C. Michael Forsyth
There are great horror movies that even aficionados of the genre have missed and are often overlooked on top 100 lists. Here are a dozen rarely viewed films that gave me the willies:
Four young people searching a remote forest for a missing scientist get more than they bargained for when they encounter the demon Asmodeus. Taking refuge in a cave, they come across an ancient book the evil being needs to spread destruction beyond his wooded domain. Heroically, the humans fight to keep The Book out of the demon’s claws, while trapped within his forest by a mysterious force field. Asmodeus sends a series of monstrous minions, including a giant ape-like creature with cloven hooves, to retrieve The Book.
Though shot on a shoestring budget, the movie makes create use of Ray Harryhausen-type stop motion animation. Plot-wise, it is a forerunner to “The Evil Dead,” and the filmmakers could show the producers of “The Blair Witch Project” a thing or two about telling an entertaining story with no dough.
Most horror buffs have seen the silent-era vampire film “Nosferatu,” an unauthorized adaptation of Dracula, but only hardcore enthusiasts have seen this 1932 picture from Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. Though less well known, it’s every bit as creepy as “Nosferatu.” Inspired by a tale by Carmilla author J. Sheridan Le Fanu, it’s about a student of the occult who stumbles across a village under the curse of a vampire hag.
Although made in the sound era, it too is silent. It benefits from a haunting atmosphere and imaginative effects. Among the most striking, the vampires slinking around the deserted town are seen only as shadows.
A group of students visit a wax museum featuring 18 villains from horror lore and history. Two are sucked into the waxwork displays, where they run into a werewolf and Dracula. Another two find themselves pitted against zombies and the infamous Marquis de Sade. The concept of universes within the displays struck me as quite original, and I loved how each one is depicted as real as our own. A kinky highlight of the film arises when the teenage girl drawn into de Sade’s world is whipped by the infamous sadist…and kind of likes it! Zach Galligan, who had vanished from the screen after “Gremlins,” does a smashing job as the young hero struggling to rescue her.
This horror comedy is a rare case of the sequel surpassing the original. Charlie and Jesse, a pair of yuppie pals, move into an old mansion Jesse has inherited. Rummaging through the basement, Jesse finds a picture of his great-great grandfather in front of a Mayan temple holding a crystal skull. The buddies soon learn that the house has been transformed by the skull his ancestor swiped and that each room is a doorway across space and time. The guys must keep the skull out of the hands of evildoers, while their mettle is tested in a series of harrowing adventures on the other side of these portals. Jonathan Stark, best known as the vampire’s henchman in the original “Fright Night,” is great as the goofier member of the duo. And look for an appearance from a smartalecky young Bill Maher.
THE UNDYING MONSTER, 1942
Mystery and horror combine in the curious case of the Hammond family which has been cursed since the Crusades and whose members frequently die under strange circumstances. When the latest Hammond heir is slain by an unidentified creature, intrepid private detective Robert Curtis and his plucky sidekick Christy are summoned to investigate. An early clue is a very peculiar statue in the Hammond family crypt.
What delights me about the film is the successful blend of genres. Curtis brings the logic of a Sherlock Holmes to the case and his relationship with Christy is reminiscent of Nick and Nora of “The Thin Man” fame. The detective takes a scientific approach, which makes the increasingly uncanny events all the more alarming. In one memorable sequence, he uses a microscope to examine a strange hair and it vanishes before his eyes!BLACK SABBATH, 1963
This anthology film boasts some truly terrifying segments. My favorite, “The Wurdalak,” is drawn from a common theme of vampire folklore rarely depicted on film: that when the undead return they first prey on their own relatives.
In 19th century Russia, a young nobleman on a long trip stops at a small rural cottage to ask for shelter. He learns that the family patriarch has disappeared for five days while searching for a vampire, or “wurdalak” as the locals call it. At the stroke of midnight, Dad — Boris Karloff at his creepy best — shows up at the cottage. His disheveled appearance and odd behavior lead his sons to suspect he’s joined the ranks of the undead. The situation makes for a rather tense evening.DEAD OF NIGHT, 1945
Another chilling anthology film, it includes the granddaddy of all evil-ventriloquist-dummy stories and a chilling yarn about a haunted antique mirror. The frame story itself (often laughable in such movies) is truly unnerving. In the frame story, a man arrives at a country house party where he reveals to the assembled guests that he has seen them all in a dream. They begin to tell various tales of the supernatural and the uncanny. The frame story climaxes with a haunting twist ending.ISLAND OF TERROR, 1966
The great Peter Cushing stars as a scientist investigating the peculiar case of a farmer found dead on a remote British isle without a single bone in his body. He and his companions learn that a researcher working on the island accidentally created a new lifeform from the silicon atom while searching for a cancer cure.
The tentacled creatures, dubbed “silicates,” kill their victims by injecting a bone-dissolving enzyme into their bodies and are virtually indestructible. Trapped on the isolated island, the heroes battle the monsters with guns, Molotov cocktails, dynamite and other weapons to no avail. In one hair-raising scene, Cushing is grabbed by a silicate. With a stiff upper lip, the Englishman sternly instructs a companion to chop off his hand with an ax before its too late.
HORROR HOTEL, 1960
A college coed visits a small Massachusetts town to research the witchcraft trials, unaware that her landlady is the reincarnation of an infamous witch burned at the stake in the 1600s. The accused witch wasn’t innocent – not by a longshot. She and her evil cohorts practice virgin sacrifice in order to remain immortal. Christopher Lee as the missing girl’s professor and her friends must solve the mystery of her disappearance before an unholy ritual on Candlemass Eve. Look for one of the most startling heroic rescue scenes in horror cinema history.
CHAMBER OF HORRORS, 1966
Cesare Danova, the suave actor with the sexy foreign accent that made him a ubiquitous TV guest star, plays the proprietor of a wax museum and amateur sleuth, aided by a dwarf sidekick. When a deranged man named Jason Cravette murders a woman and marries her corpse, Danova helps police bring him to justice.
Unfortunately, the killer escapes from a manacle by amputating his hand and vows vengeance on everyone involved in his capture and trial. In place of his hand, the madman wears an array of deadly weapons. He associates his foes with body parts – for instance, the cop who arrested him is the “arm of the law.” So after each revenge killing he makes off with that body part. The wax museum owner has a special incentive to stop the culprit, because he solved the initial murder and Cravette has indentified him as “the head of the law.” Gulp.
The movie was filmed as a pilot for a series to be called “House of Wax,” but it was deemed too gory for TV. But I would have tuned into such a show every week!
BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, 1971
This movie is set in village in 17th century England, where a series of bizarre events suggest to superstitious peasants that the devil is afoot. The trouble begins when a farmer plowing a field uncovers a deformed skull with one leering eye. Later, young townsfolk begin to sprout patches of fur and other odd markings on their bodies. It’s up to the local judge, a rational man who is initially skeptical of the supernatural, to stop the epidemic and solve the mystery. High production values and convincing period dialogue elevate the film. It’s like watching a version of “The Crucible” in which Satan really is on the prowl.
The always compelling Guy Pearce ( “L.A. Confidential”) stars in this film, which offers a unique take on cannibalism.
The story takes place during in 1840s California during the Mexican-American War. Pearce plays a U.S. Army captain who comes across the aftermath of a Donner Party-like disaster. The sole survivor, a Colonel Ives, is now hooked on human flesh. According to a Native American legend recounted in the movie, a man who consumes the flesh of his enemies takes their strength but becomes a Wendigo, a demon cursed by a hunger for man meat. Turns out the Indians were right. Col. Ives has cured himself of tuberculosis and turned himself into an invincible superman through cannibalism. Worse still, he gets others addicted and is bent on turning our hero Capt. Boyd into a cannibal too.
I found the notion of cannibal as a sort of vampire thought-provoking and appreciated the film’s dark humor. With great performances from Pearce and Robert Carlyle as the sinister Colonel Ives.
Hour of the Beast is available in hardcover and softcover at Amazon.com. But you can save $4 by clicking HERE! The Kindle version is just $7 and the Ebook is a measly $5. Be the first on your block to read this bone-chilling tale — before the motion picture hits the big screen.