Karloff “The Uncanny”

Posted in Birthdays on November 23, 2015 by magicalhorror

I’ve never made it a secret that I love old horror films, they were full of amazing creatures and originality.

But being such a huge fan does have its problems! I had to think hard about what I was going to put into my blogpost – about the birth of one of the all-time horror greats – Boris Karloff born today in 1887 – or it would have simply gone on forever!

My first memories of Karloff would have to be when I was about 9, and I was allowed to stay up late one evening. I sat with my father to watch for the very first time “Bride of Frankenstein”. It would change me forever, making me the horror fanatic I am today.

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I watched it again recently, before I wrote this and it astonished me how easily Karloff commands the screen…by doing almost nothing! He played the “Monster” better than anyone before or since. A lesser actor could have made the creature look ridiculous. But through Karloff we see him searching for someone to care for him, despite being mercilessly persecuted at almost every turn!

Karloff gives him a ‘child-like’ innocence. It still brings a tear to my eye as he declares “We belong dead”…it must be one of the saddest moments in film history.

As a budding horror fan, I started to watch his old classics. He appeared in 180 films throughout his career & I knew he was a good actor, with his soft voice and touchingly precise lisp. I always find something truly mesmerizing about him on screen, monster or not. But when pure evil was called for, pure evil is what Karloff delivered! ( just think of his gaunt & leering performance in “Bedlam” 1946).

Over the years, he has become one of my favorite actors. The more I watch Karloff, the more I enjoy his work.

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But there are far too many of his films to mention here – from his malicious little sneers in “The Black Cat”, his pure evilness in “The Mask of Fu Manchu” and his painting a cunning portrait of a very human ‘monster’ as “Cabman John Gray” in “The Body Snatcher”. And I do think a mummy played by anyone else would be just a body wrapped in linen, but Karloff made it a dangerous & mysterious character.

Of course, it would be rude of me not to mention his first ‘horror’ role, when late in his career he made a bid for stardom in a non-talking part.

His friend Lon Chaney had once told him “Find something that no one else can or will do – what the screen needs is individuality”. Boris remembered Chaney’s words when he took the part of a lifetime, and one that would make him a horror icon forever.

So picture yourself as part of the naïve viewing audience of “Frankenstein”, November 1931 as you are taken to a castle on a lonely European hilltop, a storm in the dead of night, a bolt of lightning and a laboratory where an insane experiment is taking place – no wonder people fainted or fled the theatres as Karloff’s “Monster” was born !

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This creature is perfectly ghastly…flat head, bolts on the neck and scars. But as terrifying as his dead-like appearance is, especially in that iconic make-up, we never really see him as a villain. Instead, we feel sorry for this hideous yet beautiful creature, something the likes of modern “horror” can only dream about.

He brought humanity and warmth to his “creatures” and was surely one of the greatest actors ever to appear on our screens. Sad to say we don’t have anyone like him in horror these days.

His “Monster” has haunted our popular culture, etched in our minds forever.

“Karloff The Uncanny” had such an impact on me personally and countless other horror fans throughout his career…..a lesson in positive “type-casting”….and I’m glad he was type-cast…..as I can’t imagine either horror or sci-fi without him!

He played some of the best (and scariest) monsters, madmen and villains of all time……………he scared the World and the World loved him for it!

Beautiful Nightmare

Posted in Birthdays, Film Reviews on October 21, 2015 by magicalhorror

posterFor many years “Horror” films were all crumbling castles, gas-lit streets, mobs with torches and pitchforks and the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Wolf Man and whilst all those early Universal movies are just wonderful it is difficult to point to a film that changed horror forever but I have a good idea where to start.

Let me take you back to a mere 2 years after Hammer’s “Dracula” whereby “Le Yeux Sans Visage” gave us, what I think, is the first modern horror.

Despite it being over 50 years old and in black and white, there is no other film quite like it, a wonderful psychological horror of madness, loneliness and art, deeply disturbing art.

Adapted by the incredible writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narajec (Les Diabolique & Vertigo) this is a masterpiece of atmosphere, one of the most entrancing films every put to celluloid and widely considered to be the finest horror film in French cinema history however it is still one of the least known.

Centered on the over confident Dr Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) and aided by his assistant Louise (Alida Valli) we learn that his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob) is locked up in a third story bedroom in his elegant villa, that she wears a mask that makes her look like a porcelain doll and that his assistant has consented to help him in hideous experiments and crimes necessary for him to restore his daughters face to its original condition.

Spending his nights, locked away in “serial-killer” like madness, Dr Genessier & Louise kidnap, mutilate and murder innocent young girls. We learn he will stop at nothing and do anything to restore his child, as his chloroformed victims are dragged around by their elbows.MURDERES

 

 

But unlike many “mad doctors” he is firmly placed in reality, which makes his motivations easy to believe and therefore the horror all the more fascinating. Louise is not the normal mad doctors assistant either, she isn’t deformed or demented but a rather cunning predator who gathers her victims in order to aid his latest experiment – all we can do is watch as girls are stalked and lured to his home.

This is where the reality of the surgeries is seen by us in sickening close-up.The “face-lift” scene is shown with clinical detachment, in total silence and just when you hope that the camera will turn away, it locks onto the captive victim, as their skin is lifted off like a mask.  Even today that scene is enough to make me cringe.

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But at the heart of the story is Edith Scob as “Christiane” gliding delicately like an apparition that raises this film to the ‘poetry’ for which it is famous.  She is a lonely creature, her only companions are the dogs her father keeps to use as guinea-pigs in his operating room; her only comfort her anonymous calls to her fiancé, who, like the rest of the outside world, believes she is dead.

Her striking Givenchy gowns, prettily tied to expose long, stick-like arms, floating through the darkened corridors of a mansion too large for its occupants, with orchestral accompaniments by Maurice Jarre, are as eerie as any ghost story.

The horror of your imagination lies behind the ‘large open wound where a face should be” of Christiane.  It is the effect of watching a normal young woman, wearing an emotionless mask, and those haunted, haunting eyes, makes it one of the most unexpectedly creepy things I’ve ever seen.

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Coming across as equal parts movie monster, and mysterious fairy-tale princess, “Christiane” is an iconic figure as much as any character in any film has ever been.

Even if you’ve never heard of it, you’ve felt its influence, from its use of the black leather gloves of the Doctor; to the black raincoat of his assistant being adopted by the likes of Argento and Bava into their giallo films, to the mask used by John Carpenter in “Halloween”.

It remains in my personal top 5 Horror films of all time, for everything it does and for all the things it avoids. It is quiet and thoughtful, yet at the same time disturbing.

It was one of the films that took the horror out of the gothic castle, off the moors and straight into your neighbourhood.

Fantastique!

An evil house, attracts evil men

Posted in Birthdays, Film Reviews on September 21, 2015 by magicalhorror

Every horror fan has one particular film that they saw very young, which terrified them long after being put to bed, for me personally it would have to be “Bride of Frankenstein”.

posterHowever, a TV mini-series from the late 1970’s would come a close second; due to the blue skin, the haunted yellow-tinged eyes and those teeth that never seemed to end.. I’m talking about Mr Barlow from “Salem’s Lot” which left another lasting impression on me and confirmed I was a horror fan for life.

So welcome to Jerusalem’s Lot (also known as Salem’s Lot) where ordinary people live and where Ben Mears (David Soul) has returned, as a somewhat successful writer. Haunted by childhood memories, he has been drawn to the Marsten House, a derelict mansion perched on a hill overlooking the town – this place attracts evil and this time it’s the sort of evil that tends to lurk at night, floating past your (hopefully, tightly shut) windows.

The small town setting makes this work, as new owners of the house Mr Straker (James Mason) and the reclusive, never-seen Mr Barlow become a catalyst for… well… some changes, as late one night a mysterious crate is delivered and suddenly a string of weird events begin to “plague” the town with children disappearing, bodies turning up and townsfolk beginning to suffer from unusual cases of “anemia”.

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Every single character is perfect with David Soul being at the “heart” of the story with his incredibly tight jeans, he gives us a performance that is divinely bizarre. His character always seems to be lost in thought, making him an unlikely hero.  But it is his off-kilter responses to the dark and sinister things going on in this small town, which makes you feel his paranoia as you watch the events unfold.

I’m not going to lie, for me James Mason is the best part about this. Nobody does “smug condescension” like him. He floats in and out of the film, killing children and selling antiques at exorbitant prices and I cannot imagine anyone else bringing such a role to life. Straker seems like he really could make the room 15 or 20 degrees colder just by stepping into it. He steals pretty much every scene he is in.

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But everyone is waiting for Mr Barlow (Reggie Nalder) and the mystery surrounding him consumes the town,establishing that he has the hypnotic attraction possessed by vampires, long before he even arrives – subtle but brilliant!

And when “The Master” finally appears – curled up like a piece of cloth on the floor, it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.  With his pointy close set teeth and hypnotic stare, he is a WONDERFUL vampire, a fine salute to “Nosferatu” –ugly and vile.

Even with all the TV constraints in place, there is virtually no use of gore, violence or blood, Tobe Hooper shows us his genius, taking his time to build the atmosphere, as slowly as fog and darkness.  His set pieces have haunted me for years, from the vampire child floating outside a foggy bedroom window, an undead Geoffrey Lewis coaxing his former teacher to “look at me” or the arrival of “The Master”.

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I always feel uncharacteristically nervous when I watch it thanks in no small part to Tobe Hooper and the brilliant writing of Stephen King – they want you to know that when you hear something go bump in the night there is something there; that every fear and creeping feeling you have is right.

I don’t want to give too much away – but the mention of “Danny Glick” still upsets my sister – me? I try to avoid basements – you never know what’s in them!

Whose hand was I holding ?

Posted in Birthdays, Film Reviews on September 10, 2015 by magicalhorror

It’s odd to think that in fifty or sixty years from now there might be only a handful of films, released in the last decade, that will be remembered at all.

However thinking back to the black and white films, that still keep me glued to the edge of my seat, there is one director who has such an incredible influence on the films I still enjoy, Robert Earl Wise born today 1914, sadly died 2005.

He made the fantastic seem not only plausible but very likely with “The Day The Earth Stood Still” and I can honestly say, that every alien encounter I’ve ever experienced on screen has been measured against this.

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But even after all these years, there is one film that still gets under my skin, and I find it just as unsettling now as the first time I watched it, relying on subtlety and suggestion for its horror “The Haunting is what my father still calls a real “scary film” !

It centres on the notorious Hill House a group of “paranormal” investigators rent it for a few weeks for the summer with Dr John Markway (Richard Johnson) explaining that he hopes to find either “a few loose floorboards… or maybe the key to another world?”

But soon after they arrive, Hill House begins to demonstrate how and why it achieved its reputation- dividing its newest occupants Luke (Russ Tamblyn), Theo (Claire Bloom) and Eleanor (Julie Harris) and preying on their weaknesses.

Eleanor (Nell) feels that she has finally found a place to call home, she sees it as her paradise – but it’s not, there is something wrong with Hill House, something terribly wrong – all linked back to its original owner Hugh Crain, with a series of tragic accidents – the upset carriage that killed his first wife, the fall down the stairs that killed his second and the suicide of his daughter’s companion.

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Something un-natural and unseen lives here – the statues seem to move in the corners of our eyes, the mirrors catch you off guard – giving the impression that some mysterious stranger is watching from the shadows.

The one thing you will never forget is the sound – what we, along with Nell can only hear. When that unseen “something” or “someone” pounds closer and closer along the hallway outside Nell and Theo’s room the fright comes from what we can’t see hitting the walls, scratching and then hammering on the door, even as the camera focuses mere inches from the doorknob turning by itself.

Again the next night Nell hears some ghastly chanting and the cries of a child from behind the wall – like her we can’t see anything, our imagination fills the gaps – but when she screams, the lights come up and realises the cold hand she has been holding wasn’t Theo’s!!!

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Robert Wise was a master film-maker and this is what makes the film so very special he leaves us to create the horrors ourselves; what IS that on the other side of the door turning the knob? What is that scraping on the woodwork? Is there really a child trapped in the house?

It proves that what scares us the most is what lurks in the shadows, whispered voices, the odd angle of a hallway… and something that pounds its way around a huge, dark old house at night.

It’s all about atmosphere, ghost stories should frighten you – something that crawls into your brain and makes you turn the lights on when the night is too dark! And let’s face it, you’re not likely to run into a psychotic madman who forces you to solve deadly puzzles (like SAW) but who’s to say that strange noise coming from your empty upstairs rooms isn’t a ghost?

I would urge you to get yourself re-acquainted with the house that started it all. The house that influenced countless others, the house that is “not sane” that has stood for 90 years and may stand for 90 more, but remember the dead aren’t quiet in Hill House…in the night… in the dark… !

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Dead of Night

Posted in Film Reviews on March 11, 2015 by magicalhorror

PIC 1As you know I love horror films and those that have stood the test of time, to become part of our collective nightmares are surprisingly rare. Nowadays I’m finding it more and more difficult with today’s horror to be actually frightened, as they all suffer from being too literally horrible (blood and gore). And whilst I don’t mind a little of that every now and again to me personally things were done better in the olden days.

No more so than “Dead of Night” 1945, one of the finest horror films made in Britain. This is for lovers of classic, subtle, hair-standing-up on the back of your neck type of horror….where ones brain and imagination has to do some work for once. Taking ordinary objects we all have in our homes, like mirrors, and making us think twice about them!

Set in the warm Kentish countryside a modest architect, Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) comes up against the ‘strange’ when he arrives at the home of Elliot Foley (Roland Culver). As he is introduced to the house guests; a psychiatrist Dr van Straaten (Frederik Valk) a young girl (Sally Ann Howe), a female family friend Joan Cortland (Googie Withers), and a racing car driver, Hugh Grainger(Anthony Baird) he knows he has met them all before in a dream. But when Dr Van Straaten tries to dismiss this idea, each of them tells of their experience of the supernatural.

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For me the two segments that stand out are “The Haunted Mirror” and “The Ventriloquist Dummy” both of which still send a shiver down my spine and are filmed and directed with just a touch of twisted genius.

Adapted from an E.F.Benson story “The Haunted Mirror” stars Googie Withers as Joan, an up and coming socialite who buys her fiancée Peter (Ralph Michael) an antique mirror for a wedding present.

Starting to notice the mirror’s reflection of a Victorian room that doesn’t match his surroundings, the mirror slowly starts to drive him mad. What makes this work is the attention to unsettling details; the quick, ‘can’t-be-sure-you-saw-it’ timing of the first glimpse of that strange room or just the flicker of the fire and the total silence.

This stillness seems to be the room’s real menace, seeping into the couple’s dashing playfulness.

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No ghosts leap out of the mirror to attack and we don’t see the initial murder itself but when there is violence it comes from what Joan and we, believe was a sane and decent person. The mirror, as always, remains impassive and silent, chillingly indifferent and is un-nerving enough to never make me look at a mirror quite the same way again!

The fifth and final tale, told by Dr Van Straaten, asked by the Police to see a man jailed for murder, is definitely the best and one of the most unsettling stories I’ve ever seen.

A ventriloquist, Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) career is undoubtedly run by his dummy “Hugo”. But as you watch their “interplay” on stage, you become increasingly unnerved – is Frere matching his voice to the dolls movements or is he just pretending to operate a ‘living doll’?

You see, everything suggests that this dummy is alive, he moves, speaks and definitely bites. You start to wonder who exactly is the “Master”, as Maxwell; vacant-eyed and desperate, can’t bear to be without his “Hugo” and as he begins to loose control of his wise-cracking dummy, “Hugo” becomes more menacing, taking control of his ventriloquist to commit murder.

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This film will always have a very special place in my heart and like many will never forget seeing “Hugo Fitch” for the first time. But the whole story hinges on Redgrave’s stunning performance as Maxwell, with a mixture of fear, loathing and dependence on this obnoxious lump of wood making it all the more fascinating to watch…. and if the last scene doesn’t forever stick in your head, then there’s something wrong with you… “ you just don’t know what Hugo is capable of”….

Unfortunately we all know what happens to Walter Craig… but he won’t know until it’s too late…. a nightmare he can never escape… there’s no happy ending here…

And who’d have thought what a huge influence this little British film would have, just think Amicus, Hammer Productions and Tigon to name just a few, even bringing you right up to date with Andy Nyman & Jeremy Dyson’s stage show “Ghost Stories” nearly every horror ever made owes a debt of thanks that Ealing decided to take a huge gamble and make this British chiller, how different films would be without “Dead of Night”

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So if are looking for blood and gore then this will not be your “cup of tea” – this is a quietly disturbing tale, making us suspicious that not every ghost is a trick of the light and not every goose-bump can be explained by a drop in temperature.

And whilst it may not be terrifying to modern audiences, I still highly recommend it as I love these old films, it’s like sitting around with your friends in the …. Dead of Night… and telling each other ghost stories.