Anyone who has known me for any period of time knows that I love Halloween and after Christmas it is easily my favourite holiday. A big reason for this probably is a direct result from my being exposed to the writings of Roald Dahl from a very early age which has made me especially drawn to all things darkly humorous and macabre.
But perhaps the biggest reason is because Halloween simply allows me to devote the month of October to watching a bunch of mostly cheesy, sometimes scary, and sometimes very good horror movies. And fortunately the history of cinema is littered with countless amounts of horror movies for me to indulge upon. Of course most of them aren’t very good and have pleasures that are most definitely surface level, if any at all. So while they don’t really warrant some in depth reviews I do want to still take note of what I watch (and I will watch a lot of horror movies this month). And if I know anything about fellow horror-movie aficionados like myself, we are always looking for new horror movies to watch. So consider this my B-movie recommendations (or not) for the so inclined. And it should stand without reason that being a list of B-movies, the actual ratings of these things are kind of secondary because all we horror-afficianados basically need is a half-decent story with half-decent scares to get our horror fix.
For whatever reason, I ended up getting on a streak of watching Gothic Horror this week, so that’s what we’re going with. But fair warning dear readers: This month is going to be a month devoted to the macabre.
CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (1958) dir. Robert Day
Dr. Thomas Bolton (Boris Karloff) is a British surgeon in the 1840s who is desperately trying to find a way to make surgery pain-free. While this does not seem on the surface a premise for a horror-film, the movie finds its horror in the macabre depiction of Victorian London and the real-life surgical practices of this time. In addition, the presence of Karloff as the dedicated Dr. Bolton who takes great risks to find a solution and a surprise early appearance of horror icon Christopher Lee as the nefarious gang leader and ominously named Resurrection Joe does much to boost the movie’s horror credentials. The movie is part Frankenstein and part Dr. Jekyll but in the more grounded horrors of addiction and obsession. Ultimately the movie is probably only interesting for Karloff or Lee completionists, but it is not without its rewards as it gives its own creative spin on the typical “mad scientist” horror story.
THE HAUNTED STRANGLER (1958) dir. Robert Day
Using the backdrop of Victorian London to great effect, The Haunted Strangler tells the story of a novelist James Rankin (an excellent Karloff again) who seeks to prove the innocence of an executed Jack-the-Ripper type serial killer who as the title suggests, strangled his victims. As he stirs up the ghosts of the past the murders start again, leading to a grisly investigative chase to catch the killer. Or course being a horror movie that stars Boris Karloff, all is not as it seems. While the movie is less interesting and ambitious than Corridors of Blood it is undoubtedly more entertaining and macabre. It is simply campy 1950s horror at its best albeit with a much better production budget and buoyed by the ever-excellent Karloff who can class up any story he’s in.
THE OBLONG BOX (1969) dir. Gordon Hessler
To call this a “loose” adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story would be an understatement. Using only the actual oblong box as inspiration, Hessler weaves a fantastical story of Sir Edward Markham who is left disfigured by voodoo curses and locked up from larger society by his guilt ridden brother Julian (Vincent Price). Of course Julian’s attempts at concealing his brother are ultimately proven futile, resulting in a killing spree with a healthy dose of corruption and human frailty sprinkled in. Yet despite the salacious material, the movie is frequently dull and surprisingly plot heavy. The plodding plot is helped along by the scenery-chewing of Vincent Price and Christopher Lee (who infuriatingly only share one scene together) while the production values of the movie are top notch. Still, it is one of the least essential entries in the surprisingly existing sub-genre of Edgar Allan Poe horror movies.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962) dir. Terence Fisher
Subtlety has never been Hammer Film’s calling card and that tradition continues with their adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera. But in typical Hammer Film fashion, what we do get is over-the-top acting, a bombastic score, lush production design, and oodles of too-bright-red blood. It is quite something to take a story as elegant as Phantom and make it a glorious camp-fest but that is exactly what Terence Fisher accomplishes. The pure Britishness of the production gives the movie a veneer of elegance, but underneath that shiny exterior are cheaper thrills and gore. It is by no means the best adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel (in my opinion, nothing has come close to topping Lon Chaney’s turn as the Phantom in the 1925 film) it is most certainly the most fun version out there. Also earns bonus points for being the only adaptation I’ve seen to actually include some opera in there.
NIGHT CREATURES (1962) dir. Peter Graham Scott
Originally Night Creatures was going to be an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend but when Hammer Films failed to secure the rights of the film, they changed tack and made this pirate-based mystery tale about the curse of Captain Clegg that haunts an isolated coastal village in the 18th century instead. The village is the last resting place of the convicted pirate Captain Clegg and the area surrounding the village is haunted by a roaming band of “marsh phantoms” whose ghostly presence causes men to die of fright. Yet to call this movie a “horror” movie is a bit of a stretch because most of the movie is concerned the Royal Navy descending upon this village to investigate reports of bootlegging operations, while the villagers do their best to hide their activities and ward off the Navy. The “marsh phantoms” are merely a sideshow to these proceedings and contrary to most horror movies, the story becomes less scary the longer the film goes on. Freed from the trappings of a being a horror film (which it suffers from being included in a box-set labelled “Hammer Horror”), the movie is a workable if unremarkable adventure story. But as a horror movie, it is yawn inducing even if it has one of the more visually interesting monsters in the “marsh phantoms”.
Rating: ★★★ (the rating would be lower if I were judging it strictly as a horror film)
TOWER OF LONDON (1962) dir. Roger Corman
A glorious amalgamation of Shakespeare’s Richard III and Macbeth, Tower of London tells a sordid tale of Richard’s (Vincent Price) rise to power and the ghosts of the people he has killed on the way who haunt and taunt him relentlessly. One of Price’s greatest strengths as an actor was bringing gravitas to even the campiest movie, but here where he is given the chance to work with some remotely Shakespearan material he truly shines. Of course it helps that in this case he is working once again with Roger Corman who time and time again has managed to eke out great B-Movies with minuscule budgets. The decision to shoot in black and white is an excellent choice as it makes the costumes and backdrops seem of much higher production quality than they probably were, and also successfully gives this mostly regal affair an ominous and eerie atmosphere making it entirely appropriate viewing for the month of October.