One wonders if there is any rhyme or reason to Platimum’s box-sets; for all their flaws (don’t get me started, please), at least Brentwood tend to have four movies with a similar theme, setting or approach. Here, we have a slasher pic with aspirations above its station, a psychological thriller, a voodoo movie, and perhaps the best-known zombie movie of all time, Night of the Living Dead [Reviewed separately elsewhere, as we honoured the US release of Shaun of the Dead by looking at the Romero trilogy]
Night lapsed into the public domain because the film-makers neglected to put a copyright notice on the print (a requirement no longer needed), and has become a staple of these box-sets, appearing in at least a double-figure count of them. It’s clearly the hook to get you in here, but while none of the other three movies are exactly essential, all have something of interest to offer. Boris Karloff and Barbara Steele are bigger names than are usually to be found lurking, and while I find Night over-rated, any horror fan needs to have it in their collection. This way is as cheap as any other.
Christmas Evil (1980)
Dir: Lewis Jackson
Star: Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey De Munn, Dianne Hull, Andy Fenwick
a.k.a. You’d Better Watch Out
This is an idea with potential: Harry (Maggart – Fiona Apple’s father!), traumatised by seeing ‘Santa’ go down on his mother, grows up with a twisted take on the holiday; he monitors the local kids to see if they’re naughty or nice, works in a toy factory, etc. When the rest of society fails to observe the festive season with the appropriate gusto, he starts to kill the worst offenders. This might have worked as a ferocious satire on commercialism, with Harry a ruthless defender of the true spirit of Christmas, and occasionally – as in the police lineup of Clauses – heads in this direction. TV reports, warning people to stay away from Santa, also hint at the possibilities.
However, too often, it’s left to Maggart to carry the movie, and he’s definitely not up to the task, mostly resembling Pee-Wee Herman, and humming Santa Claus is Coming to Town in a doomed attempt at menace. It needs someone who can project a more credible threat, and despite the appearance of a mob of New Yorkers with flaming torches, never reaches the heights of absurdity necessary to the concept. Except, it has to be said, for the ending, which looks like it comes totally out of left-field, but is apparently not quite what it seems. Regardless, if you think of the most ridulous way this could possibly finish, you’ll still probably come up short. Jackson never wrote or directed another film – and seeing this one’s finale, it’s probably a good thing.
The Ghost (1963)
Dir: Riccardo Freda
Star: Barbara Steele, Peter Baldwin, Leonard Elliott, Harriet White
a.k.a. Lo Spettro
This “ghost” story takes place entirely inside a “Scottish” mansion just after the turn of the 20th century, where Mrs. Hitchcock (Steele) plots with her lover, the local doctor (Baldwin), to kill her crippled husband (Elliott). Only, his spectre continues to haunt, driving his widow to the edge of insanity. The print here is in awful condition, particularly near the start, which even has the first two scenes reversed. There are so many scratches and jumps as to make it hard going, and the plot isn’t likely to make you want to continue either, with just about every cliche in the screenplay book dusted off for our entertainment. And if she wants her husband dead so badly, why does she prevent him from committing suicide?
Fortunately, the performances help rise above the material, even though the dubbed accents leave me suspecting Scotland was chosen as a setting by lobbing darts at a world map. Steele shows why she is perhaps the icon of 60’s Italian horror, delivering the kind of performance that makes murder by her request seem not just plausible, but almost inevitable. A sequel of sorts to The Terror of Dr. Hichcock [sic], also starring Steele and White, with Freda directing, the atmosphere is the main thing here, and there’s no shortage of it. Even if you know the resolution is going to be a terrible disappointment – and it is – this is no disaster.
The Snake People (1971)
Dir: Jack Hill & Juan Ibañez
Star: Ralph Bertrand, Boris Karloff, Julissa, Charles East
a.k.a. Isle of the Snake People
One of a series of movies made by Karloff just before his death, his scenes took place in Hollywood, while the rest of the film was shot in Mexico. Actually, I just typed “was shit”, and am very tempted to let that stand, given the apparently endless, tedious footage of voodoo ceremonies here. Bertrand plays a cop, send to a remote island to investigate reports of strange religious rites, and shake life into the local force, led by Wilhelm (Bertrand). There, he meets local lord Carl Von Molder (Karloff) and his innocent niece Annabella (Julissa), there to enlist uncle’s help in her temperance campaign. I’m sure I don’t have to hint at who is behind the evil goings-on, who is going to end up on the altar, and who is going to rescue her. Or him…oh, who am I trying to kid?
Apart from the midget voodoo priest in his top hat, there isn’t a great deal of interest here. Karloff, in his 80’s, looks frail, but still has command, while there’s fun to be had with lines like Annabella’s, “Modern science has proven that alcohol is responsible for 99.2% of all the worlds sins!” There are all kinds of sordid undertones – necrophilia through lesbianism to the frequent use of phallic snakes – but in terms of actual content, it’s tamer than I’d expect from the director of Spider Baby. You could send this one back, twenty-five years before it’s 1971 release, and it wouldn’t seem out of place.