• RJ BLAND & DAVID STEPHENS

FIVE FILMS FROM...1969


The Haunted House of Horror

(Directed by Michael Armstrong)

Sometimes called “Horror House” or “The Dark”, this does-what-it-says-on-the-tin film is often overlooked in the annals of psycho and slasher movies. Whilst it isn’t exactly the best offering from a fairly lean year in horror, it deserves to be recognised and noted for a number of valid reasons. It rather bizarrely stars former teen idol Frankie Avalon, best known at the time for the 60’s “Beach Party” films, and marked Armstrong’s first foray into genre before he helmed the infamous “Mark of the Devil”. An American-British project that combined Tigon studios with AIP, it underwent many re-writes, rumours of drug-taking, and last minute casting choices. Starting in “Swinging London” at the time, a group of (suspiciously mature looking) “young people” trespass in a deserted “haunted” mansion, looking for kicks and thrills…. until bloody murder occurs and they start searching for an unhinged killer in their midst.

HHOH isn’t particularly well-made or written, and it has dated horrendously in many ways (mostly due to the period details). But what’s striking about it is that it stumbles across the perfect formula for a 70s/80s Slasher movie well before “Halloween” and “Black Christmas”. In fact, it’s pretty much an attempt at a British Giallo, with its red herring suspects and crimson-stained set-pieces, especially the moment a victim drips a constant stream of blood through a hole in an upper floor. The killer has a nonsensical-but-compelling motive for carrying out the murders, and his/her identity is teased until the denouement (although it’s easy to guess). And whilst the killings aren’t exactly of Tom Savini quality, they are quite bloody for the time. Even the ending is oddly dark, with an unexpected death and a character reverting to childhood and running sobbing into the darkness. The creepy soundtrack lingers as well…

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed

(Directed by Terence Fisher)

When film studios make adaptations of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, the focus is usually on the plight of the monster or the destruction he reaps. However the cycle of “Frankenstein” films made by Hammer uniquely concentrated on the “good” Doctor himself, and the various lurid and unlikely medical procedures he formulated for the advancement of science. This was helped by the incomparable presence of the great Peter Cushing as Frankenstein, who portrayed him as an amoral character only driven by self-serving motives. The fact that Fisher was one Hammer’s best directors and usually helmed these movies, helped a great deal as well. This offering, the 5th Franken-Hammer film and owner of the best title, sees Cushing return again and dabble in a convoluted plot involving typical nefarious skulduggery, messy brain transplants, and ill-advised cures for insanity!

The striking thing about this movie is just how much of an anti-hero the Baron has now become. And it’s always a joy to see Cushing embody his exceedingly icy demeanour; roasting minor characters like a pro (“I beg your pardon. I thought you knew what you were talking about”). He’s also backed up with an excellent cast with Hammer favourite Veronica Carlson and Simon Ward. The doctor has never been as ruthless or merciless before though, and Cushing himself was uncomfortable with some of the excesses that were in the script. Nevertheless, before the rushed silliness of “Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell”, this is possibly the quintessential tale of the Doc. It also contains some striking imagery like a corpse “waving” from its shallow grave as a water pipe bursts, or the classic sight of the “creature” carrying a prone victim into a burning building. Another piece of essential Hammer viewing.

The Book of Stone

(Directed by Carlos Enrique Taboada)

Ok so this is one that's not the easiest to track down and only die hard fans of Mexican horror cinema may have even heard of it but Carlos Enrique Taboada's 'The Book of Stone' is something of a hidden gem. On paper it sounds like some kind of cross between The Turning of the Screw and The Innocents. A sweet natured governess is hired by a wealthy gentleman to look after his troubled daughter, Sylvia. The Governess manages to connect with the young girl but a hostile step-mother and Sylvia's obsession with a creepy statue (that she calls Hugo) throw a spanner in the works of any progress. Sylvia is convinced the statue is alive and talks to her - which let's face it, is never a good sign...

The most impressive thing about 'The Book of Stone' is how it gets under your skin and like most great gothic horror features, it's all about atmosphere and the visuals. Taboada not only does a great job in unsettling the viewer and dishing up some masterfully subtle scares, the film is also a technical success Think horror films from the 60's are cheap and tacky looking? Think again. Foregoing blood and gore in favour of paranoia and a lingering sense of unease, the film also contains some solid central performances too. The film was remade in 2009, but unfortunately it's nowhere near as good as the original.

Horrors of Malformed Men

(Directed by Teruo Iishi)

The Japanese make some intriguingly dark/weird stuff don't they? But long before Battle Royale brought homicidal teenagers to our screens and Sadako was climbing out of TV screens, we had Teruo Iishi's tale of dopplegangers and deformed freaks. Sounds fun eh?!

An medical student suffering from amnesia finds himself in a mental asylum, despite the fact that he's seemingly perfectly sane. After escaping and subsequently being framed for someone's murder, he spots a photo of a supposdely recently deceased man...who bears an uncanny resemblance to himself! To evade capture he asssumes the dead man's identity but it isn't long before the mystery of his past and his apparent twin draw him to a mysterious island where all sorts of crazy shit awaits.

Banned in Japan for nearly 40 years for being offensive to the handicapped, Horrors Of Malformed Men is part of the wave of late-'60s Japanese exploitation films known as ero guro (or "erotic-grotesque") - and it is one of those films that's got to be seen to believed - and we mean that in a positive way. It's failure to adhere to basic logic is more charming than frustrating and you can't help but be mesmerised by the haunting beauty of the whole thing. Psychedelic and taboo-breaking in places, there's a lot to like about Iishi's nightmarish and surreal foray into madness.

The Oblong Box

(Directed by Gordon Hessler)

It only feels right that the first film Vincent Price and Christopher Lee starred in together should be on this list. Both had appeared in a number of genre features before The Oblong Box of course but there's something magic about seeing them both in the same movie - even if they barely appear on screen together.

Based on a short story of the same name written by Edgar Allen Poe, the film tells the story of Edward, a wealthy Victorian gentleman (Alister Williamson) who is horribly disfigured in an ancient voodoo ceremony (classic). His guilt ridden brother, played by Vincent Price, locks him away in a tower. However after he escapes - with the help of a local witch doctor - events conspire against him and he ends up in a trance like state and buried alive. However when graverobbers dig up his coffin and deliver the corpse to a local doctor (played by Christopher Lee), it becomes clear that he isn't dead and he has revenge on his mind.

Amazingly (and shamefully) the film was apparently banned in Texas upon it's release due to it displaying pro-black sentiment. Well those idiots missed out because The Oblong Box is a lot of fun. Sure, the plot is a little convoluted and this is far from Price's best performance but John Coquillon's atmospheric cinematography is beautiful and it's so full of incident and skullduggery that you can't not get some enjoyment from it all. The ending is also suitably gloom-ridden too. Perfect Sunday afternoon viewing!

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