The Shadow of the Cat (Gilling 1961).
(1st viewing) Another company used Bray’s studios and some of Hammer’s personnel to make this movie, so it definitely feels a little different than Hammer’s usual films, including the 1.33 rather than 1.66-and-beyond aspect ratios (IMDB says it’s 1.33, so I’m assuming, perhaps wrongly, that my unauthorized DVD hasn’t been cropped). More of a crime thriller with a Gothic feel, despite the “avenging cat”. The deceitful murderers’ story doesn’t have all the twists and turns of Sangster’s films and as spectators we’re in on who’s doing what from the start, so the film relies more on the silly but fun premise of the cat that saw the killers doing the deed and their desperate attempts to catch it. Able direction, with some nicely measured little touches of humor, helps create a mood that makes it, along with the photography, an enjoyable if not a great film.
The Dead (Ford brothers 2010).
(rewatch) I wanted to revisit this because it’s stayed vaguely in my memory as standing out among the standard zombie fare. This definitely has some interesting elements, starting with the fact that it’s set and shot in West Africa. I kind of like also that it’s got the barest of plots, and almost as little dialogue, as pretty much the whole film is just being with these two solitary figures trying to make it across the arid, bushy landscape that’s crawling with the undead. They’re the slow kind, which I like best, but they’re everywhere. The tone and look is grimly serious and realistic and joke-free (part of why it feels fresh), and occasionally it looks pretty beautiful, but this is still almost a video game turned into a movie, with a single-minded focus on the tension of trying to survive with no food and water and your ammo running low (and what do you do when you have to sleep?), and kills and gore galore. Despite all that, in the end it’s missing just a bit more story, and/or originality, to make the genuinely good film cut in my book, but it’s really not that far from it either. I can easily imagine one viewer finding this a little tedious, and another finding it one of the best zombie films since Romero’s. Somehow I’m left feeling both things.
I Spit on Your Grave (Zarchi 1978).
(rewatch) I basically had the same experience as on previous viewings. When they come, the rape sequences are so elaborate and lengthy, and both at the same time brutal and veering on the ridiculous, that it’s hard not to be put off, but the before and after of the film are enough to my liking that I again find myself able to digest and excuse those excesses. (Something I don’t do with Craven’s The Last House on the Left
, which always leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth – although I remember liking the 2009 remake in terms of an effective, suspenseful thriller that also didn’t feel as morally repulsive, and Stephen King apparently liked it a fair amount too
). I don’t want to defend this film as feminist because I don’t invest in it emotionally in desperately wanting the revenge to happen – it certainly contains both progressive and exploitative elements so that a case can be made either way. The things I like about it have more to do with various other things – surprisingly artful compositions at times, a classic lake-and-woods horror setting (possibly influencing a lot of slashers that followed in this way?) that’s very pleasing (the absence of a score possibly helps here, giving it more realism), Keaton and Tabor despite the awkwardness of the acting at times, and the style and spirit of the thing when it comes to the staging of the revenge killings. During and immediately following the forest rape scene, Jennifer’s bloodied face in agony with her long hair across her face almost gives her a Christ on the cross aura (later on she attends church before the revenge, and she dresses at times in virginal white, which further that imagery), and there are certain framings as she crawls out of that horror afterwards, all covered in blood and dirt, that evoke a kind of mythic quality. So the film definitely has moments of power. It’s not a film that’s in any danger of making my list, and I don’t have a particular fondness for vigilante films, but with reservations and to a certain degree I’m a fan of this one.
The Last Man on Earth (Ragona & Salkow 1964).
(rewatch) The beginning of this, with that montage of shots of deserted streets in Rome, feels like it’s the continuation of L’Eclisse, and if that isn’t enough the EUR water tower shows up prominently later. This just happened to be on my rewatch list among several on the Vincent Price Collection blu-rays and it’s a bit eerie how this speaks to the current situation in Italy – a deadly airborne virus, the desperate search for a vaccine, the government asking people not to assemble. It’s interesting to reflect on the central role of the theme of contagion in the myths of vampires, werewolves and zombies, and how they possibly relate to mankind’s previous with contagious disease. The zombie-like behavior of the vampiric undead here are definitely a step in the development of the zombie genre in film (the fact that so many deadly viruses have been bat-borne also resonates here particularly – Dracula’s revenge indeed), but ultimately it’s more the virus, and the hero’s existential aloneness, that’s the focus. The grimness, as well as the setting, makes it an interesting film, but it’s a bit lacking in terms of direction and vitality to make it a truly good one.
I Saw What You Did (Castle 1965).
(1st viewing) A couple of teenage girls get their kicks making prank calls while their parents are away for the evening, but get more than they bargained for when they raise the suspicion and ire of a murderer. After the disappointing Night Walker
, this was surprisingly good. Simple premise but very well-done. Castle did a number of comedy horrors but even with the kids here taking central place and the cute music at the beginning and end, this is in no way a comedy and doesn’t hold back much with the horror. The young actresses, especially Andi Garrett as Libby, draw you in with their performances and the quite wicked nature of their fun. John Ireland is effectively scary as the pissed-off victim of the pranks, and of course there’s Joan Crawford in the mix, but there are definitely some surprising events that are part of the fun. Not in the class of Strait-Jacket
, but a close enough second-best Castle for me.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Fisher 1969).
(rewatch) I loved Created Woman
and this is equally good but in such a different way. Cushing’s baron was almost in a hero in the previous film, here he’s back to being bent on his brain transplant research without any moral restraint whatsoever. The fact that the writer of the film throws in a gratuitous rape to the baron’s actions has zero necessity narrative-wise, but it does considerably add to effectively darkening his character. These changes are paralleled with a strong difference in look – the previous film was all bright colors and lighting and some more stylish shots, this one is much more classic-looking and a Victorian study of dark greens, browns and burgundies. When the poor Brandt wakes up in a new body, we can really imagine the revulsion of finding ourselves suddenly in a foreign skin. And his sad story also reveals to him whether his wife loved him for his personality or his face! This is A-list Hammer in all departments: story, actors, rich-looking sets, etc.
Straight on Till Morning (Collinson 1972).
(1st viewing) A pretty far cry from Terence Fisher, or even Jimmy Sangster. One of Hammer’s last psycho thrillers, this story of a guileless and “ugly duckling” Liverpool girl off to London to get a baby fathered is a kind of very contemporary, kitchen sinky realist piece turned quasi-giallo. The plain, needy girl about to get suckered into torture theme feels a bit repellent at first, and the girl is definitely too naïve to be more than a figure of pity, but the way the screenplay develops it’s played with more subtlety than that sounds, and there’s something a bit interesting in the way both the girl and her abductor are childlike and inhabit their own fantasy worlds. It helps that the film, apart from the overly frenetic editing in some parts, is directed with a lot of competence. Nothing looks or is performed cheaply here, helping the material in this respect.