A little walk: A critical review of “The Mummy” (1932)

“The Mummy” is a little out of step with the other Universal monsters. It’s not based on a book, and a lot of fascinating, frighteningly in depth work has gone into figuring out what its literary or cinematic inspirations might have been. Perhaps for that reason–without an obvious catalog of characters or lore to draw upon–it never spawned any direct sequels.

It also might feel the most aged out of its contemporaries, and I’m not just talking about how the culturally delicate topic of tomb robbing is one of its plot points. Unlike “Dracula,” which seems to take place in a Kafkaesque void, or “Frankenstein,” which is a delightful anachronism stew, “The Mummy” actually looks like it takes place in the 1930s. However, there’s something to be said for a film that acts its age.

The story of “The Mummy” is surprisingly simple. In 1921, British archaeologist Sir Joseph Whemple (1930s character actor Arthur Byron) leads a dig in the Egyptian countryside. He discovers the mummified remains of a man who appears to have been buried alive. Buried with the mummy is a scroll that claims to bestow life and a curse that threatens death. Whemple doesn’t take either seriously, even when the mummy goes missing and Whemple’s assistant goes insane.

Ten years later, an old Egyptian dude named Ardeth Bay (Boris Karloff, of course) comes to Whemple’s son, also an archaeologist, and helps him locate the tomb of an ancient princess. As fresher bodies pile up, the connection between both mummies, Whemple and a young socialite with the improbable name of Helen Grosvenor will all be uncovered.

How does “The Mummy” hold up if we ask the same three questions we asked of “Frankenstein”–how does it hold up as a movie, a Gothic thriller and a horror film? As a movie, “The Mummy” is admittedly uneven. Its performances are fine, its use of music and silence is appropriate, and its photography and lighting are striking (director Karl Freund got his start as a cinematographer, and his resume includes the silent sci fi epic “Metropolis,” so striking photography and lighting are to be expected).

Script-wise, there’s a little more to be desired. The film starts fast–perhaps too fast–but it slows considerably as it moves on, and it’s not unfair to think of the climax as draggy. Accordingly, the movie never finds its pace. Oh well. At least the Egypt on display is notably contemporary–there are nightclubs and cars and modern dress, so the film never feels entirely exploitative of its location–and barring a quick reference to Bast as a goddess of evil, its religious history is not bad. The final script was by John L. Balderston, a former journalist who had covered the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, so he was up-to-date on the current Egyptology.

As a Gothic thriller, the film might be better than some of its more conventionally Gothic contemporaries. From the start of the film, the themes of knowledge and eternal life are written on the screen (in art deco font no less). Knowledge is power. Knowledge is also terrifying. It’s paradoxical, attractive and repellent. It intrigues humans and destroys them. We fight over it, but it belongs to no one but itself. It is guarded by cosmic forces that we call gods or destiny, but we ultimately have no control over them. Oddly enough, with its Egyptian setting, ancient documents and humans going crazy from revelations, “The Mummy” is probably the most Lovecraftian of the Universal monster films.

The other big theme of life after death is just as compelling, thanks in no small part to the cast. Sure, David Manners as the human love interest is rather ineffectual, but his boyish and tepid interactions with Zita Johann actually make her interactions with Karloff seem much more powerful. Karloff’s performance is intense and understated, but when he’s around Johann he becomes fluid, sensitive, even vulnerable. His efforts to bring her closer to him (by psychically strangling people, to be fair) seem to take something out of the normally unflappable character. It’s a nice touch, and Karloff sells it well.

Arguably, the film’s themes of time passing and repeating, the transmigration of souls, existentialism butting heads with destiny, and an attraction that transcends centuries all had a profound impact on horror as whole. It seems particularly notable in vampire stories and the works of Clive Barker (would we have “Candyman” without “The Mummy?” Maybe not).

But it’s as a horror film that “The Mummy” holds the biggest surprise. Given the film’s odd pace and descent into melodrama, it doesn’t always feel like an effective thriller. However, the atmosphere is consistently dark and appropriate, and more than that, the first 10 minutes are an almost flawless example of what a horror movie should look like.

In those first 10 minutes, the pacing is ideal. Just enough information is doled out by Edward Van Sloan’s occult researcher to intrigue without overwhelming. The camera checks in with the characters like an active spectator. The atmosphere relies on images and spaces of silence, and the monster is carefully photographed, all to ensure there’s enough room for viewers throw themselves into the scene. Tension mounts, and the payoff is an unforgettable performance by Bramwell Fletcher as an unfortunate research assistant.

It is fair–if an easy joke–to say that “The Mummy” has gotten a little dusty with age. It looks as old as it is, and it doesn’t move as well as it could. However, its atmosphere, themes, performances and flashes of brilliance more than balance that out. While it might not have wormed its way into culture as obviously as “Dracula” or “Frankenstein,” it should be required viewing for any horror fan.

Stitched together wrong: A critical review of “Frankenstein” (1931)

It’s weird to talk about “Frankenstein” by itself because it’s not a film we often think about by itself. And I don’t just mean we think about it as a franchise–although it is, with eight pictures under its bolts at Universal. I mean the film is often conflated with its sequel, “Bride of Frankenstein.” Perhaps it’s because that film has taken on a cultural and critical significance that rivals, if not outranks, the original. Or maybe it’s Mel Brooks’ fault. I don’t know.

A film that’s almost always thought of in relation to its sequel, but in a wholly positive way, is unusual. Feel free to correct me, but the only other films in the history of horror this blog can think of like that are “Alien” and “Aliens.”

What other horror franchise–or any film franchise for that matter–adhered to a distinctly original visual and thematic philosophy through its first three films and two directors? Not Freddy. Not Jason. “Psycho” had a distinct visual style, but you better bet it wasn’t kept up. Maybe Halloween, if only because “Halloween II” retained John Carpenter’s moody lighting and POV shots, if memory serves. Possibly the aforementioned Alien as well, which, even if not unified in vision, at least kept up the Giger feel (and dumped almost everything else)…

We’re off topic. “Frankenstein,” for those not in the know, is the story of Victor Frankenstein, son of Baron Frankenstein, inheritor of the house of Frankenstein. He should be preparing for his wedding, but he’s busy robbing graves and gluing together corpses in an abandoned castle outside of town where he set up a crude laboratory. Whenever things start off like this, you know it’s going to end with torches and pitchforks.

It seems to this blog that, when reviewing a film like this, there are really three angles to attack it in the modern era. How does it hold up as a horror film? How does it hold up more narrowly as a Gothic thriller? And how does it hold up as a movie?

The last question is the easiest to answer. “Frankenstein” is a good movie. It looks distinct, it entertains, and it does everything it wants in about 70 minutes. Let that sink in. “Frankenstein” is only 70 minutes long. Movies more twice its length have less than half as much to say.

This is tied to the second question. As a Gothic thriller, “Frankenstein” is unquestionably a classic. First off, as this blog as alluded to multiple times in this post already, the film looks right. Every single set is crammed with sloppily arranged skulls, uneven brickwork, and gravestones and ceiling beams connected at odd angles. The camera is never shy about showing this (the cinematography was by Arthur Edeson, a real pro). Zooms, tilts and tracking shots are all composed to show off the sets, which are utterly cluttered but perfectly blocked.

Everything about the film presents a kind of fabricated, exaggerated reality. Its core concept is stitching a man together from scratch. Its backgrounds are painted. Its opening scene is set in front of a theater curtain. It takes place in a Europe that looks like a mashup of everything the continent had to offer between the 16th century and 1916 (and who knew there were so many Southern California eucalyptus in the Rhineland?). It’s a reality that’s been put together wrong, and it wants you to know it.

Thematically, the very Gothic subject of science versus superstition is present from the first scene on, but there are enough moving parts to the film that it’s hardly the only theme. There is a queer subtext too, not uncommon in director James Whale’s films, about the thrill of seeking knowledge and relationships that are beyond the accepted–and what could be more Gothic than hidden sexuality? Or, for something more pedestrian, it’s about a man so wrapped up in his work he destroys his life and threatens the lives of those around him (Frankenstein by Arthur Miller?).

The performances are where the Gothic trappings start to get in the way. Colin Clive is great, and I’m not just saying that because we share a name. He’s reading the same overblown dialogue as everyone else, but his shifts from sensitive to intense are eerily believable. Likewise, Karloff is amazing. Without any words, he manages to convey both pity and menace, sometimes at the same time.

No one else fares quite as well. Edward Van Sloan is dependable as a senior doctor; Frederick Kerr is fun as the Baron, but he hints at the goofiness that would threaten to overshadow the sequel. Mae Clark and John Boles are pretty wooden as Frankenstein’s fiance and cock-blocked friend respectively, with Clark doing a little better but not much.

Put your attention on the titular monsters instead. “Frankenstein” is possibly the first film where the monsters are supposed to be the most compelling characters on screen. Maybe Dracula was the most compelling component of his film, but that was because he symbolized a kind of dangerous seduction, and everything about him said “look at me.” Dracula intrigues, but what intrigues is his intrigue itself.

Victor Frankenstein is arguably the far more psychologically compelling character, and certainly the most psychologically compelling in this movie. Part of it is the depth and complexity of his moods and motivation, and part of it is Clive’s near flawless performance.

But despite the fact that he’s the deepest character, is engaged to the lead girl and has the most screen time, he falls off a windmill at the end. He’s not the hero. And even if you think Karloff-as-monster is more compelling–and it’s an argument that can be made–he doesn’t even get out of the windmill before it burns to the ground (sorry if I gave away the ending of a 90-year-old movie).

So it’s a good movie, a good Gothic thriller, but is it a good horror film? That’s a little harder to answer. Sure, the opening sequence looks like a horror theme, with all the Halloween decorations. But then the mood shifts, retaining its Gothic trappings but becoming a kind of melodrama, a tale of human failing, whether through ignorance, weakness or fate.

Perhaps that’s the point. While the central monster scenes are shot with a kind of quiet amorality, both the early grave robbing scenes and the closing mob scenes are shot like a standard horror film: jarring cuts, shadowy lighting, indistinct sound. Ignore that hasty happy ending; it was tacked on. The film might be about mad science and whispered superstition, but it’s more nihilistic than it is either spiritual or humanistic. It is humanity who initiates the horror of the film–whether by tampering in God’s domain or just tampering in the lives of others. It’s fitting that it’s humanity who closes the horror out as well.

Ugly buildings: News October 2020

Ho-ho-ho and Happy Halloween. I don’t have to tell you that this is the most important month for thriller fans, but I also don’t have to tell you that it’s been a really strange year. Perhaps we’re all feeling a little uncertain right now, looking for something somewhat stable. That’s why this blog is turning to the classics.

Before we get into what that means, I feel obligated to plug a couple of products. The first is a short story collection entitled “Hookman and Friends.” Produced by the brilliantly named publishing house Down But Not Dead, the anthology collects a variety of tales inspired by the urban legend of the murderer who bothered teenagers trying to have sex in their cars. Lest you think it’s a bunch of retreads, know that my entry in the book has no teenagers, no sex and no cars, although it does have the murder. Readers in the U.S. can purchase it here.

The second product is another short story collection, which I’ve alluded to in the past. It’s a collection of time travel stories, featuring a philosophically driven tale about fate by yours truly. If you’re feeling a little less “slasher” and a little more “sci fi” this Halloween, then that’s the anthology for you. You can purchase it here.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about what we’ll be looking at for the rest of the month. For me, as for many horror fans, the classics really mean the Universal horror franchises. If you can’t see back to the 30s, 40s and 50s, you aren’t really trying; on the other hand, if you look back too far, you start getting into some weird territory (not bad, mind you, just weird). The Universal films not only hit all the classic tropes of the genre, they also pointed the way for every horror franchise to come with their notions of character presentation across movies and marketing. Would we have Jason without Lon Cheney Jr.? Maybe not.

On the other hand, those movies are old, and age alone does not require respect (to quote Noah Cross: “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough”). Are the Universal horror films worthy of our veneration? To find out, this blog, with its discerning eye and chaotic voice, will be viewing the first films of all the major franchises for the next month to see how they hold up.

Except “Dracula.” Screw that movie. Nothing against Tod Browning or Bela Lugosi, but the titular vampire isn’t even killed on screen. What a waste.

We’ll be going in chronological order, so expect to see “Frankenstein” soon, followed by some of his closest friends. Not his bride though, but we’ll get to that.

Also, if I’m wrong about “Dracula,” have at me. What am I missing?

Hot topic: A critical review of “Inferno” (1980)

Out of all the horror franchises in cinema, I don’t know if there’s one more… well, forgotten isn’t the right word, because the first film is very well known. I’m also not talking about a radical dip in quality between entries. Everyone will probably agree that the first films in various slasher series–like Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street and Candyman–are superior to their sequels. The same can be said of classic Gothic horror and sci fi, like Universal’s Mummy, Wolf Man and Creature flicks.

Director Dario Argento’s Three Mother series is unique because it’s the series that most people don’t know exists, even if they know the film that started it all. Among both horror fans and giallo fans, it can be hard to remember that “Suspiria” is supposed to be followed by “Inferno” and “Mother of Tears.” Want proof? When people tell you to watch “Suspiria,” do they immediately add, “And you gotta watch ‘Inferno’ next”? Or when you say you’ve seen “Suspiria,” do they warn you, “Whatever you do, don’t watch ‘Mother of Tears'”?

Of course they don’t. Not no one cares about “Inferno,” and even fewer people care about “Mother of Tears.” And yet, this blog isn’t everybody, as we’re so fond of reminding you. In order to celebrate both Argento’s 80th anniversary and “Inferno’s” 40th, we’re going to be taking a look at that film. Is it a forgotten classic or best resigned to the incinerator? As usual, the answer is not so simple.

“Inferno” begins where “Suspiria” left off, by which I mean it starts with different characters in new locations who aren’t connected to the first film at all. Rose is a young woman living in New York City. A poet, she’s often having around old bookstores. By chance, she discovers a book that suggests she’s living in a building designed by an alchemist to be the home of an ancient witch goddess. As she explores the text and her building, she comes to the startling conclusion it might be true. She writes to her brother, a music student in Rome, begging him to visit come visit her. He does, only to discover she has disappeared.

It’s almost a given that viewers will compare “Inferno” to “Suspiria,” which is both fair and unfair. It’s fair because “Inferno” follows its predecessor’s psychic structure, its dream-like framework and aggressive visuals. It’s unfair because “Suspiria” is a classic and “Inferno” is not.

“Suspiria” supports its towering style with just enough substance–its accessible plot structure, and its themes of isolation and abandonment–that even people who aren’t diehard horror fans can admire the film. “Inferno,” on the other hand, is much looser. Its plot is, at best, episodic. Things happen in the order they do less because it feels planned and more because it’s an order in which things could kind of happen, I guess. If you’re watching “Inferno” for anything like a sensible plot or relatable characters, you will leave disappointed.

None of that is to say “Inferno” is without its charms. In fact, if you liked “Suspiria” for its baroque visuals and surreal horrors, this blog would recommend “Inferno” far ahead of the 2018 remake of “Suspiria.”

“Inferno” is a graphic feast, and accordingly, its best moments are ones that require the eyes more than the brain. Perhaps things never get better than a tense scene early in the film, where Rose must swim through a flooded ballroom to recover her keys, all the while being watched by a mysterious presence. She went into the submerged ballroom on a hunch gleaned from a haunted book, and she readily accepts it as a swimming pool. Why? You might as well ask why one accepts the ability to fly in dreams.

“Inferno’s” characters and contrivances are all like those of dreams or fables. Its first protagonist is named Rose, which feels straight out of a fairy tale, and her portal to another world–or rather her new perception of her own–is a leathery tome about witchcraft. Elsewhere, a spectral witch visits a student in a music class, a character is eaten alive by river rats in the middle of Central Park, and the belly of a Gothic apartment resembles an iron monger’s furnace. These are images before they are scenes, and while they all defy narrative or waking logic, they fit into the dream-like reality of the film perfectly.

Of course, the rat scene lasts a little too long, and its surreality turns into tedium, which is why the film is ultimately not for everyone. Excess is its own worst enemy. It might only be 10 minutes longer than “Suspiria,” but “Inferno’s” slender plot makes it feel half an hour too much.

Curiously, Argento has claimed he wanted a more delicate score than those provided by the band Goblin on his earlier films, so he went with Keith Emerson. If that’s the case, he picked the wrong organist. Emerson’s score is everything you’d expect from the man who banged the keys on “Brain Salad Surgery.” It is loud, fast and eccentric, and while it could hardly be called “delicate,” it is impressive. I’m sure opinions will vary on its appropriateness, but one has to admit nothing fills the climax of the film quite like Emerson’s rococo soundtrack.

If anything, Emerson’s role as prog rock composer might be telling about the film as a whole. “Inferno” is very much a thriller of the 1970s, with its impressionistic plot that takes a back seat to surreal visuals. It might have already felt like an anachronism at the start of the new decade.

The cinema of the 1980s would no be less grotesque or excessive–“Inferno’s” pyrotechnic conclusion would feel at home among any number of 80s action flicks–but it would be a different kind of excessive, one based on pushing the bounds of sweat glands rather than corneas. That’s why this blog can’t easily recommend “Inferno,” but we also refuse to condemn it. The film might not be good, but it is visually interesting. That puts it ahead of a dozen other thrillers that make more sense but fail to fascinate all the same.

How to join a cult: A critical analysis of cult classic media (and some “Doki Doki Literature Club!”)

In news at the top of the year–before news about freeware horror games became obviously less important–it was announced that “Doki Doki Literature Club!” was getting an update. Media outlets labeled the game a “cult classic.” Unlike in the waking world, “cult” isn’t necessarily a dirty word in media reviews. Cult classic bestows a badge of honor upon niche works like “Doki Doki.”

Is it a fair moniker though? In fact, in an age of rapidly moving media and mainstream fandom, what actually qualifies as a cult classic? Coming from a religious studies background–and being a rabid fan of pseudo-intellectual horror–it seems like no one would be better suited to answer these questions than me. My answer to the first question is: I don’t know. Maybe? My answer to the second question is: We’ll get to that. Probably.

In order to decide if “Doki Doki” is a cult classic–or if anything is a cult classic–we’ll have to start by laying some ground rules. The term can be, and should be, narrowly defined. What constitutes a cult classic?

First off, it doesn’t just mean weird. For example, the 2013 movie “Borgman” is weird. It’s well-made-weird, with clean photography, solid acting, unusual characters and an intriguing script. It’s also likely to be categorized as a horror film–it’s structured like a thriller and appears supernatural at points–which is a genre that comes with a built-in audience. I watched it and liked it. I’ve also never watched it again. I’ve never watched a video essay deconstructing it, never read a fan fiction based on it, never seen a sexy Jan Bijvoet cosplay. “Borgman” is weird, but it doesn’t have a cult.

A “cult” in the contemporary sense is a group that has a particular devotion or fascination with a ritual, object or person. There are another couple of factors at play: scope and societal acceptance. Speaking religiously, a cult is a religious group that is smaller, newer and more isolated from the rest of society.

To a degree, those factors can be gauged with familiarity and visibility. The more open a church’s philosophy is or the more numerous its congregants are, the less likely it is to be labeled a cult. That’s why Catholicism is called church but People’s Temple is called a cult (I spent an inordinate amount of time researching the sermons of Jim Jones, so I should know this). Even location is a factor. Mormonism might be considered a routine Christian church in the Southwest but approached with cult-like caution in the Northeast.

To get really meta, it can be hard to tell where distrust of the outside world by a cult, and distrust of a cult by the outside world, begin and end. From a psychological perspective, they would appear to feed each other. Whether that’s fair or not is a question for a brainier character than the operator of a blog that philosophizes about thrillers.

Now that you have a crash course in cult studies, we can cut to cult media. By the 1970s or 80s, the term appears to have been applied to cinema in largely the same way. A cult movie has a small but devoted following. Since certain genres of media tend to attract certain followings, the label refers as much to the media as to its fandom. For example, Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space” is arguably a cult film, since both so-bad-its-good sci fi is a niche market and the film’s fans tend to be very loyal. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “The Holy Mountain” is arguably a cult film as well. It is vastly different from “Plan 9” in concept and quality, but it also has a devoted niche audience: film snobs.

Does “Doki Doki Literature Club” have the earmarks of a cult classic? I am biased toward the game, but I believe so. It is perfectly made for a niche market, since it juxtaposes harem anime with psychological horror. Neither of those genres screams mainstream, but they both tend to attract devoted fandoms.

Indeed, “Doki Doki’s” fandom appears to still be fairly devoted, even three years after the game’s release (three years is an eon in game development time). The “Dok Doki” subreddit remains pretty active, and while YouTube streamers will pop on mods to play, this blog is more interested in the fact that mods are still being made for the game. Most of them lean toward the game’s dating sim side rather than its psychological horror side, but there are still a few interesting examples, including “Rain Clouds,” a retelling of the game’s first level from Sayori’s perspective that retains the psychological twists of the original game, and “Never Doki Lone,” a mashup of mystery and horror featuring Monika as an investigative school reporter.

Outside of the world of streaming, the game still sees meme and animations. YouTube channels like A Few Seconds to Live, woutmees and The Bike continue to create diverse content out of the original game’s assets. The singer OR3O has dropped most of her “Doki Doki” dressings, but she initially achieved fame by singing covers in vocal Monika cosplay (she still creates original content based on indie horror games like “Bendy and the Ink Machine” and “Helltaker”).

Arguably, perhaps even this blog has been keeping the “Doki Doki” fire lit, but I’ve already admitted a bias. When I say the fandom can be clingy, I’m not excluding myself.

Finally, “Doki Doki” has one more thing going for it: a touch of controversy to keep it out of the fully mainstream. Its squirmy subject matter made sure that contemporary mainstream discussion of the game was largely about how weird and niche it was (and note that, even then, it was being labeled “cult”).

Basically, it’s fair to say that “Doki Doki” has a cult. But is it a classic? Here is where I am less certain. Defining a “cult” is easy, since all you need is years of religious studies classes. Defining a classic is harder. That’s something only time can do.

Cute anime girls and jump scares can take you so far, but a game needs more than novelty to be a classic, just like it needs more than weirdness to attract a cult. This blog believes that “Doki Doki’s” themes–its thoughtful and layered explorations of AI, agency, purpose and communication–suggest it has the signs of becoming a classic. Some of us are still talking about it three years out. If we’re still talking about it three years from now, I’ll have a better answer for you, and I’ll have an even better answer if we’re talking about it three years after that. Only time will tell.

Here is where things get truly interesting. If a cult classic requires both a devoted cult and the time to become a classic, is it easier or harder to become one these days? This blog hates to sound like an angry old man–unless it secretly thrives off sounding like an angry old man–but in an era of instant communication, memes of the week and mainstream nerdiness, the problem isn’t for a work to find its fandom. It’s that the work has to compete in an ever expanding marketplace of media and memes about media, and the truly popular runs the risk of either getting forgotten in a week or ascending out of cult status into established church. Almost anything can amass a fandom on social media, but that doesn’t mean it’ll stay active. Cults might become more common, but classics won’t necessarily follow.

Another scorcher: News September 2020

I don’t know how it is in your neck of the woods, but here in the Los Angeles area we’re getting one of those late summer/early autumn heat waves. A lot of people are using it as an excuse for slowing down and taking it easy, but this blog calls those people out-of-towers. A little triple-digit weather don’t bother us none. We’re running on time and under budget.

Let’s get the very LA shameless self-promotion out of the way first. My short story “Life After Roswell” is up and running in Red Planet Magazine, an indie literary journal with a penchant for science fiction. My story is a darkly comic character study of a UFO fanatic whose life changes after the government announces that aliens have been real this whole time. The issue–volume one, issue 11 to be precise–is full of sci fi flavored poetry as well.

For a sample of the company I’m in, check the out the magazine’s currently featured poem, “Singing for the Quiet” by Paige Elizabeth Wajda. It’s a restrained and melancholy piece, and I love the images in the penultimate stanza: “an axe to an armory, a straw to drink / the ocean, a solitary watt in a dark room.” Digital or paper copies of the issue can be purchased through the magazine’s archive.

On the chopping block for the rest of September, there’s a couple of Dario Argento anniversaries coming up that will warrant a movie review. What could this blog be referring to? You’ll have to tune in next week to find out, Tonstant Weader. And if we don’t have much planned after that, well, we can always blame the heat.

Check your dosage: A critical review of “The Horrible Dr. Hichcock” (1962)

One of the great advantages of living in contemporary times–if not the primary advantage of living in contemporary times–is that we can lord it over the past. We can say: That’s how they did things then, and haw, ain’t they all losers for doing as such? In the realm of cinema, we can say: Look at them with their old characters and plot points, who did they think they were?

Which is exactly why we get to judge a movie like “The Horrible Dr. Hichcock.” Because we live now and not then. Although I have a feeling that if we lived then…well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Before Dr. Hichcock was horrible, he was just kinda creepy, using his position as a 19th century anesthesiologist to drug his wife and have sex with her while in a catatonic state. One night he overdid the dosage, and she didn’t wake up. Hichcock quickly buried her in the family crypt and skipped town. A few years later, Dr. Hichcock returns to his ancestral home with a new wife, Cynthia. When she starts poking around her new home, strange things happen, as they do in Gothic mansions. This leads Cynthia to suspect that her husband has a terrible secret regarding the death of his first wife, leaving her own future uncertain.

“Dr. Hichcock” is a psychological thriller, but if we are here for psychological depth, we will be disappointed. The movie is pretty boilerplate. It reads a bit like “Bluebeard,” which, cinematically speaking, has been old since Chaplin’s time. There’s not a lot of exploration of its macabre subjects, although perhaps we can chalk that up to necrophilia being pretty taboo…I was going to say back then, but it’s arguably pretty taboo right now too. Some things are just hard to make movies about.

So maybe we’re here for thrills, but those are likewise in short supply. The film meanders through its first act, plods through its second, and only really gets cooking during the third, when it actually feels like there’s a mystery to solve.

If there’s a reason to watch this film, it’s Barbara Steele. The producers must have realized this as well because, superficially speaking, she is decked out in the film’s best costumes and warrants the most visual attention for that reason. More profoundly speaking, as the wide-eyed bride (the second one), she is easily the most believable character on screen. She’s just as confused as we are, and she sells it with every foolishly inquisitive step. Any moments of tension are courtesy of her stumbling into things she ought not stumble into.

Robert Flemyng, as the titular Dr. Hichcock, is not bad either. He plays he role halfway between haunted and actually horrible, and brings about as much as he can to a slender part.

What we cannot see here is a Hitchcockian thriller. That kind of film would be subtle and introspective, but that ain’t this flick. Presumably the main character was named Hichcock to create a psychic link to the master of suspense. Alfred should sue. He can’t, of course, because the character is “Hichcock” without a T, no doubt a clever move to avoid a lawsuit. Also, since it’s not explicitly Alfred, for all we know it could be meant to recall Robyn Hitchcock (it’s not, but it could be). Finally, Alfred Hitchock is dead, and the odds of him acquiring legal representation are low.

At the end of the evening, “The Horrible Dr. Hichcock” isn’t quite the horrible film it promises to be. It looks all right, in an Italian “period Gothic horror” way. But despite the potentiality of its premise, it doesn’t do much. The most unnerving thing in the film might be that, despite the decade that passes between his two marriages, Dr. Hichcock’s cat doesn’t look to have aged a day. What’s its secret? We’ll never know.

The lame cult of Lovecraft: A critical review of “Curse of the Crimson Altar” (1968)

With H. P. Lovecraft’s birthday just passed, it’s a good time to reflect. Now that Cthulhu is a household name, it seems like if you want to say something is “Lovecraftian” all you have to do is slap some tentacles and a couple of consonants that should not be next to each other on it and call it a day. Heck, in the family-friendly “Minecraft” clone this blog finally got to download, there’s a Cthulhu reference on the second level.

There was a time when things weren’t that simple, but they were a bit weirder. In the 60s and 70s, movies and TV shows like “The Haunted Palace,” “Die Monster Die!” and “Night Gallery” weren’t just subtly Lovecraftian–they were at times uncertain of their own Lovecraftian nature.

One such movie is British film “The Curse of the Crimson Altar” (known as “The Crimson Cult” in the States). Cosmic horror aficionados have long tied it to the short story “The Dreams in a Witch House,” and there is reason for that, but it would be generous to call it an adaptation. I have a theory on that. So is it any good? Hold on there, octopus fans. I have a theory on that too. I have a theory on everything. I’ve got a blog.

Antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) is looking for his missing brother. A fellow antiques dealer, he was up in remote Greymarsh, their ancestral hometown, looking for old vases and stuff. Manning arrives at Craxted Lodge, his brother’s last known location. There he encounters the stuffy lodge owner (Christopher Lee), an aging occult expert (Boris Karloff) and a crazy swinging’ party. The early-to-bed kind, Manning takes the lodge owner’s offer to spend the night. He starts having nightmares of a witch cult led by a horned goddess (Barbara Steele) that seem to have disturbingly more substance than mere dreams.

I wanted to say that “Crimson” shoots its cinematic load early–the film opens with a Satanic ritual, fully replete in chains, body paint and skimpy leather underwear, then transitions into an antiquing thriller–but the movie never stops trying. As soon as our hero starts investigating his missing brother, he runs into a flight of cars chasing a giggling woman who’s wearing a sheer unitard in what the film, with tongue firmly in cheek, calls a “sophisticated hide and seek.” When he gets directions from a strange after-hours gas station attendant, our hero arrives at the creepy lodge at the outskirts of town, which is hosting a Champagne-fueled swingers party with more body paint and underwear. To call this film a product of its time would be putting it mildly.

In case you weren’t paying attention, that’s a who’s who of 60s horror up there. Lee, Karloff, Steele. Michael Gough is lurking around as well, playing a stuttering butler who gets to Renfield it up around the Lodge. Every one of them does as well as you’d expect. Steele is in fine form, all stony menace, although surprisingly absent for much of the film. Lee does his best with a somewhat underwritten role, and Karloff is superb, bringing both warmth and sly malice to a stock absented minded professor character. “Crimson” was his last film released during his lifetime, and one would be a fool not to appreciate Karloff’s presence, even if the movie itself is much less solid.

The film’s conflicted nature is revealed in its soundtrack. The score–by Peter Knight, the guy who orchestrated the symphonic parts of the Moody Blues album “Days of Future Passed”–is lush and full and stirring, and consequently feels disconnected from a psychological horror film about witch cults.

Here is this blog’s theory. The story of “Crimson” is credited to Jerry Sohl, who wrote the aforementioned “Die Monster Die!” However, the screenplay is credited to Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, BBC jobbers who wrote for shows like “Doctor Who” and “The Avengers.” My guess is they took Sohl’s concept, which was probably closer to Lovecraft, and swung it up. Notably, during pre-production, the project was called “Dreams in a Witch House,” only becoming the splashier “Crimson Altar” later.

Does it make a difference that Sohl is from Los Angeles and Haisman and Lincoln were from London? Naw. Not even worth mentioning.

What we’re left with is a film devoid of creepy atmosphere and an ending that seems aware of what genre its going for but uncertain of how to get there. Likewise, the hero is one of the least genre savvy I’ve seen in a horror film. The stuttering butler tells him to “get out,” so what does he do? He goes to the local cemetery. The same night no less.

This is not a film to watch for its restraint. There is some atmosphere, but it’s courtesy less of the creepy mansion and more of the psychedelic dreams. The nightmare sequences are a real trip, all multicolored lamps and surreal trial sequences, that seem to have as much to do with cosmic horror as they do with the British TV series “The Prisoner.” The production for those moments is fascinating. Have you ever seen a witch trippier than Steele’s Lavinia? Dig those commanding ram horns.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the film is a much more grounded affair. The direction, by Daniel Haller, is workmanlike. One does get to see plenty of nipples–both male and female–which probably confounded the UK’s film rating board. As far as Lovecraft goes, there are traces of whatever the original concept was (the Karloff character is called Marsh; the “great god Pan” is mentioned), but at best this movie acts as a bridge between the damp chill of “The Haunted Palace” and the dark woods of “The Wicker Man.”

In one scene, a witch’s horned henchman, wearing naught but a leather-and-chain bikini, plays cards while the hero is urged to sign away his soul to the green witch. The hero refuses, and the witch summons her henchman to take him away. The henchman scowls and throws down his hand. I feel for you, big guy.

The ecstasy of Gold: News August 2020

Sorry for that missed weekend, Tonstant Weader, but there is a fair amount of news this time around. Let’s pretend we were getting everything into order.

First, I’ll get the shameless self-promotion out of the way. Two short stories of mine are upcoming in anthologies. The first is a weird philosophical musing in a collection of time travel stories to be called “On Time,” and the second is a tense psychodrama in a collection of thrillers to be called “Hookman and Friends.”

The good folks at Transmundane Press, the publisher of “On Time,” interviewed me not too long ago about my story. You can find that interview on their blog, which is conveniently also a WordPress blog. There will be more content from them in the future, which is fitting for time travelers, so keep your eyes peeled.

Righto, enough of that. There’s some not-so-me content coming to this blog in the next couple weeks. For one, the Xbox Live Gold account referred to in the previous post means that this blog has access to certain games for a month at a time. There must be something to review there. Right now, there’s an old school sci fi shooter, a “Minecraft” rip-off with dragons, uh, a brawler with mechs, something featuring dirt bikes… Naw, I’m not feeling these games. Maybe the shooter. Or maybe I’ll just check again in October.

Screw it, we’ll do some old horror movie reviews instead. It was just Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday, and H. P. Lovecraft’s is coming up. We’ll figure something out.

Finally, this post’s title does not just refer to Xbox gold. “The Ecstacy of Gold” is the name of a track from the soundtrack of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” that some of you might know because Metallica covered it at concerts. The original was composed by the great Ennio Morricone, who passed away last month. I feel like this blog should say something about that.

Morricone is most famous for essentially inventing the genre of Spaghetti Western music, but he also scored a number of thrillers and horror films, including “Exorcist II,” ”
“Ripley’s Game” and, perhaps most notably, John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” His impressionist soundtrack is an integral part of the themes and atmosphere of that film, and it is understandably one of horror’s greatest scores.

I think the story that best sums up my experience and opinion of Morricone comes from my viewing of the 1965 Italian thriller “Nightmare Castle,” a creaker that drags out all of the tropes of Gothic fiction without any depth, fun or a shred of budget to make it watchable. For me, the most notable aspect was the soundtrack. With its towering church organ it was as Gothic as everything else, but it had a certain elegance, inventiveness or quality the rest of the film was missing. I didn’t know who the composer was, so I looked it up. Of course, it was Morricone.

That wasn’t my introduction to Morricone. Far from it, his soundtrack for “Once Upon a Time in the West” already topped my short list of favorite film scores. What’s so special about that experience was it shows a Morricone score could elevate a mediocre film into something memorable. One doesn’t have to see his name to recognize his genius. That’s more than quality; it’s visionary. He will be missed.

Apocalyptic pest control: A critical review of “Vermintide” (2016)

Video games used to be a simpler lot, and I don’t mean in the days before VR headsets threatened to become commonplace or everyone online decided “The Last of Us” was the first truly “mature” video game, not to mention the days before RPGs brought tabletop complexity to the desktop, before Pong or before Donkey Kong. I’m talking about the days before I entered the world of Xbox Live.

This blog wanted to play “Vermintide” for a while now, but the Xbox had to be online for that to happen since the game is online only. That’s fine. My Internet kinda sucks for games so I normally have it off, but I switched it on and sat through hours of Microsoft updates. Once that was done, I fired up the actual game. It explained I didn’t just have to have Xbox Live but Xbox Live Gold, which costs money and I’d never set up because my Internet sucks.

I bought a Gold gift card, fired up the game again, settled into an overstuffed chair and scratched the silver crud off the gift card, only to realize I didn’t need to set up a Gold account because the game was mysterious working now. I was online, in character and fully functioning with no idea of why. Not one to question providence, I played for the rest of the night.

I tried the game the the following night, and it was back to telling me I couldn’t have access cos I didn’t have a Gold account. What? Later, I learned Microsoft made Gold membership available gratis to all Xbox Live users for a weekend. Nobody tells me these things. Had I been playing on the weekend? I didn’t think I was. Maybe it was a glitch in my favor? That would be a first.

Wasn’t this supposed to be a video game review? I think so. Well, is “Vermintide” good? Yes, actually, it is.

I know the title is really something like “Warhammer: The End Times: Vermintide: The Next Generation: Jungle 2 Jungle,” but I ain’t got time for all that. “Vermintide” is the important part, cos you’ll be dealing with tides of vermin. “End Times” kinda matters too, but that’s why the rest doesn’t matter. When it’s the end of the world, do you really want to deal with subtitles and colons?

The “Warhammer” part might be important for some people to create a sense of place, but the gameplay itself seems delightfully unconcerned with its own mythology (the voice acting and script effectively create a sense of play rather than seriousness; I think one of the “helpful tips” the game offers is the Dwarven word for “kneecap”). This blog only has fringe experience with the Warhammer franchise, but I’ve always liked what I’ve seen: downbeat, violent and unafraid to play up all the ugliest tropes of dark fantasy, with trace amounts of cosmic horror and body horror. Those experiences also seemed more plot-heavy than “Vermintide.” In this game, any semblance of plot is incidental to killing rats.

If “Vermintide” is taking an irreverent approach, it would fit the game’s compact and pragmatic philosophy. These heroes aren’t doing the sexy quests. They’re not guarding royalty or assaulting fortresses or battling mad deities. They’re killing rats, lots of rats, cos someone’s gotta do it even if it is the end of the world. It reminds me of the anime “Goblin Slayer,” which I will heartily recommend to any dark fantasy fan. “Vermintide” has that show’s same gritty pessimism combined with its roll-up-your-sleeves approach to wading headfirst into gore.

In truth, one could mostly cover “Vermintide” by only talking about its blood-soaked, quantity-over-quality combat. Enemies swarm you, and although most of them go down easily enough, they can overwhelm overconfident players. The game borrows a lot from zombie shoot ’em up “Left 4 Dead.” In fact, it borrows as liberally as it can without encouraging a lawsuit. The zombies are now rats, but they are horde rats, hunter rats, giant rats and rats with little World War I-era gas masks. They’re also rats that lose arms, legs and heads as they are hacked down in rivers of steel and blood. No doubt the titular tide is red.

Basing itself on a horror game was a smart move, since “Vermintide” uses atmosphere very well. The maps skew toward the claustrophobic, and once you’ve been swarmed the first time, even pockets of calm have a tense or edgy feel. The game environments are beautifully over-the-top in Halloween Gothic dressing, and skittering and tittering sounds are impressively utilized to set the scene and warn of impending attacks. The music is fine and fitting too, all heavy brass under sinister electronic stings.

The closest to innovation over “Left 4 Dead” is the character selection, since choice does matter a little bit to play style. The oblivious soldier of fortune is the game’s melee fighter; the cackling dwarf is its tank; the criminal pyromancer is support; the abandoned-her-post elf is ranged; and the unpopular-at-school witch hunter is balanced. I prefer the elf, then the witch hunter, then anybody but the dwarf. Nevertheless, everyone’s weapons respond with chunky satisfaction. Also, given that everyone is presented as a drunk, screwup or mercenary, it fits with the game’s philosophy. These aren’t the people you call for the glorious duties. They’re pest control.

All levels are co-op, which means you’ll either be playing with computer controlled bots or humans online. The bots are straightforward, dependable but easy to fool. Humans are innovative and intelligent, but prone to bouts of stupidity and selfishness. Regardless, despite there being nothing cosmetically different about beating a level with a band of fellow humans instead of bots, it always felt good. Until, of course, the game bugged out on me.

Maybe it’s my fault since it’s my Internet that sucks (have I mentioned that?), but the gameplay penalty for a lost game was harsh. It didn’t matter much if it dropped connection mid-level, but if it did so at the end, that carried special hazards. In theory one gets experience points, a chance for new equipment and a chance at some of the game’s currency when they put the time and effort into beating a level. However, if the server disconnected at the moment a level finished, I’d only get experience points. Or else I’d get nothing.

It was possible to remedy that somewhat by setting a level to “private” and hosting it for myself by myself, but that’s trading both the fun, and perhaps the point, of the game for stability. This is one of my biggest beefs with online play. Even if you have the right hardware, you can’t necessarily access the game because of intermittent connection through the fault of forces outside your wallet, like geography or atmosphere. You have enough access to see the game but not enough to get a credible experience. It’s bad enough for a free game, but oddly insulting for a paid one. Of course, I have only myself to blame. They warned me I needed the Internet, but I didn’t listen.

There’s another layer to this too. If-and-when Fatshark or Microsoft or whoever is in charge decides to quit, there will be no support for the game, and then no one will have access to it. I don’t know exactly how these things work; I just know that they do work (until they don’t). One of my biggest issues with online only play of this sort is philosophical. Players don’t pay for a game that they can play whenever they feel like it. They pay for access to it, sometimes monthly, and that access lasts as long as it does. There’s no sense of mutual ownership, and therefore collaboration, between artist and audience, between designer and player. The company has sole ownership of the game because it can destroy it whenever it wants.

But you probably don’t want to hear about any of that, Tonstant Weader. You want to know if “Vermintide” is worth it. This blog is still figuring that out, but for now, I will say this: You would think a game that’s just about killing rats would get tired. It does, but it takes a long time to get there.