Saturday, September 26, 2009

Bava gave strong showing in directorial debut (as well as made a star of Barbara Steele)

Black Sunday (aka "The Demon's Mask", "The Mask of Satan" and "House of Fright" and "Revenge of the Vampire") (1960)
Starring: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Enrico Olivieri and Arturo Dominici
Director: Mario Bava
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A devil-worshipping witch and her consort (Steele and Dominici), executed 200 years ago return from the dead as a strange breed of vampires after a traveler exploring her tomb (Checchi) callously damages the specially built sarcophagus that was supposed to keep them interred forever. The witch sets about claiming revenge against the descendants of those who executed her, as well as trading the body of her last living female relative (also Steele) for her own time-ravaged one.

"Black Sunday", Mario Bava's directorial debut and the film that established Barbara Steele as a horror movie icon on par with Vincent Price and Boris Karloff, has been hailed as a masterpiece in many quarters, and I have finally gotten around to seeing it.

I feel a litle bit like I did when I saw Universal's original "Frankenstein"--I don't think the film is quite worthy of the reputation it has. It's a decent horror flick in the gory-gothic mode that Hammer Films and director Terence Fisher brought to the fore with "Horror of Dracula" and "Curse of Frankenstein", but I did not find this film to be the masterpiece I'd been promised. (I'd even argue that Bava's "Hercules in the Haunted World" and "Diabolik" are both superior to this effort.)

The first and biggest problem the romantic subplot between Our Hero, the dashing Dr. Gorobec (played with perfect blandness by John Richardson) and Damsel-in-Distress Katia (Barbara Steele) falls completely flat because of a near-complete lack of chemistry between the two performers and because it's one of those Insta-Romances that even less believeable than average.

The film also suffers from number of unintentionally silly moments where Bava goes overboard to drive home a dramatic point or to make something clear to the denser members of the audience. The worst (or best, if you're watching the movie for its badness) is when a vampire is sneaking invisibly through the castle halls. Apparently, Bava wanted to make sure we knew the vampire was sneaking invisibly and he didn't feel some ruffled wallhangings or shifted chairs was enough to show it, so he has the vampire knock down everything he passes, including several suits of armor that go clattering loudly to the floor. I found myself wondering what the point of being invisible is if you're so drunk you can't walk straight... and moments later I was laughing when members of the household were claiming they'd been awakened by a terrible scream, but none had apparently heard all overturning of furniture and knocking down of armor that the drunken, blind and/or spastic vampire had been engaging in moments before.

There's also a hilarious bat attack that has got to be among the worst creature effects ever put on film.

That's not to say the film doesn't have some truly scary or cool moments. The opening sequence of the witch's brutal execution is fabulously done, with the hammering of a spike-lined mask onto the woman's face being especially squirm-worthy. The ressurrection sequence of the witch is also very creepy, with lighting, camera angles, and sound effects all being deployed with perfect precision to make it a great scene. Finally, the film's ending is perfectly done (and I can't say much more without spoiling one of the movie's most shocking moments), so, while there are flaws, Bava does get the movie's finale exactly right, a rare feat. Bava's ending is also more modern in nature than many films of this vintage, with a denouement after the main action has concluded.

And, of course, there is Barbara Steele's dual performance as the evil witch and the innocent young woman whose body she is intent on possessing. Steele does a fine job of portraying both characters, undergoing a transformation that almost rivals that the great Boris Karloff did in his great dual role in "The Black Room" (review here.)

While "Black Sunday" may not be the masterpiece some claim it is, it's worth checking out, particularly if you're a fan of Hammer Films-style horror or an admirer of the exotic beauty that is Barbara Steele.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

'Tiger Love' is a genre mish-mash

Tiger Love (aka "Legend of the Tiger" and "A Tiger's Love") (1977)
Starring: Stephen Tung and Hu Chin
Director: Lin Hsiu
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

After nearly being killed because of a feud between her family and that of the young man she loves, a young woman (Chin) is rescued by a tiger who falls in love with her. She soon gives birth to the son of her lover, and she raises him with tiger in isolation. When he is old enough, he decides to seek out his father, but he ends up falling in love with a girl from his mother's clan. This revives the feud and starts a violent and tragic chain of events that leads to the destruction of both families, and the transformation of a kind guardian into a revenge-seeking demon.

Part third-rate Kung Fu movie, part Chinese low-class "Romeo & Juliet", part "Tarzan Meets Mowgli", and part horror movie, "Tiger Love" is a mishmash of elements that somehow manage to work. Sort of.

The first 2/3rds of the movie are slightly lackluster and predictable, with so-so performances made to appear even weaker by seriously dodgy dubbing. It also doesn't help that the only truly likable characters to appear in the film are the tiger, the human he loves, and her dippy son (played by Stephen Tung). Even his love interest--whose name I don't know, because this film is so obscure that it's not even listed at so I can't research its cast list--is something of an obnoxious bitch. Gorgeous yes, but bitchy.

The martial arts fights that break out every now and then during the movie do little to add excitement to the film, as they are universally simplistic and run-of-the-mill. The film presents the idea that Stephen Tung's character was taught a unique form of martial arts by his mother's tiger guardian, but the idea is never used to any great advantage.

However, things get better in the last half hour or so. As the film moves toward its conclusion, it totally changes gears and mood, leaving behind the standard 1970s Kung Fu period piece romance/revenge flick tone and instead turns into a horror movie. Events cause the supernatural nature of the titular tiger to become fully manifest, and the films only truly exciting scenes follow. The final act of the film manages to elevate it from a low 5 to a love 6 rating, even if I would still have liked to see a slightly stronger ending.

Overall, a decent flick. It's not exactly great, but the sudden left turn into horror movie territory in the final act makes for interesting viewing.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Is it porn? Is it it a horror movie?
It's the mystery of 'Werewolf Woman'

Werewolf Woman (1974)
Starring: Annik Borel, Dagmar Lassander, Tino Carraro, and Frederick Stafford
Director: Rino Di Silvestro
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Daielle (Borel), a mentally unbalanced young woman becomes convinced she's werewolf and goes on violent, lust-fueled killing rampages when the moon is full. Will Inspector Monika (Stafford) stop her before she kills again, despite the interference by her wealthy and politically powerful father, Count Neseri (Carraro)? Or will the love of a good man perhaps make her give up her homicidal ways?

"Werewolf Woman" is long on running length but short on plot... and it also can't make up its mind what it wants to be when it grows up. Is it a werewolf movie? Is it a rape-victim-gets-her-revenge movie? Is it a mad slasher film? Is it an exploitation flick that borders on softcore porn? Is it a ghost movie? Is it a treatise on pseudo-scientific paranormal theories? It doesn't know, and you won't either when the movie reaches its jaw-droppingly stupid conclusion.

For all its faults, I this is one of those proto-slasherflicks that pre-dates the emergence of that subgenre, yet that displays many of the elements that are the definers of a slasherflick. (Actually, "Werewolf Woman" has just about all of them. However, it is most definitely from the shallow end of the cinematic gene pool.

Aside from it being of possible minor interest as a film historical artifact, there are really only two remarkable features about "Werewolf Woman". First, there is far, far more sex and full-frontal female nudity in this film than in your average cheapie exploitation film with horror movie overtones. Second, it's got the goofiest werewolf make-up I've EVER seen in a movie that the viewer is expected to take seriously. (The "wolf nipples" really make the costume!)

BTW, I viewed the 98-minute version. Supposedly, there's a second DVD version--the "restored edition" that runs 115 minutes! Unless that time is taken up by expanded, more graphic sex scenes (which it probably is, given the film's soundtrack is as though it was written for a porno film), I feel for those who have to sit through the long version.