The City of the Dead 1960 ***

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Also known as Horror Hotel, The City of the Dead is a rather staid but also rather unnerving black and white horror that makes up for in atmosphere what it lacks in pizazz. Christopher Lee is top billed in John Moxey’s chiller, but he’s a minor player here. He plays university professor Alan Driscol, who directs a young witchcraft student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) to the Massachusetts town of Whitewood, where she stays in an inn recommended by Driscol, The Raven’s Inn. Whitewood offers more fog that a Carl Dreyer smoke machine testing, and the local minister has long gone without a congregation. The reason is witchcraft; a prologue establishes that the town is cursed, and a witch is amongst the residents who wish Nan ill-fortune…The City of the Dead is often mentioned alongside Carnival of Souls or Night of the Eagle; it’s got a similar low-fi evocation of witchcraft, and a strange mood; the sombre nightly dances at The Raven’s Inn seem beyond improbable. There’s also a plot-twist that predates Psycho and some very crisp photography; Desmond Dickinson’s lensing comes up sharply in a new print which does the film justice. If there’s a lack of surprises here, there’s also a British restraint that, despite the rather fancifully realised US setting, creates a genuinely eerie atmosphere that few genre films can match.

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To The Devil, A Daughter 1976 ***

 

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In the 1970’s, Dennis Wheatley was a literary phenomenon, with a slew of bestsellers; he was pretty much the biggest brand-name for horror in the UK. Wheatley has been a friend of Ian Fleming, and an advisor to Winston Churchill during World War II, and knew his way around all manner of government secrets., He wrote spy novels too, but the notion of having access to hidden information seemed to inform his most popular work; They Used Dark Forces is a typical title. Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out was pretty good, special effects aside, but not particularly scary, and when Hammer was looking to take on The Exorcist, The Omen and the devil worship cycle of the mid 1970’s, it turned to Wheatley’s To The Devil A Daughter. With genre favourite Christopher Lee as a villain, imported star Richard Widmark as the occult writer tracking him down, and Natasha Kinski as the nubile Bravian nun set to be sacrificed to Old Nick himself, what could go wrong? Throw in Rising Damp’s Francis De La Tour as a Salvation Army singer, Bond girl Honor Blackman, saturnine Anthony Valentine and of course the always welcome Denholm Elliot, and there’s nothing boring about Peter Sykes’s film. There’s nothing very scary about it otherwise, but that’s to do with the source material. Wheatley was an adventure writer who used black magic themes; To The Devil A Daughter was the wrong selection of weapon, club or instrument by the Hammer executives, but shorn of expectations of the next big thing in horror, it’s a fun ride for specialists.

https://www.amazon.com/Devil-Daughter-Richard-Widmark/dp/B01K8I8UKA/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=to+the+devil&qid=1565011208&s=gateway&sr=8-1

The Skull 2019 ****

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‘This isn’t just any skull…’ says seller Marco (Patrick Wymark) to potential buyer Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing); it’s not even a Marks and Spencer skull, it’s the actual noggin of the Marquis de Sade himself, and no good can come of it being hawked around occult dealers in this Freddie Francis horror/thriller. With a script by Amicus regular Milton Subotsky and based on a short story by Robert ‘Psycho’ Bloch, The Skull is a cut above the usual fare, with an unusual straight role for Christopher Lee, plus a perfect supporting cast including Patrick Mcgee, Michael Gough and Nigel Green. It’s quite tame by modern standards, but the quaintness is charming, and Francis whips things up to quite a frenzy by the end. The art of this kind of gentleman’s horror film is long gone; The Skull popping up on mainstream streaming services is a nice reminder of the genre’s charms. And according to Wikipedia, the actual skull of the Marquis is still unaccounted for, so in the light of what happens to the esteemed gentlemen here, best avoid any rash ebay purchases…

The Mummy 1959 ****

Terence Fisher’s sense of style often seemed to be at odds with the cheeky cheap and cheerful production values of Hammer films; this retelling of the classic Mummy story has a garish colour scheme with dynamic greens and reds splashed across the screen. Peter Cushing is amongst the party of foolhardy Brits who happen across an Egyptian tomb; murdered one by one by a mysterious assailant, it’s clear that something evil has been awakened, and that something is a mummy played by Christopher Lee. The Mummy’s narrative is straightforward enough, but there’s a lengthy and substantial flashback that details the history of Kharis (Lee) giving the star a chance to do something more than swan around in bandages and moaning in a threatening way. There’s a sense of colonial guilt at work here; although John Banning (Cushing) describes the forces disturbed as ‘evil’, it’s clear that the wrong being committed here is the desecration of the temple, and a reincarnation sub-plot involving Banning’s daughter manages to create some genuine sympathy for the monster. Jimmy Sangster’s script may feed on fear of a foreign unknown, but doesn’t shy away from identifying a genuine grievance in terms of how the Egyptians might view entitled Brits.

Scream and Scream Again 1970 ****

ScreamDespite the trio of big names, noted 1960s comic Alfred Marks largely dominates the policier segments as a tough cop, Popeye Doyle-style, who is investigating murderous proceedings. His attempts to track down a seemingly super-human killer are intercut with a hospital bed scene where a patient repeatedly wakes up to find further limbs removed. In such a surreal film, it almost feels like a let down to have a third storyline involving Christopher Lee tracking down Vincent Price, explaining that he was heading up the usual secret government plot to create genetically modified super soldiers. Played by Michael Gothard, this crazed killer can rip off his own arm to avoid a handcuffing to a police car bumper and preys on post-club ‘dolly birds’. Meanwhile, Peter Cushing’s character plays politics in a police state vividly depicted in a few nightmare sequences in the mould of 1984, a science-fictional vibe that runs against the grain of a film that is clearly 1967 London down to the inevitable psychedelic freak-out performed by Amen Corner.

I, Monster 1971 ***

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Considering that it stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and is a product of the Amicus studio, there’s not a lot of love around for Stephen Weeks’ 1971 reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Lee himself is quite disparaging about the result, noting the choppy editing and the mystifying decision not to use the names of Jekyll and Hyde, but retaining all the other characters from Stevenson’s novella (Utterson, Poole) verbatim. But while most versions play fast and loose with the structure of the original text, I Monster is remarkably faithful, with letters, forged signatures and most of the incidents transposed carefully to the screen. Lee also plays the doctor with surprising subtlety; a decision was clearly made to have the transformation take place gradually; after the first dosage, Dr Marlowe just walks around his laboratory with a goofy grin on his face. I, Monster is a solid version of a classic tale, and worth seeing to get a sense of the social strictness that Stevenson’s story attacks.

Starship Invasions 1977 ***

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A prized entry in the so-bad-its-good canon, Starship Invasions is a breathtakingly awful sci-fi epic that claims to be based on actual testimony. Captain Rameses (Christopher Lee) is plotting his invasion of earth, and only Robert Vaughn’s scientist stands in his way. He joins forces with a race of peaceful aliens already on earth to start the fightback when Rameses uses mind control to cause earthlings to commit suicide in droves. Everything in Starship Invasions is jaw-droppingly awful, from the spandex costumes to the kid-friendly suicide bids and endless technobabble (one technician artlessly describes his super-computer as ‘ruined’). Lee and Vaughn looked baffled, as will audiences; apparently writer/director Ed Hunt filmed parts of this at the University of Toronto, which raises questions about the uses of august educational facilities to make such engagingly spurious films.