FIVE FILMS FROM...1971
Blood on Satan's Claw
(Directed by Piers Haggard)
Sometimes lumbered with an unnecessary “The” in the credits, and also going by other International titles such as “Satan’s Skin” or “The Devil’s Touch”, this film can easily be favourably compared with the best of British genre from any age. It generally completes a triumvirate of classic “folk horror” (along with “Witchfinder General” and “The Wicker Man”), and has been hugely influential in modern comedy works such as “The League of Gentlemen” and “Inside No. 9”. It was actually originally envisaged as a period horror anthology with linked short stories, and was inspired by the Manson cult and the infamous case of the young murderess Mary Bell. Set in the 17th Century, the unearthed remains of a diabolic creature corrupts the younger members of a small farming community, who seek to resurrect it in all its glory.
Despite its enviable cult reputation, the film barely made any money on its release even with a small budget. But BOSC has rightly gained critical appeal and admiration over the ensuing years, far beyond its initial niche appeal. Linda Hayden gives a strong and startlingly sexual (for the time) portrayal of Angel Blake the young coven leader, the ultimate good-girl-gone-bad who tries to seduce the local priest. Character actor Patrick Wymark (in a role originally earmarked for Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee) also provides solid support as a staunch force for good, and it turned out to be his last performance in an English Language film. It’s all bolstered by an eerie flute-whistling soundtrack by Marc Wilkinson. In hindsight, the film was perhaps ahead of its time with some of the themes (a devil-possessed teenager, hmm…), and the core premise (a demon physically manifesting itself by growing and harvesting body parts on the villagers) is so chilling, that you wonder why a remake hasn’t appeared before now. Definitely a classic UK film, it succeeds in combining the nonsensical beliefs of the time with genuine diabolism, much in the same way Robert Egger’s “The Witch” did, so it deserves a viewing if you haven’t been spooked by it yet.
The Abominable Dr Phibes
(Directed by Robert Fuest)
If the horror genre can be compared to the superhero one, then “Phibes” is undoubtedly its version of the 1966 “Batman” TV series! Gloriously campy and bloody, you half expect a “Splat!” or “Spurt!” to appear in a title card during certain scenes. It was directed by Fuest, who made the previous year’s “And Soon the Darkness”, but this had a completely different tone full of dark gallows humour, and he was reportedly responsible for the bulk of the re-written screenplay. Dr Anton Phibes is possibly Vincent Price’s most fondly remembered role, and ironically for the great raconteur he never delivers a “normal” monologue, but speaks through a gramophone (with his dialogue dubbed) due to the character’s gruesome injuries. However he still hams it up magnificently and works his throat continuously as if he really is speaking through a device. The story follows the disfigured Phibes (who must have been the horror version of Doc Savage given his multiple talents) as he wreaks his perceived revenge on the nine doctors that failed to save his beloved wife’s life. Of course this isn’t as simple as just pointing a gun or stabbing a knife, this entails evoking the biblical Ten Plagues of Egypt…
A wealth of English character actors (Terry Thomas, Peter Jeffrey, etc) run around agog as the clumsy coppers are powerless to prevent Phibes setting up the elaborate deaths. So we get a victim’s head crushed by a clockwork frog mask (surely the predecessor to the bear-trap-helmet in “Saw”!), someone impaled by a Unicorn (!), a vampire bat attack (possibly the cutest one ever), and locusts stripping flesh from a head. There’s even someone having to retrieve a key from the organs in a body to escape (“Saw” again!). It’s all in wonderful bad taste and huge fun, like a gory episode of “The Avengers” (the 60’s TV series, not the Marvel lot). Phibes is very much the anti-hero and you generally applaud his showmanship for slaughter. With the offbeat tone, Grand Guignol demises, classical music themes, and clockwork jazz bands, it’s no wonder that it became an almost immediate cult hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Although the original goofy U.S. marketing campaign nearly sunk its chances by comparing it to a parody of the romantic hit “Love Story”! Nevertheless it was popular enough to warrant Phibes “Rising Again” one year later for more grisly fun.
Bay of Blood
(Directed by Mario Bava)
Bava has always been held in high-esteem for his many contributions to horror. Not least of which is this wonderfully mean-spirited and gory excursion, which is considered by many genre aficionados to be the Grandfather of the Modern Slasher film. It also owns a bewildering number of alternate titles (aside from whether you add an “A” or not…) and at differing times it was also known as (*deep breath*); "Ecology of Crime", "Chain Reaction", “Carnage”, “Twitch of the Death Nerve”, “Blood Bath”, or “The Last House on the Left Part II"! The project was envisaged to be a quick production to allow Bava and actress Laura Betti to work together again. But it went on to become one of the auteur’s most controversial and popular works. In essence the film is basically a long whodunnit that would give Agatha Christie pause for thought with its multiple victims and murderers.
Basically the ownership of a wealthy bay acts as the catalyst for 13 murders as the heirs fight amongst themselves for the property. But what it really boils down to is 13 stylishly shot kill-scenes and an outrageously twisty plot where greed drives all motives.If “Bay” was shown to someone having just watched the original “Friday the 13th” movies, they would swear that this was an Italian rip-off. Not so much for the story, but for the visuals. Of course the very opposite is true, with the “Friday” guys admitting the inspiration that they owe in later interviews. (NB: If that isn’t obvious enough, note the number of kills and the fact that the first death takes place on Feb 13th!) The stylish slasher shots and tropes are all here though; POV tracking by the killer, zoom-ins of victims, an anonymous killer wearing gloves, close-ups of bloody injuries. The most iconic moments involve a bill-hook tearing into the face and neck of a female victim (and immortalised on posters for the film), and slimy octopus tentacles slithering over a hacked-up corpse in a fishing boat. Despite a backlash at the time for its violence (and gruesome SFX supplied by Carlo Rambaldi) it was reportedly one of Bava’s favourite films, and his mischievous side can be seen with the WTAF? ending that often drops jaws on first viewings. All of that aside, this is a classic slasher that should be on every horror fan’s must-see list.
Let's Scare Jessica To Death
(Directed by John D. Hancock)
Although for several decades it received a rather mixed response from the horror and general film-going community, LSJTD has gone on to gain an almost cult like status. In fact, master of horror Stephen King has claimed it's one of his favourite horror movies. High praise indeed. The film was also the feature debut of Director John D. Hancock and the film was the basis for him getting the job to helm Jaws 2 (a project he was subsequently fired from due to studio squabbling).
Often compared to Le Fanu's Camilla- one of the earliest works of vampire fiction - LSJTD tells the story of a mentally fragile woman (Jessica) who, after leaving an institution, moves to a Connecticut farmhouse with her husband. When they arrive they find a mysterious drifter has been living there and in a slightly bizarre move, they invite her to stay whilst they settle into their new abode. However it isn't long before they (and we) are asking questions of the enigmatic stranger - and to compound the issue we start to understand that the house is either haunted, or that Jessica is losing her marbles once again.
From an early sequence where Jessica walks around a cemetery and is troubled by voices inside her head, we know this is going to be a film that blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. Sometimes these types of flicks can frustrate and annoy, yet here it's masterfully handled and only serves to add a layer of uneasiness to proceedings. The quietly creepy and nightmarish ambience that the film exudes is a testament to both the film-making abilities of Hancock and the central performance of Zohra Lampert, who is a bit of a sensation playing a deeply troubled character in a role that must have been pretty bloody demanding. The low budget means that it's definitely got a B movie feel about it but it only adds to the rawness of the whole thing. Like a lot of the scariest films around, it eschews blood and gore for dread and atmosphere. Go on, Let Jessica Scare you to death!
(Directed by Steven Spielberg)
Any film that's written by Richard Matheson and directed by Steven Spielberg has got to be worthy of your attention - and none more so than '71's vehicular horror Duel. Yes we know it's a PG rating and that for the most part it's an action thriller but there are more than enough horror elements and tension for it to qualify. It was also one of Spielberg's first full-length features and it's undoubtedly gone on to influence a number of other titles, both in terms of style and story. Not bad for what was a TV movie at the time!
The plot is beautifully straightforward. A middle-aged salesman (played by Dennis Weaver) driving through the Mojave Desert overtakes a dilapidated truck - but the truck soon roars past him. The salesman overtakes again, much to the annoyance of the truck driver who blasts his horn at him as he speeds off into the distance. What follows is a cat and mouse game between the drivers and their vehicles that escalates into chaos. Matheson got the inspiration for the story when he was tailgated by a trucker while on his way home from a golfing match with friend.
Shot over the course of 12 days (mental!) with a budget of under half a million bucks, Duel is a roaring success in so many ways. Spielberg himself apparently watches the film a couple of times every year to remember what he did - which is essentially an awful lot with very little. There's not much plot in the movie - it's pretty much just a 90 minute rollercoaster, with the stakes being raised minute by minute. The intensity and energy kinda leaves you breathless at times. Spielberg's ability to eek out as much suspense and tension is almost Hitchcockian - and By never revealing the truck driver, he makes the truck the arch villain of the story and to great effect. Jaws may perhaps be Spielberg's scariest underwater creation, but the rusty old truck is up there with the Velociraptors in Jurassic Park in our humble opinion.