FIVE FILMS FROM...1970
The Dunwich Horror
(Directed by Daniel Haller)
Cinema has a difficult relationship with the works of H.P. Lovecraft, with Stuart Gordon only making something of a credible movie impact with his adaptations (“Reanimator”, “From Beyond”). And whilst it’s not entirely successful (mostly due to a lack of budget and not imagination), this ambitious re-telling of the author’s creepy short story deserves some attention. Director Haller had previously made another Lovecraft film in 1965, with his “Die, Monster, Die” being based on “The Colour out of Space”. Produced by Roger Corman, and co-written by Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential”), this one was originally intended to have Peter Fonda in the lead role, until Dean Stockwell was cast as the sinister Wilbur Whateley. The story takes place in modern-day Massachusetts, as Whateley schemes to use the fabled Necronomicon to resurrect the “Old Ones”.
This film isn’t generally well-regarded, but has obtained a cult-like status after many late-night TV showings. Whatever your opinion, you have to admire several aspects about it. It adheres nicely to the essential lore around the Cthulhu Mythos, with important elements played by the Necronomicon, Miskatonic University, and Yog Sothoth himself/itself. Wilbur’s monstrous sibling is disappointingly visualised with quick glimpses and psychedelic images, but overall there’s a nice creepy esoteric atmosphere about the whole thing. This is compounded by a committedly OTT performance by Stockwell, as he gibbers nonsense and literally twirls knives over a supine Sandra Dee during the thunderstorm-backed climax. The film also boasts a brilliantly catchy soundtrack from the prolific composer Les Baxter, with the eerie main theme accompanying a chilling animated credit sequence, leaving you with a supernatural “ear-worm” that you’ll never get rid of.
(Directed by Roy Ward Baker)
This was an important film for the House of Hammer, and marked a pivotal moment in the so-called “permissive” age of British cinema, when the studio became more overt with their conjoining of sexuality and horror. Hammer had always stood for glamour and they ceaselessly promoted their young actresses in the media. But this offering dropped the coyness, featuring nudity from some of the cast and fairly strong sapphic sequences, which were at least partly due to requests from the America distributors. The story is set in 1790, and follows the misadventures of the vampiric Marcilla/Carmilla/Mircalla Karnstein (a luminous Ingrid Pitt) as she seduces her way through several Austrian families… with her bite-marks tending to appear somewhat lower than the neck on her female victims.
Based very loosely on the J. Sheridan Le Fanu novella Carmilla, the quality of the source material allowed the studio to get the more “explicit” plot details past the usually strict UK censor. It subsequently caught the imagination of the public and influenced the direction of future projects. In fact it started the “Karnstein Trilogy”, which continued with “Lust for a Vampire” and “Twins of Evil” in the following years. It made a star of the great Pitt, who would later tell riotous tales in horror conventions about her fangs falling down Kate O’Mara’s cleavage, and the pair often collapsing in hysterics during romantic scenes. The plot is rather flimsy, as is the horror content. But at least the tone is mature and strives for credibility rather than sex-comedy laffs, as most British films were liable to do at the time whenever eroticism raised its head, and critical history has been mostly kind to it. Ward Baker would go on to direct some other 70s cult genre such as “Asylum”, and Pitt would be forever linked to the role of sexy seductress.
Count Yorga, Vampire
(Directed by Bob Kelljan)
By 1970, the main problem with Dracula and his blood-sucking compadres was that the audience were getting overly-familiar with his period piece shenanigans, and younger cinema-goers were looking for something more… err… “hip”. Hammer tried to tackle that with later projects such as “Dracula A.D. 1972”, but this urbane take on the classical vampire has its fans, not least because of a smooth performance by Robert Quarry in the title role. Amusingly the original project was allegedly destined to be soft-core porno film with the title of "The Loves of Count Lorga” (or “Iorga” depending who you believe). That all changed when Quarry came aboard, along with a more seasoned cast. Instead we get a stylised version of the classic “Dracula” storyline, with Yorga playing the Hungarian Count, who arrives in 70s America and gets a taste for the local cuisine.
Despite Yorga looking exactly like the traditional vampire with cloak and slicked-back hair, Quarry actually plays him as a charming urbanite, who just happens to have animalistic qualities and a penchant for transforming the ladies into dangerous predators and sex slaves. The main hooks here are the quite effective twists on the classic lore, with the “Brides” (and Yorga himself) being actually quite scary as they dash towards victims, arms outstretched like zombies on crack, ready to tear into innocent necks. The 70s setting and Quarry’s dashing portrayal, mesh nicely with the ravenous antics of the vampires, making it stand out from the Hammer movies and their imitators. The character was popular enough to warrant a sequel and tentative plans for a third film (which never happened). Fun fact: Count Yorga was originally going to be the antagonist in “Dr Phibes Rises Again” filmed several years later.
The Bird with the Crystal Plummage
(Directed by Dario Argento)
We know that Giallo movies aren't everyone's cup of tea (hell, we're not particularly enamoured with most of them) but Dario Argento's directorial debut, The Bird With the Crystal Plummage is one that bucks the trend somewhat. It was both a financial and critical success at the time too. In fact, in one cinema in Italy, the film ran for three and a half years! And although there were a few Giallo movies made before 1970, the reception that Crystal Plummage received undoubtedly led to a load more of them being made.
Sam, an American writer (played by Tony Musante) is on holiday in Rome when he witnesses a savage attack on a woman in an art gallery by a mysterious assailant donning the usual black coat/glove combo that Giallo villains seem to love so much. Although the victim survives, Sam is haunted by the incident and decides to help the police investigation into who the attacker is. This obviously puts both himself and his girlfriend (played by Suzy Kendall) at risk.
Like all of these types of movies, it's a whoddunit mystery at heart and that's where most fun is to be had here. The sense of impending danger and paranoia that is conjured up is really effective and Morricone's ominous score and Argento's Hitchcockian direction are perfect partners. There are a number of standout scenes but the one where Sam is followed by the man in the yellow jacket is a thing of beauty. And when you add in an intense central performance from Tony Musante and a quietly disturbing ending into the mix, it makes for a bit of a cinematic treat.
And Soon The Darkness
(Directed by Robert Fuest)
The Amber Heard remake might make you doubt the validity of this being on the list but the 1970 original was actually a subtly effective (and underrated) chiller. Like The Bird With The Crystal Plummage, the film clearly aims to tap into all things Hitchcock (it even references him on the movie poster) - and although it's obviously never at that level, for the most part it does a pretty decent imitation.
It also involves a couple of central characters on holiday - but instead of an imposing and mysterious Rome, this time it's two young Brits on a cycling holiday in the sunny French countryside. Shortly after the girls encounter a mysterious stranger, one of them goes missing. We then follow the other as she desperately tries to locate her cycling buddy. Cue a load of tension and paranoia.
The strength of ASTD is in the sense of unease and isolation it elicits in the viewer. British Director Robert Fuest opts for minimal gore and on screen violence and instead focuses on building up an atmosphere of quiet dread and frustration. Deserted roads, unfriendly locals and boiling weather all add to the torment. In fact, screenwriter Brian Clemens was inspired by a previous holiday where he noticed that you could travel down many of the roads in the French countryside without seeing another soul for miles. This film takes that sense of unfamiliarity and apprehension that a lot of us feel when travelling abroad and magnifies it. The two leads are also worth mentioning too. Michele Dotrice (who some will remember from Some Mothers Do Ave' 'Em) is always watchable but it's Pamela Franklin who delivers the outstanding performance of the movie. Unfortunately, despite a prolific TV career, she didn't star in many other movies - which is a shame if you ask us.