Archive for the British Horror Category

BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2012)

Posted in 2013, Art Movies, British Horror, Compelling Cinema, Enigmatic Films, Giallo, Independent Cinema, LL Soares Reviews, Psychological Horror, Unusual Films with tags , , , , , , on July 9, 2013 by knifefighter

BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2012)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares

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The sense of atmosphere in BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is so thick, you could chop it with a machete, and that’s a big part of what makes it so fascinating. More a character study (and a study of a specific time and place in film history) than an outright horror movie, Peter Strickland’s BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO nonetheless has a pervading, unsettling mood throughout.

Toby Jones (probably best known for playing Truman Capote in 2006’s INFAMOUS) plays Gilderoy, a mild-mannered Englishman who seems to have mostly done sound for children’s shows and nature programs back home, is somehow plucked from his small existence and inserted into an Italian horror movie studio. The vibe is completely 1970s, at the high of the giallo craze. Gilderoy is a fish out of water, and there’s more than a little Kafka in his situation. Many of his co-workers do not speak English. Those who do, specifically the film’s producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) and the mysterious director, Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino), are tall, intimidating men whose comments to Gilderoy can sometimes seem more like threats.

Gilderoy is not really sure why he was chosen for this project, especially based on his previous work, but, as Francesco tells him at one point, there are people dying to do his job for free, so he should be happy to do it. The implication being that he should be willing to do it for no money, which he isn’t. But trying to get reimbursed for his flight to Italy alone is an ongoing dilemma, as he keeps getting shuttled from Francesco, to his secretary Elena (Tonia Sotriopoulou), to the Accounting Department. It’s quite clear that the studio isn’t very eager to pay for anything unless it really has to. At one point, the guy in accounting tells Gilderoy that there was no record of a flight leaving England the time he said he flew, and that they cannot pay him back. By then, Gilderoy is so frustrated (since he clearly was on this supposedly non-existent flight!) that he begins to lose his cool, and the worm finally begins to turn.

For hardcore film fans, BERBERIAN is a fascinating look at a side of cinema we rarely see. Sure, we’ve seen the making of a film from the actors’ point of view, or the director’s, but this movie finally gives us entrée into the studio where the sound engineers and foley artists do their thing. We get to see which vegetables and fruits, when smashed or otherwise destroyed, make for the best sound effects, and how a scream can be amplified and manipulated to set your hair on end.

I thought the technical aspects in BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO were fascinating. But I didn’t find much of a plot here. Not that this is particularly detrimental in BERBERIAN’s case. As his ordeal goes on, Gilderoy feels more and more cut off from the outside world, and the movie does a good job of making us feel as claustrophobic as he does. The only people he sees every day are Francesco and the other sound guys. Occasionally Santini stops by to strut around and tell Gilderoy how wonderful he is for the project (meanwhile laughing behind his back in Italian with Francesco). There are also actors and actresses who come and go, spending time in sound booths to either dub dialogue or make vocal sound effects. Or scream.

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It is one of the screaming actresses, Veronica (Susanna Cappellaro)  who befriends Gilderoy. She’s the only one who really seems interested in him as a person, and who confides in him that Santini has been sexually harassing her (as he seems to be doing with all his actresses, some of whom are more responsive to his advances), when he’s not treating her and her co-stars like garbage when they don’t scream just right for his satisfaction. She decides to get revenge on Santini and the production in a way that is very effective (if bloodless).

There are scenes of menace. One particular scene involves Gilderoy waking up to someone thrashing his door and wildly shaking the knob. When he grabs a knife to investigate, he wanders out into the hall, eventually finding himself in a screening room, where the projector starts running and plays footage on the wall behind him of everything that had just happened (inside his room!).

The film the crew is making, concerning 16th century witches who rise to fulfill a curse, and who are in the tunnels beneath an equestrian school—the Italian title translates as “The Equestrian Vortex—bares more than a passing resemblance to Dario Argento’s classic SUSPIRIA (1977), which involved witches and a girls’ dancing school. Of course, we do not see much footage from the film. Early on, we see the opening credits. But the rest of the time, we only know the story based on the recitation of lines by the actors in the sound booths.

Gilderoy is clearly uncomfortable with the subject matter of the film. Whether he is ripping radishes from their stems to replicate the sound of hair being torn from a witch’s head, or listening to women scream over and over (as they are forced to do retakes), he clearly is not thrilled with what he’s doing, even if he realizes it is a unique opportunity for someone who has only done sound for films for the telly back in England (and, despite his age, who still lives with him mum).

His only contact with his former life is in the form of letters from his mother, which start out mundane enough, and which get stranger as time goes on. When an actress recites the contents of one letter, line for line, in front of him, you know something sinister is afoot.

As he is forced to redo sound for scenes over and over, we start to wonder how long this job is going to last, and then wonder if he will ever be allowed to leave. We never see him go outside. He is either in the studio (which is most of the time), or in his room. If there is horror here, it’s the horror of being trapped in an unpleasant place without knowing if you’ll ever escape. Because the longer Gilderoy stays there, the more it seems he won’t be permitted to leave.

The cast is quite good, led by Jones, who is one of those gifted actors who, because of how he looks and sounds, will never be a traditional leading man, but who you want to see more of. Aside from playing Capote in INFAMOUS, Jones’s Hollywood career has amounted mostly to small roles as a character actor (like playing one of the commentators in THE HUNGER GAMES, 2012),  so it’s nice to see him take center stage again in this smaller, British production.

The emphasis on technical details and atmosphere and subtle menace makes this a little different from the usual horror-related film. As I said early on, it’s much more interested in giving us a glimpse into one man’s life than scaring us, but the sense of dread is strong here, and seems quite real.

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Director Strickland has created a unique film that reaches in the direction of art. While it won’t appeal to everyone (it does move at a slower pace than most summer blockbusters), the audience that will appreciate it will obviously have a good time with it. I know I did.

I give BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares

(Note: BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO has been having a very brief run in arthouse theaters in some cities. It is also currently available on some cable OnDemand services)

LL Soares gives  BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO ~three and a half knives.

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Bill’s Bizarre Bijou Stands in THE SHADOW OF THE CAT (1961)

Posted in 1960s Horror, 2012, Animals Attack, Bill's Bizarre Bijou, British Horror, Family Secrets, Hammer Films, Inheritance!, Revenge!, William Carl Articles with tags , , , , , on May 24, 2012 by knifefighter

Bill’s Bizarre Bijou

By William D. Carl

This Week’s Feature Presentation:

SHADOW OF THE CAT (1961)

Welcome to Bill’s Bizarre Bijou, where you’ll discover the strangest films ever made. If there are alien women with too much eye-shadow and miniskirts, if papier-mâché monsters are involved, if your local drive-in insisted this be the last show in their dusk till dawn extravaganza, or if it’s just plain unclassifiable – then I’ve seen it and probably loved it. Now, I’m here to share these little gems with you, so you too can stare in disbelief at your television with your mouth dangling open. Trust me, with these flicks, you won’t believe your eyes!

Since the beginning of motion pictures, films have attempted to cast average household pets as evil villains, waiting for their owners to forget them for just one moment before they pounce on them and perform various unspeakable acts upon their persons. From Holmes and Watson facing off against the eerily howling THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1939) to the rabid St. Bernard of CUJO (1983) to the human-flesh-addicted felines in THE CORPSE GRINDERS (1971) to the hundreds of starving cats in STRAYS (1991), Hollywood has tried to make man’s best friends into horror movie fodder, with mixed results. For every CUJO, there is a DEVIL DOG, HOUND OF HELL (1978), in which scary music plays over the cutest puppy you’ve ever seen. For every scary cat from PET SEMATARY (1989), we get a killer kitty like the pussycat in THE SHADOW OF THE CAT (1961), which just happens to be on our drive-in screen tonight!

Amidst a furious lightning storm, an old lady, Ella Venable (Catherine Lacey), reads The Raven aloud to her pussycat, Tabitha, who doesn’t seem very interested in the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. When she glances up, she sees one of her servants, Andrew the butler, with a cudgel, and he promptly bashes her head in while Tabitha watches, unperturbed. The servant drags the old lady outside while the female cook/maid, Clara, watches and the old woman’s husband, Walter (played by Andre’ Morrell of THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, 1959, BEN HUR, 1959, THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, 1965, and BARRY LYNDON, 1975) helps with the corpse. Once in the woods, they quickly bury her in a pre-dug grave. All the while, the cat watches, freaking out the hubbie and the servants to no end. Two days later, Walter calls the police and reports his wife as missing, while the servants try to catch the cat. It seems the animal just keeps staring at them. Clara, the cook, played by the great Freda Jackson (who starred in such fabulous movies as GREAT EXPECTATIONS, 1946, TOM JONES, 1963, and THE VALLEY OF GWANGI, 1969) is especially disturbed by the cat, and she falls into hilarious shrieking fits every time she sees the pussycat. Walter claims the cat “saw everything. It’s a witness, and it needs to be killed.”   Walter and Andrew decide it’s time to send for Ella’s niece, Elizabeth, played by the Queen of British Horror herself, lovely Barbara Shelley (VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, 1960, DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, 1966, FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH, 1967, and the titular monster of THE GORGON, 1964). Walter wants to “deal with” Elizabeth so that the will isn’t disputed.

Hammer mainstay Barbara Shelley gets cozy with the kitty.

Meanwhile, Tabitha lures the two evil servants and Walter into the cellar, where Walter admits, “I’d like to brain it. I hate it!  Here kitty-kitty!”  Of course, the scene ends with Walter braining Andrew while the cat/witness escapes. Once again, everyone is terrified of this adorable little pussycat. Walter even sees a dead rat on the floor, neatly arranged by Tabitha, and he has a heart attack. Unfortunately, Walter lives, but the family’s friend and Ella’s protégé, Michael Latimer (played by Conrad Phillips of CIRCUS OF HORRORS, 1960 and SONS AND LOVERS, 1960) becomes concerned with the missing woman and the unnatural fear of the kitty in the household. When he drives Elizabeth to the spooky mansion, he mentions it, and she asks, “You mean to tell me an ordinary domestic cat is terrorizing three grown-ups?”

Andrew, watching over the sick Walter, is clawed in the face by the cat, but the little beast purrs and loves on Elizabeth. Clara tries to poison the feline eyewitness and Arnold chases it to the swamp. The cat waits till he’s on an unsteady log over quicksand before shaking the log and sending the butler to his doom. Soon after, the cat trips the cook/maid, and Clara tumbles down the stairs, breaking her neck.

Uncle Walter, still obsessing over Tabitha, sends for three cousins. He promises them a cut of his inheritance if they find and kill the cat as well as tracking down a hidden will made by Ella, which gives everything to Elizabeth. This sets them off trying to trap the murderous kitty as well as hunting for the will. The wife of one of the cousins takes to suddenly popping into the disabled old man’s bedroom and shouting “UNCLE!” at the top of her lungs, hoping to instigate another heart attack. Her husband, supposedly watching over the recovering uncle, decides to cut him out of the will entirely, and he leaves the window open, a perfect entryway for Tabitha. Our vengeance-fueled feline promptly enters the room, climbs up on the bed, and scares the old man so much he succumbs to a fit, dying in bed.

I CAN HAZ VENGEANCE!

Will the missing documents be found?  Will the cousins “take care” of Elizabeth?  Will the kitty slaughter off the rest of the cast?  Will justice be served?

THE SHADOW OF THE CAT is purported to be a BHP Production. Upon further inspection, it appears this is a subsidiary of the beloved Hammer Films, which only makes sense when you peruse the production credits. Almost all of the actors had starred in or soon would appear in Hammer productions. The film was stylishly directed by John Gilling, who also helmed THE MUMMY’S SHROUD, 1967, THE REPTILE, 1966, and THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, 1966. The effective, shadowy black and white cinematography is by Arthur Grant, who also shot FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH, 1967, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, 1968, and TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, 1970. The gothic drama reeks of fog and atmosphere, aided immensely by the creepy old Bray House (often utilized for exteriors by Hammer) and that creepy old bog of a swamp. It’s a complete Hammer film without the Hammer moniker. The moody music is by Mikis Theodorakis, who would memorably compose the themes for ZORBA THE GREEK (1964) and SERPICO (1973). It’s a quality production all around, and that’s what makes it so confounding.

Is Tabitha really the villain here?  I hope not, because there is literally NOTHING scary about the kitty-cat killing machine. Every time they show its sweet face, scary music plays, and the audience is supposed to be held in suspense. Instead of terror, this inspires fits of giggles, completely defeating the rest of the production. Everything in the flick is great, with the exception of the cat not being scary. It’s just so cute you want to put its picture on a meme and add funny sayings at the bottom. So you have this well-made movie with an ineffective monster.

Or is the monster supposed to be reflected in the servants and the family. They see their guilt and complicity in Tabitha, and they bump themselves off through their self-doubt and the knowledge of their culpability in Ella’s murder. They are being stalked and murdered by their own subconscious guilt. It’s much more interesting than the killer pussycat movie.

Meow!

I give THE SHADOW OF THE CAT two and a half dead butlers in the bog.

© Copyright 2012 by William D. Carl

Transmissions to Earth: THE VULTURE (1967)

Posted in "So Bad They're Good" Movies, 1960s Horror, 2012, Animals Attack, B-Movies, Bad Acting, British Horror, Hard To Find Movies, LL Soares Reviews, Mutants!, Mystery, Trasmissions to Earth with tags , , , , , , , on March 23, 2012 by knifefighter

Transmissions to Earth: THE VULTURE (1967)
(Obscure) Movie Review by L.L. Soares

It’s been awhile since I wrote an installment of TRANSMISSIONS TO EARTH, where I’ve been focusing on strange and often overlooked movies, but I recently saw a flick that fit this column perfectly. Too bad it isn’t very good.

THE VULTURE is an odd little British film from 1967, directed by Lawrence Huntington, whose first movie was way back in 1930 (AFTER MANY YEARS) and who directed most of his movies in the 40s and 50s with titles like WOMEN AREN’T ANGELS (1943) and THERE WAS A YOUNG LADY (1953). His specialty seemed to be low-budget mysteries and noir wannabes. The fact that nothing he did was all that famous is certainly a bad sign. THE VULTURE was Huntington’s last film as director, and a foray into horror and science fiction that is neither very horrific or very scientific, although it pretends to be.

It begins with a woman walking through an old  graveyard at night and seeing a grave open up, followed by the sound of flapping wings above her. The incident scares her so much to faints and her hair turns white (!). We find out later, when she recovers from “shock” in the hospital, that what she saw was a “great black bird with the head of a man.” Of course, nobody believes her. That is, until Dr. Eric Lutens (Robert Hutton) comes to Cornwall, England to visit his wife’s uncle Brian Stroud (Broderick Crawford) and gets wind of the strange occurence. Lutens is a man of science (back home in America he is part of the “Atomic Program”) and finds the story too irresistible to ignore, despite the fact that everyone around him thinks he’s nuts to pursue it. Everyone except his wife Trudy (Diane Clare), of course.

There is a strange parchment that tells of a curse placed upon the Stroud family by Frances Read, a sailor who owned a mansion a hundred years ago and who had a pet vulture he brought back from Easter Island. Accused of a crime he didn’t commit, Read was buried alive with his pet, vowing revenge on the descendants of the Strouds, which in current time include tycoon Brian, his brother Edward Stroud (Gordon Sterne) and Trudy Lutens, in that order. They are all marked for death.

There are also a few suspicious characters including Melcher, the Sexton (Edward Caddick) who sneaks around warning people not to interfere with the curse, and a German antiquarian expert named Professor Hans Koniglich (Akim Tamiroff) who walks with two canes after a “bad fall” and who finds Dr. Lutens’s theories about the mystery to be quite fascinating.

The incident at the gravesite turns out to include the theft of a box of ancient gold coins from the opened grave, and the “scientific” explanation of events that involve an experiment in teleportation (like THE FLY, 1958) and someone’s atoms being combined with those of the corpse of Frances Read and his pet vulture. And, like THE FLY, it involves someone who has acquired the appendages of an animal, in this case, the titular vulture.

The mystery isn’t all that hard to figure out, even if it does make no sense.The acting for the most part runs the gamut for serviceable to atrocious—with character actors Crawford (best known as the star of the TV series HIGHWAY PATROL from 1955 to 1959)  and Tamiroff, who had previously been in tons of the movies, including the Orson Welles films MR. ARKADIN (1955) and TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) being the big draws here.

The “horror” scenes, being what they are, occur mostly off camera, but we do occasionally hear the flapping of giant wings and see the talons of some giant bird swooping down and grabbing people, to carry them away to their doom. The talons are especially awful-looking and stiff, like they were made of papier mache. The Vulture himself, when his identity is finally revealed, is onscreen for mere seconds—the giant bird with the human head (and hands) —and isn’t convincing at all.

There aren’t any scares to be found in THE VULTURE, and the plot moves pretty slowly for the most part. The effects are dismal, and the “scientific” explanation is laughably absurd. So there isn’t much to recommend this movie. It is pretty hard to find, though, and I’d seen stills from it years ago and was always curious to find out what the movie was actually about. Of course, these kinds of movies rarely are as good as you’re lead to believe, and this one is no exception. THE VULTURE is pretty forgettable, except for some scenes of goofy dialogue and the completely silly solution to the not-so-chilling mystery.

Not worth the effort it took to finally track it down, but at least I finally saw it.

© Copyright 2012 by L.L. Soares

THE VULTURE
91 minutes
Directed and Written by Lawrence Huntington
Starring: Robert Hutton, Akim Tamiroff, Broderick Crawford and Diane Clare

Beware! THE VULTURE will get you if you don't watch out!

KILL LIST (2011)

Posted in 2012, Bad Situations, British Horror, Disturbing Cinema, Hit Men, Killers, LL Soares Reviews, Murder!, Surprises!, Twist Endings, VIOLENCE! with tags , , , , , , , on March 6, 2012 by knifefighter

KILL LIST (2011)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares

Sometimes you find a movie that you don’t know a lot about, and you go in fresh, and it completely blows you away.

This doesn’t happen very often. With this age of media oversaturation, it’s almost impossible not to see the trailer for a movie a hundred times before it opens—not to mention countless ads on television. But every once in a while a little independent film, usually showing in a limited-run at an arthouse theater, slips through the cracks. You hear the buzz about it, and without too much effort you can avoid finding out too much about the plot, and you can have a fresh experience. Like I said, this is rare. The last time I felt this way about a movie was back in 1999, when Takashi Miike’s AUDITION had a very limited theatrical run (the theater I saw it in had it for two days!). I’d heard it was supposed to be good, but I avoided any reviews of it, and was amazed and surprised by it.

Well, sitting through KILL LIST was a very similar experience. It is nothing like Miike’s film, but it has been getting some buzz in the independent horror movie scene, and I was able to avoid reading too much about it, which is good, because it’s one of those movies that throws a few curveballs at you in ways M. Night Shymalan only wishes he could do. (Note: KILL LIST was made in 2011, but some people are only seeing it in the U.S. now, thanks to limited theatrical runs and services like OnDemand cable.Personally, I’m glad I got a chance to see it on the big screen.)

When it started, I thought maybe this one wasn’t going to live up to its buzz. It seemed like just another drama about British working people enduring hard times. Jay (Neil Maskell) has been out of work for months and his wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring) is getting more resentful with each passing day. Enter Jay’s buddy Gal (Michael Smiley) who comes over for dinner with his new girlfriend, Fiona (Emma Fryer) for some wine and chat, but the party turns ugly when Jay and Shel start screaming at each other in the other room. Meanwhile, their young son Sam (Harry Simpson) is taking the brunt of it all.

But things change when Gal offers Jay a chance to get his old job back. The two of them are veterans of the Iraq War and here’s where the first big story twist happens. It turns out that the two of them started freelancing as hired killers after the war ended. Jay has been out of work for a bit because of some mysterious mistake he made in Kiev (we never find out exactly what it was, but it must have been a doosy). But Jay gets a second chance and Gal seems genuinely happy to work with him again, “The Two Musketeers are back together,” as Gal puts it. They accept a job from an enigmatic man (Struan Rodger, who in the credits is simply referred to as “The Client”), who hands them money and a list of three people to kill, including a priest and a librarian. However, to seal the deal, the Client feels the need to take out a knife and make a deep cut in Jay’s hand, then proceeds to do the same to himself. Gal freaks out and pulls out his gun, but Jay seems able to overlook it and move on, even though he’s bleeding all over the carpet. Maybe he’s just happy to be working again and doesn’t want to blow it.

The people Jay and Gal are sent to whack are particularly unsavory types whose crimes shock and offend Jay, and he begins to take the job a little too personally, going after their accomplices as well. Gal starts to worry Jay is going to screw up again, and begins to seriously question the new partnership. Meanwhile Swedish beauty Shel decides to take their son and move out of the house to stay in a cabin they have in the country, leaving Jay alone to stew in his own rage.

It’s the final person Jay and Gal go to snuff that takes the movie in a completely unexpected direction. And about this twist I won’t say anything more, except that it reminded me a lot of two horror “classics,” one from the 1970s and the other much more recent. Needless to say, the ending is suitably disturbing.

The script is top-notch and the acting is equally good. You believe these characters are genuine people, and you care about them. I thought the camaraderie between Jay and Gal was especially good; these guys really do seem like best friends. The budget is clearly small, but director Ben Wheatley turns out a remarkable product all the same. Oh yeah, and there’s plenty of the red stuff for fans of gore. This is a movie that doesn’t look away when the rough stuff is happening. One scene involving a hammer is especially gruesome.

My only issue is that I couldn’t understand everything the characters said. In a few scenes, their Yorkshire accents get a bit thick, and I kind of wish the movie had given us some subtitles (which reminds me of another good but sometimes hard to understand movie, Gary Oldman’s NIL BY MOUTH, 1997). Don’t let this scare you off, though. You’ll get sucked in just the same and it’s pretty clear what’s happening at all times. You just might not catch a phrase here and there.

I’ve seen a few Hollywood movies lately where at the end, the audience feels the need to applaud. Most of the time, this is totally unwarranted (most Hollywood movies these days just aren’t that good). Besides, the people involved in making the movie can’t hear you anyway. But at the end of KILL LIST I wanted to applaud anyway. It was that good.

I can’t praise this one enough. I give it four and a half knives.

© Copyright 2012 by L.L. Soares

L.L. Soares gives KILL LIST ~ four and a half knives!

 

BURKE AND HARE (2010)

Posted in 2012, British Horror, Grave Robbers!, Historical Horror, Indie Horror, Paul McMahon Columns, The Distracted Critic with tags , , , , , on February 22, 2012 by knifefighter

BURKE AND HARE (2010)
Review by Paul McMahon– The Distracted Critic

BURKE AND HARE (2010) opens with the line “This is a true story, except for the parts that are not.” It’s a taste of John Landis humor, and an excellent launching pad for this dark comedy, the first horror-themed feature film Landis (best known for AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, 1981) has directed since 1992’s INNOCENT BLOOD.

The story of BURKE AND HARE is one every self-respecting horror fan knows—a tale of grave robbers who murdered undesirables to sell their bodies to science, rather than do any actual grave digging. Burke is played by Simon Pegg (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, 2004 and PAUL, 2011) and Hare is Andy Serkis, best known as the motion-capture model for Gollum in THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY (2001-2003) and for Kong in KING KONG (2005).

The story takes place in 1828, a time before Gray’s Anatomy (the textbook, not the TV show), a time when the internal organs of the body weren’t understood. In Edinburgh, Scotland, two schools of medicine compete over freshly executed bodies to study. At the start of the tale, Doctor Monro (Tim Curry—Pennywise the Clown in IT, 1990, and of course Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the 1975 midnight classic, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW), head of Scotland’s Royal College of Surgeons, has used his political influence to pass a new city by-law stating that all executed bodies are to be turned over to his school, free of charge. This leaves Doctor Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson—THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, 2005), head of Barclay School of Anatomy, to rely on grave robbers to supply his cadavers. Trouble is, Captain Tam McLintock (Ronnie Corbett), head of the Royal Guard, has declared war on grave robbery and has men patrolling every graveyard every night.

Enter Burke and Hare, two con men desperately in need of money. After spending their last coin on beer, they return to Hare’s place, where his wife Lucky, played by Jessica Hynes (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, 2004) informs them that Old Donald, their tenant, hasn’t paid his rent because he’s dead. She instructs them to get rid of the body before he starts to smell as bad as them. They fold him in half and stuff him into a barrel, intending to hide him at a construction site.

Being the lazy bastards they are, they stop for a pint on the way, and it is here they learn about Doctor Knox’s problem. A quick change of plans later, they’ve got five pounds in hand and a promise of five more for every “fresh” corpse they bring in.

With graveyards too well guarded to obtain bodies in the usual way, Burke and Hare try hanging around in unsavory places, hoping to luck into freshly deceased bodies to swipe. When they come up empty, they hatch a plan to help some of the old and unsavory citizens of the city off this mortal coil.

Success, of course, breeds only the need for more money.

Burke falls for Ginny Hawkins (Isla Fisher, WEDDING CRASHERS, 2005), a dreamer who wants to put on an all-female performance of Macbeth, and is hunting for a financial backer who shares her vision. Burke takes the job, and soon one thing after another goes wrong, leaving him desperate for more and more money. Hare’s wife Lucky deduces what her husband is up to and demands a cut to keep quiet. “Call it a tax between a man and wife.” As more and more people disappear, Captain Tam McLintoch of the Royal Guard strives to solve the mysteries and bring the perpetrators to the gallows.

Simon Pegg is making a career out of playing the loveable bum who remains affable while everything around him falls apart. It’s a role he’s good at, and he’s chosen movies that keep him in that realm of performance. As Burke, he excels at playing a character who realizes that his situation has him on a dangerous slope, yet is unwilling to stop until he gets what he wants—Ginny’s adoration, preferably in the form of sex.

Andy Serkis is so well-known for playing motion-capture creatures that his performance surprised me. He positively shines as Hare, a lazy bum and all-around lout who likes life a whole lot better when he’s making money, and is astonished to discover that he really does love his wife.

Isla Fisher is wonderful as Ginny Hawkins, a peasant girl with delusions of class, who is determined to better herself in a time when women are seen as servants, slaves or whores. The entire supporting cast is excellent, each of them playing their part straight, leaving the laughs to come from the situations and the storyline, rather than from actors winking at the camera.

The script by Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft is spot-on, as is Landis’s direction. The movie was so well-constructed, that it was over before the first jolt of wander-bug hit me.  It’s a shame the film hasn’t become wildly popular, because there’s nothing lacking here. Landis has knocked another one out of the park, and his passion is obvious.

If I absolutely had to find a fault with the movie it would be that Tim Curry doesn’t have a lot to do. Still, his part is memorable and necessary, and missing him isn’t a good enough reason to knock points off. I give BURKE AND HARE five stars, with no time outs at all.

© Copyright 2012 by Paul McMahon

VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1972)

Posted in 2011, 70s Horror, British Horror, Cinema Knife Fights, Hammer Films, Vampire Movies with tags , , , , , , , on December 5, 2011 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: CLASSIC EDITION
VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1972)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

(THE SCENE: A crypt located beneath an old castle. L.L. SOARES lies stretched out on a slab, as MICHAEL ARRUDA stands above him, raising a wooden stake and preparing to plunge it into LS’s heart)

LS: Wait, wait. What are you doing? I was only sleeping!

MA: How do I know you’re only sleeping? How do I know you haven’t been turned into— a vampire!

LS: How about handing me that bag of circus peanuts over there?

MA: Sure. (Hands LS bag of circus peanuts).

LS: I’ve been sleeping so long I’ve built up an appetite. (opens bag and starts eating). Vampires, as you know, don’t eat food.

MA: Good point. Lucky for you, too. I was about to drive a stake through your heart.

LS: I know we disagree a lot, but that’s not reason to get violent!

MA: Sorry. All this vampire circus stuff has made me nervous. Speaking of which, how about we review this week’s movie?

LS: Okay, Since nothing of interest came out in the theaters this week, we ended up reviewing a “classic” of sorts – a vampire film from the legendary Hammer Studios called VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1972). By the time this one came out, Hammer had already put out most of its best films, from CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and THE HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) to THE SCARS OF DRACULA (1970) to TWINS OF EVIL (1971).

Since this was later on in Hammer’s history, there’s more blood and nudity by this time. But, sadly, no big stars. Perhaps the biggest star in VAMPIRE CIRCUS is David Prowse, who plays the mute circus strongman. You might know him better as Darth Vader in the first three STAR WARS films. He was the man behind the black mask (with voice provided by James Earl Jones).

MA: He also played the Frankenstein monster in two Hammer Frankenstein movies, THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1970), the only Hammer Frankenstein movie NOT to star Peter Cushing, and FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974), the final film in the Hammer FRANKENSTEIN series.

LS: And he was the muscleman who carried Patrick Magee around in the last half of Stanley Kubrick’s classic A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971), my favorite Kubrick film. And, it just so happens, Adrienne Corri, who plays Magee’s wife in that movie, Mrs. Alexander (who is raped early on to the tune of “Singing in the Rain”), also played the gypsy woman in VAMPIRE CIRCUS! It’s a small world.

MA: And while you’re right to say there weren’t any big stars in this one, there were two familiar faces for Hammer Films aficionados. Hammer favorite Thorley Walters played the Burgermeister.

LS: The Burgermeister Meisterburger?

MA: No, not him. Anyway, Walters was in lots of Hammer Films, including DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966), in which he played a Renfield-type character named Ludwig, and FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967) where he played Baron Frankenstein’s faithful, but absent-minded assistant, Doctor Hertz.

Also, Anthony Corlan (now known as Anthony Higgins) played the vampire Emil, and he played the young hero in TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1970). Corlan’s actually very good in both movies, and I thought his vampire in VAMPIRE CIRCUS was one of the better parts of the movie.

So what did you think of VAMPIRE CIRCUS? Did it stand the test of time?

LS: I’d seen it as a kid, but I barely remembered any of it. The only scene that still stood out for me was one where a naked woman covered in stripes, like a tiger, fights a man in front of an audience (who happens to be Emil, the panther man).

MA: Yep. That’s the scene I remember, too.

LS: One thing I did notice about VAMPIRE CIRCUS though, is how weird it is. There’s a lot that makes absolutely no sense.

MA: Like what?

LS: Well, let’s start at the beginning. The movie starts out well enough.

MA: The movie starts out great! I think the pre-credit sequences might be the best part of the entire movie.

LS: A young girl is playing when she is approached by Anna Mueller (Domini Blythe) who leads the girl back to the castle of Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman), a vampire. It seems Anna does this pretty often and while she is not a vampire herself, she is the count’s lover (which leads to some nice nude scenes), and thus wants to provide him with nourishment. Anna’s husband, Albert (Laurence Payne), a school teacher, leads an uprising of villagers who break into the castle and stake the vampire. The villagers also punish Anna by whipping her with belts, but she gets away.

When the count is staked, he swears that the children of his attackers will die to bring him back to life.

MA: Now, all of this happens before we even see the title VAMPIRE CIRCUS. Like I said, it’s a pretty strong opening!

LS: Fifteen years later, the town is stricken with a plague that is slowly killing off its citizens. People from nearby villages establish road blocks to keep anyone from getting in and or out, and a doctor, Dr. Kersh (Richard Owens), risks his life to get out and seek medical supplies in the big city.

Some people believe the plague is the result of Count Mitterhau’s curse, although the more intelligent citizens deny any connection. It is about this time that a circus comes to town, The Circus of Nights, featuring a gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri), a dwarf in clown make-up, a strong man (David Prowse), dancers (Milovan and Serena Weber), and brother and sister twins who do an aerial act where they appear to turn into bats, named Helga (Lalla Ward) and Heinrich (Robin Sachs), and some exotic animals, including a tiger, a panther, and a chimpanzee.

It appears that the big cats are shape shifters of some kind and can turn into humans. The panther becomes Emil (Anthony Corlan), who seduces the local Burgermeister’s daughter. Emil, aside from sometimes being a panther, is also a vampire and the cousin of Count Mitterhaus, come back to resurrect his relative and exact revenge on the villagers who staked him.

Up until here, the movie appears to make sense, but as it goes on it just gets weirder and weirder.

For example, are the tiger and the panther shapeshifters or vampires? Emil certainly appears to be some kind of were-panther. The tiger just has one scene as that naked, striped girl (who is quite alluring), who does an erotic dance/battle with Emil as part of the show, and then is never seen again.

The new edition of VAMPIRE CIRCUS by Synapse Films offers the movie in both DVD and Blu-Ray format.

The gypsy woman, the dwarf and the strongman appear to be human (there’s even a moment where it is suggested that the gypsy woman is Albert’s former wife, Anna), and yet they help the vampires exact their revenge. And what about the Mirror of Life – a strange funhouse mirror that allows the vampires to lure in victims (they seem to emerge on the other side in the crypt where Count Mitterhaus lies staked and awaiting his resuscitation.

Albert Mueller’s daughter Dora (Lynne Frederick) returns home from the city (just barely avoiding getting killed by road block gunmen on her way through the woods), and she seems to be a big part of the Count’s revenge.

Then there is the scene where the villagers realize the circus is dangerous and plan to destroy it, yet right after that a full audience is watching the circus acts. Wouldn’t they have been warned to stay away?

MA: Yup, you’d think so. I felt the same way, and I think it’s because the script by Judson Kinberg isn’t very sharp at all. It’s as if the filmmakers came up with the concept— a circus full of vampires— and a central premise— they’ll be in a village to seek revenge upon the villagers for killing one of their own years before— but didn’t have a clue when it came to filling in the blanks. As you’ve pointed out, there are loose ends all over the place.

I read once that this one suffered from cuts which made it confusing when initially released, but I thought that the DVD/streaming versions available now were supposed to be the uncut versions. I think it’s just a bad script.

LS: Emil clearly transforms into a panther several times (and tears his victims apart), even though by the end it is clear that he is a vampire. So which is he? A vampire or a shape-shifter?

MA: This movie doesn’t differentiate between the two. In VAMPIRE CIRCUS, vampires can turn into other animals— not just bats.  Which is kind of a neat when you think about it.

LS: Yeah, the more I think about it, the more I agree that it’s an interesting take on vampires. Also Emil and the twins are constantly dripping blood from their victims onto the body of the Count, which is supposed to revive him, but it seems to take forever.

MA: It’s also extremely fake-looking. The drops of blood look like cartoons.

LS: As the movie continues, less and less of it makes sense. And why didn’t they just pull the stake out of the Count instead of letting it stay there?

MA: I thought the same thing. If they have access to the Count’s body, why not just pull the stake out? It would have saved them a lot of trouble.

LS: And the way characters suddenly find crosses (or cross-shaped objects) at the last minute to ward off a vampire in any given scene gets kind of ludicrous after a while.

MA: Only Peter Cushing can get away with doing this. (laughs).

LS: The cast includes some Hammer regulars, like you said, and a couple of ladies who were more famous in England for who they married. The very pretty Lynne Frederick who plays Dora Mueller later gave up acting to marry Peter Sellers when he was much older, and after that, David Frost. Lalla Ward who plays the vampire “twin” Helga was also the second Romana on DR. WHO where she met Tom Baker (who was The Doctor at the time) and they were married for a brief time. She later married famous biologist (and controversial author) Richard Dawkins!

I didn’t think this was one of Hammer’s better films, but it is interesting at least.

What did you think of it, Michael?

MA: Yeah, I’m with you. Not one of Hammer’s best, but certainly interesting.

I absolutely love the opening to this movie and thought it was the best part of the entire film. It’s a really cool way to open the film. Sadly, the rest of the movie isn’t as good.

The dance sequence with the striped woman is certainly memorable, but that’s about it.

There’s plenty of blood and gore on hand, but it’s dated blood and gore. The blood looks like bright red paint and none of the gore sequences look all that convincing. The film’s heart is in the right place, but its effects are simply dated.

I did enjoy Anthony Corlan as the vampire Emil a lot. I thought he made for a very effective vampire. I also liked the way the movie looked. Hammer Films always looked like they were made on a huge budget, which they weren’t, but they never look cheap. VAMPIRE CIRCUS is no exception.

However, there were lots of things I didn’t like about this movie. I’ll start with the direction by Robert Young. I thought this film was dreadfully slow-paced, and during many of the action sequences, the players seemed to be moving in slow motion.

There really weren’t any scary scenes in this one either, and in many of the scenes that were supposed to be scary, the camera would settle on a reaction shot for far too long, which tells me a more graphic shot was cut out and replaced with a reaction shot.

Most of the actors in VAMPIRE CIRCUS overact here, which surprised me, because Hammer Films usually contain strong acting. Not so here, as I thought the acting was a definite weak link in this movie. I liked Corlan as Emil, and that’s about it. Even veteran Thorely Walters hams it up painfully as the Burgermeister.

VAMPIRE CIRCUS could have certainly used the talents of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, director Terence Fisher, and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster. It was not Hammer’s “A” Team working on this one.

And while the circus angle is different, the main story here, of the village preyed upon by a vampire, is nothing new. VAMPIRE CIRCUS suffered from having too many traditional elements— frightened villagers, vampires in castles, buxom maidens.

LS: What’s wrong with buxom maidens?

MA: Nothing. I just threw that in there to see if you were paying attention.

Also of note, VAMPIRE CIRCUS is rated PG, yet it contains nudity, bloodshed, and— while its dated-looking—considerable gore. It contains more horrific elements than many of today’s PG-13 movies. How times have changed!

LS: I didn’t know it was PG here. You’re right, that’s wild, since there’s lots of nudity. But I think in England it was rated X, as were most of the Hammer films, to keep anyone under 18 out of the theaters. What a weird contrast!

MA:  Yup.  It was rated PG upon its initial American release, and it’s still listed as PG today.

LS:  By the way, there are also some cool extras on the Synapse Films version of the DVD/Blu-Ray, including a “Making Of Vampire Circus” short, the theatrical trailer (of course), and a reminiscence of the magazine HOUSE OF HAMMER, featuring lots of screen time by horror author and horror film historian, Phillip Nutman—a friend of our site here.

MA: Cool.  So, all in all, I found VAMPIRE CIRCUS mildly amusing. It’s not as good as I remember it, but it’s not bad and deserves credit for trying to put a new spin on the vampire legend—a circus full of vampires—even though it doesn’t quite succeed at what it sets out to do.

I give VAMPIRE CIRCUS, two knives.

LS: I wasn’t sure if we’d be giving ratings to this one, since it’s an oldie, but since you rated it, I’ll I give VAMPIRE CIRCUS, two and a half knives. I think we’re in agreement in how we felt about this one, but I think I enjoyed it a little bit more than you did.

Like I said, I was a little disappointed with this one, especially with the second half which is a bit out of whack, but overall I enjoyed it. It was nice to watch a Hammer film again—I haven’t watched one in a while, and they did put out a quality product— even when it’s flawed, like this one.

I wish there was more of the tiger girl, though! She was hot! And I wonder why the chimpanzee didn’t transform into a human if the other animals did! Poor chimp! And I’m still not sure what that “Mirror of Life” thing was all about— but I guess it adds a surreal element to it all.

The Tiger Lady from VAMPIRE CIRCUS - one of the film's most memorable characters, despite only appearing in one scene.

MA: Well, that wraps things up here. Let’s get out of this crypt and get some real food.

LS: Sounds good to me. I could go for a nice juicy steak.

MA: Speaking of which, (lifts hammer and stake) I hate to waste a perfectly good pair of vampire hunting weapons. Hmm, I wonder what would happen if I could track down a certain pair of vampire teens, and if a certain wooden stake found its way into a certain pair of hearts—.

LS: I’m certain we’d still have to review the last TWILIGHT movie.

MA: Damn! I’d rather join the circus!

—END—

© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

Michael Arruda gives VAMPIRE CIRCUS ~ two knives!

LL Soares gives VAMPIRE CIRCUS~two and a half knives.

Bill’s Bizarre Bijou: BLACK ZOO (1963)

Posted in 1960s Horror, 2011, Animals Attack, Bill's Bizarre Bijou, British Horror, Just Plain Weird, Surrealism, William Carl Articles with tags , , , , , on November 24, 2011 by knifefighter

Bill’s Bizarre Bijou

William D. Carl

This Week’s Feature Presentation:

BLACK ZOO (1963)

Welcome to Bill’s Bizarre Bijou, where you’ll discover the strangest films ever made.  If there are alien women with too much eye-shadow and miniskirts, if papier-mâché monsters are involved, if your local drive-in insisted this be the last show in their dusk-till-dawn extravaganza, or if it’s just plain unclassifiablethen I’ve seen it and probably loved it.   Now, I’m here to share these little gems with you so you too can stare in disbelief at your television with your mouth dangling open.  Trust me, with these flicks, you won’t believe your eyes.

In the annals of film history, there have been many Hollywood pairings that worked wonders time and again, when the producer/director and the actor operated as a team.  Working separately, they created great art.  Working together, they were even better.  John Ford and John Wayne; Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn; George Cukor and Katherine Hepburn; Martin Scorsese and Robert Deniro; Herman Cohen and Michael Gough.  What, you ask, who the hell are Herman Cohen and Michael Gough? 

Herman Cohen could really churn the cheapies out, and he spent several years at AIP producing such gems as I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1957), I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN (also 1957), and, my favorite make-up man on a rampage movie ever, HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER (1958).  In 1959, Cohen travelled to England, where he teamed up with Michael Gough for the first time in a grisly little flick called HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (you know, the one where the binoculars had little spears that went into your eyes).  The two got along very well, and a silver screen team for the ages was born.

Michael Gough was a hammy British actor who starred in a stream of whacked-out low-budget movies for Cohen.  In 1961, he grew a giant chimpanzee and was carried away in doll-form in KONGA.  In 1967, he was Joan Crawford’s partner in a cursed circus in the wildly campy BERSERK.  In 1963, Gough portrayed Michael Conrad in BLACK ZOO, a movie nobody other than Herman Cohen could produce.

Let’s talk about that one!

Our picture starts with a beautiful young woman walking in lovely Technicolor streets on her way home.  Suddenly, a huge tiger leaps over a fence and attacks her (actually, her rather burly male stunt double) and mauls her on the sidewalk.  It’s a violent scene that lingers on the violence and the incredible animal slashing at the bloody girl.  Soon, we are taking a tour at Michael Conrad’s  zoo.  There’s a tiger named Baron, a leopard, two cheetahs, a lion called Caesar, a lioness, a gorilla, and a show featuring trained chimps and Conrad’s wife who is played by Jeanne Cooper (THE INTRUDER – 1962, THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS from 1973 till today, and the mother of Corbin Bernson).  Well, Mrs. Conrad isn’t such a nice lady after all.  Not only does she tipple more than a little (“Since when is a fifth of bourbon a little nip?”), she also makes her chimps smoke cigarettes during their act.  The horror!  There’s also a lion tamer named Joe, played by the great Elisha Cook Jr. (THE MALTESE FALCON – 1941, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL -1959 and ROSEMARY’S BABY – 1968).  Raking leaves and sweeping in the background is a young mute man, Carl, taken in and mentally abused by Conrad.  He’s dark and good looking and very, very familiar.  Why, it’s Rod Lauren, the star of the classic astronaut-limb-on-the-loose non-epic THE CRAWLING HAND from 1963!  And the pretty art student who flirts shamelessly with him is played by Marianna Hill, star of MEDIUM COOL (1969) and BLOOD BEACH (1980)!  What a cast!

Michael Gough plays the evil zookeeper Micharel Conrad in BLACK ZOO.

Conrad gets a visit from Jerry Stengel, a coarse man who wants to buy his zoo, all sixty acres, to put up tract housing.  Michael does what any reasonable zookeeper would do when confronted with a crooked lawyer, he brings all the big cats into his living room, where they lounge around on sofas and couches, and he plays a concert for them on his giant organ.   Now, I am all for surreal scenes in movies, but watching these huge animals relaxing in a plush home while Gough preaches at them about the evils of men – it’s beyond surreal.  It’s just freaking weird.  And rather hilarious.  Later, after the rant, he and Carl set the lion loose in Jerry Stengel’s house, where it’s lawyers for lunch.  Rare.

And it only gets more bizarre from here.

One day, when feeding Baron, the tiger, Joe is attacked.  To be fair, he was being a jerk and teasing the animal.  The tamer pulls out a pistol and shoots the poor creature, killing it instantly.  Well, this does not sit well with Conrad.

Joe: It was him or me.

Conrad: Then, it should have been you.  You know what a tiger’s worth, even in lousy dollars and cents?  And do you know what this bum’s life is worth?

Conrad convinces Carl to muscle Joe into Caesar’s cage, where the lion rips Elisha Cook Jr. apart.  The camera lingers on the mauling, and it’s an effective and terrifying scene.  Afterwards, in a thick English fog, they bury Caesar in an animal graveyard, complete with a grave-side service by Conrad and attended by all of the other big cats.  They all sit around the casket (the cheetahs sit on top of grave markers) and bow their heads in prayer, and we are once again in that weird Herman Cohen alternate universe where things like this are common.  Weird, weird, weird.

But, yes friends, it gets weirder.

The tigers are hungry at the BLACK ZOO (1963)

After the funeral, Conrad attends a religious service of animal worshippers which takes place in what looks like a Knights of Columbus hall, decked out with tiki torches and bongo drums.  The priest, wearing a tiger skin complete with toothy head as a hat, transfers Baron’s soul into a young tiger and presents it to Conrad, who takes the cub back to his zoo.

Meanwhile, Conrad performs more organ concerts, while his wife Edna is tempted to return to the circus by her old friend and agent, played with great sarcastic wit by Virginia Grey (THE NAKED KISS – 1964, AIRPORT – 1970).  Well, her hubbie isn’t about to let her or the chimp act go, so he sets his gorilla on Grey, who gets her skull smashed in.  The police begin to suspect that maybe all these animal attacks are somehow related, and Mrs. Conrad starts to put the pieces together, and Carl starts to remember his past and rebels against Conrad’s tyranny.

All through the movie, Michael Gough screams and shrieks and overacts so much you keep expecting someone to salt and pepper the scenery before his entrances.  Spittle must have covered the furniture.  He owns this role, roaring as loudly as his cats.  He is the very personification of an out-of-control madman.  He seems to be trying to give Vincent Price a run for his money in the hammy acting department, but what’s interesting is that all through the Herman Cohen movies, Gough overacts horrendously (making these flicks even more fun than they deserve to be – take a look at TROG – 1970 – if you don’t believe me), but soon, he became a very respected British actor, appearing in many great roles in many great movies.  A few examples –

-Delamere in OUT OF AFRICA (1985)

-Schoonbacher in THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988)

-Alfred the butler in BATMAN (1989)

-Henry van der Luyden in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993)

Sadly, Gough died in March of this year, leaving behind more than 175 performances, from the garish to the stylish.  He will be missed.

Meanwhile, Herman Cohen, his early partner in crime, produced his last movie in 1977, WATCH ME WHEN I KILL, a rather tedious giallo filmed in Italy.  He died in 2002.

But, the two of them teamed up for a series of twisted films that reached their loony heights in BLACK ZOO.  Competently made, but almost David Lynchian in its freakiness, it nevertheless entertains in a grand manner.

BLACK ZOO has been restored gloriously by Warner Brothers and is available in their Warner Archive Collection.

I give BLACK ZOO 3 giant organs out of 4.

© Copyright 2011 by William D. Carl