Friday, August 29, 2008

THE DEVIL'S WEDDING NIGHT (1973): Vampires, Bald and Naked

While it does not quite reach the same exhilirating level as LADY FRANKENSTEIN, Luigi Batzella's THE DEVIL'S WEDDING NIGHT stands as a rousing vehicle for Rosalba Neri. Having previously played the daughter of Frankenstein (who continues her dead father's experiments for revenge and carnal pleasure), Neri takes on the role of a female vampire in the possession of a fabled ring once held by Count Dracula, as well as other nefarious characters. Said to grant its bearer great power, the Countess uses the ring to lure virgins to her castle (a reasonable use for a vampire who likes to indulge in sapphic pleasures). In the meantime, the Countess plays host to Mark Damon, acting in a double role as a pair of twin brothers, one of whom has tracked down the ring to castle. Seducing Damon, the Countess targets him as the new host to the spirit of Dracula himself.

A pastiche of tropes and scenarios from (frankly) better films (BLACK SUNDAY comes to mind), THE DEVIL'S WEDDING NIGHT tends to muddle a bit, but Batzella's occasionally arresting imagery, as well as Neri's sexy but commanding premise, make the film worth a look. While he's certainly not cut from the same cloth as Mario Bava, Batzella manages to create an eerily erotic gothic atmosphere, highlighted by a fog-bound scene of undead women gathering for a blood orgy, and--especially--scenes of Rosalba Neri bathed in blood and rising naked from her crypt.

Even with such scenes, the movie sometimes falls flat and slows to a crawl. Playing two parts, Damon does not distinguish himself very well, even during a psychedelic scene in which he leers maniacally upon Neri as she makes love with another female vampire. Neri's bald henchman comes across as unintentionally comic, though the inevitable plot twists involving Damon playing twins turn out to be fun, if predictable.

According to, Joe D'Amato worked as cinematographer on this film, and ultimately, we can probably credit him (along with Neri) for most of the film's merits. Despite the scratchy print, I still enjoyed the overall look of the film, which comes across as something of a live-action fumetti.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

PARISH DAMNED, by Lee Thomas: Swimming Vampires!

South Florida generally doesn't come to mind when the subject of gothic horror comes up--never mind the oddly placed castle in which Dracula takes residence in order to re-brain the Frankenstein monster in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, a movie I would take to the proverbial desert island. Maybe it's all that sun that most people associate with that tropical climate. However, residents here recognize a general undercurrent of weirdness to this state, as evident in some of its lore, like the bizarre Count Von Cosel of Key West, who planned on resurrecting his dead love before stealing her body for . . . let's just say nefarious and kinky practices.

The Keys likewise serve as the setting for PARISH DAMNED, a novella that plays like a version of THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, only with vampires. Written in the first person, it concerns a lonely boat captain who lives on Coral Point, a small tourist island plagued by a recurring "sickness" that comes about whenever the mysterious Graham docks his boat. While much of the island lives in denial of the reality behind the sickness, the narrator knows what really plagues them, setting the stage for gory encounters that ultimately culminate in a grisly climax at sea. Only at the end do we learn that the narrator has a personal, er, stake in the vampires that prey upon the inhabitants of the community.

The general wisdom is that vampire stories have been played out long ago, but I find that I still enjoy it when a good writer puts the old gothic tropes into play again. The Keys offer an unusual setting, and while the novella moves a bit too slowly at first, I loved the climax, where we see the "school" of vampires get to work on a boat in the open water. Overall, good bloody fun, and just the thing I needed to ride out Tropical Storm Fay. I'll be dreaming of dripping wet fanged spectres! Visit Lee Thomas' web page here.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Battenin' Down the Hatches

It may be a few days before I have a chance to post some reports from the tomb. Tropical Storm and possibly nascent Hurricane Fay has its sights set on us. What will become of us? Hopefully nothing like what Joe McKinney describes in DEAD CITY, which features a zombie plague arising after a series of hurricanes strike Texas. Maybe some howling wind outside will set the right mood for some reading. Hopefully, I won't be running for my life . . . from zombies.

Friday, August 15, 2008

THE LOST (2005), and Why Jack Ketchum Scares Me

Jack Ketchum scares me, and he should scare you. Praised by Stephen King when he accepted his National Book Foundation Award, Ketchum has written some of the most disturbing fiction in recent memory, including OFF SEASON, RIGHT TO LIFE, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, and THE LOST. The latter draws inspiration from the real life serial killer, Charles Schmid, the "Pied Piper of Tucson," who also served as the basis for Joyce Carol Oates' short story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been." In fact, Ketchum shares with Oates a general fascination with "human monsters," as evidenced by his most famous novel, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, a text based upon the heart-breaking Sylvia Marie Likens murder. But that's not what scares me about Jack Ketchum. What scares me about his work is how effectively he calls for us to reflect on our own "gaze," the way he makes us ask ourselves, "Should I really be reading this, much less enjoying it?" Look at the screenshot above, taken from the masterful film version of THE LOST (directed by Chris Siverston.) That scene occurs during a crucial moment of the story, when this bound character cannot scream, cannot cry, but only look upon the grisly work of Ray Pye with horrified fascination. That's a visual story of our relationship to Ketchum's work.

Like the "Pied Piper of Tucson," Ketchum's Ray Pye wears make-up, stuffs his shoes with crushed beer cans so that he can appear taller, and surrounds himself with teenagers who look in awe upon his swagger and bravado. Like the book, the film begins Pye stumbling on two girls (one played by Erin Brown), camping in the woods. Stalking them later that evening, he murders them with his shot-gun, his only motivation stemming from his apparent suspicion that they are lesbians. As Pye, Mark Senter captures the chaos of a mind shifting randomly from childlike insecurity to violent psychosis. In a role that could easily become a cartoon, his performance is nothing short of brilliant, just as Chris Siverston more than ably handles the source material. Siverston, who also directed the underrated American giallo, I KNOW WHO KILLED ME, achieves a gritty 1970s-grindhouse style of horror film-making without resorting to the gimmicks that many of his peers have used unsuccessfully.

Yes, Jack Ketchum scares me, and he reminds me of another reason why in the commentary he recorded for the DVD (along with fellow writer Monica O'Rourke). This narrative, as well as his many others, serve to remind us that we're not safe, that every day we live counts as another miracle. Just try watching the end of this film without gratefully drawing your next breath. As Hollywood continues to cannibalize itself with remakes and more remakes, it's unfortunate that most of us won't have the opportunity to see this on the big screen.

One shouldn't miss the message that the filmmakers included at the end of the credits--to read the book if you liked the movie, and to read the book if you didn't like the movie. Hopefully, Siverston's film helps Ketchum's work find the wider audience that it deserves.

Friday, August 8, 2008

PHENOMENA: Murderin' Monkeys, Argento-style

As the above image suggests, Dario Argento's 1987 film, PHENOMENA, includes an overt homage to Poe in the form of a razor-wielding ape--never mind that Argento uses a chimpanzee here, while Poe's simian culprit in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is an orangutan. With his stories of madmen and murderers, Poe has a natural place in the genealogy of the Italian giallo, and Dario Argento himself has expressed a particular affinity for his work, ultimately culminating in his collaboration with George Romero, TWO EVIL EYES. What Poe would make of PHENOMENA, however, is anyone's guess. It stands somewhat as a black sheep amongst Argento's other mid-late 1980s film, including OPERA and the masterful TENEBRE, garnering its share of negative reviews, including one from Alan Jones, whose original STARBURST review called it "the worst fantasy slasher Dario Argento has ever been involved in" (my source for this quote is Jones' PROFONDO ARGENTO).

It seems that the passage of time has improved PHENOMENA's reputation somewhat, despite the fact that Argento seems intent on going in several different directions at once. Jennifer Connelly plays Jennifer, the daughter of a media celebrity sent to boarding school in the "Swiss Transylvania," and in a twist taken right out of SUSPIRIA, she discovers that a murderer is on the loose. In the meantime, Donald Pleasance plays John MacGregor, a Scottish entomologist that the police have called upon to help them solve the murders--maggots and larvae can provide clues about the time of death, after all. Jennifer, we learn, has the ability to communicate with insects, and McGregor eventually encourages her to use this ability to find the killer's lair.

As nutty as PHENOMENA sounds, Argento has described this film as one of his most personal, and the plot allows him to play with a number of fruitful themes and ideas, including the archetypal "terrible mother" that has shown up in some of his other films. Burdened by the absence of parents, Jennifer ultimately finds that the truth behind the horrible murders relate to her need for nurturing in some horrible ways. Up to this point, the film portrays characters seeking some kind of surrogate parent: Jennifer's room-mate even gives her baby food when she asks for something to eat, and the opening sequence--one of Argento's best ever--shows a girl calling after the bus that left her behind after a school trip, leading to her eventual murder by decapitation. Significantly, Fiore Argento plays the abandoned school girl. As his later films with his other daughter, Asia, demonstrate, the director tends to play our personal issues on the screen in some disturbing ways.

And in all this we have a monkey! The ape belongs to John MacGregor, who in his own way, acts as its surrogate parent, until the ape gets a chance to repay the favor. If I didn't already love PHENOMENA for the way it fearlessly throws all its bizarre plot elements into one big gumbo, I'd probably love it just for putting a razor in that ape's hand.

The Bride As You Never Thought You'd See Her

A huzzah! to Frankensteinia for reaching 200 posts and for informing us about this gallery of photographs that will forever change the way we look at the Bride of Frankenstein.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Mr. Poe's Bloody Ape

My personal odyssey with murdering monkeys continues with a re-reading of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," a story featuring Pierre Dupin, the template for future literary detectives, most notably Sherlock Holmes. The opening of the story might try your patience, as Poe's narrator expounds endlessly on the nature of "the analytical" and its relationship to the imagination. While Poe ultimately wants the reader to apply his or her own skills of deduction to the events he puts forward (the reader is the true detective, as is the case in any good mystery) the story eventually gets down and dirty with the gruesome murder of a mother and daughter living in Paris. Both corpses bear horrible marks, with the daughter's body stuffed in a chimney, and the mother's body found on the street below, her head decapitated by a razor.

As with many Poe stories, the rational and the irrational exist in a tenuous relationship with each other, and while Poe seems to suggest that the rational wins out--Dupin figures out that (quite obviously) an escaped ape with shaving razor committed the crime--the gratuitous, sensational elements ultimately maintain our interest. Who'd want to read the story if a homicidal ape hadn't decapitated the poor mother?

Like many Poe stories, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" has been adapted into film more than once, but my favorite is one of the earliest: the 1932 Universal film directed by Robert Florey, starring Bela Lugosi, fresh off his portrayal of Dracula. Universal had originally pegged both Florey and Lugosi to work on their follow-up film to DRACULA, an adaptation of FRANKENSTEIN, but those jobs eventually fell to James Whale and Boris Karloff. Instead, Florey and Lugosi found themselves collaborating on MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, which, as Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas, and John Brunas have pointed out in UNIVERSAL HORRORS, has perhaps been unfairly received by horror fans. Taking its share of liberties with the story, the film portrays Dupin as a love-sick medical student who stumbles on the sideshow exhibition of Dr. Mirakle, who plans to cross the blood of an ape with a young human female. Mirakle's ape, Erik, takes a liking to Dupin's girlfriend, and Dr. Mirakle becomes all too willing to find a way for them to mate. It's all as icky as it sounds, in a 1930s pre-code Hollywood way, but I like to think that Poe would have approved of this plot twist, even if they turned Dupin into a bit of a whiner who lacks the near-telepathic skills of Poe's Dupin.

The film opens in a sleazy sideshow (where dancing girls might "bite" for a little extra price) and eventually brings us to Dr. Mirakle's lair, where he ties his victims onto a slanted cross so that he can test their mating potential with Erik. The authors of UNIVERSAL HORRORS note that the film's calls to mind German Expressionism with its visuals and that its "European feel clashes with the English-language dialogue and American accents, only adding to an off-putting sense of strangeness and artificiality." Indeed, Universal's MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE feels like it could easily morph into an English language dubbed version of a Jess Franco film, and for that reason, I love it dearly.

Edit: The image at the top of this post comes from the pen of the amazing Berni Wrightson, and it can be found at Michael May's Adventureblog.


Let it be known: if you deem yourself a scientist and still insist that your assistants call you "master," then your work might not really serve the best intentions. If nothing else, NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES, directed by Rene Cardona, reminds us to question doctors who perform illicit ape-human heart transplants to save their own children from debilitating diseases, especially when said children transform into blood-thirsty monsters determined to rape, scalp, and decapitate anyone who crosses their paths. Dr. Krallman performs this kind of surgery with these results, and indeed, he insists that his assistant call him "master."

Tenebrous Kate, whose scandalous reflections demand your every day attention, promised us a "rapey half-mans, half-monkeys" a few days back, and for SURE, I thought, she meant that she'd discuss NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES. Thanks to my flimsy background in Naziploitation horror films, I failed to realize she meant to school us on SS HELL CAMP. I could have just cried in my tequila, but I realized that all this just meant that it was up to me to give NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES its due.

In 1969, Cardona not only brought us NIGHT THE BLOODY APES, but also SANTO IN THE TREASURE OF DRACULA, which does a decent job of adapting parts of Bram Stoker's novel into the framework of the "lucha libra" wrestling film that has proved so popular in Mexico for so long. Likewise, NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES borrows tropes from this genre, incorporating a sub-plot involving a detective and his wrestler girl-friend, who conveniently makes a point of being in the shower every time her boyfriend calls on her. As a whole, NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES contains plenty of sleazy exploitation elements and no doubt kept its targeted drive-in crowd more than happy. While the detective's girl-friend struggles with the fact that her stunning wrestling moves put her opponent in a coma, Dr. Krallman decides to transplant the heart of an ape into his son, hoping to cure his cancer. Instead, the transplant results in his transformation into a horrible ape-human, who subsequently goes on a rampage. Hoping to cure his son, the doctor performs another transplant, using the heart of the coma victim, but of course, this goes south as well, and the monster goes on to scalp, rape, and decapitate anyone who gets in his way, including the poor assistant who calls his boss "master."

I can't in good conscience call this a "good" film, but I always have loads of fun with it. BCI recently released it as part of their SOUTH OF THE BORDER Vol 2 DVD Collection. Get it, and remember to always call me "master."