1963 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: THE GHOST AND DEAD EYES OF LONDON

“From caves and sewers come The Slime People! They kill, kill, kill! There’s no escape from The Slime People! Nothing can stop the horror of The Slime People! For a new adventure in terror, live through the wild blood bath of The Slime People!”

The Ghost (directed by Riccardo Frida) stars Barbara Steele in another homicidal adulteress role. Hyped (misleadingly) as a sequel to Frida and Steele’s successful The Terror of Dr. Hichcock (1962), The Ghost, is woefully predictable and is not this director’s best work. However,  Steele is nearly at her best, and puts to rest any questions regarding her status as a genre cult icon.

Terminally ill invalid doc John Hichcock (Elio Jotta) is obsessed with seances, while his wife Margaret (Steele) carryies on a torrid affair with her husband’s physician Charles Livingstone (Peter Baldwin). John has a loyal governess in Catherine (reliable character actress Harriet Medin; a Mario Bava regular and memorable as the POTUS in Death Race 2000) who suspects that her mistress is up to no good. Impatient for John’s natural demise, Margaret plots with Charles to whip up a batch of poison. The dirty deed carried out, the philandering couple don’t count on a hitch in the will and an avenging ghost before their inevitable comeuppance.

Frida’s ho-hum scripting plods, but The Ghost is salvaged by Steele’s malevolent magnetism (Raffaele Masciocchi’s camera swoons over her). Flavorfully-filmed, unnerving vignettes include an animated wheelchair descending the stairs (prefiguring The Changeling), a nightie-clad Steele wielding a razor, a scheming feline Medin ascending the stairs, flaming annihilation, and a magical finale with betrayals galore. The Ghost is probably the only film in history that has you rooting for a murderess in a fur coat.

“Take a break. Add to your enjoyment of the show with the taste-tempting array of special treats available to you at the refreshment stand. Everything to temp your palate… And everything is fresh… and of finest quality. Pep Up! Fresh Up!  at our refreshment stand!”

“Let the light of faith shine upon you and your love ones. This week and every week … worship together in the church of your choice. ”

“If you should accidentally tear speakers off… turn it in at refreshment building, box office or to any attendant. ”

“Is everybody happy? Then let’s go…

Dead Eyes of London (directed by Alfred Vohrer ) is a smartly paced gem in the German “Krimi” genre. Based on the Edgar Wallace novel, it’s a notably superior remake of 1939’s The Dark Eyes of London (directed by Wallace Summers, which in itself is a slightly underrated opus in the Bela Lugosi canon, although hindered by ill-fitting comedy relief). This Vohrer remake improves on the simplified original with an aptly complex script by Egon Eis. Vohrer, who practically made a career of cinematic Wallace adaptations, has an affection for the material which is contagious.

Hairy, blind, Tor Johnson-like brute (Ady Berber) dispatches victims galore, frequently in the London fog, choreographed effectively to the famous first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Inspector Holt (krimi favorite Joachim Fuchsberger) finds the victims in the Thames. They all have braille writing on their persons and, it turns out, sizable insurance policies.

Heinz Funk’s idiosyncratic score aptly echoes a cast of equally idiosyncratic characters, including Eddi Arent as a knitting Scotland Yard sergeant, and so-slimy-he-leaves-a-trail (and also wears-his-sunglasses-at-night) Klaus Kinski. It’s outlandishly violent and spiked with queer humor (a mouthy water-pick view, a killer boob tube, a voyeuristic crucifix, a blowtorch-wielding priest, and a skull with smokey treat treasures). Vohrer makes memorable use of stylish sets and costume design, enhanced by Karl Lob’s crepuscular lensing. It’s probably a notch shy of being a contender for the 366 Weird Movie List, but it’s highly recommended for the locals.

“Please remember to place the speaker on the post when you leave the theater.”

This review, including the drive-in bumpers, refers to the double-feature DVD available from Sinister Cinema.

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DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: MARIO BAVA

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An eclectic study of cinema should include the oeuvre of Mario Bava. He was overlooked by serious critics for decades. It was genre fans who kept whispering Bava’s name until it reached an echo and reverberated in critical circles. Called The Father of Italian Giallo Cinema, he influenced the likes of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Quentin Tarantino (among others). Predictably, Bava’s fan base is given to religious zeal, but his body of work merits immersion in spite of his fanatical cult.

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It should come as no surprise that Mario Bava’s original ambition was to become a painter. The son of sculptor and cinematographer Eugenio Bava, Mario found painting a less-than-profitable life goal and followed his father’s footsteps. Landing a job in Mussolini’s film factory, Bava’s apprentice work included lensing numerous films, beginning in 1939. It wasn’t until 1957 that Bava (uncredited) co-directed his first feature with Riccardo Freda: Lust of the Vampire (I Vampiri).

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Although neither a great horror film nor a great film, Lust of the Vampire (not to be confused with the later Hammer film, which makes this one look like a masterpiece) is historically important for being the first Italian horror film. There are no vampires to speak of. The victims are the result of surgical horrors, and there’s little doubt that this film was a considerable influence on Georges Franjou’s Eyes Without A Face. Although crisply paced in its 78 minute running time, it’s saddled with dull, verbose characters. Lust of the Vampire teeters toward full-blown Goth cinema, but it also has scenes that hearken back to the mad scientist films of the 1940s; one has to look twice to make sure we’re not witnessing Boris Karloff and Lionel Atwill up to no good in their labs. Visually, it has wonderful set pieces and almost surreal matte-work standing in for Paris. A portentous spiraling stairwell, shadow-doused laboratories, decaying beds, skulls falling to the floor, nooses inexplicably dangling from the ceiling, a mist-laden forest, an ornamental tomb façade, secret chambers, and beautiful women injected with serum transforming into withered drama queens all add up to an evocative early Italian horror. Gianna Maria Canale has the standout performance as Giselle du Grand, smoking cigarettes in front of mirrors. There’s a lot of debate as to how much Bava directed. The film has elements that could be attributed to the styles of both artists. Although Bava is clearly the superior director, Freda (who co-wrote the script) went on to make the effective Terror of Dr. Hitchcock (1962) and it’s sequel The Ghost(1963), both with Barbara Steele. Freda walked out mid-production (for unclear reasons), leaving cinematographer Bava to finish the directorial duties for the remaining shooting schedule. Reportedly, the film was heavily censored by Italian “moralists,” which resulted in scant showings and rendered it a financial loss. Image Entertainment released a superlative DVD of I Vampiri, but it’s currently out of print.

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Freda and Bava re-teamed as co-directors for 1959’s Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, which lays claim to being one of the earliest Italian science fiction films (Bava had served as a cinematographer for the very first Italian sci-fi, The Day The Sky Exploded, in 1958 and, according to some sources, co-directed it as well).

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Apparently inspired by The Blob(1958), Caltiki far surpasses its source material (which isn’t hard to do). Set in Mexico City, the opening narration gives a brief synopsis of the ancient Mayan civilization, the mystery of its demise, and warns of an evil Mayan deity, known as Caltiki, the Immortal Monster. The opening is unabashed Bava: an archeologist runs, terrified, through an eerily lit jungle as a volcano erupts in the distance. He makes it to his campsite and leads the group back to the Mayan ruins he had stumbled upon. Finding a long-lost temple, the archeologists succumb to avarice, which leads to the unearthing of Caltiki; a Blob of a god who melts away skin and mental faculties. The FX are grisly for the time period, but shock value always dates, and it’s the Bava touches (excellent matte work and cinematography) that still seem fresh. Although well-paced, the writing is a pastiche filled with cardboard characters.

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Bava co-directed 1959 The Giant of Marathon with Jacques Tourneur (!), which would be a typical Steve Reeves sword and sandal opus, were it not for Bava’s camera work on some of the elaborate (and bloody) battle scenes (including an underwater confrontation). Of course, it has lots of cleavage—from both sexes. It’s hokey as hell, and while it hardly represents the directing craftsmanship of Tourneur, it does highlight Bava’s superb camera work.

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With the box office success of Marathon, Bava was finally given his own film to direct solo, and the result was Black Sunday. This horror classic remains Bava’s most famous film and is covered here in greater detail.

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