FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Jun 27, 2024

Chilling Classics Cthursday: MAN IN THE ATTIC (1953)

They say that the only constant is change, so I'm starting with the man in the attic. I'm asking him to change his ways. No message could've been any clearer: if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and don't be Jack the Ripper!

Yes, dear reader, Man in the Attic is indeed an adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes's groundbreaking 1913 novel The Lodger, the first fictionalized take on the 1888 murders in Whitechapel and the Ripper himself. It's rather classy as far as Chilling Classics go, and were it not for the shadows cast by previous adaptations I dare say it might have garnered a bit more attention over the years.

You're probably familiar with the tale by now: When several murdered women are found nearby, a couple begins to suspect that their recently-arrived lodger may indeed be Jack the Ripper. 

But is he? The lodger has some dubious quirks to be sure, but they're all explained away--sometimes even plausibly. Sure, he goes out late at night to "do work." But that's when things are quiet! Yes, he fits the description of the Ripper, what with his small black bag and Ulster and all. But doesn't every man have a small black bag and an Ulster? He has a habit of burning things at odd hours, like pieces of clothing that seem to have blood all over them. But he's a pathologist who does experiments! It's all business as usual.

But is it? Of course not! The lodger is played by Jack Palance in one of the busiest years of his nascent career. He's cutting up people with his magnificent cheekbones.

Palance, of course, had a long and storied filmography and earned his place in Valhalla with his legendary speech and one-armed push-ups after winning the Oscar for City Slickers. There's always something vaguely sinister and potentially unhinged lurking just beneath the surface of a Palance performance, no matter the genre he was working in. He could make Dracula both sympathetic and intimidating, and he could make ostensible family fare like Ripley's Believe It or Not! inexplicably terrifying. (Or was that just me?) This vibe is prevalent even in his earliest roles, including one of my faves, opposite Joan Crawford in the 1952 noir thriller Sudden Fear. If you've never seen it, well, you have some homework to do. It's stylish as all get out and Crawford is terrific, giving one of her career-best performances, while Palance exudes both mance and charm. 

This quality is why he's perfect for Man in the Attic, a film that wants to leave you questioning  the truth about the lodger Slade until you can't question no more. From the moment he arrives on the Harleys' doorstep, you might be as suspicious as the missus...

But as his fumbling romance with Lily, an actress and the Harleys' niece, progresses, you might see him as she does: an awkward, shy, and inexperienced young man who needs a woman to take a chance on him.

But then it's not long before he's talking about his harlot mother and sweating everywhere and you're like yeah, no, he definitely hates and murders women.

It's rather interesting to see the sort of game of telephone that's occurred over the course of each filmic adaptation of Lowndes's novel--not only how far each may or may not stray from the source material, but how much changes are passed from movie to movie, beginning with Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927). Studio interference added the love story and dictated that the film's popular star, Ivor Novello, must be proven an unequivocally innocent lodger by the picture's end. In a (sadly) less shocking change, Hitchcock made it a point that the killer purposefully targeted blonde women.

In the 1944 film The Lodger, the victims are no longer prostitutes but actresses, a profession against which the lodger harbors long-standing grudges.

Man in the Attic hews closest to the 1944 iteration, but holds on to some of the proto-feminist and political aspects of Lowndes's work. 

We don't see the women get murdered, nor the aftermath of it. Instead, we watch as they react to their approaching killer. One striking sequence employs an actual POV shot as the Ripper closes in; the execution is a bit clunky given the era, but it was wholly unexpected and cool as heck. The victims throughout Man in the Attic aren't afforded intricate stories or a surplus of development to be certain, but they're all unique and each gets her moment to shine. That can still feel like a novelty in the more slasher-end of the horror spectrum, never mind in media that dips into true crime territory. But it was an unheard-of hallmark of Lowndes's novel, so it's fantastic to see it here, where one might expect the full focus to be on one of history's most notorious serial killers. 

It's also a reminder to me that I really ought to read Hallie Rubenhold's lauded The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (it's been on my library to-read list since it was published in 2020), but I know I'll probably keep putting it off because I just know it'll be depressing.

Then, of course, there is the matter of Mrs Harley (or Bunting in the novel), she who suspects Slade from the start and puts all the pieces together long before Scotland Yard does (although to be fair, Scotland Yard was busy chasing down every one of Queen Victoria's bonkers mandates: It couldn't have been a married man, investigate every bachelor! It couldn't have been an Englishman, investigate every foreigner!). She's shut down at every turn by her exasperated husband, but, you know, nevertheless she persisted. Even better, the comedic banter and bickering between the Harleys is one of the best things about the movie.

And then and then, there is their niece Lily, who shares a kind, wonderful, sad scene with a former actress fallen on hard times, who is moments away from being the Ripper's next victim. It shows what Lily's all about, it humanizes a woman who could have been a throwaway horror thrill, and it encapsulates what sets Man in the Attic apart from your standard serial killer fare.

Sure, Lily makes too many concessions for Slade's behavior because she's got hearts in her eyes. But when push comes to shove and sweaty Slade is like "Quit your job and run away with me so we can be alone together" she refuses because hey, she loves being an actress and she's got stuff she wants to do. If this kind of attitude still felt revolutionary with Olivia Hussey as Black Christmas's Jess in 1974, imagine how revolutionary it felt in a 1953 that is supposed to be 1888. Go on, imagine it! I'll wait.

Ain't it grand? Even better, we get to see Lily do her thing in a full number--like, a full number that takes up a not-insignificant amount of screentime--and another number that quite literally triggers Slade with its can-can action.

To be honest, I mightn't have ever seen this film were it not for this wild Cthursday endeavor. Despite the Jack Palance of it all, I could see myself thinking "oh great, another Jack the Ripper movie" but I'm sure glad I saw it. Perhaps it doesn't have the style and technique of Hitchcock's The Lodger, but Man in the Attic director Hugo Fregonese did just fine, thank you, from the evocative, wet and foggy Whitechapel streets and alleys to the rather thrilling carriage chase during the film's climax. And it may not have the star power of Merle Oberon and George Sanders in the 1944 movie, but Jack Palance already had IT and the supporting cast is engaging as well. (Shout out again to the Harleys!)

Well, here we are, halfway through the Mill Creek Chilling Classics 50-pack. They sure grow up so fast, don't they? And hey, Man in the Attic marks three weeks in a row that Chilling Classics Cthursday has given me something surprisingly...really good. Surely that streak will continue and continue for the next 25 installments, right?!

Jun 20, 2024

Chilling Classics Cthursday: THE DEVIL'S HAND (1961)

Got a li'l treat this week with The Devil's Hand, a film that would be at home as the superior half of a drive-in double feature with another Chilling Classic, I Eat Your Skin. The two share a kind of early 60s feel, although The Devil's Hand keeps any beach blanket vibes contained to its surf tune-flavored opening credits.

One thing I really appreciated about this film is that it's a lean 71 minutes and it wastes no time before it gets to the goods. There's no fat on this baby, no useless scenes full of, like, character development, it's just boom-boom-boom laying it all out there. 

Rick and Donna (Robert Alda--father of Alan!--and Ariadna Welter--excuse me, how cool is the name "Ariadna") are engaged to be married, but Rick's been having dreams about a sultry blonde in a diaphanous gown...and the dreams have got him all stirred up.

One day Rick spies a doll that looks just like the dream woman in the window of a shop--and hey, there's also a doll that looks like Donna in the shop. What gives? 

I'll tell ya what gives: this is no ordinary doll shop. It's a doll shop by day, but by...well, also by day but sometimes by night, it's home to a cult that conducts their ceremonies and sacrifices and the such in the basement, all in service to The Great Gamba, Highest Executioner Supreme, Devil-God of Evil. (But you can just call him Gamba.)

One contrived doll delivery later, Rick meets Bianca (Linda Christian), literally the woman from his dreams. Again, The Devil's Hand eschews any coyness around what's what with all of this, as Bianca tells Rick Hey, I'm in a Satanic-adjacent cult, I used mental projection to lure you to me, I want your bod, but you have to convert to the cult before we can Do It.

Rick asks no questions, says Absolutely!, and promptly ghosts Donna, who oh by the way is laid up in the hospital after a voodoo attack from the cult's high priest. This sounds like some terrible behavior from Rick, and it is. Donna's great! And she's in the hospital! But on the other hand--the devil's hand, you might say--Bianca is a sultry babe who can traverse the planes and engages in witchcraft. Donna never stood a chance.

FUN FACT BREAK: Ariadna Welter was the younger sister of Linda Christian, and her acting career was largely based in their native Mexico. Christian, however, was persuaded to abandon her dreams of becoming a doctor (yay?) and give Hollywood a shot by none other than Errol Flynn, who also gave her the "Christian" surname after his performance as Fletcher Christian in a production of Mutiny on the Bounty.

Christian went on to marry Tyrone Power and would later gain a bit of infamy with a 1957 photograph dubbed "The Kiss of Death," wherein she was snapped kissing a race car driver during a pit stop. Moments later a tire blew, he crashed the car, and several people (including the driver) died. Hmm, I guess that's not really a "fun" fact, but you know what I mean.

The old Hollywood connections are some of the best things about these Chilling Classics, I tells ya.

Anyway, things proceed apace in The Devil's Hand. The cult engages in a few sacrifices, lots of jamming out to bongo beats, and the accruement of wealth and power. Rick remains into Bianca, telling her "If I thought I'd lose you, I'd kill you!" which...well, I guess a worshipper of Gamba doesn't see that as a red flag, so who am I to judge?

Rick's got a Robert Mitchum-lite kind of way about him, but otherwise I'm not sure why Bianca found him so alluring that she hopped on the metaphysical highway to chase him, but again, who am I to judge?

The Devil's Hand is worth 71 minutes of your time if you're in the mood for some 50s-feeling early-60s cult action. It's one of the first films released by Crown International Pictures, producers and distributors of some of the finest B-movie dreck (I say that in a loving way) you'll find, such as perennial Final Girl favorites Zoltan: Hound of Dracula and Click: The Calendar Girl Killer

No, The Devil's Hand doesn't have a colon in its title like Zoltan and Click do. But you'll never catch me hating on a movie where there's a business called "Amalgamated Industries" and the sinister cult has a wall lined with dollies that look just like its members. 

Never mind the mental projectionist sultry blonde, getting a doll carved in my likeness is reason enough for me to sign up. All hail The Great Gamba, Highest Executioner Supreme, Devil-God of Evil!

Jun 13, 2024

Chilling Classics Cthursday: HAUNTS (1976)

I'm thanking my big bowl of lucky stars that it took me until this very week to get around to the 1976 film Haunts, because I'm sure I wouldn't have given it a fair shake. Given it's a film from Herb Freed and Anne Marisse (the husband-and-wife duo behind Graduation Day, the masterpiece featuring the football-with-a-sword-attached and the mostly-rollerskateless roller skating party) and pitched as something of a slasher flick featuring a maniac-with-scissors-attached scissor-wielding maniac, well, that's what I would have hunkered down to see. Instead, Haunts is an unabashed women's (horror) picture that's all about loneliness, isolation, and unchecked trauma. (Apparently they made horror movies about that stuff before A24 came along...? Weird.) I stand (well, truth be told I am sitting) before you today to spread my Haunts agenda. "Criminally underseen" may be an overstatement--though really, how could it not be underseen when it's pretty much only available as a Chilling Classic with potato-levels of picture quality? But the right audience for this film is out there, and that audience needs to get eyeballs on this one.

The rape and murder of a young woman sets a small, rural California-that-feels-like-Pennsylvania town on edge. The amount of  prurient gossip ("They found one arm clear down by the lake!") is exceeded only by the number of suspects, as the town is full of a veritable Rogue's Gallery of men. From the leering rockabilly bad boy grocery clerk Frankie (William Gray Espy) to new nerd in town Bill Spry (Robert Hippard), nearly anyone could be the scissor-wielding killer. 

The Sheriff (an understated Aldo Ray)--who also seems to be the town drunk--is in way over his head with the investigation, as evidenced by the fact that said investigation seems to consist solely of asking a few people "Have you seen anything strange lately?"

In the midst of all of this is Ingrid (May Britt), a quiet, church-going woman living an unassuming life on a farm with her reclusive uncle Carl (50-Pack King Cameron Mitchell), coping as best she can with hazy intrusive thoughts about childhood traumas. Though she tries to suppress her memories, her lingering doubts and fears about men prove true, but she gets no support from law enforcement, her fellow townsfolk, or even her church elders. "Continue to pray" is about all anyone can offer her.

Things twist and turn as Haunts plays out at a leisurely pace. That may scare some of you away, but I was luxuriating in the sad small-town drama of it all. Everyone knows everyone there, but nobody really knows anybody. Ingrid deals with the violence she's faced by not dealing with it, leaving her healing in the Lord's hands. Local gossip/barfly Nel (Susan Nohr) laments the lack of "classy" men in town, all while having too many drinks and settling for anyone who pays her some attention. 

As she endures and endures, Ingrid unravels more and more, increasingly isolating herself even as she tries to figure out who's behind the murders. Like the Sheriff, you may find yourself unsure of what to believe, or maybe not. Haunts is compelling, in part, not simply because of its reveals, but when those reveals happen, and the fact that it leaves many dots for the viewer to connect.

It's no surprise that Haunts is informed by films like Repulsion and Carnival of Souls and, like those films, it's anchored by a terrific central performance. Ingrid is a woman on the outside of her community, even if she's always been there. She's marked as different in many ways, whether it's the traces of her Swedish accent, her piousness, or her reticence to mingle with friends or potential romantic partners. It's hard to resist thinking of the parallels between the character and the actress who came out of retirement to portray her, as Britt herself was no stranger to outsider status thanks to her 1960 marriage to Sammy Davis, Jr. At the time, interracial marriage was illegal in more than half of the country, and the controversy their pairing stirred up caused the Kennedy administration to revoke Davis's invitation to sing at JFK's inauguration. (It's insane to think it was ever illegal, but even insane-ier that it was still illegal in many states when the Supreme Court finally ruled laws disallowing it as unconstitutional in 19fucking67. 1967!) 

Whatever her reasons were for signing onto Haunts, Britt scuttled back into retirement after Haunts, emerging only once again for one episode of, oddly enough, the 80s sci-fi show Probe.

Again, I'm spreading my Haunts agenda because hot dang, it deserves more love. It's got a score from Pino Donaggio, who rose to even greater heights later in 1976 with his work on Carrie. After loving Graduation Day and the (wonderfully) cheesy Lynda Day George-led possession flick Beyond Evil, I never expected this kind of film from Herb Freed, but I'm sure glad I got it.

Jun 6, 2024

Chilling Classics Cthursday: NAKED MASSACRE (1976)

Sigh. Honestly, when I read the synopsis on the sleeve of this week's Chilling Classic, I should have said "no thank you, taking the week off, everyone!" 

In Belfast, a group of eight nurses share a home while working at various hospitals and clinics throughout the city. Entering into their lives is a crazed Vietnam veteran with a hatred for women who decides to take out his hatred on them. Stalking them one by one, the killer terrorizes and tortures the women while the authorities attempt to track him down.

If you said "Oh, so it's Richard Speck? But Belfast and Vietnam?" you get some kind of prize because you're right on the money! Except this movie--also known as Born for Hell because the killer has a "Born for Hell" tattoo, you know, kinda like Speck's "Born to Raise Hell" tattoo--features more sexual assault than Speck's 1966 spree. 

But I though, this is the covenant I entered with Mill Creek Entertainment and a horror blog, so buck up, girlie, and do your duty.

I didn't make it, sorry.

To tell the truth, Naked Massacre (sigh part deux) begins as something that almost wants to be interesting, or at least it wants us to think it does. A Vietnam vet on his way home after scamming his way out of service winds up in Belfast during "The Troubles," as Protestants and Catholics and the IRA and British forces clash in the streets. A bomb goes off in a church, children "play" by reenacting firing squad executions, and our nurses get their first taste of death. The vet makes a point about how he "swapped one Hell for another" and while that's not exactly a profound point, I felt for a second like maybe I'd end up surprised that the synopsis wasn't giving the movie proper credit. You know, something about governent-sanctioned violence and so on.

It got even more interesting when the vet formed a quasi-friendship with his fellow flophouse denizen, a fey Viet refugee, who seemed to clock the vet as perhaps a kindred spirit, or perhaps just a woman-hater.

But any potential Somethings to Say flew out the window when he arrived at the house and the film heads into exploitation territory, its true destination all along. Armed with a large switchblade, and sets about terrorizing, raping, and murdering the young women, and that was where I bid the film a middle-fingered adieu

I decided to read some other reviews and thoughts, though; I had no intention of going back to finish the movie (life is short, I could be watching...anything else), but maybe there would be some attempt at a point to all of it. Doesn't seem so, and if you'd like to read the descriptions of what the girls are forced to endure, then you are welcome to go find it as I'm not going to waste the energy typing all that abhorrent shit out.

But there were also comments I saw from exploitation fans who were bummed the movie didn't go far enough, that the "naked chicks" were the best part of it and that, as one hilariously-phrased gripe put it, there were better movies to watch if you wanted to watch "people/women" be terrorized. 

No one ever comes here looking for hot exploitation tips (or if they do, they must leave quickly) as it's not my purview nor my bag. I dabble on the rare occasion (a girl sometimes has cannibal feelings, okay), but I'll never see the point in sexual assault as titillation fare ever. But hey, this movie is another in the Mill Creek to Fancy Blu-ray pipeline, so.

There sure are all kinds of horror fans around.

Jun 3, 2024

She's dead! Wrapped in plastic!

Thought I'd open the drapes (and close them) (and open them again) (and close them) (and...oh, you've probably watched Twin Peaks, right? you get it) to remind you (or inform you, if you had no idea...I don't know your life!) that The Detective and the Log Lady, the weekly Twin Peaks (re)watch podcast I'm doing with Mike Muncer of The Evolution of Horror launches in earnest today with a discussion about the 90-minute pilot episode. Huzzah! And phew! That was a long sentence.

You can of course find the show wherever you getcher podcasts--your Apples and your...I don't know, Podplops or whatever--or you can listen right on the Evolution of Horror website.

From now on there will be a new episode every Monday. I doubt I will post reminders here every week, that seems like a lot if you ask me. I'm not sure why I feel so weird about possibly over-promoting my work on my own website, but hey, what's a little complex between friends, amirite. The point is, if you like the show, subscribe somewhere.

I love the weekly one-episode format, which is preventing me from any binge-watch urges and also makes the experience feel a bit retro. And I think it's cool as heck that there are listeners diving into the show for the first time, just like moi. Not sure why it took me so long to get to this show, but now that I'm here I'm excited to finally get invited to all the parties!