Three for Halloween

As the season that inspires mystery and imagination in the minds of cinema fans nears its close, a trio of chillers that have fallen into the forgotten realm of horror movie history have come back into availability thanks to the Internet. Speaking objectively, these films have their faults but generate memories of when they were originally seen, some looking not as great as we once thought and others taking on a newer sheen of appreciation from initial viewings on television or at the drive-in.

WOLFMAN (1979) -- A familiar story, but Three for Halloween: A look at some forgotten chillers
dled with a certain reverance for the conventions of werewolf tales against a Southern Gothic background thanks to writer-director Worth Keeter and producer-star Earl Owensby. Owensby portrays an heir to an estate in the first few years of the 20th Century who discovers that along with the family riches, he's inherited a curse of lycanthropy levied on his grandfather and father by a disciple of Satan (Ed Grady) masquerading as a man of the cloth.

The unusual but welcome setting of America's southland is a departure from the standard wolf man stories set in Europe, but had served the memorable made-for-TV feature MOON OF THE WOLF (1972), in which a werewolf lurked in the darkness of bayou country. However, the location is merely that as WOLFMAN concentrates on the hero's mounting torment as he realizes his fate. WOLFMAN builds to a satisfying if protracted reckoning with the evil cleric responsible for Owensby's misfortune and in subsequent decimation of his relations who are in league with the villain.

Although WOLFMAN suffers from variable acting, lack of mood-inducing visuals and not a few anachronisms (most of the extras' garb is late '70s Carhartt instead of 1910 general store), there is a sincere effort to make it horrifying and create sympathy for Owensby's character, a wanderer who returns home to confront a legacy of evil. Owensby does his best with the part, as does Keeter in his direction. It is easy to be churlish with everything about WOLFMAN but also unfair given that it was a product of Owensby's Shelby, N.C.-based E.O. Studios, which he founded in 1973 and built into a major player of regional moviemaking, mostly for the drive-in and grindhouse market. 

At the time, Owensby was attempting a change of pace from the rural crime and revenge dramas on which his film empire was built, and WOLFMAN was a step in that new direction. Its release came during the transition from what had become traditional horrors to the more graphic gasp-makers introduced by John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN (1978) and Sean S. Cunningham's FRIDAY THE 13th (1980). An earlier Owensby production, BUCKSTONE COUNTY PRISON (1978), nearly earned an X rating due to excessive violence, prompting Owensby and Keeter to tone things down with WOLFMAN; the blood-letting is more restrained and is not the only thing the viewer takes away from the film. 

As the producer's only entry of a horrific theme, WOLFMAN deserves a look if you're in the mood for something different.

CASTLE OF EVIL (1966) -- There's nothing really wrong with CASTLE OF EVIL in that producer Earle Lyon and his partners got their money's worth out of a veteran cast and effectively creepy studio interiors that do much to create a sustained mood of unease. But Charles A. Wallace's original screenplay reaches all the way back to THE CAT AND CANARY for plot inspiration and the central menace, updated to a homicidal robot threatening the lives of the unfortunates staying at the title abode.

Upon the death of a Howard Hughes-like zillionaire in his Caribbean island castle, six former associates (Scott Brady, David Brian, Lisa Gaye, Hugh Marlowe, Virginia Mayo and Ernest Sarracino) are summoned to the castle for a reading of the will. But it's only a ruse to get them in a convenient location to bump them off for perceived slights. His catspaws are the automoton (William Thourlby) and the deceased's housekeeper (Shelley Morrison), who set about their master's plan of revenge only until hero Brady, an engineer, finds a way to defeat the murder machine pursuing them.

The fatcat's megalomania, widely discussed by the guests, is evidenced in the robot, even to the point of it bearing the same facial deformity suffered in a laboratory explosion. That's about the most remotely scary item about the killer, who goes about his duty in dispatching some but not all of the intended victims in a lumbering fashion. However, director Francis D. Lyon creates some moody scenes and shows that his actors, who had all seen better days in Hollywood, could still keep such a predictable exercise interesting. Brady was past his leading man prime by several years but gives it his best, and Mayo's professionalism lifts her stale character of a singer who's seen it all out of the ordinary. 

Actually, one of the film's best performances comes from Morrison as the coolly sinister servant, effectively made up to look more mature than her then-age of 29. Her character's relatively early departure from the proceedings is a disappointment, following an impressive pre-credits cat-and-mouse sequence in which her character disposes of a blackmailing undertaker (Natividad Vacio). 

In a career spanning more than 50 years, Morrison soon after signed on in the regular role of Sister Sixto on Sally Field's TV
comedy THE FLYING NUN (1967-1970) and became known to a generation of millennials as the sarcastic maid Rosario on WILL & GRACE (1998-2006).

Director Francis Lyon, who had helmed one of Universal-International's more involving one-off horror entries, 1955's CULT OF THE COBRA, worked alongside his brother Earle Lyon on CASTLE OF EVIL and its companion piece DESTINATION INNER SPACE (1966), which also starred Brady and featured CASTLE OF EVIL's Thourlby in a supporting role. Earle Lyon was then a busy producer of medium budget action thrillers that also made use of once-prominent screen stars. Among these productions are two science fiction themed features: DIMENSION 5, starring Jeffrey Hunter, and CYBORG 2087, with Michael Rennie in the lead, both directed by Franklin Adreon and released later in 1966. While most of Earle Lyon's movies received theatrical releases, they were more widely seen when released to TV syndication in the early '70s.

Okay but not much more, CASTLE OF EVIL works as a horror light entry on your All Hallows' Eve viewing.

THE FROZEN DEAD (1967) -- With a plot involving latter-day remnants of the Third Reich in a mad scheme to revive their cryogenically-preserved leaders, THE FROZEN DEAD sounds like a feature-length version of a MISSION IMPOSSIBLE episode of the day. But upon viewing long after its network TV showing in the early '70s, this film written, produced and directed by Herbert J. Leder wins points for atmosphere and shock value that audiences and critics failed to appreciate at the time of its release.

For more than 20 years a Nazi scientist (Dana Andrews) experimenting with human longevity has kept a dozen of Hitler's top men on ice in a lonely British estate house. The fact nobody else seemed to notice is an accomplishment all by itself, but Andrews has a bigger problem to solve: how to bring the men back to life and with all of their faculties intact. Several he worked on have practically turned into zombies due to brain damage. When two Nazi bigwigs (Karel Stepanek and Basil Henson) show up looking for results, Andrews and his moronic lab assistant (Alan Tilvern) must find a fresh brain to replace the one rendered useless in the latest candidate.

That little item comes in the form of the college friend (Kathleen Breck) of Andrews' innocent niece (Anna Palk), who has brought her along for a long-delayed visit to uncle. The friend's decapitated head is kept in a specially-designed box for use in the big experiment, disrupted by the arrival of a younger scientist (Philip Gilbert) that Andrews brings into the situation for his expertise.

From the first scene in which the mindless victims of the experiment are herded around the estate, THE FROZEN DEAD carries an unnerving air that reaches its zenith in the scenes involving the head, voicelessly crying for help and bathed in a greenish light, a stagey but skin-crawling effect that does much for the mood of dread that envelops the film. Harkening back to Joseph Green's THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE (1962), the head develops a psychic link with the experiment's failures that lead to the destruction of Andrews and his fanatical overlords.

Leder, an American filmmaker and cinema scholar, made THE FROZEN DEAD along with another of his triple-threat productions, IT! THE CURSE OF THE GOLEM (1966). THE FROZEN DEAD, despite its outlandish moments, plays better than IT!, a melding of the legend of the Jewish defender modeled out of clay with elements of PSYCHO in which a disturbed museum employee (Roddy McDowall) uses the creation for his own evil ends. Andrews, suffering a career slump, nevertheless carries THE FROZEN DEAD and engenders some sympathy for his character, with the British cast going through their paces professionally. Breck, in particular, is both shuddersome and pitiable as the unwilling donor to the grand experiment.

A bit more offbeat than it probably was nearly 50 years ago, THE FROZEN DEAD maintains its ability to chill and is well worth the time to seek it out.


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