a half dozen other movies that I like better. Most notably, it resembles the Hitchcock classic, Rear Window. I even think the killer, Stanley Herbert (played by John DiSanti) looks like Raymond Burr from the Hitchcock film.
Besides Rear Window, the film has elements of When A Stranger Calls, Black Christmas, Wait Until Dark, He Knows You’re Alone, and even bits of I Saw What You Did. There are a lot of clever ideas here, but most of them were done better in earlier movies.
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From the DVD case:Dr. James Moran (George Coulouris) returns from the Amazon jungles with a sacred tribal tree that can produce a sap which will reportedly restore life to the dead. Unfortunately, the tree can only live and grow by devouring beautiful young women! (1958, b&w)
Mark says:Womaneater (aka The Woman Eater) is a British film that drips with a 1950’s sexuality that just borders on full exploitation.Beautiful women with heaving breasts, always adorned in dresses that leave one shoulder bare, are sadistically fed to a “miracle-working juju” plant.The plant (which resembles a hairy tree with tentacles) devours the women as men stand by with looks of pure orgasmic joy on their faces.But don’t get too excited, this is 1958 after all, and the luridness is much more implied than shown.
Bill Warren, author and genre critic, writes in his book, Keep Watching the Skies:
Charles Saunders’ ponderous direction makes a slow story painfully halting, in a point-by-point plodding technique of showing all actions. It makes Womaneater one of the dullest science fiction-horror thrillers ever made, almost unbearable to sit through. It isn’t even campy.
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From the DVD case: A terrified young babysitter, an incessantly ringing phone, and whispered threats set the stage for one of the most suspenseful filled chillers ever filmed. Carol Kane stars as the babysitter who is tormented by a series of ominous phone calls until a compulsive cop (Charles Durning) is brought on the scene to apprehend the psychotic killer. Seven years later, however, the nightmare begins again when the madman returns to mercilessly haunt Kane, now a wife and mother. No longer a naïve girl, though still terrified, but prepared – she moves boldly to thwart the maniac’s attack in scenes that culminate in a nerve-shattering conclusion. (1979, color)
Mark says: When a Stranger Calls (written by Steve Feke and Director Fred Walton) is based on an urban legend that has been around at least since the 1960s (see The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs). The story is told in three parts, with Carol Kane’s character serving as bookends to a detective drama played out in the midsection.
The opening sequence sets the tone immediately. A teenage Jill Johnson (Carol Kane, who’ll I’ll always affectionately remember as Latka’s bride, Simka, on TV’s Taxi) strolls with a stack of schoolbooks to a babysitting job. It’s an early misty evening, and streetlamps shine predominately in the eerily quiet suburban neighborhood. By the time Jill reaches her destination, the credits have rolled and her employers are giving her last minute instructions and updating her on the condition of the two children (both getting over colds and sleeping upstairs).
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