The Nights of Prague/Prazske noci/Prague Nights (1969)

‘And he has a lion in his emblem, the hairless rabbit!’

A lonely businessman in Prague meets a mysterious woman who seems to know all about him. She takes him to a cemetery, where he tries to seduce her, but she’s more interested in telling him three bizarre, supernatural stories…

An offbeat Czechoslovakian anthology film, which cheerfully mixes its horrors with romance, some comedy and even a faint whiff of science fiction. Director Milos Makovec delivers the framing story and the third tale, with the other two are helmed by Jirí Brdecka and Evald Schorm respectively.

Middle-aged executive Willy Fabricius (Milos Kopecký) arrives in Prague on the eve of closing a big business deal. However, rather than spend the evening with his prospective new partners, he begs off, claiming he needs time to study the contract on offer. In truth, he’s after some fun instead. After unsuccessful attempts to interest the pretty hotel receptionist and the female motorist who gives him a lift into town, he meets Zuzana (Milena Dvorská). She comes with a vintage car and chauffeur Václav (Jirí Hrzán) but, unfortunately for Kopecký, their first stop is not the kind of boneyard he had in mind. Instead, it’s a nearby cemetery, and all Dvorská wants to do is tell him bedtime stories.

The first tale revisits Prague’s most famous legend: the Golem. In this version, the clay statue brought to life by Rabbi Jehudi Löw (Josef Bláha) has already completed its mission and lies inert on the temple floor. However, Emperor Rudolf II (Martin Ruzek) wants to use the creature for his own purposes. Bláha explains that it cannot be revived, but the ruler has anticipated his refusal and called in the ambitious Rabbi Neftali Ben Chaim (Jan Klusák) to do the job. During preparations for the rites, the young pretender becomes inflamed with desire for a mute servant girl (Lucie Novotná). Determined to impress her, he uses a spell to grow his Golem to giant size.

The second story focuses on Countess (Teresa Tuszynska), who has made manipulating men her lifetime’s work. She’s driven them to suicide and ruin, even provoking a pair of twins to kill each other over her. Her latest plaything is the Knight Saint de Clair (Josef Abrhám), who invites her to a masked ball. She’s happy to accept as long as he can furnish a pair of party slippers made from loaves of bread. He cannot procure the unusual footwear, and she breaks with him, prompting his offscreen rendezvous with a pistol. On the evening of the ball, a Shoemaker (Josef Somr) suddenly arrives to fulfil her order. She’s delighted and sets out in a coach with a masked man she assumes is Abrhám. Of course, it’s Somr instead, and he takes her to his gothic mansion, which is staffed by mechanical servants and covered with cobwebs.

Rounding out the trio of stories is the oft-told tale of the bloody tavern. Yes, this traveller’s rest is likely to be your last, courtesy of landlady Yvetta Simonová and the elderly Attendant Prech (Václav Kotva). There’s a warm welcome waiting, accompanied by a quick dose of poison and an exit through a trapdoor to a cellar filled with corpses. At least Simonová doesn’t bother her guests with a bill, lifting their jewellery, purse and silver buttons instead. However, her perfect scheme begins to unravel when she starts to fall in love with her latest victim. When this story concludes, we go back to our modern-day Scheherazade and her hapless audience of one for a final twist in the tale.

There’s a lot to admire in this unusual collection of tales, with Brdecka’s Golem story and the activities of Schorm’s Countess being particularly noteworthy and engaging. The first of these edges the honours, with the smartest script and some striking production design. Brdecka’s economic direction also ensures that not a second of screentime is wasted, and the cast are on point throughout. Although the practical effects are crude and unconvincing, they are highly imaginative and memorable for all the right reasons.

Schorm’s segment runs it a close second, principally due to a tour de force performance by Tuszynska. Her Countess is deliciously corrupt; a sexy, blonde kitten who holds court naked in her bubble bath, fondling Chambermaid Mici (Jana Brezková) and sending men to their doom with uncontrollable glee. Her request for slippers made from bread seems an innocent piece of fun at first until a later scene highlights the plight of the local peasant population. Let them eat cake, indeed! The scenes in Somr’s mansion pile on the atmosphere impressively, and there’s even a homage to the Powell & Pressburger classic ‘The Red Shoes’ (1948). The only fault lies in its length; the final scenes are in danger of becoming too repetitious.

The remaining sections of the film fail to scale these heights. Humour has been present throughout the first hour of the film, but director Makovec opts for far broader comedy in both the tavern segment and the wrap up of the framing story. These create a serious clash of tone. The handling of the former is particularly jarring as it’s shot without dialogue or synchronised sound. Instead, the plot is conveyed courtesy of offscreen singers, who seem to have wandered onto the film’s soundtrack from an operetta taking place next door! As of in itself, it’s a creative idea, and the sequence is entertaining; it just doesn’t fit well with what the audience has been watching. Similarly, subtlety goes out the window, along with the cast, when the fate of amorous businessman Kopecký is revealed. It’s played for big laughs and is accompanied by some (intentionally?) terrible SFX.

Ultimately, the theme that ties these stories together is man’s inability to resist a beautiful woman. Even when the female concerned is not actively deadly, she’s still a trap that leads to man’s ultimate destruction. The apple offered by Eve is still a temptation that cannot be resisted. Not an original notion, of course, but one that’s examined here in a pleasing variety of ways and with genuine creativity and imagination. There are some lovely quiet touches too; it rains indoors when the Golem is brought to life, and its feet break the stone slabs of the floor when its walks, Tuszynska gives a quick shrug of indifference when she finds the silver snuff box of an old lover in her bed, and Somr takes a peek at the cogs and wheels inside the head of one of his mechanical servants by lifting the top of its head like the lid of a coffee pot.

Of the three directors, Makovec has most feature films to his name, although he was not prolific, with just 15 credits in 25 years. Although this may not seem a bad strike rate by modern standards, many of his contemporaries in Western Europe ran up far higher totals in comparison. Brdecka often worked as a writer on his projects and was also a prolific director of short films, as was Schorm, making them the perfect collaborators on an anthology. Little of their work is known outside Eastern Europe. Still, Brdecka was the principal script collaborator on writer-director Oldrich Lipský’s bizarre Jules Verne adaptation ‘The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians/Tajemství hradu v Karpatech’ (1981).

Overall, an uneven effort thanks to its late swerve into overstated comedy. Still, there’s a great deal to admire and enjoy in this unusual production.

The Whip and The Body/La Frusta e il Corpo (1963)

The Whip and The Body (1963)‘Someone will pay for this father, be it man or ghost! I promise you! ‘

A young nobleman is about to be married, but the wedding is under threat when his disgraced older brother returns home. The bride is one of his ex-lovers, and it’s not long before the two resume their relationship and murder is just around the corner…

Darkly Gothic thriller from Italian director Mario Bava, who mixes Sado-masochism and the supernatural with his customary stunning visuals and production design. A capable cast led by horror legend Christopher Lee prowl cobwebbed corridors, secret passages and a windswept beach to tell a twisted tale of family dysfunction, kinky sex and violent death.

Kurt Menliffe (Lee) returns to the family castle after many years away, persona non grata after violating the daughter of housekeeper Katia (Evelyn Stewart). The girl committed suicide after the act, and Stewart has retained the knife she used to do the deed; the first sign that this is perhaps not a particularly well-adjusted household. Patriarch Count Vladimir (Gustavo De Nardo) had originally selected the beautiful Nevenka (Daliah Lavi) as Lee’s wife, but, in his absence, has pushed her onto younger brother Christain (Tony Kendall). The young man has agreed to go on with the wedding, even though he is really in love with cousin Georgia (Harriet Medin).

The Whip and The Body (1963)

Most people preferred a book before bedtime…

Unsurprisingly, Lee’s surprise return puts the cat well and truly among the pigeons, especially when he encounters Lavi on a deserted beach. A few quick strokes of his whip later, she’s his, and their affair is on again. Striding around the castle in his black cloak and riding boots, Lee is arrogance personified, his character revelling in the uproar he is creating and the emotional distress of all around him.

So it’s no great shock when he turns up dead, slashed in the throat with the very same knife Stewart’s daughter used to kill herself. Curiously enough, there’s no investigation of the murder or intrusion by the authorities; Lee is just interred in the family vault, and that seems to be that. Only, of course, it’s not, because Lee refuses to stay dead; leaving muddy footprints all over the castle and visiting Lavi in her boudoir, where he resumes his somewhat dubious attentions. Does his vengeful spirit now haunt the castle’s bed chambers, or is he somehow still alive?

The Whip and The Body (1963)

Lee really needed to start taking his vitamins again…

This is a pleasingly twisted thriller, bursting with adult themes not often tackled by mainstream cinema of the period. These mostly concern Lavi’s character, whose eager acceptance and obvious enjoyment of the whip is front and centre. The actress really throws herself into the role, her character seemingly in a permanent state of arousal, her desperate need for love always overwhelmed by her violent sexual urges. It’s a powerhouse turn, and very daring for its time. Lee’s part is not a nuanced one, but he delivers steely arrogance like few others, and it’s a shame his screen time is somewhat brief. The pair overshadow the rest of the cast, although it’s always good to see cult cinema favourite Luciano Pigozzi, here in the role of a family servant.

To sell the movie in the States, the vast majority of the crew hide behind anglicised pseudonyms. Bava became John M Old, screenwriters Ernesto Gastaldi, Ugo Guerra and Luciano Martino were credited as Julian Berry, Robert Hugo and Martin Hardy, and cinematographer Ubaldo Terzano transformed into David Hamilton. But anyone familiar with Lee was not likely to be fooled, his voice obviously dubbed by another actor in the English language release. This was common practice in the Italian film industry of the time as a cost-cutting exercise, but it irked Lee. Subsequently, he had it written into his contracts that producers would pay the necessary costs required to call him back for the necessary voice work.

The Whip and The Body (1963)

Bava’s remake of ‘From Here To Eternity’ took a decidedly different approach…

Being a Bava film, it’s visually stunning, of course, and it’s interesting to note that he foregoes his usual technicolour palette in favour of much darker tones, draping the long passages in deep shadows cast by flaming torches. The main weakness here is the story, which needed a few more layers of complexity to elevate this to classic status. There are ambiguities too; just who is Lavi’s character? She’s given no backstory or identity beyond her relation to the family. Some commentators have theorised that De Nardo is keen to marry her off to one of his sons because she’s his mistress and he needs to legitimise her presence within the castle. It’s an interesting thought, although there is little concrete evidence to support it.

The explicit nature of the relationship between Lee and Lavi was enough to get censors hot under the collar, and the whipping scenes were cut in many countries, including the UK where even the title was changed to the more neutral ‘Night Is The Phantom’. An action for obscenity was brought against the producers, which may serve to explain why the film flopped in its homeland. American-International Pictures which had distributed Bava’s last few films in the US refused to touch it, and it was released by a company with a far lower profile.

The Whip and The Body (1963)

‘That’s the last time I make an album with Marilyn Manson…’

Lavi retired for films in the early 1970s after notable roles in ‘Lord Jim’ (1965), Matt Helm spy spoof ‘The Silencers’ (1966), comedy ‘The Spy With The Cold Nose’ (1966) and the Western ‘Catlow’ (1971) with Yul Brynner. Subsequently, she enjoyed far greater success as a singer and recording artist, enjoying many hits in Germany before retiring in 1983. She was popular enough to mount a farewell tour shortly before her death in 2017.

A striking contrast between elegant romanticism and sexual violence distinguishes another technical masterclass by director Mario Bava. If the story doesn’t quite deliver on the same level, the result is still a classy, atmospheric portrait of murder and aristocratic moral decay.

La marca del muerto (1961)

La marca del muerto (1961)‘If you touch her, I’ll kill you, even if it takes a hundred years.’

A young doctor who is about to be married moves into the house owned by his infamous grandfather. He was executed more than 70 years before after murdering a series of young women. The doctor finds himself drawn to his ancestor’s experiments in life extension and becomes dangerously obsessed after he discovers the hidden laboratory inside the house…

The sins of the father and generational revenge were common themes in Mexican cinema, and not just in the horror genre. But this is the territory inhabited here by co-writer-director Fernando Cortés and his leading man, Fernando Casanova. The actor takes on the dual role of the idealistic young medical man and his dangerous ancestor in this cautionary tale of meddling with things that man must leave alone and what can go wrong when you bring your grandfather back from the grave.

If there’s one thing movies should have told aspiring scientists, it’s that you should never go back to complete your father’s, or grandfather’s, work. Unfortunately, handsome young medical man Dr Malthus (Fernando Casanova) didn’t get that memo. Rather than checking out his cable package or unpacking the kettle, his first job on moving into the old family homestead is rummaging through important books in the library. We know they’re important because they’re big and a bit dusty. After his grandfather’s disembodied voice starts speaking to him from beyond the grave, it’s not long before he’s discovered the entrance to the secret laboratory that the authorities never found back in the old days.

La marca del muerto (1961)

‘…and the hidden laboratory is surprisingly spacious…’

You see, the experiments of old gramps caused a bit of a ruckus at the time. This was because his life-extending treatments needed the blood of young women under 25 years of age to make them work. Even more controversially, the blood had to be taken from a living woman who died in the process. Not unreasonably, the local police and courts took rather a dim view and booked the old man a date with the hangman’s rope. Young Casanova doesn’t seem particularly bothered by these trivial objections and decides to carry on the great work. Of course, the first step is to snatch his grandfather’s body from the cemetery and bring him back to life! The old guy left details of the method in his notes. Very helpful. Beats watching instructional videos on YouTube, I suppose.

Unsurprisingly, because there’d be no film otherwise, the operation is a complete success and Grandfather Malthus (Casanova, again) is up and about in no time, complete with long hair and Elvis sideburns. The bad news is that he wants to continue perfecting his experiments, and that means fresh blood. All this time, young Malthus’ better half, Rosa (Sonia Furió) is getting seriously concerned about his increasing absences and invites him round for a party. However, when he gets to the door, he kidnaps Furio’s maid, Luisa (Aurora Alvarado) instead! The fact that she doesn’t die as a result of grandpa’s rejuvenation treatment is down to newer experimental materials that are now available. However, the young doc wasn’t to know that which makes his action completely indefensible and, after repeated operations, she will die anyway. The fact that young Malthus does not react to the news about her imminent death on the operating table but, shortly afterwards, starts opposing his grandfather is all a bit baffling. Why does he suddenly start to care?

La marca del muerto (1961)

‘This tanning bed isn’t very comfortable…’

To the film’s credit, director Cortés and cinematographer José Ortiz Ramos create a healthy gothic atmosphere, and there’s the occasional creative touch here and there. The film opens back in the past with grandpa Malthus stalking a young woman. Later in the movie, this scene is recreated almost shot for shot, but this time the killer is defeated by the sudden appearance of a motorist. There’s also an effective moment when Furió pulls off Grandpa’s scarf revealing the mark of the hangman’s noose. Unfortunately, the laboratory machines explode when someone falls into them, of course, and the old-age makeup isn’t remotely convincing. Some of the ageing SFX still pass muster, though.

The film is perhaps most well-known in its rather dubious American cut. Notorious low budget filmmaker Jerry Warren bought the rights to the film and put it out as ‘Creature of the Walking Dead’ (1965). This included some of his signature stylistic touches. There’s a couple of lengthy new scenes with a ‘locked off’ camera and very few edits, and the joyful presence of our old friend, Voiceover Man. Rather than dub any of the Spanish-speaking actors, which would have cost a few bucks, Jerry simply has Voiceover Man relate what they are saying. Unsurprisingly, the final results are spectacularly atrocious.

La marca del muerto (1961)

‘Oh, my god, you’re really…Jerry Warren!’

Cortés had a very long and prolific career stretching from 1945 to 1979 and 85 directorial credits, including spy comedy ‘Agente 00 Sexy’ (1968) and comedy musical fantasy ‘The Phantom of the Operetta’ (1960). Casanova was a leading man with a career that lasted even longer, 60 years, and played the handsome hero in many western, action movies and comedies. He was also detective Fernando Lavalle, who worked alongside silver masked wrestler El Santo in a trilogy of the luchador’s early films, including ‘Santo in The Hotel of Death/Santo en el hotel de la muerte’ (1963). Furió had to deal with another wacky scientist in comedy-horror ‘Locura del terror’ (1961), was ringside for ‘Doctor Satan Vs Black Magic/Dr Satán y la Magia Negra’ (1968) and kicked butt as lead ‘Bond Girl’ in ‘SOS Conspiracion Bikini’ (1967).

A minor, but serviceable, mad doctor story with some creative moments but a fair sprinkling of cliches too.

Black Sabbath/The Three Faces of Fear/I Tre Volti Della Paura (1963)

Black Sabbath/The Three Faces of Fear/I Tre Volti Della Paura (1963)‘No-one can love you as much as we do.’

Boris Karloff invites us to watch three stories of spine-tingling horror. A beautiful young woman is menaced by threatening telephone calls when alone in her apartment. A peasant family fear that their returning father has fallen prey to the curse of the undead. A nurse unwisely steals a ring from the corpse of a medium who died when she was in communication with the other side…

Despite the international success of classic ‘The Mask of Satan/Black Sunday/La Maschera del demonio’ (1960), Italian director Mario Bava did not return to the horror genre immediately. Strong elements of the macabre were undoubtedly present in his subsequent films, notably ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1961) and ‘The Girl Who Knew Too Much’ (1961), but it was this film that brought about his wholesale return to the fold. Another deal was struck with American-International Pictures to distribute the film stateside, but this resulted in two somewhat different films.

Black Sabbath/The Three Faces of Fear/I Tre Volti Della Paura (1963)

The 3:30 at Market Rasen was in the bag!

Taking its cue from British pictures such as the famous ‘Dead of Night’ (1945), this is a ‘portmanteau’ film, three separate spooky stories; in this case with no narrative framing device. Bava’s original Italian cut opens with Boris Karloff’s introduction to the camera. The great man looks happy as a clam to be taking us on this horrific ride but, sadly, we don’t get to hear his voice as he’s dubbed into Italian by another actor.

Our first story is ‘The Telephone’, an early example of the Giallo suspense thriller that the director had pioneered with ‘The Girl Who Knew Too Much’ (1961). Beautiful Rosy (Michèle Mercier) returns to her luxurious apartment from a night out when the phone rings. The caller is a man who threatens her and seems to be able to see what she’s doing. A clipping pushed under the door reveals that a man named Frank has broken jail. Their relationship is never clearly explained; he might be her ex-pimp, lover or both, but what we do know is that she was the one who turned him in to the police. In a panic, she calls Mary (Lidia Alfonsi), the lesbian lover she has just shown the door…

Black Sabbath/The Three Faces of Fear/I Tre Volti Della Paura (1963)

‘If my call is so important to you, then why don’t you answer it?’

This story is a decent opening to Bava’s film, although it’s somewhat overshadowed by the segments that follow. The action takes place entirely in the apartment, which adds a claustrophobic feel, and the set is sumptuously dressed with decadent trappings, further inferring that Mercier’s character is a high-class call girl. The plot has a couple of pleasing twists, but, ultimately it’s rather a minor piece when viewed today, perhaps partly because it’s a scenario that’s now very familiar to movie audiences.

The lesbian element was unacceptable to an American public of the time, so it was cut from the U.S. release. Instead, an attempt was made to cast Frank as a supernatural presence; Mercier and Alfosi’s redubbed dialogue refers to him as dead, and the newspaper clipping becomes a blank piece of paper on which ghostly writing appears. It seems that this was not entirely post-production tinkering as the American release also features footage not present in the original cut, and the phantom handwriting that materialises on the card was apparently Bava’s own. So, it would appear that this alternative version of the story was filmed at the same time with an eye to the American release. Unfortunately, Frank’s presence as a phantom isn’t established sufficiently to prevent some confusion, and the notion of a ghost using the telephone isn’t a convincing one. Thankfully, the other stories did not raise similar concerns and escaped such treatment.

Black Sabbath/The Three Faces of Fear/I Tre Volti Della Paura (1963)

‘He shouldn’t have called me Bela!’

The second tale finds nobleman Mark Damon coming across a murdered man as he rides through the mountainous countryside of Eastern Europe. The family living at a nearby farmhouse confirm that it’s the body of a notorious bandit who had been terrorising the region, and the dagger retrieved from the corpse belongs to their father (played by Karloff). Damon thinks this is a cause for celebration, of course, but the family are frightened. The thief was rumoured to be one of the undead, a Vurdulak, and Karloff has not returned…

The longest, and most well-known, of the stories, ‘The Vurdulak’ is a wonderfully stylish spin on the usual vampire mythology, this fiend being drawn to drink the blood of those he loved the most in life. Karloff is on top form as the family patriarch; imperious, commanding and supremely sinister, utilising his decades of experience to bring on the chills. The supporting cast is generally excellent too, with a stand out turn by Rika Dialyna as the young mother driven to choose between her husband and her dead child. The creeping atmosphere of death and decay is almost a character in itself, and the stormy Balkan wildlands are a dark kaleidoscope of black, shivering trees, turbulent skies and ancient ruins, superbly evoked by Bava’s technical mastery.

Black Sabbath/The Three Faces of Fear/I Tre Volti Della Paura (1963)

‘Hello Boys!’

The last of the stories is ‘A Drop of Water’, which might be a somewhat slight tale in terms of plot but is undoubtedly one of Bava’s outstanding visual achievements. A dissatisfied middle-aged woman (Jacqueline Pierreux) is summoned to dress the body of a recently deceased countess. The noblewoman’s maid (Milly Monti) explains that her mistress died while in a mediumistic trance and so has a foot in both worlds, but Pierreux is not impressed. Unable to resist temptation, she takes a ring from the dead woman’s finger…

This segment is a tour de force of visual moviemaking and a genuinely unsettling mixture of suspense and the grotesque. The two sets on which the action takes place are works of art in their own right. Pierreux’s gloomy, cluttered apartment lit as if by the neon signs of hell, and the high-ceilinged, wide expanses of the medium’s mansion patrolled by an army of cats and littered with rubbish and broken dolls. It’ a visual feast and Bava slowly tightens the screw with an expert hand until the final payoff.

Black Sabbath/The Three Faces of Fear/I Tre Volti Della Paura (1963)

She needed to have a word with her interior decorator.

Apart from the changes already mentioned, the American release underwent further revisions, several inexplicable, almost all detrimental. The stories were re-ordered; placing ‘A Drop of Water’ at the beginning and ‘The Vurdalak’ at the end. It does make some sense to conclude with the Karloff-starring vampire tale, but it’s still not as effective in building the tension over the entire running time. New, deliciously humorous introductions to each story were filmed with Karloff, but Bava’s original jokey wrap-up with the great man was cut and not replaced.

One of the most significant issues, however, is with the sound design. Roberto Nicolosi’s original score is an elegant, understated piece of work, but, most importantly, it’s only used sparingly in the original cut. Silence and highly specific sound effects are used to heighten the suspense. A.I.P. executives commissioned composer Les Baxter to write a new score instead and, although it incorporates some of Nicolosi’s themes, it’s used far too much. Loud musical stings enhance dramatic moments that simply don’t need such emphasis and are far creepier without them. Unforgivably, the colour palette was also diluted, toning down Bava’s beautiful compositions. These alterations were presumably made to present a far more conventional, and less challenging, horror film.

A mesmerising exercise in terror, which has stood the test of time with remarkable ease.

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch/Hebi musume to hakuhatsuma (1968)

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch/Hebi musume to hakuhatsuma (1968)‘I felt very sorry for thinking that my sister was a snake.’

An adolescent girl living at an orphanage is claimed by her birth parents at last. However, she finds herself joining an unusual household. Her mother has memory issues, her father keeps snakes in his basement study, and she has the strange feeling that she’s being watched…

Unusual black and white Japanese horror-fantasy that displays some interesting concepts but lacks logic and a focused, consistent story. Although based on two separate Mangas by Kazuo Kozu, it also bears a strong resemblance to the medieval Western folk belief of ‘the changeling’, something modern commentators now to tend to credit to the appearance of any disability in a child when it outgrew the cradle.

Sayuri (Yachie Matsui) has grown up as a happy, well-adjusted girl under the care of nuns at the orphanage run by Sister Yamakawa (Kuniko Miyake). But it’s still wonderful when her father and mother (Yoshirô Kitahara and Yûko Hamada) offer her a stable and loving home instead. But, as soon as she takes her place in the family, there are problems. Hamada seems generally confused, due to injuries sustained in an apparent car accident, and reptile-fancier Kitahara has to leave on a long expedition to Africa because of reports of a rare species of snake. We’re never told precisely what the work it is that Kitahara does (it’s just identified as ‘research’) and, although that doesn’t seem initially important, given the way that the story develops it’s odd that it wasn’t more integral to the plot.

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch/Hebi musume to hakuhatsuma (1968)

‘You don’t know the way back to the ‘Spindrift’ by any chance?’

It’s not long before Matsui feels uncomfortable in the house, particularly after seeing a strange girl in her room. Although Hamada and live-in housekeeper Shige (Sachiko Meguro) try to pass it off as a bad dream, Matsui is not convinced. Further incidents occur, and the adults are forced to reveal the truth: Matsui has an older sister, Tamamai (Mayumi Takahashi) living in a private room at the top of the house. Matsui is happy to welcome her new family member, but there’s an immediate sibling rivalry, fueled by Takahashi’s anti-social and controlling behaviour. She also leaves scales in the bed, which is not very hygienic.

What most viewers will remember from this unusual film is Matsui’s dream sequences, as realised by director Noriaki Yuasa. Most of the SFX in these are somewhat dated, but there’s still an uncomfortably trippy and psychedelic edge to them, which makes them oddly unsettling. Matsui uses a sword to battle both flying snakes and the gruesome, long-clawed Silver-Haired Witch of the title. It’s also impressively surreal when Matsui is dragged through the air like Lois Lane by the (super)human personification of her doll, only to see her only companion eventually strangled by a snake, leaving her mentally more isolated than ever.

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch/Hebi musume to hakuhatsuma (1968)


But where a film like this stands or falls depends on the child actors, of course, and it’s pleasing to report that both Matsui and Takahashi are absolutely terrific. Matsui gives us a heroine who is both happy go lucky but relatable, and Takahashi is deliciously spiteful but ultimately tortured by her insecurities and overwhelming anger. They make a highly effective partnership; it’s only a shame that neither ever acted again.

Unfortunately, the story is weakened by a severe lack of exposition, particularly regarding the motivations of key characters. Although the version of the film that I viewed runs the complete length as quoted by reliable sources, a suspicion lingers that something is missing. Certainly, the story starts rather abruptly and fails to establish the initial setup clearly. This can be forgiven when explanations begin to emerge during the second act, but they are never fully developed. Several important questions are left unaddressed after the film’s climax, well-executed though it is. Of course, a greater familiarity with the source material and Japanese folk myths might yield greater clarity, but it’s still a little frustrating.

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch/Hebi musume to hakuhatsuma (1968)

‘Are you sure I can’t interest you in some cough drops?’

Technically, the film is well-accomplished, with Yuasa and his director of photography, Akira Uehara, creating an effectively claustrophobic and creepy ambience out of the one set where most of the story unfolds. Yuasa was the man who initially brought a giant flying outer space turtle to the big screen in ‘Gamera: The Giant Monster/Daikaijû Gamera’ (1965). He also directed several of the sequels including the epic ‘Attack of the Monsters/Gamera tai daiakuju Giron’ (1969) and the almost as incredible ‘Gamera vs Zigra/Gamera tai Shinkai kaijû Jigura’ (1971).

Offbeat Japanese horror fantasy that makes up for what it lacks in the story department with some interesting visuals and a strong atmosphere. Well worth checking out.

Blood of The Virgins/Sangre de vírgenes (1967)

Blood of The Virgins/Sangre de vírgenes (1967)‘It’s supposed to be empty, but people see things.’

A beautiful young woman marries the man favoured by her parents, even though she is in love with a mysterious stranger. On her wedding night, the lover reveals himself to be a vampire and attacks the newlyweds. Many years later, a stranded group of tourists take shelter in the remote lodge where it all took place…

Want to see an Argentinian vampire movie? Well, here’s your chance. Buenos Aires-born writer-director Emilio Vieyra gives us his take on the undead two years before he delivered the naughty horror/science-fiction shenanigans of the ‘The Curious Dr Humpp’ (1969). Does he bring anything new, or notable, to the lore or cinematic history of bloodsucking fiends from the grave? Not really, no. Unless you count the seagull.

Beautiful blonde Ofelia (Susana Beltrán) is happily in love with older man, Gustavo (Walter Kliche). However, he refuses to meet her parents and they are keen for her to marry a man they have chosen. She reluctantly complies, but married life gets off to a shaky start when Kliche arrives uninvited in the bedroom on the crucial night, bringing his living dead vibe and pointy teeth. I guess no amount of guidance counselling is going to sort that one out.

Blood of The Virgins/Sangre de vírgenes (1967)

‘It’s a stone cold groove, man.’

Fast forward an unspecified number of years, and we’re straight into a seven-minute montage of some bright young things fooling about at a ski resort. It looks more like some kind of tourist board advert than the introduction of the main protagonists in a feature film. There’s no dialogue or synchronised sound, just groovy music and some very questionable camera angles, and the sequence seems to go on forever. The couples snog, drink, fool around on the slopes and drink some more at a party where one of the girls takes her top off. No judgement here, but aren’t ‘Virgins’ mentioned in the film’s title? It hardly seems as if these young ladies are following an abstemious lifestyle!

In fact, there’s not even any signposting that these are going to be our main characters. None of them is even referred to by name until about half an hour of the movie has passed! And that’s only when the girls go missing, and the guys are calling for them. In that spirit, I believe that their nerdy tour guide is played by Orestes Trucco because the IMDb lists him in the film’s credits as ‘Man of group with beard’. All told, it’s not exactly a textbook way to set up your principals and engage audience sympathy for their plight. None of them has any recognisable character traits or back story either. There’s the handsome one, Raul (Rolo Puente), his girlfriend Laura (Gloria Prat), and then there are their friends who might just as well be designated as ‘generic vampire fodder.’

Blood of The Virgins/Sangre de vírgenes (1967)

‘I’m sorry, dear, I appear to have missed your neck again…’

Trucco’s silly tour guide is present to provide some vague comedy relief (he trips over a couple of times), so it’s no surprise when the group’s van runs out of petrol in the ass-end of nowhere. Of course, it’s the middle of the night, the wolves are howling, the weather’s a bit iffy, and the only nearby shelter is the abandoned old lodge where ‘people see things.’ Arriving there, they find food and drink apparently prepared by the zombie-like servant who no-one sees but Puente. After everyone is drugged, Kliche drops by for a midnight snack, but Puente has wandered off. He runs into Beltrán which provides the director with ample excuse to give us a lengthy sex scene starring her naked breasts. When Puente wakes the next morning, the girls are missing and all a search turns up is one of Prat’s shoes.

Heading to town to report the matter to Comisario Martinez (played by director Vieyra), they get stuck behind another car, which turns out to be driven by the strange servant with Kliche appearing briefly in the back seat. Where is he supposed to be going? I have absolutely no idea. Maybe he likes going out for a drive in the morning? I don’t mind that all this takes place in the daytime; the notion that vampires are destroyed by sunlight is almost entirely a modern one, traditional folklore suggesting mostly that the undead appeared by night because that was their preference. Other mythical creatures were said to be affected by the light, however, so it’s not hard to see how this became a common trope in our modern take on the legend. In the context of this film, though, the sequence is entirely pointless.

Blood of The Virgins/Sangre de vírgenes (1967)

🎵 Me and my shadow…🎶

There are some other puzzling aspects to the development of the story as well. At one stage, Puente is called to police headquarters because they have detained someone as a suspect in the disappearance of the girls. When he gets there, he finds the station surrounded by an angry mob. There has been no indication that the case is even public knowledge, let alone that it has inspired a crowd to seek vigilante justice. The rabble-rousers beat the suspect to within an inch of his life (I thought he’d been detained?), but it doesn’t matter because we never find out who he is and he never appears in the film again. When Prat suddenly turns up at Puente’s door (I guess she escaped?), she’s put straight to bed, and he calls a doctor. Kliche turns up instead, impersonating a medical man, and gives her an injection of something or other. Why he does this is a complete mystery.

It’s also a curious choice to introduce a new major character with barely half an hour of the film remaining. Tito (Ricardo Bauleo) is Prat’s brother and, despite being only in his early twenties, I assumed that he was going to bring some special skills or knowledge to the table, but no, he’s just a regular dude. Why the climactic scenes feature him as Kliche’s main antagonist, instead of Puente who we might reasonably have come to regard as the film’s hero, is just another in a long line of questions that will probably never be answered. The most obvious of these is: what’s with the seagull? The constant cutting to scarlet-tinted shots of a seabird in flight is a bit of a head-scratcher. Ok, I get that the colour represents blood, but what has a seagull got to do with it? If anything, shouldn’t it be a bat? Perhaps vampire mythology in Argentina is a little different from everywhere else in the world.

Blood of The Virgins/Sangre de vírgenes (1967)

‘That is the last time I’m sleeping in the wet patch.’

Technically, the film is serviceable enough, but the viewer is left with a distinct impression that little attention was paid to either plot or script. There is no back story to the vampire, who is cut from the familiar Lugosi cloth but inhabits a film more reminiscent of Hammer’s take on the genre (with added breasts). The film runs less than 80 minutes, so there may be an extended, more coherent version out there somewhere, but it’s just as possible this was a quick cash-in where the focus was more on what edgy scenes could be put in the trailer than creating a polished final product.

A very minor slice of international horror that ticks all the usual boxes in all the usual ways while feeling severely undeveloped and more than a little rushed.

The Mask of Satan/Black Sunday/La Maschera del demonio (1960)

The Mask of Satan:Black Sunday (1960)‘Satan plays tricks…even with the dead.’

The legend of a notorious witch continues to terrify the natives of a lonely district, 200 hundred years after she was burned at the stake. Two doctors on their way to a medical conference accidentally revive her, and she returns to fulfil the dreadful curse she uttered in her final moments…

Classic black and white tale of the supernatural from Italian horror maestro Mario Bava. A well-respected cinematographer and SFX wizard, this project was his directorial debut and a reward for stepping in to salvage several pictures where original directors had quit. From limited resources, Bava fashioned a darkly baroque tale of supernatural vengeance and terror with a dash and style
that turned the picture into an international smash and one that has influenced many subsequent filmmakers.

The Mask of Satan:Black Sunday (1960)

Bava wastes no time either, throwing the audience directly into an opening scene of flaming torches, men in hoods and a striking young woman in white tied to a stake in a midnight graveyard. The woman is the Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele), condemned for consorting with the devil. Her lover, Javutich (Arturo Dominici) has already been executed, and she’s next. Her brother pronounces sentence, and she snarls out a curse on him and his descendants. Then we get the first indication that this is going to be slightly different from other horror films of its time. A heavy metal mask with long spikes is placed over her face and nailed home by a hooded executioner with a huge mallet. By today’s standards, it’s not that shocking, but in 1961… During the burning, the flames are put out by a sudden rainstorm, but it’s too late: the witch is dead, and she’s interred in the family chapel with a window in her coffin so that the crucifix fixed to the casket will remain ever in her sight.

Fast forward a couple of hundred years and we find doctors Andrea Checchi and John Richardson travelling by coach to a medical conference. The driver is reluctant to take the old forest road because of the legend of the witch. A hefty tip is sufficient to calm his nerves, but the coach throws a wheel and the medicos use the delay to inspect a crumbling ruin nearby. This turns out to the Vajda family’s ruined chapel and the last resting place of the witch. Checchi inadvertently kickstarts her resurrection when he destroys the stone cross on her coffin fighting off an attack by a huge bat. He also removes the mask from her corpse and unknowingly drips blood into the corpse’s empty eye sockets. All in all, he makes quite a mess of things.

The Mask of Satan:Black Sunday (1960)

On the way out they encounter Katia (Steele, again), the daughter of the last of the Vajda line. Richardson is immediately smitten and is reluctant to get back on the coach and leave. But there’s no need to worry; the witch plans to possess Katia’s body as part of her revenge, and the doctors are also an integral part of her scheme. Raising old lover Dominici from the dead is the first step, and her new reign of terror in the district soon begins.

If these developments sound like a fairly standard tale of witchcraft and horror, it’s certainly nothing startlingly original. Allegedly, it was based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story ‘The Viy’ but the two tales have little in common beyond the presence of a witch who brings a demon out of the grave to help enact her revenge. What sets the film apart is how Bava handles the material, and that is remarkable indeed.

Producers wanted Bava to shoot the film in colour, but he insisted on black and white. His decision was at least partially due to the SFX involved in showing the transfer of Katia’s life force into the body of the witch. This remarkable effect was achieved through the use of lighting and layers of coloured makeup, a technique pioneered for ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1931), but one that would not have worked in colour. Of course, it may have also have had much to do with the atmosphere that Bava wished to invoke. According to Steele, the entire set and the cast’s costumes were black and white, as well as the clothing worn by the film crew. Of course, it could all have been a conscious homage to the Universal classics of the 1930s, the old cemetery echoing the churchyard at the opening of ‘Frankenstein’ (1931). We also get a late appearance by the torch-bearing mob, which probably should have been foreshadowed a little more forcefully.

The Mask of Satan:Black Sunday (1960)

Aside from a few location shots, the production was shot on a tiny soundstage, a particular challenge when it came to the scenes of the speeding coach, the horses only having the room to walk about eight paces! Bava resolved this by mounting prop branches on a propeller device, having crew members run past the static coach carrying them, and by shooting through a pane of glass on which he had-painted branches. It’s not completely convincing, but it works well with the heightened sense of reality that he creates elsewhere. Camera movement throughout is also sublime, with slow tracking and sudden pans never employed for flashy effect, but to heighten suspense or to deliver a sudden shock. It’s a testament to the years that he spent learning his craft on other productions and his natural flair as an artist. That was all in the blood; his father, Eugenio, was a famous sculptor, who created the iconic mask and also contributed some of the highly effective wax heads that double for the victims of the witch’s rampage.

If some of the story elements do seem a little hokey to modern eyes; secret passages behind the fireplace, trapdoors over pits of spikes, they are entirely in tune with the gothic tradition in which the story is rooted. Steele’s strange, off-kilter intensity also helps to sell the twisted narrative, and the remainder of the cast sensibly underplay opposite her, with Checchi’s performance being particularly effective. Furthermore, the identity of the story’s monsters is never clearly established, the undead Steele constantly referred to as a witch but exhibiting definite vampiric tendencies. Although this can seem confusing, traditional folklore often mixed mythologies in this way. Our modern, rigid conception of supernatural beasts and legends is quite often a distillation of many, sometimes even contradictory, old beliefs. Bava also creates some mythology of his own; the demons vulnerable to a stake through the eye, rather than the heart.

There’s also the intriguing possibility that the script was not finished before shooting began, and the story finalised late in the day, perhaps even in post-production. One scene where Steele reacts to the testimony of the innkeeper’s young daughter (Germana Dominici) plays much better if you believe she has already been possessed by the witch, although we later find out that this is not the case. Perhaps it’s significant that editor Mario Serandrei received one of his handful of screenwriting credits for working on this film.

The Mask of Satan:Black Sunday (1960)

On the European continent in the 1960s it was common practice to have imported English and American actors speak their natural language during filming and dub them later on, both for the domestic market and a possible international release. However, to cut costs, the original actors were rarely called back to loop their own dialogue, the task being completed by a local company instead. That was the case on this occasion and, although the work is not bad by any means, it’s still far from perfect.

When American International Pictures picked up for the film for a stateside release, they redubbed it entirely. Their version has a higher standard of voice acting with a better match between the dialogue and the actor’s original mouth movements. Additional exposition delivered when actors are momentarily offscreen also helps clarify some of the smaller plot points. The music is also used more subtly, although it has to be noted that credited composer Les Baxter is mostly recycling the original themes by Roberto Nicolosi. On the debit side, some of the more gruesome shots are slightly trimmed for the more conservative U.S. audience and a scene that more fully establishes the romance between Steele and Richardson is ditched completely. But, all in all, having seen many European horrors butchered for their release to the American market, the care taken here is remarkable indeed. It paid off handsomely at the box office too. The film was a significant hit.

The Mask of Satan:Black Sunday (1960)

Its influence was almost immediate too; cementing the success enjoyed by another period horror: Roger Corman’s ‘House of Usher’ (1960) with Vincent Price. Indeed, the maverick director immediately cast Steele opposite Price in ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ (1961), one of the very best of the AIP series of Poe adaptations. Richardson went on to feature in several pictures for Hammer; as Ursula Andress’ star-crossed lover in ‘She’ (1965) and its disappointing sequel ‘The Vengeance of She’ (1967), as well as fighting pterodactyls beside Raquel Welch in ‘One Million Years B.C.’ (1966).

The success of his debut feature resulted in offers from Hollywood for Bava, but he politely declined, probably aware that many other European directors had only delivered disappointing work after making the move to tinsel town. Despite a later appearance in Fellini’s ‘8 ½’ (1963), Steele still found herself typed in horror roles in the 1960s. Although some of these were good pictures in their own right, such as ‘The Long Hair of Death’ (1964) and ‘An Angel for Satan’ (1966), she naturally became frustrated, and it’s only in recent years that she’s come to accept her status as an icon of horror.

A wonderfully extravagant gothic tale that every horror fan needs to know.

Autopsy of A Ghost/Autopsia de un Fantasma (1968)

Autopsy of a Ghost (1968)‘The meat taste like meat, and the hell ham taste like a bunch of devils!’

A lost soul trapped in the dungeon of his ancestral home is given a final chance at redemption by Satan. If he can persuade a woman to lay down her life for him, he will be allowed to ascend to heaven. The devil arranges for a mad scientist and his extended family to come and stay at the spooky old house, thereby providing some possible candidates…

Demented, anything goes, relentlessly juvenile comedy cocktail from south of the border, courtesy of director Ismael Rodríguez. It’s a frenetic, hyperactive mix of knockabout humour, slapstick gags and pure, uncut silliness that almost has to be seen to be believed. At times it seems to have been aimed at children, but at others has a more adult tone to its attempted laughs. What’s truly amazing about it is the presence of notable Hollywood names Basil Rathbone, John Carradine and Cameron Mitchell.

Rathbone is the spirit of Canuto Pérez, a suicide from 400 years earlier who hangs about in the basement dungeon of his old dark house, arguing with his own skeleton (heroically played by an unconvincing life-sized puppet). However, his centuries of anguish could soon be over. Satan (Carradine in a red bodysuit with horns and a spiked tail!) offers him a way out, and he’s arranged for crazy inventor Mitchell (who wear two pairs of spectacles at the same time) to rent the old pile and bring some eligible females along. These include his lovely daughter Galena (Amadee Chabot), who seems to have been shortchanged by the wardrobe department and wears a bikini throughout. Can Rathbone’s get one of the ladies to fall for him and make the ultimate sacrifice?

You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.

‘It’s still better than a real job.’

Mitchell also has his problems. His crackpot inventions aren’t making any money, and his large family have been evicted from their last home. He’s put his faith in new mechanical man Caruso, but when he’s activated all he can do is make fart noises! It’s because he’s the victim of an act of sabotage perpetrated by older robot Vitola (Famie Kaufman in a cardboard costume, ginger wig and short skirt).

And if there weren’t enough characters and plot already, Rodriguez chucks in the idiot son of Mitchell’s former business partner (whose brain is tilted sideways apparently), his annoying little brat of a son and various other stooges and hangers-on. To make things even more complicated, a gang of useless criminals have hidden half a million dollars in the property and want it back, but agent Jaime Blondo (Carlos Piñar) is hot on their trail.

So the scene is set for an endless series of misunderstandings, pratfalls, frantic running about, loud screaming and general pantomime. Rathbone attempts to seduce various women with little success, the matriarch of the criminal gang falls in love with his skeleton (yes, really!) and Carradine hangs around in the background smirking a lot and breaking the fourth wall by twirling his tail and literally winking at the audience. Director Rodríguez never pauses to take a breath, rushing from scene to scene with reckless abandon, sometimes even speeding up the footage so we can arrive even earlier. Sometimes it’s all quite baffling. But too often it’s just the comedic equivalent of nails down a chalkboard.

Autopsy of a Ghost (1968)

‘You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.’

If you’ve read Rathbone’s autobiography ‘In and Out of Character’ (1962), you’re probably aware that he had no illusions about his immense talents as a thespian(!), and his place in the pantheon of great classical actors. However, you can’t deny his commitment to the cause here. He throws himself around the cheap sets with abandon, quotes a little Shakespeare and even does a few dance steps.

Rathbone was always the consummate professional in a film career that began in 1927, saw him Oscar-nominated twice, teach Errol Flynn how to fight with a sword and create the screen’s greatest Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, this was to be his last performance. He died of a cardiac arrest in a New York shortly afterwards. The film was shot in Mexico City, and Carradine always maintained that the altitude had been too much for Rathbone’s heart.

Curiously enough, the film seems to possess two endings. On this occasion, I was finally able to watch a print with English subtitles, but previously I’d seen one without a translation. That version had an ending featuring Carradine spinning around at high speed in a chair being splattered with faeces and an ‘A’ bomb explosion. This version did not. Perhaps I just dreamed it. Bad movies can do that to you.

An exhausting, knockabout farce with infantile humour that tries the patience from beginning to end.

La Bambola Di Satana/The Doll of Satan (1969)

La Bambola Di Satana:The Doll of Satan (1969)‘Let’s postpone this discussion to a more opportune moment.’

A young woman takes possession of the castle she has inherited from her rich uncle. When she arrives, she finds that his crippled and insane ex-secretary is living on the premises after a near-fatal car crash, and everyone seems keen for her to sell up…

Muddled and tatty horror thriller that’s usually cited as a late 1960s Giallo picture, due to the presence of a killer in black gloves and a hood. Sadly, he’s just window dressing in director Ferruccio Casapinta’s poorly executed tale of a deadly inheritance and things that go bump in the night. He also gets acknowledgement as one of the three co-writers, but these are his only credits and it’s rumoured that cinematographer Francesco Atteni actually shot the film.

Apparently, Erna Schurer is a lucky young lady. She’s inherited a gothic old pile from an obscure relative and is off to claim her due along with handsome young beau Roland Carey. They’ve even invited some friends along as a roster of potential victims (I’m sorry, I mean weekend party guests), but the welcome from housekeeper Laura Bonez and the family solicitor is not all that friendly. It seems that her uncle was very keen to sell the property, and no-one wants to talk about anything else. Add to that the mad secretary in the wheelchair upstairs, and it’s not as festive as might have been expected.

La Bambola Di Satana:The Doll of Satan (1969)

She thought they had agreed on a Safe Word.

Schurer has nightmares of being tortured in the dungeon and is a little creeped out by neighbour Ettore Ribotta who, it’s no surprise, was apparently going to buy the castle from her uncle. She begins to suspect the mad secretary isn’t so mad, after all, but she takes a header off a balcony after a visit from the man in black. We never find out exactly what she knew, or if her car accident was really an accident at all, but the movie’s not big on specifics.

There are many problems here. At times, the film looks as if the editor is trying to fashion a coherent story from bits and pieces that were available from a half-finished project. On the other hand, it’s a 90-minute feature and all the footage features the main cast. But there’s no denying that it is confusing; case in point: sometimes the audience can’t even be sure what time of day it is. The characters sit down for what we assume is their evening meal, given the full menu on offer. But the following scene takes place in broad daylight. ls it supposed to be the next day, or was that actually lunch? The lack of properly mounted transitions just causes confusion.

Furthermore, we find out later that Schurer’s bad dreams were actually real, staged during drug-induced episodes. But, if so, why does she have no ill-effects from these beatings? We clearly see them happening. And what’s the point of it, anyway? Surely, there are simpler ways for the villains to achieve their ends? The expository dialogue is also clumsy and hopelessly contrived, although something may have been lost in the translation to the English subtitles. There’s also some very awkward cutting and shot-framing in scenes where the secret villain’s identity needs to remain concealed (just who could he be?)

La Bambola Di Satana:The Doll of Satan (1969)

‘These light lunches can be so tiring, don’t you think?’

Characters aren’t properly introduced, the script gives them zero development, there’s a painful scene where anonymous teens groove half-heartedly to a jukebox, and Schurer’s pointless friends are just there to fill up the frame at mealtimes. The entire business is talky, repetitive and confusing.

Schurer went onto appear in ‘Sex Life in A’Woman’s Prison’ (1974), the ‘Erotic Exploits of the Sexy Seducer’ (1977) and Nazi-politation f|ick ‘Deported Women of the SS Special Section’ (1976). Carey had starred in Eurospy obscurity ‘Mission Speciale Caracas’ (1965) and, after apparent retirement in the 1970s, returned in small roles such as a drug dealer in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s acclaimed ‘Three Colours Red’ (1994).

And what’s with the title? What doll are they talking about? The wheelchair-bound secretary seems to be holding one briefly in one scene, but we never get to see it again. ls it supposed to refer to a person instead? If so, then who?! I have absolutely no idea.

Probably best to give this one a miss.