Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Horror - Jason Hyde

Friday, September 27, 2013

Favorite Underrated Horror - Jason Hyde

Jason Hyde is a top shelf cinephile. He was kind enough to write up an underrated comedies list for my last blog series. Read it that here:
http://rupertpupkinspeaks.blogspot.com/2013/03/favorite-underrated-comedies-jason-hyde.html
He also did an underrated dramas list for that series as well:
http://rupertpupkinspeaks.blogspot.com/2013/06/favorite-underrated-dramas-jason-hyde.html 
Horror is quite near and dear to him I believe so this is a very cool list as well:
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VOODOO MAN (1944; William Beaudine)
All of the strange, cheap horror movies that Bela Lugosi did for Monogram have their charms, however dubious. Of the bunch, THE INVISIBLE GHOST is probably the best, thanks to sharp direction from B-Movie maestro Joseph H. Lewis. But VOODOO MAN is in a crazed class all its own. It starts off fairly creepy with a people getting lost in the backwoods set-up that anticipates TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, among other films. From there, it turns surprisingly self-referential for its time, with jokes about the hapless hero's job writing cheap horror films for a guy named "S.K." (think producer Sam Katzman). Lugosi brings class and surprising restraint to his role as villainous Dr. Marlowe. The great, underrated George Zucco goes gloriously over-the-top as a gas station owner who moonlights as voodoo witch doctor (or is it the other way around?), and John Carradine beats the bongos and steals the show as Lugosi's halfwit assistant. And it's all over in 61 oddball minutes.

DEMENTIA (1955; John Parker)
There is no other film quite like this one. DEMENTIA is a sort of beat/noir horror about, well, it's not really about anything. It's basically a nightmare on film in which a young woman has various terrifying experiences over the course of a particularly bad night in Venice, California. Or does she? Originally filmed without dialogue and accompanied by an eerie score from the great avant-garde composer George Antheil, DEMENTIA barely got any kind of release until it was retitled DAUGHTER OF HORROR (picking up a voiceover narration by a young Ed McMahon in the process!). Now it's probably best known as the movie that's playing in the Colonial Theatre when the Blob attacks. See it in its original dialogue-free form for maximum weirdness.

THE BLACK SLEEP (1956; Reginald Le Borg)
It's hard to believe that a horror movie with Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, and Tor Johnson in it could be as forgotten as THE BLACK SLEEP. This is one of those films that spent my life reading about in books but it never seemed to show up on any of the late night horror shows of my youth and only recently made its home video debut via MGM's on demand series. It didn't make much impact when it was new either, coming at a time when Gothic horrors of this sort had fallen out of favor with audiences. But it's a solid, creepy tale of medical experimentation in a dark castle with a fine lead performance from Rathbone. Lugosi and Chaney make less of an impression with their mute supporting roles, but it's always great to have them around. Carradine hams it up as only he could, Tor Johnson does what Tor Johnson always did, and the great character actor Akim Tamiroff walks off with every scene he's in, playing a gypsy tattoo artist/corpse provider, a role that was written for Peter Lorre. Watch out for the grisly pre-Hammer effect of a dripping brain during the big surgery scene.

TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL (1960; Terence Fisher)
One of the first real flops of Hammer Horror, TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL is actually one of Terence Fisher's best films. A literate horror film for grownups, this radical re-working of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic turns the familiar story on its head by making Jekyll the unattractive half and Hyde a dashing, grinning, handsome monster. Stage actor Paul Massey is great in both roles, but it's his cherubic, jaunty Hyde that makes the most lasting impression, grinning as he beats a young Oliver Reed nearly to death. Christopher Lee has one of his best Hammer roles and delivers one of his best-ever performances as Jekyll's wastrel friend who's carrying on with Mrs. Jekyll (Dawn Addams). Essentially, this is what "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" would be like if it was written by Oscar Wilde instead of Stevenson, and it's not only one of the best Hammer horrors, but it may just be one of the best British films of its time.

VIOLENT MIDNIGHT (1963; Richard Hilliard/Del Tenney)
Credited to Richard Hilliard, but really the work of Del Tenney (HORROR OF PARTY BEACH, CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE), VIOLENT MIDNIGHT is a moody proto-slasher about murders in and around an isolated women's college in a small New England town with no shortage of suspects. Is it the shell-shocked vet-turned-painter (Lee Phillips)? His vaguely sinister family attorney (classic TV regular Shepperd Strudwick)? The motorcycle-riding town bad boy (James Farentino, making his film debut)? In all honesty, it's not too hard to figure out if you watch closely. But the real joy of this film is not in the plot or even the characters (Except maybe Lorraine Rogers as the school's bad girl. Yowza.); it's in the unique small town setting with all of its seething melodrama and the beautiful black and white photography. There's a definite Lynchian quality to this film, sort of like TWIN PEAKS crossed with DEMENTIA 13. It's surprisingly bloody and sexy for its time, too. Also featuring Dick Van Patten in his film debut as the detective investigating the murders.

 CHAMBER OF HORRORS (1966; Hy Averback)
CHAMBER OF HORRORS is actually one of the greatest missed opportunities in TV history. It was originally produced as a pilot for a series called House of Wax (and features some stock footage from that Vincent Price classic), which would have followed the exploits of two wax museum proprietors (Cesare Danova and Wilfrid Hyde-White) who moonlight as amateur criminologists, solving crimes with the help of their dwarf assistant. For some inexplicable reason, the series never sold, and the film was released to theaters with the addition of the William Castle-esque gimmick of the "Horror Horn" which sounds every time something frightening is about to happen. The Horror Horn's kind of annoying, but the film is fantastic. Our intrepid heroes find themselves on the track of the extremely villainous Jason Cravatte (played by familiar classic TV actor Patrick O'Neal in his best performance). Cravatte loses a hand in a thrilling escape from a train and then sets out to get gruesome revenge on all the people responsible for his imprisonment, using a series of detachable devices to achieve his nefarious ends. Just about everything about CHAMBER OF HORRORS works. It's got top-notch production values for a TV production, eye-popping color, terrific performances, a truly insane plot, and a completely random Tony Curtis cameo. Also, a dwarf. What more could you possibly want?

GAMES (1967; Curtis Harrington)
A list like this wouldn't be complete without at least one film from Curtis Harrington, possibly the most underrated horror director of all time. GAMES is maybe a bit closer to thriller than horror, but I think it's horror enough to qualify. It's certainly packed with grotesque imagery and there are hints of supernatural goings-on. In GAMES, James Caan and Katharine Ross play a rich couple who love to play mind games on each other in their amazing pop art apartment. But when Simone Signoret comes into their lives, they get a bit more than even they bargained for as the games start to get deadly. Essentially an homage to LES DIABOLIQUES filtered through a late 60s camp style, GAMES is a great, stylish thriller where nothing is entirely what it seems. You might guess where it's going, but that doesn't take away any of the fun of getting there. Caan and Ross are both terrific as the spoiled rich couple (based on Harrington's friends Dennis Hopper and Brooke Hayward), but this is Simone Signoret's show all the way, and she does not disappoint, delivering a sly, playful performance that really sets the tone for this sly, playful film. Why GAMES isn't better known or more frequently screened may be the true mystery here. I caught a Chicago screening of it a couple of months ago, and the packed house ate it up.

LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971; John D. Hancock)
Zohra Lampert gives an incredible performance in this understated, haunting cult classic. Lampert stars as Jessica, a mentally fragile young woman who, with her musician husband and friend, leaves the hustle and bustle of New York for the peaceful farm life in rural Connecticut. Only country life maybe isn't so peaceful, after all, and soon she's learning dark secrets about the town and starting to wonder if she's losing her already tenuous grip on reality all over again. LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH has, for much of its running time, a nicely relaxed vibe that perfectly captures the feel of hazy, lazy days in the country. As a result, the horror builds slowly through odd things like the hostile locals who all seem to be old men with bandages on their necks. This film definitely requires patience from the viewer, but it rewards it like few others. In the end, it's an unforgettable, uniquely eerie experience that shows what can be accomplished with just a few good actors, an old house, and some effectively spooky music.

HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982, Tommy Lee Wallace)
Always the runt of the HALLOWEEN litter, SEASON OF THE WITCH's reputation has been slowly but surely growing in recent years. Its original release was pretty much a disaster, disappointing just about everybody who came hoping to see more of Michael Myers stalking and killing attractive young people. Personally, I got enough of that in the first two entries, so this crazed detour into science fiction and occult territory is just what the doctor ordered. Originally written by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale (who had his name taken off the film after more violence was added to his story), HALLOWEEN III's witchcraft meets technology premise plays somewhat like a particularly deranged installment of Doctor Who, and Dan O'Herlihy's mad scientist villain seems like a throwback to a type of horror that just wasn't being made much in 1982. You could easily see him being played by Boris Karloff or Christopher Lee if this film was made twenty years earlier. O'Herlihy's so good in this movie that you almost wish his mad plot would succeed. Tom Atkins does another one of his entertaining gruff guy turns as the hero, Stacey Nelkin makes for a lovely heroine (despite the 80's fashions she sports), and the score by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth is one of their very best, which is saying a lot. Good luck getting the Silver Shamrock theme out of your head after watching this one.

DOLLS (1987; Stuart Gordon)
Stuart Gordon seldom lets me down. From RE-ANIMATOR to FROM BEYOND to his more recent (and also underrated) DAGON, Gordon's best films have a wit and style to them that's unlike any other director's. DOLLS tends to get a bit overlooked compared to some of Gordon's other films, but it's a lot of good, bloody fun. It's essentially a modern updating of a fairy tale, complete with wicked stepmother. But this is not the sanitized Disney take on the fairy tale. DOLLS hearkens back to the days when fairy tales were fairly horrific stories where characters frequently died horrible deaths. That's basically what happens here. Bad people act badly, and then get killed by the dolls, and the good people are spared. It's really that simple. As the makers of the dolls, Guy Rolfe and DON'T LOOK NOW's Hilary Mason are charming and lovable, and you're clearly meant to root for them, even though they're making dolls that kill punk rock girls just because their music is too loud.



2 comments:

Will Errickson said...

GAMES was on Netflix Instant some time ago; I'd never heard of it but once I saw the cast, I had to watch it. Definitely underrated and worth seeing!

joestemme said...

Some truly fine picks here. As a big Quatermass film, I was ready for something offbeat with HALLOWEEN III and despite the tinkering that had Kneale take his name off, it was a pleasant ride.
When Harrington passed a few years ago, a nice 35MM print played in his honor - a truly excellent thriller in the DIABOLIQUE mode.

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