Monday, December 20, 2010

The 10 Best Old Horror Movies That Were New to Psychobabble in 2010

I may purport myself to be some sort of authority on classic horror movies, but in reality, there are lots and lots and lots of them I’ve never seen. Nevertheless, I’m happy to say that I’m still discovering great old flicks that are new to me, whether I’ve long heard about them but have yet to give them a look-see or I’d never even been aware of their existences. Here are the ten finest retro Monster Movies that were new to me in 2010*, presented in terrifying chronological order...

*3% new material!

1. I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957- dir. Gene Fowler Jr.)

When I was a kid, the image of Michael Landon with his facial pompadour, bucky fangs, and letterman jacket as Tony the Teen Werewolf glowered back at me from many a library book about monster movies. But that was as close as I could come to seeing the movie because it almost never played on TV. It still remains unissued on DVD, so it has taken me about thirty years to finally hunt down the movie often used to illustrate the junk proliferating drive-ins after the end of horror’s 1930s/1940s golden age on You Tube. No one is going to argue that I Was a Teenage Werewolf is a work of monstery art on the level of Bride of Frankenstein or Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but as far as ‘50s drive-in junk goes, it’s top-drawer stuff. Tony is a sullen rebel-without-a-cause getting heavy slabs of jive from his high school peers, his perky blonde girlfriend, and the fuzz. A possible cure to Tony’s teenagerness arrives in the form of geeky shrink, who employs a radical treatment of hypnotherapy and hypodermic drugs to stop Tony from obsessing about fighting and fucking. But it backfires, and in a nutso departure from the usual mythology, the treatment causes Tony to transform into a murderous teen wolf. Landon brings a disarmingly complex combo of unruly darkness and little-boy vulnerability to the hormonal lycanthrope. The music and daddy-o dialogue are a hoot, and the wolf make-up is memorably cheesy, but the film avoids diving into the camp deep end.

2. Jigoku (1960- dir. Nobuo Nakagawa)

This very early Japanese horror film takes a while to reveal it’s horrificness, but once it does… yow! Shigeru Amachi plays Shirô Shimizu , a theology student with the worst luck in the world, starting with his involvement in a tragic hit-and-run accident. The supernatural element of the film’s opening half is limited to a general air of uncanny unease and an encounter with a doppelgänger. In the second half, Shirô has his own fatal encounter, after which he is demoted to Hell where he is set loose in a surreal, disorienting, grotesque environmental straight out of the right-hand panel of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Jigoku is a masterpiece of horrifically graphic images and mesmerizing artistry.

3. Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965- dir. Freddie Francis)

Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors is the horror portmanteau that launched Amicus Productions’ legacy as the home of horror portmanteaus. On board the terror train are Hammer all-stars Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, and Peter Cushing as tarot-reading Dr. Terror. Donald Sutherland’s along for the ride, too. The five tales feature a werewolf that sleeps in a coffin like Dracula (dull but decent ending), a murderous plant (decent but dull ending), a voodoo god who takes vengeance on a thieving jazz musician (Great music! Great fun!), a killer disembodied hand with designs on Lee (not bad), and a sexy vampire who shacks up with Sutherland (Terrific twist!).

4. Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly (1970- dir. Freddie Francis)

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly is another terrific film from Freddie Francis, yet one that couldn’t be more different from Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. This demented British satire about a murderous family reminded me a lot more of the B-classic Spider Baby, but the sardonically sugary tone is straight out of one of the nursery rhymes school kids Girly and Sonny cackle incessantly at their victims. The portrayal of the breakdown of the 1950s nuclear-family ideal is amusingly gleeful, but the movie works best on face value as a series of intriguing and deadly games between the crazed family and their latest acquisition.

5. The Vampire Lovers (1970- dir. Roy Ward Baker)

Hammer screams “Fuck it… bring on the boobs!” from the mountaintops with its first full-on, unapologetic fusion of sexploitation and vampiresploitation. You know you’re in for a non-stop boob fest when the recently departed Ingrid Pitt gets top billing. Fortunately, Pitt transcends that limited image with her energetic presence and committed acting. She plays a lusty vampiress who goes around biting and bedding everyone in sight. Well, everyone but Peter Cushing. That would be gross. The depiction of a predatory lesbian vampire is homophobic, but Pitt plays her with such humanity that she earns our empathy much more so than her vacant-eyed victim, whom she genuinely seems to love. Hammer execs probably would have been happy if The Vampire Lovers was nothing more than a static shot of cleavage for 90 minutes, yet it still manages to house all the atmosphere, color, production values, and fangy fun that made the studio great in the first place. In fact, with its black and white inserts, imaginative use of shadows, and fine sound design, The Vampire Lovers is more aesthetically creative than most Hammers. Check it out; then check out the brilliant parody “Vampire Lesbian Lovers of Lust” from Steve Coogan’s series “Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible”.

6. Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974- dir. Roy Ward Baker)

Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is a blast, an audacious blend of two totally distinct yet totally different genres. In the Hammer horror corner we have a black-caped Dracula, striking color, strident music, and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. In the chopsocky corner we have a longhaired Kung Fu master, nonstop hand-to-hand combat, and some requisite bad dubbing (although, in this case, it is a perfectly sensible plot device). The interracial romances are unexpected in an early 70s B-movie such as this—and quite refreshing. I bet this movie gives Quentin Tarantino a boner.

7. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974- dir. Jorge Grau)

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is kind of a precursor to more contemporary cheeky zombie flicks like Shaun of the Dead and Black Sheep. It definitely seems to have influenced those two movies, not just in setting and humor (although it’s not a comedy), but in its emphasis on character over killing. The cast of potential victims includes a wiseass rogue, a creepy photographer, a bastardly police detective, a junkie, and her pretty sister. Much fresher and more satisfying than most of the zombie movies that seem to plague cinemas on a near weekly basis these days.

8. Hausu (1977- dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi)

After Toho, the studio responsible for all those terrifically cheesy Godzilla movies, approached Nobuhiko Obayashi about making a Japanese answer to Jaws, the advertising filmmaker took a rather novel approach. He recalled seven of his school-age daughter’s worst fears and crammed them into a haunted house movie that plays like Suspiria reimagined by Sid and Marty Krofft. A severed head flies from a water well and bites a schoolgirl on her bottom. A piano consumes human flesh and disembodied fingers pound on its keys. A girl gets into a kung-fu brawl with some firewood. A cat’s eyes glimmer with cartoon sparkles. And there isn’t a single shark in sight. The film plays out with the logic of a weird dream, so don’t go looking for a plot. The scares are on the level of those in Wizard of Oz, which means they will be particularly effective for youngsters even as kids of all ages recognize how disturbing some of the occurrences in Hausu are. The special effects are non-stop, ranging from primitive video manipulation to “How the Hell did they do that?” magic, as evidenced by those ivory-tinkling fingers. You may step out of Hausu scratching your head, but you surely won’t step out bored.

9. The Changeling (1980- dir. Peter Medak)

The Changeling begins as if it’s going to be a moody exploration of grief along the lines of Don't Look Now, but it shakes that off pretty quickly and gets down to being a less emotionally complex but still very good ghost story/murder mystery. The picture begins with composer John Russell’s (George C. Scott) wife and daughter getting calzoned by a big truck. Four months later he moves into a creepy old mansion where he intends to start writing music again but gets sidetracked by a ghost he thinks will give him information about his lost loved ones. The Changeling takes some rather interesting twists during its fourth quarter. I particularly liked the wronged ghost, which behaves in a far less passive manner than most wronged ghosts do in contemporary wronged ghost stories.

10. The Monster Club (1981- dir. Roy Ward Baker)

The Monster Club, a remorselessly silly portmanteau based on the stories of R. Chetwynd Hayes, is also remorselessly delightful. John Carradine plays Hayes and Vincent Price is a vampire in the goofy wraparound story set in a nightclub stocked with dancers in rubber monster masks and a surprisingly good line-up of pop acts, including Psychobabble favorites The Pretty Things! Price narrates a trio of quite good tales about a beauty and the melancholy beast who loves her, a boy who learns his dad’s a vampire, and a movie director who provides sustenance for a village of ghouls. The makeup budget is three dollars; the nonstop fun is priceless. Plus the animated skeleton striptease is a gas.

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