The Outside-In Man (Episode 3-22, February 1964).

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I am a staunch defender of John Steed, especially in these early seasons where he’s typically dismissed as manipulative or callous. In general, he’s neither manipulative nor callous, usually acting on what he believes are his best instincts, and keeping his partner (and others) out of immediate danger. Then there’s The Outside-In Man.

The Outside-In Man begins with Steed put in charge of security measures to protect visiting diplomat General Sharp (Philip Anthony), a former British soldier who defected to the enemy country of Abarain and proceeded to become a target for assassination. Now he’s back to do an arms deal with Britain and Steed, despite having been part of a team who fought Sharp’s forces back in the late 50s, has to protect him. Complications arise in the form of Mark Charters (James Maxwell), a recently released prisoner of war originally tasked with assassinating Sharp. He’s captured, tortured by Sharp’s men for years and then suddenly, inexplicably released back to Britain. Steed and his superior officer Quilpie (Ronald Radd) fear that Charters is going to try to complete the mission he failed at and finish off Sharp.

There are so many problems with The Outside-In Man that it’s difficult to decide where to begin. While the initial premise is intriguing, the plot soon gets lost in convolutions that include Steed going dark and refusing to speak with Cathy, Cathy tracking Charters across the English countryside, and the machinations of Sharp’s embassy. The whole thing culminates in a confusing, final act reveal that makes no sense with what has come before, and forces one to wonder if the entire British government are a pack of imbeciles.

Plot issues aside, The Outside-In Man loses points with me for the character of Mark Charters, a sneering, unsympathetic figure who spends most of his time making obscene passes at Quilpie’s secretary. Worse things come when Cathy appears to try and talk him out of assassinating Sharp – not because she cares about Sharp’s life, but because she doesn’t want to see Charters back in prison. Charters proceeds to first make fun of her and then threaten her, finally forcing her out of the room at gunpoint. Why Cathy cares what happens to this man is beyond me. Meanwhile, Steed is giving his own performance of manipulation and meanness, ignoring Cathy’s questions and trying to order her about while keeping her entirely in the dark. It’s one of the few times that I wonder why Cathy continued to stick it out with Steed.

There are points of interest in this mess, however. The scenes in Quilpie’s headquarters at a butcher’s are humorous, especially when Cathy is brought in. Her disdain for the secret organization that she nonetheless works for becomes evident, and I quite sympathize with her this time. But those moments are few and far between, and there are very few scenes with the typical Steed and Cathy banter that make this season otherwise so enjoyable.

The Outside-In Man does manage to evoke strong emotions – the only character I find halfway sympathetic is Cathy herself. Frankly, given the ending of this episode, I hope she locked Steed out of her apartment for a few days.

L’Assassin Habite Au 21 (The Murderer Lives At Number 21) (1942)

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French director Henri-Georges Clouzot rose to fame on the strength of films like The Wages of Fear and Diabolique: creepy, intense thrillers that immediately bring to mind Alfred Hitchcock rather than French art house. Clouzot’s filmography goes back a bit further, though, to his first feature film in 1942, the weird, funny, and slightly subversive L’Assassin habite au 21.

The film follows police detective Wenceslas “Wens” Vorobechik (Pierre Fresnay) and his would-be music star girlfriend Mila (Suzy Delair) as they investigate a series of murders by the serial killer known only as Monsieur Durand, who leaves his business card at the scene of every death. There’s not much to go on, but Wens gets a break when a petty criminal stumbles upon a bunch of Monsieur Durand cards in the attic of the Mimosas, a boarding house run by Madame Point (Odette Talazac) at Number 21 Avenue Junot. Leaving Mila behind, Wens takes a room at the boarding house and proceeds to investigate each of his strange fellow tenants, many of them music hall performers on hard times.

L’Assassin habite au 21 has much in common with the British films of Alfred Hitchcock, relying as much on humor and comic characterizations as it does on thriller tropes. Wens is a dashing, acerbic hero, approaching his investigation almost as though it’s an amusing adventure instead of the search for a vicious killer. His suspects include a magician who keeps accidentally making things disappear, a former soldier with a violent temper and avowed respect for the killer, a failed novelist, a toymaker who makes Monsieur Durand dolls, a valet who does bird impressions, and a vampy nurse who cares for a blind former boxer. The characterizations are all loads of fun, as each suspect evinces some grotesqueries of their own that may or may not point the way to a disturbed psyche. Wens doesn’t let anything phase him, however, not even Mila, who regularly gets herself arrested in an effort to solve the case for herself. It’s a speedy, amusing little thriller, not high on scares but with rather tongue-in-cheek humor.

One of the most interesting elements of L’Assassin habite au 21 is its production circumstances. Made in 1942 in occupied France, it was the fourth script that Clouzot wrote for the Nazi-run production company Continental films. This is remarkable, given that the film includes numerous sly jabs at Nazi mentality, from characterizing one suspect as a fascist sympathizer with deep contempt for the “lesser” forms of humanity, to actually parodying a Nazi salute near the end. Clouzot would face some criticism for his apparent collaboration with the Nazis, but his films tend to mock Nazism from the inside out.

There’s really very little to complain about in L’assassin habite au 21, except that it could have been longer by ten or fifteen minutes and thus developed our characters more. It’s just an enjoyable whodunnit and it does exactly what it intends to do.

From Beyond (1986)

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It just isn’t Halloween without H.P. Lovecraft. Director Stuart Gordon made his mark with the grossly brilliant Re-Animator, so he got the gang back together for From Beyond, a similarly-toned adaptation of Lovecraft that also succeeds in doing its own, disgusting thing.

From Beyond takes Lovecraft’s short story of the same name and runs with it. Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel) creates a machine called the Resonator, meant to stimulate the pineal gland and allow people within the machine’s range to experience a new sixth sense. What it does, however, is reveal that the world around us is populated by weird, nasty beings cut off from the human world by a thin veil that the Resonator pierces. Pretorius is murdered and his assistant Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) driven almost mad with terror. But it doesn’t end there: Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) thinks that she can help Tillinghast by forcing him to relive his experience with the Resonator. Katherine, Tillinghast, and police officer Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree) hole up in Pretorius’s old house and start the Resonator again. I think you can imagine what happens from there.

From Beyond is less tongue-in-cheek than Re-Animator; where the latter film created humor by going totally over the top, From Beyond is actually quite subdued in the early sections of the film, establishing a tone more realistic than its sister film. Unfortunately, this means that the latter sections, when the body horror really starts getting good, come off as more serious and the film itself more exploitative. Why we need an extended sequence with Barbara Crampton in bondage gear I do not know, but it’s there and it feels more like the director working out his own kinks than a viable addition to the structure of the movie.

That being said, From Beyond is probably one of the best straight adaptations of Lovecraft I’ve seen. The film develops Lovecraft’s underlying despair, the sense that there is a world beyond our own the very glimpse of which could drive people mad. As with Lovecraft, there is no chance for a happy ending here; just the hope that we might be able to close off our minds from the horror.

I wouldn’t suggest From Beyond to anyone not well-versed in Lovecraft lore (itself an acquired taste). But for any Lovecraft fan, it’s quite an experience. Just be sure to pop in your disc of Re-Animator afterwards.

Housebound (2014)

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I’m not sure what’s in the water over there around New Zealand and Australia, but they are producing some unique horror films right now. The Australian feature The Babadook was notable for its female-centric narrative punctuated by some truly terrifying sequences; now another film about haunted women comes from the neighboring country of New Zealand in the form of Housebound. 

Housebound focuses on Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly), a very inept felon captured while trying to rob an ATM. This is not her first offense, however, so the court sentences her to a fate worse than prison: house arrest at her mother (Rima Te Wiata) Miriam’s home. With a sensor fixed to her ankle so that she can’t leave the grounds without setting off an alarm, Kylie has to settle in to life with her mother and stepfather Graham (Ross Harper). At first Kylie is just sullen about the whole ordeal, but soon she learns that her mother persists in a long-standing belief that the house is haunted. When Kylie herself begins experiencing some rather paranormal phenomena, she enlists the help of Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), the security contractor who monitors her sensor and just so happens to be an amateur ghost hunter. As the pair begin to discover some sinister secrets about the house, Kylie becomes more convinced that it’s not all in her mind.

Housebound is that perfect blend of horror and comedy that makes films like Scream or Gremlins so enjoyable. The first half of the film is a legitimate haunted house story, complete with weird noises, looming figures, flashing lights, and strange events. The second half focuses more on Amos and Kylie’s attempts to discover the reason behind the haunting, leading them further afield – and Kylie into greater danger. But the whole film is underscored with wry humor: Kylie is a sarcastic, sullen young woman, her mother bright and bubbly and largely at peace with the fact that her house is plagued by a ghost. Most importantly, however, the plot all hangs together, right from the very beginning. The denouement is always a challenge for haunting films; there’s only so many way to resolve the story. Housebound actually gives a satisfying, believable conclusion to a very weird tale, bending genre tropes without ever breaking its own rules. The fact that this is all done by a first-time director and a relatively unknown cast just makes that much more surprising and exciting.

As an inveterate lover of haunted house movies, I can recommend Housebound with gusto. My one complaint is that there’s at least one twist that I did manage to predict, but that did nothing to damage my enjoyment of the film. It’s an entertaining ride from start to finish, rarely missing a beat, and bringing some proper scares along with it.

Corridors of Blood (1958)

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There’s a bit of a misnomer in the title of this film: while there are many corridors, there’s very little blood featured in what amounts to an effective thriller from 1958.

Corridors of Blood stars Boris Karloff in rare non-monstrous mode as Dr. Thomas Bolton, an expert surgeon in the Victorian period searching for the key to painless surgery. Bolton’s humanitarian efforts to discover anesthesia have him experimenting on himself with a mixture of gases until he finally finds the mixture that works. Unfortunately, the mixture also causes blackouts that have Bolton wandering London, getting into mischief and eventually being exploited by underworld criminal Black Ben (Francis de Wolff) and his associate Resurrection Joe (Christopher Lee) to sign false death certificates for murder victims.

Corridors of Blood is a surprisingly slow-moving film for its run time (it comes in at less than an hour and a half), taking awhile to build the character of Bolton and the world of barbarous surgery that he’s trying to reform. The most intense scenes are also the earliest, as Bolton performs amputations without the benefit of anesthesia. That in itself is horrific enough and Bolton’s colleagues seem to be immune to the suffering of their patients, relying on the refrain that you cannot separate pain and the knife. Bolton disagrees, but as he gradually becomes addicted to the anesthetic gases with which he experiments his own surgical skill suffers.

While far from a horror film, Corridors of Blood is actually quite effective at creating a sympathetic protagonist whose gradual downfall is entirely due to his humanism (in contrast to your usual mad scientist). Christopher Lee puts in a strong but underused performance as the sepulchral Resurrection Joe, a character who looms out of dark corridors dressed in a funeral coat and top hat. The other characters are fairly stock, from the earnest young doctor who wants to make a difference to the sweet Victorian maiden (Bolton’s niece) confused by what’s going with her uncle. Still, though you can predict the ending of this film, that doesn’t make it any less poignant.

Le Corbeau (1943)

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Best known for the thrillers Les Diaboliques (The Devils) and La Salaire de la Peur (The Wages of Fear), director Henri-Georges Clouzot is best described as the French Hitchcock. In fact, a certain key scene in Les Diaboliques was so frightening that it reportedly prompted Hitchcock to up the ante in that Psycho’s famous shower scene. Clouzot certainly never went by halves in his films, ramping up tension and paranoia until characters either broke or the audience did, as proven by the disturbing Le Corbeau (The Raven).

Le Corbeau opens on small French town Saint-Robin, where anonymous poison-pen letters signed only Le Corbeau have been plaguing the inhabitants. The main target seems to be the town’s doctor Remy Germain (Pierre Fresnay), accused of  a multitude of sins including having an affair with his colleague’s wife Laura (Micheline Francey) and providing illegal abortions for women in trouble. But soon other members of the community begin receiving letters informing them of infidelity, usury, and even illness. The catch is that the cruelly worded accusations seem to be true. As the letters pile up, the people begin to turn against each other, revealing the petty cruelties, prejudices, and paranoia underlying the idyllic little town.

Le Corbeau is not a pleasant film; it’s a film about unpleasantness, about meanness and cruelty and, more than that, about the willingness to believe the worst of your neighbors. While The Raven is a vilified figure, the gossip he or she spreads is believed without question, causing the destruction of homes, careers, and lives. The townspeople are divided in their suspicions of each other – not only could anyone be the Raven, anyone could also be targeted by the Raven, prompting a bizarre playing off of people against each other as they learn the worst about their neighbors. As the film proceeds to its inevitable climax, the viewer is treated to seeing characters at their vindictive worst.

Le Corbeau created something of a stir in France, both during and after its premiere. The film appeared in 1943 and was produced by Continental Films, a German production company set up in France just prior to Occupation. While the Germans viewed Le Corbeau as anti-Nazi, the French would later accuse Clouzot of vilifying the French people. This background throws the argument of Le Corbeau into interesting relief: the film does indeed represent the villagers as petty and malicious people, more concerned for propriety and disguising their own amorality than in punishing the guilty and exalting the innocent. Germain, one of the few decent people in Saint-Robin, is repeatedly attacked both by the Raven and the townspeople until forced into revealing his entire past; innocent people die or are injured because they’re suspected of being the letter writer. The film paints a very dark picture of France in the 1940s. It’s made even darker if read as a veiled allegory for the Nazi occupation, the turning of the French people against each other as neighbors become informers.

If Le Corbeau has any flaw it is in the denouement, when the discovery of the letter writer plays as secondary to Germain’s crisis of faith and eventual rejection of the town as a whole. The ending feels strangely rushed, as though Clouzot had run out of ideas and was simply trying to give the narrative some kind of closure. But the point of the film is not about closure – it’s about suspicion, about paranoia. The Raven is vindictive, but so is the entire town. As the film ends with the image of a figure in widow weeds walking down the empty street, one feels as though nothing has actually been resolved. Whatever Clouzot actually intended in his film – and whether he intended any parallels to be drawn at all – it is a deeply critical film at a time when France was in no mood to be criticized.

Salem’s Lot (1979)

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It’s my favorite time of year! With autumn finally arriving in all its pumpkin-spice flavored glory, it’s time to settle down with some good, old-fashioned scares. First up is Salem’s Lot, the 1979 TV adaptation of Stephen King’s vampire novel starring every late-70s character actor ever, and James Mason.

Last year I made it exactly halfway through King’s novel before hitting what I usually call King’s “sadism wall.” Every single Stephen King novel I’ve ever read arrives at a point where King begins to take bizarre enjoyment out of torturing his characters. While I’m all for a bit of nasty horror, it’s something different when an author actually enjoys making his readers nauseous. So I abandoned Salem’s Lot as I had abandoned Pet Semetary and Misery before it – which is a shame, as I was really enjoying the scary vampires.

The 1979 Salem’s Lot could have done with a bit more of that sadism, though, because it’s one of the most aggressively un-scary movies I’ve ever seen. The tale centers on Ben Mears (David Soul), a writer who returns to his hometown of Salem’s Lot to work on a book about the creepy, potentially evil Marston House. He encounters the slightly weird small town inhabitants and strikes up a relationship with Susan (Bonnie Bedelia), the local schoolteacher. But something is wrong in Salem’s Lot and it all has to do with Mr. Straker (James Mason), an elderly gent who has moved into the Marston House with his business partner Mr. Barlow – a mysterious man who seems to go on a lot of business trips to Europe. After a little boy goes missing in the woods, deaths begin to pile up, leading Mears to suspect that there’s something vampiric going on at that evil old house.

Salem’s Lot cleaves very close to King’s book, with some important differences; what it doesn’t manage to adapt is the scares. Director Tobe Hooper spends much time setting up the small town life, but tension dissipates with every slightly weird or sudden cut from one scene to the next. Plot threads are introduced to be summarily discarded; other threads are picked up without the least bit of narrative consistency. What happened when the sheriff got ahold of Straker’s black coat? Where did the priest come from, and what happened to him? Can vampires be destroyed by fire? What actually did happen at the Marston House? What the hell is going on?! For a three-hour TV miniseries, there are too many unanswered questions and too many extended scenes in which nothing happens. The entire cast speaks in monotone – all except James Mason, the sole bright light in the murky mirage. Mason is having a great time snacking on the scenery and tossing veiled vampiric threats at everyone in sight. Thank God too, because otherwise I would never have sat through the damn film.

One thing I will say for Salem’s Lot: the vampires are proper vampires. There’s no sparkling, no gentleman counts, no erudite discussions about how we misunderstand the poor baby bloodsuckers. These are evil motherfuckers who want to drink blood and destroy civilization from the inside out. I miss those kinds of vampires.