Mild Spoilers ...

28. Jun, 2015

Reaper (2014)

A skimpily dressed blond hitching a lift alone, a group of gangsters headed by hard-man Vinnie Jones and the insane survivor of an electric chair execution. What could possibly go wrong?

This pleasingly intriguing set-up keeps us guessing. At first we fear for the safety of young Natalie (Shayla Beesley) as she climbs into cars with strangers; then we feel sorry for those behind the wheel as she turns out to be something of a highway robber; then we realise she is robbing these people to get money for an operation for her deathly ill mother.

Coincidences run strongly here. Two of those she has robbed happen to be in league, not only with each other but also with Jones’ hard-as-nails gangster Rob. Of all the characters, possibly the most likeable is Danny Trejo’s Jack. When a drug-dealer is comparatively sympathetic, it shows how refreshingly flawed the rest of the ensemble is.

Sadly, the second half of the film suffers from disappointingly executed (no pun intended) deaths and a plot tied up too hastily. Also, The Reaper just isn’t very frightening. The ever-present sparks that announce his presence merely serve to obscure him and his evil-doings. He appears to have assumed the role of an avenging angel, and the sole proprietor of the hotel (who is too much of a seedy caricature to take seriously) where it all happens, is in league with him.

23. Jun, 2015

Demon Under Glass (2002)

Doctor Hersch spearheads research into the capture and subsequent ‘understanding’ of ‘the vampire’ he has named Vlad (although his real name is revealed to be Simon Molinar), but he is killed during the creature’s capture and the project is assigned to his subordinate, Doctor Bassett. Bassett then enlists the help of the idealist Doctor Joe McKay who is entirely new to the project and becomes hazardously sympathetic to the prisoner.

During the lengthy experiments, the vampire seems compliant, even docile. Simon describes his vampirism as a curse of nature he has no control over; he reasons that his victims are from the less respectable avenues of society, and that is how he elects to justify his lifestyle. His captors cause countless deaths through their various experiments. So who is the true evil here?

Originally this film was called simply ‘Vampire’, about which little is known. It is under the title ‘Demon under Glass’ that it has proved more widely available. Even as a fan of low budget horror films, I found the first few scenes quite off-putting. The lighting and camera work is immediately blurry and the direction fails to capture all of the action onscreen. Whether I got used to this, or things improved once the story had settled into a sedate pace more befitting the nature of the unfolding story, I don’t know (probably a little of both). Happily, ‘Demon under Glass’ proves to be extremely enjoyable. The moral grey area between the ‘decent’ scientists (who are revealed as anything but) and the ‘evil’ vampire (who is mostly composed and honest about his condition) is exploited in a compelling script.

And yet the vampire is, understandably biding his time. When he learns that once the experiment is over, he will be destroyed, he clearly wishes to escape, which he does. The last we see of him is when he is gleefully picking up a prostitute in a night club, proving that despite being a victim of his own nature, he also clearly enjoys himself.

So were Molinar’s monologues while imprisoned truthful, or was he just stalling for time so that he could make his escape? Such conclusions are left open in this highly enjoyable film.

13. Jun, 2015

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

At the time of writing, Sir Christopher Lee has recently passed away at the age of 93.

This is the final film he made for Hammer as Dracula, the role that brought him to the attention of so many. Derided by many over the years, not least by its leading actor, and released at a time when interest in Hammer productions had waned considerably, this once more reunited Lee with Peter Cushing as Van Helsing.

This was one of the first horror films I ever saw, and I am happy to say I loved it then (when it was shown on television in the late 70s) and I love it now. This is the second time Hammer made a picture featuring Dracula in the modern day, and this time they got it absolutely right. The Count had been secretly recruiting people to his cult for years by the time the story starts, so he is already in a position of power. Living as the reclusive DD Denham, he is very rarely known to leave his tower-block office empire. What better place for a modern day vampire to exist, hiding in plain sight?

Van Helsing (and daughter Jessica, now played by Joanna Lumley) is brought in by the police when it appears that Denham doesn’t show up in photographs, suggesting something sinister. At first Van Helsing is treated with scepticism, but this changes when it appears The Count, sick of his undead unlife, is planning to sweep a plague across all of the Earth.

I love that anyone who comes in to contact with Count’s plan dies (Freddie Jones’ Professor Keeley is the most memorable); I love that he doesn’t dirty his hands with the mundanities of his mission, rather leaving all that to the various political members of his cult. I love that an effort has actually been made to integrate Dracula into society – even when he is not in the story, he directly influences everything that happens. Equally, his victims are confined to Pelham House, which is not a shambling church or sprawling castle. His seduction/attack on Valerie Van Ost’s Jane takes place in a seedy backroom prison, lit only by a swinging bulb. Into that scene Dracula enters, backlit and surrounded by mist, and his impressive frame lights up the dilapidated chamber. Alan Gibson’s fine direction encourages the allurement to be an almost hallucinatory experience.

The ending, and Dracula’s final despatch, has also been slated by ‘fans’, but again, I like it. No elaborate theatrics (that is left to Michael Cole’s Inspector Murray’s spectacular rescue of Jessica), just two deadly, veteran rivals, slugging it out alone. The hawthorn bush is added to the list of ‘all things deadly to a vampire’ (it provided Christ with His crown of thorns after all), and that together with a stake through the heart, Hammer’s Dracula is gone for good. This final, and significant film, is the only one of the series – and possibly Lee’s only picture – that doesn’t currently enjoy an official DVD release. There are low quality efforts available, but this surely deserves a release more worthy, allowing more people to re-value it.

13. Jun, 2015

Evil Things (2009)

It is a relief when the teens in teens-in-peril horror films are more than just catwalk posers offering rows of perfect teeth in place of a personality. The five youngsters seen here are presented as real people, with flaws and relationships of their own. So, when things start becoming frightening, the audience actually cares about them and isn't just waiting for them to be despatched as graphically as the effects will allow. It is good we are made to care, because there is no blood or gore on display at all here. What we get instead is a nice build-up of tension, the weirder things become - although I'm not sure the events in the film make perfect sense.

Miriam, Cassie, Mark, Tanya and Leo are celebrating Miriam's 21st birthday by staying at her Aunt Sally's magnificent country home. The presenting of the birthday cake in particular is a touching scene that compunds what decent teens these are. We don't really get to know Leo, because he spends most of the time behind the camera, filming everything.

The resultant film is another example of 'found footage', as if we are watching their raw recordings. How then, does it have atmospheric incidental music at times of fright? Their stalker (or stalkers) - unseen, driving an intimidating black van - seem to be film-makers themselves, watching events they themselves have recorded on a multi-screen display. Perhaps they inserted the music and have made this a kind of snuff movie of their own? At one time, it seemed to me that Tanya might have been behind things. Until about halfway through, she is a sickly wallflower - when they become lost in the snow, she becomes aggressive and sardonic. Nothing comes of this trait however, once they are all back indoors.

We are never shown exactly who or what the antagonists are. Very occasionally, weird alien burbles and gulps are heard. Whether the 'evil things' are alien or spiritual creatures would make sense of the fact that they seem to be in several places at once - inside the house, ringing the phone when thre is no connection and driving the van. This is not explained, which is annoying for those who wish loose ends to be tied up, but ensures the film stays in the mind of the viewer long after it is over. Enjoyable.

10. Jun, 2015

A Field in England (2013)

I’ve seen this project labelled as ‘pretentious’ by more than one reviewer. I’m not sure that’s fair. And yet it is difficult to find a label for this film at all. It succeeds in being like nothing I’ve ever seen. Is it even a horror? Well, judging by the incredible acting from Reece Shearsmith in one scene alone, I’d say yes.

Shot in black-and-white and financed by Film4, this was released on that television channel at the same time as its cinema release. What really impresses me about this is the incredible acting on display. The cast is made up of names mainly associated with their comedic work, and all are exemplary. Subject to the harsh conditions displayed on camera by director Ben Wheatley (a British talent really making a big impression), his cast were encouraged to improvise to a certain extent, thus producing passionate and organic characters. Shearsmith and Julian Barrett (famous as one half of ‘The Mighty Boosh’ amongst other things) in particular, turn in amazing performances, but everyone involved really rises to the occasion. This is by turn baffling, violent, outrageously funny, frightening and strangely touching.

Some of the whirlwind style of story-telling maybe due to the characters’ indulgence with natural hallucinogens. As a lot of the action appears to be seen from various points of view, this may be the reason why things appear to happen in a non-linear style. Such usage (in this case ‘magic’ mushrooms are consumed in quantity) was often used during the English Civil War, which serves as the setting for this. The wide, open-skied setting becomes an endless, rolling playground – or tomb.

During one scene, the bullying O’Neill character (Michael Smiley) shows the submissive Whitehead (Shearsmith) a vision of death/hell inside a tent, which the audience does not witness. Instead, we get Whitehead’s subsequent reaction – his mind is damaged by the vision, and yet instead of running from the scene, he emerges from the tent with a death-head smile of disturbing serenity on his face. Shown in slow-motion, it is worth seeing ‘A Field in England’ for this startling scene alone – although it is much more effective in the context of this strange and wonderful project.

10. Jun, 2015

From Beyond the Grave (1974)

Milton Subotsky, who first pitched the idea of remaking Frankenstein and Dracula to Hammer films, was the man behind Amicus productions, who became Hammer’s main rivals during the 60’s and 70’s – occasionally eclipsing the success of the larger company.

Amicus made many anthology films whereby three or four short stories would be cradled by a framing device. For ‘Beyond the Grave’ (one of the better portmanteau productions), Peter Cushing plays a curious accented seedy antique shop proprietor. Each item he sells or is stolen has a story of its own …

The magnificent David Warner buys a mirror with demonic properties. The way his life is taken over by this magical object is very well conveyed, an inexorable slide into seediness and blood - plenty of blood.

The next story features an incredible cast. Donald and daughter Angela Pleasance, Ian Bannen and Diana Dors conspire to create a weird, unworldly atmosphere about repression, hatred, failure and ultimately revenge.

Story three is comedic and has Ian Carmichael as the victim of an ‘Elemental’ which he hopes will be banished by dotty witch Margaret Leighton.

Finally, Ian Ogilvy buys a door that leads into another, horrific dimension. It bears too many similarities to the David Warner tale to provide a satisfying finale in its own right.

Apart from story three, I would say that all tales are let down by their respective endings. Often, the carefully constructed build-up of atmosphere and dread is completely undone by the obligatory ‘twist’ which renders events ridiculous. The story featuring Donald Pleasance and his daughter as a truly sinister duo is trounced, for example, by the revelation, that they are professional problem solvers.

The framing narrative comes to end with a prospective thief (Ben Howard) wishing he had picked another shop to rob when Cushing’s unnamed proprietor causes his demise. Clearly, the shop owner is more than human.

8. Jun, 2015

Martyrs (2008)

There was a time when France was not particularly praised for its horror film output. This, despite the outpourings of Jean Rollin’s personal voyage of vampirism, zombies and the like; this, despite the supreme ‘Eyes without a Face/Les Yeux Sans Visage’, the film/television series ‘The Returned/Les Revenants’ and films like ‘The Pack’ and ‘Martyrs’.

There is a famous photograph sometimes known as ‘Napalm Girl’, featuring a nine year-old Vietnamese girl running naked and terrified, away from the carnage caused by an aerial napalm attack in 1972. As effective as any anti-war poster, this picture might have inspired one of the opening scenes of this truly disturbing film. Brutally attacked and imprisoned, half-dressed Lucie Jurin escapes her prison and runs down the street, making her escape.

The next time we see her, she has met Anna in the orphanage where she has been placed. She is terrorized by the image of a decaying woman, possibly a ghost.

Anna and Lucie become lovers and vow to get even with the torturers; years later they burst in on a happy, respectable family and brutally murder them. Surely these law abiding people can’t have been responsible?

This film succeeds in wrong-footing the audience and providing twist after twist. Not only ARE these people (partially) responsible for Lucie’s degradation, but moments later Lucie is killed, and it is Anna that becomes the centre of attention in a narrative that then assumes the moniker ‘torture porn’. Rarely have I seen filmed abuse presented so uncompromisingly. Anna is ritually beaten, fed the bare minimum gruel and if she resists, is beaten yet more. Her broken face and body is heart-breaking to see, extremely uncomfortable – her captors’ only comment is that they are amazed she is still alive. She therefore has one, final, appalling punishment to go.

Despite spoiler warnings, the reasons for this abuse will not be mentioned here, other than to say, it is ‘respectable’ establishment figures that are behind it all, and everything then comes to a very final (and satisfying – if that is the right word to use) end.

This is an incredible, profound, horrifying film - not one I’m sure I’ll ever see again, but if you can stomach it, I’d recommend watching once.

7. Jun, 2015

Frostbite (2006)

A Swedish teen vampire comedy horror film isn’t a huge genre, and it is always good to find something that tries something a little out of the ordinary.

Sharing certain similarities with ‘30 Days of Night’, the main thrust of this film reveals what happens when a group of teens mistake pills of what appears to be condensed vampire blood for narcotics. Instead of getting high, the teens develop vampiric tendencies.

A film involving ‘teens’ usually scares me more than any monster, with relentless memories of the catwalking petulant pouters often found being sliced by Freddie Krueger (or similar) over the years. But these Swedish juveniles are an appealing group, with little of the overbearing bravura of their Hollywood counterparts. The character of Sebastian, in particular, creates effective mayhem when visiting his girlfriend’s parents after having taken a tablet, and is trying to make a good impression whilst fighting off the effects of his increasing vampirism (her father is a Priest, which doesn’t help).

In the end, the vampires appear to be running rings around the increasingly outnumbered police force, and remind them that here in Lappland, dawn is a whole month away, a reference to Sweden living in permanent darkness half the year round – perfect conditions for the undead.

7. Jun, 2015

Man-Thing (2005)

Man-Thing was a monstrous swamp-dwelling creature who starred in a handful of Marvel Comics’ series beginning in 1971. During this time, the company had success with classic monsters Dracula, Werewolf and Frankenstein’s Monster. These characters and others had their own publications in America, which were edited into episodes to form the UK’s ‘Dracula Lives’, which was one of the main reasons for my burgeoning interest in horror. Original Marvel characters were also developed, like Ghost-Rider and Morbius, but none had the staying power of Man-Thing.

This curious film was released in 2005 as a straight-to-television venture, but also enjoyed limited theatrical release. Set in the swamps of Louisiana, but filmed in Australia, it bears little resemblance to the mighty comic strip, which under main writer Steve Gerber, showed Man-Thing had an empathic nature.

The central creature isn’t seen until right at the end of the film. Diminishing budget was probably the cause for this, but when he is seen, he is quite impressive. There are characters in the film called Mike Ploog and Val Mayerik. In ‘real life’, these men provided much of the art for the original strips. Steve Gerber is also named as a character.

Apart from Australian actors assuming American accents with varying success, this is quite a good looking film. Certainly the swamp-lands and scenes of encroaching industria are shot and lit in a very striking fashion. Only the script serves to let things down a little. There is an occasional bout of gore to spice things up, but little in the way of character development, so it isn’t easy to care about them, despite the best intentions of the actors. The whole story serves as a lead-up to meeting the Man-Thing itself, and when he is revealed, things liven up considerably.

5. Jun, 2015

Dagon (2001)

There have been several film adaptions of the stories of HP Lovecraft over the years, some considerably more successful than others. Of those I have seen, I would say that this Spanish (though English-speaking) version is the best of them all to date. In fact, this is superb, although the story is really an adaption of HP’s ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’ than ‘Dagon’.

After running into trouble on their small boat, Paul and Barbara (Ezra Godden and Raquel Merono) and another couple drift towards hopeful salvation in a remote fishing town, Imboca. Immediately, there is a sense of forbidding about this town – it seems deserted, the clouds above are heavier and greyer, the streets are dripping with a permanent mould. As they enter Imboca, the atmosphere becomes thicker and fouler. Figures, half-seen, scuttle about the streets, behind ruined windows.

This intense atmosphere is sustained brilliantly throughout and creates such a web of dark fantasy that the occasional, very convincing gore effects (the character Ezequiel (Pablo Rabal) having his face peeled off is the most extreme) actually threaten to spoil such a beautifully macabre mood. The subtlety of much of the make-up for the residents (glimpses of livid gills on the morose hotel proprietor for example, unnaturally oily skin, hooded eyelids) is hugely successful. So too is the overall stink of the place, the rancid decay in the hotel through which Paul tries to make his escape from the terrifying fish-people and the inescapable feeling of doom conveyed through skilful direction and storytelling.

A word too for Macarena Gómez as Uxía Cambarro, who combines intense beauty with startling and exotic vampire-like persuasiveness as she convinces Paul that his fate and hers are unavoidably intertwined. This, and some very good effects, combine to ensure she is truly demonic.

4. Jun, 2015

Scars of Dracula (1970)

Although Hammer’s horror films were becoming more prolific by 1970, there was a definite downturn in their fortunes: audiences were falling out of love for their modest-budgeted gothic tales.

Released shortly after ‘Taste the Blood of Dracula’, the drop in quality for this latest offering is noticeable, both in budget (there is a very studio-bound feel to Dracula’s castle for example) and in interesting new ideas (Dracula’s life-saving blood-spewing personal bat is particularly unsuccessful).

Rather than an ongoing story, ‘Scars’ is more a series of set-pieces. The exploits of rakish Paul Carson are directed like an episode of the lame sex-comedy ‘Confessions of…’ film series. We then have the slaughter of a church full of villagers we never get to know, various sadistic acts by Dracula (as well as a partially successful scene of him crawling snake-like down the walls of his castle, lifted from the novel – presumably keeping Christopher Lee happy) and finally the least convincing climactic despatch of the Count by lightning as Dennis Waterman and a badly dubbed Jenny Hanley watch on.

Although it gives Lee more to do than most sequels in this series, it is nevertheless a palpably tired offering and wastes most of its cast. Hammer were surely aware of the paucity of ideas on display and decided to make a fairly big change with their next Dracula film.

30. May, 2015

Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)

In a move that seems to confirm the events covered in 1958’s original ‘Dracula’ weren’t the only time The Count fought his enemy Van Helsing, this updating of Hammer’s vampire myth begins with a spectacular scuffle between Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee atop a speeding stagecoach. The grim and gruesome climax results in the death of both, revealing a continuity error – events covered in ‘Dracula’ happened in 1885, 13 years after this prologue. Perhaps the Van Helsing featured there was a relation of this one!

The decision to move the Lord of the Undead into modern times has been lambasted over the years by horror fans, not least because the hip dialogue between the hippy gang was dated even then. The intervening years have been forgiving however – viewed now, this updating is now a period piece, and phrases like ‘Dig the music kids’ seems to be part and parcel with the overall ‘flares and winged-collars’ styles of the day.

There’s a knowing, pseudo-parody feel about this too. Describing a victim as ‘a bit drained’ and inviting someone to ‘come in for a bite’ evokes an atmosphere at odds with the grim and serious presence of Dracula and his various machinations, giving the impression Hammer weren’t entirely confident about the direction in which this series should go. Their recent ‘Horror of Frankenstein (1970)’ was laced with similar comedy and was received very poorly.

After bringing their vampire into the then present day, the writers then decide to keep him very much apart from it. All Dracula’s scenes take place in or around a deconsecrated church, and any interaction with life in 1972 is left to Christopher Neame’s enjoyably over-the-top Johnny Alucard. His fight with Van Helsing is a high-point (lots of nice directorial moments from Alan Gibson), but it does rob Dracula of screen-time, as usual.

This is good fun though, in much the same way Universal’s latter-day horrors were good fun – little in the way of actual horror atmospherics, but a fast-pace monster piece. And to its credit, the now traditional decomposition of Dracula in the finale is one of the most gruesome of the entire series.

23. May, 2015

Kannibal/Head Hunter (2001)

Richard Driscoll writes, directs, produces and has the starring role in this homage to Hannibal Lector films. I use the word homage loosely, because it veers on being a reimagining, parody, imitation and curio. To take on such a variety of roles, there must be a certain amount of self-belief, especially as the film being interpreted is one widely recognised as a classic, with a world famous, award-winning actor playing the role Mr Driscoll has given himself.

Like Driscoll’s other horror, ‘Evil Calls/The Raven/The Legend of Harrow Woods (2008)’, there are moments of a good production, but here they are less refined and fewer in number. The acting varies, but one thing is for certain, Driscoll’s performance as Kavanagh is woeful. He is simply a non-actor trying to speak like Anthony Hopkins. Whatever scene he is in, it is sunk by his presence.

And yet his is not the worst performance here. Lucien Morgan’s monocle-sporting Inspector Reed is impossible to describe. So far off the scale that it defies words.

The story is of a man’s killing spree in revenge for his wife’s death. The story is sprawling, but not uninteresting. And the look of ‘Kannibal’ is mostly very impressive – this isn’t a slipshod effort in directorial terms by any means, and has clearly had a great deal of time and money placed upon it. The effects, of which there are many, are delightfully gruesome and the smattering of vivid sex-scenes add further sleazy spice. What emerges is a picture that is a bit of an enigma – a mixture of the obscure, dramatic, blatant, graphic, hopeless, confident and bizarre.

23. May, 2015

House of Frankenstein (1944)

Since the 1931 original, Frankenstein’s Monster had lurched his way through four sequels before this, the last of which teamed him up with The Wolf Man in 1942. As a result of the healthy revenue this idea generated, Universal films decided to upgrade the theme and involve Count Dracula too, in their following team-up. Artistically, it was clearly the beginning of the end of these monster films – but while there was money to be made, the studio was quite content to continue.
Here, lean John Carradine played the Count – suave and cultured. It isn’t quite clear why Bela Lugosi wasn’t involved, but I have read he was considered too ‘old’ … to play a centuries old vampire. Carradine brings a cadaverous charm to the role, but is featured only briefly before being reduced to a skeleton by the inevitable dawn (in his final scenes, half his moustache is missing – possibly a side effect of the encroaching daylight!).

Boris Karloff returns to the series, this time to play mad old Doctor Neimann, who plans to kill the various men who found him guilty of his many crimes – just as Ygor had done in ‘Son of Frankenstein’ five years earlier. It is revealed that Neimann’s brother assisted Frankenstein in his original experiments. Whilst no-one is, at this stage, too concerned with continuity, that would indicate his brother was Fritz from the original film, played by Dwight Frye.

My favourite character in this, however, is the sympathetic Daniel, a hunchback, played by J. Carrol Naish, who falls in love with gypsy lass Ilonka (Elena Verdugo) – but she has designs on Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney jr). I find Ilonka’s tactlessness irritating. She can’t understand why Daniel does not enjoying hearing her stories of how she loves the erstwhile Wolfman, and gets quite tetchy about it.

“What’s the matter, Daniel - don’t you like Larry?” she asks, exasperated, wilfully blind to the hunchback’s hopeless love for her.

And so the pecking order continues. No-one cares about Daniel, so he in turn takes his frustrations out on the one character lower on the scale than himself – the mostly comatose Frankenstein Monster. Forever strapped to a laboratory table, this now thankless role is played by a newcomer to the series Glenn Strange. Strange is the only actor besides Karloff who was chosen for what he could bring to the Monster, as opposed to being a ‘name’, and his powerful frame and wonderfully craggy face lend themselves very impressively to Jack Pierce’s make-up. Apparently Karloff himself coached Strange on set as to how to move like the Monster. Such a shame the story didn’t allow him much to do other than drag Niemann into a bog full of quicksand. I would have loved to see Strange play the role in a story more worthy of him.

17. May, 2015

House of Dracula (1945)

Universal films’ second run of horror films (kick-started by 1939’s ‘Son of Frankenstein’ – itself commissioned due to the success of repeat showings of the original ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’ films) fizzled out with this final serious monster-mash. It’s not difficult to see why. Whereas the early films were master-crafts of the macabre, with careful courting of actors and directors alike, the series had by this time become mere monster-rallies. Films for the kids to enjoy. Cosy. Familiar. Popcorn. Not that there is anything wrong with this approach, but once you’ve thrown three of the best known monsters together for no reason other than to bolster sales, artistically, there is nowhere left to go except a meeting with Abbott and Costello.

If anything, the story is perhaps a little tighter than the preceding team-up. John Carradine’s Dracula appears to be searching for a cure for his nocturnal habits, as does Lon Chaney Jr’s forlorn Larry Talbot. Whilst the Wolf Man is sincere, The Count seems to have ulterior motives, given away by secretly keeping his coffin in the cellar of Doctor Edleman, the man who he has come to for salvation.
This is really Edlemann’s story. He becomes a strange Mr Hyde character as a result of Dracula’s machinations, and Talbot struggles with his conscience after he sees Edleman up to no good – after all, here is the man who appears to have cured him.

It’s a good run-around but nothing more. It features Lionel Atwill in one of his last appearances (he died the following year) – in the scene when the police are searching the premises, you can hear Atwill hacking in the background. Also featured briefly is the wonderfully named Skelton Knaggs, a Universal regular, turning in a truly laughable performance.

And what of the third named monster, Frankenstein’s lumbering creation? Once more played by the impressive Glenn Strange, he is utterly wasted, lying comatose throughout, only coming to life at the end to wreck the laboratory and bring the film to a close. Strange’s brief screen-time is cut down further – the Monster’s finale is actually the climax to 1942’s ‘Ghost of Frankenstein’ replayed, featuring Lon Chaney Jr in the role. A slipshod ending to a classic range of terrors.

17. May, 2015

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

The original ‘Nosferatu (1922)’ remains one of the greatest early films. However, possibly feeling that some aficionados might be put off by the understandably scratchy quality, German director Werner Herzog set about recreating the atmosphere original.

For the pivotal character of Dracula, or Count Orlok, Herzog cast his friend, the mighty Klaus Kinski, who brings an incredible haunted intensity to a role that seemed to be made for him. Whether staring longingly at Harker’s bleeding hand, or his bride Lucy, or snapping into inhuman speed due to his bloodlust, Kinski shines like a beacon in every single scene. It truly is an unearthly performance, he is probably the creepiest vampire of them all.

There were two versions shot of this; an English and a German version. Perhaps because English is not the actors’ native tongue, only Kinski emerges with a believable performance. Other members of the cast do well to sustain the slightly ‘removed’ atmosphere vital to such a dreamlike horror, but the acting does occasionally stray into wooden territory.

And yet everything else is wonderfully ethereal. Harker’s journey, Dracula’s arrival by boat at the Varna seaport, the infestation of plague rats, the vibrant but desolate town, the choice of location and architecture … all these things come together to make a truly spooky film. Happily, the ending doesn’t strive to placate the viewer, as Harker – one of the few survivors of the story – begins to look a little unwell.

16. May, 2015

Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)

Either Christopher Lee wasn’t asked to reprise his famous role, or declined the offer to appear in a sequel to 1958’s ground-breaking ‘Dracula/Horror of Dracula’ for over seven years. While he pursued other projects the world over, Hammer had continued to make a name for itself as a major horror film company.

One of the most astounding aspects of ‘Prince of Darkness’ is that Lee’s distinctive voice, which was such a hallmark of his Count, is entirely absent here; Dracula is silent. Again, it’s never been made quite clear whether Lee refused to say the lines, or that he just wasn’t given any. Writer Jimmy Sangster has said ‘vampires don’t chat’, and didn’t write any dialogue for his main character. Lee, never afraid to slate Hammer Dracula productions, has said he refused the lines given him.

Either way, this is a very ponderous, uneventful film. We have interesting characters like Klove, Dracula’s ‘manservant’, and a Renfield-type called Ludwig, both of whom do not have a great deal to do and seem almost superficial. The other characters are a stuffy bunch – Helen is made a little more interesting when she becomes a vampire, but is still very mannered – especially when compared to Melissa Stribling’s saucy Mina from the original. While The acting is very good all round from a terrific cast, the characters just seem perfunctory. I really miss a formidable foe for Dracula. Andrew Keir as Father Sandor is enjoyable, but he is no Van Helsing.

The film also suffers from ‘sequelitis’ in that it takes half the running time for Dracula to be resurrected (in the film’s best sequence – certainly the most bloody), which means that his reign of terror lasts … just over half an hour. In the original, he had been terrorising his townsfolk for centuries.

Dracula’s demise is similarly cursory. It’s a fairly impressive finale – even if it does make The Count appear rather foolish – but pales when compared to grisly climax to the original.

16. May, 2015

Werewolf of London (1935)

The titular character was originally meant for Boris Karloff, and the shady Yogami character was ear-marked for Bela Lugosi. Whilst these two horror legends would have undoubtedly been tremendous in their respective roles, I find it hard to imagine how the two characters we ended up with could be bettered.

Famous stage actor Henry Hull plays Wilfred Glendon, a stuffy, somewhat neurotic botanist whose relationship with his wife plays a distant second fiddle to his work. The playing of the character skilfully betrays the very real love he has for her with an almost total inability to display it – especially as Glendon now has a secret he must keep from her; his lycanthropy.

Yogami is played in subtle fashion by former Fu Manchu Warner Oland, who was currently very successfully playing detective Charlie Chan in a series of films. His is not a clichéd evil; it is a question of survival. Both characters are werewolves, and both need the very rare mariphasa plant to keep their primal urges at bay.

The interesting thing about this film, viewed in retrospect, is that the full moon has nothing to do with the transformations. That detail was added five years later in the more widely known Lon Chaney Jr film ‘The Wolf Man’, and instantly became part of folklore. Indeed, this werewolf is less bestial than the latter day Larry Talbot’s alter-ego, even stopping to put on a hat and scarf before prowling the streets of the capital.

Often overlooked, I always enjoy watching this. The Universal version of London involves fogbound streets, eccentric alcoholic landladies and bawdy pubs. There are some great, eccentric performances, and some very impressive effects, including the first man-to-wolf transformation seen as Glendon lumbers through the streets behind pillars and streetlights.

Spearheading the idea of the lycanthrope being a tragic, Jekyll-like figure rather than a man of evil has been retained for all Universal Wolf-Man films – the impressive make-up provided by monster guru Jack Pierce.

13. May, 2015

Killing Car (1993)

Whilst I try not to be influenced by other reviews when watching a film, it’s difficult to avoid the drubbing ‘Killing Car’ seems to have attracted, even from fans of its French director Jean Rollin.

There’s no doubt that to enter into the often improbable fantasy world of Rollin’s films, there is little to be gained nit-picking lapses in continuity or a lack of comprehensive story – if the film itself is a carefully constructed dreamscape, why dash it with issues limited to reality? ‘Killing Car’ attempts a kind of gritty revenge motif, and therefore exists somewhere in the real world, so the lapses in logic here are harder to overlook.

The radiant Tiki Tsang, in her only film, plays ‘the car woman’ – hers is the dream-state that floats through urban landscapes killing people – seemingly – inexplicably. So, when she is involved in a shoot-out at a functioning fairground, and no-one intervenes; when everyone she meets (be they photographers, prostitutes, antique-dealers) all happen to carry fire-arms that never appear to run out of bullets, it’s hard, as a viewer, to look past this.

Still, if you are able to suspend disbelief to such an extent, then there is plenty to enjoy here. There are a couple of good twists towards the end – in fact, I thought there might have even been a third twist, but that was not to be. And Ms Tsang is very charismatic as the harbinger of death, whether she is staring into space on the boat where she lives, elegantly making her way through a junkyard or a city or simply looming over her next victim.

There is a school of thought that opines that Rollin films are highly regarded because they are French – if they were made in America, for example, they would just be dismissed as bad films. I’m not sure, perhaps there is truth in this – there is a (too) lengthy travelogue set in New York in the middle of ‘Killing Car’, which makes for picturesque viewing. There’s no doubt though, when the action returns to the French rooftops, the atmosphere is served up in droves and provides, for me, the film’s highlights. Perhaps Rollin was simply more confident filming in his native country, who knows? His cinematography is breath-taking on home turf, there is little doubt about that.

10. May, 2015

Frankenstein vs the Mummy (2015)

Ever since Universal were unable to resist matching two of their biggest horror names in ‘Frankenstein meets the Wolfman (1942)’, there has been a periodic fascination with uniting well-known monsters over the years. And in many of these meetings, the battle we are all waiting to see is saved until the last ten minutes. Such is the case here. Sadly, when it comes, the battle is little more than a punch-up in a darkened room.

Monster mash-ups like this are usually designed not to be taken too seriously. The problem with this is that, at six minutes shy of two hours, ‘Frankenstein vs The Mummy’ is just too long. The actors are competent, but the characters are underwritten and impossible to be concerned about. Instead of personalities, their function is to react to the alleged horror around them. The possible exception is Doctor Walton, played by a marvellously idiosyncratic actor with the wonderful name Boomer Tibbs.

The horror, sadly, is fairly negligible, despite some impressive effects. The music – a hugely underrated way of sustaining an atmosphere, in my view – is stock ‘shock’ stings and exactly the same kind of forgettable arrangement featured in many other films of this nature.

The two monsters are fairly effective, and a welcome relief from the CGI that marrs so many bigger budgeted pictures. The Frankenstein monster is very close to imagery described in Mary Shelly’s original story, and played with a snarling evil, completely devoid of pathos. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the nature of the criminal’s brain he has (once more) inherited, he lacks the eloquence of the original creation and utters some typically coarse expletives during the course of his brief conversations.