Monday, October 27, 2014

Third Annual October Scares, Week Four: Hammer's Count Dracula Rises Again

The 3rd annual Eclectic Avenue October Scares-fest concludes with a double dose of Dracula. In the late 1950s, Britain’s Hammer Films began reviving many of the classic monsters that were a staple of Universal’s horror films of the 1930s & 40s. The difference with Hammer’s versions is that they were in color, and more graphic & suggestive than their earlier counterparts. The company’s first major hit was The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) starring Peter Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as his monstrous creation. That movie's success led to a host of other fright film releases thru the 1970s, including Lee’s striking portrayal of Count Dracula, beginning with:

Horror of Dracula (1958) – When Jonathan Harker, the new librarian & archivist at Castle Dracula, disappears, his colleague Abraham Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) investigates, and finds that Harker has met a terrifying fate at Dracula’s hands. What follows is a battle of wits & wills between Van Helsing & Dracula (Christopher Lee) as the powerful vampire stalks Harker’s fiancé Lucy and her family. Can Van Helsing stop the undead Count in time? Hammer veteran Terence Fisher directed this dark & terrifying take on Bram Stoker’s classic. The movie features Lee’s commanding performance as Dracula, along with Cushing’s fine take on the steadfast, unflappable vampire hunter Van Helsing. Their classic confrontation in the finale is one of the most memorable sequences in the Hammer canon. Horror of Dracula stands out as one of the best versions of this classic tale; it's considered by many fans to be Hammer’s definitive horror film.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965) – Cushing reprised his role as Van Helsing for 1960’s The Brides of Dracula, featuring a disciple of Dracula stalking victims at a girl’s school. However, Lee did not appear in that film. Lee did return in Dracula, Prince of Darkness, as the Count terrorizes two vacationing couples that stay in his castle, not realizing the identity of their host. Dracula doesn’t speak in the film (according to some reports, Lee hated the dialogue written for him and refused to utter it) but that works in the character’s favor, as he’s literally a silent force of evil that tries to consume or destroy anyone in his path, especially the lovely ladies in the film, played by Barbara Shelley & Suzan Farmer. Since Cushing doesn’t appear as Van Helsing here, it’s up to Father Sandor (the excellent Andrew Keir, also featured in Hammer’s Quatermass & The Pit) an unorthodox priest, to rescue the unlucky travelers from Dracula. Also directed by Terence Fisher, Dracula, Prince of Darkness led to even more vampire-themed films from Hammer, and Lee returned to the role five more times.

The Curse of Frankenstein & Horror of Dracula began the Hammer horror cycle, but in many ways Dracula, Prince of Darkness solidified it, just as Goldfinger (1964) became the template for all the 007 films that followed. It features all the elements that Hammer fans remember: a touch of gore, lovely ladies threatened by an evil monster or dark force, thrilling music & great Gothic atmosphere & sets. It may not be the best film in the Hammer Dracula series, but it’s one of the most exciting & well-produced entries. It's tough to beat Hammer's 50s & 60s films when you're looking for some old school thrills, chills & fun. Horror of Dracula is available on DVD in various collections, and Dracula: Prince of Darkness is available on Blu-ray in a gorgeous HD transfer. That disc includes several extras, including a commentary by Lee & some of the other stars of the film. Here are links to trailers for Horror of Dracula: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkAnAqB70Ag and Dracula, Prince of Darkness: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=udqm1gw28xo.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Third Annual October Scares, Week Three: A "Dark Shadows" Double Feature

The 3rd annual Eclectic Avenue October Scares-fest continues with a look at producer-director Dan Curtis’ two Dark Shadows movies. The TV series, which ran from 1966-71, was one of the first to bring supernatural stories into a daytime soap opera.  For most of its first year, it dealt with more Gothic themed elements, as it told the story of the Collins family of Maine, and their new governess, Victoria Winters. But then vampire Barnabas Collins was introduced, and the series took a turn towards the fantastic. The show went on to feature stories of witches, ghosts, werewolves & even time travel. It was one of the most popular soaps on television for most of its run. It has been revived as a short-lived prime-time series in 1991, and in 2012 as a feature film directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp. Creator Dan Curtis (who’s also responsible for the classic TV horror tales The Night Stalker (1972) & Trilogy of Terror (1975), also produced & directed two theatrical films based on the series, one of which was released while the show was still on the air (a rarity at the time, before the current trend of creating big screen films films based on TV series):

House of Dark Shadows (1970) – The first film based on the series concerns vampire Barnabas Collins, who is resurrected after 175 years when his coffin is opened by Willie Loomis, the Collins family handyman, who’s searching for hidden treasure. Barnabas poses as a cousin visiting from England, and interacts with the family. He meets Maggie Evans, who is young David Collins’ governess, and is startled to see she bears a resemblance to his long lost love, Josette. He hatches a plan to cure himself of his vampiric curse, and claim Maggie as his own. But it won’t be as easy as he thinks to escape his past, and fate has different plans for Barnabas & the Collins family.

Filmed while the TV show was still in active production, the movie features most of the main cast reprising their small screen roles, in an altered & updated version of the storyline that introduced Barnabas. It’s a well-directed & atmospheric film, and is more graphic than the series. There are some truly terrifying moments, and the movie works as an old-fashioned vampire story. In fact, it feels a bit like a Hammer Films version of the series. The movie was a huge success during its original release, and it prompted MGM to green light a sequel.

Night of Dark Shadows (1971) – The original idea for the sequel was to bring back Barnabas, but by the time things got rolling, the TV series had ended its run, and Frid declined to return to the role. A new story was written featuring Collins family heir Quentin (David Selby) and his fiancé Tracy, who move into his family home. They meet a mysterious Mrs. Danvers-like housekeeper named Carlotta who intrigues Quentin with stories of the Collins family history. He’s drawn to her tales of his ancestor Charles and his love affair with a mysterious woman named Angelique, who was burned as a witch. Suddenly Quentin starts acting strangely, almost as if he’s possessed. It seems that Angelique’s spirit is still around…and she has plans for Quentin. This tale of ghosts, witchcraft & supernatural terror features many veterans of the TV series (Selby, Kate Jackson, John Karlen, Grayson Hall, Nancy Barrett) but the standout here is Lara Parker who is equal parts alluring, eerie & frightening as the beautiful but vengeful Angelique. Night of Dark Shadows may be slightly more accessible to non-fans. This film doesn't require as much familiarity with the series as House of Dark Shadows to fully enjoy the story.

The movie is an effective thriller, but there are some plot elements that aren’t fully fleshed out. This is due to the fact Dan Curtis was forced to cut over 30 minutes from the film prior to its release at the request of MGM. Still, this is an enjoyable tale of the otherworldly, and its fun to see TV stalwarts like Selby, Jackson & Karlen in earlier roles. Both Dark Shadows films are worth a look for fans of 70s horror, and are available on Blu-ray & DVD, as well as for online viewing. Here are links to the trailers for House of Dark Shadows: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6MmU3krHnE and Night of Dark Shadows: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSiRN23Fdy4.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Third Annual October Scares, Week Two: "This One's A Thriller"

In Week 2 of Our 3rd Annual October Scares-fest we recommend some episodes from the Boris Karloff hosted anthology series, Thriller (1960-62). Though it only ran for two seasons, it’s highly regarded by many fans, including Stephen King, who praised the show in Danse Macabre, his 1981 overview of the horror genre. The series actually started out offering tales of murder & suspense, similar to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but shifted its focus to horror during the middle of the first season. Several of the episodes, including “Pigeons From Hell,” an adaptation of a Robert E. Howard tale, and “The Grim Reaper,” are considered classics of TV terror. While the show continued to alternate between crime dramas & horror stories, it’s those scary outings for which the series is best remembered. Here are several episodes to view for a Thriller-ific night of chills!

From Season 1:
The Hungry Glass – Based on a short story by Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, this episode stars William Shatner & Russell Johnson. That’s right, Captain Kirk of Star Trek & The Professor from Gilligan’s Island in the same show! And it also features Donna Douglas of The Beverly Hillbillies in a small but pivotal role. A young couple buys a seaside mansion for a bargain price, but get more than they bargained for when they find out the place is haunted. And why is the attic full of mirrors…and what do our characters see in them? Is there something waiting inside the glass? It’s fun to see Shatner & Johnson together, and there are some truly creepy moments in the show. Adapted from Bloch’s story by director Douglas Heyes, this is one of the best episodes of the series.

Dark Legacy is the story of Mario Asparos, a magician whose uncle dies and leaves him a book of powerful black magic spells. Mario tries to summon a demon, hoping to gain wealth & power. But when you play with dark forces, be careful what you wish for…and be ready for the price you have to pay. This episode was written by John Tomerlin & directed by John Brahm. The stars are Henry Silva (best known as a villain in a host of B movies) & character actor Harry Townes. The mist-shrouded look of this episode (a hallmark of many of Thriller’s finest hours) is a mix between film noir & horror and it adds to the story’s eerie vibe.

From Season 2:
La Strega is the story of Luana (played by Ursula Andress, the original Bond girl in Dr. No) who’s saved from drowning by a young man named Tonio. He falls in love with her, but has to contend with her grandmother, a witch who warns him to stay away from the girl, or dire consequences will result. Can Tonio & Luana stop the witch's curse and escape her evil power? This moody, effective episode was directed by actress Ida Lupino and written by Alan Caillou. It features a great performance by Jeanette Nolan as the title character, and also stars Alejandro Rey (of The Flying Nun) as Tonio. 

The Incredible Dr. MarkesanBoris Karloff, the host of the series for its entire run, appeared in five episodes of the show, including this frightening tale. Fred Bancroft (Dick York of Bewitched) and his wife visit his Uncle Konrad, who lives in a dusty old house. They ask if they can stay there while they’re looking for new jobs & a place to live. At first, Konrad tries to get them to leave, but he ends up allowing them to stay. However, he warns them that they must stay in their room at night, and not move around the place. What’s going on in the house? And why does Uncle Konrad look & act so strangely? This blood-curdling entry is based on a short story by August Derleth & Mark Schorer, and was directed by Robert Florey, who knows his way around the horror genre, having been behind the camera for the films Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Beast with Five Fingers (1946). The story has a horrifying conclusion that will stay with you long after you view the episode.

Episodes of Thriller are available for viewing online on various services, and the entire series is available on DVD in a box set, Thriller: The Complete Series. There’s also a a one-disc collection of several episodes entitled Thriller: Fan Favorites. If you’re a fan of television horror, and enjoy classic series like The Twilight Zone & One Step Beyond, Thriller is worthwhile viewing. Here’s a link to a vintage promo for the series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-PHWT68HCU. And remember, "As sure as my name is Boris Karloff....this is a Thriller!"

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Third Annual October Scares, Week One: Journeys Into The Twilight Zone

The 3rd annual Eclectic Avenue October Scares-fest begins with a look at some creepy episodes of the television classic The Twilight Zone (1959-64). Much has been written about creator Rod Serling’s groundbreaking anthology series, and it’s unquestionably one of the greatest shows ever to grace the small screen. For our first entry in this year’s festival, here’s a selection of episodes (one from each season of the show) you can program for a night of old school thrills:

The Hitch-Hiker – From the series’ first season, the story concerns Nan Adams, who’s driving cross-country from New York City to Los Angeles. She has a minor accident during the trip, and stops for repairs. As she gets underway again, a man keeps appearing and attempts to hitch a ride with her, repeatedly saying, “I believe you’re going my way?” The tension mounts and Nan becomes more terrified of the strange hitchhiker, who seems to be everywhere she goes. It all leads to one of those twist endings that the series is well remembered for. Based on a radio play & story by Lucille Fletcher, the episode was scripted by Serling, and stars Inger Stevens and Leonard Strong. Eerie & atmospheric, it’s one of the series best early episodes. Fans of the cult classic film, Carnival of Souls (1962) may also get a kick out of this one.

Twenty-Two – From season 2: Liz Powell, a dancer who’s been hospitalized for exhaustion, has a recurring dream where she follows a nurse down to the morgue, who leads her in and says “Room for one more, honey…” Liz thinks it’s really happening, but no one believes her, including her doctor, played by the one & only Jonathan Harris, before he became Lost in Space’s Dr. Smith. It all leads to a startling conclusion that makes this episode feel like it could have aired on another classic series of the period, One Step Beyond. Written by Serling & directed by Jack Smight, this is one of six second season entries that were shot on videotape rather than film in order to save costs, which accounts for its vintage "taped for TV" look. 


The Grave – A season 3 ghost story: Lee Marvin guest stars as gun for hire Conny Miller, who shows up in a in a small town to collect his money for killing outlaw Pinto Sykes. But he’s a bit late, as Sykes is already dead; he was killed by the townspeople. On his deathbed, Sykes swears to reach up & grab the cowardly Miller from his grave if he ever came near it. The townsfolk promise to give Miller his money if he can last a night in the cemetery near Sykes’ grave, which leads to a terrifying climax. This otherworldly Western was written & directed by Montgomery Pittman, and also features Lee Van Cleef & Strother Martin.

The New Exhibit – A chilling tale from year 4: Martin Senescu, an employee at a wax museum, is upset to learn the exhibits will be discarded, and the museum closed. He decides to take home several figures of notorious killers such as Jack The Ripper and grave robbers Burke & Hare. His wife isn’t very happy to learn about this, and wants the figures out of her house. When she decides to take matters into her own hands, the terror begins. One of the best episodes of the series’ abbreviated hour long season, it stars Martin Balsam, and was written by Jerry Sohl and directed by John Brahm, who was also behind the camera for another Jack The Ripper related tale, the 1944 film version of The Lodger.

 Night Call – From the series’ fifth & final season, this one’s about Elva Keene, an elderly woman who keeps getting odd phone calls, first with only static on the line, then with a distant voice she can barely hear. When others pick up the phone, no one is there. Finally, the phone company traces the line, which has fallen during a storm and is on the ground in the cemetery….so who’s calling? Written by Richard Matheson, this eerie episode is based on his short story “Long Distance Call” and has a neat twist at the end. It’s directed by Jacques Tourneur, who also helmed several classic horror films for producer Val Lewton, including the original Cat People (1942).

That's just a small helping of spooky episodes from the show. I tried to pick a couple that may not be as well-known to casual fans, but of course, you can't go wrong with other classics like Nightmare At 20, 000 Feet, Living Doll, Eye of The Beholder and countless other installments. Episodes from seasons 1,2,3 and 5 are available on Netflix, and other services. The hour-long episodes from season 4 are unavailable on Netflix but can be found on Hulu. The entire series is available on Blu-ray and DVD, and I highly recommend the Blu-ray editions, which have an amazing amount of extras, including commentaries, rare "next week" previews featuring Serling, and other cool stuff. However you view the series, enjoy your visits to The Twilight Zone.