Posted by Richard Harland Smith on May 31, 2013
There’s a lot of great stuff coming out on DVD and Blu-ray lately — brand new, remastered transfers of classic horror and science fiction films, culled from original materials and larded with lavish supplements, woo! And here I am watching stuff on YouTube. I can’t help it! There’s just something so junk draweresque about YouTube, so unpredictable and vast – you might find anything there. Like CURSE OF BIGFOOT (1976), a jaw-dropping-ly inept mash-up of then-current and twenty-year-old footage that makes PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959) unspool by comparison like BLACK NARCISSUS (1947). Allow me to be your tour guide, or Vault Keeper if you will, on a quick tour through some of YouTube’s more (to my abnormal brain) enticing offerings…
At a time when vampire movies were cinematic anathema, New Jersey filmmaker Domonic Paris bucked convention and box office and put his own money behind LAST RITES (1980). I first saw mention of the film in John Willis’ Screen World annual, where a thumbnail picture of a bald guy doing something suspicious in a burned out car was paired with a cast and crew list — and that’s it, no details, no plot synopsis. I didn’t know then that it was a Dracula movie, despite the fact that a character was listed as “A. Lucard.” I subsequently read about the DIY feature in various books, among them Phil Hardy’s Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror, where it received a bit of a bum rating, and in Stephen Thrower’s more recent Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents, where it benefited from what I take to be its most extensive critical coverage. Despite all the naysaying, I was intrigued… not so intrigued as to track down a video cassette or a torrent or anything on my own initiative but sufficiently intrigued, when I found it was available in its entirety on YouTube, to sit down and watch it. Creaky as a boghouse hinge, LAST RITES is amateurish and ham-fisted but there’s something about it I admire. The movie has ambition, positing a small American community whose town fathers are all vampires, syndicated bloodsuckers who operate out of a funeral home and stage road accidents as a means of obtaining fresh blood, while staking their victims to prevent overpopulating the ranks of the undead. Complications arise when one victim’s family insists on a home viewing, denying the vampire coven the opportunity to dispose of their prey before she has a chance to turn. I may be one of five people worldwide to see any worth in LAST RITES but the more vampires become Anne Ricean self-centered close talkers in the TRUE BLOOD/TWILIGHT mode, the more I appreciate someone working outside of the pine box. A year after LAST RITES received a cursory release by Cannon Films, Gary Sherman’s DEAD AND BURIED (1981) put forth a small American town peopled entirely by zombies. Call me crazy, but LAST RITES, warts and all, interests me more.
Three years before Hammer’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) made him a big screen star, popular British television actor Peter Cushing starred in NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR (1954), an adaptation of the George Orwell novel broadcast as an episode of the BBC SUNDAY-NIGHT THEATRE. Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale did the adaptation, which stars Cushing as Winston Smith, the square peg in the round hole of dystopian Oceania. Cast in support of Cushing is a rogue’s gallery of British character actors, most notably Andre Morrell (Cushing’s frequent costar in such films as THE MUMMY, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES and CASH ON DEMAND), Donald Pleasence (at the start of a long and diverse career on screens big and small), and Yvonne Mitchell, an Award-winning stage actress possessed of of strange and haunting beauty who later appeared in such shockers as CRUCIBLE OF HORROR (1971) and DEMONS OF THE MIND (1972). So solid is Peter Cushing in the minds of most of us in his career-defining roles of vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing and monster-maker Victor Frankenstein that it is a joyous novelty to see him playing a character of great vulnerability, one who does not know all the answers, who is edgy and afraid. The actors trademark precision is spot on for the role of Winston Smith, the most reluctant rebel of Airstrip One. This BBC adaptation of the iconic tale has never been made available in the United States (a dodgy DVD-R is for sale through certain Internet outlets), making its appearance on YouTube double-plus welcome.
Coughed out by Universal-International at the end of its impressive run of atomic age science fiction and horror films (and as the studio was divesting itself of its contract players and stable of writers), THE THING THAT COULDN’T DIE (1958) is a seminal living head movie. Trailing only THE MAN WITHOUT A BODY (1957), which offered the undying noggin of Nostradamus, this scrappy little programmer set the pace for a slew of like-minded movies, among them THE BRAIN (1962), THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE (1962), THE LIVING HEAD (1966), MADMAN OF MANDORAS (aka, THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN, 1963/1968), THE FROZEN DEAD (1966), MACABRO (1980), and the ne plus ultra of RE-ANIMATOR (1985), the ultimate The Head Stays in the Picture picture. Co-opting a little-known historical sidebar, in which explorer/privateer Francis Drake disposed of a political rival by accusing him of witchcraft and having him executed by beheading, THE THING THAT COULDN’T DIE kicks off with the discovery of a centuries-old strongbox buried in a patch of California ranchland. Cracking the seals, geologist William Reynolds (fresh from CULT OF THE COBRA) and psychic Carolyn Kearney find themselves on the bad side of the living head of Gideon Drew (Robin Hughes, THE TWILIGHT ZONE‘s “Howling Man” himself), who after four centuries in the dirt is desirous of finding the rest of his body. Directed by short subject veteran Will Cowan, the film is pretty dry stuff and disappointing work for cinematographer Russell Metty (who went from this to SPARTACUS, believe it or not) but the fun is wondering where Gideon Drew’s perambulating melon is going to turn up next. Even though it’s telegraphed from a mile off, there’s a pretty good window scare and the blighter’s sudden appearance at the bottom of a hatbox is a sight not soon forgotten. The copy of THE THING THAT COULDN’T DIE available on YouTube is pretty punk, culled as it is from a videotaped 1980s TV broadcast, but it’s still worth seeking out for living head compleatists… of which I am one.
As with the makers of LAST RITES, the brains behind CORPSE EATERS (1974) deserve props for toiling in a subgenre whose time had not yet come. It’s one thing for Spain to rip off NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) six years after the fact — they had the money and the market — but what possessed Canadian drive-in owner Lawrence Zazelenchuk to put $36,000 of his own money into an hour-long zombie movie? Pardon my French, but ce couilles! The narrative toggles back and forth between a crew of beer-guzzling Ontarian long-hairs out for kicks and a pair of mortuary workers beavering over the victim of a bear attack. When the kids decamp to a cemetery mausoleum and hold a half-assed seance, the dead rise and Canadian Thanksgiving comes a little early. Even at 57 minutes long, CORPSE EATERS is an ungodly mess and stiff as a new pair of Dickies but you’ve got to love the rarity of it, the insanity of it, and the maladroit showmanship. Larry Zazelenchuk (that name!) sold the American rights to a New York company looking for a tax write-off, who shelved the property without a single screening. Heartbroken, Zazelenchuk sold his drive-in and moved to Florida, where he drank himself to death by the age of 36. Unlike most of the films discussed here, I had never heard so much as a peep about CORPSE EATERS until my friend and fellow Video Watchdog writer John Charles passed me a VHS copy… but I include it just the same because this is the kind of inglorious crap you should be watching on YouTube. Atrociously acted, abysmally scripted, amateurishly executed in every way but so from the heart (and the gut) that it deserves your respect and at least a citation of eh? for effort.
Herb Freed’s HAUNTS (1975) is a rare sort of bird, despite the fact that it played on late night television a lot in the 80s (that’s how I came to see it) and was given a proper VHS release through the brand Video Treasures. It’s never really been out of sight but I’m surprised how few fright film fans have heard of it. It’s a proto-slasher movie, right up there with PSYCHO (1960) and BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), and serves as a linchpin, I suppose, a stop-gap between Italian gialli such as BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1969) and TORSO (1974) and their American counterparts HALLOWEEN (1978) and FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980). A ski-masked killer is stalking the residents of (never named but unmistakeable) Mendocino, California. When a local spinster (May Britt, fifteen years or so past her career high as the Marlene Dietrich surrogate in THE BLUE ANGEL remake) has a near-fatal encounter with the scissors-wielding killer, the local sheriff (Aldo Ray) pays her some attention… but begins to suspect that something is not quite right with the lonely, middle-aged woman, who may or may not live with her Uncle Carl (Cameron Mitchell), who may or may not really exist but if he did exist may have (or may not have) done something really terrible to her many years ago. It’s potentially tawdry stuff, which uses Roman Polanski’s REPULSION as a jumping off point, but each time I rewatch HAUNTS I’m struck with how heartfelt it is (Ray is particularly good as a lawman who is also a family man) and by how the script never writes off these provincial characters or deingrates their grubby little small town lives even as it jerks us around for cheap thrills. The multi-generational quality of any version of HAUNTS I’ve ever seen makes it difficult to appreciate Larry Secrest’s cinematography but Pino Donaggio’s score is genuinely affecting, adding a touch of Continental flair to a tale of down-home horror.
You know what looks really good on YouTube? THE CRATER LAKE MONSTER (1977)! This California-shot independent dino-on-the-loose romp takes a long time to get going but patience is rewarded with a funny stop-motion dinosaur chomping on boaters. I’ll watch any movie where everyone wears down vests and THE CRATER LAKE MONSTER doesn’t disappoint in that department. There’s such good 70s stuff here, stuff I never got the chance to see and stuff I saw but haven’t seen again in 40 years. There’s UFO: TARGET EARTH (1974), whose trailer terrified me as a kid, and the incredible Italo-German heist movie BLOODY FRIDAY (1972), BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW (1971), plus YETI, THE GIANT OF THE 20TH CENTURY (1977) starring Guglielmo “Mimmo” Craig, and Umberto Lenzi’s EYEBALL (1975) and KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS (1977) and DEVIL TIMES FIVE (1974) and CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (1972) and even old stuff too, like the PRC round-up of BURIED ALIVE (1939), THE MAD MONSTER (1942), DEAD MEN WALK (1943) and FOG ISLAND (1945), Chesterfield’s THE HOUSE OF SECRETS (1936), THE GORILLA (1939) with Bela Lugosi, the Ritz Brothers, and Lionel Atwill! MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933) with Lionel Atwill! SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM (1933) with Lionel Atwill! MURDER BY THE CLOCK (1931) with, not with Lionel Atwill, but still good! Ye gods and black cats, there is so much to see. Holy Moly HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD (1981)! CHOPPING MALL (1986)! THE BOOGENS (1981) – more down vests! PICTURE MOMMY DEAD (1966)! And then there’s the TV movies! THE PEOPLE (1972), WHERE HAVE ALL THE PEOPLE GONE? (1974), SEVEN IN DARKNESS (1969), THE STRANGER WITHIN (1974), HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972) with that old woman from ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, NIGHT SLAVES (1970), TERROR ON THE BEACH (1973) — THE HILLS HAVE EYES before THE HILLS HAVE EYES — THE NORLISS TAPES (1973) with Roy Thinnes, BLACK NOON (1971) with Roy Thinnes, SATAN’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS (1973) with Roy Thinnes — Roy Thinnes really was the man there for a while, wasn’t he? — DON’T GO TO SLEEP (1982), THE STRANGE AND DEADLY OCCURRENCE (1974), WEEKEND OF TERROR (1970), THE HOUSE THAT WOULDN’T DIE (1970), CROWHAVEN FARM (1970), A HOWLING IN THE WOODS (1971), so much better than THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, HAUNTS OF THE VERY RICH (1972), HORROR AT 37,000 FEET (1973) and… and… and…
Keep in mind that most, if not all, of the movies uploaded to YouTube are not available courtesy of their respective rights holders, meaning that they can disappear at any time. Don’t procrastinate! The clock is ticking and the Vault of Horror is open for business!
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