Posts Tagged ‘horror movies’



Halloween is here and once again I had a blast contributing month-long posts to the Countdown to Halloween blog-a-thon. I thought I would end the celebration of all things ghoulish and spooky with an illustration featuring Forrest J Ackerman’s vampire from outer space, Vampirella. I also included a vintage comic book version because I couldn’t decide which version I liked better.

Happy Halloween!

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“Movies are a magician’s forge, they allow you to build a story with your hands… at least, that’s what it means to me. What attracts me in movies is to be presented with a problem and be able to solve it. Nothing else; just to create an illusion, and effect, with almost nothing” —Mario Bava

Director Mario Bava’s stylistic influence on 60s Italian cinema—particularly the Giallo genre—goes without saying. His singular vision was always evident, no matter what genre he was working within. Often taking what could have been fairly pedestrian story material, and—with limited budgets—Bava created worlds that you can fall into; mysterious, often dangerous worlds. His films have a staged feeling, and maybe that’s the point; clearly atmosphere and mood are paramount concerns—and why should’nt they be? Film is, after all, a visual medium, and like another visually minded-director—David Lynch—Bava fashions dream-like worlds that tap into the primal, the visceral.

Certainly, as a result of Brava’s initial work as a cinematographer, his shots are always impeccably composed, and fascinating to examine as single images…


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Spider Baby, Or The Maddest Story Ever Told (1968)*

Director: Jack Hill

It’s odd that I often forget how much I enjoy Jack Hill’s 1968 film, Spider Baby until I see it again. Years elapse and somehow I am able to disregard my own admiration for it. Well, maybe it’s not odd as much as an interesting phenomenon, really. Similarly there are those albums, only after returning to years and years later, that I am reminded how great they really are (The Wedding Present’s Bizzaro is one of those albums ( how on Earth could I forget how jaw-droppingly amazing that album is?)). I can only assume that the same thing is happening here. 

Spider Baby is considered a “cult classic” (whatever the hell that means anymore), yet it’s rarely spoken about in the same company as the standard bearers of that classification of film. El Topo (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), Eraserhead (1977), these are the midnight movies that readily come to mind. Of course, all three of these have a certain amount of shock value to them, something that clamors for your attention, whereas Spider Baby is much more reserved. Many aspects are alluded to rather than explicitly spelled out. Had it been made in the 1970s, it very well might have been a different picture, perhaps a gorier one, and maybe not as funny, if at all.  It is indeed a black comedy, and it is its humor that sets it apart from many other b-movies, low-rent pictures of its day. Rather than being funny in an off-handed way—because the script is terrible, the acting third-rate—the humor is actually intentional, which makes the ways in which the more disturbing aspects of the film are delivered, even more unsettling.

Take for instance the opening to Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told (as it’s also known by its longer title). It’s one of those scenes that make you laugh and cringe at the same time. It’s not that it’s awful or silly or stupid (I guess it may very well be all of those things to a degree) but it is unflinching and funny all at once. A hapless delivery man dressed like a Maytag repair man stumbles upon a rural mansion (driving a delivery truck that looks like a design for a contraption from a Hanna Barbera cartoon) that seems to be deserted. After approaching the house on the hill, the delivery man finds an open window which he, unfortunately, decides to poke his head through. The window slams shut and he is trapped. A young woman, Virginia (Jill Banner), appears in the living room carrying two knives, cackling about trapping “a big bug in her spider web”. There’s hardly any gore and no blood, but the scene is creepy nonetheless, mostly because of Virginia and her bizarre dance which precedes the kill. Cut into the scene is a shot from the exterior of the house—the delivery man’s legs wiggling about—which injects the events with a certain amount of slapstick.

This sort of juxtaposition occurs frequently throughout Spider Baby.  There is a compulsion to laugh, but the events that unfold are so strange, so grim, laughing makes it all the more uncomfortable.

Lon Chaney, Jr.  stars as Bruno who acts as the chauffeur and the guardian to the three Merrye children that live at the mansion: Virginia, Ralph (Sid Haig), and Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), who all suffer from “Merrye Syndrome”, named after the Merrye family, a genetic disorder that causes its victims to regress mentally (this is all set up in the opening scene of the movie in which the entire movie unfolds as a flashback).

Bruno attempts to protect the children from the outside world as well as keeping the shocking history of the deranged family a secret. Of the three children that Bruno protects, Virginia and Ralph are the most peculiar. Virginia, nicknamed Spider Baby, has a fascination with spiders and relates any mundane task of daily existence with that of a spider; other people are simply giant bugs to catch in her giant web, especially outsiders. Ralph is a man-child with a sexual appetite that eventually grows to uncontrollable proportions toward the end of the film. Elizabeth seems to be the most “together” of the three, with less obvious quirks, if that can be said of a clan of lunatics.

Soon, two long-lost relatives Peter Howe (Quinn Redeker) and Emily Howe (Carol Ohmart) emerge from the past to take possession of the estate (which looks oddly similar to the set of the Munsters). They decide to stay at the mansion with their smarmy lawyer and his buxom secretary. This misguided decision unleashes a series of bizarre events, culminating in the apparent “dinner course” that is made out of the lawyer by several aunts and uncles that live in the basement of the mansion.

In the end, Bruno blows up the house with a stick of dynamite after deciding that events have spun out of control and that the Merrye clan must be destroyed for good. Peter and Emily are the only two to escape, and, as the film ends, to Peter finishing  the whole sordid tale, we discover that he and Emily are now flush with money, thanks to the estate, and have a daughter.  In the final scene of the film, we discover that the daughter has a peculiar fascination with spiders. Does this leave the door open for a Spider Baby 2? One can hope.

In some ways Spider Baby seems to foreshadow other movies about families of lunatics: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and House of 1000 Corpses (2003) (which, coincidently (or maybe not), also stars a much older Sid Heig as Captain Spaulding).  However, that’s where the similarities end. The former are all clearly exploitation films, whereas Spider Baby is not. And even though The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes and House of 1000 Corpses all have some sort of blackly humorous thread, it is fairly inconsequential to the main plot of the movies.

But because of the time in which Spider Baby was made, and possibly because of Jack Hill’s sensibilities as a director, the film seems to dwell somewhere on the borderlands of horror. It is planted in the gene to be sure, but it also has a touch of the surreal—nothing like  Buñuel or Cocteau— but in some ways it feels, for lack of a better term, Lynchian. Of course, this is a label that gets thrown around a good deal and is often not even applicable, but in this case it seems appropriate (true, Spider Baby predates David Lynch’s film work by almost a decade). There is the black humor, often emerging at the oddest times; the characters, sometimes cartoonish in their motivations and development; undertones of sex and eroticism which drives the plot as well as the characters; and the overall mood, the very tone of the film that is set by the music, the lighting, the placement of the camera. Spider Baby has all of these elements in spades; from its macabre version of a UPA cartoon opening credit sequence, to the two sisters–Virginia and Elizabeth–and their twisted sex appeal, Jack Hill creates something that really is Lynchian in its sensibilities. 

Jack Hill made other horror films during his career, most of which were standard fare, nothing as intriguing as Spider Baby. Most notably, he directed the seminal blaxploitation films Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). He also directed the film Switchblade Sisters, which is often credited as the catalyst of the women in prison genre (even though this film is now seen as one of the highlights of his career, it was a box-office bomb at the time). These are the films which Jack Hill is known best for, but Spider Baby is his most likeable creation, if that’s even possible for a film about a family of cannibals.

Begun in the summer of 1963 and originally titled Cannibal Orgy, the film lost funding in post-production and the movie was shelved for four years. It was only until distributor David L. Hewitt acquired the rights to the film, that it was finally released under the title, Spider Baby. Over the years Spider Baby has been re-released in theaters, but it has lived in relative obscurity, with a small, devote following.

With Spider Baby there is the allure of the weird, the pull of the strange. It is always there, waiting for another few years to pass, its charms, however dark, to be revealed once again, retrieved from the grave of film history.

*For more reviews on Jack Hill’s Spider Baby, go to the Final Girl Film Club and check them all out…

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Lady Frankenstein (1971)

Director: Mel Welles

I don’t know anything about this Lady Gaga all the kids are talking about, but I can tell you that the Italian entry into the Eurotrash/horror category, Lady Frankenstein (La Figlia di Frankenstein), is worth some attention in the canon of Frankenstein-themed movies. Not the typical B-movie version of the original Universal run, Lady Frankenstein indulges in scenes and characters that manage to subvert past attempts at pure repetition. Case in point: the choice of a woman as the stand-in for the mad scientist role of Dr. Frankenstein. Some writing on this movie has pointed toward the emergence of feminism in the late sixties, early seventies as the catalyst for this decision. True, the Dr. Frankenstein of this film is posited as a strong, ambitious woman, but more anything the notion of Dr. Frankenstein as a woman seems to be a rather transparent excuse for nude scenes rather than a caculated illumination of a political movement such as feminism.

Directed by Mel Welles with a script by cult writer Edward di Lorenzo, this film stars the sultry Rosalba Neri (listed as Sara Bey in America), an Edwige Fenech look-alike who made the rounds of European horror films, spaghetti westerns and euro sleaze in the 60s and 70s and esteemed character actor, Joseph Cotton, who, by this time, was at the end of an eventful career (he is quoted as saying, “Orson Welles lists Citizen Kane as his best film, Alfred Hitchcock opts for Shadow of a Doubt and Sir Carol Reed chose The Third Man – and I’m in all of them”). The production is surprisingly high-end, Welles seemingly making a stab at the quality and look of Hammer Films, with specific Italian touches.  The results are notable indeed; Lady Frankenstein feels and looks different than what was current at the time in most Italian horror/Giallo films (in fact it looks like an early Mario Bava production). Imagine a gothic Jane Austen film but with body snatching, and a Frankenstein monster that looks like the Elephant Man on a good day, and Joseph Cotton. 

As Lady Frankenstein opens, Baron Frankenstein (Joseph Cotten) and his assistant Dr. Marshall (Paul Muller) are in the process of receiving a corpse for their re-animation experiments from the local grave-digger. The next morning the Baron’s daughter, Tania (Rosalba Neri) arrives at the Baron’s castle having completed her University course in medicine. She wants to join the family business, but the Baron is resistant to this notion.

The Baron and Dr. Marshall eventually complete their crazy experiments, the culmination of which is implanting the brain of a criminal into a giant Neanderthal. Of course, re-animation is never as easy as it looks, and the newly-minted creature kills his creator, the Baron, by hugging him to death. Perhaps the monster just wanted someone to love. 

With her father dead, Tiana decides to take the mantel of local nut job and create her own monster, one that can kill the first which is now ambling across the countryside in search of locals to squeeze. Her ultimate motivation for this decision is convoluted at best: to save the good name of Frankenstein by creating a monster that will stop the other monster who is killing villagers, which was created by the Baron in the first place. (Well, no one ever said the storyline had to make sense. Throw in a good bit of nudity and plot holes are forgotten.)

Soon a plan is hatched to place the brain of Dr. Marshall into the body of the Baron’s slightly retarded man-servant, Thomas. In one of the weirder scenes in the film, Tiana seduces Thomas with her wares, and, during love-making, Marshall smothers the man-child with a pillow. Tiana soon completes her insane plan to recover the good name of Frankenstein, but everything backfires when an angry mob with torches and pitchforks show up at the castle (it wouldn’t be a Frankenstein movie without an angry mob). The film quickly comes to an abrupt and bizarre end when, amid the fire set by the mob, the new Thomas-Marshall hybrid monster kills Tiana in the throes of passion. It’s an awkward ending, but seems to fit with the somewhat clumsy pacing of the rest of the movie.

As with any B-movie/exploitation outing, the dialogue and acting can be questionable at best, but Lady Frankenstein emerges above other standard Frankenstein-themed schlock like Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966) mostly due to its production value and the casting of Rosalba NeriIn addition to the more obvious merits, there are some truly strange moments in Lady Frankenstein that save it from being condemned as typical B-Movie faire (the EuroTrash angle at least helps it from being too run of the mill). Most of these moments have to do with Tiana plotting some fiendishly pseudo-sexual manipulation of the weaker sex, which, it would seem, leads to her ultimate downfall.

Now that Lady Frankenstein has been relinquished into the arms of “public domain”, there are several places online to see the film in its entirety for free, which, really, is not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

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