A Double Dose of Boris Karloff

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Life has been throwing me lots of curveballs lately and when I’m feeling low, I tend to gravitate towards what I like to call “comfort food films” and my comfort food tends to be classic horror films. During the cold winter months, cozying up on the couch with a warm beverage and a couple of creaky old black and white horror movies can make even the worse week seem manageable. Fortunately, I found exactly what I required streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, The Haunted Strangler (1958) and Corridors of Blood (1958). Both of these low-budget British thrillers were directed by Robert Day and feature standout performances from William Henry Pratt aka the one and only Boris Karloff.

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Shake Your Bones with The Living Skeleton (1968)

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Now that another Valentine’s Day has passed, it’s time to focus on other emotions out there… like stark terror! Pretty much impossible for American audiences to see until 2012 apart from its very minimal English-language theatrical release in 1969, the terrific spook show The Living Skeleton (1968) is just the kind of thing to watch late at night when you want a few nice shivers with a rich vein of pulp fun. [...MORE]

The Eyes Have It

EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960)

As we head into February, the month most closely associated with love in all its guises, it’s always good to remind yourself that too much emotional attachment can be a dangerous thing. If you really want to throw a curve ball into your pre-Valentine’s viewing schedule, allow me to direct your attention to one of the most twisted father-daughter relationships ever put on film: Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage) (1960), now the most famous film from the great Georges Franju and the gold standard by which other French horror films are measured.

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A Tale of Two Hydes

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Robert Louis Stevenson’s late-19th century novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been the inspiration for countless stage, film, radio and television adaptations and inspired works. The first adaptation was Thomas Sullivan’s stage play Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which debuted in 1887, a year after the novella’s original publication. This stage version of Stevenson’s story included significant changes to the plot, including the addition of a complicated, romantic relationship between Dr. Jekyll and his well-mannered socialite fiancée. In 1920, Paramount Pictures released their version of Sullivan’s interpretation, a silent film starring the original A-list superstar John Barrymore in the title role. Known for his devastatingly handsome looks and “great profile,” Barrymore shocked audiences with his gruesome, monster-like appearance as the vicious Mr. Hyde. A little over a decade later, Paramount began preparing a remake of the 1920 film with plans to have Barrymore reprise his role.

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Venomous Snakes & Poison Ants: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975)

“What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream.” – Miranda in Picnic at Hanging Rock (a variation of A Dream Within a Dream by Edgar Allan Poe)

In Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), viewers are reminded again and again of the “venomous snakes and poison ants” that populate the Australian outback. Despite these repeated warnings, the reptiles and insects we see are never an actual threat and cause no harm besides pilfering some leftovers from an unobserved picnic basket. The real danger is unspoken and invisible. It lurks unseen in the shadowy cracks and crevices of Hanging Rock, waiting to ensnare a group of innocent schoolgirls and their unsuspecting math teacher. As is often the case in real life, the horrors that eventually befall the characters in Weir’s film arrive without warning or reason but they leave the victims devastated as they try to make sense of a nemesis that has no fixed name and no discernible face.

This puzzling pastoral horror picture is currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of their Cinema Passport: Australia series, a curated selection of films from the land down under that also includes Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), George Miller’s Mad Max (1979) and Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980). Watched together these films provide a thought-provoking introduction to the Australian New Wave that emerged in the 1970s and continued into the 1980s. Unlike many other international New Wave film movements that launched in the 1960s, Australia’s got a late start but the results are equally compelling.

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Dreams in the Witch House (1977)

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It took the West a few decades to finally catch up with the phantasmagorical output of Japanese filmmaker Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, whose feverish sugar rush cinema would make Baz Luhrmann cry uncle. Actually, you could argue that we still haven’t quite come to grips with him since only one of his films is widely available now, but it’s a doozy: House (Hausu) (1977), a child’s nightmare on celluloid that represents Ôbayashi’s formal feature film debut. Before this film he had been cutting his teeth on many experimental film and TV commercials, the latter often featuring imported American stars like Catherine Deneuve, Charles Bronson, Sophia Loren, Kirk Douglas, and David Niven. If you want a taste of what that entailed, go to YouTube and do a search for “Charles Bronson” and “Mandom” to see what Ôbayashi was up to. You’re welcome. [...MORE]

The Devil Made Me Do It: La main du diable (1943)

CARNIVAL OF SINNERS (1947)

Cinephiles and film aficionados come in all stripes. Some of us are drawn to the star quality of performers while others may obsess over scriptwriting, set designs or a director’s unique skill set. We’re often fond of particular genres and may gravitate to specific eras that we find especially rewarding. One of the many things that compel me is the thrill of discovery and the sheer delight I get from encountering an extraordinary older film that is new to me. This can be challenging but FilmStruck’s impressive library is introducing me to some marvelous movies that have managed to elude me in the past. My latest FilmStruck find is La main du diable (1943), also known as Carnival of Sinners or The Devil’s Hand, a fascinating and incredibly stylish French horror film involving an ambitious artist who makes an ill-fated deal with the devil.

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Scanners: Cronenberg, Existence, and Body Horror

SCANNERS (1981)

Scanners (1981) is a movie lacking in almost every area of cinematic showiness: Its locations, in and around Toronto and Montreal, are plain and dull. The film’s protagonist is practically emotionless. The editing is thoroughly unobtrusive, mostly cutting back and forth between speakers in conversation. The camera doesn’t waste any time or energy moving around the sets, preferring to sit idly, for the most part, and observe. The music matches the quietude of the movie and simply provides an aural backdrop to the action.

It is a masterpiece.

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THE CREEPING FLESH

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The Creeping Flesh (Freddie Francis, 1973) screens on TCM later this week and it’s worth highlighting for several reasons. Oddly enough, for me anyway, the skeleton found in New Guinea by a Victorian scientist – one that can regenerate flesh and which is posited as some ancient embodiment of evil – is low on the priority list. [...MORE]

The Funny Old Dark House

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“Don’t big, empty houses scare you?”
“Not me. I used to be in vaudeville.”

That wry exchange is one of the many little asides that typifies The Cat and the Canary (1939), airing in prime time this Friday on TCM. This Paramount production (now part of the Universal library) is the earliest surviving sound version of the original old dark house chiller that started life as a stage play by John Willard, and it’s a savory bit of counter-programming to Universal’s ongoing parade of beloved movie monsters (which were being toned down in the early throes of World War II). The idea of Hope starring in a horror movie (especially so early in his career — he’d only been starring in features since 1938!) sounds bizarre on paper, but it works beautifully in practice. Part of the charm here is the smart pairing of Hope (more subdued and urbane than usual here) with the gorgeous and charming Paulette Goddard, who was married to Charlie Chaplin at the time and was best known for Modern Times (1936). The chemistry between Hope and Goddard was so good they were teamed up for another horror comedy in 1940, The Ghost Breakers, and in between she made her most familiar film for many TCM viewers, The Women (1939). And as you can see in that promotional shot above for The Cat and the Canary, she also knows how to rock a Halloween costume like nobody’s business. [...MORE]

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