The Birds (1963)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock [Other horror films: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), Psycho (1960)]

It’s been a long while since I’ve seen The Birds, and once I rewatched this (on the same night I revisited Psycho), I came to the somewhat shocking self-discovery that I actually enjoy The Birds more, and as I got further and further into this movie, I was hooked in a way I wasn’t through most of Psycho.

It’s the slow-building nature of the bird attacks that really revs things up. The first instance is the seagull attacking Daniels’ on the boat. Then the bird flying into the door. Then the small (most mostly harmless) attack on the birthday party. Then (off-screen) them going after that farmer. And all of this leads to my all-time favorite sequence of films.

Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is asked by Lydia (Jessica Tandy) to go pick up Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) from school. At the school, waiting for the session to end, Daniels sits on a bench with the playground (including a jungle gym) in the background, and beautifully, slowly, crows fly and land on the jungle gym.

There may be ten or so when the film suddenly focuses on purely Daniels as she smokes, and then after a few minutes, she notices a crow flying overhead, and watching where it lands, we now see that the jungle gym, and in fact every surface suitable for a bird to perch on, has a bird. It’s creepy, and even if you know it’s coming, it’s done amazingly.

Then comes the scene of Daniels and Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) ushering the children out of the school, and getting attacked by the crows. It’s a tense scene, but they all seem to get out fine. And then a quiet diner scene, which is, again, fantastic, as Daniels tells of the attack of the school by birds, which leads to pushback from all sides (one woman doesn’t think it’s possible, another man wants all birds killed, one mother just wants them to stop scaring her children), and then a gas attendant gets attacked by a bird (which they all witness), and falls down, gas now leaking toward a car. And in that car, a man who gets out and lights a cigarette and, upon burning his fingers (and not taking heed in the people yelling at him to not drop the match), he drops it.

Perhaps one of my all-time favorite shots of the film is next. We see Bodoga Bay from – a bird’s eye view (kill me now if you want) – which looks so cool, and more and more birds join in before swooping down onto the town, causing all-out mayhem.

That was just a beautiful collection of scenes, and there wasn’t a moment when I wasn’t fully engaged in what was going on. That doesn’t change once Daniels and Mitch (Rod Taylor) get back to the house and start boarding things up. It only sustains it’s suspense throughout.

Tippi Hedren was an interesting character. Strong in her own right, she completely loses it toward the end of the film, breaking down mentally (sort of like Barbara in Night of the Living Dead) after a vicious attack by birds. Rod Taylor was strong throughout, as was Jessica Tandy, who had plenty of emotional scenes. And for a younger actress, Cartwright was pretty good too.

The effects here don’t always look great (such as the children being chased from the school by the crows), but all of it is pretty admirable, and there are just some fantastic scenes (such as Hedren’s character being trapped in a glass phone booth with wild birds flying all around), and the onslaught of birds was just amazing.

If I was asked a day or two ago, I probably would have said that Psycho was my favorite Hitchcock film, but after seeing The Birds again, I’m all in. I very much love this film – it’s ominous ending a fantastic one – and this is top-rate stuff.

9/10

Psycho (1960)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock [Other horror films: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), The Birds (1963)]

In some ways, Psycho is remembered far more for just a couple of scenes as opposed to the movie as a whole. In the hour-and-fifty minute run-time, there’s only a couple a sequences that really bring the goods, which isn’t to say that this classic isn’t worth seeing, but there are portions of the film that have a far more procedural feeling, which, while enjoyable, isn’t always what I look for.

Obviously, being a fan of both the classics and of slashers, Psycho is a film I’ve seen before plenty of times, and I always loved much of it. The way Janet Leigh’s character is utilized is just ballsy and impressive, and though nowadays most people watching can tell where the movie’s going (I think certain movies out there, such as The Usual Suspects, have sort of hard-wired us to look for twists), it still carries a little shock and a lot of enjoyment.

And there’s the suspense, which Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t known for for nothing. It’s hard to pin-point a favorite moment of suspense, but early on, when Crane sees her boss walk in front of her car, and do a double-take, a troubled look on his face, with the music popping up – that’s just a fantastic scene. And then there’s the police officer (Mort Mills), who is suspicious from the get-go (not that Leigh’s character doesn’t give good cause).

Some parts of the film can be almost difficult to watch because of the awkwardness. Marion Crane had obviously not done much wrong before, because she can’t lie convincingly worth shit to anyone (a car salesman is bad enough, but her performance with the cop was just embarrassing to witness). She got better once it hit her the mistake she made, but – spoilers – that doesn’t really matter, as she doesn’t live that much longer.

Janet Leigh is pretty fantastic here, though, despite the fact that she’s not really the star of the film past the half-way point. Anthony Perkins (who looks so damn young here) gives a fantastic performance – not a single complaint. Great lines (“We all go a little mad sometimes” and “…wouldn’t even hurt a fly”), and a great presence despite his slight frame. Martin Balsam (12 Angry Men and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) I also enjoyed, despite him not really appearing much. I never loved John Gavin or Vera Miles (The Strange and Deadly Occurrence), but I have no complaints against them.

Once Crane’s character is killed in that shower scene (which is, for good reason, one of the most recognizable scenes in not just all of horror, but all of cinema), the movie enters a somewhat methodical route, with evidence being hidden and a private investigator searching for Crane’s whereabouts. It takes a little time to get back to kills, which isn’t really a problem (as that next kill, on the stairways, is great), but that section of the film was never that fantastic to me.

Make no mistake, Psycho is a great film, and certainly a great example of a proto-slasher and suspenseful thriller done right. And I love it. But The Birds is better.

8.5/10

This is one of the films covered beautifully by Fight Evil’s podcast. If you want to hear Chucky (@ChuckyFE) and I discuss this classic, all you have to do is listen below.

The Haunted Palace (1963)

Directed by Roger Corman [Other horror films: The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955), Day the World Ended (1955), It Conquered the World (1956), Not of This Earth (1957), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), The Undead (1957), War of the Satellites (1958), The Wasp Woman (1959), A Bucket of Blood (1959), House of Usher (1960), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Premature Burial (1962), Tales of Terror (1962), Tower of London (1962), The Raven (1963), The Terror (1963), X (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound (1990)]

Being the second time now I’ve seen this,  The Haunted Palace is a good example of a Corman-Price movie, with a great setting, quality atmosphere, nice color, all the works. I have to admit, though, that I just think it’s a good movie, and not much more.

You’ve gotta love the setting – the New England town of Arkham (H.P. Lovecraft influenced obviously), and of course, once a husband and wife seek out an ancestral palace they inherited, the townspeople react just as warmly and cuddly as you’d expect (pretty much as they did in The Gorgon). There’s also an influx of mutated people roaming around town, which leads to some pretty creepy scenes.

Vincent Price gives a solid performance, but this is Vincent Price we’re talking about (House on Haunted Hill, Pit and the Pendulum, Theatre of Blood, and The Tingler, among many others), so that can’t come as a surprise. Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolfman) is nice to see, but his character doesn’t really have much in the way of agency. Elisha Cook Jr. (House on Haunted Hill and Blacula) was nice to see, but like Chaney, his character wasn’t really given much to do. Others such as Milton Parsons, Frank Maxwell, and Debra Paget were all good also.

These elements (and the fact the film is in beautiful color) should lead to a great movie, but I think it’s only okay. I can’t entirely say why – the story isn’t my favorite, but it’s still decently creepy (it helps that the titular palace is a pretty stellar setting), and seeing Price’s character being taken over and becoming a cruel warlock is good stuff, but I just don’t love this the same way I did, for instance, The Pit and the Pendulum.

None of this is to say that The Haunted Palace isn’t a movie worth seeing, because it’s still a fine slice of 1960’s horror films. And I know others who rank this quite highly among the Corman-Poe cycle, so perhaps you’ll love it, but for me, I think it’s just around average.

7/10

The Hollow (2015)

Directed by Sheldon Wilson [Other horror films: Shallow Ground (2004), Kaw (2007), Screamers: The Hunting (2009), Carny (2009), Mothman (2010), Red: Werewolf Hunter (2010), Killer Mountain (2011), Scarecrow (2013), Shark Killer (2015), The Unspoken (2015), The Night Before Halloween (2016), Neverknock (2017), Stickman (2017), Dead in the Water (2018)]

I had the misfortune of seeing this Sheldon Wilson film before, and it’s not gotten any better since that first time a few years back. The thing is, I think this could have had potential with the setting and with the characters, but it’s entirely squandered to make a generically bad Syfy original.

This is something that Wilson has a history with, though. I enjoyed Neverknock and The Unspoken, true, and to a certain extent, I enjoyed both Kaw and Stickman, but much of his recent work, such as The Night Before Halloween, Dead in the Water, and this one, are really hard to get through, and this is one of the worse (though certainly Dead in the Water was probably a bit worse).

Was Stephanie Hunt attractive? Sure. Was Sarah Dugdale attractive? You know it. Did either one give a particularly good performance, or in fact, did anyone in the film give a good performance? That’d be a negative. I don’t blame the failure of the film on the performances though – Dugdale and Hunt could only work with what they’ve got, and if they’re given a bad script, what can they do?

The monster was a combination of the roots from The Ruins and that hideous monster-thing in Shadows of the Dead (another stellar Syfy original) – most of the time, it looked like angry embers and sticks were attacking people. This had to do with revenge from some witches, but the witches could have tried harder to not send a creature that reeked of hideous CGI.

I liked the setting – an island off some undisclosed state (probably Washington or something, but I don’t think it’s said in the film). It was a large island, but much of it seemed to be forest, which was sort of cool. And the characters being focused on all being sisters also brought a little bit confort, so we wouldn’t have to deal with any horrible romantic sub-plot (unless there was some lesbian incest going on, but no dice). It has the basics to maybe make for an okay story if they had wanted to, maybe an interesting mystery-slasher hybrid, or perhaps some type of psychological horror à la Hereditary set on an island. That’s not what happened.

Oh, also the younger sister had unexplained psychic dreams, so that was #cool.

When I initially watched The Hollow, I was disappointed because I was hopeful that maybe it’d end up being one of the better Syfy originals, but that’s not the case, and it’s really not a movie I can think of any real reason to watch.

5/10

Village of the Damned (1960)

Directed by Wolf Rilla [Other horror films: N/A]

This is a classic that I’ve never loved. Now to be honest, “never” entails a whole of now two full viewings, but that aside, the story isn’t really my cup of tea. It’s not the movie’s fault – I also didn’t much care for The Gamma People (1956) for similar reasons. That said, I maybe enjoyed the film a bit more this time around, but it’s still not a movie that I’d consider a go-to for the 1960’s.

The first twenty minutes are all on point, though, when a mysterious blackout occurs affecting everyone in a small village (and by blackout, I mean everyone blacks out, not that there’s some concerns of an electrical nature) and in a sequence reminiscence of the 1994 The Stand mini-series, we see multiple downed people which was pretty ominous. Once they come to, all of the women who were able were pregnant, and here’s where my interest waned.

I don’t know what the state of abortions were in the United Kingdom in 1960. I know that in 1967, abortions became legal, so if they had just been more progressively-minded, there may not have been a problem here at all. Surely the women who hadn’t even have had sex would have probably taken care of the problem, and many of the other women too, who had husbands that thought they were cheating on them, would have also terminated the pregnancies.

Regardless, it was a backwards time then, and the children are born, and they’re all Aryan. There are some interesting conversations about other places in the world where this has happened, along with the aftermath, but a group of emotionless kids with psychic powers isn’t really my idea of a fun time.

It’s not something that anyone in the cast (George Sanders, Michael Gwynn, or Barbara Shelley) could have fixed, because they all did fine (especially Sanders and Martin Stephens, who played one of the kids, and who was also in The Innocents), and I even found the ending to be decent (although not altogether surprising), but it’s a well-made movie with a  story I don’t love, and that’s something that I can’t lie about.

Village of the Damned is a decent movie. It looks nice, there are some good actors in it, and there are occasionally some decent scenes here. It’s also not all that long, even if you are not having the best time with it. For classic horror, it’s a lesser movie for me, but it’s still around average prolly.

7/10

Maniac (1963)

Directed by Michael Carreras [Other horror films: The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964), Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971)]

I can’t say that this Hammer film is exceptionally good, because it’s not. By no means a bad movie, Maniac has a pretty decent story and a somewhat stellar ending. Even the method of murder is interesting (when it pops up), but all of that said, I don’t know if it’ll end up being all that memorable.

One thing that doesn’t necessarily bother me, but does make me question the sanity of Kerwin Matthews’ character, is when he falls for Nadia Gray over Liliane Brousse. Nothing against Gray, who certainly wasn’t unbecoming, but Brousse looked quite fantastic throughout, but I guess that the heart wants what the hearts wants.

Otherwise, it’s a solid story, and has a pretty fair conclusion, the likes which somewhat reminded me of the 1972 mystery-horror film Endless Night (though I still think Endless Night has a better finale), though I do think there was a change or two this movie could have made to make the ending even better. That said, it was a solid ending still for what they cobbled together.

I’m not familiar with any of the names in the cast – Kerwin Matthews (The Boy Who Cried Werewolf being one of his few other horror roles) was pretty decent, had a good look to him, and though I can’t say I care for his romantic choice, still seemed a solid guy. Nadia Gray didn’t do poorly, but I never thought much of her character, especially in the beginning when she was obviously trying to pull Matthews’ attention away from Brousse’s character. And as for Liliana Brousse (who was also in Hammer’s Paranoiac, which came out earlier in 1963), she was quite cute and I felt for her throughout. Donald Houston (A Study in Terror) was appropriately threatening.

While I do wish that Maniac had a bit more frights in it than it ultimately ended up having, I think the suspense was decent enough for what they had, and overall, it’s one of the lesser-known Hammer films that might be worth checking out. I have to admit, though, that others they made around this time, such as Paranoiac, were superior.

7/10

The Return of Doctor X (1939)

Directed by Vincent Sherman [Other horror films: N/A]

I found this sequel-in-name-only to Doctor X an exceptionally pedestrian affair, and while it’s by-the-numbers approach isn’t going to hurt anyone, I suspect the only reason anyone even would seek this movie out is due to the fact it’s the sole horror movie with Humphrey Bogart in it.

There’s nothing in the film that I found particularly objectionable, it’s just that, by the late 1930’s, this was just stale. It doesn’t help that, along with having no connections to the superior 1932 Doctor X, this also wasn’t in color (unlike Doctor X), which made this an even more unremarkable film.

To be sure, I wouldn’t go as far as to call this movie soulless, which is a criticism I have against some modern horror cash-grabs, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the atmosphere you’d hope for, and save maybe one scene in the beginning, completely lacks any real suspense. Sure, there was that abduction of  Rosemary Lane’s character at the end, but I wouldn’t really call any of that suspenseful, especially as we barely knew anything about Lane’s character.

Not that Lane did a bad job with her restricted role, of course, but almost no one in the film ended up wowing me. I guess that Wayne Morris and Dennis Morgan made a fair investigative pair (that scene when the two of them were following clues was decent), and I guess that John Litel is okay as a creepy doctor, and I even guess that Humphrey Bogart was good as the creepy Doctor X (or Quesne, pronounced ‘Kane’ believe it or not), but nothing about any of these performances seemed fresh or even all that inspired.

The Return of Doctor X is a fine movie to watch, and horror films the late 1930’s can be somewhat hard to come by anyways, so it may be a case of any port in a storm, but this isn’t a particularly good movie, and I don’t think about anything here stands out.

5.5/10

The Walking Dead (1936)

Directed by Michael Curtiz [Other horror films: Alraune (1919), The Mad Genius (1931), Doctor X (1932), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)]

This inconspicuous little movie may not seem like much – it’s barely over an hour, came out in the mid-1930’s when few great horror films came out (it’s as if those were cordoned off for the beginning of the decade), but I’ll tell you what, this is an excellent film and definitely a new favorite of the decade.

The plot is one that’s not original nowadays – a man is wrongfully sentenced to death and when brought back, has revenge on his mind. In fact, Lon Chaney Jr. stars in the 1956 film Indestructible Man which has a very similar plot, and that’s one that I’m oddly a big fan of. No doubt, though, that this version is better.

I cannot express just how great Boris Karloff is in this role. Rarely has a character been as sympathetic as his is here, and that scene in which he’s about to be executed, even though we know he’s innocent, and others are trying to get the governor on the line and stay the execution – that was fantastic drama. Karloff’s character here is such a pure soul, and seeing him being screwed over and sentenced to death due to it only makes the revenge that much more satisfying.

The five people he seeks revenge on were all good, in their scummy way. Richardo Cortez was great as the ring-leader (and not only was he in on framing Karloff, he also acted as Karloff’s defense, intentionally doing a poor job so he’d be convicted), though I wish his ending had been a bit more personal. The others, being Barton MacLane (The Mummy’s Ghost), Robert Strange, Paul Harvey, and Joe Sawyer, were all good, and made for a solid gang of dicks. Loved seeing them get dispatched.

Warren Hull and Marguerite Churchill (Dracula’s Daughter) didn’t play as much a role in the film as I thought they would, but what time they had was decent (though I’m not entirely sure their story was really concluded at all). Edmund Gwenn and his obsession with figuring out what comes after death was a bit annoying (especially when, at the end, they’re like ‘screw it, God is a jealous God, and only he gets to know’), but he was fine too, and Henry O’Neill’s character was fantastic, as he really wanted to go after the dirty crooks listed above, so kudos there.

Here’s a somewhat fun fact about this film – I’ve seen The Walking Dead before. I know I have, because I keep a list of every film I consider horror that I’ve seen, and this movie has been in the ‘1936’ line for at least 14 years. The thing is, I didn’t remember anything about this film, and whenever I read the plot to jog my memory, I instantly thought of Indestructible Man instead. So while this is a rewatch, it really feels new, which I guess is a good thing, as I struggle to believe that, when I was a kid, I’d have considered this movie as good as I do now.

And I do consider it good, and in fact, after seeing the beauty of Karloff’s performance, it’s probably great, and certainly a classic that I think more people should at least take the chance to see. Obviously, there’s a well-known zombie show with the same title as this movie, and because of that, this probably gets lost in the sauce (as Howie Hawkins, the 2020 Green Party nominee and the man who I proudly voted for) often says. Definitely a movie of quality, and one well-worth seeing.

9/10

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur [Other horror films: Cat People (1942), The Leopard Man (1943), Night of the Demon (1957), The Comedy of Terrors (1963), War-Gods of the Deep (1965)]

I have a bit of a mixed record with films related to both Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur. I enjoyed The Leopard Man immensely, but found both Isle of the Dead and Cat People lacking. Luckily, this atmospheric little movie is better than those I found lacking, and perhaps even better than The Leopard Man, and I Walked with a Zombie ended up being quite a solid film.

Not to over-stress this, but a big part of that would be the setting, being a mansion that is surrounded by the encroaching jungle. The open porches which are just yards away from the jungle and it’s wildlife, not to mention the hot jungle air blowing over the grounds – what I can I say, I find it enchanting (the same way I find houses surrounded by swamps enchanting – look no further than The Alligator People for that).

White Zombie might be a better demonstration of the outright horror of zombies and voodoo, and I certainly agree that White Zombie might have more memorable scenes overall, but this is a lot more polished and character-driven, with a large part of the film dealing with the drama between two brothers, their mother, and a zombie wife. And in the middle of it all, a nurse entirely new to the island.

The two brothers are great with their distinctive personalities – James Ellison (of The Undying Monster) as the witty, charming brother and Tom Conway (Cat People and The Seventh Victim) as the oft-somber one. Throw into a mix a brain-dead wife of Conway’s (played by Christine Gordon) that was in a relationship with Ellison, and you have some quality drama that’s actually both intriguing and tragic. Frances Dee playing the main character (with some classy voice-overs, which I appreciated) did a great job too, and her walk – but more on that shortly.

It’s been shortly, so let’s talk about that walk, brahs.

The titular walk with a zombie is one of the best sequences in the movie. It doesn’t last long, but it’s packed with a walk through the jungle, through the sugarcane farm, past a giant black zombie-like homeboi (Darby Jones) – it’s a fantastic time with Dee dragging Gordon along to a voodoo ceremony, with the animals all chirping and hooting. My words can only do so much (and probably not as much as I think), but it’s a great scene, and definitely a high-light of the film.

Not that the rest of I Walked with a Zombie is dull. Despite a lot of the focus being on the family drama as opposed to the voodoo and the zombies, it’s a pretty fun movie, and it’s helped by the fact that it’s also a pretty short film (under an hour-and-ten-minutes). For the atmosphere alone, though, this is well-worth seeing, and the finale too is pretty solid (though an argument could be made it’s somewhat anticlimactic).

8.5/10

Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)

Directed by Monte Hellman [Other horror films: The Terror (1963), Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (1989), Trapped Ashes (2006, segment ‘Stanley’s Girlfriend’)]

One of the many cheap horror films from the late 1950’s, Beast from Haunted Cave has a little charm, but having seen it twice now, I don’t think that charm does a hell of a lot to save it.

The biggest problem here is that, as far as I could tell, we never really saw much of the beast. We saw it’s arms a few times, and sort of a head, but as far as an overall view is concerned, I still don’t know if it was a giant spider or a land-octopus. Maybe it wouldn’t matter had it been used to greater effect, but this movie doesn’t really possess the subtlety you’d see in, say, a Val Lewton production.

Michael Forest made for a nice-looking, rugged lead, and he worked well with Shelia Noonan, who’s the real star of the film. Noonan played a pretty complicated character for such a cheap-looking movie, which is a shame, because I think she did a pretty good job with her material. She never really did do much else afterward in the movie industry, which is, again, a shame. Here, she started off with a shaky character, but she developed quickly and became quite sympathetic. Frank Wolff (who is better known for his spaghetti westerns) was okay, but I feel like his character could have used some of the development that Noonan’s got.

Being a snow-covered hill, I think Beast from Haunted Cave had a solid setting (and in fact, the beginning of the film thanks the people of South Dakota for the use of their state for filming, which I thought was a nice gesture), and I liked the skiing (never been skiing myself, but it almost looks fun), but aside from looking nice, the setting itself didn’t have much to do with the story.

I think the main issue with this film is what I said earlier, being that the beast isn’t really seen clearly (at least in the version I saw – I watched a 66-minute version of this movie, and I know that longer prints exist, so I sort of wonder how those go), and while there are some brutal scenes (a woman being drained of her blood by the beast), there’s not a lot here that did much as far as I was concerned.

Watching this again wasn’t the worst time ever (and part of this is due to the fact that it’s a pretty short movie, no matter which version you watch), but I think there are plenty of better films from the late 1950’s that are worth attention.

5/10