The First and Last Horrors of Amicus

Though Hammer Studios were the champions of British horror cinema for much of the 1960s (and were still able to make a good showing from time to time in the 1970s), Amicus Productions also deserved to be in the conversation. Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg’s production house, like Hammer, didn’t exclusively focus on horror – they got up and running by turning out some low-budget teen musicals like It’s Trad, Dad, they did the Dr. Who movie adaptations with Peter Cushing as the Doctor, they did a number of Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations (one of which, The Land That Time Forgot, had script contributions by Michael Moorcock).

They’re primarily remembered for their horror output, mind. Many of their releases were portmanteau horror films – the sort of thing which Games Workshop recently imitated with The Wicked and the Damned, where rather than having a single full-length story you have a group of shorter pieces (usually three or so) with a thin framing device connecting them all. I find the subgenre kind of mediocre a lot of the time, to be honest – it all too often seems to be an excuse to fob off onto audiences stories which are too weak to be standalone movies or TV episodes by themselves and pass off quantity as quality.

However, Rosenberg and Subotsky did also produce a number of more conventional single-story horror movies, like The Skull which I’ve previously enthused about. Here Amicus often managed a similar tone to Hammer without coming across as imitators; many Hammer talents like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee also did work for Amicus, but whilst Hammer focused on historical settings for most of their golden age, Amicus’s horror was usually set in the modern day, often giving it a bit more of a contemporary feel.

For this article, I’m going to tip my hat to Subotsky and Rosenberg by taking a look at the first and last horror movies the two would co-produce.

City of the Dead

Strictly speaking, this 1960 release isn’t an Amicus movie – it’s credited to Britannia Films. However, there’s reasonable arguments for considering it a secondary member of the Amicus canon, or a prelude to it, since its producers included Subotsky and an uncredited Rosenberg and the approach is very much in keeping with that of the horror works Max and Milton would put out under the Amicus banner.

The story is based around the town of Whitewood in Massachusetts. During a witch-burning fad in 1692, actual Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) and her accomplice Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall) sell their souls to Lucifer; for the low, low subscription cost of two virgin sacrifices a year, they get immortality and power over the town. In the modern day, Professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) narrates this story to his class of students, to a mixed reception. Nan Barlow (Venetia Stephenson) is one of the more receptive students, and wants to do more research on the subject; Driscoll can hook her up with a lovely hotel in Whitewood, and suggests she visit on a research trip. In the US market, this movie was called Horror Hotel, so you can probably guess where this is going.

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Butterflies and Monsters – Two Unusual Italian Horror Movies

Italian genre cinema is largely known for particular genre features – spaghetti Westerns, the proto-slashers of the giallo genre, microgenres like the fads for zombie movies or cannibal movies, and rip-offs of more successful Hollywood releases – and I think it’s easy to assume it’s all rather samey. In the interests of this, today’s backlog clearance job is me putting a spotlight of a couple of more unusual Italian horror/crime pieces.

Caltiki – The Immortal Monster

It’s the 1950s, and a team of scientists are investigating the ruins of Tikal – an ancient Mayan city which was abandoned for reasons not known to modern historians. Folklore hints at the rise of a goddess known as Caltiki, a malevolent deity; a subterranean temple, its entrance exposed after a recent volcanic eruption, is discovered by the party and seems to be dedicated to her. Within it is a deep pool – they infer that it’s a sacrificial pool, into which human victims would be tossed to drown bedecked in jewellery as gifts to the goddess, and a quick scuba jaunt into the pool seems to prove this hypothesis. The entity in the lake is no anthropomorphic goddess, though – it’s an ancient, blob-like creature, some 20 million years old, awoken by the fumbling explorers…

This kicks off an old-timey SF-horror adventure that’s massively influenced by Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness – the ancient blob creature is extremely shoggoth-like – as well as the likes of Clark Ashton Smith. (A decidedly shoggoth-like spawn of Tsathoggua is found guarding a temple in one of Smith’s stories of long-ago Hyperborea, The Tale of Satampra Zeiros.) There’s also a certain Quatermass angle to proceedings – the centrality of the scientific enigma to the story, for instance, and the increasing audacity of its revelations. (Just wait until you get to the comet angle…)

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Four Sides of the 1980s

As my backlog clearance continues, I am resorting to this: giving you a clutch of reviews of movies from the 1980s held together by the tenuous common theme of “all these movies represent a particular type of person you would have met in the 1980s”. Here goes.

The 80s Cokehead: Scarface

The movie opens against the backdrop of the Mariel boatlift – Fidel Castro’s surprise decision to allow thousands of emigrants to leave Cuba – resulting in a refugee crisis in Florida. The movie plays on the fact that Castro took the opportunity to send numerous prisoners and mental hospital patients to Florida, divesting the Cuban government of the cost of handling them, by including among the emigrants Tony Montana (Al Pacino), along with a number of his buddies – who, by the evidence of their prison tattoos, are apparently hardened criminals.

Montana and company end up in a makeshift refugee detention centre underneath a motorway flyover. Through the fence, they receive an offer suited to their skills: Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), a well-connected Cuban-American drug baron, will pull the right strings to allow them to get released and get their green cards in return for assassinating Emilia Rebenga (Roberto Contreras), who’d tortured Frank’s brother to death back in Cuba. This is accomplished in chilling fashion during a riot in the detention centre.

It’s not directly stated whether or not Tony engineered the riot, but it’d be entirely in keeping with his tendency for massive overescalation of violence, which we see plenty of as the movie progresses. As Tony moves his way up the ranks in Frank’s empire, eventually ousting him, a whirlwind of cocaine addiction, Tony’s infatuations with Frank’s ex-girlfriend Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer) and his own sister Gina Montana (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and his entanglements with even more ruthless figures like cocaine manufacturer Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar) all contribute to his downfall, which is ultimately spurred by his machismo-driven refusal to compromise with anyone or to back down in any situation.

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Supernatural Slasher Blues

Of all the subgenres of horror, slasher movies have the most conflicted relationship with the supernatural. Some of them make do without any supernatural elements whatsoever; others incorporate it in an ambiguous manner, like how in the original Halloween it isn’t clear whether Michael Myers is truly a supernaturally unstoppable force or merely possesses above average toughness.

And then, just sometimes, a slasher movie will go full supernatural, at which point the usual slasher stalk-and-slay dynamic changes comprehensively. A Nightmare On Elm Street might be the most famous example of that, alongside some of the more offbeat Halloween and Friday the 13th sequels: here’s some more obscure ones.

The Boogeyman

The opening, with the nighttime shot prowling around the exterior of the house set against a very John Carpenter-esque synthesiser soundtrack, is a transparent rip-off of Halloween. We even get a child killing someone in their household, just like Halloween! This time, however, there’s extenuating circumstances; young children Lacey (Natasha Sciano) and Willy (Jay Wright) are peeping on their mother (Gillian Gordon) starting to get it on with her boyfriend, who is never named in the movie and only credited as “the Lover” (Howard Grant). An annoyed Lover decides that an appropriate, proportionate response to this gagging and tying Willy to Willy’s bed. Lacey gets a big ol’ kitchen knife and frees Willy; Willy takes the knife and kills the Lover, which I guess in a way is freeing himself and Lacey.

Years later, and Lacey and Willy – now played by Suzanna Love and Nicholas Love respectively – are all grown up. Willy was traumatised by his childhood deeds, and has never spoken since the killing. Lacey is doing better; she’s married to local cop Jake (Ron James) and the pair have a child of their own, little Kevin (Raymond Boyden). Lacey’s family, along with Willy, live in the sprawling house of Aunt Helen (Felicite Morgan) and Uncle Earnest (Bill Rayburn), who took them in after the killing and have provided them with a loving home.

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Arrow’s Lineup of Killer Dames

Emilio Miraglia’s career as a director was a brief one, spanning only from 1967 to 1972. I can find few biographical details on him, but some sources suggest that he died in 1982, so perhaps ill health is to blame for his career being curtailed. Though most of his movies were spy or crime thrillers and he also did a Spaghetti Western (Joe Dakota), he’s mostly known for a pair of early 1970s pieces he did as part of the giallo boom.

Arrow Video’s Killer Dames is a boxed set gathering these two together. In general, I don’t consider either of them keepers, but they’re interesting enough to be worth watching once. Let’s take a look and see what we can get out of them…

The Night Evelyn Came Out of The Grave

Lord Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen) is a well-heeled aristocrat with a hip pad in London and a sprawling manor house out int he country. He formerly shared the house with his wife, Evelyn (Paola Natale), but she is dead; her absence weighs on him, as does a certain overpowering guilt. The exact story of what happened to Evelyn is, of course, one of the climactic reveals of the film, but it’s apparent early on that there’s reason to be suspicious. Perhaps it’s the way Alan’s occasional flashbacks of Evelyn are so overpowering they can absolutely knock him out, or maybe it’s his habit of luring sex workers with red hair similar to Evelyn’s to his manor, getting them to wear a distinctive pair of shiny black thigh-high boots, and then flogging them well beyond the point they’d previously consented to and disposing of their bodies and personal effects once the fun is done.

Then again, everyone has their own way of dealing with bereavement, right? After we see him going through his serial killer process a couple of times, Alan meets someone new, the very charming Gladys (Marina Malfatti), who he marries. It seems like Alan has put his grief over Evelyn and his serial murder habit behind him… except not quite. For one thing, there’s Albert (Roberto Maldera), Evelyn’s brother who works as the groundskeeper on the estate and who knows enough to blackmail Alan over his murder hobby. For another, Alan can’t quite bring himself to exile the portrait of Evelyn he keeps in his bedroom to storage, or at least hanging it somewhere it won’t watch him and Gladys while they sleep, whilst he imposes an absolute ban on women with red hair being brought into the house.

And there’s the matter of Susan (Erika Blank), Alan’s most recent victim. Alan had one of his powerful flashbacks in the midst of attacking her in the ruined church in which the Cunningham family line are interred, and seemed to lose consciousness before finishing the job, but she seems well and truly gone by the time he comes around… and yet her golden locket, which Alan makes sure to dispose of down a drain, turns up again on a table indoors. Has Evelyn, roused by a seance conducted early on in the movie, really come out of the grave to take revenge?

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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 5: Hey, Did You Know We Have a Movie Coming Out?

So far on my X-Files rewatch we’ve seen the show’s muddled beginnings, cheered it on as it got good, savoured its prime, and tried to enjoy what we could as it gradually began its decline. (We’ve also glanced over at Millennium and gone “nah, can’t be bothered”.)

Now it’s time to look at season 5, produced in parallel with The X-Files: Fight the Future, the first movie. As we’ll see, that’s a circumstance which ended up overshadowing this season somewhat.

I noted how in the previous season the writing team had become somewhat contracted, and that’s exacerbated further this time. The inner circle has now contracted to just Chris Carter, Frank Spotnitz, John Shiban, and Vince Gilligan – four writers as opposed to seven last season – and once again, there’s much less outside contributions than in earlier seasons, with only three episodes having scripts which weren’t written outright or contributed to by those four people.

The season opens with another Chris Carter two-parter focusing on the mytharc, Redux and Redux II, resolving both the “did Mulder kill himself?” cliffhanger from last season (of course he fucking didn’t) and the “will Scully’s cancer be cured?” (of course it fucking will). The only really exciting aspect of the cliffhanger, really, is “Whose dead body is that in Mulder’s apartment that Scully misidentified as Mulder to cover for him?”, and the answer turns out to be “a generic agent of the Conspiracy we don’t care about”.

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The Italian Alien Rip-Offs

As I’ve frequently highlighted here, somewhere in the transition from the 1970s to the 1980s Italian genre cinema lost its way; whereas previously it had produced an interesting mix of highbrow and schlock material, somewhere along the way a race to the bottom began, yielding a glut sloppy B-movies turfed out in a hurry, often for the sake of ripping off some more prominent, more successful movie. When Alien was a hit in 1979, it was inevitable that Italian producers would try to rip it off. Let’s take a look at two attempts, neither of which manage to capture the charm of the original movie.

Alien 2: On Earth

We open as journalists assemble to cover the the return of a mission to space, the capsule expected to splash down in the ocean. Meanwhile, caving expert Thelma Joyce (Belinda Mayne) hustles to a TV studio (which seems to be located inside an old cinema, based on the exterior shots), where the local station is going to interview her about her group’s explorations as a way of filling time until the astronauts show up. Thelma, during the interview, shows signs of illness; her husband Roy (Mark Rodin) explains that Thelma is telepathic and she sometimes has funny turns when significant things happen (in the same tone of voice you’d use to explain that someone has a mild allergy to cats).

After the interview Thelma drags Roy and, later, the rest of the caving team around town doing various weird errands – meeting some guy from a yacht who tells her to ignore her concerns, and then randomly yelling at a little girl at the beach for no reason. Well, perhaps she did have a precognitive reason – for after Thelma leaves, the child encounters something squamous and eldritch on the beach and disappears, and when her mother finds her she’s had her face ripped off (though apparently this leaves no bloodstains or trail of blood and she is still able to sit there sobbing like someone broke her favourite toy despite lacking any of the parts of the body which would allow you to cry).

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Riffing the Comics

Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a geek institution (with “MSTing” entering the vernacular) for good reason. The original television show is, when you get down to it, a variant on the time-honoured tradition (which I believe to be distinct to America) of having televised genre movies in a special slot with host segments introducing the movie and maybe breaking in with little skits. This is an approach which started with Vampira – yes, the one from Plan 9 From Outer Space in the 1950s – and continued through Elvira and others up to the present day.

The MST3K difference is that the host doesn’t go away – whereas most horror hosts of yesteryear clear off for the actual movie, MST3K has its host (and their robot friends) appear in a silhouette of cinema seating at the base of the screen, cracking jokes about the (usually terrible) movies featured on the show. Anyone in fandom who has not seen the show – which is now easier than ever to access outside of its US stamping grounds thanks to YouTube and various other platforms – at the very least has reasonable odds of recognising two things: the term “MSTing” and the theatre silhouette.

Since the original run of the show closed out at the end of season 9, various “movie riffing” outlets have tried to continue this approach, with or without the silhouettes; The Rifftrax project spearheaded by Mike Nelson, final host of the original show, hit on the idea that if you went without the silhouette and just sold an audio file that people synced up with their copies of the movie being riffed, then a world of copyright headaches could be avoided. Joel Hodgson, creator of the show and the original host, established Cinematic Titanic, which tried to incorporate a few more comedians in the riffing crew with a redesigned silhouette in its first few episodes (released direct to DVD in a world where, already, some form of streaming or download setup would reach more customers), before shifting to a live show format which went without the silhouettes (because what would be the point of including them in a show where you can see the riffers onstage anyway?).

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Texas Barbecue, Louisiana Hospitality, and Suburban Spooks

Still shovelling that backlog! How about some Tobe Hooper movie reviews?

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Arguably as important a prototype for the slasher movie as Black Christmas and HalloweenThe Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of those movies which has infiltrated the public consciousness enough – through the controversy surrounding it, through the iconic poster featuring Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) doing what he does best, and through its bluntly direct title, that lots of people who haven’t seen it still confidently feel that they have a handle on what it’s about.

It is, however, substantially smarter than it’s given credit for. The events of the movie are shocking enough that it’s easy to forget the opening scene, in which following the sounds of digging in darkness and the occasional camera flash revealing rotting human remains we’re treated to a grisly diorama set up in a graveyard, with a radio news report talking about a spate of graverobbing. The radio report also focuses on other acts of spontaneous local violence which surely can’t all be down to the family’s antics. Between this and the shots of solar flares during the opening credits, we’re left wondering whether the heat of the Texas summer has kicked off something terrible.

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Yorga-nna Get Bitten!

Backlog clearance continues! Time for some vampire movies.

Count Yorga, Vampire

At a seance in a middle class California house, mysterious Bulgarian medium Count Yorga (Robert Quarry) attempts to contact the deceased mother of Donna (Donna Anders), host of the gathering. The seance ends when Donna has a panic attack, which Yorga is able to cure with his hypnotic powers, and then two of the participants, Erica Landers (Judy Lang) her boyfriend Paul (Michael Murphy), offer Yorga a lift back to his palatial mansion.

After dropping off the Count and driving part of the way away from the house, Erica and Paul’s VW van gets stuck on the driveway; too spooked to come out into the night to stay the evening in Yorga’s home, they boink. As they are in the warm glow of afterboink, Yorga attacks them – wearing his cape, with his fangs bared, for Yorga is a vampire! The next morning, Paul only remembers the attack but doesn’t remember it was Yorga; Erica remembers nothing. But later in the day, Erica has a funny turn and eats her pet cat. Jim Hayes (Roger Perry), a doctor friend, begins to have suspicions – but can he get his Van Helsing on in time to stop Yorga adding Donna and Erica to his harem of vampire minions?

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