The White Reindeer/Valkoinen peura (1952)

The White Reindeer (1952)‘Some graveyard soil…the balls of ten bull moose…’

A free-spirited young woman marries a reindeer herder in their small, Lapland village. Frustrated and lonely due to his long absences from home, she goes to the local wise man, hoping that he can concoct a love potion that will make her irresistible to all men. However, the ceremony also awakens her own supernatural powers…

Unique and striking horror fable from Finland that combines elements of shape-shifting, vampirism and witchcraft into a highly unusual brew. Shot on location in Lapland, it was the first Finnish film to be shown at the Cannes film festival, winning a Special Jury Prize and belatedly picked up a Golden Globe award in 1956 for Best Foreign Film.

Wilful young orphan Pirita (Mirjami Kuosmanen) marries reindeer herder Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä) after a short courtship and settles down to married life in their remote Lapland village. Unfortunately, his work with the animals means long episodes of separation, and it’s pretty clear she’s not satisfied with him anyway, exchanging flirtatious glances with another man while he’s still at home. When he leaves on another expedition, she’s straight off to the local wise man Tsalkku-Nilla (Arvo Lehesmaa), asking for a love potion that will attract other men like bees to a honey pot. Lehman is happy to oblige but, during the spell-casting, he realises that Kuosmanen is a witch herself.

The White Reindeer (1952)


Undaunted by this revelation, Kuosmanen sets out to follow the wise man’s instructions; which involves killing the first living thing that she meets on the way home. This turns out to be the white fawn that Nissilä gave her as a present when they were newlyweds. But, no matter, she takes it with her to the ‘stone god’, a pillar of black rock crowned with a reindeer’s skull and makes the sacrifice. The spell is successful, but it turns her into a supernatural creature. Seemingly unchanged, she returns to the village to resume her everyday life but now she can shape-shift at will into a white reindeer. The fabulous animal lures men from their campsites into the snowy wastes, where she changes form again, this time into a vampire to finish off her prey.

This is probably the only film based around the beliefs of the Sámi people, often referred to as Laplanders in the English-speaking world, although some find this term offensive. They live in the Northern regions of the Scandinavian countries and the Kola Penisula, which is a part of Russia. The film opens with a prologue; a young mother (played by Kuosmanen, again) being found in the snow with a young baby. One old belief is that a vampire is a soul that reincarnates in a newborn when the original body dies young or violently. Spiritual significance is also given to unusual land formations, known as sieidis, which are often used as places of sacrifice. This finds realisation in the film as the ‘stone god’ which is surrounded by antlers, sticking out of the snow like small, broken trees.

The White Reindeer (1952)

 

 

 

Director Blomberg and star Kuosmanen were married at the time and wrote the film together. Aarne Tarkas was initially slated to direct, but cinematographer Blomberg replaced him. Whatever the reason for that, it proved to be a wise decision. Blomberg was primarily a documentary filmmaker and his approach to the everyday scenes of life in the village ground the film’s more fantastical elements in concrete reality. It’s even possible that some shots were taken from his previous short ‘With The Reindeer’ (1947). His matter of fact approach also scores with the settings, allowing the camera to linger on long takes of the bleak, snowy wastes, beautiful yet barren, almost like timeless postcards from another world.

Much of the film is dialogue-free, and there was probably no facility to record synchronised sound in certain locations as some of the action is accompanied only by the haunting score of Einar Englund. Rather than be a drawback, however, this emphasises a dream-like quality, which sits in stark contrast to the more realistic scenes of village life. Blomberg also tips his hat to FW Murnau with a shot of Kuosmanen’s shadow moving across her cabin floor. Framed by window bars in the shape of a cross, it brings back memories of Max Schreck’s dark form ascending the stairs in the final scenes of ‘Nosferatu’ (1922).

The White Reindeer (1952)

 


The film does have a few flaws, though, some probably caused by practical difficulties. The most notable is that Kuosmanen’s reindeer lures her victims repeatedly to the same location. Also, some moments of action are delivered via a quick cut to their consequences, so we don’t see what happened, just the aftermath. Kuosmanen’s transformations to the reindeer are also rendered similarly, although the absence of SFX is probably a good thing. Blomberg’s film is going for the subtle, rather than the explicit. Run time is only 68 minutes, which makes for a refreshingly lean presentation but a little effort to create significant supporting characters would have been nice.

But the success of an enterprise like this falls mainly on the shoulders of the leading actor. After all, she is rarely off-screen. This is Pirita’s story, from first to last. Thankfully, Kuosmanen is terrific, delivering a powerhouse performance as she deteriorates from a joyful, exuberant woman into a haunted, almost fragile, wraith, but one still driven by her overwhelming physical appetites. The correlation of sex and vampirism is an old as Bram Stoker’s original novel, and it had lost none of its potency in the half-century in between, Kuosmanen expertly suggesting the frustrations and needs that drive her character and decision making.

A very unusual setting, combined with some stunning visuals and an excellent central performance make this one well worth seeking out.

Svengali (1954)

Svengali (1954)‘The English may not know much, but they know the difference between a singer and a tomcat.’

While living in Paris with two friends, a painter falls in love with an artist’s model who is sitting for a sculptor in the studio upstairs. Romance blooms but then she falls under the spell of a sinister pianist who uses his hypnotic powers to turn her into a great singer…

George du Maurier’s novel ‘Trilby’ first published in serial form in 1894 was such an international hit it was immediately adapted successfully for the stage. The Edison Motion Picture company filmed excerpts of one of these productions, arguably giving the world it’s first two horror films. Multiple silent versions were filmed, although all but one are now lost. This British version from 1954 was the second attempt at a sound adaptation and stacks up rather poorly against the better known 1931 American release with John Barrymore.

Handsome young artist Billie (Terence Morgan) is indulging his artistic visions in Paris, along with fellow Englishmen, Taffy (Paul Rogers) and The Laird (Derek Bond). Amongst their circle of friends is the swarthy musician, Svengali (Donald Wolfit) and violinist Gecko (David Kossoff). One day when the duo are giving an impromptu recital, in the hope of scrounging from the trio, the music draws in Trilby O’Farrell (Hildegard Knef) who is modelling upstairs for sculptor Durian (Hubert Gregg).

Svengali (1954)

‘Talk to the hand…’

It’s love at first sight on all sides as she charms the entire room and becomes not only a friend by also a helpmate, keeping house for the untidy bachelors. It’s not exactly a surprise when Morgan corners her at a raucous house party and proposes marriage but their tete-a-tete does not meet the approval of a jealous Wolfit. Morgan’s mother and clergyman uncle are not in favour of the match and convince Knef, to take a powder. Morgan chases after her but is seriously injured when hit by a carriage in the street. Back to England, his health continues to decline alarmingly, and his friends try to locate Knef to turn him around. Meanwhile, she has taken shelter with Wolfit, who is determined to make her into a concert singer using his strange mental powers.

This is a project with some serious flaws, caused by some of the creative decisions taken behind the scenes. Director Noel Langley was primarily a writer; he worked on ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939) among other major Hollywood features, and he has sole credit for the script here. However, he has chosen to attempt an adaptation of the entire novel, and, although this is usually commendable, Du Maurier’s work is not a good fit for this approach. The signature part of the tale; Svengali’s mesmeric influence on Trilby, only appears in the final quarter of the book and so the audience has to wait for the last 25 minutes of the film for it arrive. Before then, we have to put up with the limp romance between Knef and Morgan, and he is so miserable and childish, it’s hard to buy into her feelings for him.

Svengali (1954)

‘Frankly, Trilby, I don’t give a damn.’

And it doesn’t end there. Events in the novel take place over five years, but the film never demonstrates the passage of time. If you are unfamiliar with Du Maurier’s original story, then the results inevitably seem choppy and poorly edited. The film feels hurried as a result, and the audience is left feeling that parts of the story may be missing. The truth is that the connective tissue in the original novel is so inconsequential and dull that it’s understandable why Langley chose not to include any of it. These issues were neatly sidestepped by J Grubb Robertson, who scripted the 1931 version because he decided to focus heavily on the Svengali-Trilby relationship and give far less screen time to the rest of the book.

The other issue is with the casting. If Neff’s presence was a dealbreaker of some kind, then at least some effort could have been made to explain why she is the only Irish girl in Paris with a thick German accent! She was also 29 at the time of filming and is obviously too old for the role of the teenage Trilby. Similarly, the actors playing the trio of English artists are all in their mid-thirties. This would be fine if the parts were rewritten as age-appropriate. But they’re not. As it is, Morgan comes across as hopelessly immature for his age, acting like a sulky teenager while Knef tries to pull off the wide-eyed ingenue without much success. These seemingly odd decisions were quite probably down to the time when the film was made. In pre-code Hollywood, the notion of an intimate relationship between the middle-aged Svengali and a teenage Trilby (Barrymore and co-star Marion Marsh played their own ages in the 1931 film) may have been acceptable, but this was 1950s Britain. Almost certainly, it would have been regarded as utterly inappropriate.

Svengali (1954)

‘I’m sorry to mention it, but I think the two of you may have an alcohol problem…’

Fortunately, Wolfit’s presence as Svengali is eminently watchable. It’s an offbeat mixture of scenery-chewing and genuinely effective moments and injects the picture with some much-needed energy and life. A wildly successful but notoriously difficult and temperamental stage actor, he was often accused of surrounding himself with mediocre actors in his company’s theatrical productions so that his performance would always shine brightest. And there’s a sense of that here, although it’s doubtful he had such control over the casting here.

The presence of the frightfully English supporting cast (no French accents permitted!) does provide an opportunity to do a little star spotting. There are many familiar faces from British cinema and TV; the wonderful Michael Horden in a tiny bit as Morgan’s uncle, David Kossoff as Wolfit’s musical partner, comedian Alfie Bass and future leading man Michael Craig. There’s also a small bit from Harry Secombe, who would shortly form famous radio comedy troupe The Goons with Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Michael Bentine. And, hang on, isn’t that TV’s Sherlock Holmes, Jeremy Brett in an unbilled appearance at the student party? Yes, it was his first role, and he does get a couple of lines.

Svengali (1954)

‘Excuse me, but what did you make of the curious incident of the dog in the night-time?’

Knef began acting in German films at the end of the Second World War and was briefly courted by Hollywood, but only came to real prominence due to her nude scene in ‘The Sinner’ (1951) which drew angry protests from the Roman Catholic Church. Subsequently, there was more than one attempt to launch her screen career in America, but her nationality was always a hindrance. However, she enjoyed success on Broadway in ‘Silk Stockings’ and has a later career as a successful singer.

An awkward and clumsy adaptation that does have some good points but can’t possibly hope to overcome some of the poor creative decisions made behind the scenes.

The Fall of the House of Usher (1950)

The Fall of The House of Usher (1950)‘Prepare yourself for a great shock, as the sight you are about to see is unutterably evil…’

The last two members of the Usher family are dying of a strange, wasting disease. One of them reaches out to an old friend, but his arrival only triggers further horrors…

The existence of an independent, British horror made between the end of the Second World War and the sudden arrival of Hammer Studios in all their Eastmancolor glory in 1956, is rather unusual. Especially given that the genre itself was mostly represented on the big screen at the time by the twin threat of US comedians Abbott and Costello. And that’s not the only odd thing about this shoestring production mounted by the G.I.B. Studios of Hastings, East Sussex, England.

To be fair, it’s easy to see why Poe’s classic tale would appeal to filmmakers with limited resources at their disposal. After all, the story does not call for any great technical challenges beyond the destructive climax, and there are (usually) just three principal roles; Roderick Usher, his sister Madeline and the nameless narrator who doubles as the notional hero. However, there is one major problem. Poe’s work is long on atmosphere, but short on actual events. There are ways to overcome this, of course, but they’re unlikely to be at the fingertips of most movie producers. On the one hand, you can cast a magnetic leading man at the top of his game, like Vincent Price in Roger Corman’s 1960 version, or you could employ a visionary director who combines a triumphant visual style with amazing production design to create a silent masterpiece like Jean Epstein’s breath-taking version from 1928. But, unsurprisingly, that quality of talent wasn’t available in East Sussex in post-war Britain.

The Fall of The House of Usher (1950)

The temple in the woods had always been hard to find…

The other solution is to expand the story, of course; bring in new plot elements and characters to create more conflict and substance. That’s what screenwriters Dorothy Catt and Kenneth Thompson do here, but what they came up with was a long way removed from Poe. We open with a five-minute framing sequence set in a gentleman’s club. Being 1950, we’re talking about a group of old duffers sitting around in comfortable armchairs rather than exotic dancers and vodka shots.

The talk turns to horror stories and old one fogey confesses himself a big fan of Poe because ‘you’re never quite sure what happens in the end’ which seems to be a bit of an odd thing to say. He further shows himself rather unfamiliar with the title story when he says it concerns ‘the strange wanderings of the Lady Madeline in the woods at night’ but he reads it to the assembled company anyway. This framing device may have been a way to pad the scant 70-minute running time, of course, and it could also be here to provide the audience with a sense of separation from the horrors they are about to witness. After all, now they know that it’s only a story.

Roderick Usher (Kaye Tendeter) has become super-sensitive to sensory stimuli as his health declines, along with that of his sister Madeline (Gwen Watford). In desperation, he summons boyhood friend Jonathan (Irving Steen) by letter but finds himself blindsided by revelations delivered by family physician Dr Caldwell (Vernon Charles). It turns out that their mysterious illness is the result of a curse laid by a man murdered by their father many years before. This deed took place in a secret temple out in the woods to the south of the estate. It’s only about a five-minute walk from the house, but no-one, apart from the Doctor, seems to know anything about it. As well as it’s apparent ‘cloaking’ ability, it also comes complete with its’ own torture chamber! Why I couldn’t tell you. Without entering any further into spoiler territory, subsequent revelations are extremely silly, and more likely to provoke laughter rather than chills. Apparently, the Doctor’s known about all this for years and years, and never mentioned it to Roderick before, despite the fact that he and his sister are about to turn 30, which means they will die from the curse. Not much of a family friend, if you ask me.

The Fall of The House of Usher (1950)

The Lady Madeline always fancied a nightcap…

There are significant problems with pacing and structure too. Despite being at the house for several days, Steen disappears for long stretches of the narrative, never meets Watford before her apparent death, and never interacts meaningfully with Charles. Understandable if Watford was tucked up in bed because of illness (as in the original story) but she seems fighting fit rather than anything else. There’s also a heavy emphasis on her night-time drink, which suggests she is being slowly poisoned, but this is never followed up in any way.

The ending is also hopelessly muddled; is Watford’s resurrection supernatural, or was she buried alive? ls it the result of the family curse, or Tendeter’s guilty conscience at work? ls he mad, or just a terrible shot with a pistol? The film never tells us, instead cutting back to the gentleman’s club for the wrap-up, where its occupants speculate about the climax. And that’s when suspicion begins to dawn…especially given the earlier assertion that with Poe ‘you’re never quite sure what happens in the end’. ls this actually an unfinished film with the framing device added at a later date, both to bring it up to feature length and to try and tie together the mismatched pieces of the story? It’s definitely a possibility.

lvan Barnett did double duty as director and photographer here, and his shot-choice is sometimes quite good. He also fashions a fine, if brief, sequence where we see the movement of a clock pendulum cut together with shots of a nail being hammered into a coffin lid. He only ever made one more film; the highly obscure ‘Robbery With Violence’ (1958). Of the cast, the 23-year-old Watford (billed as ’Gwendoline’) went onto great success on the stage and on British television, particularly for the BBC. In complete contrast, none of the other players have any other acting credits at all! Either in film or television. Unfortunately, this is quite understandable, with principals Tendeter and Charles often being particularly wooden with their line delivery. Also, everyone’s accent is terribly, terribly British, which only heightens the phoney, rather amateurish nature of the proceedings.

And there’s one more problem. In Poe’s original story, the house itself is a character; a malevolent, creeping influence which provokes an ‘insufferable gloom’ with its ‘bleak walls’ and ‘vacant eye-like windows.’ The interior décor includes ‘the sombre tapestries of the walls, the ebon blackness of the floors, and the phantasmagoric armorial trophies which rattled as I strode…’ Not surprisingly, G.l.B. Films of Hastings, East Sussex had nothing like that available, and the Usher residence shown here is little more than a commonplace English manor house, complete with narrow corridors, low ceilings and (mostly) small rooms. Obviously, this was unavoidable, but it certainly doesn’t help.

A weak adaptation then; of more interest for its existence in the first place, than for anything that the filmmakers were able to realise. On the other hand, Poe completists should certainly check it out.

The Return of Dracula/The Fantastic Disappearing Man (1958)

The Return of Dracula (1958)‘The flesh is only an illusion. The heart beats only when it is drunk with blood.’

Fleeing from vampire hunters, Count Dracula crosses the ocean to the United States, taking the identity of an exiled painter. ingratiating himself with the murdered man’s relatives, he begins planning a new reign of terror, but his pursuers are not far behind…

There’s little doubt that this modest b-picture from United Artists was rushed into theatres after Britain’s Hammer Studios hit box office gold with their new version of ‘Dracula’ (1958) a few months earlier. After all, this was the first time an American studio had revisited the character since John Carradine turned to dust in ‘House of Dracula’ (1945), the last of Universal’s Classic Monster Cycle. If you ignore the time he tangled with Abbott and Costello, of course!

Here the Count turns up in the person of Prague-born actor Francis Lederer, who vanishes from his cemetery crib somewhere in Europe just before our wannabe Van Helsing (John Wengraf) turns up with his stake, a cross and the forces of law and order. A quick spot of ‘light lunch’ on the train, and our toothsome hero is appearing out of thin air at a train station in small town USA. He’s met by Greta Granstedt and her family, who believe him to be her cousin Bellac Gordal. They haven’t seen him in many years (which is handy) and he’s also had the foresight not to label any of his luggage as belonging to ‘Count Alucard’ so his deception is a complete success!

The Return of Dracula (1958)

‘This will stop you biting your nails…’

What follows is a predictable series of developments from screenwriter Pat Fielder. Lederer shows more than a fatherly interest in daughter of the house Norma Eberhardt while blind brunette Virginia Vincent serves him as a quick appetiser. The complacent Granstedt accepts Lederer’s reclusive behaviour with indulgent smiles, while baking apple pie in her kitchen and gently scolding irritating young brat Jimmy Baird.

Of course Eberhardt gets her head turned by the tall, dark stranger and becomes increasingly frustrated with insensitive boyfriend Ray Stricklyn, who drives an open top jalopy and probably plays on the high school football team. Yes, all the clichés of 1950s American life are here but it’s noticeable how little they affect the story, which could just as easily be taking place in Victorian London or 19th Century Europe. Still, to the best of my knowledge, it’s the first time the Vampire King appeared in the modern day and it does avoid any clumsy attempts to ‘update’ the legend, such as demonstrated in Hammer’s unfortunate ‘Dracula A.D.1972’ (1972). The one concession the film does makes to its contemporary setting is to have two high school teenagers as the hero and heroine, but this sign of the genre’s future is not as groundbreaking as it might have been. Eberhardt was 29 at the time of shooting and Stricklyn was 30!

What we get instead is a fairly unambitious, minor project but not one without points of interest and some things to enjoy. For a start, there are the performances. Lederer is a very persuasive Count, oozing an oily, old world charm that softens the stateliness of Lugosi’s portrayal and the removed, noble bearing of Lee. Lederer is a vampire who has moved with the times, learnt how to blend in and hide in plain sight. Perhaps he’s a little too refined to be an impoverished artist, but his conduct and behaviour attract little suspicion at first. He’s likeable, if a little remote. Although only boasting a brief movie career, Eberhardt holds her own in their scenes together, which is crucial to maintain audience investment in her fate. The other players, particularly the suave Wengraf, also provide solid support.

The film’s other main virtue is the Hollywood hills. Although it seems unlikely as a venue for such a tale, the bleak landscapes and abandoned mine workings prove to be an unusual and engaging backdrop. Director Paul Landres also exhibits some nifty camera moves, and conjures a notable scene where we’re not sure if Eberhardt is dreaming of Dracula or getting bitten (and I’m still not entirely sure!) The SFX are small scale but efficient and it’s nice to see a vampire making a kill in the form of a large white dog, instead of as a plastic bat on a wobbly string. However, some of the ‘day for night’ shooting is a little unconvincing and we do briefly catch a glimpse of Lederer’s shadow on the ground.

The Return of Dracula (1958)

Smoking in bed was a dangerous habit…

The main flaw is the lack of originality and there are also some moments that strain credibility. Wengraf is an agent of the ‘European Police Authority’ (whatever that is!) and one flash of his badge seems to be sufficient to get everyone in authority believing in the undead almost without question.

Additionally, the family crypt containing Lederer’s new bride is surprisingly spacious and, by the looks of it, has a very efficient cleaning crew. Finally, Eberhardt finds all of Lederer’s canvases are blank when he’s supposed to have been out painting all day. Apart from one that shows her lying in her coffin! It doesn’t make any real sense and it’s a pretty cheap shot, but I guess it looked good in the trailer.

Overall this is only a rather modest and mildly diverting picture, but it is anchored by an excellent central performance and a decent supporting cast.

Ghost Cat Mansion/Black Cat Mansion/Mansion of the Ghost Cat/Borei Kaibyo Yashiki (1958)

Ghost Cat Mansion (1958)‘They say crows gather where there is death.’

A young doctor takes his wife to live in the country in an effort to improve her health. The house her brother finds for them is large and has its own grounds, but has been unoccupied for several years. Local rumour has it that the place is haunted…

Curious and flawed Japanese horror from prolific director Nabuo Nakagawa. He was specialising in supernatural terrors at this point in his career, having already delivered the well-received ‘The Ghost of Kasane’ (1957) and following this up with ‘The Ghost of Yotsuua’ (1959) and the disappointing ‘Onna Kyuketsuki/The Woman Vampire’ (1959).

The film starts promisingly enough with surreal POV tracking shots of an empty hospital at night. We hear hollow footsteps echoing around the corridors as someone navigates by the light of an electric torch. Then we see two silent nurses pass by wheeling what looks like a dead body on a gurney. It’s a creepy opening and very effective. Then we focus on Dr Kuzumi (Toshio Hosokawa) working late in his darkened lab and reminiscing about his stay in the country with his tubercular wife. What follows is a quarter of an hour flashback, with the young couple arriving at the house in question and wife Yuriko Ejima being creeped out from the get-go. Hosokawa dismisses her visions of a strange, old woman as mere hallucinations, but it’s not long before she’s subjected to murderous attacks by this vengeful spirit…

So far, so good, if not particularly original. What is unusual is that the film up to this point has been presented in ‘blue and white’! It’s an unusual colour palette and not a choice that helps to conjure the necessary atmosphere. Around the twenty minute mark, Hosokawa starts to believe his wife and begins looking into the history of the house. The local priest is only happy to fill in our hero on the details, and the film goes into colour as he relates the tale of a murderous shogun (Takashi Wada) and a young samurai (Ryûzaburô Nakamura). Only this isn’t a flashback. Apart from a short coda to wrap things up, it’s the rest of the movie!

Ghost Cat Mansion (1958)

Miaow!

There are undeniably some stylish moments in what follows. Nakagawa’s camera often seems to be gliding around the set and there’s a restraint in some of the performances that evokes the formal, almost ritualised, behaviour of a noble society in a previous age. But then there’s Wada, who turns out to be the kind of villain who huffs, puffs and cackles his way through everything, even molesting Nakamura’s blind mother when she comes calling to find out why he’s vanished. There’s also the manifestation of the ghost cat, which is an idea with some potential, but ruined by the execution (watch out for those ears!)

Hosokawa had a part in big US Pearl Harbor re-enactment ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ (1970), and appeared as one of the many talking suits in ‘Nippon Chinbotsu/Submersion of Japan/Japan Sinks!’ (1973). Both Wada and Nakamuira worked with Nakagawa on his other supernatural films, but this seems to have been Ejimi’s only time in front of the camera.

There is a suspicion, of course, that this was in fact an unfinished film, and that Nakagawa shot the framing story at a later date to bring it up to feature length. There aren’t any obvious signs of a low-budget, but all the action of the film’s main story does take place on what looks very much like a single set.

Not a film without merit but the pantomime nature of the villain and the story structure don’t do it any favours. Certainly worth watching if you’re interested in vintage Japanese horror but keep your expectations in check.

Onna Kyùketsuki/The Woman Vampire/The Lady Vampire (1959)

Onna Kyùketsuki (1959)‘What’s this about castles and monsters?’

A young reporter is late for his fiancée’s birthday party when his cab seemingly hits a woman in the road, but there is no trace of her body afterwards. Later, the party is crashed by the long-lost wife of his prospective father-in-law. She disappeared 20 years earlier, but doesn’t look a day older than when she vanished…

The Far East isn’t exactly famous for its vampire mythology. Cinematic excursions have been few and far between; with the cute hopping undead in Hong Kong comedy horrors like ‘Mr. Vampire’ (1985) and Japan’s alien bloodsucker ‘Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell’ (1968). But that nation had already given us a touch of the Nosferatu with this production starring Shigeru Amachi as a wannabe Count Dracula. Typically, it doesn’t stray too far from the Bram Stoker template with our undead hero twirling a mean cape and holing up in his own castle in the mountains. And that verb is pretty accurate as the mighty edifice is completely underground!  This is convenient both for his repair and maintenance bills, and for the movie’s budget.

So what’s it all about then? Well, early on, we find out that Amachi kidnapped Yòko Mihara two decades before by drugging her with the cunning combination of a smelly flower and his landscape painting skills. lt’s all because she’s descended from his old squeeze, the Princess Katsu, who apparently came to grief at the hands of some rampaging hordes, whose very brief appearance obviously comes courtesy of another movie. This historical flashback mostly takes place on a darkened set dressed with a few odd items from the prop department. So when Mihara escapes, he’ll stop at a nothing to get her back.

Apart from the lack of budget (which isn’t too much of a problem at first), it’s the film’s somewhat nonsensical mythology that seems to be its main failing. Amachi is petrified of moonlight (rather than the sun!) but, instead of killing him, it triggers his transformation into a demented bloodsucker! Kind of like a werewolf really. But extended exposure to lunar rays turns him into an old man sporting some kind of white afro frightwig! Additionally, his reflection appears in mirrors, and he keeps his ex-wives as statues, each frozen in place by a gold crucifix, which doesn’t bother him at all! It’s a little confusing, to say the least.

Onna Kyùketsuki (1959)

🎵I’ve got chills down multiplyin’ and I’m losing control…’🎶

Certain aspects of the production are quite professional. Takoshi Wada makes for a likeable hero, Akira Nakamura does a good job as the old man who finds his young wife mysteriously restored to him, and Amachi is decent as the villain. However, the presence of his ‘familiars’ is probably a mistake; his dwarf assistant being so incompetent that he can’t even draw a pair of curtains properly. But there’s some good shot composition and camera movement, and proceedings aren’t burdened with any cheesy SFX.

The problems really come home to roost in the film’s concluding scenes. There’s been an early warning with an episode in a café, where the action is ineptly staged, and a split-second nip from Amachi’s fangs is enough to deliver instant death! But worse is to come. At the climax, we find out that he’s the worst movie swordsman of all time, as he and Wada lurch drunkenly around the set, trying desperately not to hurt each other. The paved floor moves beneath their feet in the way that stones don’t normally tend to do, and we can hear the echo of their footfalls on what sound suspiciously like a wooden stage. The resolution comes courtesy of an accident to a minor character, who only shows up in the film for the last 15 minutes! The whole sequence looks like nothing so much as an amateur stage production.

Director Nobuo Nakagawa was actually a veteran film director with a career in the Japanese industry stretching back over a quarter of a century to the early 1930s. He’d recently delivered a couple of well-regarded supernatural pictures, ‘The Ghost of Yotsuya’ (1959) and ‘The Ghost of Kasane’ (1957) both of which featured several of the same cast members appearing here. But he was extremely prolific, turning out an average of four pictures a year at this point, so perhaps it’s no great surprise that the quality of the projects was a little variable.

A picture that never really comes to life, thanks to a muddled screenplay, financial constraints and a desperately shoddy finish.

Voodoo Island (1957)

Voodoo Island (1957)‘You’ve no room left inside you to be a woman, think like a woman, feel like one.’

A millionaire is planning to build a hotel on a South Pacific Island, but the initial survey party meet a mysterious fate. Only one member returns, and he appears to be a zombie.

Pretty dismal B-picture featuring the master of menace himself, the legendary Boris Karloff. Here the great man is Professor Knight, a famous academic and debunker of myths and legends, who heads out to the island to put an end to all this voodoo nonsense. Along for the ride are his mousy assistant Beverly Tyler, company man Murvyn Vye, cynical blonde Jean Engstrom, nervy local businessman Elisha Cook Jr and bitter (but handsome) boat captain Rhodes Reason.

The film’s first act isn’t actually too bad, with Karloff giving his expert a touch more arrogance than was usual in his characterisations, and the production obviously competent and professional in the hands of experienced director Reginald Le Borg. The first warning signs come when it becomes obvious that the film’s in no hurry to get us to the island, in fact it’s half way through before the expedition sets foot there. However, some plane trouble does serve to rope in a pre-stardom Adam West, who plays a weather station radio operator in his first ever film role.

By the time we (eventually) reach the island, the relationship dynamics of the principals are all fixed, and they are as tiresomely formulaic as you might expect. ln a less than riveting subplot, we already know that the nerdy Tyler is going to blossom into a major babe by the fade out, and will be resting comfortably in the arms of reformed drunk Reason who will happily quit the bottle to make for the usual Hollywood ending.

Voodoo Island (1957)

It was the morning after the night before for the production team behind ‘Voodoo Island.’

Apart from that, pretty much all that happens is a few half-hearted encounters with the deadly local flora and fauna. These mostly comprise of the female members of the cast writhing about with rubber branches and screaming at plastic crab things. The monster SFX are not impressive. lt’s also nice to see the women doing the cooking and complaining about the bathroom facilities, while the men go off on heroic quests like getting the supplies from the boat.

There’s also a nagging suspicion that the production ran out of money before the end of filming. There is simply no climax at all, and with the film running about 75 minutes, it may be that the intended finale was never filmed. Having said all that, Le Borg was actually a capable director who had made some decent ‘B’ thrillers back in the day, including entries in the ‘lnner Sanctum’ series like ‘Weird Woman’ (1944), as well as some of Lon Chaney Jr’s academic ruminations on Egyptian mythology in ‘The Mummy’s Ghost’ (1944). But without the backing of a major studio, there’s little he can do to paper over the cracks of the half-baked story. Scriptwriter Richard Vaughan also gave the world the dire ‘Frankenstein 1970’ (1958), with Karloff again, but mostly worked on TV, writing episodes of ‘Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’, ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’, ‘Cannon’, and several others.

Actually, on closer inspection, proceedings don’t make a whole lot of sense either, with an isolated tribe on the island seemingly able to affect matters on the mainland despite being completely cut off from the world. It’s the power of voodoo I suppose, which is quite remarkable since the practice never got anywhere near the vicinity of the South Pacific!

Karloff gives a typically authoritative performance here, but really this project is simply not worth his time. Checking his films of the period, it does appear that he made decisions based on exotic filming locations, rather than the material involved, with this one being mostly filmed on location in Hawaii. Perhaps he simply enjoyed travelling! Reason top-lined Japanese Kaiju classic ‘King Kong Escapes’ (1967) and appeared on an episode of the original series of ‘Star Trek’ as well as plenty of other TV properties.

But please spare a thought for actor Glenn Dixon who plays the catatonic survivor of the first expedition. Almost his entire part consists of staring wide-eyed while remaining motionless. When he does get to do something it mostly involves standing up out of a chair, walking a few steps and then falling flat on his face. Still, it was a living I suppose.

A very minor entry in the Karloff catalogue.

Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957)

Daughter of Dr Jekyll (1957)‘We’re not dealing with a man. We’re not dealing with anything human.’

A young couple visit her guardian to celebrate her coming of age, but she has a surprise waiting. She’s actually a rich heiress, but she’s also the child of the late Henry Jekyll, who locals still fear prowls under the full moon as a werewolf…

Dreary, low budget programmer with some quality talent but dismal production values and a terrible script with a mystery so transparent that it’s obvious after ten minutes exactly how the story will develop. Writer-producer Jack Pollexfen must bear the lion’s share of the blame, especially as he was just rehashing ‘The Son of Dr Jekyll’ (1951) which he’d written half a dozen years earlier!

Our leads are John Agar and Gloria Talbott, a couple with extensive histories in these kinds of shenanigans. Agar was the star of ‘Tarantula’ (1955), ‘The Mole People’ (1956) and ‘so bad it’s good’ cult classic ‘The Brain From Planet Arous’ (1957). He went onto deal with the ‘Attack of the Puppet People’ (1958), ‘Invisible Invaders’ (1959) and ‘Zontar, The Thing From Venus’ (1966) among others. He was also Shirley Temple’s first husband. Talbott began her career with bits on TV before graduating to major supporting roles in ‘We’re No Angels’ (1952) starring Humphrey Bogart and ‘All That Heaven Allows’ (1955) with Rock Hudson. But her movie career never took off and she was soon appearing in pictures like ‘The Cyclops’ (1956) (which was released on a double bill with this), ‘I Married A Monster From Outer Space’ (1958) and ‘The Leech Woman’ (1960).

Waiting at the old homestead (seen from the outside it’s a bad model surrounded by twigs) is the usual crew; a flighty maid, the ‘can do’ housekeeper and the sinister handyman. Master of the house is Arthur Shields, an Irish character actor more famous for appearances in John Ford films, specifically ‘How Green Was My Valley’ (1941) and ‘The Quiet Man’ (1952). He was probably more often that not mistaken for his brother Barry Fitzgerald, who won an Oscar for ‘Going My Way’ (1944). He fills in our golden couple on the grisly history of the place, and shows them Jerkyll’s hidden laboratory (a table with some test tubes), which is hidden behind a bookcase that moves when you look inside the helmet of a suit of armour. It appears that the good Doctor was actually a werewolf who can only be killed by a stake through the heart and having his head cut off! A strange mixture of monster mythologies to be sure!

Daughter of Dr Jekyll (1957)

‘Darling, I told you not to wear that jacket…’

The director was Edgar G Ulmer, who has since taken on cult status as a ‘low-budget auteur’ on the back of such interesting projects as ‘Bluebeard’ (1944), ‘Detour’ (1945) and Karloff-Lugosi classic ‘The Black Cat’ (1934), which was his only major studio film.

But there’s little even the most talented director could have done with this hodgepodge of clichés. For a start there’s a lot of talk of ‘trouble in the village’ but we never see that location and the population is almost solely represented by the handyman and a torch-bearing mob, who look suspiciously like they’ve been spliced in from another movie.

There’s also one of the most unconvincing screen murders ever, and Agar wearing a striped jacket that makes him look like he’s changed into his pyjamas or is about to welcome punters to his fairground sideshow. It’s worse for Talbott, who gets a horrible ‘instant victim’ role which sees her disintegrate into an extended bout of hysteria that lasts for most of the film.

Agar once said: ‘Most of my movies didn’t get released – they escaped.’ Perhaps this one would have better remained behind bars!

The Headless Ghost (1959)

The Headless Ghost (1959)‘We tried very hard but we kept running into impossible hurdles.’

Three teenage students join an international guided tour to a 14th Century castle in England. Scornful of the owner’s insistence on the existence of family ghosts, the trio stay behind after everyone else has left, intent on proving him wrong. Unfortunately, they get more than they bargained for…

Inconsequential spook comedy collaboration between Anglo-Amalgamated Pictures from the UK and American International Pictures. The latter, through producers James H Nicholson and Samuel Z Arkoff and director Roger Corman, had virtually invented the teen movie, flooding the drive-in circuit with an endless succession of cheap and cheerful pictures from the mid-1950s onwards. The story of this one was co-credited to producer Herman Cohen, who had achieved a certain notoriety as the main man behind kitsch classics ‘I Was A Teenage Werewolf’ (1957) and ‘I Was A Teenage Frankenstein’ (1958).

Apart from the project’s genesis, and some probable financial backing, it’s over to England for the actual production of the film. Even our two notional American leads are actually British, and straight man David Rose can do little to hide to it. Comedy relief Richard Lyon is actually the lead here, and does considerably better with the American accent. Probably because his parents were U.S. film stars Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels, who had settled in Blighty after the war. The whole family appeared as ‘themselves’ on hit radio show ‘Life with the Lyons’ which ran for six years and was also turned into a television sitcom and two films.

The Headless Ghost (1959)

At least he wasn’t going to be the one with the headache in the morning…

Unfortunately, Lyon gets little chance to show off his comedy chops in this inane mix of comfortable frights and predictable, half-baked gags. The script provides his character with a lightweight version of the cowardly schtick familiar to anyone who’s sat through an Abbott and Costello or Martin and Lewis picture, although the humour is noticeably less physical.

The plot machinations revolve around the headless ghost of one of the family’s ancestors who needs the parts of his body joined together to put all the castle’s spooks to rest. Among these rather substantial phantoms (they cast shadows!) is a young Clive Revill who, two decades later, appeared as Darth Vader’s boss in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980). The story is never less than totally predictable and, despite running only an hour, the film often feels slow and padded. The spooks hold a medieval banquet, which seems to be solely an excuse to waste time and showcase a dance by Josephine Baker, who later went onto be a star on the London stage.

Perhaps the biggest mystery of the entire project revolves around our female lead, played by Liliane Sottane. She portrays blonde Danish student, and Rose’s nominal love interest, Ingrid. There’s zero biographical information on the actress, but that sounds very much like a thick French accent rather than one from Scandinavia! it begs the obvious question: if they couldn’t find an actress from the right country, why didn’t the filmmakers simply tweak the script and make the character French? Perhaps a deal had already been agreed with a Danish distributor on the understanding that a ‘home’ audience would have a point of identification with the film? if so, I can’t help thinking they would have been less than impressed with Sottane’s voice work!

It’s all makes for a fairly harmless experience, of course, but there’s little here to keep an audience engaged on any level.

The Maze (1953)

The_Maze_(1953)‘It’s a piece of seaweed, I’m sure of it…’

A bridegroom is called away from his engagement party on the French Rivera to return to his ancestral castle in Scotland. A few weeks later, he breaks off his engagement with a letter, but his bride-to-be isn’t the sort of girl to give up without a fight…

Bizarre oddity which somewhat defies categorisation but could best loosely be described as ‘gothic horror.’ Our clean-cut lead is Richard Carlson, a man fondly remembered for a string of science-fiction pictures from the early 1950s: ‘It Came From Outer Space’ (1953), ‘The Magnetic Monster’ (1953), ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ (1954) and  the far more fact-based ‘Riders to the Stars’ (1954), which he also directed. Support comes from Veronica Hurst, Katherine Emery, and the luminous Hilary Brooke, who is completely wasted in an insignificant supporting role. Probably the most notable member of the cast is Michael Pate, who plays creepy manservant Williams. His career including an excellent turn as the undead gunslinger in ‘Curse of the Undead’ (1959) and featured roles in Danny Kaye’s ‘The Court Jester’ (1955) and opposite Marlon Brando, James Mason and John Gielgud in ‘Julius Caesar’ (1953)!

But the main name to conjure with here is director William Cameron Menzies. To put it simply, he invented Production Design as a role in filmmaking, and received the first ever Academy Award for Art Direction. His film career lasted over 40 years until his death in 1957. As a director he was far less successful, however, with commentators criticising films like ‘H G Wells’ Things to Come’ (1936) as stilted and dry, and although the colourful ‘Invaders From Mars’ (1953) looks amazing, it certainly doesn’t make a lot of sense!

So how does ‘The Maze’ (1953) hold up today? Well, as would be expected, it looks great. The castle interiors are rendered in a striking contrast of light and shadow, and doorways are a dozen feet high, dwarfing some members of the cast. This provides plenty of atmosphere, which Menzies exploits to the full. As the film was originally shot in 3-D, viewing it ‘flat’ probably robs it of some of the director’s more interesting shot compositions, and he did resist the temptation to simply fling things at the audience with the exception of a rather phoney looking bat. Obvious budgetary constraints mean we don’t see a lot of the exterior of the crumbling old pile though, and the maze itself features only fairly briefly, and looks like a very small stage set.

Unfortunately, where the film really falls down is the script. It’s very much a ‘one idea’ story and, although it’s certainly original, it’s also ridiculous and lacks credibility. Proceedings are relentlessly talky and there is almost no action until the final ten minutes.

The_Maze_(1953)

‘Watson, I would draw your attention to the curious incident of the frog in the night time…’

The cast do try their damnedest though, especially Hurst as the puzzled heroine and Emery as her worried aunt. They get a lot of screen time and it’s good to see two strong women in a film of this vintage. Carlson fares less well, however, being given almost nothing to work with at all. He gets to be charming in the light, romantic opening and then just brood for the rest of the film with some rather unconvincing grey streaks in his hair.

This is a B-movie curiosity now, one of those films that it’s most remarkable for the fact that it actually got made more than anything else. There’s little excitement, tension or plot development, but it’s worth sticking around for the climactic scenes.

Although they are likely to bring hoots of derision and laughter from a modern audience.