Film #106: The Rutles: All You Need is Cash (1978)

film 106 the rutles

Rating: 3.5/5

“Listen, looking at it very simply musicology and ethnically, the Rutles were essentially empirical malengistes of a rhythmically radical yet verbally passé and temporally transcended lyrically content welded with historically innovative melodical material transposed and transmogrified by the angst of the Rutland ethic experience which elevated them from essentially alpha exponents of in essence merely beta potential harmonic material into the prime cultural exponents of Aeolian cadencic comic stanza form.”

Conceived and written by Eric Idle, it’s no surprise that The Rutles has a distinctly Pythonesque vibe but, more impressively, it truly captures the heady delirium and quintessentially sixties qualities of the band they’re parodying, The Beatles. To be honest, at many points in this mockumentary – a precursor to This is Spinal Tap if there ever was one – could barely be considered a parody or satire, it seems to be so close to the truth. Perhaps that’s the beauty of it – no matter how you try and send them up, The Beatles still seem to have done it all first.

This is, really, a film for Beatles’ fans, with the rise and fall of the Rutles mirroring the rise and, well, not quite fall, but break-up, of The Beatles. The Pre-Fab Four, Idle’s straight-laced narrator informs us, grew up in Liverpool, played in the Cavern Club before travelling over to Germany and, soon after, conquering the world (musically, of course). There was a fifth Rutle at one point, but he climbed into a suitcase with a girl and disappeared. Their success was meteoric: soon girls all over the globe were smitten, and after a string of hits, the boys – Barry (John Halsey), Stig (Ricky Fataar, who, as the quiet one, never gets a single line of dialogue), Nasty (Neil Innes, who also wrote the music), and Dirk (also Idle – in typical Python fashion, he plays multiple characters) – decide to make movies. Throughout this mockumentary we see Idle and chums recreating the filmography of The Beatles, from the music-video-inspired British classic A Hard Day’s Night to the group’s more experimental fare, A Magical Mystery Tour. All You Need is Cash captures the sentiments of these movies perfectly – from the giddy innocence/ youth rebellion of a day in the life of the world’s biggest band (reimagined as A Hard Day’s Rut) to the drug-influenced surrealism of the band’s stranger filmmaking attempts (The Tragical History Tour, complete with “I Am the Walrus” parody, “Piggy in the Middle”).

Non-Beatles fans will no doubt still be able to appreciate the movie, though much of the nuance and humour depends on a fairly decent knowledge of the Fab Four. It seems like everything is covered: the relationships, the crises, the inspirations, the band’s developing sound. The Rutles make mistakes, like claiming they were bigger than God (just as Lennon was accused of doing). They fall in with a dodgy guru (here Arthur Sultan, the Surrey Mystic), get tired of all the girls screaming at their concerts, and openly experiment with tea. The girlfriends get a brief mention – Yoko, inevitably, fares the worst. Here her Rutles persona is the SS-uniform-clad daughter of the man who “invented World War II,” an artist who dreams of throwing musicians off buildings as part of her latest installation.

The Pre-Fab Four actors play their parts perfectly – it’s always clear who everyone is supposed to be, and they capture the carefree, impromptu nature of The Beatles. Their interview segments are brilliant, perfectly epitomising the bizarre, deadpan responses of the group to inane questions (“what’s your ambition?” asks one reporter. “I’d like to be a hairdresser. Or two. I’d like to be two hairdressers,” Barry responds). They’re supported by a superb cast of recognisable British actors and musicians, with some wonderful – if brief – cameos by SNL regulars. Dan Akyroyd pops up, so too does John Belushi and Bill Murray, while Mick Jagger waxes lyrical about how The Rutles influenced him. Paul Simon and Ron Wood also appear, as does Michael Palin and, as perfect evidence of endorsement, George Harrison has bit-part as a news reporter (Harrison was a big fan of Monty Python, and “pawned” his house in London to fund the troupe’s most famous, and controversial, and hilarious feature film, The Life of Brian).

The music is also pitch-perfect. Innes has cleverly distorted recognisable Beatles’ tunes, changing the lyrics and altering the sound just enough so that they remain obviously inspired by specific songs, but the recognition is often rather elusive. The earlier songs in particular are spot-on and often particularly convincing: “All My Loving” becomes “Hold My Hand”, “If I Fell” transforms into “Number One”, “All You Need is Love” turns into “Love Life”. Each song is performed with upbeat enthusiasm from the group, first in obvious studio settings, then moving beyond the constraints of stiff-upper-lipped BBC standards to the more hippy, freewheeling organic style of the Beatles’ later sound. By the end of the film, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish what is Beatles and what is Rutles, the two groups almost becoming interchangeable, such is the accuracy of Idle’s observations. It’s no wonder that the group – The Rutles, that is – have since released several albums and have been touring as recently as May this year. Ironically, the parody has survived longer than the original, although in terms of musical achievement, pop culture iconography, and influence, it’s the Fab Four, not their Pre-Fab counterparts, who reign supreme.


Film #98: Track of the Moon Beast (1976)

film 98 track of the moon beast

Rating: 2/5

“Moon rocks? Oh, wow!”

Currently taking 36th place in IMDb’s Bottom 100, Track of the Moon Beast owes much of its reputation to the folks at Mystery Science Theater 3000; it gets barely a mention in the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, listed as a “non star, ‘we can’t act’” movie. It’s true that the acting leaves much to be desired – the above quote is particularly flat in delivery – and the effects are shoddy, and the story is stupid, but in many ways it’s no better or worse than countless other movies of the time. Indeed, it’s pretty mundane, and there are few moments that really elevate it to anything particularly interesting; this demonstrates just one of the many difficulties in establishing why certain films have gained a reputation, while others have been long-since forgotten.

Chase Cordell is Paul, a mineralogist studying bones in the desert when he is hit in the head by a falling meteor, which causes him to transform into the dreaded moon beast of the title. This causes some concern from his girlfriend Kathy (Donna Leigh Drake – she’s responsible for the worst of the performances, and speaks the above quote) and Paul’s former teacher, Johnny Longbow (Gregorio Sala) who, for some reason, appears to be an expert in everything. It also results in Paul being topless or in his pyjamas for almost the entire movie, as he undergoes tests in hospital and suffers bouts of dizziness while human.

The acting is definitely the film’s weakest point, particularly from Drake. She is, admittedly, not supported by the screenplay – the film appears to take place over a few days, and Kathy and Paul are strangers at the beginning. Yet within mere hours, it appears, they are a long-established couple deeply in love; naturally, Kathy’s biggest concern is the effect this mutation will have on their relationship. Despite this, she seems to flirt uncontrollably with everyone around her – she stands too close, giggles and bats her eyes at inappropriate moments, and is generally completely unbelievable at every given opportunity. She represents the true emotional core of the movie (I suppose this is why her affections for Paul had to be so rapidly induced, so that he has someone other than his teacher to worry about his well-being) but she’s utterly vapid. The rest of the cast don’t fare much better; the best performances come from two flirty college students, who pop up every now and then but are ultimately irrelevant.

The film’s shot in colour, and the budget’s limitations are obvious throughout. The meteor, when it falls and hits Paul, is a quick flash of white across the screen – it clearly goes no where near the actor. The editing is sloppy and perfunctory, bringing a leaden pace to the movie, and the scenes are frequently poorly exposed and shoddily presented. Generally, it’s unremarkable and uninteresting, but the narrative is suitably stupid to add a further layer of badness to the whole production. There’s a strange combination of Native American folklore and science fiction – which at least explains why Johnny Longbow appears to be integral to the police’s investigations into the grisly murders that are taking place when the moon is full.

Considering some of the other horror movies around at the time, Track of the Moon Beast is disappointingly bloodless. When Paul does finally get out of his pyjamas to become the monster, the transformation is underwhelming and the creature itself an unimaginative lizard-man. Cordell has little opportunity to do much with the character, and his performance delivers even less – this being little more than a variation on the classic werewolf story, we should surely feel some sympathy for this unfortunate man, but it’s nigh on impossible. Even the ending is stupid: Paul, realising he’s going to implode at some point, decides to go and quietly remove himself from society and kill himself in the desert so no one else will be harmed. Yet Kathy works out his plan and inexplicably attempts to stop him (she doesn’t have a cure, so basically just stops him from heroically sacrificing himself for the greater good), thus forcing his dear friend Longbow to shoot him with… a longbow… Oh yes, it’s that kind of movie.

The biggest problem I’m having is that, mere days after I watched this, I’m struggling to remember anything about it. I remember it being silly, and reasonably entertaining, but why is causing issues. Does Track of the Moon Beast really deserve such a reputation that it is considered the 36th worst film of all time? Probably not – it sits fairly comfortably alongside the banal output of Al Adamson’s “blood” movies; the main difference is not aesthetic style or narrative content, but the success of MST3K in bringing Moon Beast more widespread attention.

Film #79: Blood of Ghastly Horror (1972)

film 79 blood of ghastly horror

Rating: 1.5/5

“You’ve turned loose a homicidal maniac with an artificial brain whose every action is completely unpredictable!”

If there is a film in our collection that has more titles, I can’t think of it. One of the most incoherent of cult director Al Adamson’s films, the superbly named Blood of Ghastly Horror (following on from the director’s other “Blood” films – Blood of Dracula’s Castle, Five Bloody Grave, Brain of Blood, Horror of the Blood Monsters) was initially released in 1964 as Echo of Terror, a serious crime drama. Unable to sell the film, Adamson changed the title to Psycho A Go-Go in 1965, capitalising on the “go-go” craze of the time (similar to Herschell Gordon Lewis’s decision to retitle Terror at Half Day as Monster A-go Go). Despite adding some musical numbers, Psycho A Go-Go‘s popularity quickly declined, along with the go-go fad. In 1967 John Carradine was enlisted for some new horror scenes; in 1971 even more new scenes were shot, attempting to bring a coherence to the random assortment of genres, plots, and dates. The film was, in this eight year period, also titled Two Tickets to Terror, The Man with the Synthetic Brain and, my personal favourite, Fiend with the Electronic Brain. Part crime drama, part zombie movie, part mad scientist film, part revenge epic, it’s utter gibberish with a distinctive Adamson flair for shoddy framing and lurid colours – I wrote thirteen pages of notes, almost all of which are plot, and can still barely establish a timeline.

The DVD version I watched, released in association with Troma (The Toxic Avenger, A Nymphoid Barbarian in a Dinosaur Hell) comes with a special introduction from Adamson’s long time associate, the film’s producer Sam Sherman. Sherman doesn’t try to conceal Blood of Ghastly Horror‘s hotchpotch nature, emphatically stating that they were only ever trying to make a profitable movie for a niche drive-in audience, which they generally succeeded in doing. He is happy to admit the film’s incoherence – speaking as only a producer might, David Konow’s excellent book Schlock-O-Rama: The Films of Al Adamson reports him saying “We ruined the original film that made sense and made a film that didn’t make sense! But you ought to be aware of one thing: the idea was to market a movie, play it and make some money.” And the reason for the film’s final, best known title? “It had blood, it was ghastly and it was horrible.”

Bear with me now, while I try to explain the plot as briefly as possible. The film opens with a zombie killing a bunch of people in an alleyway, then introduces Lieutenant Cross and his partner, who receive a severed head in a box with a message referring to a man called Corey. A poorly signposted flashback traces poor Joe Corey’s life of crime – a Vietnam vet turned diamond thief, whose fingerprints were found at the scene of a heist, despite him having died several years earlier.

Still with me? Okay – there’s a lot more. Another cop, Sgt Ward, locates Dr Vanard (Carradine), who signed Joe’s death certificate; later Bernard admits that he conducted experiments on Joe, saving his life but turning him psychotic in the process (we learn this through a flashback in a flashback). Meanwhile, Joe’s hunting for the diamonds, which have ended up in the hands of the Clark family. He kills some women, then turns up at Vanard’s lab, having inexplicably just remembered what was done to him. He kills Vanard, signalling the end of the first lengthy flashback.

Cross then gets a visit from Vanard’s daughter Susan (Adamson’s wife Regina Carroll), who says she was told to return by a disembodied voodoo zombie jungle voice, through telepathy. Coincidentally, Cross remembers that Joe’s father was researching voodoo telepathy in the Jamaican jungles! Yes, Elton Corey is planning his dastardly revenge for his son’s untimely death, and it involves Susan. At some point, everyone then ends up at Lake Tahoe, where Joe captures Mrs Clark and her daughter, who claim to know nothing about the diamonds. A lengthy woodland chase follows, with Joe pursuing Mrs Clark through the snow, resulting in a shock twist and Joe’s (second) death. The film finishes by returning from this flashback to “present day”, with Elton and his new zombie bride. All I was left wondering was, whose head was in the box at the very beginning?!

Blood of Ghastly Horror is easily one of the most narratively incoherent films I’ve seen; most of its plot is flashback, but they’re so long (as a result of the cut-and-paste nature of the movie) that it’s almost impossible to keep up – characters disappear then reappear ages later, time lines are jumbled and confused, and the attempts to combine all the elements result in an uncomfortably muddled narrative. Parts of the movie was evidently filmed without sound (the whole final chase, for example), and I’m sure astute viewers will recognise changing styles from the various filming schedules. While the musical numbers added for one of the film’s early incarnations is absent, the lab equipment features in other Adamson movies, becoming a sex machine in Horror of the Blood Monsters, and the action is poorly captured in “Chill-o-rama in Metrocolor,” whatever that is. However, Morton brings an impressively deranged quality to the role; a sinister sneer and manic expression reminiscent of a young Jack Nicholson, which works well. Carradine is underused and elderly but solid as always, and the (recycled) score – a jazzy cop-drama soundtrack – is simple but effective. That’s not to say it’s a good film – it isn’t. The action is sloppy, characters are repeatedly either shot in restrictive extreme close ups, or are inexplicably cut out of the frame. Adamson should be commended for having the audacity to attempt to sell this cop-heist-zombie-revenge-drama-horror-thriller, but inevitably it hasn’t worked. And seriously, whose head is in the box?!?

Film #66: Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)

film 66 zombie flesh eaters
Rating: 3/5

“What’s this about the dead coming back to life again, and having to be killed a second time?”

From a family friendly Oscar winner to one of the most infamous video nasties – such is the joy of Movie Lottery. With its great, lurid title, Zombie Flesh Eaters (originally called Zombi) is, like so many of the video nasties, rather tame when viewed today – the caked on prosthetics are obvious and dated but, budget restrictions aside, it’s a fairly entertaining, if clichéd romp; not bad enough to be a bad movie, but definitely trashy.

I remember Zombie Flesh Eaters for precisely two reasons: one, it has an epic fight between a zombie and a shark; two, one of the women dies a rather horrible death involving a large shard of wood through the eye. The film itself is quite slow – there’s not much to the plot and little character development, so Fulci takes his time, offering little nuggets of zombie-gore rather than saturating the whole film with it – but when the blood, guts, and rotting flesh feature, it’s generally pretty effective. These two scenes are the highlight, and both come fairly early; the film’s final showdown, the hoards of zombies taking over the beautiful tropical island of Matul, is quite generic, but these scenes more than make up for any other lapses in originality.

Having seen this movie before, I remember the zombie-shark fight scene as being very impressive – violent, aggressive, shocking. Turns out my brain has somewhat exaggerated events; this is less a fight scene than a zombie holding onto a suspiciously toothless shark. Yet it is rather masterfully shot – shark trainer Ramon Bravo (the zombie) looks and acts the part (and appears to be able to hold his breath for an inhumanly long time), and manages to make what is clearly a docile, harmless shark look at least a little bit dangerous. For good measure there’s also an almost entirely naked woman scuba-diving (a g-string protects her modesty, but only barely) – what more could you ask for in a scene?!

The plot itself is fairly straight-forward: Anne (Tisa Farrow, Mia Farrow’s sister, substituting blank stares for acting) and newspaper reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) head off to the island of Matul in the Antilles to search for her missing father, after his boat was found floating in New York harbour. Organising a lift with two strangers, Brian and Susan (the aforementioned mostly naked woman), they are forced to stop in Matul after the shark attack damaged their boat, and there they discover Dr Menard (Richard Johnson) who is desperately trying to find a cure for the strange disease plaguing the islanders (currently, it appears only a bullet to the brain does the trick). While the locals believe voodoo is the cause for the affliction, Menard, a man of science, is convinced there is a rational, medical explanation – the outcome is largely ambiguous, but I’d suggest that the rising of the Conquistadores towards the end of the film points more towards the supernatural.

Like many Italian films of the decade, half the cast didn’t speak English, so parts are (badly) dubbed. The men act better than the women, though they are given better roles – as soon as poor Susan strips off, it’s obvious her days are numbered. Menard’s wife, first introduced drunk and hysterical, is similarly doomed; it’s her that ends up optically impaled and subsequently devoured. The other women, Anne and Menard’s assistant, last longer because they’re less willing to show their nipples, but they’re both utterly hopeless and helpless; the men are apparently the only ones capable of any action whatsoever. So the poor women generally stand, like rabbits in the headlights, and wait for the zombies (the classic slow kind of undead) to shuffle over and bite them, unless a man can gallantly save the day. Yet it should be pointed out that there are few survivors, and really it’s quite fun to see which stereotype will be the next to meet their grisly end.

Zombie Flesh Eaters is wonderfully retro – Giannetto De Rossi’s prosthetics are obvious but effectively gruesome, while the film’s style (including frequent zooming from long shot to extreme close-ups) is distinctively 70s. There are no sudden shocks or jolts, no sudden cutaways or jumps. Fulci reveals all the gore slowly, and that’s where the horror originates. The music works well to signpost the key scenes and, while the film is slow, it’s peppered with just enough death and destruction (and a good, though not unexpected, conclusion) to remain interesting. Yet it is rather flat – there’s little tension, and at times the protracted scenes (particularly those involving the inert females) end up being more funny than horrific. I suppose when it was released in 1979 it was a shocking, gruesome film; today it manages to achieve a level of kitsch appeal. It should, however, be commended – not only for returning to the original zombie origins (voodoo), but for the moments of innovation, creation, and pure ridiculousness that have, surprisingly, never been repeated. Yes, I’m talking about the zombie-shark showdown again. Sure, in actuality it’s underwhelming, but it’s stupid and original enough to leave a lasting impression.

Film #53: Love Goddess of the Cannibals (1978)

film 53 love goddess of the cannibals

Rating: 2/5

Love Goddess of the Cannibals, also known as Papaya: Love Goddess of the Cannibals or, most accurately, Caribbean Papaya, is one of a number of Shameless DVDs I’ve bought over the years. With their lurid yellow covers and their wonderfully trashy and exploitative titles, Shameless are responsible for bringing many Italian horrors to the UK, but they’re a mixed bag. I really ought to remember that a great title does not necessarily mean the film will be even the slightest bit entertaining. This one is neither terrible not particularly good but, despite it being slow and featuring neither a goddess nor any real cannibals, it had just about enough in it to keep my attention – some eerily empty shanty towns, for example, and one especially memorable masked orgy sequence.

Viewers expecting a cannibal movie will be sorely disappointed – the film’s current title is pretty misleading. It attempts to provide some of what it promises by opening with our titular character, Papaya (played by a woman listed only as Melissa in the credits), biting of some unfortunate man’s man-parts after rubbing a papaya fruit all over him (foreplay’s really changed since the 70s). This, and one heart-eating moment during the aforementioned masked orgy, constitute the full total of cannibalism on screen – Cannibal Holocaust, this ain’t. Instead, what we are confronted with is a bizarre, slow, soft-core porn story about a group of (badly dubbed) Americans trying to build a nuclear reactor on a small Caribbean island, much to the local’s dismay. The islanders’ solution is to unleash Papaya on these unsuspecting men, who seduces each one before killing them. It doesn’t actually make any sense whatsoever – if the whole island wants to see these men’s plans foiled, why do they need any kind of subterfuge? Why does she need to seduce them, when they could be so easily dispatched without coitus first? But, these are pointless questions to ask about a film like this; it’s easier to simply accept that, for almost 90 minutes, there will be a series of tenuously connected sex scenes, with some kind of narrative attempting to hold it all together.

The sex itself is typically European, largely inoffensive, and frequently hilarious. Our hero Vincent (Maurice Poli) and his part-time-girlfriend Sara (Sirpa Lane, famous for other adult content movies like The Beast and Nazi Love Camp 27) engage in some fairly nondescript shower sex before eventually getting caught up in Papaya’s confusing plot – using local legends, she leads them to a building, where they witness dead pigs being gutted, a man being de-hearted, and a load of frenzied gyrating. They take this surprisingly well – personally, I’d be at least the slightest bit shocked, but they accept it without question or horror, and soon enough their clothes are removed and they’re participating in this voodoo-lovefest. Later on there’s a truly bizarre bath scene, in which Papaya runs the two a bath, and before you can blink all three of them are naked and washing each other. A normal person might feel somewhat exposed, or consider Papaya’s invitation slightly inappropriate, but not Sara and Vincent. They’re so overwhelmed by Papaya’s beauty and seductiveness that they will happily do whatever she says. Again, I’m not sure why, because Papaya (or Melissa) cannot kiss. Her tightly-closed, supremely awkward technique is one of the most disconcerting aspects of the (numerous) sex scenes; the girls are pretty, but there is clearly no chemistry whatsoever and, quite frankly, it all just looks really uncomfortable.

Yet, as I’ve said, there are some redeeming qualities to the film. Despite its ludicrous (and oddly pedestrian) plot, the truly dreadful dubbing, the bad acting, the rather unpleasant cock-fighting scene (get your brains out of the gutter, I mean roosters) and the slow pace, there are moments that are strangely hypnotic. The Caribbean island is revealed as a dusty, ramshackle place, with the beautiful beaches secondary to the more lived-in areas of town; as Vincent remarks, these are the areas not designed for tourists, and they’re far more interesting than picturesque palm trees and white sands. And, as a porno goes, it might not be particularly erotic, but it’s not unwatchable either. Yes, it has a misleading title, and there’s very little gore, but it could be far worse and, luckily, there are enough moments of unintentional humour and ridiculousness to keep it reasonably entertaining. True, as the credits rolled I realised I still didn’t actually have a clue what had happened (it also boasts some kind of twist at the end; whether it works or not I couldn’t say, I was already too confused), but I can still remember the pastel coloured wooden huts lining the empty streets of the shanty town, the delightfully 70s afros and flares, and the fact that someone, somewhere, thought a papaya in the groin was sexy.

Film #50: The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)

film 50 the abominable dr phibes

Rating: 4/5

“A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.”

It’s taken far too long to get to this point, but here we are at the first milestone: fifty films watched! In the next post I’ll recap my thoughts on the process so far, but suffice to say now, I’m pleased to announce that the fiftieth pick was a good one. The Abominable Dr Phibes is one of American International’s best known films, starring the wonderfully theatrical Vincent Price in an unusually muted performance. Although dressed up with low-budget, yet still sumptuous, style, this is actually a fairly standard revenge thriller – in fact, it could be considered an early example of the formula adopted so successfully in The Crow (1994).

Dialogue is sparse for much of Robert Fuest’s film; the first ten minutes pass by without a word. Instead, we are introduced to Dr Phibes, draped in a black cloak, maniacally pounding away at a garish organ. His hand gestures seldom relate to the music emanating from the instrument, but it barely matters – Phibes is all about the visual impact (he doesn’t speak until half an hour has passed, and even then it’s brief and stilted, played through a gramophone and accompanied by some bulging eye motions by Price), and it’s a nightmarish, unsettling scene, complete with a robotic accompanying band, and a hypnotic, beautiful, silent accomplice (Virginia North). Here, in this chamber of Phibes’ home, theatricality is key; from North’s haute couture garments to the art deco-inspired surroundings, everything is carefully staged and attractively bizarre – much like his methods of revenge.

In terms of plot, The Abominable Dr Phibes is simple: a man, believed dead, seeks revenge for his wife’s death on an operating table some four years prior. Nine people are deemed responsible, most of whom die with barely so much as a whimper – as a man of many talents, and a theology scholar, Phibes concocts a series of punishments based upon the ten plagues of the Old Testament. So respectable surgeons, doctors, and nurses are quickly (or sometimes slowly) terminated by assorted bats, rats, freezing temperatures, blood-draining, suffocating frog masks, and catapulted unicorn heads, among others.

Inevitably the film takes on an episodic nature; Phibes eliminates one of his victims, the police arrive to investigate, they interview someone but learn little, and Phibes continues his master plan. As a result, there are a number of characters who pop up for a scene, and vanish from view for the remainder of the film – a housekeeper, a graveyard attendant, a metalworker. They all add a touch of well-conceived Britishness to the whole production; the police too are played with dry, wry humour. It’s a great combination of English understatement, harmless titillation, and some good old fashioned Gothic doomed romance.

Apparently The Abominable Dr Phibes was heavily rewritten and, having read some of the originally proposed ending ideas, the rewrites have not only benefited the film, but changed it quite substantially. It works because Phibes, despite his (perhaps misguided) cruelty, is a sympathetic character, and this is quite an accomplishment. His punishments are sadistic – in fact, the one saved for head surgeon Dr Vesalius (Joseph Cotten) is straight out of a Saw movie – and he evidently takes pleasure in dolling them out; yet he is tortured himself. Physically scarred by an accident and emotionally ruined by his wife’s death, it is not a stretch to argue that this once brilliant man (as evidenced by his creations) has been irrevocably altered by the events in his life. He is not out to murder the innocent, only those he deems guilty. Price embodies this role with aplomb, managing to relate Phibes’ turmoil perfectly despite his heavily made-up white pallor and lack of dialogue. He provides a pathos to the character that would perhaps not be achieved were it performed by someone with a more subtle style. Interestingly, in both this and the previous pick, The Raven, the villains work precisely because of the actors’ exaggerated performances.

As with The Crow, The Abominable Dr Phibes ends in a rather poetic, even beautiful, way, and it seems a shame that the character was revived only one year later, attempting to resurrect his dead wife in Dr Phibes Rises Again. As that film is not part of our collection, I cannot comment on its success (or failure) any further, though I can say that, as much as I enjoyed this film, I have little desire to see its sequel. Dr Phibes carried out his revenge, and I am now happy for him to (finally) rest in peace.

Film #44: Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)

film 44 tombs of the blind dead

Rating: 2.5/5

The first of a series of four films, Tombs of the Blind Dead has been described as Spain’s Night of the Living Dead, although its undead foes resemble resurrected, vengeful mummies more than zombies. It’s short on gore, concentrating more on creating a tense, slow-burning atmosphere and, while there are times when this is no doubt effective, overall – with the exception of some memorable sequences – it fails to make much of an impression.

It’s clear early on that it’s necessary to suspend one’s disbelief and accept that much of the simple plot relies on characters making illogical and daft decisions – most notably Virginia’s (Maria Elena Arpon) decision to abandon her friends Betty (Lone Flemming) and Roger (Cesar Burner) and spend the night alone in an abandoned town in the middle of nowhere. With an ominous monastery dominating the ruins, and a ramshackle graveyard in the grounds, it’s inevitable that things will end badly for the stubborn brunette. Despite a lengthy portion of the film’s running time devoted to Virginia’s evening in the crumbling town, we learn next to nothing about the character; earlier conversations between her and her companions regularly slip into overwrought or stilted melodrama (although they also provide an opportunity for a gratuitous lesbian flashback, as the two girls remember their time at a convent school). Following Virginia’s petulant decision to leave her pals, due to their newfound interest in each other, she wanders around the ruins, dresses for bed and, in an impressive display of complete nonchalance regarding her surroundings, settles down to read a book. Unbeknownst to her, when night falls the Knights of the East (clearly Templars, though they are never explicitly referred to as such) rise from their graves, and soon she’s being terrorised by hooded, eyeless monsters.

The Knights themselves are, initially at least, unsettling and creepy – blind because several centuries ago their fearsome, ritualistic sect had their eyes pecked out by crows following their hanging. They hunt by listening for their prey, though poor Virginia never realises this and helpfully screams constantly. Although both their appearance and purpose differs from traditional zombies (they rise each night from their graves, and make deliberate, specific decisions), they share the former’s slow movements – director Amando de Ossorio has slowed down their scenes, creating a haunting delicacy to their motions. With the exception of the sound of their horses’ hooves pounding across the town’s stone streets, they glide silently across the landscape and, despite Virginia’s best efforts, the hunt is soon over.

Curiously, the film’s most effective aesthetic is also narratively one of the weakest points – like George A Romero’s zombies, the Knights could logically easily be bested because of their slowness. Their horses (draped in rags, but apparently still living and breathing) do increase their range and speed, but the undead men barely move, instead apparently relying on their prey’s similar lack of movement. It’s difficult to watch without wanting to shout at the screen, “just run, RUN AWAY!” and this irritation is an unfortunate distraction. Problematic too is the repetition of certain scenes, namely those involving the Knights’ resurrection – not because they are not reasonably impressive considering the film’s obviously low budget, but because they naturally are less effective once it becomes clear they are recycled. The film’s budget reveals itself a number of times, detracting from the more accomplished features (the score in particular works well) – day and night are interchangeable, while a flashback cannibalistic, ritualistic rape suffers from disappointing special effects, particularly the bizarre decision to use a fake female torso in close-ups.

Yet a film like Tombs of the Blind Dead is rarely watched by viewers expecting, or desiring, an in-depth character study, flawless narrative structure or impeccable effects. The pacing improves following Virginia’s death, and the decision to move beyond the isolated, abandoned monastery works in the film’s favour. Subsequent sequences, particularly those in the morgue and in a mannequin workshop, are by far the most memorable; the latter in particular is horribly creepy and tense, and visually creates a lasting impression.

The film’s final moments are frequently discussed (in vague terms) in other reviews and, while the events are fairly inevitable, they efficiently broaden the Knights’ opportunities for carnage and mayhem – although in this outing at least, said carnage predominantly occurs off camera. Although it is clear that de Ossorio deliberately chose to focus on atmosphere over blood and guts, and there is nothing wrong with this, in an era and genre that includes Zombie Flesh Eaters , The Beyond, and numerous others, this film makes considerably less of an impact. As I don’t have the sequels (Return of the Blind Dead, The Ghost Galleon, and Night of the Seagulls) in my collection, I cannot say whether the action is ramped up in the sequels or not; unfortunately, while Tombs of the Blind Dead was occasionally eerie and generally adequate, it failed to inspire me enough to find out.