The Fog and The Hound of the Baskervilles
Need some Halloween viewing suggestions? Here are some worthy movies presently available for Amazon Prime subscribers to watch for free.
WHITE ZOMBIE (1932). The 1943 chiller I Walked with a Zombie and the 1966 thriller The Plague of the Zombies are the best of the pre-Romero era — indeed, they remain highlights of the entire genre — but of special historical significance is White Zombie, which holds the distinction of being cinema’s first zombie film. It stars Bela Lugosi as Murder Legendre, who, through a special potion and his own mastery of mind control, turns people into mindless slaves to toil in his Haitian sugar mill. After local bigwig Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) becomes obsessed with the lovely Madeline (Madge Bellamy), he turns to Legendre, who’s only too happy to help transform her into a walking corpse who will obey every command. The supporting cast is awful — at least Lugosi is entertaining in his hammy inclinations — and the low budget dictates a few titter-worthy moments (my favorite is when Beaumont’s butler, who’s supposed to be unconscious, can be spotted holding his nose as he’s tossed to his death into a body of water). But the production values aren’t compromised at any point: The atmosphere of dread is pungent, the use of sound is inspired (the creaking heard in the sugar mill is the aural equivalent of Chinese water torture, and the shrieks of a vulture are unnerving), and the makeup by the great Jack Pierce (creator of the classic Universal monsters) and Carl Axcelle is minimal but effective.
THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959). Of the countless film and television versions of the venerable Sherlock Holmes tale penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — a story that’s been interpreted by various actors from Basil to Benedict — the best just might be this handsome and exciting adaptation from the same studio (Hammer), director (Terence Fisher) and stars (Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee) that had all exploded onto the international scene with 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein and 1958’s Horror of Dracula (and would soon reunite for The Mummy later in ’59). The film opens with the arrogant and entitled Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley) engaging in rape and other crimes, activities that lead to a curse forming around his family name. The curse manifests itself well down the line, leading to at least one death. When it threatens to also visit the new heir, Sir Henry Baskerville (Lee), the intrepid Sherlock Holmes (Cushing) and his faithful sidekick Dr. Watson (Andre Morell) do their damnedest to make sure Sir Henry stays alive. Cushing is splendid as Holmes — perhaps less eccentric than other screen Holmes but certainly no less committed — while it’s nice to see Lee in a rare good-guy role. Fisher would later helm another Sherlock flick, 1962’s Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace — this time, Lee would have the honor of playing the brilliant sleuth.
THE TERROR (1963). The production of The Terror certainly didn’t lack for talent, but then again, that was often the case when Roger Corman was involved. Although he’s listed here as the sole director, he only orchestrated a few scenes, with the remainder split up among four young bucks: Francis Ford Coppola (nine years before The Godfather), Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop), Jack Hill (Spider Baby), and Jack Nicholson. Nicholson also serves as co-star here — he plays Andre Duvalier, a Napoleonic officer whose infatuation with an enigmatic woman named Helene (Sandra Knight, then Nicholson’s wife) eventually leads him to the castle of the brooding Baron Von Leppe (Boris Karloff). Also figuring into the proceedings are a local witch (Dorothy Neumann) and the Baron’s manservant Stefan (Dick Miller), the latter perhaps the only one who understands the whole truth of the mystery at hand. Ever the thrifty filmmaker who was able to spend a penny where others would spend a dollar, Corman employed Karloff for three days of shooting (the length left on the actor’s contract) and reused the sets still fresh from the previous Corman-Karloff-Nicholson collaboration, The Raven. The script for The Terror is erratic and the pacing often poor, but it’s a treat to watch the great Karloff and a baby-faced Nicholson square off, and the story packs a couple of nice surprises toward the end — including that curtain-closing jolt.
TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975). Whether it’s Dennis Weaver being menaced by a monster truck in Steven Spielberg’s Duel or Kim Darby being dragged away by the little people at the end of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, there’s something about the terror-tinged TV movies from the early-to-mid-1970s that have left an indelible mark on those viewers who caught them back in the day. Among the batch is Trilogy of Terror, an ABC anthology film showcasing three yarns written by the prolific Richard Matheson (The Twilight Zone, The Night Stalker) and starring 70s mainstay Karen Black. Barely anyone who saw this can recall what happens in the first two vignettes, but mention the Zuni fetish doll and watch the sweat break out. “Julie” finds Black playing a repressed college professor who finds herself being sexually blackmailed by one of her students (Robert Burton); a twist ending adds some pop to this installment. “Millicent and Therese” casts Black as twin sisters — one a spinster, the other a tart — but the surprise ending here can be sniffed out right from the opening minutes. And “Amelia,” which Matheson based on his own story “Prey,” stars Black as an apartment dweller who discovers that the Zuni fetish doll she bought for her boyfriend has come alive and is out for her blood. Today’s jaded, seen-it-all audiences need not apply, but nostalgists should take to this. Black is particularly excellent in that final segment.
SQUIRM (1976). Like This Island Earth and Marooned (among a handful of others), Squirm is one of those above-average films that didn’t really deserve to be skewered by the MST3K gang. Color me dubious, but Martin Sheen, Kim Basinger and Sylvester Stallone were all reportedly interested in this picture. Their roles respectively went to Don Scardino, Patricia Pearcy and R.A. Dow — admittedly, these three don’t provide the same level of trivial-pursuit fascination, although Scardino did go on to become an Emmy-winning director-producer best known for 30 Rock. Still, all three are aptly cast in this horror yarn about killer worms. Yes, worms. After a storm knocks down the power lines in a small Georgia town, the electricity that seeps into the ground turns all of the worms into crazed, flesh-eating creatures. City slicker Mick (Scardino), visiting his girlfriend Geri (Pearcy), understands better than anyone else what’s going on, a fact that doesn’t impress Roger (Dow), the rural rube who’s smitten with Geri. Squirm bests those films that feature the proverbial cast of thousands, since its cast of real worms numbers in the hundreds of thousands (some even claim a million, since no official number was recorded). At any rate, it’s an impressive undertaking, and it’s supported by the gruesome makeup designs by multi-Oscar-winner Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London, Men in Black) in the early stage of his career.
PIRANHA (1978). The years following the gargantuan success of 1975’s Jaws found studios releasing an endless stream of copycat flicks of the “When Nature Strikes!” variety — rip-offs included 1976’s Grizzly (dubbed both Claws and Paws by industry wags), 1978’s Barracuda, and the X-rated 1976 spoof Gums (where the Richard Dreyfuss character was renamed Sy Smegma, complete with definition). It’s generally agreed, though, that producer Roger Corman’s Piranha remains the best of the bunch; even Jaws director Steven Spielberg counts himself among the film’s fans. The first screenwriting credit for John Sayles as well as an early assignment for director Joe Dante, Piranha sports a sense of humor to go along with the grisly critter attacks, as a boozy woodsman (Bradford Dillman) and a private investigator (Heather Menzies) stumble across a crazed scientist (Kevin McCarthy) who’s experimenting on a pool full of mutated piranha; along the way, the couple accidentally release the ferocious fish into a nearby river. Trivia note: The in-name-only sequel, 1981’s dismal Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, marked the directorial debut of no less than James Cameron. Other non-related flicks involving these toothsome creatures include MegaPiranha, Piranhaconda, and Piranha-Man Vs. WereWolf-Man: Howl of the Piranha.
THE FOG (1980). John Carpenter wouldn’t direct his horror masterpiece for another couple of years — sorry, fans of 1978’s Halloween, but 1982’s The Thing is the real career pinnacle — yet The Fog is right in line with the types of film he made before his professional fall from grace: It’s unpretentious genre fun, stylishly assembled and populated with colorful characters. Set in the coastal California town of Bodega Bay, it concerns a curse wherein a group of murderous ghosts have returned after a 100-year slumber seeking revenge for a grave injustice. The script by Carpenter and producer Debra Hill is unique in that it features two heroines who never meet: Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau, at the time Carpenter’s wife), a local DJ who’s able to keep track of the menacing fog from her radio-station perch atop the Bodega Bay lighthouse, and Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis), a traveler who hitches a ride from local Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) and foolishly decides to stick around. For a low-budget feature, the movie looks great, thanks to director of photography Dean Cundey’s widescreen lensing, Tommy Lee Wallace’s atmospheric production design, and the groovy visual effects. Film buffs will appreciate the sight of Curtis and her mother Janet Leigh sharing screen time together, as well as the number of in-jokes (The Abominable Dr. Phibes and The Birds are but two of the titles that receive subtle shout-outs).
DEAD & BURIED (1981). Even promoting Dead & Buried as coming from “the creators of Alien” (writers Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon, although O’Bannon’s contributions to D&A were minor) couldn’t prevent the film from emerging as a box office flop. It has slowly found its audience over the ensuing years, which is only proper for a movie as distinct as this one. In the seaside town of Potters Bluff, sheriff Dan Gillis (James Farentino) works in tandem with the mortician Dobbs (Jack Albertson) to discover why tourists are being brutally murdered and, more disturbingly, why some of these victims are later seen walking around town. Ably directed by Gary Sherman, this unfolds like a good mystery, and while the final twist is illogical and absurd, it’s still very much in the spirit of the entire enterprise. Four-time Oscar winner Stan Winston (Aliens, Jurassic Park) created the excellent visual and makeup effects (the one cheesy effect, involving acid up the nostrils, was created by another party).
Turkey Pick: THE BRAIN (1988). It probably wouldn’t be a proper horror list without one stinker on it — the sort that inspires friends to gather and hurl insults at the screen — and here’s a howler perfect for the sacrifice. The power of television over the masses has powered many a movie, and The Brain also takes a stab at this rich thematic material. Although it looks like the most boring TV show imaginable, Independent Thinking has become a hit series that’s about to go national. It’s fronted by Dr. Blakely (David Gale), but behind the scenes it’s actually controlled by an alien entity that’s basically a snarling round head attached to a spinal cord. The creature derives its strength from munching on humans, and it apparently gets its kicks by brainwashing anyone stupid enough to watch the show (sort of like all FOX News viewers) — however, it didn’t count on class clown Jim Majelewski (Tom Breznahan) to thwart its dastardly plans. The brain itself is the movie’s best element — against all logic, it’s simultaneously terrifying and laughable. The rest is pretty dismal, with limp acting by the youthful cast members, repetitive chase scenes, and a script that doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Horror aficionados should enjoy some of the more outlandish set-pieces (don’t miss the teddy bear that bleeds from the eyes), while Gale, best known as the pervy professor in the 1985 cult classic Re-Animator, finds himself, ahem, losing his head yet again.
THE HOST (2006). I was all set to include The Descent in this column, as it remains one of my favorite horror films of the 2000s. Unfortunately, the version on Amazon Prime is the U.S theatrical version with the lame ending and not the original British cut with the superb fade-out (that ending is available on Blu-ray and DVD). Instead, let’s go with another foreign release from 2006. Just as the original 1954 Japanese cut of Gojira (Godzilla) warned against the evils of nuclear proliferation, this Korean import from Parasite writer-director Bong Joon-ho similarly rails against a host of societal ills, including humankind’s disregard for nature, the ability of America to force its will on the rest of the globe, the false front provided by governments declaring bogus “terror alerts,” and media insensitivity. Yet these themes only simmer in the background, and even the creature feature often takes back seat to a sturdy and even touching comedy-drama about the importance of familial fortitude. The central character is Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), a dimwitted food-stand vendor and unlikely father to bright young Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung). When an enormous mutant emerges from the Han River, munches on a few humans, and then takes Hyun-seo back to his lair, it’s up to Gang-du and other family members to rescue the girl. Full of memorable imagery (amusing sight gags easily commingle with more brutal shots) and anchored by the human story at its center, The Host is a monster movie for those who like a little meat on the genre’s bones.
THE LAST EXORCISM (2010) The prospect of journeying to Hell and back seems less daunting than sitting through another horror yarn made in the faux-documentary style of The Blair Witch Project, but this sleeper hit proves to be a pleasant surprise. Director Daniel Stamm uses the fake cinéma vérité style to milk a lot of tension out of this feature in which the disillusioned Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) takes along a documentary crew to perform an exorcism in some remote Louisiana hellhole, in an effort to prove that exorcisms are bogus and merely prey upon the superstitions of rubes. Cotton thinks he’s found a perfect showcase as devout farmer Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) insists that his sweet teenage daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is demonically possessed. After some initial scoffing, Cotton realizes that there is indeed something wrong with the girl, but is it merely psychological trauma or is Satan really hanging around? Propelled by unexceptionally fine performances from Fabian and Bell, this creepy yarn builds to a powerhouse ending that would be even stronger were it not so choppy and truncated. In fact, too many unanswered questions prevent this movie from soaring to even greater heights. Still, as a deftly executed piece of unsettling cinema, it’s only fair to give Stamm and scripters Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland — oh, and the devil — their due.
ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011). Writer-director Joe Cornish’s film is a low-budget firecracker that’s as adept at tackling social issues as it is at providing sci-fi thrills. It opens with a gang of South London kids robbing a woman before having a run-in with a nasty critter from outer space. After gang leader Moses (John Boyega of Star Wars fame) and his four friends take down the alien, they find that their neighborhood is suddenly the target of more of these marauding monsters (a cool design, they look like black furballs with glowing teeth). Sam (Jodie Whittaker of Dr. Who fame), the victim of their mugging, tries to have them arrested but is soon forced to reluctantly join them to ward off the extraterrestrial intruders. But Sam’s anger doesn’t dissipate in the face of otherworldly evil, and the beauty of the movie is how she constantly reminds these street toughs that she’s still pissed, that what they did was inexcusable, and that actions have consequences. As embodied by Whittaker, Sam is a wonderful character: intelligent, tough, and resourceful. Meanwhile, the five inner-city lads, invisible to the world, make their presence known in a positive manner: They mature, they accept responsibility, and they’re doing it in a fantasy flick that’s perpetually exciting, amusing, and out of this world.