Movie Roundup: Halloween Edition

Horror of Dracula – The first of Hammer Films’s Dracula films, starring Christopher Lee (Attack of the Clones) as the Count and Peter Cushing (Star Wars) as the vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing.  The story follows the Bram Stoker novel reasonably well, though in this version Jonathan Harker is hired as the Count’s new librarian while he is in fact going undercover as part of a scheme with Van Helsing to stake the vampire.  More violent and bloody than previous versions (Tod Browning’s with Bela Lugosi and FW Murnau’s with Max Shreck, for example), it’s also the chronologically first Dracula film I’ve seen in color, and director Terrence Fisher uses it to make one of the bloodiest pre-60s films I’ve ever seen.  Lee’s very good as Dracula, despite having only a few lines of dialogue, starting as a snippy jerk and quickly turning into a scary beast.  Cushing is wonderful as well: he’s got a great voice.  I also have their first horror pairing, The Curse of Frankenstein here, but I didn’t manage to get it watched before the holiday ended.  The #14 film of 1958.

The Vampire Bat – Director Frank Strayer strives to accomplish the seemingly impossible: cast Fay Wray in a horror film and don’t let her scream.  Why anyone would want to do such a thing I don’t know, but poor Fay, her greatest skill as an actress closed to her, has pretty much has nothing to do in this film about a serial blood drainer preying on a small German village.  It’s half an indictment of lynching as the townspeople, convinced of vampirism, single out and attack the local mentally handicapped kid.  The other half is a weak screwball comedy, as Melvyn Douglas, of all people, tries to act as the voice of wise-cracking, sardonic reason and solve the crime spree rationally.  With Lionel Atwill as the local scientist who may very well be mad.  The #22 film of 1933.

The House on Haunted Hill – Wealthy eccentric Vincent Price invites a group of strangers to stay in Elisha Cook Jr.’s house, and collect $10,000 if they survive the night in William Castle’s classic film.  None of the people know each other, but as Cook explains, seven people have been killed in the house, all in egregiously fiendish fashions.  There’s a pit of acid in the wine cellar, the servants are horrifying, blood drips from the ceiling and most of the guests appear to have drinking problems.  Add to that an obnoxious test pilot, a nervous secretary and Price’s problematic relationship with his gold-digging wife, and you have one swell party.  The plot doesn’t resolve itself quite satisfactorily, but there’s enough creepiness to make it worthwhile nonetheless.  The #18 film of 1959.

Curse of the Cat People – It’s not really a horror film, and it doesn’t really have anything to do with The Cat People, though it is most definitely a sequel to Cat People, Jacques Tourneur’s great film about a woman (Simone Simon) who’s convinced she’s possessed by a demon cat spirit.  Actually, it’s relation to that film is about the same as the relation between Spirit of the Beehive and Frankenstein.  In that film, a young girl is convinced that the Monster is real and seeks it out, which causes lots of trouble for both her and her family.  In this film, Simon’s husband from the first film has remarried and has a six year old girl with his new wife.  The girl is weird and dreamy and friendless and has trouble distinguishing reality from her imagination.  She then makes friends with the ghost of Simon’s character from the first film, which may or may not be real or tragic.  Feeling more like an extended version of the great Halloween sequence from Meet Me in St. Louis (which was released eight months later) than anything else, the film is one of the more touching explorations of childhood loneliness ever made.  The #8 film of 1944.

The Hands of Orlac – Known as Mad Love in the US, but I like the British title better (it’s less likely to be confused with a Drew Barrymore film as well).  Peter Lorre, in his first American film, is an eminent surgeon who’s obsessed with an actress (Frances Drake) who acts out torture scenes in a wax museum/house of horrors.  He goes to see her every night, but is sad to eventually learn she’s married to Colin Clive’s up and coming concert pianist.  But, when Clive’s hands are crushed in a train accident, Lorre manages to transplant another crash victims hands for him.  Unfortunately, those hands belonged to a knife-throwing murderer!  As Clive’s hands begin to act beyond his control, Lorre’s obsession with the man’s wife grows ever more lunatic, leading to a horrific disguise and fantastic conclusion  The direction by famous cinematographer Karl Freund (The Last Laugh, Metropolis, I Love Lucy) is expressionistic in all the right places.  The #13 film of 1935.

Eyes Without a Face – Pierre Brasseur plays a doctor who, feeling guilty for his daughter’s disfigurement in a car accident, kidnaps young women, removes their faces and attempts to transplant them onto his daughter’s face (only her eyes are undamaged by the accident.  Helping him in his crimes is his assistant Alida Valli, who has herself had her face repaired by him in the past.  Director Georges Franju was the co-founder, with Henri Langlois of the Cinematheque Française, and the film feels like it was made by someone with a very real understanding of film history; it feels as much like a New Wave film as anything else, though Robert Bresson (in the subdued acting and editing rhythms) and the German Expressionists are in there somewhere as well.  The big surgery sequence is pretty gruesome, but it’s the mood of the whole thing (and the daughter’s mask, those masks always freak me out) that’s truly scary about the film.  The #14 film of 1960.
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