Thursday, September 29, 2016

Blood and Lace (1971) - Part 2 of 3

Our discussion of Blood and Lace (1971) continues. You can read Part 1 here(Blood and Lace is available on Scream Factory Blu Ray and streaming on Amazon Prime Video.) When we left Ellie Masters, she was in the hospital after the hammer murder of her mother. She was scheduled to be transferred to an orphanage, but as we saw previously, the proprietors of the orphanage are not above a little murder themselves to keep the place running on $150 per head from the county.

Social worker Mullins escorts Ellie from the hospital (its elaborate signage pictured below) to the Deere house.


While Mullins conducts his inspection of the orphanage, Ellie begins to make trouble with the other orphans. When she learns that the oldest of the "boys," 21-year-old Walt, is the boyfriend of a 16-year-old girl named Bunch, she immediately flirts with Walt and quickly learning that Bunch is not his girlfriend after all.

During the inspection, in a moment of dark humor, Mrs. Deere tells Mullins that three of the children are in the infirmary. Mullins asks what's wrong. "Just a little cold," Tom replies. Mullins and Mrs. Deere then retire to her bedroom to complete the sordid terms of their monthly deal.

At dinner, the teens talk about Ernest's escape. Ellie finds out that kids regularly escape the facility, even though she knows Mullins is under the impression that Ernest was the first escapee.

While the kids are eating dinner, Mrs. Deere speaks to someone offscreen about the difficulty of making ends meet. She can't support this many children on the money the county pays her. We see only her shadow, and the scene is eerily scored with a theremin.

The theremin score returns the next day as Mrs. Deere speaks with Ellie, first about her chores, then about the difficulties of growing older. "I was beautiful once," she says. "And then one morning I looked in the mirror. I was old."

Ellie starts polishing the woodwork but, curious, she makes her way up to the cluttered attic. Ellie appears to be able to move anywhere in the house, particularly the places where Mrs. Deere hides her shocking secrets.

In the attic, Ellie is shocked to find a girl tied to a pipe. The girl's name is Jennifer and she has been locked in the attic for days because she tried to run away. When Ellie tries to get Jennifer a glass of water from the kitchen, Tom stops her and takes the glass away from her.

Detective Calvin Carruthers stops by the house, ostensibly to follow up about the runaway, Ernest. He and Tom exchange words about Ellie; both of them have an interest in her that is not strictly professional.

Calvin talks to Ellie in the kitchen, where she informs him that Ernest isn't the only kid who has escaped. He says he'll keep checking up on her to make sure she's safe, and he gives her a Vic Tayback grin that is at once charming and deeply disturbing.

Ellie immediately takes up with Walt, the oldest resident of the facility. Despite Mrs. Deere's contention that the kids need to work constantly, Ellie and Walt take a long, long walk in the woods, where Ellie tells him she plans to escape as soon as she can. Walt says she can't do that. The other escapees were boys. Only boys can take care of themselves in the woods.

Ellie needs to escape to find her father. "You've got a mother and you've got a father. And you're a little bit of both of them." She wants to know her father because she knows there is more to herself than her mother.

That night, a mysterious man wearing a plaid shirt breaks into the basement of the home. His face is obscured by a mask that makes him look simultaneously like an old man and a burn victim.

The next morning, Tom asks Ellie to come down to the basement with him so nobody else will hear them talking. He hands her his claw hammer, which understandably makes her nervous, even more so than the sight of Len Lesser in a tank top.

Down in the basement, the camera takes the point of view of the hammer again as it is lifted and held close to the back of Ellie's head. She turns around, but sees nothing--not even the hammer. The film has nearly reached the hour mark, and it has now raised the possibility that much of what we are seeing is in Ellie's mind.

Tom finds Ellie in the basement. "If I show you a way to escape," he says, "what'll you do for me?" Ellie replies, "Anything you want."

But his "way to escape" is just a bottle of whiskey. He forces himself on her but they are interrupted by Mrs. Deere. She sends Ellie to her room and fires Tom, but he threatens to reveal her secrets unless she makes him a 50/50 partner. She agrees reluctantly.

Later, Mrs. Deere reveals yet another of her secrets. She moves Ellie to a cluttered shed to punish her for fooling around with Tom in the basement. Mrs. Deere reveals that she is still seeking advice from her late husband, who is preserved cryogenically like the frozen children so he can be revived when medical science advances sufficiently.

Ellie believes this means that Mrs. Deere doesn't care who lives and who dies. Mrs. Deere says she wants to preserve all the children exactly as they are, young and beautiful. Then she leaves Ellie to clean up the shed.

Walt sneaks inside and helps Ellie clean the shed. She stumbles across a familiar-looking suitcase. It is the suitcase Ernest had--the one that still must contain Ernest's severed hand. Ellie says she can use it when she runs away--the script is sober enough not to have her say the suitcase would come in "handy."

In this scene, the filmmakers create nail-biting suspense by keeping the suitcase in frame and having Ellie fumble with the latches but refrain from opening the case. The suspense builds and builds as the audience imagines the shock of finding out what is in the suitcase.

But nothing happens. The suitcase remains closed.

Ellie and Walt continue their conversation from the woods about Ellie's absent father. The only thing her mother ever told her was that the first man she ever made love to got her pregnant. Then she takes the suitcase and goes to her room, hiding the case under her bed.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Deere is having another heart-to-heart with her deceased husband, whom she wheels in and out of the walk-in freezer when she needs advice.

Later at night, while Ellie sleeps, we see one of the most famous images from Blood and Lace--the man in the burnt old man mask holding a claw hammer above Ellie's bed. Ellie wakes up and screams--but there is nothing there.

Mrs. Deere concludes that it was just a bad dream. But then we see the man outside the home, carrying the hammer. Is he real or a figment of Ellie's imagination?

The next day, everything comes to a head when Ellie walks in on Bunch, the younger girl, seducing Walter. Combined with the sight of the hammer-wielding man last night, this forces Ellie's decision to run away. When Mrs. Deere finds out about Ellie's plan, she locks Ellie in her room and convinces Tom to take care of her--"just like our friends in the freezer."

Will Ellie survive Mrs. Deere's plan to add her to her pile of frozen children? Find out in Part 3.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Blood and Lace (1971) - Part 1 of 3

Next we return to the early 1970s to consider Blood and Lace (1971), a powerful and influential suspense film. (Blood and Lace is available on Scream Factory Blu Ray and streaming on Amazon Prime Video.)

Your universe's critics still do not understand this film. In a review on Amazon, Dennis writes, “I don't recommend this to anyone unless you enjoy sleeping after 5 minutes into it. This is a boring, tedious movie.” Another Amazon reviewer unfairly calls the film “a rather languid, mystery/thriller without a whole lot of mystery or thrills.” Even more unfairly, a reviewer on IMDB writes, “Disappointingly, the movie has so many scenes that lack realism and common sense that the movie is totally unbelievable.” Properly viewed, the words “tedious,” “languid,” and “unbelievable” are the polar opposites of the excitement this movie has to offer.

When I am through, you will see the error of your ways and understand that Blood and Lace is not just one of the finest suspense films in cinematic history, rivaling those of your Hitchcocks and your DePalmas, etc., but it is also a socially relevant film. In fact, it is the cinematic equivalent of a Tennessee Williams play or a John Steinbeck novel--an unflinching exploration of the human condition.

The film opens with red-on-black titles that seem to promise gothic horror along the lines of Hammer’s vampire films from the 1960s. Perhaps the filmmakers used a familiar typeface and color scheme to lull the audience into believing this film would deliver familiar, and comfortable, gothic chills.

The film opens with a harrowing stalking scene. In a much-imitated technique, the camera takes on the perspective of someone lurking among the foliage outside a two-story house. There is a dissolve to the interior of the house as we, in the body of the stalker, move through the kitchen to find in a drawer a claw hammer.

The camera then takes on the point of view of the hammer itself.

The hammer floats through the house, making its way to a bedroom. There, a man in polka-dot boxer shorts and a heavily made-up woman lie sleeping. The hammer floats above them. Slowly it turns around so the claw end is facing the woman's sleeping face.

As the radio plays upbeat, innocuous music, the woman and man are grotesquely murdered. We don't see the direct impact of the hammer, but we see their bloody heads as the deed is done. Then the hammer drops to the carpet, the curtains are lit on fire, and the room goes up in flames.

A young woman named Ellie Masters wakes up screaming. Was the hammer murder a dream? She is in a hospital. For unexplained reasons, she speaks with the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel in this scene. She wants to get out of the hospital to look for her unknown father, but her social worker says she cannot leave because she's a minor.

Ellie is played by TV's Melody Patterson, who appeared on F-Troop as Wrangler Jane for four years in the late 1960s. It is to her great credit that in Blood and Lace, made four years after F-Troop ended, the filmmakers believed she was able to play a teenage girl at the age of 22.

Further, it is to the filmmakers' credit, as is evident in the image above, that they embraced the aesthetic of the film noir to such an extent that Ellie casts three distinct shadows in the hospital room. Are these three shadows a "foreshadowing" of events to come? The answer is no [spoiler].

Disregarding the social worker, she waits for nightfall, then runs away from the hospital. She is chased by a car, which she manages to lose by running along the railroad tracks. The driver is Calvin Carruthers, played by TV's Vic Tayback. He catches up to her on foot. He reveals he knew her as a child, and now that he works for the sheriff's office, he was contacted by Ellie's social worker to find her.

While Calvin drives Ellie back to the hospital, the filmmakers subtly answer some of our questions. Ellie was involved in the opening hammer murder--her mother was the female victim. Ellie had been asleep in her room during the murders. When she ran outside, she saw a man leaving her mother's room. She never saw the hammer--she only saw that in her dreams.

Calvin tells her not to go anywhere alone. She was the only witness to the murder, and the killer has seen her face.

Later, Calvin meets the social worker, Mullins, in a bar and they discuss Ellie's case. They both have personal connections to the case, not the least of which involves Ellie's mother, who was a prostitute, and she was intimate, apparently, with "every man in the county." Mullins says they're moving Ellie to a country house that is now used as an orphanage for troubled kids.

It is during this conversation that Calvin delivers perhaps the most famous line of dialogue from this film. "When you get to be my age," Calvin says, still talking about teenager Ellie Masters, "and you start thinking seriously about marriage, you start sniffing around for some good breeding stock." Poetry worthy of the masters.

We then move on to the Widow Deere's home for orphaned children. Ernest, a teenage boy, carries a suitcase outside. He is stopped by Tom, played by TV's Len Lesser, most famous as Uncle Leo from Seinfeld. Ernest is clearly trying to escape, so Tom has no choice but to survey the rack of knives in the kitchen and grab the biggest meat cleaver.

Tom chases Ernest through the hills. Ernest drops his suitcase and then, apparently trying to hide, hugs a tree.

Tom throws the cleaver at him, chopping off his right hand. Ernest takes off, leaving Tom to pack up the suitcase. He does not forget to pick up the severed hand and place it gently in the suitcase before he continues to give chase. Eventually, Tom gives up looking for Ernest, so Tom carries the suitcase, with the hand inside, back to Mrs. Deere's place.

Mrs. Deere, played by 1940s and 1950s movie star and Oscar winner Gloria Grahame, does not appreciate Tom losing one of the orphans, who are worth $150 per month from the county. Now is the worst time to lose one, as the social worker Mullins is coming tomorrow to inspect the place.

Tom and Mrs. Deere go downstairs to the basement's walk-in freezer. Reflecting standard procedure for a county-funded orphanage, the freezer houses the frozen, dead bodies of teenagers under sheets.


Here, the cinematography is highly stylized, as the lighting inside the freezer is bright blue. Some detractors of the film might say the blue color is distracting, particularly because the freezer's onscreen light bulb is visible but obviously not turned on, but clearly the filmmakers are effectively creating a mood of heightened reality.

Tom picks one of the bodies up. "It's frozen solid," says Tom. Mrs. Deere replies, "It'll thaw out soon."

They take the bodies upstairs to the "infirmary" so they will be counted in the monthly inspection. Mrs. Deere sits on a bed next to a girl's frozen body. She speaks to the girl tenderly, as if she were still alive.

We will pause here and reflect on Ellie's situation. Motherless and fatherless, she is being sent to an orphanage where the proprietors have no qualms about killing their charges, freezing the bodies, and wheeling them out to pretend they are still alive. We won't even mention the fact that a hammer murderer is loose and Ellie is the only witness to the crime. Will she be safe in the Deere house? The answer is no [spoiler]. Find out exactly how unsafe Ellie is in Part 2. Farewell!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Beyond Darkness (1990) - Part 3 of 3

Claudio Fracasso's Beyond Darkness (read Part 1 here and Part 2 here) has entered its final act. (Beyond Darkness is available on Shout Factory Blu-Ray and streaming on Shudder.) While Reverend Peter, his wife Annie, and Father George are preoccupied, the possessed child Martin has guided his sister Carole to the wall that serves as a gateway to the hell dimension. How can the family survive their supernatural ordeal?

Annie races upstairs to intervene before Martin can force Carole through the gateway. She rescues Carole while Martin falls unconscious to the floor. Peter entreats Annie to drive Carole to the church. Then he joins George in the upstairs bedroom to perform an exorcism and save Martin. The exorcism takes some time, requiring George and Peter, in unison, to repeat "You are banished in the name of Christ" over and over. 

All goes well. The demon leaves Martin's body. George stays to exorcise the demon from the house while Peter and Martin walk to the staircase.

Shockingly, however, the exorcism of Martin has not been successful. Martin transforms into the witch, who pushes Peter down the stairs. While Peter lies unconscious at the bottom of the stairs, George, the faithless ex-priest, confronts the demon.

The room with the brick wall becomes an execution chamber, with Martin strapped into the electric chair with leather bands (though no electrical apparatus is visible). The witch entices George with immortality, if he only pulls the lever to electrocute the boy. And denounces his God while invoking Ameth.

This is clearly tempting to George. He does not know what is the right thing to do.

Somewhat surprisingly, George decides not to pull the lever. He frees Martin from the electric chair, but the witches surround him and strap him into the chair. "To hell with you, Father George Tomaso!" the witch says, pulling the lever and electrocuting him.

Downstairs, Peter regains consciousness and climbs to the second floor. He takes an axe and breaks down the door in time to watch George die.

"Go into the light," Peter says to George. 

Annie, meanwhile, leaves Carole at the church with the minister, Reverend John. After Annie and Carole scold the minister for not intervening somehow, Annie drives back to the house to help Peter.

Annie enters the foggy gateway and finds that Peter has already been possessed by Ameth. He is being egged on by the witch to take a crucifix-dagger and stab Martin. The dagger draws closer and closer to the child.

Reverend John has had a change of heart. Still in his church, he prays for Peter and the family to defeat the witch. Peter and Annie use the crucifix-dagger to stab the witch.

The threat apparently eliminated, the family rushes back through the gateway and downstairs to the car. But the battery is dead! And the house is disgorging dozens of zombie witches!

In the church, the reverend is weakened by his prayers. He uses the last of his magical powers to both help the car start and make the demonic bible burn. Somewhat confusingly, a house that bears no resemblance to the family's house also bursts into flame.

The car battery recharged by the minister's faith, the family drives away as the witches burn. This also allows the filmmakers to place a witty visual joke in the station wagon's license plate numbers.

As the car drives away, Annie remarks, "It's over. It's finally over."

And so it is. (Until, after the end credits roll, Martin opens his eyes, revealing they are slightly cloudy, an indication that he is still possessed.)

Beyond Darkness works both as a fun, fast-paced supernatural horror movie and as a critique of previous, flawed films. With this film, Claudio Fragasso expresses his personal vision by combining elements from The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror, and Poltergeist. In your universe, these were all highly successful, but still problematic, movies. In combining them, Fragasso was able to remove the padding and incoherence from these films, turning them into a streamlined and much more effective filmgoing experience.

For example, Fragasso undoubtedly identified the problem in Poltergeist that there is not enough religious content. He solved this problem by making the father of the family a minister. This change allows superior solutions to other problems in Poltergeist as well. The sudden appearance of the psychic Tangina in Poltergeist is solved by replacing Zelda Rubinsetin's character with that of the faithless priest George.

By contrast, The Amityville Horror has sufficient religious content, but one of its major problems is it is too slow, with long stretches of exposition and buildup. Why use 90 minutes to build up to possession and violence when the first 20 minutes can offer murderous household objects and zombie witches?

Likewise, The Exorcist is certainly religious enough, but among other problems, it loses much of its potential audience by not being family-friendly. Fragasso solves this problem by replacing the problematic adolescent girl with two younger, more vulnerable children.

Additional problems with these three earlier films are the somber, almost passionless performances that favor realism over high drama. Beyond Darkness is anchored in realism by low-key performances by Gene LeBrock as Peter and Barbara Bingham as Annie, but it soars through the inspired performance of David Brandon as George. Part of the effectiveness of his performance comes from his English accent, but there is more to it than an accent. He takes every opportunity to enunciate keywords such as "evil" and "Jesus Christ" and "witches." Throughout the exorcism scene, he contorts his face so even the audience sees the pain and passion he is experiencing; LeBrock visibly has trouble keeping up. Brandon's performance elevates this film to a higher level than it could have achieved otherwise.

With these simple yet visionary changes to familiar narratives, Fragasso has assembled a puzzle that works better and moves faster than its antecedents. He reveals himself as a popular visionary, and Beyond Darkness is his most entertaining masterwork.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Beyond Darkness (1990) - Part 2 of 3

Claudio Fragasso's Beyond Darkness (read Part 1 here) has taken us on a rollercoaster ride of supernatural excitement. (Beyond Darkness is available on Shout Factory Blu-Ray and streaming on Shudder.) At this point in the story, Reverend Peter, his wife Annie, and their children Carole and Martin have moved into their new home and they have been immediately beset by all manner of deadly supernatural goings-on. Now, as the veiled zombie witches invade their home, Peter takes up a crucifix and a bible to combat them. 

Peter attempts to put a stop the supernatural onslaught of veiled zombie witches by grabbing a crucifix and reading a passage from his bible: “Mighty God, may evil spirits no longer have power over your humble servant. May you leave and never return. Let the good will and peace of our lord Jesus Christ enter this home at his command.” This familiar biblical incantation works. The witches disappear and the house returns to normal.

The next day, Peter confronts his boss, Reverend Jonathan, at his church. The older minister asks about the manifestations. Peter is slightly perturbed that his boss knowingly moved Peter's family into a house full of Satanic dangers. However, Peter argues that it is impossible the house is possessed--he doesn't believe in such things. Reverend Jonathan explains that he chose Peter to exorcise this house after the priest from the prologue, George, failed to do so. Peter and George had gone to seminary together, but now George has fallen prey to his own demons. Peter's boss gives him a book of exorcisms. Peter says he has a lot to think about.

(An aside: In your Universe-X, as I understand the process, the clergy are called to a particular faith and then attend seminary to further study to become clergymen in their denomination. In my Universe-Prime they choose their denomination after seminary, as in this film, where George and Peter studied together but George chose Catholicism and Peter chose a Protestant denomination. I will add this tidbit of information to my case study of cross-universe differences, along with the darkness of nighttime and your word for convoluted Italian thrillers.)

Clearly a house full of demons that Peter does not believe in is of roughly the same importance as the safety of his family. As he walks home pondering what to do, Peter is confronted by George, who says he needs Peter's help in his final battle against the demons.

Peter brushes George off, so George returns to the church to confront Reverend Jonathan, and also to play the church organ for reasons not disclosed to the audience. Here George reveals that Ameth is inside him. "I don't know if he's my friend or my enemy, but he's a jealous companion." George asks the reverend to exorcise him but the reverend refuses, so George just walks away.

Peter returns home. It is already dark. He finds his house ransacked. The black swan is rocking by itself. A shadowy figure holds an axe, then attacks Peter with it--but it turns out to be Annie. She and the children have fought off the evil witches. "We're pretty tough guys," Martin says. Indeed they are.

Peter has reached his limit regarding attempted murders in his home. He plans to drive away from the house, but when everyone attempts to leave the house, they are surrounded by the zombie witches.

While Peter and Annie try to break through the sealed back door, Carole and Martin head upstairs, where Martin is abducted by the ghost of the murderess from the prologue. She grabs him and carries him through the brick wall.

If only Peter had remembered the "Mighty God" incantation from the bible that warded off the witches earlier!

After Carole tells Peter that Martin has disappeared through the wall, Annie searches through the house for her son. Suddenly Father George enters the house. "He's here," George says. "He's in the house. But they have him. Witches." The house, it seems, is cursed, and a gateway to hell. In fact, the brick wall is a gateway to another dimension.

(Another aside: As someone with some familiarity with gateways to other dimensions, I believe George's understanding, though a bit primitive, is quite correct. The wall with a spotlight behind it is one manifestation of an interdimensional gateway.)

Despite the fact that Martin has been taken through the wall to a dimension that might be hell, everyone continues searching for the boy throughout the house. This apparently pointless strategy pays dividends when Annie hears Martin calling from behind a mirror, and then the boy's image conveniently appears in the mirror, though he is quickly threatened by the veiled zombie witches.

Annie dives at the mirror and disappears inside.


In the other dimension, Annie watches as Martin reenacts the end of the film Phantasm.

Meanwhile, the brick wall melts so that Peter, hoping to find Martin, can step through into the other dimension, a dimension which appears to be confined to a foggy barn. Peter finds Martin and Annie, and the three escape easily back through the brick wall. 

The family and George race outside, but when they reach their car and put Martin in the back seat, they look back at the house and see Martin staring at them from inside the house, at a second story window.

But who is in the back seat of the car?

The film has no answer for us.

The next morning, everyone is back inside the house. George explains the terrifying story. Ten women were burned at the stake as witches here. Of course, some of them actually were witches, but the rest were burned for no reason. It is all explained in the witches' bible, the one that the murderess gave George before her execution. 

Why was Peter chosen to be their exorcist? Because his faith is pure. George takes this moment to summarize the plot: "They want to put us to the test. Their dark powers against the two of us--a faithless ex-priest and a family man who happens also to be a reverend."

We also learn that what we believe to be Martin is really just a shell of the true boy. When Annie and Carole are asleep, Martin's shell, showing remarkable strength, picks up his sister and carries her upstairs.

Once in front of the open gateway to the other dimension, Martin puts Carole down and says they will be together forever. He intends to walk with her through the gateway, where they will be lost forever to their parents and our world.

Will Martin and Carole be lost in the hell dimension forever? The answer is no [spoiler]. But how will they be rescued? Will the family every escape the house? Find out in Part 3 of our discussion of Claudio Fragasso's Beyond Darkness. Read Part 3 here.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Beyond Darkness (1990) - Part 1 of 3

After the visceral horrors of our last film, Shriek of the Mutilated (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), perhaps a somewhat lighter (but no less skillfully constructed) piece of entertainment will serve as a palate cleanser. Our next film will be 1990’s Beyond Darkness, an Italian movie filmed in Louisiana. (Beyond Darkness is available on Shout Factory Blu-Ray and streaming on Shudder.)

In Italy, this film is called La Casa 5, part of the series of movies released in Italy as the La Casa (“the house”) series. The first of these, La Casa, was known in the United States as The Evil Dead (1981), and La Casa 2 was Evil Dead II (1987). After the success of these films, Umberto Lenzi directed the Italian La Casa 3, known in the United States as Ghosthouse. In 1988, La Casa 4, known in the United States as Witchery, was released. All of this brings us to La Casa 5, or Beyond Darkness. (Moving further along in the series, La Casa 6 is a retitling of the American film House 2: The Second Story, presenting some confusion in translation from Italian to English, as the names House 2 and House 6 refer to the very same movie.)

Beyond Darkness was directed by the acclaimed filmmaker Claudio Fragasso and co-written by Fragasso and his wife Rossella Drudi under the names Clyde Anderson and Sarah Asproon. Fragasso is best known for directing Troll 2 (also 1990), a somewhat entertaining film that lacks quality in some areas and is hardly the pinnacle of breezy pop horror represented by Beyond Darkness.

Again, your universe's respected critics fail to recognize the brilliance of this film. A reviewer named Bezenby writes on IMDB, "It kind of goes on endlessly as they all argue with each other....You can give this one a miss if you want." Unbelievable! Also on IMDB, FieCrier (who had a similarly misguided opinion about The Nightmare Never Ends) writes, "The movie is filled with terrible editing, terrible dialogue, and terrible plotting." Sacrilege! Again, I must correct these uninformed "opinions." First, as always, let us review the plot.

Louisiana State Penitentiary. A pickup truck brings a creepy-looking priest into the prison. A policeman escorts the priest past the prison Coke machine to death row, conveniently indicated by a hand-drawn arrow on the wall.


They pass the cells of the condemned prisoners and come to the last one, where the priest begins to take confession. In the film's first subversion of our expectations, the condemned prisoner is not a man but a woman. "I didn't just murder all of those children," she begins. "I also devoured their souls which now are here inside of me." She will deliver the children's souls to Ameth, her lord and master, when she is executed.

The priest, skeptical about such supernatural mumbo jumbo, explains to the woman that she committed her crimes because of mental illness. She responds that he is different from other priests. He is curious. She hands him her bible so he can understand her perspective.

Then the guards take her away, before she has made a confession and before he has performed last rites. He says nothing to the guards, presumably too eager to dig into her bible to do his job. As she is led away from him, the priest has a vision of children following her--the souls of the children she has murdered following her to hell.

Some time later, the priest opens a creaking door and steps into the dark execution chamber. The woman's body is still tied to the electric chair; the prison has followed standard procedure by vacating the death chamber without cleaning up or removing the corpse.

The priest opens her bible and is shocked to find Satanic illustrations and strange runes. Then a bright light fills the adjacent observation chamber and he sees the ghostly children standing there watching him.

After this prologue, we watch as a young family--a minister, his wife, and their young boy and girl--moves into a house somewhere in Louisiana. They stand and marvel at the staircase for a few moments, then they race upstairs to their bedrooms.

The traditional housewarming gifts of a heart-shaped balloon and a five-foot tall, black, rocking swan statue adorn the kids' bedroom.

While avoiding the work of moving suitcases, the girl also finds a mysterious door, behind which is a hole in a brick wall.

These early scenes of a family moving into a house may seem familiar from dozens of other movies, but Fragasso imbues them with simple, profound truths. When the power goes off in the dining room after the family says grace, the young girl Carole says "I can't eat in the dark. I can't find my mouth," to which her brother Martin wisely replies, "It's under your nose." Later, after ironing the family bible to dry it out after it fell into a puddle, the wife Annie says, "You want to know a secret? For a woman, there is nothing more exciting than the idea of going to bed with a sexy reverend." No doubt.

But of course the familial bliss cannot last forever. A wind gusts through the couple's bedroom, blowing the carefully ironed pages of the bible around the room, to the wry smiles of Annie and her husband Reverend Peter. It appears that, like the proverbial chocolate and peanut butter, his bible pages have gotten mixed up with those of a Satanic bible complete with a picture of the devil. The only logical response is to read a Latin phrase from the pages aloud, so Peter does so.

We then follow the priest from the prologue, Father George. To the discerning viewer able to catch the subtle cues, it appears that George has seen some changes in his life. He now wears an ill-fitting overcoat and takes swig after swig from a flask. He also clutches the murderous woman's bible and continues to see visions of murdered children following him. Falling to his knees, he commands Jesus Christ to curse the demon and lead him to it. Then he opens the Satanic bible to find a photograph of Peter and Annie's house inserted between two pages. Jesus has obeyed the priest's command and given him a helpful clue.

The strange occurrences continue at the family's home. Unlike in some lesser films, there is no buildup--no small hint of ghostly danger at first, such as a light bulb popping or a mysterious stain on the ceiling. Unquestionably supernatural events occur from the first day the family moves into the house. The black swan rocks noisily by itself at night. Carole dreams she has the starring role in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr.

The occurrences continue. The hole in the brick wall keeps beckoning to Carole, shining a mysterious light and giving her a mild sunburn. A massive 1920s radio, though unplugged, attacks the family at the dinner table by rolling toward them while playing Satanic chants. A meat cleaver flies through the air and buries itself in a door next to Peter’s face. This is not even to mention the dozens of veiled zombie witches that invade the house, appearing both downstairs and upstairs to frighten the family.

Peter grabs a crucifix and a bible to ward off the supernatural invaders. Will it work? Will he save his family?

The film has moved into its second act, so this seems like a good place to break our summary of the plot. No doubt my recounting cannot convey the blistering pace of this highly entertaining film. I can only hope to impress upon you some small flavor of the nonstop action and excitement of the narrative. Until next time, farewell! Continue on to Part 2 and Part 3.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Shriek of the Mutilated (1974) - Part 3 of 3

The yeti expedition to Boot Island in 1974's The Shriek of the Mutilated has fallen apart! This is Part 3 of our expedition. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

When we last saw Professor Prell, two of his graduate students had been mutilated and the others were out of commission. And there were hints that the yeti, and even the expedition, were not what they seemed.

Keith has found the loudspeaker in the woods. He has heard the heartbeat sound of the yeti projected through it, and he has heard the sound change to music from a record player. He begins to realize that everything he thinks he knows is false. This is a moment of anagnorisis. He is immediately knocked unconscious by a two-by-four.

Back at the house, Prell scolds Laughing Crow for fiddling with the record player. Werner will return soon for his dinner. So Laughing Crow casually prepares said dinner: a human head in a pot with some stewing vegetables.

What is going on? Where is the yeti? What are Prell, Werner, and Laughing Crow up to?

In the forest, Keith regains consciousness as suddenly as he lost it. He finds his rifle and returns to the house, interrupting Prell and Werner in the dining room as they discuss what to do with Karen, who is resting upstairs. It would be easy to just kill her like the others, they say, but the code of the Votary demands that she be frightened to death.

"I don't think so," Keith proclaims heroically, holding the two older men at gunpoint. They pay him no mind. Keith fires a warning shot but realizes the rifle is loaded with blanks.

Then, in one of the most shocking scenes in the film, Keith is rendered unconscious yet again, struck on the head by Laughing Crow, who wields what can only be his friend Tom's bloody femur!

With Keith unconscious and Karen upstairs in a frightened stupor, Prell and Werner make arrangements for  a banquet. Prell goes outside while Werner calls the Cozy Rest Motel--shockingly, the phone is not actually dead after all!--and has them summon six of their guests. "Tell them the breakfast is on at the appointed time."

But they haven't reckoned with the resilience of Keith's skull. He quickly wakes up, sneaks out of the house, then knocks Prell unconscious with a shovel. He steals the Mystery Machine and drives wildly through the rain. He must get off the island. In his state of fear, he has even forgotten about his girlfriend Karen.

When he drives closer to the bridge separating Boot Island from the mainland, he sees a procession of cars headed toward Werner's house. This scene is scored with classical music, Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, a perfect accompaniment to what appears to be a funeral procession. It is clear that Keith is in a world of trouble. Could this funeral be his own?

(The skill of the filmmakers is again evident here with the brilliant match of image and music. Kudos to the no doubt massive music department and orchestra.)

Back at the house, Karen wakes up to a living nightmare of her own. She looks out the window to see the yeti racing furiously toward her, its arms waving maniacally in the air.

She races to the bedroom door but she is locked inside. Then, in a moment of abject terror for both Karen and the audience, the yeti's face fills the window--and then it climbs through the window into her bedroom!

(Now that we can see it in closeup, the yeti is truly a frightening creature, with its fangs and other parts of its face appearing to move independently of each other. Kudos to the no doubt massive makeup effects team.)

Karen manages to escape the room and attempts to run downstairs, but the film follows the logic of a nightmare--the yeti is now downstairs and running up the staircase toward her.

Finally locking herself in a bathroom, she hears something and opens the door to a linen cabinet, only to find a zombie-like Laughing Crow inside holding a long knife.

As some of the audience no doubt did in 1974 while watching this film, Karen has a heart attack and dies. Her body falls to the bathroom floor.

The yeti carries her downstairs, then removes its head to reveal it was Werner in a mask.

The plan has succeeded. They have frightened Karen to death.

Meanwhile, Keith flags down a police car. The sheriff and Keith race back to the house to rescue Karen. They wait outside and observe through the window the strange ritual inside. At an ostentatious dinner table, a cannibal cult called le Jeune de Troix has arrived. Prell and Werner play host to this diverse group of cannibals. From year to year, each member of the cult in turn arranges for the death of a victim for the members to feast upon.

Keith bursts into the room with the sheriff behind him. He's going to put a stop to the obscene ritual. But he doesn't count on the sheriff being a member of the cult. The sheriff holds Keith at gunpoint while Professor Prell explains the situation in detail. The last time Prell hosted a gathering was seven years ago in Hudson's Bay. "You remember Ste. Claire's story of that episode, Keith," Prell says, cleverly forgetting that Keith was actually eating dinner with Prell while Ste. Claire told his story at the party across town.

In a ham radio conversation with the cult's leader, Count Carnaro, Prell further explains that Keith was intended to survive the yeti attack and take the story of the yeti back to civilization.

However, Prell believes this change in plans might work out for the best, for Keith has been initiated already, and he has enjoyed the very thing he now condemns. Keith puts two and two together: the ginsung he so enjoyed is in fact human flesh and not a combination of wild meat after all.

But what about Karen? Has she indeed been scared to death?

The answer is yes. In the next unspeakable twist, Karen's body will provide the cult's meal tonight.

Keith bolts from the room, but the cultists follow him with their forks. They stab at Keith but instead of killing him, they simply subdue him. They move him to a chair in the dining room.

Shock upon shock! Laughing Crow, wielding an electric knife, actually speaks--he was not mute after all.

Keith approaches Karen's lifeless body, drooling profusely.

The End.

Shriek of the Mutilated, directed by Michael Findlay from a screenplay by Ed Adlum and Ed Kelleher, arrived at a time when the world needed a terrifying horror movie. The previous year's The Exorcist provided genteel drawing-room drama but could not deliver intensity or suspense. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, released around the same time as Shriek of the Mutilated, was an educational travelogue showcasing the beauties of rural Texas, but again it could not deliver the visceral shocks that the horror audience craved. With Shriek of the Mutilated, audiences finally found a film that could satisfy their need for terror and shocks, but could also stimulate them intellectually with the clever machinations of its plot.

Having completed Invasion of the Blood Farmers in 1972, Ed Adlum and Ed Kelleher had learned how to construct a terrifying narrative. The brilliance of Shriek of the Mutilated can be attributed to their screenplay, which works not only as a wilderness survival film but also as a film about cannibals. Adlum and Kelleher have painstakingly considered every narrative twist so that the film holds up to the audience’s scrutiny.

A superficial observer might take issue with some parts of the story. How can the yeti be climbing through the upstairs window at the same time as it runs up the staircase? Wouldn’t the stories about yeti sightings draw more attention to the cultists’ gatherings rather than drive people away? Why would Professor Prell send Karen off into the woods by herself when he knew a yeti was nearby? Why did Karen bring Tom’s leg back to the house? How did the specialty restaurant serving ginsung pass its health inspection? What did the opening at the swimming pool mean?

These questions are nonsense! The answers are clear from a close viewing of the film. The yeti is in two places at once because there are two yeti costumes. The stories about the yeti are so terrifying that nobody in his right mind would want to investigate them. The professor sent Karen into the woods because, obviously, he wanted her to be terrified to death. And…I can’t think of answers to the last three questions, but I’m certain that Adlum and Kelleher thought them through.

Beyond the narrative skill on display, I believe Shriek of the Mutilated is such a success because of its unique mixture of the naive and the cynical. The similarities between the film and Scooby-Doo Where Are You?, which premiered in September 1969, are numerous and clearly intentional. The characters of Karen and Lynn are modeled after Daphne and Velma, while Keith is similar to Fred and the free-spirited Tom, with his guitar and armadillo, is reminiscent of Shaggy. The group is called “gang” repeatedly by Professor Prell. The van used to drive the characters to Boot Island is adorned with flowers like the Mystery Machine. And of course the plot is modeled after the structure of the animated show, with the monster revealed to be a ruse to frighten some victims and chase others away. The film’s yeti even bears some resemblance to the monster in the classic 1970 episode “That’s Snow Ghost,” at least around the eyebrows.


The mixture of Scooby-Doo naivete with the cynical conspiracy of the cannibal cultists gives the audience an additional level of sophistication to appreciate and savor. On first viewing, the qualities of this classic might not be evident but, much like the ginsung in the film, it may be described as an acquired taste to which connoisseurs of the cinema may return again and again.

Enough! I am certain my discussion of Shriek of the Mutilated has convinced you to reverse your unfair and uninformed condemnation of this cinematic classic.

Until next time, farewell!