USA / 1973

As I get older, the homegrown horror films of the 70s seem to take firmer root in my heart. They represent a combination of aesthetics that I find endlessly compelling: the ethereal, surreal preoccupations of our European ancestors and the hardscrabble, plucky resourcefulness of our Yankee forefathers. MALATESTA’S CARNIVAL OF BLOOD has both qualities in spades. It’s an absurdist play set in one of the country’s most treasured and dubious of entertainments, the regional amusement park. The film was lensed at the Willow Grove Park in Pennsylvania, a frugal tactic that goes a long way in establishing the legitimately shabby air that lovingly clings to every frame like a layer of dust. You can practically feel the termites chewing through the rickety wooden roller coasters and smell the sweaty, stagnant water of the dunk tank.


October Horror Movie Challenge: THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946)


It’s fascinating to see how prescient some movies were for trends that had yet to fully develop in their time. It’s been commented on before how Robert Siodmak’s THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946), despite the relative lack of urban grittiness and jaded anti-heroes, is a landmark of the film noir genre with its focus on and manipulation of shadows and the damaged psychology that serves as the wellspring for the murders at the story’s center. Perhaps more than that though, you can see the makings of the Italian gialli written all over this thing, most obviously in the appearance of the killer wearing those beautiful black leather gloves. There’s even a homicide performed just as the victim is fitting a garment over her head that was quoted in Dario Argento’s TENEBRE (1982) decades later. Siodmak’s venture hits the same poetic notes as some of Val Lewton’s best productions–not to mention featuring two veterans in actor Kent Smith (CAT PEOPLE) and American Gothic art direction by Albert S. D’Agostino–though at times it settles for a more routine thriller approach with sprinkles of warm-hearted humor involving Elsa Lanchester’s matronly maid and that lovable oaf of a bulldog Carleton. But when THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE wants to reach for the brass ring it goes for it, and it’s these moments that overwhelm everything in between in surreal gusto. The killer’s leering eye accompanied by Roy Webb’s DARK SHADOWS-esque score and a brilliantly choreographed slaying in a basement are easily some of the best standouts. They show a mad inventiveness and willingness to probe man’s darkest dreamings and desires, and no amount of expository background into the killer’s motives can match the intensity and mystery generated by the images of that damn vulture eye peering into the weaknesses of his victims. Let it also be said that even when restricted to a bed for 90% of her scenes, Ethel Barrymore could pack more character into a single sideways glance than some actors can in a lifetime. For another perspective, be sure to check out Kindertrauma’s take on the movie.

October Horror Movie Challenge: MADMAN (1982)


I don’t think it really has any bearing on the film itself, but I find it interesting that the cast and crew of MADMAN (1982) have rather short resumes beyond this point. This was writer and director Joe Giannone’s one and only feature. Gaylen Ross, our plucky final girl, only had a whopping three roles as an actress before going on to become a documentary filmmaker, though when the other two credits are DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) and CREEPSHOW (1982) you really can’t complain too much. The other victims, er, players quickly drifted off the grid as well, with one of them actually going on to act as the legal eagle on the set of other productions. It’s as if the legend of Madman Marz really was true, except the only thing he really brought an end to was everyone’s careers. MADMAN itself is a spunky little mutt in a similar vein as that other camp-set boogeyman-slasher THE BURNING from the previous year. Giannone’s picture is bolstered by a nicely autumnal atmosphere that uses a chill wind in perpetual gust to good effect, with a raucously monstrous murderer who’s like a drooling Looney Tunes villain come to life, right down to his scabby feet. Oh, it’s plenty stupid and inept, with the final confrontation between Ross and the axe-wielding zombie particularly wanting in suspense and feeling needlessly rushed. You gotta admit though, this is one slasher that operates on its own wavelength and, despite the concessions it makes to the subgenre’s hallmarks (the car that won’t start, the friends who split up, etc.), there are few other films of its category that can boast having a campfire ballad that sounds like it could have been written and performed by Trey Parker extolling the misdeeds of its growling killer. Serve it up for a cold night with some smores and schnapps for optimum pleasure.

October Horror Movie Challenge: PARANOIAC (1963)


One of Hammer Studios’ psychological thrillers that was spawned in the wake of that one Alfred Hitchcock movie, PARANOIAC embraces its more horrific nature and comes much closer to chilling the blood than many of the company’s operatic period-pieces ever did. The story is undeniably Gothic in nature despite the presence of fast motor cars and straight black ties. Its focus on the Ashby clan, a cluster of affluent neurotics if there ever was one, smacks of the same type of festering, familial disease that you would find in any of Ann Radcliffe’s “horrid tales.” And what is the Gothic story without its sin-riddled villain? Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and actor Oliver Reed give us one heck of a baddie in mad organist Simon, a teeth-gnashing maniac who is racked with guilt over the suicide of his brother and possessed by greed for his dead parent’s money in equal measure. Poor, fragile sister Janette Scott is the target of most of his predations, but an alarming turn of the screw occurs when a dead ringer for the dearly departed Antony comes a-calling at the mansion. With images that seem to predate similar Catholic-tinged terrors in Alfred Sole’s ALICE, SWEET ALICE (1976), PARANOIAC plunges into nightmare territory at times, especially during the brief scenes when the wraith pictured above makes its solemn appearances at Reed’s side as he plays the pipe organ. Freddie Francis shows a much more assured handling in the director’s chair than the previously-reviewed THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964), demonstrating a keen eye for the disturbing and the darkly beautiful, not to mention allowing Reed to froth all over the screen when the occasion calls for it.

October Horror Movie Challenge: THE DEAD DON’T DIE (1975)


Groove to this funky TV movie’s beat and your evening shall not go unrewarded. A team-up of director Curtis Harrington and author Robert Bloch acting as screenwriter–both previously of the similar boob tube effort THE CAT CREATURE (1973)–results in this putrescent potboiler that time has instilled with some kitsch since its initial broadcast in January 1975. George Hamilton, looking just as crispy as ever, headlines this Prohibition-era piece as a returning sailor from the Navy who begins to do some investigating into the murder of his sister-in-law that landed his brother in the hot seat at the state penitentiary. What he finds is, naturally, an evil cult of the living dead headed by a shadowy sorcerer known only as Varek who has a plot to TAKE OVER THE WORLD. This programmer is not without its charms, but even more patient viewers may find it lacking in any real action even to justify its 72-minute running time. It certainly doesn’t help if you’re watching the version that has been uploaded to Youtube. With no current home market release, it may be the best that you may be able to do for awhile, and by best we mean a scratchy, pixellated mess that was probably copied off an old VHS tape that has a dream sequence full of so much blocky darkness that you won’t be able to tell what the frak is going on. Ray Milland and Ralph Meeker are on hand but by this time both were in their genre slumming periods and their time on screen is sadly not their (or anyone else’s) finest hour. But you get what you pay for with this one, and if you came here to see hollow-cheeked creep extraordinaire Reggie Nalder do his monster-thang than you won’t be totally stiffed.

October Horror Movie Challenge: THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964)


Generally regarded as the lowest tier in Hammer Studios’ Frankenstein cycle (some would say it’s FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL [1974] but I just don’t see that), THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN suffers mostly from a lack of any real creative juices, making the whole film feel like a dry husk compared to its predecessors. Its greatest sin is not exactly a horrible one; all it is truly guilty of is firing up the patented formula of the series once more without adding any of its own sense of flair. Peter Cushing rides again as the ever-reliable Baron, having had his brain transferred to a new meat suit at the conclusion of THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958). This entry finds him returning to the old homestead to take up his diabolical practices by creating life anew in the form of Kiwi Kingston’s lamentably doddering Creature. A co-production with Universal-Internarional, this movie is no more illustrative of its relative apathy then when we see the Creature cast his misshapen eyes up to a beam of sunlight from the laboratory skylight–a sequence that was of divine importance in the 1931 original from the same company–only to essentially give it a shrug and wander off to do something undoubtedly less interesting. The only intriguing addition here is the hypnotist character played by Peter Woodthorpe, a half-drunk carnival impresario who attempts to control the Creature only to find himself, in the best tradition of egotistical villains, way over his head. Freddie Francis, a superb cinematographer and a fine director in his own right, can never quite rally a sense of excitement out of the admittedly lackluster material, so that the requisite cleansing firestorm that wipes out Frankenstein’s machinations feels, like the rest of the film, more like a fizzle.

October Horror Movie Challenge: IT! (1967)


Not a prominent member of our cinematic society, the golem is. Despite being a consistent source of early Germanic films, mostly under the creative guidance of Paul Wegener, the stone protector has been generally cast off, perhaps because his identity is couched in a specific cultural background. Frankenstein’s monster is a universal (and Universal) concept, but the golem will always be referred to at one point or another as hero of the Jews. Interesting then to see it in a decidedly British production, with the only chosen one in sight being the helpful but ominous rabbi who supplies history and caution in equal measure. And an odd bird IT! (1967) is, starring Roddy McDowall as a wispy curator whose fragile psychosis is given a swift power kick when he discovers the secrets to awakening and controlling his newly acquired museum piece. The movie truly lies on McDowall’s shoulders, for as deliciously fruit-loopy as it can be, the film would probably be far less interesting and definitely less engrossing if it were not for the actor’s capable skill in turning his megalomaniac momma’s boy from a one-note caricature into a sensitively portrayed weirdo who for all his eccentricities and derangement is still identifiable as a human being. The scene of McDowall tearfully relinquishing his hold on the behemoth is surprisingly touching. Other than that, this one has enough splashes of madness to hold the viewer’s attention. Most prominently: McDowall’s mummified mother who he carries on conversations with; the golem shaking a bridge to the ground and calmly stalking back to the getaway car; McDowall lighting a screaming old woman on fire; and our anti-hero’s eventual demise by nuclear warhead. Also suggested for fun parties: taking shots any time macho hero Paul Maxwell utters a line of homoerotic dialogue.

October Horror Movie Challenge: CAMPFIRE TALES (1997)


I tend to be an anthology apologist (also known as an anthologist), but with even that slight bias in mind there’s enough to be gained from this shiny-faced portmanteau that is thankfully and generally free of any of the self-referential smarminess that proliferated Gen Y horror in the wake of SCREAM (1996). CAMPFIRE TALES–which is not the one with Gunnar Hansen narrating spooky stories to some kids or the one with David Johansen narrating spooky stories to some kids–uses urban myth as its bedrock, giving little twists to tales that will be all-too familiar to any self-respecting horror hound who thumbed through their share of ghost books as a youngster. The majority of the vignettes are competent, each helmed by a different director and featuring a host of “What ever happened to them?” personalities, with only “The Honeymoon” delving into some Idiot Plot contrivances that entail slaughtering the Helpful Ethnic character when he uselessly stomps around the forest immediately after warning a pair of newlyweds to stay in their RV until sunrise if they want to keep their skin. Truly unnerving in moments is the second story, “People Can Lick Too,” especially as it pits twelve-year-old Alex McKenna against a garden shear-wielding pedophile who sneaks into the girl’s home after posing as a friendly member of an online chat room. Those who are sensitive when it comes to staged animal deaths–particularly that of friendly house pets–are advised to use caution here. “The Locket” is a hoary old chestnut outfitted with new time-warp duds that do little to unnecessarily mask what the creative team must have thought was a goofy stinger, but it’s nice to see it played straightfacedly for the duration. Binding these stories together is a lark of an opener that plays up on that ol’ saw “The Hook” and a wraparound involving the teenagers who are spinning this trio of yarns after they have a close call on the nighttime highway. The punchline of this grim joke is refreshingly delivered, one that takes the time to wink at the audience but is nonetheless played for its inherent tragedy, asking its brash, handsome lead to look into the faces of his friends and confront the gravity of his actions. Now that’s scary.