Black and White

The House On Haunted Hill (1959)

the house on haunted hill

The House On Haunted Hill is another 1950s low budget horror film from director William Castle (Thirteen Ghosts, The Tingler) which along with Thirteen Ghosts was remade into a film bearing little resemblance in the late 1990s/early 2000s. The House On Haunted Hill has a simple premise, five people are invited to spend the night in a haunted house for $10,000 (approximately $80,000 in today’s money) – if they stay there until the next morning. Whilst I have no problems with this as an idea, it doesn’t stack up with the fact that everyone is locked in the house at midnight meaning nobody can leave, the only way out is through a steel door and all the windows have maximum security bars on (Why? There are many such questions in this film, don’t look too closely at it). Why add the proviso that you have to stay until morning if there is no physical way to leave?

The five people invited to the house are all unknown to one another and vary from test pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long, The Big Valley) through to psychiatrist David Trent (Alan Marshal, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) along with newspaper columnist Ruth Bridges (Julie Mitchum, Hit and Run), Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig, Giant) who works for their host and the house’s owner (as in the film’s contemporary The Bat the hosts are merely renting the mansion), Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook, Rosemary’s Baby ) The party is hosted by Frederick Loren, played by Vincent Price (House of Wax and numerous other horror films in the 50s and 60s), although he keeps insisting that it is in fact his wife’s (Carol Ohmart, Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told), party. It soon becomes clear that there is a lot of bad feelings between the Lorens and it is a distinct possibility that Mrs Loren will meet a similar fate to Frederick’s previous three wives who mysteriously died.

Whilst the ghosts make an appearance at the start of the film with falling chandeliers and decapitated heads appearing then disappearing it is never quite explained if they are real ghosts or merely props in the web if deceit. I would guess at the latter for some are revealed to have human origins, such as the floating old woman who Nora meets in a pitch black room who turns out to be the elderly blind housekeeper (although why she seemingly glides across the floor rather than walks is again unexplained).

The House On Haunted Hill is undeniably sexist with much talk of ‘hysterical women’. Ignoring this fact the film doesn’t deliver what the title promises. There is only a slight nod towards the supernatural which is completely discarded by the end of the film. As previously mentioned, there are many inexplicable plot devices, such as the guests receiving a loaded revolver each to defend themselves from the ghosts. The worst and most grating feature, however, is the vat of acid strong enough to dissolve flesh in minutes in the basement revealed by a trapped door. The explanation of the vat is equally weak; it was a previous owner’s from experimenting on different types of wine (and coincidently where his wife died).

Unless you are a particular fan of 1950’s mystery thrillers or Vincent Price I wouldn’t recommend The House On Haunted Hill there are simply too many grating plot points.

Rating: 2/5

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The Bat (1959)


the bat

Set primarily in “The Oaks”, a large mansion rented by murder mystery author Cornelia Van Gorder played by Agnes Moorhead (Bewitched, Citizen Kane), The Bat is a quintessential 1950s murder mystery film containing a masked serial killer and a million stolen dollars hidden somewhere in the house. When arriving in the small town, Cornelia learns that a masked serial killer known as the eponymous “Bat” a faceless man who kills women by ripping their throats out with steel claws and unfortunately for her, the crimes were committed in and around The Oaks. Cornelia is undeterred and stays in the house, however she loses all of her servants except her faithful maid, Lizzy, played by Lenita Lane (The Gay Deception – I wonder what that is about!?). The relationship between Lizzy and Miss Cordy as she calls Cornelia is very close and more like an old married couple than employee/employer, indeed when scared there is much clutching of one another and sharing the bedroom.

On a routine visit to the bank we are introduced to the remaining characters in the play including Victor and Dale Bailey, the vice president of the bank and his wife, played by Mike Steele (The Rockford Files) and Elaine Edwards (Curse of the Faceless Man) respectively and Lieutenant Andy Anderson (Gavin Gordon, The Bride of Frankenstein), the local law enforcer. In this unfortunate scene we learn that the president of the bank and owner of The Oaks has stolen $1 million (over $8 million in today’s money) and has headed off to the forest with Doctor Malcolm Wells, played by horror aficionado Vincent Price (House of Wax). Victor Bailey informs Anderson of this not in a private office but in the middle of the bank separated from the rest of the office by a hip-high wall, this strikes me a very silly as surely people would overhear and start a riot on the bank? Only Dr Wells returns from the forest alive and soon the serial killer is back to his old tricks, searching the house for the missing money and killing anyone who gets in his way.

There is a decent stream of dead bodies and mystery with several curve balls thrown in as to the identity of the killer. Indeed, it kept me guessing and changing my mind as to who I thought it was. I also liked the portrayal of women in the film, it definitely passes the Bechdel Test, that is; 1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man. Unlike many films the killer is fallible, making a huge racket and alerting people when looking for the money, but equally The Bat is not inept. One thing that did irritate me about The Bat though was the method for killing, the steel claws are incredibly impractical and whilst it makes an effective silhouette, a faceless man in a suit and hat with these giant curved claws I feel it would have restricted a lot of his movement. Although there are a lot of murders in the film there is not a single drop of blood on screen, indeed in one of the cases I wasn’t sure if the victim had been killed or just knocked unconscious! I would recommend The Bat to any fan of murder mysteries.

Rating: 5/5

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Fun Fact: This 1959 offering is not the first time The Bat has been on screen, in fact it is based on a 1920 Broadway play and had been adapted into a film of the same name in 1926 and as The Bat Whisperers in 1930.

 

The Mole People (1956)

The mole people

The Mole People opens with an introduction from real-life Professor Frank C. Baxter on past views on the idea of a hollow Earth, which provide both a great context to the film and a very interesting side point. Baxter mentions two very famous theories by John Symmes and Cyrus Teed although what is not clear is these have any relationship to the underground chasm in the film. The film proper is set in nondescript ‘Asia’, although given the propensity of Sumerian is likely to be Iraq. It follows a group of Indiana Jones-type archaeologists led by Dr Roger Bentley and Dr Jud Bellamin played by John Agar (Revenge of the Creature, Invisible Invaders) and Hugh Beaumont (The Human Duplicators) respectively.

A series of clues unearthed during earthquakes points to a previously lost civilisation on top of the mountain where they settled after the great flood (think Noah and his ark). The archaeologists trek to the top of the mountain along with Professor Lafarge (Nestor Paiva), Dr Paul Stuart (Phil Chambers) and a local guide, Nazar (Rodd Redwing) where they find the ruins of an ancient temple. After a series of unfortunate events, several of which could have been prevented if wearing sensible safety gear and taking sensible precautions, the archaeologists find themselves deep underground where they discover the remains of the ancient civilisation, including a race of white skinned, black eyed people still practicing the ancient ways. There is another race, the eponymous mole people who are slaves to the humanoids, who, after 5,000 years can they truly be called human? The archaeologists arrival throws the underground realm into disarray causing a rebellion from the subjugated Mole People.

The Mole People is a good example of films from the 1950s, like all films of the era the men are ‘manly’ and the main hero gets the beautiful damsel in distress, a slave girl played by Cynthia Patrick who is Marked as she shows none of the genetic mutations to survive in the darkness. The special effects in The Mole People are typical of films from this era, with large caverns with exquisitely painted but unrealistic backdrops and too regular boulders and rock faces, and the disfigured mole people are obviously people in rubber masks. The film has a lot of dark shots, lit only with a spot light and handheld torch which is refreshing, as one of my biggest bug bears of films is the overuse of lighting when it apparently takes place in darkness.

The director, Virgil Vogel (The Land Unknown, The Big Valley) plays fast and loose with scientific fact and practice and there are a few glaringly obvious scientific falsehoods and malpractices, for example the Sumerians are described as albinos but all have black hair and the team manage to break a tablet that had survived 5,000 years and don’t seem to care. Despite the leaps of faith required, I enjoyed The Mole People immensely, it was very reminiscent of the original Star Trek and I would recommend this film to anyone who enjoyed the adventures of James T. Kirk.

Rating: 4/5

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Vampyr (1932)

vampyr

The full title of the film is Vampyr: the Dream of Allan Grey and follows Allan Grey a young man with an obsession for the occult and supernatural. Portrayed by Julian West, Grey is twitchy and slightly gormless looking and finds himself in a riverside inn in the French countryside. In his first night he is awoken by an old man unlocking the door from the wrong side who talks to him about death. Things continue to get stranger for Grey who then sees shadows about the village moving as ghosts with nobody casting them. These include dancing couples, a running figure reflected in the river and a soldier with a wooden leg climbing a ladder who Grey then observes to return to its rightful owner.

It is soon revealed that the old man lives in a chateau nearby with his two teenage daughters, Gisèlle and Léone, along with a handful of servants. All is not well in the chateau with both girls appearing to be ill with a lack of blood, and it soon becomes clear that both are the victims of a vampire. The audience learn a lot about the vampire folklore present in this film from “The History of Vampires” by Paul Bonnard that Grey is reading, from which we find out that once bitten by a vampire, the victim then develops a lust for blood and becomes a vampire, thus wiping out whole villages. Alongside the unfortunate family is the village doctor played by Jan Hieronimko, who looks like Albert Einstein who has been left to shrivel in a low oven for ten hours. It is clear from the subject matter of the books Grey (and thus the audience) is reading that he doesn’t trust the doctor with references throughout to previous examples of doctors joining forces with vampires.

Vampyr holds with many of the traditional vampire myths, for example being unable to be in sunlight and the presence in one scene of a shadowy bat. However, it plays much more on the relationship between vampire and victim, the hold that the supernatural being has over the victim, compelling them to commit suicide, but also the addictive nature of the victim’s blood and the vampires need for it.

Vampyr was the first sound film created and directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Day of Wrath) and as such relies heavily on the use of title cards used in silent films. Based loosely on In a Glass Darkly, a collection of short stories from the nineteenth century by Sheridan Le Fanu, Vampyr is more a series of scenes connected only by the fact Allan Grey is viewing than a fully-fledged storyline. The unconnected feeling however adds to the dreamlike and ethereal quality of the film but also makes it hard to follow. The disembodied shadows and random shots of skeletons seem unrelated to the rest of the film and the ending providing more questions than answers.

Fun Fact: Vampyr was originally filmed in three languages, German, French and English and released in both French and German. Only damaged copies of the film survived and it was restored from both the French and the German in the 1990s.

Rating: 2/5

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13 Ghosts (1960 and 2001)

13 ghosts

The 2001 remake directed by Steve Beck (Ghost Ship) bears very little resemblance to the 1960 original by William Castle (House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler) other than there is a house haunted by twelve ghosts left to the central family by a creepy uncle with an obsession with the occult.

In the original, the house is left by Dr. Plato Zorba to his nephew and family; Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods), his wife Hilda (Rosemary DeCamp) and their two children Medea (Jo Morrow) a flirty young woman or indeterminate age, and Buck (Charles Herbert) a ghost obsessed ten year old.  In the 2001 remake, the names are changed, the creepy uncle becomes Cyrus Kriticos (F. Murray Abraham) and the nephew and family now consists of Arthur Kriticos (Tony Shalhoub) and his two children Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth) and Bobby (Alec Roberts), Mrs. Kriticos having died in a house fire six months previously. In both films the family are having financial problems and the offer of a large house seems too good to be true (and it turns out is!)

In both there are two other characters (not counting the ghosts) common to both films, the lawyer after the hidden fortune – Benjamin Rush (Martin Milner) and Benjamin Moss (JR Bourne) in the 1960 and 2001 films respectively, and the housekeeper/nanny who changes from the inherited housekeeper ‘witch’ played by Margaret Hamilton (the wicked witch of the west in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz) to a nanny with an attitude played by Rah Digga. In the remake there are several additional characters including the psychic Dennis Rafkin (Matthew Lillard) and ghost hunter Kalina Oretzia (Embeth Davidtz).

In the 2001 film the house is a work of art, a giant glass jigsaw of sliding walls that release ghosts from the basement and in one memorable scene, cuts the lawyer in half. The house is controlled from a secret room at the top of the house from which the ghosts are released one by one by pulling levers on what looks like a giant old fashioned cash register. At the centre of this house, which turns out to be a machine is a series of concentric rings that begin to rotate from the centre as the film progresses. In contrast, the original house is the usual sprawling mansion and the only remarkable thing is a descending canopy on a bed that was used to smother people.

One thing the two films do have in common is that the ghosts can only be observed through a special pair of glasses. In the original this was used to great effect with Illusion-O, in which a ghost viewer being handed out to audience members featuring a blue and a red cellophane sections. To emulate the ghost viewer I used a handy pair of old fashioned 3D glasses but it is possible to view the film without it. William Castle appears at the start of the film and explains that when the screen turns blue (from the usual black and white) that, if you believe in ghosts to look through the red and if you don’t, to look through the blue section. The ghosts are shown in red with the rest of the scene in blue. The red filter intensifies the ghosts and the blue filter ‘removed’ them. It was very entertaining to play ghost-no-ghost by closing the relevant eye for each filter.

The ghosts in the two films are very different and play a greater role in the film’s plot in the remake. In the original the ghosts consist of four burning ghosts and a cartwheel of fire, a chef and his murdered wife and in-laws and a headless lion tamer and lion. In the remake the twelve ghosts make up the black zodiac and each has a back story. The ghosts range from the first born son (a child dressed as a cowboy with an arrow through his forehead) to the torn prince (a 1950’s jock with a baseball bat) to psychotic killers known as The Jackal and the Juggernaut.

These two films are both good films in their own right but I would not call the later film a remake of the 1960 film, rather that it was inspired by it. Neither film are particularly scary, but have different factors recommending them, the Illusion-O in the 1960 version and the amazing set design in the 2001 version.

 

The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920)

the golem

The Golem: How He Came into the World (or Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam as it is known in the original German) is the third of three films directed by Paul Wegener (the preceding films being The Golem and the dancing girl and The Golem which were both lost) based on the Jewish legend of the Golem. The eponymous Golem is a large man-like creature made out of clay played by the director Paul Wegener.

The story is in five chapters, the first beginning with Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück), portrayed as a stereotypical magician, pointy hat and all, reading a coming disaster for the Jewish community in medieval Prague. The Emperor then signs a decree ordering all the Jews to move into a ghetto and Rabbi Loew starts plotting a way to save the Jewish people by creating a man out of clay. In the second chapter the message for the Jews to evacuate to the ghetto is delivered by the knight Florian (Lothar Müthel), where he meets Rabbi Loew’s beautiful daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova) and falls in love and the Golem is brought to life in a dramatic fire-laden ceremony by Loew and his assistant, Famulus (Ernst Deutsch). In third chapter, Rabbi Loew takes the Golem to show the Emperor at the Rose Festival and from then, a series of calamitous events occur.

As with all silent films, any emotions must be expressed via facial expressions and body language. The love shown between Florian and Miriam on their first meeting is a good example of how well this is done, both of them taking deep shuddering breaths and clinging to one another, hand on hearts which I found a better expression of two people flirting and falling in love than the more modern kissing then waking up naked next to each other.

The use of lighting and shadows along with the unusual shaped highly expressionist set design by Hans Poelzig gives the impression of a poor marginalised community in which the tall angular houses loom over the narrow streets, presenting blank walls with dark orifices in the form of windows.  Indeed Loew’s home looks more akin to living inside a giant tree than a house, consisting of organic flowing lines and small shadowy spaces. The use of colour filters again adds to the tone of the film for example, the use of gold for the temple, green for the Rabbi’s house and blood red for the rampaging Golem. The version of the film I watched was accompanied by an excellent score with as a violin and piano duet and I feel it captured the mood and story of the film perfectly.

The Golem: How He Came into the World is an amazing film and I would recommend it to anyone, both people familiar and unfamiliar with the German Expressionist movement and horror films.