From Beyond (1986)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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.

Elmer Gantry (1960)


Big-tent evangelism is a very American form of religion, a combination of populist Christianity and salesmanship that could only exist in a sprawling country that relied on religious freedom as one of its founding tenets, right next door to aggressive individualism and free enterprise. Elmer Gantry, therefore, is a story that can only happen in American, with a hero as complex and morally ambiguous as the land itself.

Burt Lancaster is Elmer Gantry, a traveling salesman, huckster, and former seminarian who hitches his wagon to Sister Sarah Falconer (Jean Simmons), the leader of a traveling revivalist church. I use the term church loosely, for Sister Sarah has no denominational affiliation to speak of: she’s selling her own brand of Christianity to the rural masses. Gantry proves to be a sort of godsend to Sister Sarah’s organization: he’s a rousing speaker, summoning visions of hellfire and damnation to ignite the congregation while Sister Sarah offers them peace and salvation. As their organization grows, Gantry and Sarah decide to push into the (bigger) city with their revivalist meeting, heading to Zenith, Winnemac (a fictional city and state that could be any large populated area across the Midwest), where Sister Sarah hopes to build a permanent tabernacle. Gantry runs afoul of his past, however, in the form of Lulu Baines (Shirley Jones), Gantry’s former lover turned prostitute.


Elmer Gantry could have played like a straight moral tale, with the shady salesman duping the small-town folks into buying his religious snake-oil until finally exposed by a more moral crusader (or, alternatively, by his nefarious past). But the film refuses to offer such an easy answer to the questions it poses. Gantry is a huckster, no doubt, yet he comes to believe or, at least, to understand the need for belief in those around him. Sister Sarah is no doe-eyed idealist dreaming of salvation; she’s a complex figure, with both a strong understanding of what it means to sell religion, and a true belief that she’s saving souls. Jim Lefferts (Arthur Kennedy), a newspaperman and resident symbol of atheism and cynicism, is repelled by Gantry but respects his intellect all the same; nor is Lefferts’ disbelief any better or more realistic than the evangelical fervor of Gantry and Sarah – it’s just another side of the same coin. Even the wronged and cynical Lulu hides a complicated soul: rejected by her reverend father after she’s seduced by Gantry, she still loves the man who wronged her.

If this film could have had a better cast, I’d like to see it. Burt Lancaster is the center of this whirlwind: charming, cunning, half-sincere and half-joking, he charges into each scene with his head down and his teeth gleaming. A salesman for Jesus, he waves his Bible with all the conviction of a true believer, and talks town officials into allowing the revivalist meeting by appealing once to their avarice and twice to their faith. Yet Gantry isn’t insincere in his religion, or in his burgeoning love for Sister Sarah; he just bends the world to accommodate him, mostly unaware of those he walks over to get there, and never willfully harming anyone. He might seem almost Satanic at times, but we should not forget that Satan has always believed in God.


Jean Simmons as Sister Sarah is in stark contrast to Lancaster’s bellowing Bible-thumper. Sarah is the other kind of true believer, a woman whose faith is so engrained in her identity that to think that God isn’t speaking to her would be to destroy her own soul. She recognizes Gantry as a charlatan, making use of his charlatanism to advance her ministry. When Gantry’s roving past is revealed, it’s Sister Sarah who suffers willingly, as she finally steps into the role of martyr. But again it would be a mistake to dismiss Sarah as someone searching for personal aggrandizement: this is a film about faith, and Sarah’s is as real and as palpable as Gantry’s.

Elmer Gantry‘s great strength is that it neither dismisses evangelism as cynical chicanery, nor does it embrace the Bible-thumpers as the true heralds of God. It’s not about the rightness or wrongness of religion or atheism, or about where religious truth actually lies. If anything, it’s about America: about the soul of a country and of a people, about searching for answers to questions that have none. Is Gantry a huckster or a preacher? Does Sister Sarah perform a miracle or is it just random coincidence? How far does faith go and can we justify the ways of God to Man?


Despite my initial and rather violent reaction to the first volume of Big Finish’s Avengers adaptations The Lost Episodes, after some further convincing from fellow Avengers aficionados, I decided that it might be worth it to give the series a second chance. So I buckled down, swallowed my bile, and set out to listen to Volume 2 of the series, with the strong hope that I might something within it that would change my hatred to love. I cannot say that I found it, but at least my hatred is somewhat tempered and nuanced.

The Lost Episodes: Volume 2 begins with one of my favorite scripts Ashes to Roses. Steed (Julian Wadham) goes mostly solo on this one, supported in his endeavors by Dr. Keel’s assistant Carol (Lucy Briggs-Owen). Together they infiltrate a hair salon that’s home to murderers, arsonists, and interchangeable young women with interchangeable voices. Carol proves to be an able assistant – a sort of early-years combination of Venus Smith and Cathy Gale – going off on her own without Steed or Keel’s permission. There are some neat little exchanges and, despite the melodrama of the hair salon, it’s a generally diverting episode. Keel only makes an appearance to wag his finger at Steed and patronize Carol, but despite this, it’s Carol who gets to do the most, helping Steed catch the baddies and even disobeying his orders to keep out of it.

Unfortunately for the series as a whole, Julian Wadham manages to instill a generally charming character with his peculiar brand of self-involvement, downright smarminess, and upper-class stupidity. Steed becomes a caricature of an upper class twit with no underlying steel or charm to his personality. His “seduction” of Denise, a vapid young hairdresser in Ashes of Roses, is particularly off-putting in its combination of predatory masculinity and bad pick-up lines. While I suspect Patrick Macnee might have been able to give these lines a knowing lilt (dear God, I hope so), Wadham has such a tenuous grasp on his character that it comes off as an oilier version of James Bond (this should not be surprising, as Wadham is apparently under the impression that Steed was a progenitor to Bond). Wadham further appears to think that the character requires a total lack of variation in his line delivery, with every single sentence trailing off at the end like it lost its way. Why do we care what happens to this man? Why does anyone trust him? What’s more, who cares? It gets to be a hard slog when one half of the team is about as interesting as a plank of slippery wood.


I wish I could say that Anthony Howell’s Dr. Keel fares a bit better, but when he returns in Please Don’t Feed The Animals, we are treated to yet another one-dimensional character. Here we have Steed and Keel grappling with the leakage of information (a favorite plot in The Avengers early seasons) which has something to do with a strip club and a zoo. I lost interest about halfway through, as I was asked to imagine an adorable monkey/diabolical mastermind without, you know, actually being able to see or hear it. Keel here is inoffensive but uninteresting, stuck in a rather silly plot with even sillier complications. Steed succeeded in making me hate him more, so I simply tuned out most of what he said.

This episode does highlight the problems of a shift in medium, however. It’s not a script that lends itself to radio – there are many fights and scene changes and, surprisingly, hearing men grunting at each other for several minutes adds very little to the experience of an episode. The episode actually begins with a character death, but even then we mostly get some meaningless dialogue the ends with grunting and slapping. Try figuring out what’s going on. I dare you.

The scene shifts are another problem, particularly during one extended sequence that has Keel at the bar of a strip club, Steed in another room of the club, and a group of secondary characters in another room. While this is easy to do on a screen, it’s awfully hard to do on the radio. Distinguishing voices and locations becomes a serious mental exercise. I was confused for much of the sequence (which ends with more slapping and grunting) because the voices overlapped. Plot points were unfortunately lost in this process, though the plot itself was so predictable and dull it didn’t much matter.

It’s actually amazing how very little matters in these episodes. I’m passing over The Radioactive Man because it’s not even an Avengers episode, but a rather trite and unbelievable melodrama.


Like Please Don’t Feed The Animals, Dance with Death suffers from a surfeit of scene changes and fight sequences that, on the radio, fail to come to much more than confused grunts and short, snippy sentences from interchangeable characters who vanish after speaking one line. The entire first act is taken up with Keel saying things like “Hello. How are you?” and other characters responding with, “Just fine, thanks.” Hardly scintillating dialogue.

It’s a thankless job, really, for Dance with Death takes place in a dance academy and there’s really no way to do dancing in an audio drama. Nor is it a particularly strong script to begin with: a young woman thinks someone is trying to kill her, Steed and Keel try to figure out who it is. That’s pretty much it. The script isn’t helped by a really laughable set of secondary characters, all of whom manage to be both interchangeable and caricaturish.

Meanwhile, Julian Wadham wins this time for not being the most annoying voice. Anthony Howell is right there with him: they both whisper half their dialogue, no matter what the subject, and fail to give any inflection to their conversations. The script has no pop, and they certainly don’t give it any. Even Steed’s flirtation with his dance instructress falls curiously flat. Who let them whisper their lines like they’re a big secret that not even the audience can be let in on? Is this what Big Finish does on a regular basis, or is this series just a spectacular example of failure?

In total honesty, I want to like this series. It seems to be the only opportunity we will ever have to experience the first season of The Avengers, and at the very least it should be a historical curiosity to understand where the show came from. But this is painful. It’s more than painful, actually, it’s offensive, because it is so blithe and self-congratulatory. Congratulations, Big Finish, you’ve made me hate not only my favorite character, but my favorite show. That’s a pretty big achievement.