Film Review: Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)

Also known as: The Crimson Cult (US)
Release Date: December, 1968 (UK)
Directed by: Vernon Sewell
Written by: Mervyn Haisman, Henry Lincoln
Music by: Peter Knight
Cast: Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, Barbara Steele, Mark Eden, Michael Gough, Rupert Davies

Tigon Films, American International Pictures, 89 Minutes

Review:

“It’s like a house from one of those old horror films.” – Eve Morley, “It’s like Boris Karloff is going to pop up at any moment.” – Robert Manning

The only thing that this movie really has going for it is its great cast of horror legends. It boasts the talents of Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff and Barbara Steele. It also features Michael Gough, most famous to American audiences as Alfred from the Tim Burton Batman films. Rupert Davies even pops up in a small role.

I also have to give props to John Coquillon’s cinematography. His use of vivid and colorful lighting was effective, as were the sets and the colorful costumes he captured and brought to life. The film, in its best visual parts, looks like living art.

Unfortunately, the story is weak and there isn’t much of anything that is surprising. Barbara Steele often times distracts from the frail and inadequate script with her alluring beauty and her piercing gaze but even with the help from Karloff and Lee, the film is still pretty flat and uninteresting.

However, anytime that you can see legends like this come together, it is an affair worth checking out. I always like seeing Michael Gough in old British horror flicks too, considering how good he was for Hammer Studios in Horror of Dracula and The Phantom of the Opera.

Karloff and Lee look like they were having fun working together but neither of them gave anything close to their greatest performances. Barbara Steele was really good but she just didn’t have a lot to do and her character was fairly one dimensional. She looked stunning in her body paint and costume and really embodied the part of the demigod witch that she was supposed to be.

The main characters of the film were Mark Eden and Virginia Wetherell but they were completely overshadowed by the legends packed into this picture. They still did decent with the material. Wetherell was very pretty and had a great body, which is obviously why she was selected to play the Stage Actress in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

Curse of the Crimson Altar is just average. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it just exists. The positives are cancelled out by the negatives but at least the stars make it a worthwhile experience for those who are fans of their work.

Film Review: Caged Heat (1974)

Also known as: Renegade Girls
Release Date: April 19th, 1974 (Washington, D.C.)
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Written by: Jonathan Demme
Music by: John Cale, Mike Bloomfield
Cast: Juanita Brown, Roberta Collins, Erica Gavin, Ella Reid, Rainbeaux Smith, Barbara Steele

New World Pictures, 83 Minutes

Review:

“Don’t you realize sex is what put you behind bars in the first place? Stealing to dress better for a man. Fornicating from the back of the pockets of women using pimps. Killing to eliminate a sexual rival. Give me contrition! Let’s have redemption! Repentance! Repentance! A worm’s death to society!” – Supt. McQueen

While the “women in cages” sub-genre of exploitation films weren’t new by the time that Caged Heat came out in 1974, Jonathan Demme did a few things that set this one apart from those before it and thus, made it one of the most memorable pictures of its type.

For one, Demme cast horror icon Barabara Steele as the prison warden, a departure from the oppressor being a man. He also put her in a wheelchair and made her sex deprived.

Demme also added in elements of social consciousness, feminism and liberal politics. These new elements broke the mold and made Caged Heat a more interesting film than all the previous “women in cages” flicks.

Roger Corman initially didn’t want to distribute the film but then Jonathan Demme raised the production money on his own. Impressed, and maybe seeing a bit of himself in Demme’s ability to raise the capital on his own, Corman decided to distribute the film through his company New World Pictures. Before this film, Demme had worked on The Hot Box (another “women in cages” movie) and the biker film Angels Hard as They Come for New World Pictures.

Caged Heat, regardless of its cult success and its refreshing take on an overused exploitation gimmick, is not a good film. It isn’t awful, as the vast majority of “women in cages” movies are far worse, but it certainly doesn’t stand up to the test of time and it is a mess of a story.

Barbara Steele is as alluring as always, even if she is a fascist crippled bookworm. But watching her in this feels like a major step down in her career. Granted, she never reached superstardom but if she had any momentum, this probably snuffed it out. Plus, she was playing like seventh fiddle to a bunch of less talented actresses billed before her. She also didn’t get to do anything too interesting other than her stage performance during a dream sequence.

The other villain of the story is this male doctor who administers therapies that leave women mindless and helpless so he can rape them.

There are three other notable people in this film. The first is Juanita Brown, who was in Foxy BrownWillie Dynamite and Black Starlet. The second is Roberta Collins who played Matilda the Hun in Death Race 2000 and also starred in other “women in cages” films like The Big Doll House and the appropriately titled Women In Cages. She was also in Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive and the 80s teen sex comedy School Spirit. Lastly, there is Rainbeaux Smith who has the Frenchiest spelling of “rainbow” for a first name ever and was also in that awful shit storm of a film Laserblast. She was also in ParasiteUp In Smoke and had an uncredited bit part in Logan’s Run.

The biggest highlight of Caged Heat is the big prison break shootout finale. It isn’t necessarily an impressive action sequence but it was pretty well executed for a first-time director. And being that this was Demme’s first picture, as a director, it set the stage for what would come, as he has made some solid pictures throughout his career.

And while this film is full of boobies and violence, it isn’t as over the top as other pictures like it. It certainly gives you plenty of those things but there’s more to Caged Heat than just tits, ass and violence.

Film Review: Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Release Date: August 12th, 1961
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Richard Matheson
Based on: The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe
Music by: Les Baxter
Cast: Vincent Price, Barbara Steele, John Kerr, Luana Anders

American International Pictures, 85 Minutes 

pit_and_the_pendulumReview:

This is the second in the long series of films that teamed up director Roger Corman and actor Vincent Price in their line of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for American International Pictures. It also brings in horror icon Barbara Steele on the heels of her success in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday.

The cast is rounded out by John Kerr, who plays the other male lead opposite of Price, and Luana Anders, the female co-star who has significantly more screen time than the higher billed Steele.

Pit and the Pendulum is based off of the Poe story of the same name. It takes some creative liberties but does a good job of capturing the Poe feel. The film also borrows some elements from another Poe tale, The Cask of Amontillado.

Everything in the film eventually leads to the actual pit and the pendulum from the title. The pit itself isn’t all that exciting, it’s a pit. The pendulum, however, is the centerpiece of one of the best classic horror sequences ever produced. Even now, fifty-plus years later, it is still a chilling and dreadful sequence in the film.

Vincent Price was his typical self in Pit and the Pendulum and my only wish was that he shared more moments with Barbara Steele, who was as alluring as always.

John Kerr was fairly solid, if a bit boisterous at times. His character, like Mark Damon’s in House of Usher, was supposed to be a bit pushy and demanding, as he needed to know the truth behind the mystery that was the central plot.

Pit and the Pendulum is a really good looking picture but then, so were all of the Corman-Price-Poe collaborations. The sets were damn good for a picture with a small budget and short shooting schedule but that was always Roger Corman’s specialty.

This is one of the must-see films in Vincent Price’s long filmography. It has all of the best aspects of a classic 1960s Poe adaptation with very few flaws, other than things that were unavoidable in 1961 with limited resources.

Pit and the Pendulum is a horror classic that has done a fine job of surviving the test of time.

Film Review: Black Sunday (1960)

Also known as: La maschera del demonio (Italy), The Mask of Satan, Revenge of the Vampire
Release Date: August, 11th 1960 (Italy)
Directed by: Mario Bava
Written by: Ennio De Concini, Mario Serandrei, Mario Bava, Marcello Coscia, Dino De Palma
Based on: Viy by Nikolai Gogol
Music by: Roberto Nicolosi
Cast: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici

Galatea Film, Jolly Film, Unidis, 87 Minutes

black-sundayReview:

Black Sunday was a pretty gruesome picture for its day. It was released in Italy unaltered. However, it was banned in the UK for eight years and the American version had a lot of the gore edited out. By today’s standards, it isn’t gory, at all.

The film opened a lot of doors for Barbara Steele, who would go on to become a horror icon. She appeared in other types of pictures but it was those eyes of hers that found work in the world of macabre.

Steele was phenomenal in her dual roles as the vampire Princess Asa Vajda and her descendant Katia Vajda. She almost played good twin versus evil twin, even though her vampire character was two centuries older.

The rest of the cast was pretty solid but it was Steele who stole the show and made this movie her own.

Black Sunday is also a great example of the work of Mario Bava. While it is a black and white film and doesn’t utilize the amazing color palate that Bava and other Italian horror directors would use, the lighting and cinematography are just as alluring. Bava’s use of lighting and contrast makes Black Sunday a very dreamy and hypnotic experience.

In fact, the visual style of Black Sunday is almost a throwback to the gothic horror style of the 1930s, made most famous by the outstanding Universal Monsters films. Truthfully, this film feels twenty-to-thirty years older than it actually is.

Mario Bava also directed the cast magnificently and utilized the sets around them very well. This is one of his most iconic pieces of work.

The special effects are impressive for a 1960 Italian film. For the most part, they are still effective today. A friend of mine who watched this with me recently, even winced at one scene when there was a quick gruesome reveal.

Today, Black Sunday isn’t a well-known horror film. As far as I’m concerned, it is a classic and a real gem among other Italian horror pictures. The Italians made great scary movies. Black Sunday is one of their best.

Film Review: Piranha (1978)

Release Date: August 3rd, 1978 (USA)
Directed by: Joe Dante
Written by: John Sayles, Richard Robinson
Music by: Pino Donaggio
Cast: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Barbara Steele, Dick Miller, Belinda Balaski, Paul Bartel

New World Pictures, United Artists, 95 Minutes

piranha1978Review:

Some people might not realize this but Piranha was made to be somewhat of a parody to Jaws and its clones, such as Orca. It was also the first film that Joe Dante directed alone. He would go on to direct some of the most memorable films of the 1980s and a few decent ones from the 1990s.

It is hard to just consider this film as horror. It has comedy elements to it, especially where Dick Miller’s water park mogul Buck Gardner is concerned.

The film sees two teenagers go skinny dipping in a pool on what they believe to be an abandoned military installation. The pool is full of genetically engineered piranha that eat the teenagers alive. This brings in Maggie, an insurance investigator. She is a bit aloof and careless and while snooping around, releases the piranha into the local river system. As the film progresses, the killer piranha eat their way through the locals. Eventually, they attack a summer camp and finally, a newly opened water park.

Piranha isn’t just a parody, though. It is also a political commentary on the bastardization of science by the government. With this film being released a few years after the Vietnam War, a lot of the military’s questionable tactics were still fresh in people’s minds.

Most of the actors in this picture are completely forgettable. The only notable characters are those that have just a bit more time than a cameo. Dick Miller is always great and would go on to work with Joe Dante for years. Plus, Piranha was produced by Roger Corman, who also utilized Miller a lot. The film also features horror legend Barbara Steele as a sinister government scientist, trying to keep a lid on the tragedy. Then there is Paul Bartel, who plays the hilarious yet very heroic camp counselor. Bartel is one of the greatest character actors of the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Being that this is a Corman produced movie, you can expect it to cut a lot of corners. The effects aren’t particularly good but they are effective. My only real complaint about the piranha, is the strange sound effects used for the moments where they feast on human flesh.

Piranha is not a great film but it is the best of the Jaws ripoffs. Sure, Steven Spielberg said that first, but I share his sentiment.

Film Review: Lost River (2014)

Release Date: May 20th, 2014 (Cannes)
Directed by: Ryan Gosling
Written by: Ryan Gosling
Music by: Johnny Jewel
Cast: Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Iain De Caestecker, Matt Smith, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn, Barbara Steele

Bold Films, Marc Platt Productions, Phantasma, Warner Bros. Pictures, 95 Minutes

lost-riverReview:

Ryan Gosling was never an actor I cared for either way. He did some decent indy films but was mostly associated with romance flicks and being a former member of the Mickey Mouse Club alongside Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake. He was a guy that was just kind of there and not really on my radar.

Then he starred in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and I was pretty intrigued by him. No, not like all those ladies who swoon over The Notebook but because there was just something about his presence in that film, despite him being a very quiet character.

He went on to do some other really interesting films and also worked with Refn again in the polarizing Only God Forgives. So when, shortly after seeing that movie, I heard that Gosling was writing and directing something, I was pretty intrigued. I’d had hoped that some of what he learned working with the accomplished Refn, would rub off.

Initially, Lost River was met with a lot of negative reviews. It was kind of off-putting when I saw the critical response to the film, after it was shown at Cannes. However, Refn’s Only God Forgives was lambasted by many and I liked that film regardless of the critical consensus. I also don’t take critics responses too seriously and some of the best films, historically speaking, were trashed when they first came out.

While I really liked Gosling’s Lost River, I don’t see it as being a historically important film. That is, unless Gosling goes on to make some really amazing films and this one goes on to be remembered as his first in a line of visual stunning and trippy pictures.

Lost River is kind of an homage of Refn’s visual style, which Gosling probably became comfortable with mimicking after being immersed in it while filming two visually alluring films. It also has a sort of David Lynch bizarreness to it.

One thing that must be pointed out, is that the music was great. Johnny Jewel developed a really good score for this picture and it blended well, weaving in and out of this well-balanced mixture of darkness and vibrant colors.

The acting in the picture is solid but the characters, although relatable, don’t at all feel fleshed out enough. I thought Matt Smith, most famous for being the bow-tie-wearing eleventh Doctor in the Doctor Who franchise, was pretty stellar as the unstable, creepy and appropriately named Bully. He was just an evil and extremely violent force of nature that had a very threatening and terrifying presence every time he was on-screen. Saoirse Ronan and Iain De Caestecker did a pretty fine job with their roles too. However, as much as I have always loved Christina Hendricks, her character felt the flattest, even though she had some of the most interesting material in the film.

Lost River is a pretty uncomfortable movie that reflects some really dark parts of life but it also never dismisses hope or a way out for its characters. It is beautiful to look at and it is interesting enough to keep you engaged for an hour and a half.

The critics can obviously say what they want, but for a directorial debut, Ryan Gosling gave us a real human story with a good message that was visually fulfilling. While this didn’t knock the ball out of the park, it was pretty deep in the outfield. For a debut film, there aren’t very many directors that can say that.