Psycho: The modern horror era begins

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Psycho directed by Alfred Hitchcock

It is not every filmmaker who can manage the difficult trick of coming up with four consecutive masterpieces, but that is just what British director Alfred Hitchcock was able to do as the late 1950s segued into the '60s. His 1958 offering, Vertigo, took time to find its audience but today is recognized by the British Film Institute's Sight and Sound magazine as the single greatest motion picture ever made; 1959's North by Northwest is surely one of the all-time great entertainments; 1960's Psycho practically jump-started the modern-day horror industry all on its own, and remains the director's most well-known film; and 1963's The Birds is still a baby-boomer favorite to this day.

But of those four films, all of which reside on my personal Top 100 Favorite Films list, it is the third, Psycho, that remains my favorite ... Read More

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer: Pretty potent stuff

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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer directed by John McNaughton

Loosely based on the real-life exploits of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, who confessed to the slayings of over 600 people but who was ultimately convicted in the homicide of a "mere" 11, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer changes some of the established facts around, yet remains a very strong experience for the viewer. As revealed on a certain Wiki site, the film was shot in just four weeks in 1986, at a cost of around $110,000, but was not released until four years later. Despite its great reputation, it is a film that I had long put off watching, having a suspicion that it would be a rather unpleasant experience for me overall. But lately, I have been exposing myself to a bunch of previously dreaded films (such as Blood Sucking Freaks and 1978's Read More

SFM: Jackson, Rucker, Ochse, Armstrong

Short Fiction Monday: Our reviews of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. For this year's Halloween week column, we offer a selection of haunted house stories. (The first story is admittedly pushing the boundaries of that classification, but it was too good to leave out.)


“The Man in the Woods” by Shirley Jackson (published 2014, free in The New Yorker)

Christopher, a college student, leaves school one day for reasons he can’t even articulate to himself, and walks for days through towns and fields, eventually making his way into a forest. The trees ominously press in on him, but a cat has joined him on his journey through the forest, giving him some companionship and comfort. Christopher and the cat eventually come across a stone house in the forest. He’s invited i... Read More

The Happening: Respectful awe

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The Happening directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Following the inanity of the borderline train wreck that was 2006's Lady in the Water, writer/producer/director M. Night Shyamalan rebounded in a very big way with his next film, 2008's The Happening. His contribution to the type of eco-horror film that was all the rage in the 1960s and '70s — I’m thinking of such films as 1963's The Birds, 1972's Frogs, 1977's Kingdom of the Spiders and 1978's The Swarm ... not to mention the little-seen 1976 Spanish classic Who Can Kill a Child? — the film seems to have divided his fan base and resulted in a bona fide critical flop of sorts. Indeed, the woman who I sit next to at work, a big admirer of film auteur Shyamalan, hated the film, although she professes a love for Lady in th... Read More

Brides of Dracula: Even without Lee, a very fine Hammer offering

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Brides of Dracula directed by Terence Fisher

The title is something of a misnomer. As the story goes, following the worldwide success of Hammer Studios' The Horror of Dracula in 1958, star Christopher Lee decided that he did not wish to participate in any possible sequel, fearing that he might be later typecast in the vampiric role. Thus, despite the sequel's title, Brides of Dracula not only does not feature Lee's participation at all, but the world's most famous neck nosher is nowhere to be found. Rather, what the viewer gets here is another Transylvanian vampire, an acolyte of Dracula's dark religion, if you will. But the results, even without Lee, are still most impressive, and even though Lee would later return in the following decades to appear in no fewer than six Dracula films for Hammer (Dracula, Prince of Darkness in '66; Dracula Has Risen From the Grave in '68; Read More

Split: A dude with TOO much personality

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Split directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Over the years, there have been any number of films that have dealt with lead characters who suffer with what the layman might term "split personality." Putting aside all the many iterations of the Jekyll & Hyde story, in 1957, audiences were given both Lizzie, in which Eleanor Parker played a woman with three distinct personalities, and, five months later, the more well-known The Three Faces of Eve, in which Joanne Woodward played a woman with the exact same predicament. In 1960, theatergoers were shocked out of their showers via their introduction to Tony Perkins' Norman Bates, a young man who was also his own mother, in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. The situation was played for laughs in 1963's The Nutty Professor, with Jerry Lewis portraying the hapless Prof. Julius Kelp AND his alter ego, the Dean Martin-like Buddy Love. But you woul... Read More

Witch House: Sarai, Sarai, quite contrary

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Witch House by Evangeline Walton

Ever since British author Horace Walpole kick-started the haunted house genre with his seminal short novel of Gothic romance, The Castle of Otranto (1765), there have been hundreds of short stories and dozens of novels centered on this most shuddery of literary subjects. But for this reader, the two novels at the very top of the ectoplasmic heap have long been Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), still the most spine-tingling book that I have ever read, and Richard Matheson’s ubercreepy Hell House (1971); perhaps not surprisingly, those two were later adapted into exquisitely scary cinematic fare, in, respectively, The Haunting Read More

The Mysterious Doctor: Eleanor shines in her second film

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The Mysterious Doctor directed by Benjamin Stoloff

A seeming meld of fog-shrouded Universal horror and the rah-rah wartime propaganda films that were so prevalent during the era, the Warner Brothers offering The Mysterious Doctor turns out to be a minor concoction that should just manage to please modern audiences. Released in March 1943, during the darkest days of World War II, the picture provides some chilling escapism while at the same time inspiring its target audience to greater productivity in the war effort. For today's viewer, the film works as an efficient little chiller and as a showcase for its ingénue female star, Eleanor Parker, who here evinces great charm and ability (and beauty, natch) in this, her second role on screen.

The film manages to engender a chilling mood from its very opening moments, in which the viewer beholds a very tall AND HEADLESS personage stalking through a mi... Read More

From Hell It Came: Kimo therapy

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From Hell It Came directed by Dan Milner

Back in the 1960s, when I was just a young lad and when there were only three major television stations to contend with, The New York Times used to make pithy commentaries, in their TV section, regarding films that were to be aired that day. I have never forgotten the terse words that the paper issued for the 1957 cult item From Hell It Came. In one of the most succinct pans ever written, the editors simply wrote: "Back send it." Well, I have waited years to find out if this hilarious put-down was justified or not, and now that I have finally succeeded in catching up with this one-of-a-kind cult item, have to say that I feel the Times people may have been a bit too harsh in their assessment. Sure, the film is campy, and of course, its central conceit is patently ridiculous, but does the film give the viewer that one necessary ingredient — namely, fun ... Read More

The Dunwich Horror: A pleasing Lovecraftian adaptation from AIP

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The Dunwich Horror directed by Daniel Haller

Having enjoyed great success with a string of some seven pictures based on the works of the writer who has been called the greatest horror author of the 19th century, Edgar Allan Poe, American International Pictures (AIP) soon turned its attention to the horror author who has been called the greatest of the 20th, the so-called "Sage of Providence," Howard Phillips Lovecraft. For their first Lovecraft attempt, the studio came out with the Boris Karloff outing Die, Monster, Die, loosely based on the author's 1927 story "The Color Out of Space." And five years later, the film in question, The Dunwich Horror, was released, in January 1970 (just weeks before the studio came out with the Peter Cushing/Vincent Price/C... Read More

Creature from the Haunted Sea: For Corman completists only?

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Creature from the Haunted Sea directed by Roger Corman

On the front cover of Ed Naha's indispensable book The Films of Roger Corman there is a subtitle that reads "Brilliance on a Budget," and a look at Corman's working schedule and method of production will surely bear out that statement. Take, for example, the background for his 1961 film Creature from the Haunted Sea. As the story goes, Corman and crew were in Puerto Rico in 1959, where Corman was executive producing the film The Battle of Blood Island at the same time as he was directing his own film The Last Woman on Earth. Realizing that if he had another week on the island he could just manage to come up with still ANOTHER picture, Corman instructed his oft-time screenwriter Charles Griffith (who had previously worked on no fewer than seven Corman films, including such immortal classics as It Conquered the ... Read More

The Night Visitor: Terror… to the max

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The Night Visitor directed by László Benedek

In 1968, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman released what might be arguably deemed his closest attempt to create an outright horror film, Hour of the Wolf, starring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman. The three would go on to work together several more times in the coming years, and although the following pictures that they made together (such as Shame and The Passion of Anna) WERE fairly emotionally devastating, none could be termed outright horror.

Viewers desirous to see Max and Liv together in another film that is indisputably in the horror domain, however, may be confidently steered to a picture that they made together in the early '70s, entitled The Night Visitor. Released in February '71, this was a Swedish production (its Swedish title is Papegojan), filmed in English by Hungarian director László Benedek (of T... Read More

Invisible Invaders: Attack of the invisible no-see-ums

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Invisible Invaders directed by Edward L. Cahn

Offhand, I can think of few actors (other than perhaps Richard Denning) who have gone up against so many 1950s sci-fi horrors and monstrosities as Chicago-born John Agar. From 1955 - '58 alone, the former husband of Shirley Temple battled The Creature in Revenge of the Creature, a giant arachnid in Tarantula, a lost subterranean race in The Mole Men, a floating alien cerebrum in The Brain From Planet Arous, and a mad scientist in Attack of the Puppet People, all of which I had hugely enjoyed. There WAS one film of Agar's from the late '50s that I had never seen, though, to complete this list of sci-fi menaces, and that film is Invisible Invaders. Fortunately, I have at long last caught up with this one, and can report that it is yet another fun (although undeniably shlocky) outing to add to Agar's roster. The fil... Read More

Necroscope III: The Source: Harry visits another world

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Necroscope III: The Source by Brian Lumley

Warning: This review will contain spoilers for the previous books, Necroscope. And Necroscope II: Vamphyri!. You’ll want to read those books before picking up this one.

Harry Keogh is back and now he’s got a body again. How that came about is a sad tale that you need to read about in Necroscope II: Vamphyri!. You’d think that all would be well now — Harry could get back with his wife and son and maybe life could somewhat normalize, though Harry, of course, still hears from the dead and can travel through time and space on the Mobius Continuum, so maybe Harry is never going to be normal or even really desire a ... Read More

The Swarm: The worst film ever made? Don’t bee-lieve it!

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The Swarm directed by Irwin Allen

Immediately before the release of his $21 million disaster epic The Swarm in July '78, producer/director Irwin Allen boasted to the press that he thought the film would be "the most terrifying movie ever made." And the so-called "Master of Disaster" had good reason to feel confident; his previous films, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, had been monster hits, performing remarkably well at the box office. But The Swarm, which dealt with an attack of African killer bees in the American Southwest, failed to live up to expectations, and indeed brought in a mere $7 million in box office returns.

The reviews were scathing, with The New York Times calling the film "the surprise comedy hit of the season" and London's Sunday Times deeming it "simply the worst film ever made." Time Out has gone o... Read More

Necroscope II: Vamphyri!: Harry Keogh is back!

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Necroscope II: Vamphyri! by Brian Lumley

Warning: This review will contain spoilers for the previous book, Necroscope.

Suggestion: Try to ignore the horrible cover art.

Necroscope II: Vamphyri! Or (Wamphyri!) is the second book in Brian Lumley’s NECROSCOPE series. These horror novels follow the life and death of Harry Keogh, the Necroscope. As the only person who can talk to the dead, he is beloved by them and, since most people who have ever lived are currently dead, he has more friends than anyone else in the world... and these friends are willing to do favors for Harry. One thing they do is teach him, so Harry has becom... Read More

The Bat: When Vinny met Agnes

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The Bat directed by Crane Wilbur

Although Vincent Price had appeared in a number of scary films before the late 1950s, it wasn't until 1958 and '59 that the beloved actor really began to concentrate his efforts in the fright field and thus become one of the true titans in the arena of horror. During those two years, Price starred in The Fly, House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler and The Bat, thus getting the ball rolling for one legendary horror career. This viewer, up until recently, had long enjoyed every one of those films except for The Bat, which had somehow escaped me. Thus, how pleased I was to discover that this film fits in very nicely with those other great three!

The Bat was based on a 1908 novel by mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart entitled The Circular S... Read More

What’s the Matter With Helen?: A significant contribution to the hagsploitation genre

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What’s the Matter With Helen? directed by Curtis Harrington

One of the more curious subcategories of the horror field, the genre known as hagsploitation (sometimes called psycho-biddy films, Grande Dame Guignol and, as my buddy Rob calls it, aging-gargoyle movies) got its jump start with the release of the seminal What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, in 1962. After the success of that truly remarkable film, the crone gates were opened, and it was quickly followed by others, in which formerly glamorous actresses, now advanced in years, got to play aging biddies on the verge of madness. Such films as Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964, with Davis, Olivia de Havilland and Agnes Moorehead), Strait-Jacket (also '64, with Crawford again) and What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice ('69, with Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon) proved marvelous entertai... Read More

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms: One of my all-time faves

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The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms directed by Eugène Lourié

As I have mentioned elsewhere, it is a keynote of all the films that appear on my personal Top 100 Films list that they are capable of bearing up under repeated viewings with undiminished enjoyment. And indeed, of those 100 films, many of them have been seen by yours truly dozens of times, if not more, with just as much pleasure as when I saw each picture for the very first time. But of all those films, the one that I have probably sat down with the most is The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

A bit of personal history here: When I was a kid, growing up in 1960s NYC, we only had perhaps a half dozen television stations to choose from. There were the big three, of course — CBS, NBC and ABC — in addition to two or three local stations, one of which was WOR, channel 9. As memory serves, WOR only had a single program that it showed repeatedly, ... Read More

The Snow Devils: Asiago, fontina or robiola

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The Snow Devils directed by Antonio Margheriti (aka Anthony Dawson)

During the 1960s, the Italians proceeded to make impressive strides in their historic cinematic output. The old-master auteurs such as Fellini, Antonioni, De Sica, Visconti and Pasolini continued to put out quality product (to put it mildly, in the case of the first two), while up-and-comers such as Mario Bava and Sergio Leone helped to jump-start the nascent genres of Italian Gothic horror, the giallo film, and the so-called "spaghetti Western." The Italian comedies continued to flourish, as did the country's truly one-of-a-kind "sword and sandal" films. But there was one area in which the Italians, try as they might, just couldn't seem to make much of an impressive dent, it seems to me, and that was in the arena of sci-fi. Case in point: the 1967 film The Snow Devils.

Despite its ambitious story line, a top-tier actor in front ... Read More

Ben: Rattus rattus flambé

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Ben directed by Phil Karlson

In light of the fact that the 1971 film Willard was such a box office smash, bringing in almost $10 million (pretty big money in those days), I suppose it was practically inevitable that a sequel was soon put into production. And sure enough, in June '72, almost a year to the day after Willard had had its premiere, that sequel, Ben, did indeed arrive. Featuring all new characters, with the exception of its titular rodent star, the film yet picks up mere moments after the conclusion of the first, and indeed, the sequel's opening credits are scrawled over the final moments of that first film, to remind viewers of where things had left off.

In that first film's conclusion, young oddball Willard Stiles (well played by Bruce Davison), after having killed his hateful boss with the assistance o... Read More

Billy the Kid Versus Dracula: Bar-B doll

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Billy the Kid Versus Dracula directed by William Beaudine

New York City-born director William Beaudine didn't acquire the nickname "One Shot" for nothing. Working at a furious and efficient pace, Beaudine managed to helm no fewer than 178 films, starting in the 1920s and extending all the way to 1966. In his final year as a filmmaker, Beaudine brought all his vast experience to bear and managed to come up with two entertainments that have been flabbergasting audiences for over half a century now. The two films — Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter and Billy the Kid Versus Dracula — served as a perfectly well-matched double feature, both in name as well as subject matter.

I had previously been surprised at how decent a film the first had been, exceeding my minimal expectations in terms of both filmmaking skill and entertainment value. And now that I have finally caught ... Read More

A Place Of One’s Own: A subdued but highly effective British ghost story

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A Place Of One’s One directed by Bernard Knowles

In October 1945, the horror anthology film Dead of Night was released in England, and to this day, almost 75 years later, it remains one of the scariest pictures ever to come out of that country. But Dead of Night was hardly the first shuddery cinematic exercise to be released there that year. Some five months earlier, in May '45, a smaller and admittedly less frightening cinematic offering had been released to the public, and that film was A Place of One's Own, based on the Osbert Sitwell novel of 1940. A subdued and only intermittently scary ghost story, the film yet offers the viewer of today a beautifully produced and supremely well acted 90 minutes, highlighted by some beautiful period decor and a literate script. Though little discussed in recent years, the picture surely remains ripe for modern-day reappraisal by the discriminating view... Read More

Willard: Attack of the ticked-off track bunnies

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Willard directed by Daniel Mann

Here in NYC, the subway workers of the MTA who labor in the tunnels have a nickname for the rats that they frequently encounter: "track bunnies." It's a cute name that masks the fact that for most New Yorkers, the Rattus rattus is an animal that they feel should ONLY be seen down in the subway tracks, from the safe perspective of the subway platform. The sight of one of those grisly rodents anywhere else is guaranteed to engender disgust and an atavistic terror. And perhaps it was with this very knowledge that the producers of the 1971 film Willard felt confident that they would have a surefire hit on their hands, as did indeed prove the case. Based on the 1968 novel The Ratman's Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert, Willard was released some three years later, in June '71. I am old enough to remember how popular the film was way back when, but... Read More

Dead Men Walk: Zucco x 2

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Dead Men Walk directed by Sam Newfield

As I have written elsewhere, the history of the 1940s horror film can practically be summarized with two words: Universal and Lewton. But while Universal Studios was busily churning out its remarkable run of Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man and Invisible Man films during that decade, and producer Val Lewton over at RKO was turning out some of the most artfully done horror films of all time (such as Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie), some of the other, lesser studios in Hollywood were coming out with their own shuddery fare, as well. Case in point: PRC, short for Producers Releasing Corp., a so-called "Poverty Row" outfit that specialized in B films meant to appear as the lesser attraction of double features.  The studio came out with all manner of films during the '40s — their most famous films perhaps being The Devil Bat, featuring Bela Lugosi, th... Read More