Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Vampires (1988)

... aka: Abadon
... aka: Vampiros

Directed by:
Len Anthony

At a prestigious New York art college called the Abadon School, construction workers using a jackhammer unleash some kind of deep-voiced spirit that promptly goes upstairs to the dorms and sucks a topless girl and her boyfriend down the toilet. Don't worry, it remembers to flush afterward. However, it won't be for another fifteen painfully disjointed minutes, which includes an art show, a tarot card reading, a woman wandering around foggy corridors, a narrated prologue (“Wouldn't you like to live forever?”) and some guy attacked by the spirit, that an actual plot starts to take shape. The pretty Orly Benyair, a real-life artist from Israel who has a beautiful smile but issues stumbling her way through her awkward lines, stars as foreign student Ione. Ione's just arrived at Abadon to study photography and film and already has one acquaintance there; a music major named Gary (Thomas Ostuni), who she was once romantically involved with. Because she's a scholarship student, Ione gets to stay on the third floor of the main building on campus. As she's getting settled in, she's befriended by a kooky but friendly girl named Helen (Vicki Richardson), whose room is right across the hall from hers.

It doesn't take Ione long to discover the staff is as strange as they are unfriendly, the students are a little more immature than she'd hoped and her former flame has a reputation for being king man-whore on campus. What else could possibly go wrong? Wellll... For starters, Gary was the guy who already got sucked down the toilet along with fellow student Tracy (Karen Nielsen). Then, during orientation, Ione feels dizzy at the mere presence of stern headmistress Madeline Abadon Avernus (Jackie James), who gathers the new students together to explain not only the school's history but also the school rules. Built in the 17th Century, the Abadon estate has been in Madeline's family nearly as long, was once used as a mental asylum where unorthodox experiments took place and was almost destroyed in a fire several decades earlier that claimed the life of Madeline's father. As for the rules, they're simple: The fourth floor and the basement are both off limits. Break those rules and you'll be “punished."

Ione starts hearing voices, including those of her dead former boyfriend, and feels general unease being at the school so she seeks help from tarot card reader / psychic Dr. Charles Harmon (Duane Jones). Another scared student named Deborah (Robin Michaels), who was also involved with Gary (damn, he really got around) also goes to Charles for help. Deborah begins snooping and finds a few books authored by Madeline's late scientist husband with titles like “Making the Fountain of Youth” and “Experimentation in Energy.” Prior to dying, Dr. Abadon had created some kind of machine that can be used to extract positive energy from victims that can then be transferred to someone else to keep them from aging. Two guesses as to who's been using it.

As much as I love when some unknown 80s title like this suddenly pops up, some things were buried for a reason the first time around. Vampires is most definitely one of those instances. From what I can gather, this was never even finished and what's been cobbled together for this release is a dull, confusing and completely incoherent mess from start to finish. Supposedly some of the footage seen here came from another unfinished film called Negatives, which had also starred Jones and featured future Scream Queen Debbie Rochon in an early role. About half of that film was shot before production closed down due to the producer passing bad checks.

We never once get to see the machine (a major part of the premise) at work, never learn how it works nor do we really get to see Madeline even using it. Characters also come and go without rhyme or reason and keep saying they're going to do something or go somewhere and it never seems to happen. One actress is our heroine one minute and a voice-over is describing her mysterious death the next. A groundskeeper character (John Bly), who's been promised sanctuary and safety by Madeline's late husband, is introduced and given a revenge motive and then vanishes. The evil Madeline also is gone for long stretches of time and isn't even present at the big finale! There's talk of positive and negative energy, fields of energy and threats of people being “neutralized” and none of it really makes a lick of sense.

If this is remembered for anything, it will be for containing one of the final film appearances of Duane Jones. Jones, who broke barriers in the horror classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), worked as an acting teacher, an English professor and a stage director after appearing in Romero's landmark film. A theatrical association with Bill Gunn also landed him the lead role in the black-cast vampire film Ganja & Hess in 1973. After that, he wasn't seen onscreen for around a decade. Perhaps finally being recognized as a horror icon and star of a horror classic in the video era, Jones was in the middle of staging a film comeback when he appeared in this and a few other films before unexpectedly passing away in 1988 at the age of just 52. What makes his appearance in this film extra sad is that his talent still manages to shine through something that's otherwise incompetent. The only other known name in the credits is Ernest R. Dickerson, who shares cinematography credit with Larry Revene.

IMDb and many other websites currently list this movie as having been released in 1986. That's incorrect. Though parts of it may have been shot as early as 1986, it has a 1988 copyright date and was screened at the Cannes Film Market that same year. Instead of receiving a traditional home video release, Vampires was shortened considerably in length, re-edited (again!) and paired up with another shortened horror feature (which also supposedly contains additional footage from Negatives) to make up Fright House, which was released to home video in 1989. To my knowledge, Vampires was not widely available in its current 80-minute form until it finally popped up on DVD in May 2016 on the Film Chest Media Group label, which uses a strictly VHS quality print. Seeing how the cast list in the end credits lists characters who aren't even in this “full” version, clearly not all of the footage from the original shoot made it into this cut either.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Metempsyco (1963)

... aka: Die Bestie von Schlo├č Monte Christo (The Beast of Monte Cristo Castle)
... aka: Le manoir maudit (The Cursed Mansion)
... aka: Metempsycose
... aka: Tomb of Torture

Directed by:
"Anthony Kristye" (Antonio Boccaci)

Due to the international success of Hammer's takes on Dracula and Frankenstein as well as BLACK SUNDAY a few years later, there was a mini-Gothic horror revival in Italy in the 60s. This is one of the least-viewed of dozens of those... a fate pretty much deserved. Things begin when schoolgirls Esther (Emy Eco) and Cathy (“Terry Thompson”) decide to sneak into a crumbling old castle where the beautiful Countess Irene disappeared 20 years earlier. No one has seen her since. She was set to marry her fiance Rahman beforehand; a unfulfilled union rumored to have driven Rahman mad over the years. The girls run into the castle's stern, bitchy caretaker, Countess Elizabeth (“Elizabeth Queen” / Flora Carosello), who promptly tells them to get the hell out. Before that can happen they run into a bearded, deformed hunchback with a nervous laugh who makes short work of them in his torture chamber. Their nude bodies are later discovered discarded in a field.

Dr. Darnell (“Thony Maky” / Adriano Micantoni) arrives in town with his troubled daughter Anna (Annie Alberti), who happens to look exactly like the missing Countess Irene. Because she's been plagued by nightmares of the death of Irene, her father hopes actually staying in the castle will cure her. I'm not sure how that's supposed to work but seeing how the doctor later tells a concerned policeman to get “a good enema” he likely doesn't put much thought into such matters. Their first day there, Anna sees a ghost in the mirror and passes out. That leads to a nightmare involving a talking skeleton, a werewolf-like creature, a zombie and a walking suit of armor that chops a guy up with its sword and shoots her in the stomach with an arrow. The director (as “William Gray”) wears dark face paint, a turban and a continuously expressionless look playing the Indian Rahman, who's been obsessed with finding Irene's remains since her disappearance and warns the doctor to get out while the getting is good.

Reporter George Dickson (“Mark Marian” / Marco Mariani) is headed to the village to do a story on the two murdered girls when his car overheats. When he goes down to the lake for some water for his radiator he's just in time to get an eye full of Anna skinny dipping. Despite that awkward first meeting, the two are soon flirting and, in just their second scene together, are already discussing marriage! Elizabeth, the current owner of the old castle who loves it so much she lives elsewhere, shows up speaking of a hidden treasure in jewels somewhere on the grounds and tries to scare Anna (“They're going to kill you! They're going to KILL YOU!”) It's also revealed that Rahman was romantically involved with Elizabeth two decades earlier but cast her aside once Irene entered the picture. And Elizabeth is still bitter about it.

Meanwhile, Hugo the droopy-eyed hunchback is lurking in a hidden torture dungeon only accessible through one of two hidden passageways that even Rahmad hasn't discovered in twenty years time. Someone wearing a suit of armor and speaking in a deep female voice (gee, wonder who that could be?) encourages him to kill the intruders. Eventually, Anna is entranced, lured to the dungeon and is tied up while George and Rahman attempt to come to her rescue. It must have been a real blow to their egos that they then get schooled in how to defeat bad guys by the two guinea pigs who've been posing as rats throughout the film.

This has all the expected trappings of a good old Gothic horror film. There's a picturesque shooting location, a great castle, good art direction, passable period detail (it's set in 1910), decent black-and-white photography, atmospheric lighting, a dusty dungeon, secret passageways, effective makeups on a variety of ghouls and more. What really drags this down is its boring slog of a midsection where nothing of interest occurs, unless you count annoyingly neurotic characters spewing abominably bad dubbed dialogue as interesting. I actually thought I was going to rate this even lower but the last 20 minutes finally provide some much-needed tension and suspense.

Aside from the actress playing Elizabeth and the unknown playing the hunchback, the cast is dull and really make one look at what charismatic actors like Barbara Steele, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price brought to similar films with a new appreciation.

The distribution rights for this were acquired by Richard Gordon. He had it English dubbed and then released theatrically in the U.S. in 1966, where it often (but not always) played on a double bill with the West German / Yugoslavian film Cave of the Living Dead (1964). Image acquired both titles for DVD release in 2000.

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