Monday, August 29, 2011

'The House That Screamed' has Hammer Films mood

The House That Screamed (1969)
Starring: Lilli Palmer, Christina Galbo, Mary Maude, Maribel Martin, and John Moulder-Brown
Director: Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

The head-mistress of a boarding school for wayward girls (Palmer) tries with increasing fierceness to keep order and discipline in the sea of run-away hormones and rebelliousness among the students and her teenaged son (Moulder-Brown). But soon after the arrival of a new student, someone starts enforcing an even sterner form of discipline in the school's shadow-haunted hallways... a discipline that leaves girls dead.

"The House That Screamed" is a Spanish horror movie that successfully crosses the look and feel of Hammer Films' black-and-white psychological thrillers from the early 1960s with their gothic horror films of the 1960s. Writer/director Serrador isn't quite Terence Fisher, but he's the next best thing, as he delivers an effectively paced, well-staged film that will keep you guessing as to the identity of the killer and what exactly is going on within the walls of the girl's school until the Big Reveal at the end. While the ending ultimately is not all that surprising, the path leading there and its execution is chilling and stylish.

Featuring a talented cast of young actresses as the students, and a superb performance by Lilli Palmer who manages to portray a sadistic, controlling bitch and still illicit sympathy for her from the audience, and some shocking murders, this is a great film to check out if you liked "Susperia" or any of the black-and-white Hammer Films psychological thrillers--even if this film is in color. (Oh, one thing the film is surprisingly short on, what with its all-girls boarding school location, several sexual themes, and even a shower scene, is nudity. I don't recall any, in fact.)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Edwige Fenech

Born on Christmas Eve in 1948, European actress Edwige Fenech started her career on a beauty contest circuit but soon found employment as a model. In 1967, she made her film debut, and she cut a striking (and often naked) figure in dozens of horror films and sex comedies through the 1970s and early 1980s.

As the 1980s wore on, Fenech transitioned to parts that called more upon her talent for acting rather than disrobing, but by the mid-1990s, her career had evolved to the point where she was famous for mostly being famous and she was a regular on Italian talk shows.

Fenech retired from acting and moved behind the camera at the head of her her own production company. She has produced numerous films and mini-series for Italian television, including a very well-received adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice."

Fenech made a brief return to acting in 2007 with a bit-part in the torture-porn cannibal extravaganza "Hostel II," mostly just showing up to show up as an inside joke for fans of 1970s European horror films.

Friday, August 19, 2011

One of Argento's best still prompts the question, "That's it?"

Suspiria (1977)
Starring: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, and Joan Bennett
Director: Dario Argento
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Suzy Banyon (Harper) comes to study at a prestigious German dance academy, but instead becomes drawn into the murderous and deadly web of secrets exists within its walls. Is there a killer on the loose in the school, or is it the spirit of its founder--a reported witch--who has returned from the depths of Hell?

When "Suspiria" was over, I mused out loud, "Was that it?"

The film is praised by critics and viewers as being Argento's best, but I think "Deep Red" is a far superior film. The only things "Suspiria" has going for it are some fantastic sets, some interesting lighting, a neat theme by Goblin, and the attractive Jessica Harper's deer-in-the-headlights performance.

Everything else is "Suspira" is sorely lacking. The structure of the dance classes shown are odd and unrealistic, the acting is mostly wooden, and the script is so weak so as to feel like an excuse to simply display the three set-piece murder scenes. To make matters worse, what story their is only succeeds due to Stupid Character Syndrome, except here it's the villains that engage in such mindless stupidity that one wonders how they managed to the school's secrets for as long as they did.

There are countless really cool cinematic moments in the film (prime among them are Suzy's trip through the rainstorm at the beginning of the film, the climactic moments of the first murder, the sequence in the open plaza, the entire sequence of Sara's flight through the school, and Suzy's exploration during the film's climax), but the story that should be motivating all these scenes is so ill defined and poorly explained that it makes an already weak climax feel rushed and as if the movie ends before we're even given one-quarter of the story.

Impressive visually, but severely lacking in the story department, "Suspiria" isn't as good as its repuation might lead you to believe. I think it's worth seeing if your interested in seeing a technically well-done film, but you can spend your time better if you're just interested in watching a creep-fest.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Not exactly arresting, but still worth seeing

Women's Prison (1955)
Starring: Ida Lupino, Jan Sterling, Audrey Totter, Phyllis Thaxter, Howard Duff, Barry Kelley, Warren Stevens, Mae Clarke, Gertrude Michael, and Cleo Moore
Director: Lewis Seiler
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Amelia Van Zandt (Lupino) is the warden of a women's prison who runs her institution with an iron fist, dominating the lives of both prisoners and prison matrons. Her fiercely controlled world starts coming unraveled when her abuses of a delicate housewife incarcerated for involuntary manslaughter (Thaxter) and a prisoner who becomes pregnant (Totter) when her husband (Stevens)--who is incarcerated in the male side of the prison--breaks into the women's prison to an illicit rendezvous provokes both the anger of the prison doctor (Duff) and the prisoners.

Compared to the "women in prison" movies that followed in the 1970s, this is very, very tame stuff, even if the publicity campaign at the time if its release tried to position the film as if it wasn't. The still I chose to illustrate the film implies atmosphere and situations that are nowhere to be found in the film (while demonstrating that Cleo Moore was literally the poster-girl for Columbia Picture's marketing department when it came to "sexing things up"--her part in the film is very small, yet she is the subject of a publicity still). The prisoners here seem more like members of a professional association on a retreat than hardened criminals worthy of being locked away, the guards are all professional and appropriately concerned with the well-being of prisoners, the prison is neat and clean and well-lit. If not for the hell-beast of a warden, the prison in this film and the people in it are nicer than some places I've been on vacation at.

In fact, the prisoners are so nice that the over-the-top hysterics of the poor housewife who is sent up for killing a child with her car become very irritating after a while. While she doesn't deserve to be straight-jacketed or thrown in solitary for being frightened, it's a mystery where her over-reaction to normal prison procedures came from, since every prisoner she meets is nice and chatty and no different than the girls at the hair salon or in the grocery store checkout line. Hell, one prisoner could even find work as a tour guide, I'm certain, given how quickly she steps up to show the "new kid" ropes.

Although the strangely gentile nature of the inmates seemed a bit odd to me, I did appreciate the fact that the film didn't try to paint them as victims of the justice system like some other prison movies I've watched. Most of the inmates are exactly where they belong, and they make no bones about it. I also liked the fact that the matrons and guards were shown as decent human beings who were just doing their jobs.

I also liked the fact that the decency and professionalism of the prison's staff was contrasted with the indifference of the men's prison warden (Barry Kelley)--who may have worked his way up through the system, but who somewhere along the way forgot that the inmates and those working under him are human beings--and the calculated cruelty of women's prison warden, the aforementioned Ida Lupino. In fact, Lupino does such a great job at portraying a sociopathic cast-iron bitch that I almost wished her end had been a little less predictable and pathetic... I wanted her to get a "top o' the world, ma!" sort-of memorable exit, even if the way the film does dispatch her is adequate and dramatically fitting.

Well-acted, well-scripted, and effectively paced, "Women's Prison" is worth a look if you're a fan of Ida Lupino and have a high tolerance for melodrama. But this is not the place to look if you have a hankering for a Roger Corman or Jess Franco "birds in cages"-type sleaze.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Rachel Nichols

Rachel Nichols is another model-turned-actress, and in the roughly ten years since since she turned to acting, she has had major roles in three different TV series (including the serial-killer-centric "Criminal Minds") and numerous cinematic big budget extravaganzas, such as "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra", "Star Trek", and "Conan the Barbarian", which opens in theaters Friday, August 19, 2011.

While horror fans might find something to enjoy in the new Conan films, assuming its done in a manner faithful to the original Robert E. Howard stories, the are probably already familiar with Nichols from her starring turn in the chilling "P2" and the retro-horror flick "The Woods".

In 2012, Nichols will further expand her horror/thriller resume with a lead role in the latest screen adaptation of a James Patterson novel, "I, Alex Cross".

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Princesses of Mars, Part Twelve

Welcome to another trip to Mars, where beautiful alien princesses prove every day they don't take crap from anyone, no matter how many arms they have. Kicking things off, we've got another retro-portrait of John Carter and his love-of-the-ages Dejah Thoris from Michael Kaluta.

By Greg Motafis
By Aaron Lopresti
By Tom Hodges
By Gene Colan

Friday, August 5, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Barbara Lass

Polish-born Barbara Lass' was on track to a career as a dancer when, at the age of 17 in 1957, she won a contest hosted by a movie magazine and was offered a film role as a result. By 1959, she left Poland for western Europe and an international film career that spanned three decades and 30 films. She also changed her last name from the very Polish Kwiatkowska to the very simple Lass.

Lass was seen mostly in comedies, as befitting her cute appearance, but she did manage to squeeze in a few horror roles, such as "Werewolf in a Girl's Dormitory", "Effie Breist" and "The Thorn in the Flesh."

Barbara Lass was once married to convicted child rapist Roman Polanski. She married him in 1959 when she was 19 and he was 26, but they divorced in 1961. It's easy to see what attracted Polanski to Lass, and even easier to imagine why she divorced him.

Lass died in 1995 at the age of 54 from a brain hemorrhage.

The Coming of the Space Girls!

The "Princesses of Mars" post series is starting to wind down--I think I've just about mined that vein for the best it has to offer--but we're moving on from sci-fi flavored fantasy to pulp fiction-tinged space fantasy! Please welcome the Spacegirls to Shades of Gray!

If current plans hold, each post in this series will present a couple pin-up style Spacegirl drawings and a batch of Travis Charest's "Spacegirl" comic strip. There will be a new installment every Friday until I run out of stuff (or until someone asks me to stop tromping all over their copyrights).

By Mark Brooks

by Travis Charest
Part One

To Be Continued....

By Josh Howard

(Much of what will be appearing in this series comes from the art collections of Jeff Amason and Eric Thrower, and the imagination and amazing talent of Travis Charest.)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

'Night of the Demons' has Halloween sex and gore

Night of the Demons (2010)
Starring: Diora Baird, Shannon Elizabeth, Edward Furlong, Monica Keena, Bobbi Sue Luther, John F. Beach, Michael Copon, and Tiffany Shepis
Director: Adam Gierash
Stars: Five of Ten Stars

After an illicit rave in a mansion that was the sight of mysterious disappearances and murder on Halloween night some 90 years ago, the party organizer (Elizabeth) and six friends accidentally discover what happened. In doing so, they awaken demons that have until dawn to possess and destroy seven humans in order escape their prison inside the house.

"Night of the Demons" is a remake of the 1988 horror fan-favorite of the same title. It sat on a shelf at the studio for a year before being released directly to DVD, has a more satisfying ending than the 1988 original (and, in an amusing way, manages to present one of those "final moment twists" I so often rail about that actually works), but other than that it doesn't measure up.

There is only one scene that's as scary and strange as anything in the 1988 film--involving lipstick and about a gallon of blood--but everything else is what we've come to expect from a movie about beautiful young people trapped in a house with demons that possess them and pick them off, one by one. The film has the further flaw that the characters aren't actually trapped, but appear merely to be too dumb to scale the wall around the mansion's grounds; the gate is mysteriously locked, but what's to stop them from giving one of their number a boost over the wall so that person can get a locksmith?

"Night of the Demons" is a fast paced, competently made but unspectacular horror flick. The stars all deliver good performances, it's got just enough story and character development to keep me happy, and its spiced up with plenty of gore and jiggling naked boobs to make me even happier. Perhaps if such a clear line hadn't been drawn to the 1988 title (if it had been called "House of Demons" or "Seven Until Dawn" or some-such), I would have considered it to be among the better paint-by-number horror flicks out there. As it is, however, it suffers by the comparisons it invites and therefore calls attention to the fact that it really does fall at the bottom end of average.

A midnight show almost worth staying up for

The Eerie Midnight Horror Show (aka "Enter the Devil", "The Devil Obsession", and "The Sexorcist") (1974)
Starring: Stella Carnacina, Chris Avram, Ivan Rassimov, Lucretia Love, Luigi Pistilli, and Gabriele Tinti
Director: Mario Gariazzo
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

While working in proximity to a relic tied to a Satanic cult noted for its wild orgies, young Daniele (Carnacina) is possessed by Satan. Before you know it, she is engaging in wild masturbation and making in decent proposals to anyone who will listen. Her parents (Avram and Love) taker her to a remote nunnery where they hope a famed exorcist (Pistilli) will cure her.

A film with little reason for being other than it was made to catch some of the money raining down from the record-breaking box office of "The Exorcist" in the early 1970s, "The Eerie Midnight Horror Show" plays like a sleazier, less coherent version than the block it was chipped off from.

However, the rambling, wandering story structure was the most interesting thing about the picture; it brought a sense of realism to a film that at times works a little too hard to bring deeper meaning to its parade of titilating and shocking imagery. The haphazard way scenes are strung together and the badly connected logic versus action of just about everyone in the picture, from the demon straight up through the priest called in to cast him out, gives the movie a sense of what I imagine it would probably be like if there really was such a thing as demonic possession.

But, aside from some creepy imagery here and there, and scenes of a young woman engaging in sexual activity that will make you feel a little dirty while you watch it, there's really nothing here that's noteworthy. Everything is either bland or overplayed to the point where it loses impact, such as the handsome, sexy demonic figure. The casting of Ivan Rassimov was a clever move, as he is both a very attractive man and has the ability to look exceptionally creepy... but his lines are so over the top with their melodrama that he becomes almost a parody of the evil he is supposed to represent.

I came across this film as part of the 50-movie megapack "Pure Terror" collection, and as such it is relatively harmless filler. However, I don't believe it would be worth the price to rent or purchase as a stand-alone film unless you are a dedicated student or rabid fan of this particular horror sub-genre.

'Scream of the Butterfly': Sexploitation with interesting twists

Scream of the Butterfly (1965)
Starring: Nelida Lobato, Nick Navarro, William Turner, Alan J. Smith, Robert Miller, and Richard Beebee
Director: Eber Lobato and Howard Veit
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Gorgeous and over-sexed Marla (Lobato) strings along her rich husband (Turner) while taking up with a hot boy-toy, David (Navarro), whom she meets on the beach. Soon, she is plotting to kill her husband so she can have the cash and the sex without the unnecessary complications. But her lover is two-timing as well... two-timing with someone far deadlier than Marla's milksop husband. Someone with whom he shares a dark secret.

When this film first appeared in 1965, I imagine that parts of it must have been quite a shock to the viewing audiences. The film's sexuality was a bit more pronounced than the norm at the time, and the hot guy that Marla takes up with is actually young, hot and hardbodied in contrast to the usual dumpy, middle-aged guys that adulterous women always seemed to take up with in film s like these. But the part that was really shocking, I'm sure, is the dark secret that her lover kept, and the nature of the lover that he was betraying with Marla.

Marla's boyfriend is bi-sexual and his main relationship is a homosexual one, with a domineering and psychopathic queen (played with chilling effectiveness by Alan J. Smith, who co-wrote the screenplay with Howard Veit). By revealing that, this is one of those rare occasions where I provide "spoilers", but it's such an unusual element for a film of that day that it is perhaps the main reason to see it. (Although I haven't given away all the film's secrets... there's another twist hiding between the opening and closing credits that I haven't spoiled.)

Another reason to see it is as an illustration of just how much attitudes have changed in the film industry in the decades that have passed. Despite the film's frankness about Marla's sex life, the creators get all skittish and circumspect when it comes to discussing homosexuality, something which makes the scenes of lawyers discussing what would be a fair and just punishment for him, now that he is a murderer. They never mention that David is homosexual and/or bi-sexual, even though they talk about wanting to spare him from having dirty laundry aired in pubic. These days, films will go into homosexuality and heterosexuality with equal abandon, but not so 45 years ago.

Quickly paced--even if a bit herky-jerky due to the fact the action is split between the "present-day" scenes of attorneys having a conference about a murder case, and the sexy flashback action of Marla frolicking about in very little clothing--the film is made even more entertaining by some consistently creative camerawork and direction that drive the story almost by themselves.

And, yes, it also helps immensely that Nelida Lobato is an actress with two huge talents that always seem like they're about to pop out of the outfits she's almost not wearing.