A dozen worthy free flicks, just in time for Halloween.
Overlord and The House That Dripped Blood
(Prime Cuts is a regular column that suggests worthy movies presently available for Amazon Prime subscribers to watch for free.)
NOSFERATU (1922). Forget the countless Dracula films over the decades, even the classic ones starring Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman: F.W. Murnau’s German feature Nosferatu remains the best vampire movie of all time. It possesses a strain of sheer dread not captured by any subsequent bloodsucker film, with credit for that achievement going equally to Murnau and actor Max Schreck. Murnau’s expressionistic approach employs shadows to amazing effect, and he delights in playing with the technical tools of the trade (special effects, film speeds, etc.) in ways that enhance the eerie atmosphere. As for Schreck (which means “terror” in German), his Count Orlok is a frightening, rat-faced creature, possessing nary an ounce of the charisma, suavity or even animal magnetism that later actors would bring to the role. Nosferatu is clearly based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and since it was an unauthorized adaptation, Stoker’s widow turned to the courts and successfully had all known prints destroyed. Thankfully for film fans — and for film history — not all prints were eliminated and the movie has survived. Nosferatu was skillfully remade by Werner Herzog as 1979’s stylish Nosferatu the Vampyre, starring Klaus Kinski, and there’s also 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire, starring John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe (in an Oscar-nominated turn) as Schreck, who turns out to be a real vampire!
JACK THE RIPPER (1959). While the 2001 Jack the Ripper film From Hell remains woefully underrated, this 1959 take on London’s notorious serial killer falls more into the overlooked and unseen camp. A British production that was brought stateside by prolific producer Joseph E. Levine (everything from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians to The Lion in Winter), it’s similar to the Johnny Depp picture in that it also subscribes to the popular theory that the man who was murdering Whitechapel prostitutes in grisly fashion was actually a person with medical knowledge — most likely a doctor. Thus, the suspects are plentiful in this version, as there’s the grouchy Dr. Tranter (John Le Mesurier), the pompous Dr. Rogers (Ewen Solon), the friendly Dr. Urquhart (Garard Green), and, in the best monster-movie tradition, their facially scarred hunchback assistant, Louis Benz (Endre Muller). Scotland Yard’s Inspector O’Neill (Eddie Byrne) isn’t having much luck cracking the case, so his friend Sam Lowry (Lee Patterson), an American detective, arrives to lend a hand. With an intelligent script by Hammer mainstay Jimmy Sangster (Horror of Dracula), an appropriately oppressive atmosphere, and a clever denouement, this remains one of the finest Ripper films to date. There have been three alternate cuts of the movie: a US edition (the one on Amazon Prime) with one gruesome color moment in an otherwise black-and-white film; a UK version with less gore; and a version with nudity for the European continent.
CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962). Like many people, I first caught this black-and-white oddity on late-night television — an unsettling encounter for my barely teenage brain to absorb. Indeed, it was the countless TV airings that helped turn this early-’60s obscurity into a genuine cult phenomenon approximately two decades after its initial release (writer Ed Naha was slightly ahead of the curve when he wrote in his 1975 book Horrors — From Screen to Scream that the picture “deserves more recognition”). Candace Hilligoss stars as Mary Henry, a young woman who survives an auto accident only to then find herself being tormented by what appear to be pale-faced ghosts. Finding no comfort at the Utah church where she has just been hired to serve as the organist, she instead suspects that she might find answers at the abandoned pavilion resting outside the town. Made for peanuts by director Herk Harvey and scripter John Clifford, two employees of the Kansas-based Centron Corporation (producer of industrial films), this is one of those unique movies, like 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, where the low budget, gritty footage, and rough performances combine to create not only an unsettling atmosphere of dread but also a study of transcendental angst in the face of unimaginable horror. Incidentally, that’s Herk himself portraying the primary ghoul.
X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES (1963). Two films from the Roger Corman factory that star Ray Milland are now available on Amazon Prime. The 1962 Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The Premature Burial is only so-so, with Milland miscast in a role earmarked for Vincent Price; a better bet is the following year’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (or simply X, as it’s called on screen). This nifty slice of sci-fi basically plays like Corman’s low-rent version of the 1957 classic The Incredible Shrinking Man, where a physical change causes a man to first contend with everyday objects from a unique vantage point, then join a carnival as he becomes more freakish, and finally come face to face with his existential quandary and his place in the universe. Milland stars as Dr. Xavier, a scientist who creates a liquid that, when applied, allows him to see beyond normal human capabilities. At first, he can peer through walls, clothes and even flesh (thus allowing him to save the life of a little girl who was misdiagnosed by another doctor), but as he continues to apply the eye drops, his power reaches frightening proportions. The trippy visual effects serve the story well, and the picture easily shifts from humorous to horrific at various intervals. Legendary comedian Don Rickles appears in a supporting role as a carnival barker hoping to capitalize on Xavier’s abilities, and look for Corman regular Dick Miller as the heckler in the audience.
SPIDER BABY OR, THE MADDEST STORY EVER TOLD (1964). It’s easy to see why cultists have a soft spot for this ragged, low-budget effort from the 1960s. Also making the rounds under the more gruesome (and less accurate) monikers Attack of the Liver Eaters and Cannibal Orgy, this black-and-white curio — filmed in 1964 but largely released in 1968 due to monetary and distribution woes — possesses a quirky sense of humor as it relates the story of the Merrye family, two sisters (Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn) and one brother (Sid Haig, later Captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects) who all suffer from a peculiar form of mental illness. Only Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.), the family chauffeur, can keep them in line, but when distant relatives arrive at their dilapidated mansion with the intent of collecting an inheritance, even he can’t stop the siblings’ murderous antics. Chaney’s career had long since disintegrated at this late stage (he would pass away in 1973), but here he delivers a fine performance in a sympathetic role. As an added bonus, he even warbles the opening theme song, with lyrics like “Cannibal spiders creep and crawl / Boys and ghouls having a ball / Frankenstein, Dracula and even the Mummy / Are sure to end up in someone’s tummy.” Lennon-McCartney it ain’t, but it sets the proper schizophrenic tone for this one-of-a-kind oddity.
THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971). Amicus Productions was noted for its anthology flicks during the 1970s, and here’s another one to go along with the likes of Tales from the Crypt and Asylum (the latter also currently on Amazon Prime). Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, uses a haunted house to connect four stories involving (as the original tagline blared) “Vampires! Voodoo! Vixens! Victims!” The first segment, “Method for Murder,” centers on a writer (Denholm Elliott) who creates a demented killer for his latest story and subsequently starts seeing him in the flesh. Then comes “Waxworks,” in which a retiree (Peter Cushing) visits a nearby wax museum and is shocked to see that Salome looks just like his previous love. Next is “Sweets to the Sweet,” in which a tutor (Nyree Dawn Porter) notes the tension between her young charge (Chloe Franks) and the little girl’s strict father (Christopher Lee). Finally, “The Cloak” centers on the effect that the title garment has on an actor (Jon Pertwee) who purchases it for use in his latest vampire picture. The framework is weak since the house really has no bearing on any of these stories’ supernatural shenanigans, but never mind: All the tales are enjoyable, with “Sweets to the Sweet” emerging as the strongest (though “Method for Murder” sports a nifty twist) and “Waxworks” bringing up the rear due mainly to its lackluster ending.
BLACULA (1972). One of the most famous of all blaxploitation films, Blacula casts the regal William Marshall as Mamuwalde, an African prince who, journeying through Europe with his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) in an effort to drum up support for anti-slavery measures, learns that his latest host is an unrepentant racist who adores the slave trade. That host is Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay), who subsequently turns Mamuwalde into a vampire and seals him in a coffin. Two hundred years later, Mamuwalde finds himself awakened from his slumber in Los Angeles, where he’s elated to come across Luva’s reincarnation (also McGee) but perturbed that he’s being watched by a suspicious scientist (Thalmus Rasulala). The movie possesses a lively sense of humor and is very much a product of its time, but those seeking PC comfort cinema had best steer clear (after the body of a gay interior decorator disappears, a police lieutenant played by Gordon Pinsent asks, “Who the hell would want a dead faggot?”). The success of Blacula led to an outpouring of other horror blaxploitation flicks, including the perfectly dreadful Blackenstein (reviewed here), Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde, Abby (aka The Blaxorcist) and, perhaps inevitably, a sequel in 1973’s Scream Blacula Scream. This follow-up (not available for free on Amazon Prime) is a tad more polished than its predecessor but also a tad less fun.
ALICE, SWEET ALICE (1976). A flop upon its original release, Alice, Sweet Alice has since been saved from complete irrelevance by film scholars and cultists, even if it still doesn’t quite enjoy the reputation it deserves. Writer-director Alfred Soles (scripting with Rosemary Ritvo) states that he was largely inspired by Nicolas Roeg’s superb 1973 thriller Don’t Look Now — certainly not a shabby source for ideas. Just as that picture featured a diminutive killer in a raincoat, so too does this absorbing effort in which young Karen Spages (an 11-year-old Brooke Shields in her film debut) is murdered at her local church by a masked assailant. Everyone except Karen’s divorced parents (Linda Miller and Niles McMaster) thinks that the killer might be Karen’s older — and obviously troubled — sister, 12-year-old Alice (Paula E. Sheppard). Religious imagery abounds in this gripping yarn that’s marked by at least one unexpected murder as well as a villain whose identity isn’t (contrary to the norm) readily apparent from the start. Briefly titled Communion before the shift to Alice, Sweet Alice, the picture was re-released in the early ‘80s under the moniker Holy Terror in an effort to cash in on Shields’ newfound fame post-The Blue Lagoon and post-Calvin Klein.
Q — THE WINGED SERPENT (1982). Some people primarily remember Michael Moriarty for his Emmy Award-winning turn as SS officer Erik Dorff in the 1978 TV miniseries Holocaust, while others know him as Assistant DA Ben Stone on the first four seasons of Law & Order. But there will always be a group who mainly recall the actor from his quirky and possibly deranged turn in this ingratiating effort from genre filmmaker Larry Cohen. Moriarty plays small-time crook Jimmy Quinn, who, following a botched robbery, hides out at the top of the Chrysler Building in Manhattan; there, he locates the nest of the giant creature that’s been flying around the city, picking off construction workers, window washers, and topless rooftop sunbathers alike. David Carradine and Richard Roundtree portray the cops investigating the slayings, with the former believing that the monster is the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl brought back to life through prayer and the latter thinking that his partner’s crazy. Those who require their special effects to be CGI-sparkly need not bother: The stop-motion animation used to create the serpent isn’t polished, but that only adds to the merriment of a movie that never stops long enough to take anything seriously. Cohen and his crew soak the picture in Big Apple atmosphere — the aerial photography of Manhattan is especially dynamic — and Carradine is disarmingly relaxed as the wisecracking detective. Yet it’s Moriarty who really sparks the proceedings with his offbeat characterization.
PHENOMENA (1985). Even folks who don’t generally like movies that can broadly be categorized as “gore” or “slasher” flicks should be able to get a kick out of the works of Dario Argento, the Italian filmmaker whose oeuvre has inspired countless budding filmmakers and thrilled audiences held captive by his mastery behind the lens. Phenomena represents as good a starting point as any. In between her film debut in 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America and her breakthrough role in 1986’s Labyrinth (and long before her Oscar-winning turn in 2001’s A Beautiful Mind), 14-year-old Jennifer Connelly toplined this absolutely loopy yarn in which a lonely American student at a Swiss boarding school is revealed to possess a strange hold over all insects. Can she use her powers to catch the serial killer who’s been bloodily offing the school’s nubile young girls? Initially making the stateside rounds in a heavily edited cut that was given the moniker Creepers, this engaging oddity — reportedly Argento’s favorite of all his own films — also finds room for a heroic, razor-wielding chimpanzee, a deformed kid who bears an eerie resemblance to Chucky, and veteran actor Donald Pleasence as a kindly entomologist prone to making grandiloquent declarations about bugs. For another worthy Argento title available for free on Amazon Prime, check out 1975’s Deep Red.
THE BELIEVERS (1987). From its opening sequence, in which police psychologist Cal Jamison (Martin Sheen) and young son Chris (Harley Cross) watch as a faulty coffeemaker electrocutes wife/mom Lisa (Janet-Laine Green), to its freeze-frame finale, this is an exceptionally well-made horror yarn that really gets under the skin. Following the tragedy, the distraught Cal and Chris move to New York City, where Cal immediately gets roped into helping with a case that involves the ritualistic slaughter of children by members of a religious cult. As Cal becomes further drawn into the mystery, it becomes apparent that both he and Chris are in constant danger. While the film subtly indicts Reagan-era avarice, it works just fine as a straight-up chiller, thanks to the restrained direction by Midnight Cowboy Oscar winner John Schlesinger and a sharp script by future Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost. Sheen and Cross engender massive audience sympathy, and they’re backed by a terrific supporting cast that includes Helen Shaver as Cal’s new girlfriend, a delightful Richard Masur as his lawyer and best friend, Robert Loggia as a hard-nosed detective, and Jimmy Smits as a tortured cop. And then there’s Malick Bowens: So likable as Meryl Streep’s head servant Farah in Out of Africa, here he’s all coiled menace and piercing eyes as the most skilled of the voodoo practitioners.
OVERLORD (2018). What’s interesting about this overlooked effort is that it could largely be stripped of its horror overtones and still work perfectly well as a more traditional World War II action flick. The plot concerns American paratroopers sent to destroy a Nazi radio tower just hours before the D-Day invasion is set to commence. Fatalities are heavy, with only a few soldiers left to complete the mission — these include the sensitive Boyce (Jovan Adepo), the wisecracking Tibbet (John Magaro), and the determined team leader, Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell). The band teams up with a courageous Frenchwoman (Mathilde Ollivier) but runs afoul of a sneering Nazi officer (Pilou Asbæk), little realizing that the greatest horrors still lie ahead of them. Think Josef Mengele crossed with Victor Frankenstein and you’ll get an idea of the type of direction that Overlord takes in its second half, culminating in the sort of climactic skirmishes that require ample CGI work. It’s engaging enough, but the WWII narrative and the central characters are so strong that viewers are already fully immersed before reaching this point. Russell, often cast as amiable goofballs (22 Jump Street, Everybody Wants Some!!), is particularly impressive as the determined soldier who won’t let anything interfere with the mission.