Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown: The Aftermath!

The trick-or-treating has come to an end, and it seems as if our plan was a success. The Other Dr. K and I decided this year that instead of giving out candy to all the little ghouls and goblins, we would hand out containers of Play-Doh (we found special Halloween trick-or-treat packages of Play-Doh at Target). I was a bit worried about this plan, as I envisioned a bunch of disappointed, sugar-starved hellions "doh-ing" our house and cars, so I wanted to have some candy around as a back-up plan in case we started to get some complaints.

However, I needn't have worried. Most of the kids, when seeing what we put in their bags, went tearing across the yard screaming, "I got Play-Doh!!!" We also had many parents come to our door to tell us that they really liked that we gave out Play-Doh instead of candy. And the worst reaction I got from a little boy was one who wanted pink Play-Doh instead of black. I told the kid that I was proud of him for resisting fundamental, essentialized notions of gender, and I gladly made the exchange. Also, two older boys just handed it back to the Other Dr. K, but were polite enough not to throw it at us or our property. I'll keep my fingers crossed that, when I get up in the morning, I won't have a tailpipe stuffed with Doh.

(We have a phenomenon around here where teenagers often go trick-or-treating, but without costumes. This, in my book, violates some fundamental but unwritten contract of Halloween: costumes = trick-or-treating; no costumes = walking up to a house and asking for food. It goes like this: you knock on my door, I answer, you say "Trick or Treat!", I tell you how cute and/or scary you look in your costumes, you get treats. I have to say, though, I did give some of these costumeless kids the candy instead of the Doh.)

All together, we gave away over 100 containers of Play-Doh this year. Next year, I think we'll mix things up a bit by getting both Play-Doh and the small ashcan comics that some companies has started producing over the last couple of years. But, in the meantime, I'm going to sit back and hypocritically enjoy a big bowl of Almond Joys that we didn't give away, as that is my single, all-time favorite candy bar (followed closely by Kit Kats).

Did anyone else have good trick-or-treating experiences this year?

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween!

Thanks to everyone who joined me in the Halloween Countdown. I hope you all have an awesome Halloween, and that you get lots of candy (but no rocks!).

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: Favorite Scary Covers!

With Halloween fast approaching, I want to spend today and tomorrow covering some of my favorite horror comics and movies. Today, I'm posting some of my favorite scary covers from horror comics I have owned.

This Wally Wood cover from Eerie 2 is probably my favorite horror comic cover in my collection. This just doesn't look like a good situation.

I've had this issue of Phantom Stranger since I was a kid, and for some reason, this Neal Adams cover gave me nightmares. I think, even then, I had a fear of evil children.

This Jose Luis Garcia Lopez cover for Ghosts 1 meets Chris Sims's criteria for a good horror comic cover by featuring a skeleton where it shouldn't belong.

House of Mystery 201 is a comic I wish I still owned. The cover story, with interior art by the great Jim Aparo, is about a kid who transforms into a violent, demonic persona. In order to control him, his parents arrange a lobotomy, and the last panel shows the boy playing on the lawn in a near-vegetative state. Just substitute Ritalin for the lobotomy, and you've got a story that's still scary and relevant today. If I'm not mistaken, I think this cover is by Mike Kaluta.

Another House of Mystery cover, this one by Berni Wrightson. Wrightson is awesome, and that is all I have to say about that. Also, like the last cover, this one also features a female character reading in a chair while a threat looms behind her. Interesting.

While Wrightson and Adams did some great covers for DC's horror books in the 60s and 70s, I think that Nick Cardy's covers for the same books are quite underrated (and often uncredited, though his style is distinctive enough to spot). This cover has more fantasy elements to it, but it's still nicely done.

Though not a horror title per se, Jim Aparo's Spectre covers for his run on Adventure Comics were really boundary-pushing in the 70s. This one also had an effect on me as a child.

Joe Kubert did the first five covers or so for Weird War Tales, this one being for issue 3. These covers really combined Kubert's talents for both war and horror comics. I also like the adjective "Gut-Grabbing."

Not a scary cover, but I do like cats.

Take the stupid spider with a skull off this Neal Adams cover, and it makes a certain painting by Edvard Munch look like a pile of puke.

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: House of Frankenstein!

As Universal Studios' monster franchises were winding down during World War II, the studio tried to raise the ante and staunch the draining creativity from the properties by putting out movies that featured almost all of the creatures either teaming up or fighting each other. Three movies at the tail end of the Universal cycle form a nice trilogy: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), and House of Dracula (1945). While these movies are far from scary, and appear very cheaply made, they are well-paced fun, and I find I get the same enjoyment out of them today that I got when I saw them on the afternoon movie show when I got home from school. My favorite of the three is the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy: House of Frankenstein.

In a gothic prison, a guard delivers a meal to a cell, only to have a hand reach through the cell door opening and clamp around the guard's throat. The camera pans to reveal Boris Karloff with a Rasputin-like beard demanding, "Now will you give me my chalk?" The guard complies.

Scrawled on the inside of the cell are many formulas and drawings, as Karloff's Dr. Niemann is trying to recreate the brain transplant experiments of Dr. Frankenstein. And he promises Daniel (J. Carrol Naish), his hunchbacked, Igor-ish cell mate, a perfect body if he can only get ahold of Frankenstein's records. As if responding from some divine power, lightning suddenly strikes the prison, leaving a hole through which the prisoners can escape.

As Niemann and Daniel leave the prison, they discover a small carnival wagon train belonging to Professor Lampini's Chamber of Horrors stuck in the mud, and they exchange their assistance for a ride. The Chamber of Horrors happens to feature as its star attraction the skeleton of Dracula, complete with wooden stake through the heart. Niemann decides that Lampini's show will make the perfect cover for his plans to seek revenge on those who had him imprisoned, and he orders Daniel to kill the Professor. All together, Niemann has something like three plans to fulfill: getting revenge, finding Frankenstein's notes, and returning to his lab for his own experiments.

Niemann pretends to be Professor Lampini, and following a show, he removes the stake and revives Count Dracula (John Carradine). The two make a deal: Dracula will do Niemann's bidding, and the doctor will take care of the vampire's coffin home. Carradine is not a great Dracula--he's better at playing mad scientists and wild men. Of course, his Dracula gets much worse in Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, which is among the worst movies ever made. His hypnotic gaze especially over the top.

Dracula enacts one piece of revenge for Niemann, killing a burgermeister who helped send him to prison. Dracula also attempts to seduce the young bride of the burgermeister's son, but he is soon found out and run out of town. However, during an exciting carriage chase, Dracula is killed, as the sun rises before he can return to his coffin. Only thirty minutes into the movie, and Dracula is already dead. In fact, the first half of the movie forms a complete story in itself, giving this movie an episodic feel.

Niemann and Daniel escape the town and head for the next stage. Luckily, the area roadsigns helpfully point out that "Frankenstein" is only 1km away. Along the way, though, the pair stop to watch a gypsy dancer, named Ilonka, perform, and Daniel quickly falls in love. He later rescues her from a thrashing when she won't give all of her earnings to her boss. He then places her unconcious body onto their wagon and takes her with on their journey to Castle Frankenstein.

Or what's left of it. In the previous film, the castle was virtually destroyed in a flood, and both the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange) and the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) were left frozen in an underground cavern. Niemann finds the notes and the creatures, who will now factor in to his elaborate plans for further revenge. That plan: take the two monsters back to his own laboratory and then transplant the brains of his two remaining enemies into the bodies of the creature and the Wolf Man.

Meanwhile, Ilonka falls in love with Larry Talbot, the human guise of the Wolf Man. It seems, though, that she falls in love with him primarily through process of elimination: he's not a hunchback, nor is he an obsessed mad scientist or creature made of the parts of various corpses. With those choices, she picks the guy who only turns into a murderous monster a few days out of every month.

Together, Ilonka and Larry make a plan of their own: the Wolf Man has recently killed a girl from the village, and if he ever attacks Ilonka, she must be prepared to shoot him through the heart with a silver bullet. On the next full moon that evening, he does attack her, and she shoots him, but not before he gives her a fatal bite wound. Then, in a rapid series of events, Daniel almost kills Niemann, but the creature throws the hunchback out of a window before he can finish the job. Meanwhile, villagers seeking the Wolf Man have noticed the activity at the formerly deserted castle. The creature then carries the incapacitated Niemann out of the castle, past the torch-bearing villagers, and into a handy pool of quicksand. The End.

This movie is nothing if not efficient. It's a lean 71 minutes, and it jams in a lot of plot at a very fast pace. In fact, there isn't a lot of downtime in the movie, and it probably takes longer to summarize it than to watch it. Leonard Maltin's Film Guide describes this movie as "tough to dislike," and I think that sums it up well. It's preposterous and disjointed, but it doesn't slow down long enough for the audience to worry about its deficiencies. At worst, the movie leaves the audience wanting more of the same, and luckily Universal delivered more with House of Dracula, which reunited Carradine, Chaney, and Strange as the holy trinity of movie monsters.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: The Brides of Dracula!

I teach Bram Stoker's novel Dracula almost every semester in an introduction to literature course, so I have a certain fondness for vampire films. But, as I tell my students every semester, the "quality-to-crap ratio" is pretty off balance in the genre, and I've given up on seeking out new vampire films unless they have something extraordinary to recommend them. I do, however, frequently extoll to my students the virtues of the Dracula cycle from England's Hammer Studios, despite the presence of many duds in the final years of Hammer productions. The Hammer films were known for kicking up the sex and violence from the Universal horror cycle while also featuring a fine repertory of actors: most notably, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The series started with Horror of Dracula (1958), a very loose adaptation of the Stoker novel with Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing and Lee as Dracula. Lee wouldn't return to play Dracula for another eight years in Dracula--Prince of Darkness (1966), and even in that film, it takes more than half the movie for Dracula's servant to revive his master from the ashes of his fate in the first film. (The conclusion of that movie also featured one of the worst ways to defeat a vampire: Dracula is frozen in a lake. That doesn't defeat him--it just makes him someone else's problem later.)

In between those two movies, however, Hammer put out a couple of very good vampire movies: Brides of Dracula (1960) and Kiss of the Vampire (1962). Kiss of the Vampire, unfortunately, devolves from an awesome opening scene, where a mysterious, possibly drunk man stumbles into a somber funeral and suddenly thrusts a shovel into the grave and through the casket. When a scream and fountain of blood emit from the casket, several attendants faint and the man walks away. The camera then goes into the grave and through the casket to reveal that the young woman being buried is really a vampire! Unfortunately, the rest of the film does not live up to the opening, though it's still enjoyable.

I really enjoy Brides of Dracula, despite the false advertising of the title. While there are several vampire brides, Dracula is nowhere to be seen. Instead, we have Dracula's apprentice, of sorts: Baron Meinster, played by blond actor David Peel.

Also, the poster claims that the vampire "turns a girls' school into a Chamber of Horrors," but the movie fails to live up to that tantalizing promise as well. However, we do get the return of Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing, putting this film in continuity with the rest of the Dracula cycle. So, minus Christopher Lee, this film has everything I love about the Hammer Dracula films, including the gothic setting and the psychosexual horror elements. The film was also directed by Terence Fisher, who directed most of the great Hammer horror films.

The film opens, as so many of these Hammer films do, with a young woman, Marianne, arriving in a strange village, near an all-girls school where she's about to start work as a teacher. Her carriage stops at an inn along the way, and the villagers start behaving strangely, refusing to serve her and advising her to move along. However, her carriage suddenly leaves without her, and the villagers all clear out of the inn for some mysterious reason. Moments later, thundering hooves can be heard from another carriage, and the Baroness Meinster enters the inn. She begins striking up a conversation wit Marianne despite the protestations of the innkeepers, who seem to know something about the Baroness. Soon, the Baroness has convinced Marianne to spend the night at Castle Meinster before embarking on the last leg of her journey in the morning.

I'm a sucker for this kind of opening--you see it in a lot of Hammer films, as well as movies like Die, Monster, Die!, which I commented on in an earlier post. These villagers have been living with this unspeakable horror their entire lives, and their moral system is so completely tuned to self-preservation that they easily sacrifice a total stranger.

While getting settled in her room at Castle Meinster, Marianne steps out on her balcony and sees a beautiful young man chained up in a room below. When she asks the Baroness about this, she responds that her son is "ill." Later, Marianne again looks out to the balcony to see the young man apparently trying to leap to his death, fearing the worst, she rushes to the room to save him. The young man then explains that he is the Baron Meinster, and his mother keeps him prisoner in the room. Feeling sympathy, Marianne resolves to help him escape.

Throughout these opening scenes, the viewer is in the same position as Marianne, assuming that the mother is the monster here, keeping her innocent son chained in his room. However, once Marianne allows him to escape, we learn that the truth is far worse: he's a deadly vampire, and his mother was the only one keeping him from running amok in the nearby villages. We also learn, though, that the mother has had to make some serious moral compromises to keep her son this way--she frequently would bring him young women to satisfy his hunger, and Marianne was soon to be the next victim.

The mother/son relationship is just one of the elements that make this movie interesting. Once the Baron is free, the first thing he does is transform his own mother into a vampire by biting her neck in a scene that does more than imply incest: "He has taken the blood of his own mother," she explains to Van Helsing as willingly allows herself to be destroyed by him later in the movie.

Van Helsing appears in the village at the behest of the local priest, who is trying to convince villagers that something must be done about the recent deaths of many of their young women. Peter Cushing's Van Helsing is coldly methodical. He's long since dealt with the emotional and moral issues of destroying vampires, and he has little time or patience for those who wish to treat the vampires as if they were still their loved ones.

My favorite part of this movie, though, is the climax, which contains one of the more clever methods of destroying a vampire. Van Helsing tracks a recently turned vampire bride to an old windmill, where The Baron soon arrives with Marianne. In the ensuing fight, the Baron bites Van Helsing and leaves him to his transformation. Van Helsing, however, acts quickly, cauterizing the bite wounds with a hot blacksmith's iron and dousing the burn with holy water. This does the trick, and he returns to the fight. The Baron then attempts to escape by torching the windmill. As the Baron runs away, Van Helsing makes his way to the top of the windmill, jumping on the blades and turning them so that their shadow, when cast across the Baron's path, make the form of a cross. The Baron then collapses dead in the shadow. This may be a bit silly, but it shows some of the inventiveness of these early Hammer horror films.

There are two good Hammer horror DVD boxed sets that I know about. The "Horror Collection" contains six movies all together, including three Dracula films: Horror of Dracula, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, and Taste the Blood of Dracula. Unfortunately, the set skips Dracula--Prince of Darkness, and therefore confuses the continuity between movies. Brides of Dracula , along with Kiss of the Vampire, can be found on "The Hammer Horror Series," which features eight movies on two disks with no extras.

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: The End of the Creature Commandos and G. I. Robot!

As a bit of a companion piece to this entry over at the Invincible Super-Blog (as well as a follow-up to this post), here is the final appearance of both the Creature Commandos and G. I. Robot from Weird War Tales 124, also the final issue of that series:

This isn't just the final page, it's the entire story! Apparently, writer Bob Kanigher and artist Fred Carillo were given one entire page in this final issue to wrap up the stories of their creations. Obviously, this didn't sit well with the writer in particular, as he takes the opportunity to make a couple of digs in the story.

Here, the Creature Commandos get screwed in every way possible. First, they are put on trial "For rebelliously displaying signs of humanity," which is a total bullshit charge, and on top of that, they've had thousands of character witnesses speak for them at their trial, but to no avail.

The verdict also comes from a general whose name is exactly the same as the editor of this comic, which leads me to believe that Kanigher is dropping in some behind-the-scenes subtext that reveals his true feelings about the powers-that-be at DC.

However, Lt. Shrieve arrives with some new orders: the Creature Commandos, along with G. I. Robot (who seems to be thrown in for no reason), are "to man an ICBM" to blow up Hitler's Chancellory! Is manning an ICBM really a six-person job?

Turns out it isn't, as the job, like the verdict, is also bullshit, and the rocket heads into outer space rather than to Berlin.

Wait--six-person job? There were only four members of the Creature Commandos, plus G. I. Robot. So, who's the pipe-smoking man in the red jacket? According to the "Passenger List," it's "R. K."--none other than Bob Kanigher himself! Kanigher wrote some crazy-ass stuff, but he even tops himself here by riding off into space with his own creations. That's just got to be a big "screw you" to DC for cancelling the series.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Friday Night Fights: Take That, Halloween!

From Detective Comics 571 (1987), art by Alan Davis and Paul Neary, words by Mike W. Barr:

Batman punches the Scarecrow so hard that the only thing keeping Scarecrow's head on is his mask.

Bahlactus brings the tricks and the treats.

Special thanks to the Other Dr. K for providing the idea and headline for tonight's post.

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires!

I'm going to make a bold statement here: no film in the history of cinema has a greater "anticipation-to-failure ratio" than The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (aka Dracula and the 7 Golden Vampires, aka 7 Brothers vs. Dracula, aka, 7 Brothers and a Sister vs. Dracula, aka The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula, aka Weekend at Bernie's II).

After all, the poster bills it as "The First Kung Fu Horror Spectacular," and the film is a coproduction of Hammer Studios and the Shaw Brothers Productions, each the masters of their respective genres. Clearly, this should be the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of cinema: a sweet horror shell surrounding a delicious kung fu center--two genres that go great together. Instead, it's like the pancake reuben of cinema: two things that may be awesome on their own, but the sauerkraut and Russian dressing of kung fu fail to work together in execution with the pancakes of horror ("the pancake reuben" and "the pancakes of horror" tm 2007, Dr. K).

The film's biggest problem is that there is no kung fu for the first 30 minutes, and the film is less than 90 minutes long. Clearly, director Roy Ward Baker, who usually knew what he was doing in his other efforts for Hammer Studios (see the awesome Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde), was overwhelmed with the awesome potential of his material and simply allowed the horror and kung fu to negate themselves. If he knew what he was doing, this movie would consist entirely of martial artists kicking vampires in the head for it's entire running length.

Another problem with the film: Dracula only appears in it for about 5 minutes. This may explain why Christopher Lee does not reprise the role. Rumor has it that he was offered the movie, but turned it down once he read the script. Instead, Dracula is played by John Forbes-Robertson, who is pretty terrible. In the opening scene, taking place in 1804, Kah, the high priest of the 7 golden vampires, visits Dracula in Transylvania, and the Count decides to take on Kah's form and travel to China. Unfortunately, Kah speaks with the voice of Dracula, and the dubbing is terrible. Then, with no explanation, the film shifts to 1904. This makes no sense: if Dracula goes to China in 1804, does he travel back and forth to England in the intervening century? When does he get around to fighting Van Helsing and the others in the main Dracula story?

Despite my disappointment in this movie, the film features one of my favorite concepts in a vampire movie: the Chinese vampires respond to images of Buddha in the same way that Western vampires respond to the Christian cross or crucifix. As Van Helsing describes, "they abhor anything that has a holy significance." It also seems that, in general, rules for killing vampires differ from West to East. Eastern vampires are still susceptible to wooden stakes and silver bullets, but they can also be destroyed by fire.

Peter Cushing does return as Van Helsing, who is now traveling in China giving a lecture tour on Chinese folklore, which includes a poorly received lecture on the eponymous legend of the 7 golden vampires. Van Helsing is also accompanied by his son, Leyland (Robin Stewart), who manages to sit around a lot while others fight.

Van Helsing's lecture is believed by one audience member, Hsi Ching (David Chiang), who, along with six other brothers and a sister, has sworn to protect his ancestral village from the 7 golden vampires. Ching's brothers and sister all have special fighting skills: one is a master of the axe, another the spear, a third can swallow the sea, and a fourth can stretch his legs ... wait--I'm thinking of the 5 Chinese Brothers. Also, these shouldn't be mistaken for the "7 Chinese Brothers" of the REM song, though I don't have any idea of what that song's about, so it very well could be about this movie.

Soon, Van Helsing and Ching are planning an excursion to find this ancestral village, and they are soon joined by Scandinavian heiress Vanessa Buren, played by Julie Ege, perhaps the single worst actress to appear in any Hammer movie. That's no small accomplishment, considering that the primary requirements for casting women in these movies seem to be breast size and the ability to scream (Julie Ege also had a starring role in the sex comedy The Amorous Milkman, a film whose only virtue is its title).

In a rather nice and surprising move, romantic plots play out along inter-racial lines. It looks like, at the beginning, that Vanessa Buren will be hooking up with Leyland, but instead, she sets her eyes on Ching, while Leyland falls in love with the sister, Mai Kwei (a name that Leyland pronounces like "Make Way," which sounds like a rejected Asian Bond girl name). As Leyland says to Mai Kwei after a battle: "You are like a beautiful porcelain kitten, then suddenly you are a fighting tiger." (Coincidentally, I proposed to my wife with that very same line.)

If you are planning on watching this movie at any time, my biggest recommendation is to skip the first 30 minutes all together. It's mostly useless exposition that can be filled in by anyone who has ever seen a vampire movie before. After that, the movie has three fight scenes that are, generally, pretty good. Each of the brothers has his own specialty, and some are fun to watch, especially the axeman, the mace wielder, and the two swordsman who, for some reason, have to fight holding hands. The first fight happens for no apparent reason--the travelers are suddenly attacked in the middle of the desert by some random gang. In the second fight, the travelers seek shelter in a cave, only to be attacked by three of the golden vampires and their zombie army. Here, they learn some of the methods for killing vampires and zombies. Ching, for example, discovers that he can destroy zombies by thrusting his fists through their chests--a move I like to call the "dusty heart strike." When the golden vampires die, however, they look like deflating, dust-filled balloons.

The film's climax, however, does live up to expectations and makes the viewer wish that the rest of the film had more of the same excitement. There are even some genuine surprises, as in this scene, featuring Ching and Vanessa Buren, which you shouldn't watch if you plan on seeing the movie, as it spoils the ending:

In the end, there are many better horror movies and kung fu movies, so I find little to recommend here beyond the curiosity that this movie presents by virtue of its mere existence. By 1974, Hammer was pretty much tapped out creatively. In the next few days, though, I hope to look at some of Hammer's masterpieces, which are among my favorite horror movies.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: Vault of Mystery!

Richie Rich Vault of Mystery 2 (1975)

I really don't know what goes on in this comic, but it looks like Richie Rich teams up with the banjo-playing kid from Deliverance to stop the ghosts of Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman from lying around in piles of money. What I want to know: why are these the ghosts of Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman and not just the regular Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman?

And that Richie Rich really needs to do something about those cankles.

I was a fan of Richie Rich comics when I was six, but I always thought the character was a real dick. Why Richie Rich didn't inspire a generation of kids to become Marxists, I'll never understand.

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: The Tingler!

Warning to the Reader: This post contains a significant amount of sexual innuendo regarding the term "the tingler." Some particularly sensitive readers may experience nausea, frustration, and a growing sense of anger and resentment. Others may experience fits of laughter and screaming. Be aware that such reactions are perfectly natural, and readers may leave the blog at any time that they are too uncomfortable with this discussion of ... The Tingler!

William Castle's The Tingler (1959)is one of my favorite horror movies, not so much because it's scary (though some of its shocks are effective), but because it's an unironic celebration of horror movies and the cinema in general.

William Castle was known for his many gimmicks that he used to promote his own particular brand of horror films, and The Tingler represents one of his most ingenious schemes. In one of his more famous movies, The House on Haunted Hill, the showman used a technique he called "Emergo" (pronounced "emerge-o"), in which a flying skeleton from within the movie would fly out of the screen and over the audience. My dad, in fact, remembers going to see this movie several times in the theater when he was young because the kids would throw popcorn and other stuff at the skeleton when it flew overhead.

For The Tingler, Castle created "Percepto," in which he rigged random seats in theaters showing the film with small electric motors that would deliver a mild shock to those sitting there. The filmmaker also planted audience members at different screening, and their job was to start screaming at certain key moments in the film. At some screenings, Castle also installed a "Coward's Corner," in which audience members too scared by the film could follow a yellow line to a special set of seats.

Before the film begins, Castle appears on screen to issue a warning to the audience. (He did this for several movies. In some movies, he would even appear to interrupt the film, as in Mr. Sardonicus, where he appeared toward the end of the movie to ask the audience if the eponymous villain should be punished. The audience always voted in the affirmative.) The warning states that some audience members with a certain "sensivitity" will experience a strange tingling sensation," and they can get "immediate relief by screaming." His warning concludes: "a scream at the right time may save your life."

I don't know how many audience members bought into this in 1959, but it smacks of a less cynical time, and that's what I love about this movie. Sure, it manipulates the audience, but that manipulation is well-meant and not meanspirited or phoney. Castle seemed to genuinely want audiences to enjoy his movies and to experience something different.

The Tingler stars Vincent Price as Dr. Warren Chapin, a scientist who studies the effects of fear on the human body. He has come up with a radical and unproven theory about fear: something inside the human body causes the spine to stiffen when a person is faced with a fear stimulus, and that stiffening could result in severe physical harm or even death if the fear reaction continues unabated. Warren informs his assistant David (Darryl Hickman) of his theory, naming the theoretical thing "The Tingler." David fails to mention that it might not be a good idea to name their radical, revolutionary scientific discovery after a pocket-sized vibrating device used for the purposes of self-pleasure.

That is just one problem that Warren faces. The other is that he is having difficulty proving this theory. It seems that something always causes the tingling sensation to disappear before its true cause can be detected. Warren makes several attempts to solve this problem, all of which are ethically shaky for a scientist.

Warren's wife, Isabella, is openly having an affair, and Warren seems to only grudgingly confront her with the infidelity. Their banter is incredibly sharp and witty. Warren accuses her of "playing the field, and vice versa." Isabella accuses him of losing contact with other humans: "There's a name for you," she concludes.

"And several for you," he responds.

Despite their unhappiness, Warren needs Isabella because her wealth keeps his scientific research going (clearly, the National Institute of Health is uninterested in funding research on the tingler). These are twisted, ruthless people: Isabella probably killed her own father in order to get her inheritance, and Warren threatens to shoot her and fake her suicide if she doesn't let David marry her sister, Lucy: "this silly pistol can make a hole in you the size of a medium grapefruit," Warren threatens.

Then, much to the audience's surprise, Warren shoots his wife. Before disposing of her body, however, he rigs her to an x-ray machine in hopes of getting some candid shots of her tingler. I think it speaks volumes about their relationship that he has to go to such lengths just to see his own wife's tingler.

It turns out Warren was shooting blanks (probably in more ways than one), and Isabella only fainted, but his experiment is a success, and he gets some x-rays of a long, worm-like creature growing and shrinking on Isabella's spine. His goal now is to try and capture a live tingler.

Warren next gets his assistant David to do whatever it is kids do and get his hands on a supply of LSD. (Though the acronym is never used in the film, Warren is shown reading a pamphlet on the effects of the acid. Film historians have credited this movie as the first representation of an LSD trip.) Warren locks himself in his laboratory, injects himself with a double-dose of LSD, and turns on a reel-to-reel in order to record the trip. Warren begins to feel claustrophobic, and he imagines that his laboratory skeleton is attacking him. However, it isn't long into the trip that he screams and passes out.

The difficulty here is that tinglers are very sensitive to sound, which explains why no one has ever captured a live tingler: people tend to scream before fear overwhelms them, and this causes the tingler to shrink to microscopic size. Warren's only solution would be to find a person who cannot scream and scare that person to death (again, a methodology that doesn't look good on an NIH proposal).

Early in the film, Warren had encountered a man named Ollie Higgins, who runs a silent-movie theater along with his deaf-mute wife. On their first meeting, Warren discovers that she has a particular aversion to blood and a tendency toward hysterics. After his failed self-experiment, Warren goes to visit the Higginses to see how Mrs. Higgins is doing. Ollie informs him that she hasn't left her room or slept in some time, and Warren requests to examine her in private. During the examination, Warren gives her an injection to help her relax.

Mrs. Higgins wakes up to find objects in her apartment moving without any apparent cause. Then, she is attacked by a machete-wielding, deformed killer and a hairy hand with an axe. She rushes into the bathroom and locks the door, only to find things even worse in there. This begins one of the most memorable and masterful horror scenes that Castle produced. The black and white film suddenly gets a shot of color as red blood comes pouring out of the bathroom sink. Mrs. Higgins lurches backwards, only to find the same thing happening in the tub.

Then, to cap it off, something begins to emerge from the tub.

The mute woman tries to scream, but nothing comes out, and soon she is literally scared to death.

After discovering the body, Ollie quickly does what anyone would do in this situation: the loads it into his car and takes it to Warren's house. When Ollie arrives, Warren knows exactly what he's gotten his hands on: the opportunity to capture a live, fully grown tingler.

We see the tingler first emerge from Mrs. Higgins as a shadow on the privacy screen, and this image establishes a motif of shadows on a screen that will become significant later in the movie.

The tingler is really masterfully designed: it's a spine-shaped bug, with feet that look like they fit perfectly between vertebrae.

Tingler's are also amazingly strong, as Warren finds out when it clings to his arm, and he is not able to get it off until someone screams. (That's what she said.)

Later, tired of the facade of her phony marriage and the constant threats to her life, Isabella slips Warren a ruffie and sets the tingler loose on him while he is passed out.

Luckily for Warren, his sister-in-law, Lucy, arrives and screams before it's too late. This leads Warren to conclude that the tingler is too dangerous to have around, and he decides that he needs to return the tingler to Mrs. Higgins before she is taken to the mortuary.

At Ollie's apartment, however, the tingler escapes and makes its way into the movie theater below. The theater is showing the action-packed silent film "Tol'able David," and the camera reveals the audience is caught up in the film's suspense (we also see what appears to be a date rape in progress as well). The tingler moves through the theater, bouncing along with the film's score and attracted to the emotional intensity of the audience.

This climactic scene represents Castle's masterstroke. The screen suddenly goes black, and Vincent Price makes an announcement that the film will begin again shortly. Then, the tingler gets into the projection equipment, and we see it move across the white screen before it goes black again. Price's voice over then announces that the tingler is loose in the theater, and the audience needs to scream in order to subdue it. This is where we should imagine that the "Percepto" technique gets put to use, and audience members would actually feel the tingler move through the theater, and the screaming would start.

The screaming works, and Warren is finally able to capture the tingler in a film canister--a wonderful bit of symbolism.

The movie ends with a twist reminiscent of a 50s EC horror comic, and then a final warning is given to the audience: "If any of you are convinced that you don't have a tingler of your own, the next time you find yourself frightened in the dark, try not to scream."

Oh, I don't doubt the existence of my tingler. Not one bit.

By the way, if the music in this movie seems familiar to you, you're not imagining things. The score that runs over the opening credits was lifted straight from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, which was only released the year before. (Another Hitchcock connection: Judith Evelyn, who plays Mrs. Higgins, also played "Miss Lonelyheart" in Rear Window, though we never see her close up in that film.)

Castle is often criticized for being a poor-man's Hitchcock, sharing the great director's flair for showmanship but lacking the commensurate talent, but I think such criticism is too harsh. If you look carefully at the movie poster for this film included at the top of this entry, you'll see that the largest element isn't Vincent Price or the movie's title--it's a shot of the audience screaming. This, to me, totally encapsulates the experience of seeing a William Castle film. William Castle's movies, more than any other filmmaker's, are pure celebrations of the movie-going experience, and despite their low budgets and cheesy special effects, I appreciate them in a way that I don't get from other movies. And The Tingler is the perfect representation of the Castle ethos.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: The Nightcomers

(Note: this entry is a companion piece of sorts to yesterday's post about The Innocents.)

When I first heard of this movie’s existence, I couldn’t believe that such a film could be made, and after seeing it several times, I still can’t believe it exists. The Nightcomers (1972) is, ostensibly, a prequel to Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” (or to the film version, The Innocents, covered in a previous post). I can't imagine any studio executive in his or her right mind even taking a pitch on such a concept. Everything that is subtle and imaginative about the novel or the earlier film is made explicit here in ways that run with the craziest possible interpretation of its source(s).(Director Michael Winner claims in the commentary track on The Nightcomers DVD that he never read the novella nor did he care for Jack Clayton's film, The Innocents. I believe he told the truth.)

To make things even crazier, Peter Quint is played by Marlon Brando, in that bleak period just before he would revive his career with The Godfather. During this period, Brando made some bad career choices, and his star was definitely on the decline. When left to his own devices, Brando could be a disaster, making idiosyncratic choices for no purpose than his own entertainment (like demanding to perform an entire role in whiteface while assisted by a dwarf sidekick, as he did in The Island of Dr. Moreau), and here he uses an Irish accent that causes viewers to expect him to ask for Lucky Charms at any moment (an accent he later uses, for no apparent reason, a few years later in The Missouri Breaks).

Stephanie Beacham plays Miss Jessel, who is just hired for the job of governess at the beginning, a move that parallels the beginning of “The Turn of the Screw” and The Innocents. (Vanessa Redgrave was originally supposed to play Jessel, but had to bow out because of last minute scheduling problems. In the realm of what could have been, I don’t know if Redgrave’s presence would have improved the film measurably. It would have made an interesting bit of trivia, however, because Vanessa's father, Michael, appears as the children's uncle in The Innocents.) On one of her first nights at the house, Jessel is alone in bed when Quint comes in and silently pulls down her nightgown and plays with her breast. I guess this is where we get the title from.

Quint teaches the children many useful things, like what happens when you give a frog a cigarette, which isn’t pretty. They go on to treat animals very badly throughout the film, proving what psychologists say about the early childhood of psychopaths. He also teaches them his own brand of metaphysics, especially his own unique notion of an afterlife, which mainly involves ghosts wandering around and meeting up with each other. The children ask him questions like, "The dead people meet each other, but do they love each other?" To which Quint responds, "If you love someone, you'll want to kill them." This will literally come back to haunt him in the end.

What’s worse, we are given no illusions about what exactly Miles has learned from Quint that gets him into trouble at his school in the James story. Quint and Jessel’s relationship ridiculously progresses into bondage and whipping. The sex scenes are pretty graphic in this movie, with Brando getting pretty sweaty and young Miles and Flora witness these scenes. Later, they begin their own roleplaying, with Miles viciously tying Flora up and torturing her.

The movie devolves even further as the children witness the degrading of this relationship and the developing depression of the two adults. In the film’s conclusion, the children take what they’ve learned from their elders and put it all to good use. Flora first drowns Miss Jessel in a sabotaged rowboat, while Flora watches from the shore chanting, "We want you to stay with us." Quint finds Miss Jessel's stiffened corpse after a few days (everyone believes she has left the estate for her home) and proceeds to get really drunk. As Quint stumbles back home from the pub, Miles shoots Quint multiple times with arrows, including one pretty square shot in the head. Miles then disposes of the body in a ditch (which served as the last time in recorded history that only one child could actually move Marlon Brando's body. Even just a few years later, it would take at least ten Tahitian youths to carry Brando around his island home.) The film ends with the new governess arriving at the estate, and the children immediately begin torturing her (This doesn't jibe with either "The Turn of the Screw" or The Innocents, as the new governess arrives before Miles has been kicked out of school.).

In graduate school, I loaned my third-generation videotape copy of this movie to an American Lit professor who specialized in Henry James. He’d never seen the movie before, and when he returned it, he gave a concise assessment: “If Henry James and D. H. Lawrence defied nature and had a baby, this is the horrible, misshapen beast they would have given birth to.” I think that summarizes the film quite well.

Despite being available on a Region 2 DVD for some years now, it was only this summer that the film was released on DVD in the US. Though this is a truly awful movie, it’s worth seeing just for the fact that it shouldn't exist at all, and the DVD has an amazing audio commentary by the director Michael Winner. I say “amazing” because Winner provides several entertaining anecdotes about working with Brando during this time in his career and their subsequent friendship. But I also mean “amazing” in other terms as well. Winner makes several jaw-droppingly inappropriate comments about the quality of Stephanie Beacham’s “bosoms” and young Verna Harvey’s (who plays 12-year old Flora, mind you) ass.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: The Innocents

“All I wanted to do was save the children, not destroy them. More than anything, I love the children.”

The great actress Deborah Kerr passed away last Thursday, and among her credits is my favorite horror movie of all time, The Innocents (1961). This is one of many screen adaptations of the Henry James late 19th century novella “The Turn of the Screw,” and it is not only the best of these adaptations, but it also may be one of the best screen adaptations ever done.

It is for this faithfulness to the original source that the film ranks at the top of my list. The James story is an exercise in ambiguity and unreliable narration. The narrator (after a frame story that sets up the main tale) is a newly hired governess charged with the care of young Miles and Flora, two orphans left in the charge of their uncle, who has no time in his busy social schedule to devote to their upbringing. At first, the governess is only taking care of Flora, but a letter from Miles’s school informs her that the young master will be returning home for undisclosed reasons.

The governess discovers that her predecessor, Miss Jessel, had met an untimely end along with her lover, another servant at the house named Quint, and the couple had some mysterious influence on the two children. With so much mystery surrounding the children’s past, the governess believes that the children are being haunted by Jessel and Quint. The novella navigates its ambiguity masterfully, as the reader can just as easily conclude that the ghosts are either real or figments of the governess’s imagination.

The movie’s genius lies in the fact that it manages to duplicate this ambiguity, which is much more difficult to do in film, with its objective camera eye, than in prose, with its expansive possibilities for playing with point of view (not that films can’t play with point of view, but there are greater limitations on film and also certainly far fewer examples of films that do so as novels).

Some elements that are only hinted at in the novella are given more attention in the film, however, often to devious ends in the screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote. We never find out exactly why Miles was kicked out of his school, but we do learn that he used some language with the other boys that was not appropriate, and there is a hint that he may have been violent. Whatever language he used, he apparently learned from Quint, and the extent of Quint’s influence on the lad is also left unrevealed. All this ambiguity requires the viewer to fill in the gaps with his or her own imagination, and this makes this even more disturbing.

Miles is played with precocious creepiness by Martin Stephens, who used the same skills in the original Village of the Damned (1960). When Miles and the governess first meet, Miles tells her, “You are far too pretty to be a governess,” and this sets the tone for this relationship, which Archibald and Capote’s screenplay pushes to surprising psychosexual limits. Whenever Miles refers to the governess as “my dear,” it’s simply chilling. Miles could be an undisciplined prankster playing at maturity because he and his sister have been left to their own devices for some time, or he could be an evil man-child unduly influenced by the nefarious Mr. Quint. (There is a scene in the middle of the film, where Miles recites a poem about a dead lord while wearing a crown and carrying a candle, that is as creepy and effective as any scene in any horror film).

This raises yet another reason why this film ranks so high for me—it so refuses to romanticize childhood. So many American movies treat children as either miniature adults or pure innocents, whereas this film shows them in a manner closer to the truth: kids can be meanspirited, sadistic jerks who are entirely capable of tearing each other and their elders down.

But when I think of my favorite scary movies, most involve children to some degree: Night of the Hunter, The Exorcist, Village of the Damned, The Bad Seed, etc. These movies don’t all treat childhood in the same way, but there is something primal about using children as either the victims or perpetrators of horror.

Much is often said about how horror films of the past were more effective than those of the present because older films left much more up to the viewer’s imagination, and The Innocents is certainly a great example of that. But this movie also guides the viewer’s imagination into directions that are truly shocking.

The direction by Jack Clayton and black and white cinematography by Freddie Francis (who was not only one of the great cinematographers of all time, but also an accomplished horror movie director for Hammer Studios) is also responsible for manipulating the viewer’s imagination, moving from sharp realism to surreal imagery whenever the governess’s imagination is in overdrive (or whenever she’s in the presence of the supernatural—whichever interpretation you choose). As everything breaks down in the film’s final moments, the camera whips around the setting in a breathless frenzy. Kerr’s performance is also stellar, as stress builds and more and more evidence contributes to her belief in the ghosts and her desire to protect the children at all costs.

Few horror films have attempted to duplicate this film in terms of style and subtlety. One exception is Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others, a film that owes a lot to The Innocents. In an upcoming post, I’ll be covering a companion film, of sorts, to The Innocents that goes wrong in pretty much every way possible.

In the meantime, here’s Joe Dante’s commentary on the ill-conceived trailer for The Innocents—a trailer that seems more appropriate for an AIP film than this one.

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: The 13th Page!

In the old House of Mystery series from DC Comics, the thirteenth page of each issue was specially marked in some way. Often, by looking at the page, the reader was promised bad luck for a signficant amount of time: anywhere between 7 and 100 years.

Now, anyone familiar with DC's horror comics in the 60s and 70s knows that, for the most part, they weren't very scary. As a kid, I was scared by just about anything, and even I found these horror comics to be tame. Here's an exception, from the 13th page of House of Mystery 175 (1968)--reprinted in the Showcase Presents: House of Mystery Volume 1 collection--written by Joe Orlando and drawn by Sergio Aragones.

Some of these choices are pretty scary, and I have to wonder who the target audience was for this. Clearly, this was pitched at college-aged readers, with choices like "You are drafted" and "You will be caught in the dormitory," though some of the parent-related choices seem aimed at a younger audience. The "drafted" one is particularly disturbing, considering the time the cartoon was published. In addition, many are downright edgy and subversive. What is it your father found? What is the "truth" your parents found out about? What kind of "trip" are we talking about here?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Friday Night Fights: Taking the Devil to School!

In my British Literature class this week, I've been teaching Christopher Marlowe's play, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, which, for those of you who only read texts with pictures, is an Early Modern play where a scholar sells his soul to Lucifer for 24 years of unlimited power. While the play may be considered a "classic" by those who spend their time in ivory towers, I've come to realize that it is lacking in one significant factor:


So, to satisfy that need and to provide tonight's Friday Night Fights entry, let's have a few more images from Unknown Worlds 30, where professional wrestler Robert Harkness takes the Devil to school.

Satan, it seems, has a potty mouth. Why doesn't that surprise me?

Need more schoolin'? Bahlactus'll take you there!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: The Unknown!

I flat out love Lon Chaney movies. I'm a silent movie junkie in general, but I have a particular affection for Chaney's movies, not only for his chameleon-like versatility and physical talents that led to him being designated "The Man of 1,000 Faces," but also more for the choices he made as an actor to play startlingly complex characters capable of extraordinarily awful behavior while still retaining the audience's sympathy. And no performance highlights those qualities more than "Alonzo the Armless" in The Unknown (1927), directed by the great Tod Browning.

Chaney and Browning collaborated on 8 movies all together, and this is my favorite of those that survive (I also really like The Unholy Three and West of Zanzibar. However, the latter film should not be confused with The Road to Zanzibar, a Hope-Cosby road comedy that I always seem to accidentally record when it's on TV, thinking it's the Chaney-Browning film.). It is 50-minutes of wall-to-wall crazy, grand guignol in all of its extremities. The first time I saw it, I was mesmerized--convinced that the movie couldn't get any crazier, and proven wrong with every new scene. When the movie ended, my eyes were wide, my jaw was open, and I couldn't believe that only 50 minutes had passed since the start of the movie. The initial experience of seeing this movie is so amazing, that if you haven't seen it, I would seriously recommend that you stop reading now, get a copy or wait for the TCM screening tomorrow during their Tod Browning marathon, and then come back here and read the rest. I really envy anyone seeing this movie for the first time.

(In fact, I've made a file for myself that is labeled "In Case of Amnesia," which contains a list of things to help myself out if such a circumstance were to arise. Early on the list, before I even reveal my own identity to my amnesiac self, I have the task "Watch The Unknown," just so I don't lose the opportunity to relive that experience.)

Lon Chaney plays Alonzo, an armless knife thrower who works for an Eastern European circus run by Zanzi, whose daughter, Nanon (a young Joan Crawford), serves as Alonzo's female assistant. Alonzo is secretly in love with Nanon, but she has a very strange pathology: she is repulsed by the touch of men's hands. This repulsion, however, gives Alonzo hope, as he has no hands to touch her with, anyway. Nanon, in fact, states very explicitly that she wishes all men would lose their hands. If that isn't an opening for Alonzo, I don't know what is.

Alonzo, however, has a rival for Nanon's affection: the circus strongman, Malabar the Mighty. Malabar even consults Alonzo about the best way to court Nanon, and Alonzo, seeing the opportunity to throw a cockblock, advises him to take her in his arms.

Alonzo's "armless" tricks are pretty amazing. Not only does he throw knives with his feet, but he also pours himself a drink, lights and smokes a cigarette, plays the guitar, and dries his tears with a handkerchief. When I first saw this movie years ago, I had heard that Chaney did many of the leg and feet "stunts" himself. However, according to Chaney biographer Michael Blake, Peter Dismuki, an armless circus performer who bore a striking resemblance to Chaney, doubles for Lon Chaney in many scenes, and it is Dismuki's legs we see whenever Alonzo uses his feet to perform tasks. So, when Alonzo plays guitar, it is Dismuki's foot coming from off screen to strum it, and it is also his feet that light the cigarette, and so on. Dismuki's talents are incredible. Chaney did do a lot of amazing stuff to undergo physical transformations for his movies, like tying his legs back and walking on his knees to play the amputee gangster in The Penalty.

The movie just keeps amping up the craziness as the plot barrels forward. In an early scene where Alonzo's assistant, Cojo (John George), undresses Alonzo, it is revealed that Alonzo is not armless after all, but instead wears a girdle to hide his arms. But before this revelation can really sink in, another comes quickly on its heels: Alonzo has two thumbs on one hand! It turns out that Alonzo and Cojo's circus act is merely a cover for their illegal activities (what those activities are remains somewhat ambiguous, though a bank-robbing scene was cut from the film).

Cojo reminds Alonzo that the reason why Nanon confides in him is a lie, and the revelation of the truth of his "armfulness" is inevitable. This realization leads Alonzo to make a series of historically bad decisions that ultimately lead to his downfall in an amazing and thrilling climax to the movie. However, to Chaney's credit, no matter how repulsive Alonzo becomes through the course of the film, he still manages to maintain the audience's sympathy. Toward the end of the movie, when it is revealed to Alonzo that he has made some tragic mistakes, Alonzo goes through these extremes of hysterical laughter and sobbing that present, in my opinion, the best demonstration of Chaney's acting talent and the level of emotional quality achievable in silent films.

In recent years, Tod Browning has been getting a lot of academic attention, with several scholarly articles and books written about his films, especially his 1932 masterpiece, Freaks. I've long wanted to do some academic writing on The Unknown, especially because it seems to lend itself so easily to certain critical theories regarding psychology, sexuality, anxiety, and the body. Yet I can't get beyond those moments where I find myself writing things like, "Holy Shit! He has two thumbs on one hand!"

Be sure to check this movie out on TCM during tomorrow night's Tod Browning marathon. The film is also available on DVD from TCM, in The Lon Chaney Collection, which also includes Ace of Hearts, Laugh, Clown Laugh, the reconstruction of London After Midnight, and a great documentary on Chaney.

Post updated and revised at 7:40 pm.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: The Brain that Wouldn't Die!

The Brain that Wouldn't Die (1959/1962) is one of those 50's era sci-fi movies that gained greater notoriety through the lampooning it received on Mystery Science Theater 3000. In fact, this is one of my favorite MST3K episodes mainly because this movie seems tailor-made for that show. It was also the first MST3K episode in which I was already familiar with the movie, which probably made an impact on my enjoyment of the episode.

Taken on its own terms, though, The Brain that Wouldn't Die is still ridiculous and a load of fun.

It's also incredibly cheap looking, even by B-movie standards. In most scenes that would normally require special effects, the action takes place below frame. Even the car accident scene is done, amazingly, without a car. I firmly believe, with the tools I have at my disposal right now, I could go out and make a shot-for-shot remake of this film in two weeks.

But not this week--I've got too much going on.

The film opens with Dr. Bill Cortner (Herb Evers) and his father performing intense surgery on a patient. The elder Dr. Cortner declares the operation a failure and the patient dead, but young Bill is not ready to give in. "You've already lost your patient--I'm going to save mine!" Bill asserts, as he begins to go to work on the patient's brain while his father starts a heart massage in what is the most bloodless operation in film history.

It's unclear how Bill actually manages to access the brain here: the brain is exposed, and the scalp is peeled back, but the skull is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he used the "cranial screw-top method," though this film was made years before Dr. Hfuhruhurr invented the procedure. Quickly, however, the patient's hand is moving, and Bill's unorthodox methods lead to the patient's full recovery.

Once the surgery is completed, Bill, like all good doctors, proceeds to have a smoke in the operating room, awaiting the congratulations of his father and his fiance, Jan (Virginia Leith). Bill and Jan are clearly attracted to each other, yet, in the fashion of the day, they refuse to consummate their relationship until they are married. At this point in the movie, the audience's irony detector should be in the red zone.

Before the young lovers can begin their weekend plans, Bill receives a call from his assistant, Kurt, at the family's summer home that doubles as Bill's lab, where he can conduct his experiments in privacy. Kurt is in a panic, and Bill immediately rushes with Jan to find out what's wrong.

Bill races to get to the house, and as the music increases in tempo, we know exactly what's coming: an accident. We actually never see the accident happen, however. Instead, we see Bill roll on the grass as he's apparently thrown from the car, and then he approaches what appears to be the car's wreckage, but all we see in the foreground is a fire, some twisted metal, broken glass, and a hand raised up from below the frame.

Bill sticks his jacket into the burning wreckage and wraps it around an object, which we all can guess is Jan's disembodied head. Then, he begins what ends up being a long and exhausting run to his country estate. At least it seems long and exhausting. It also seems like Bill is taking his sweet time getting Jan's head to his lab. I'm sure he even takes a couple of cigarette breaks along the way.

When Bill makes it to his house, he is greeted by his assistant, Kurt, who, as we see, has a deformed arm. Bill rushes past Kurt to get Jan's head to the lab.

I love the scene in this movie where Bill is working to save the head. In a medium shot, we see Bill surrounded by beakers, test tubes, hoses, and other scientific paraphenalia, but none of it serves any apparent purpose. Instead, whatever Bill is doing takes place below the frame. When he is finished, we get what has to be the greatest image in film history:

Jan in the pan!

(Well, maybe not the greatest image in film history, but it sure beats the shit out of a sled getting tossed into a furnace.)

Jan discovers that her condition is not without benefits: she has developed psychic powers that allow her to communicate with an unseen creature--the victim of Bill's failed experiments--who is kept locked away in the laboratory closet. (Note: there is probably some evidence for this out there somewhere, but it seems likely that Mike Baron and Steve Rude got the idea for the psychically powered "Heads" in the Nexus comic series from this movie.)

As low-quality as this movie is throughout, one of its saving graces is Virginia Leith's near-method-style performance as Jan in the pan. She speaks through clenched teeth, and her voice becomes hoarse, as if her trachea were actually open-ended. This is exactly how I'd imagine someone would talk if he or she were a disembodied head. Her character is also vicious and unrelenting, and she steadfastly refuses to allow her condition to limit her determination to punish Bill for his various crimes.

While Jan plots her revenge, however, Bill is out trolling for her new body. As is only logical, Bill first looks in on a burlesque club called "The Moulin Rouge."

Clearly, he is looking to upgrade. However, Bill is finding it difficult to move his plan forward--he does not want to be the last person seen with a woman before she disappears. The next day, Bill continues his search, driving slowly throughout the town as he stalks various female pedestrians. In these scenes, the women are often framed from the neck down, as if the camera itself is implicating the viewer in Bill's plan and his overall objectification of women. This part of the plan, though, proves too successful when he manages to pick up not one, but two girls. Bill is disappointed in his embarrassment of riches, until one of the girls, Donna (apparently an old girlfriend of Bill's) provides him with an inadvertant solution: she invites him to serve as a judge for the "Miss Body Beautiful" Bathing Suit Contest!

Though this contest doesn't pan out, Donna gives Bill the idea that will move his plan forward when she mentions an old friend of theirs, Doris, who has a great body but doesn't go out much since her "accident."

Bill meets with Doris and manages to convince her that he and his father could help fix her scarred face with some special plastic surgery that they can give her in their private country estate. I can attest that from my own experience, at least in my college days, this pick-up line never actually worked, but it does work for Bill. He gets Doris to his country home, slips her a ruffie, and prepares her for the head transplant.

Meanwhile, Jan has convinced the closeted mutant to rip Kurt's arm off, and Kurt proceeds to die in a lengthy death scene that results in his blood being spread all over the lab. Now, I'm not a medical-type doctor, but I would guess that this would render the lab unsuitable for performing any kind of operation, let alone a head transplant.

Bill covers up Kurt's body and then begins the operation. Jan, however, protests, causing Bill to tape her mouth shut and also to give her a clear sense of what he would expect were they to be married. Jan is still able to use her psychic powers to encourage her mutant companion to break out of his closet and attack the doctor. When the mutant is finally revealed, he is really impressive, and it's clear that the entire budget for the film went into his make-up. This creature is meant to be made up of amputated limbs that Bill stole from his hospital. He kills Bill, sets the lab on fire, and rescues Doris from the inferno, while Jan, in her final moments, hisses, "I told you to let me die."

Atomic Monsters has a hilarious analysis of this movie that serves as a good companion to the MST3K episode.

Important Note: As I reported the other day, TCM is showing this film at 6:00 am on Friday morning. Unfortunately, TCM shows the edited 70-minute version of the film (which, I believe, is the version released in 1962 by AIP), and not the 82-minute version, which contains much more gore, including Kurt's extended death scene when the mutant rips off his arm and a shot of Bill getting his throat ripped out by the mutant's teeth. This version of the film is widely available, though, including on the DVD for the MST3K episode.