Catacombs aka The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die (1965) DVD Review

catacombs (1)CATACOMBS aka THE WOMAN WHO WOULDN’T DIE (1965) DVD

Directed By: Gordon Hessler

Written By: Jay Bennett (novel), Daniel Mainwaring

Starring: Gary Merrill, Jane Merrow, Georgina Cookson, Neil McCallum

UK Certification: 12

RRP: £9.99

Running Time: 86 minutes

Distributor: Network

UK Release Date: 25th August 2014

Gordon Hessler, the German born film director who died earlier this year was perhaps best known for a threesome of horror movies made with Vincent Price for AIP in The Oblong Box (1969), Cry of the Banshee (1970) and Scream and Scream Again (1970). Prior to these he was placed under contract to Alfred Hitchcock where he was a story reader for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series. Here he became a story editor for two seasons at the start of the 60s before graduating to the role of associate producer up until the series’ cancellation in 1965. It was in this role that he came across a novel whose adaptation was rejected for the show, but would soon become the basis for his feature film directorial debut – Catacombs.

Raymond Garth (Merrill) exhibits all the symptoms of a downtrodden husband. His wife Ellen is the epitome of domineering, and such behaviour draws many a drained expression from those close to her – not least her secretary Richard (McCallum) who even shares his despair with Raymond when the opportunity arises. To observing friends Ellen and Raymond have the perfect marriage, but one look in Raymond’s eyes sees a resigned exhaustion with his spouse.

catacombs01One guiding light for Raymond however is the arrival of his niece Alice (Merrow), who with her preference for older men catches the attention of Raymond’s wandering eye, and before long a mere passing interest spirals into a full-blooded infatuation. The problem lies however with Ellen and how Raymond will negotiate operating behind his wife’s back. A pending trip to Italy though proves to be an opportune moment, and with Ellen’s secretary Richard also game for easing her out of the equation the two hatch a cunning plan to facilitate her demise. Like all fanciful proposals though, there’s always a flaw – and in this case it’s the presence of Ellen who exhibits a reluctance to go quietly into the night.

Gary Merrill was a regular of Alfred Hitchcock presents having appeared in five episodes, and you could say that the show was just about the height of what the gravelly voiced former Mr. Bette Davis was likely to achieve. Indeed throughout much of Catacombs you discover that both he and the film find it hard to shake off that episodic television vibe with the expectancy of a mid-episode advert break nagging at your consciousness. Jane Merrow similarly could give a solid performance, but one that again seems destined to excel in a small screen environment at this point in her career.

catacombs03This negativity however should not diminish the worthiness of Catacombs, as at times it’s an engaging and tense piece of filmmaking. It may seem like an over-extended episode of an anthology series, and perhaps that’s what it should be, but it would be churlish to dismiss it as such. Hessler’s direction indicates a competency that would attract people like AIP in years to come, while Daniel Mainwaring’s script does at times belie the notion that this was the guy that wrote such iconic films as Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956). Nevertheless, this curio released by Network as part of The British Film collection is most certainly worth a competitively priced purchase, as all the way to its startling conclusion, Catacombs remains an intriguingly rare slice of British genre filmmaking.

6.5 out of 10

Extras:
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Cat People (1942) DVD Review

CAT 001CAT PEOPLE (1942) DVD

Review by: Dave Wain

Stars: Simone Simon, Tom Conway, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Jack Holt

Written by: DeWitt Bodeen

UK Certification: PG

UK RRP: £12.99

UK DVD Region: 2

Runtime: 72 minutes

Directed by: Jacques Tourneur

UK Release Date: 24th March 2014

Distributor: Odeon Entertainment

If someone was to strap me to a chair with my freedom determined by the horrifying demand that I had to name my ten favourite horror films right then and there, Cat People would definitely feature. It may seem an unusual title to throw out on UKHS amongst the buzz of the latest genre titles, but believe it or not this very week sees Cat People making its UK DVD debut. That’s a staggering thought. One of the finest examples of horror cinema which has been copied from relentlessly by a slew of more contemporary titles is only now being born into the mainstream UK film market. But hey, it’s here and thanks to Odeon for bringing it (and its sequel next month!). Why though do I consider it to be one of the greats?

CAT 002First of all – and perhaps most importantly, it was produced by Val Lewton. This Russian immigrant who died at the criminally young age of 46 began life in Hollywood as an assistant to movie executive David O. Selznick. He was named head of the horror unit at RKO with the princely salary of $250 a week and ordered to create a slate of films that fell under three key rules. 1) They had to be under 75 minutes, 2) They had to come in under a $150,000 budget, and 3) The titles were to be provided by Lewton’s supervisors. Cat People was Lewton’s first movie and was also a huge success earning $4million at the box office. Iconic titles followed such as I Walked with a Zombie, The Seventh Victim and The Leopard Man (all 1943). His legacy is celebrated today, and Lewton himself was afforded a brilliant documentary (The Man in the Shadows) narrated by none other than Martin Scorsese.

The second vital piece in this Cat People jigsaw is undoubtedly the director Jacques Tourneur, the Parisian filmmaker who Is an iconic figure if only for shooting the phenomenal Night of the Demon (1957) – but he did so much more including one of the ultimate film noir’s in Out of the Past (1947) as well of course as the aforementioned I Walked with a Zombie. The combination of these two artists seemed to gel behind the scenes, rendering Cat People a phenomenal work of art.

CAT 003The film itself begins at the zoo as we immediately become acquainted with Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) who is busily sketching the portrait of a black panther. A man called Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) begins a conversation with her, and after walking her back to her apartment along with her art equipment, she invites him in for a cup of tea. As the two converse over the hot beverage the style of the movie strikes you immediately as we witness Irena and Oliver portrayed almost only by shadows due to the dark nature of the lightning. Not just that, if you look closely at the way this scene is shot, the fraction of light on the windows makes them look like prison bars, its mesmerising. It only last momentarily as Irena soon puts a light on, but in doing so explains how she loves the dark – “it’s so friendly”, she says.

Over tea, Oliver asks Irena about some of the items that adorn her apartment and most specifically the statue of a medieval warrior on horseback impaling a cat with his sword. Irena explains that the figure is King John of Serbia (Serbia being her homeland) while the cat represents evil, before going on to tell a tale of witchcraft and devil worshipping that affected her village centuries ago. Shortly after, Oliver decides to buy Irena a cat but upon receiving it the feline seems uneasy and it hisses. “Cat’s don’t seem to like me” bemoans Irena, and they set off to the pet shop to exchange their furry adversary for something more fitting. At the pet shop though the animals are set off into a state of frenzy by Irena’s presence, and with the shopkeeper uttering the perceptive “animals can sense things in people”, Irena’s mind is sent to a state of worrisome introspection – surely she can’t be descended from those ‘cat people’ from the folklore of her village?

CAT 004Granted, this description of the set-up of Cat People may not have your jaw dropping to the floor in wonder of its originality, but the importance of the film is more concerned with the style than the storyline. The film feels like a direct descendent of the German expressionist horror of the previous decades, be it Nosferatu (1922) or M (1931), as it displays such a radically stark imagery of darkness, light and shadows. At the time of course Universal horror was in its ascendency, and RKO wanted something to compete with it. Lewton rejected this though and in fact opted for something far removed from these heavily made-up creatures.

Cat People features no monsters and no make-up, with all its shocks and suspense coming from the viewers’ mind. In fact on first viewing I rejected that statement – I saw a creature, I remember it vividly. I was wrong though, my mind had simply created something through the power of suggestion. It was a clever ploy by Lewton and Tourneur, in fact it was Fritz Land who said “nothing the camera shows can be as horrible as the mind can imagine”. Indeed they created another memorable shock with the famed ‘Lewton Bus’ effect, which can simply be described as an increasing period of silent tension building to a crescendo only to be broken by a foil – which in Cat People’s case was an arriving bus. It may seem simple, and today it’s a regular occurrence in many horror movies, but in 1942 it was ground-breaking.

CAT 005The suggestive horror in Cat People is undoubtedly its crowning achievement, and should provide a vital lesson (often ignored) to contemporary filmmakers on how to shoot a horror movie on a budget to maximum effect. In 1993, Cat People was selected for preservation in the American National Film Registry, while a copy is also held in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This alone displays the films importance, and despite its low budget nature and despite its rather misleading, hackneyed title – Cat People belongs in the hallowed hierarchy of horror cinema.

10 out of 10

Scrooge (1951) A UKHS Xmas Horror Review

Scrooge – 1951 | 86 mins | Comedy, Drama | B&W

I don’t like the Muppets, I don’t like them at all. I never have and I’m probably sure that I never will. It’s a controversial viewpoint which I know will upset many, but I have my legitimate reasons.

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“That bloody Frog is here somewhere…….
Even as a child I never really had much time for those supposedly loveable puppet things that celebrities almost seemed to trample over each other to get their faces on; Kermit the blooming Frog simply annoyed the hell out of me, Miss Piggy reminded me of an old schoolteacher from my Grammar school and Fozzy bear just creeped me out for some unknown reason that I couldn’t ever quite put my finger on. The only character that I ever found remotely likable was the drummer, Animal. “So Stuey, what is the actual reason for this hatred of an entertainment institution?” I hear you ask. Well, partly it may be that at school one of my lesser flattering nicknames was ‘Gonzo’, given to me by some wit who thought that as I had a slightly bug nose it would be highly hilarious to give me that name. It could have been worse I suppose, they could have call me Joseph Merrick – now that would have been cruel. But no, I’m way past that now – after all, those years of therapy had to amount to something…..

 

No, it is far more than just a half-arsed witty nickname that causes me to tense up just at the very thought of Jim Henson’s crazy Muppets. The thing that more or less sealed the deal was a certain adaptation of arguably the classic ghost story of all ghost stories. As far as I’m aware there have been over fifty adaptations in various forms of Charles Dickens Literary classic ‘A Christmas Carol‘. Some of them have been truly excellent (the 1984 TV film starring George C. Scott being of particular note) while some adaptations have been, well, less than excellent. You see, I truly love the story of A Christmas Carol, not necessarily for it’s theme of personal redemption (which is a quite nice thing I suppose), no I love it because at the core of the story there is a genuine substance of spectral horror. Yet, throughout the years a light-hearted and comforting tale of amusing and eccentric ghosts visiting a rather grumpy but still humorous old Ebenezer have replaced the original feeling of fear and horror that Dickens intended when he wrote the story…….. and chief amongst those guilty of such a transformation from horror to cosy are those responsible for A Muppet Christmas Carol. I tell you now, ‘Funny ghosts’ and Michael Caine hamming it up are not anywhere on god’s green Earth near to the original authentic subject matter of the source material. And don’t get me started on the bloody songs.

 

Thankfully the more authentic adaptations are there to remind us how powerfully chilling this story can actually be when the will arises. Whilst the aforementioned TV version starring the excellent George. C Scott is a wonderful piece of work, for me nothing has yet has ever compared on a chill-factor level as a British made black and white version of the story – Scrooge (1951).
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“You bloody well let me know when you hear the first sound 
of a song in this movie”
 
THE PLOT
You’ve got to be kidding me?! – Its A freaking Christmas Carol!

 

Well OK – for those 23 people in the Amazonian tribe yet to be discovered by the rest of ‘civilisation’ and so haven’t got around to seeing any of the veritable plethora of movie versions, here is the plot in a very quick but informative way.

 

“Old, bitter businessman Ebenezer Scrooge hates Christmas and everybody who celebrates it – he does have one favourite Christmas pastime, which is shouting “Humbug” at all Crimbo devotees…..He especially has no time for his ever-so-nice employee Bob Cratchett who has a big annoyingly happy Family, including a crippled son called Tiny but annoyingly happy Tim…….Ebenezer is soon visited by the ghost of his dead business partner – Ghost warns him of his impending doom. Scrooge laughs it all off as the result of bad cheese, ghost gets a bit annoyed…….. soon he’s visited by the ghosts of Crimbo past, Crimbo present and possible Crimbo future which looks decidedly pants – It’s all very very frightening with thunderbolts and lightening…….Eventually he sees the error of his selfish ways………suddenly becomes very happy when alive to see Crimbo morning……treats everybody to free lunches & presents……buys the Cratchetts a big bird to eat……Tiny Tim is more annoyingly happy than ever….”
Yes the story for me has its faults; Tiny Tim is always genuinely annoying and if I was his older brother I would be deeply pissed off the old golden buy Tim gets all the attention. His father Bob Cratchett has always in my book deserved a bit of a slap around the chin with a wet fish for being overly wet and subservient. However even the cynic in me never fails to get sucked into the joy that Scrooge feels when waking up as a reformed man on Christmas morning.

 

This film is true, not only to the main episodes in the original story, but just as importantly to this blogger, faithful to its fundamental horror content.
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“But I’ve never even met Jim Henson!!”
For while learning from the error of ones’ ways and attaining personal redemption are all well and good, it’s the chilling psychological journey that Scrooge is forced to endure that has always appealed to me – and boy does this version lay on atmosphere and chill-factor galore.
The film is perhaps in some ways the most faithful in some ways to the original text and yet succeeds in adding some fascinating layers of previously unexplored back story of the character at Scrooge, in essence building upon elements of plot that Dickens at best only hinted at. For in this version the usual pantomime version of Scrooge as a grumpy yet still likable is replaced by a back story rich in detail that gives meaning and understanding to some of his behaviour. For example, Scrooge’s resentment of Fred isn’t purely due to his hatred of Christmas, but also because his birth resulted in the death of the only woman he ever loved, his sister.

 

It is partly the marvellous screenplay by Noel Langley which provided richly textured back story to Dickens’ source material, but more so it is the central performance of Alistair Sim that brings out a rounded completeness to Scrooge’s character – this is no cardboard cut-out performance from a giant of British cinema, it is a thing of genius. It isn’t only me that believes that Sim’s performance is the benchmark portrayal of Scrooge that all others should be measured by – George C. Scott himself said the very same when he was preparing for the eponymous role.
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Sim’s portrayal is an honest to god tour-de-force, with the more detailed back-story of his life providing him the chance to give depth, understanding and even a degree of sympathy to his selfish and outwardly seemingly downright evil treatment of the people in his life. For example, the well known antipathy he seems to have towards his nephew Fred is explained by the fact that his cherished sister died shortly after giving birth to him – an occurrence that has caused intense resentment and in some ways no little hatred towards the unknowing young man. No-one before or since has ever matched Alistair Sims magical performance of a man tortured by his past – there are moments when just a flicker of his eyes says more than a dozens of hammed up performance of Ebenezer have ever managed to do combined together.

However, this is a horror blog, so I’m especially concerned with the scare factor of this version – and by Jove does it deliver.

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I mentioned earlier that numerous adaptations of this story have resulted in what we now familiarly see as a series of vaguely unsettling but more so amusing spectres providing their various warnings of impending doom. This version thankfully remains true to the chills that it should actually provide – after all, the ghosts that appear are supposed to be intending to frighten the worst of moral offenders into changing his selfish ways.  For example, the slow atmospheric build-up leading to the appearance of Scrooges’ long since dead partner is so expertly done that when the Ghost of Jacob Marley finally appears it produces perhaps one of the most unnerving spectres to haunt cinema – and I genuinely mean that. Not only is the deep despair about his own fate clearly apparent in the wonderful performance of Michael Horden, his rage and frustration at Scrooges initial scepticism is deeply convincing. The fact that a range of ground-breaking special effects were also employed in this production gives a true sense of chilling gravitas to the phantasmic scenes.

 

If that wasn’t enough for the connoisseur of the frights,  the genuine chills of the ghost of Christmas future is the forbidding shadow of impending doom that Dickens originally intended him to be.

 

The fact that the entire movie was filmed on a purpose built studio is a testament to the intense and foreboding atmosphere created for this Dickensian London. The bleakness of the black and white film gives an added gothic nuance that is reminiscent of the glory days of Universal monster movies. This is simply British film-making at it’s glorious best. I would strongly advise that if you are going to view this version of the film for the first time that you watch the original b&w version and not the later colourised version which goes a fair way to robbing the film’s ghost sequences of much of their power to scare – stay away i say….stay away from colour!!
Oh my good god – no word of a lie, but I’ve just seen a trailer on TV for The Smurfs: A Christmas Carol. Kill me now.

 

This version deserves a simple 10 out of 10 – If I could, I would give it more.