So this is a round-up post! If I watch a movie that for some reason doesn’t warrant a full-on review, I’ll write a brief encapsulation and opinion, and post it in a round-up. The first movie I watched was The Uninvited.
02. The Cat People (1942)
I was certain I’d seen this before, but I hadn’t. I’m not sure what I was confusing it with– The Leopard Man, maybe? Val Lewton is held up as a master of the noir suspense genre, and this movie is consistently ranked high in the canon, but it largely fell flat for me. There are some beautiful scenes, don’t get me wrong. There’s a taut sequence where a character is followed down a dimly lit street that’s shot marvelously, and a scene in a swimming pool that’s magnificent.
Despite the direction and cinematography, this movie is not very good. The core idea is fine, but the plotting is baffling and the characterization leaves something to be desired.
Here’s a brief encapsulation of the plot. Oliver Reed falls in love (on the second date) with Irena Dubrova, a Serbian immigrant. They get married immediately, and then Irena reveals that she believes she’s descended from a line of evil, wicked, devil-worshipping cat people, who turn into panthers when they get sexually aroused or very angry. She got some issues. Oliver eventually gets frustrated and falls in love with his co-worker Alice, and then Irena gets mad. They all make some pretty bad decisions, and then it comes to a boil in the way you’d imagine it would.
It all falls down for me in its own estimation of its characters and their importance. Oliver’s an asshole and an idiot, with all of the weird entitlement issues that came with being a straight white dude in the 1940s, and which are seemingly endorsed by the film. Alice is a total jerk and also an idiot. Irena’s a pretty good person working through some issues.
I was complaining about a choice some characters made, and Barb nailed it. She said, “I think it’s well-established that the people in this movie are dumbshits.”
The one thing that kept me entertained is that Val Lewton is a master of the lewd implication.
In 1942, you couldn’t just have a character outright say, “Hey, I’m afraid I’ll turn into a panther and maul you if we get our bone on,” so he had to dance around it, and this is the one place where the writing really shines. Lewton’s frustration with the edicts of the Hays Code actually led him to some beautiful exposition through subtle implication. It’s worth seeing for his deft navigation of the censorship, and those two tense “somebody’s about to get murdered” scenes. Plus, it clocks in at a nice tight 70 minutes, so you could, for example, start it at nine o’clock when you have to be at work early the next morning.
03. Craze (1974)
This movie is some deliciously hot garbage.
Jack Palance, replete with 70s porno-style pencil-thin moustache, plays an antique shop owner. By day, he peddles his wares, but by night, he runs a coven in his crappy basement– a coven devoted to worshiping “the great African love god Chuku.”
It’s exactly as bonkers, over-the-top, and racist (in that ‘oh those mysterious magical primitives’ way) as you’d expect.
His antique shop isn’t doing very well, but when he gets into an argument with a woman who’s left the coven– she wants to take the Chuku idol, claiming that it was hers in the first place (a gift from Aleister Crowley)– they struggle, and she gets impaled on the idol’s spikes, spraying technicolor tempera everywhere.
Suddenly, Palance finds a cache of gold coins, and figures that Chuku is rewarding him for his sacrifice.
Well, heck, what’s a guy to do but to keep murdering people in the name of the great god Chuku?
The rest of the movie is basically an excuse to let Palance run wild, killing people and chewing scenery. Nobody chews scenery like Jack Palance. I watched Alone in the Dark a few years ago, and gained an appreciation for the man that hasn’t yet waned. Listening to him say stuff like, “It’s all for you, great god Chuku,” is utterly hilarious and beautiful.
There’s a subplot about Palance’s elderly great-aunt and his desire to get his inheritance a little bit early. It gets a little convoluted when he manufactures an elaborate alibi and the movie loses its way, but doesn’t stray too far. There are, after all, still ridiculous set-piece murders.
The supporting cast is very good. Diana Dors plays a blowsy ex-girlfriend, Martin Potter plays Palance’s antique-store assistant, and one of the cops is played as straight as can be by Trevor Howard, an actor I didn’t expect to crop up in this kind of movie.
The whole thing comes to a head as expected, and Palance chows down on everything in his path. This entire movie was a delightful surprise.
04. Torture Garden (1967)
Man, people love these Amicus anthology horror films. I can understand why– the casts were uniformly good and interesting, they had that 60s/70s technicolor garishness about them, and if one story sucked, you could simply wait a few minutes for the next one. I watched their Tales From the Crypt anthology when I did this back in 2014, and thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’ve seen a handful of others. The House That Dripped Blood is still on my list for this year, but… after watching this one, I don’t know if I can handle another one. This one was boring as fuck.
The framing device is great. Burgess Meredith plays “Doctor Diabolo,” and he runs a sort of budget circus-sideshow grand guignol, inviting people into a tent for a couple pounds. Once they’re inside, they see beheadings, medieval torture devices, and an electric chair, held up as an example of the barbarity of American culture.
Burgess Meredith is fantastic, as always.
The problem comes during the parts of the movie that aren’t the framing device. This shouldn’t be the case– this entire thing was written by Robert Bloch, for god’s sake, and based on his own short stories– but hoo boy, this thing is packed with stinkers.
The first story is an excruciatingly long segment about a young man who murders his uncle, searches for his hidden riches, and then gets mind-controlled by a possessed, murderous cat he digs out of a coffin in the basement.
It is awful and mind-numbingly protracted.
The second is about a wannabe Hollywood starlet, who finds that maybe screen and stage immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It has its moments, but it’s jam-packed with dull filler.
In the third, a… grand piano… defenestrates a woman? I was losing interest hard by this point.
Thankfully, the fourth story brought it all home for me. Jack Palance (again, with the pencil-thin creepstache again) plays a guy who’s obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe. Peter Cushing plays another collector, who has a magnificent Poe collection, much envied by Palance.
It gets pretty spooky, and watching these two masters play off each other is deeply satisfying and engaging for the entire running time.
Then the framing device brings the whole thing home by revealing what we’ve suspected all along– Burgess Meredith is a giant creep!
I can’t recommend this movie in good conscience, because it is brain-bendingly stultifying overall, but the framing device and final story are worth watching. Just fast-forward through the rest of that junk (okay, maybe watch the grand piano defenestration scene, too).