Friday, 30 January 2015

THE HYPNOTIC EYE












d. George Blair (1960)

The Hypnotic Eye is a hybrid film: part shock horror, part psycho thriller, part film noir. It’s also fairly nasty, being concerned with a series a horrible ‘accidents’ that befall young, beautiful women. In an arresting opening sequence, a pretty blonde happily shampoos her hair – over a gas stove.  The poor girl dies in the ensuing conflagration, the eleventh victim of who knows what, who knows who, and who knows why. The Police, as they so often are, are baffled.  

Completely coincidentally, the city is currently hosting a famous French hypnotist called Desmond, a man who can make anybody do anything just by flexing the power of his mind. Is there a connection between this suave mesmerist and a woman washing her face in sulphuric acid as if she believed it was soapy water? Or another drinking drain cleaner thinking it was coffee? And what, if anything, does his glamorous but permanently scowling assistant Justine have to do with it? You’ll just have to watch it and find out. Seriously, you should see it.

The most far out non-mutilation sequences are delivered in fabulous HypnoMagic. Not actually a cinematic variation on 3D as the poster might lead you to believe, but a dramatic style. Desmond’s act is mainly delivered direct to camera (by French actor Jacques Bergerac who is so good at it that it’s a shock to realise that he wasn’t really a hypnotist). It’s very effective and, apparently, in some cases led to some low level trance states amongst susceptible cinema goers. Don't worry, like all intelligent people I am immune to such psychic manipulation, although since watching this film I have started eating raw onions as if they were Granny Smiths.    

Friday, 23 January 2015

WEIRD WOMAN












d. Reginald Le Borg (1944)

Inner Sanctum was a long running radio show of the 1940s that trawled through the vibrant pulp paperback market of the time for macabre stories to frighten its listeners with. Incredibly successful, the show spawned a series of spin offs including books, a TV show and several films. Weird Woman is one of them.  

Based on a book by Fritz Leiber called Conjure Wife, the story takes place in a University where the usual snobbery, social climbing and back stabbing of the academic world is being supplemented by witchcraft, some white, some black, but mostly fake and malign in nature. 

At the centre of the story is the implacable Lon Chaney, Jr. Chaney is a brilliant academic and professional skeptic who has just returned from a trip to the South Seas with a pretty young wife, a woman who was raised by a primitive tribe governed by superstition and natural magic. In marrying her he has disappointed a number of smitten women, especially chief librarian Hilary Brooke, who determines to have her revenge on him and his new love, no matter how many suicides, murder attempts and rape accusations it leads to. 

Economic in everything but imagination, Weird Woman is a superb hubbub of activity, packing a huge amount into its short running time. Favourite scenes include a tribal ritual with a great exotica soundtrack; several sequences in which disembodied heads and other superimpositions spin wildly around the screen and, more generally, the slightly silly notion that lumpy old Lon might be cat nip to the ladies. 

One woman who is not giddied by Chaney’s charm and moustache is Elizabeth Russell, who plays the crazily ambitious wife of one of his academic rivals. A regular in Val Lewton films, Russell has the most extraordinary physiognomy, like a skull covered in a thin layer of wax. Her expressions are amazingly fluid, as if her skin is so thin that every electrical impulse from her brain ripples across her face. I’m not sure how she’d manage in a romantic comedy, but in horror she is unforgettable. 

After Weird Woman, Lieber’s story was subsequently remade twice: in 1961 as the rather good Night of the Eagle starring the superb Peter Wyngarde, and once in the eighties with Richard Benjamin, a production which I have no interest in whatsoever but mention for the sake of accuracy.

Friday, 16 January 2015

THE MASK














d. Julian Roffman (1961)


Psychiatrist Allen Barnes has a patient who has stolen an ancient tribal mask from an University archive. It’s a chilling, horrible artefact, a crystalline skull with beady eyes and a hinged lantern jaw with jagged teeth, the sort of thing that looks like it should be encrusted in blood. The young man has become addicted to putting on the mask and experiencing an altered state, a sort of parallel dimension full of danger and horror. When he removes the mask, he feels the overwhelming urge to kill*.

Falling apart, the young man commits suicide, first posting the mask to Dr Barnes. Barnes, a rationalist and seeker of truth, cannot resist the temptation to put the mask on himself. What happens next is a form of Hell, as the psychiatrist sees the same terrible visions as his patient, undergoes the same ordeal, feels the same urges – and, almost instantly, begins to go completely insane.

A tremendous, supremely leftfield film, The Mask is good throughout but superlative in its four surreal 3D sequences. These nightmarish scenes have an extraordinary primal power: savage, pagan, occult, violent, disturbing and discombobulating. I've watched them with the glasses on and off and, actually, prefer the blurred reds and blues of the unprocessed image. The scenes are accompanied by the swoops and bleeps of an analogue electronic score and are absolutely outstanding, perhaps the best use of 3D ever.

On the film’s release, the audience were given a ‘magic, mystic mask’, a shaped set of 3D glasses. When a voice from the screen demanded ‘Put the mask on, NOW!’ they would don the glasses and enter the warped fantasy at the same time as the increasingly frazzled hero. My God, how I wish I’d been there.

* So many psychotronic films hinge on ‘the urge to kill’ that, in real life, the human race should technically have all been murdered long ago.  

Friday, 9 January 2015

THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE












d. Spencer Gordon Bennett (1959)

For a long while The Atomic Submarine goes around in circles as we watch the bickering crew of the state of the art USS Sharkfish scour the Arctic Ocean looking for the cause of a series of maritime disasters. When their quarry is revealed as a flying saucer, however, things start to gather pace, culminating in a small group of sailors boarding the alien craft and establishing contact with its pilot. Most of the men end up dead, horribly burned by a heat ray or crushed between automatic doors, but 'Reef' Holloway (Arthur Franz) survives, establishing a psychic link with the invader, a hideous creature who resembles a clump of seaweed with tentacles and has one enormous, all seeing eye. This unprecedented close encounter of the third kind prompts the following exchange:

Alien: We meet face to face.
Holloway: That’s a face?
Alien: Point of view is everything.   
The alien snottily explains via telekinesis that his race want to colonise the Earth and need human specimens to experiment on, and Holloway's life has been spared so that he can be vivisected. Holloway has other ideas, of course.


Holloway: To navigate, won’t you have to see your way?  
Alien: Obviously.

(Holloway pulls out a Very pistol and shoots the alien, blowing out its eyeball)

Holloway: Could be rough!
The triumphant submariner then makes his escape as his blinded foe throws his fronds around in agony, viscous gunk glooping from its brand new hole. The previously rather smug alien has learned an important lesson about human beings: never under estimate their survival instinct, or their capacity to cause pain. It’s a short period of reflection, though, as the UFO is almost immediately destroyed by a ground to air missile: job done, Earth saved. For now.

Please note: this is not a proper submarine film, so do not expect any popping rivets, sweaty faces or corpses and oil being jettisoned to the surface to fool enemy battle ships. I'm still quite miffed about that, actually.

Friday, 2 January 2015

THE RETURN OF DRACULA











d. Paul Landres (1958)


Count Dracula is a colossal failure when you think about it. He’s wealthy, charming, attractive; he can transform himself into a bat, a wolf, a rat, a fog and has the capacity to live forever. But he’s incompetent and arrogant, a fatal combination that means he is vulnerable to mortal men who have none of his advantages, but are simply sharper, smarter and more organised.

The Return of Dracula illustrates this perfectly. In an attempt to reboot the Dracula franchise for the drive in generation, Dracula comes to atom age California under the assumed identity of a man he murdered back in Transylvania. America was built on immigration, of course, and, under normal circumstances, would have provided Dracula with everything he needed to continue his career as a supernatural serial killer: lots of people, bags of space and plenty of opportunity. With a bit of planning he could spend eternity flitting from state to state, free from suspicion, safe from harm. Instead, he moves in with a suburban family, smashes all the mirrors and starts acting really suspiciously. Within a few hours he has bitten the family cat to death and, a couple of days later, he kills a woman who lives a few doors down. It’s just bad management. Why couldn’t he charm the community he is living in, establish a really good alibi and then fly over to another town to slake his inhuman thirst?

In a small town, of course, the arrival of a dark, surly foreigner followed by a sudden, unexplained death leads to some immediate dot joining so, within a few days he’s being pursued by the crucifix and stake wielding forces of good. Even then, he eschews the chance to put on his cape and move on, instead carrying on as indiscreetly as before. This hubris quickly turns him into a mouldering skeleton with a piece of sharp wood in his chest - again. 

He never learns, does he?