by Steve Habrat
You don’t have to be a horror fan or cinema buff to know that legendary horror actor Vincent Price was known for his winking villainy. His iconic voice and his mysterious appearance landed him roles in numerous low-budget horror films from William Castle and Roger Corman; two men who knew how to playfully lure an audience into the local drive-in. While he may have made a name for himself grinning at the audience through pictures like House of Wax, House on Haunted Hill, and The Tingler, he certainly wasn’t camping up his role in the 1968 witch-hunting horror film Witchfinder General. Directed by Michael Reeves and loosely based on a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, Witchfinder General is a startlingly dark and brutal look at witch hunting during the English Civil War. Loaded with still-shocking scenes of rape, torture, and graphic execution, Witchfinder General is heavily interested in the realistic side of witch hunting. There are no craggy-faced women huddled around a cauldron, wearing pointy hats, or chanting spells in this witchy horror film. The real monsters of this picture are the men who hunted down innocent civilians and mercilessly tortured them in the hopes that they would confess to conspiring with the devil. That evil is brought to life by Price, who delivers one of the best performances of his career as the “Witchfinder General” himself, Matthew Hopkins.
Witchfinder General begins in 1645, explaining that England is caught in a savage civil war between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists. In the midst of the civil war are witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins (played by Vincent Price) and his vicious assistant John Stearne (played by Robert Russell). Hopkins and Stearne ride from town to town ferreting out accused witches, torturing them, and then putting them to death. Hopkins and Stearne arrive in the quiet town of Bradeston, where they seek out a priest by the name of John Lowes, who has been accused of being a witch. Hopkins proceeds to torture Lowes right in his own home, but during the process he is stopped Lowes’ beautiful niece Sara (played by Hilary Dwyer). Sara offers herself to Hopkins in the hopes that he will spare her uncle. Her deal works for a while, but after Stearne discovers what is going on, he rapes Sara and hints that he knows what Hopkins has been up to. Hopkins immediately orders that Lowes be put to death, and then hastily departs once the execution has been carried out. Devastated, Sara turns to her fiancé, Richard Marshall (played by Ian Ogilvy), a Roundhead soldier who has returned for his bride. Enraged by Sara’s story, Richard sets out to find the witch hunters and make them pay for what they have done.
After only five minutes, it’s pretty clear that Witchfinder General is learning towards exploitative horror. The viewer is forced to watch an accused witch is drug to her death by a silent procession. She screams and cries the entire way, her pleas for her life ignored as she is strung up in a noose and then violently dropped. Reeves never cuts away from the death, allowing the unnerving realism to really sink in. Watching the senseless murder in the distance is Hopkins, making sure his gruesome work is mercilessly carried out to the max. This is exactly how Witchfinder General plays out, with prolonged scenes of torture and death. With such a glaringly small budget (a majority of the film takes place outside with only a handful of extras in each shot), the gore effects are surprisingly good, not overly elaborate yet graphic and painful nonetheless. We are treated to a horrific procedure where suspected witches are dipped into a river from a bridge to see if they float or drown, a cringe-inducing ritual that involves being pricked in the back with a needle, a nasty kick to the eyeball with a horse spur, an unblinking burning, and a gruesome murder that finds one character being hacked up with an axe. There is not one nasty scene in the film that feels cheap or fake despite the fact that the blood being used resembles melted candle wax.
The violence of Witchfinder General certainly shocks, but it’s the unbelievably chilly performance from Price that will absolutely floor the viewer. It is widely said that Reeves didn’t want Price in the role of Hopkins and he made his feelings known on the set. With Hopkins, Price is all business, shooting squinty and suspicious looks at each and every man, woman, and child that steps in his line of sight. He rides proudly through town, proclaiming that he does such great work in the name of the Lord that his superiors have taken to calling him the “Witchfinder General,” a title he wears with bloodthirsty glee. The performance is amazingly vile and it’s obvious that Price reached into some dark places to muster that performance. Equally nasty is Russell as John Stearne, the sadistic torturer who enjoys bragging about his profession in town pubs. His behavior in the torture cells is wicked, but it’s the way he drunkenly composes himself in public that is beyond repulsive. Pitted against these two hounds of Hell is Ogilvy’s Richard Marshall, who trembles with rage over the atrocious acts that these two men have carried out. He rides like lightning across the countryside searching high and low for his targets and when he finds them, he becomes an unstoppable killing machine.
Made for a little over $100,000, Witchfinder General doesn’t really have much in the way of lavish sets or chilling atmosphere. It gets under your skin with the violence and depravity that can lurk in each and every one of us. With much of the film-taking place outdoors, Reeves makes excellent use of the scenic English countryside. There are only a few major set pieces, one being a desecrated home/church that Hopkins has left in ruin and another is an outdoor sequence in the town of Lavenham. The scene finds Hopkins burning a woman to death right smack dab in the middle of the town while the villagers look on with the coldest expressions imaginable. It’s probably the grandest and most terrifying sequence of the entire film. The rest of the epic scale is milked through wide shots of green fields, roaring beaches, and early autumn forests. Overall, off-screen tensions and tight budgets aside, Witchfinder General is an incredibly powerful witch-hunt horror film that rattles the viewer with its unspeakably real violence. It’s through this realistic tone that Reeves is able to examine the appalling underbelly of humanity and rub our faces right in the violence. The film also achieves greatness through Price, who blazes through the carnage like the devil incarnate. It’s a performance that you never knew existed in Price and one you will never forget. A gruesome cult classic.
Witchfinder General is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Horror legend William Castle will be forever remembered as the king of gimmicks. He had a skeleton dangle over his audience in perhaps his most well known film, House on Haunted Hill, and he slapped buzzers on various seats and had Vincent Price encourage viewers to scream bloody murder during screenings of cult favorite The Tingler. Another one of Castle’s elaborate gimmicks came with Mr. Sardonicus, his chilling 1961 answer to the gothic horror offerings from Hammer Studios. Lacking the color cinematography Hammer was noted for but certainly not shorting the audience on macabre visuals, talk of ghouls, grave robbers, disfigurement, and leeches, Mr. Sardonicus is an atmospheric tale that cleverly allowed the audience to pick how they wanted to bring this underrated effort to a close. Mr. Sardonicus has sadly never enjoyed the success that some of Castle’s other work has, but don’t be fooled, this film is actually one of Castle’s better horror outings. The film features a solid build up, marvelous set design, eerie exterior shots that look like they were lifted right out of Hammer’s Horror of Dracula or The Curse of Frankenstein, and make-up effects that are guaranteed to have you fighting to keep down your lunch. And to think this movie is based around a short story by Ray Russell that appeared in Playboy!
Mr. Sardonicus begins in 1880, with renowned physician Sir Robert Cargrave (played by Ronald Lewis) being urgently summoned by his past lover, Maude (played by Audrey Dalton), to her secluded new castle that she shares with her mysterious husband, Baron Sardonicus (played by Guy Rolfe). Shortly after arriving, Robert is met by Baron Sardonicus’ fiercely loyal servant, Krull (played Oskar Homolka), who is in the process of torturing a terrified servant girl by sticking leeches on her face. Robert is reunited with Maude and is introduced to Sardonicus, who hides his face behind an expressionless mask. Despite Maude’s warnings of awful things taking place in the castle and muffled screams in the night, Robert stays to protect his lost love. The next morning, Sardonicus meets with Robert and reveals that he wears a mask to conceal a grotesque grimace that has been frozen to his face. Sardonicus explains that he has tried everything to attempt to fix his disfigurement but nothing seems to work. Robert agrees to try to help Sardonicus but after his efforts fail, Sardonicus demands that Robert resort to life threatening experimental procedures to try to fix his face and if Robert resists or fails again, he will torture Maude.
While there is plenty of lurid subject matter throughout Mr. Sardonicus, the film would be nothing without its sinister gothic atmosphere, something that makes the film a perfect fit for a chilly October evening. There are castles hidden by twisted trees, graveyards nestled inside dead gardens, heavy shadows cast over the characters, and thick sheets of fog that hang heavy in the air and coil around like ghostly specters. Castle’s finishing touch is the rotten corpse that leers out from its open grave, a visual jolt that hits the viewer like a strong cup of coffee. There is no doubt that the people over at Hammer Studios were most likely smiling over what Castle achieved here. This atmosphere gives Mr. Sardonicus plenty of personality and on its own, it is enough to give the viewer goosebumps, but the make-up effects really make this picture a macabre affair. The loyal servant Krull is missing an eye and Mr. Sardonicus’ mask is eerily blank for the rolling menace that booms from behind the pencil-thin lips. Then there are the effects on Mr. Sardonicus himself, which are hideous enough to cause one character to commit suicide after laying unsuspecting eyes on his hellish grin. The sight really is startling and grotesque, elaborate to the point that it was very difficult for Rolfe to keep the make-up on for a long period of time.
In addition to the strong atmosphere and chilling set design, Mr. Sardonicus also features some seriously noteworthy and graceful performances from its leads. Lewis is absolutely superb as the strong and whip-smart hero Robert, a man who isn’t shaken in the least by the horror unfolding around him. He’s levelheaded when forced to confront a nasty situation and calculated in the way he battles back against the menacing Sardonicus. Rolfe, meanwhile, plays Sardonicus as a surprisingly sympathetic monster with a tragic past. He certainly can back us up against the wall when he peels off that terrible mask to reveal an even more terrifying grimace, but there is an aura of sadness surrounding him, something that you would have seen in one of Universal’s early monster offerings. Much like Claude Rains’ performance in the 1933 film The Invisible Man, Rolfe is asked to bring heaping amounts of intimidation and emotion to a role that conceals his face and I must admit that he rises to the challenge. Dalton does get reduced to the whimpering damsel in distress during certain moments but the way she composes herself when her commanding husband slinks into the room is certainly something to admire. Homolka nearly steals the show as the disfigured servant Krull, a gravelly minion who assures Robert that he will do anything that Sardonicus orders him to do and he means ANYTHING. Just wait until you get a load of him sticking leeches to one poor girl’s face.
Considering that Mr. Sardonicus is a Castle product, the film naturally has a nifty little gimmick attached to it. This time around, Castle passed out glow-in-the-dark cards that had a thumbs up and thumbs down printed on it to the audience. Near the end of the film, Castle appears on the screen and speaks directly to the audience about picking the fate of the monster. He cheerfully encourages them to not be sheepish and to have absolutely no mercy for the nasty Sardonicus as he supposedly counts votes. It has been said that Castle shot two endings for Mr. Sardonicus, the one that we get to see and one that spares the grinning ghoul, but the softer ending has never been shown. What is interesting about Mr. Sardonicus is that its gimmick gets to live on and it wasn’t limited to a theater gag like The Tingler’s seat buzzers or House on Haunted Hill’s soaring skeleton. We actually get to a chance to experience the gimmick rather than having to simply hear about it from our parents or grandparents. Overall, ripe with a gothic atmosphere and brimming with Castle’s fiendish frights, Mr. Sardonicus is a patient and morbid horror story that deserves way more attention than it receives. Fans of Hammer Studios will be especially pleased with what Castle gives them, but all horror fans are guaranteed to walk away with a Sardonicus style grimace plastered on their mugs.
Mr. Sardonicus is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Below are a few little bonus items that I thought were cool to include in this review.
And here is the trailer for Mr. Sardonicus:
This review has been a part of…
by Steve Habrat
If you’re someone who enjoys entering the sleazy land of blood, guts, and gore, certainly you’ve heard of the West German film Mark of the Devil, a film that was advertised as “positively the most horrifying film ever made.” Released in 1970 to cash in on the success of the 1968 Vincent Price classic Witchfinder General, Mark of the Devil never even comes close to living up to its famous tagline. No, in fact there is barely a scare to be found in this stomach-churning tale of the European “witch-hunts” in the 18th century. Mark of the Devil does however live up to its reputation of being extremely violent, with prolonged scenes of torture that will make every grindhouse cinema fan beam. One would hope it would live up to its gory reputation, as Mark of the Devil is the only film to be (hilariously) rated “V” for violence (Personally, I think an X-rating is still more hardcore than a V-rating). A gimmicky rating apparently wasn’t enough, as Mark of the Devil also came with barf bags for the weaker stomached audience members, much like Lucio Fulci’s 1979 gross out Zombie. Despite all these wild taglines and marketing gimmicks, Mark of the Devil really isn’t that strong of a film. Sure the torture scenes are sickening enough, but a minor exploration of religious hypocrisy, a dreary ending, and a captivating performance from young genre-favorite Udo Kier are really the only postives this film has to offer. Well, there is also the famous tongue yanking sequence that will make you yelp.
Set in 18th century Austria, a vicious witch-hunter called Albino (Played by Reggie Nelder) has been abusing his power and terrorizing the small town he has been assigned to. After raping a caravan of nuns, the grand inquisitor Lord Cumberland (Played by Herbet Lom) and his young apprentice, Count Christian von Meruh (Played by Udo Kier), come to the town to relieve Albino of his duties. Shortly after their arrival, Christian falls in love with a beautiful girl named Vanessa (Played by Olivera Katarina), who has been accused of being a witch by Albino after she resists his sexual advances. It isn’t long before Lord Cumberland reveals himself to be worse than Albino, who has also continued to terrorize the locals, but after Christian catches his mentor brutally murdering someone, his faith is shaken and he begins trying to break away from Lord Cumberland. As more and more innocent people are accused of witchcraft, Christian begins devising a way to save Vanessa from horrific torture and death. Meanwhile, the townsfolk are plotting to rise up and fight back against Lord Cumerberland and his bloodthirsty gang of witch-hunters.
Throughout Mark of the Devil, there are moments where the film flirts with the gothic flair of an early Hammer Studios production. You wouldn’t be surprised if Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee emerged from the shadows to consult with Kier, Nelder, or Lom. Unfortunately, director Michael Armstrong never uses the gothic doom to his advantage and instead becomes overly focused on rushing from one torture sequence to another. Sure, they are gruesome enough and I’m sure that at the time, several audience members may have had to put those barf bags to work, but the torture sequences don’t milk any emotion from the viewer. There are a number of secondary characters that are suddenly introduced simply so that they can be stripped of their clothing and whipped, branded, and raped. Trust me, folks, it doesn’t stop there! There is also beheadings, tar and featherings, torture racks, Chinese water torture, people burned at the stake, and even that graphic tongue yanking. The special effects have held up and certainly could run with what we have today, but there were times were the sadism crossed the line into tedious territory.
For hardcore horror fans, it may be worth seeking out Mark of the Devil for some of the familiar faces that drop by to cause bloody mayhem. Kier will easily be the most recognizable face, and probably the most pleasant one (at least for the female viewers) next to Katrina’s. The young Kier certainly does a good job, but there are moments where he seems to be taking the project entirely too seriously. There is really no dramatic break from his mentor and in the final moments, he is asked to become a macho hero in the thick of a hectic mob. Katrina’s role begins to reek of a simple damsel-in-distress, but she puts her all into it. You will also get the sneaking suspicion that Armstrong enjoys showing off her curves. Then there is the vile Nelder and Lom, both of who do a solid job at making you dislike them. Nelder hisses and snarls his way through Albino, a man who just loves stomping through the town’s streets and accusing everyone he sees of being a witch. He is about as nasty as they come and frankly, I would have loved to have seen more from him. Then there is Lom, the impotent grand inquisitor who manages to be worse than Albino. He constantly explains that he is doing the Lord’s work, but his delusions have blinded him to the fact that he is the true monster, one that slips away to terrorize another day.
Mark of the Devil does threaten to explore religious hypocrisy, especially with the character of Lord Cumberland, but this exploration is far from complex and it certainly is never elaborated on. Cumberland claims to be a man of God, but then turns around and murders or rapes anyone who dares challenge him. Some man of God! Yet it becomes increasingly clear that Armstrong isn’t really interested in trying to make the viewer think, he just wants them to cheer along as one-dimensional characters are reduced to quivering bloody pulps. Bursting forth from the sea of blood and filth is a beautiful score conducted by Michael Holm, a soothing tune that could very well have inspired the Riz Ortolani’s hypnotic score for the grindhouse shocker Cannibal Holocaust. You can’t help but think the music was conducted for another film but somehow ended up in here. Overall, on a very basic level, Mark of the Devil is entertaining enough, but too often it is dull, repetitive, or just plain goofy. The poor dubbing alone will keep you giggling and some of the overacting, especially from the background characters, is flat out painful to watch. Mark of the Devil is immensely popular among grindhouse fanatics, but it failed to win this exploitation fan over.
Mark of the Devil is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
You have to love William Castle. Even if he produced B-movie schlock, the man knew how to sell a cheese filled idea. Luring audience members in through gimmicks (buzzers on the theater seats during 1959’s The Tingler, a $1,000 life insurance policy should someone die of fright in 1958’s Macabre), Castle giddily scared the pants off people through marketing alone. Despite the flashy promotion, Castle did direct a number of fairly substantial horror films that have stood the test of time and earned a respectable cult following. One of those films happens to be 1959 haunted mansion film House on Haunted Hill, the Vincent Price funhouse that features several moments that will have you dashing off for a change of underwear. Flawed but certainly a whole bunch of fun, House on Haunted Hill is nothing but an excuse for five strangers to walk into a supposedly haunted house and simply explore the spooks it has to offer. When it sticks to this premise, the film is a horror gem but when it decides to tack on its messy final twenty minutes, things don’t turn out so well. Still, you can’t argue with that skeleton backing a shrieking woman into a vat of acid. That, my friends, is why we see horror films.
House on Haunted Hill introduces us to eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren (Played by Vincent Price) and his wife, Annabelle Loren (Played by Carol Ohmart), who rents out an old mansion that is said to be haunted and then invites five strangers to join him for a night of terror. The guests include Lance Schroeder (Played by Richard Long), Nora Manning (Played by Carolyn Craig), Dr. David Trent (Played by Alan Marshal), Watson Pritchard (Played by Elisha Cook Jr.), and Ruth Bridgers (Played by Julie Mitchum), all who appear to have never met Fredrick and Annabelle before. The group is told that whoever can last the night in the home will receive a check for $10,000. The group is given the history of the house, which includes gruesome murder and mutilation, and then they are taken on a tour. As some of the guests break off from the group, the ghosts begin to reveal themselves and certain guests hint that they may not be random strangers at all.
Like a tour through a Halloween haunted house, Castle hurls one pop-up scare at us after another. Blood drips down from the ceiling, a chandelier comes crashing down on the guests, ghosts float outside of windows, skeletons walk, severed heads wait in trunks, and a witchy ghoul emerges from the dungeon. It’s in this stretch that House on Haunted Hill isn’t exactly heavy with plot but dares to have a cheeky and spooky good time as the characters are scared half to death. Heavy doses of camp are added through the otherworldly score and Vincent Price as he richly sells the ghostly encounters. There are several moments where Castle has Price almost directly address us about the terror playing out in the twisting hallways and cobwebbed dungeons where vats of acid boil and bubble in anticipation for the victim that tumbles in. The home feels just cramped enough to gives us a claustrophobic chill yet big enough to assure us that terror could easily be hiding somewhere and just waiting for the right moment to leap out and scream “BOO” right in our face. It’s loaded with atmosphere on the inside and the outside certainly makes an imposing statement is it stands proudly in the dark.
Much of the success of House and Haunted Hill lies on the shoulders of Price, who brings his usual macabre purrs to the spook show. Only Price was morbid enough to play a character that has stuck around with Annabelle, his fourth wife who has tried to poison him. He takes great pleasure in the horror around him, chewing through a smile as he passes out guns tucked into little wooden coffins as party favors. You’re a mean one, Mr. Price. Ohmart’s Annabelle is just as devious, the lady who came up with this eerie party idea. She brings her own devilish charm to the soirée and she takes terror to a whole new level as a walking skeleton stalks her through that old basement. Cook is great as the scared stiff Pritchard, the alcoholic owner of the home who fully believes that spirits wander the halls. Craig is one hell of a scream queen as Nora, who is consistently tormented by the ghosts or perhaps even one of the other party guests. Her run in with a ghoul is cellar has got to rank as one of the most shocking scenes in a horror film.
While the ending may subtract some of the supernatural creeps that flow freely throughout it, House on Haunted Hill still is a creaky winner in the haunted house subgenre. The scenes where the characters directly speak to the audience are immensely silly and certainly haven’t aged well at all. It actually causes the film to loose some momentum but it is blatantly Castle. At the time of the film’s release, Castle asked theaters to install an elaborate pulley system that would send a skeleton gliding over the heads of the audience members. I still think it would be very cool if theaters showed the film and included that Castle gimmick. It would certainly make for a nifty piece of nostalgia. Overall, House on Haunted Hill has zero depth but it does develop its characters quite nicely and it delivers scares at just the right time. It has plenty of camp throughout, which makes it perfectly safe for the kiddies to enjoy on Halloween night after trick r’ treating. In the end, the film belongs to Price and the disturbing reveal of his character in the final seconds of the film. For those who wish to get into Castle and really have some fun with his work, House on Haunted Hill is a great starting point. Be warned, this one may scare the pants right off of you.
House on Haunted Hill is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
While he may not be as popular as Dracula, Frankenstein, or the Mummy, the Invisible Man is still a pretty scary guy. I mean, you can’t see him and he could attack you at anytime! THAT, boys and ghouls, is pretty scary if you ask me. Rooted more in science fiction than straight horror, The Invisible Man is actually one of the best films in the Universal Monster collection. While the sequels didn’t stick as closely to the science fiction/horror mash-up as the original film did, they still managed to remain above average and impressive with their special effects. If you wish to read Corinne Rizzo’s review of the original The Invisible Man, click here. So, without further ado, here are Anti-Film School’s mini reviews for the sequels to The Invisible Man. Read on if you dare…
The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe (Played by Vincent Price) has just been sentenced to death for the murder of his brother, a crime that he did not commit. While on death row, Radcliffe is visited by Dr. Frank Griffith (Played by John Sutton), the original Invisible Man’s brother, who injects Radcliffe with the infamous invisibility formula. Radcliffe proceeds to escape from prison and sets out to prove his innocence but along the way, he begins to slip into insanity, a horrific side effect of the invisibility formula.
Never as mischievous as the original 1933 The Invisible Man, The Invisible Man Returns doesn’t shy away from causing plenty of mayhem. Not nearly as heavy on the horror and leaning more towards a mixture of science fiction and murder mystery, The Invisible Man Returns is still given an aura of menace with the presence of Vincent Price, a legend that is mostly heard and only briefly seen. With his gentlemanly coos aimed at his fiancé, Helen Manson (Played by Nan Grey), and his sinister guffaws, Price’s Radcliffe is one unpredictable madman who will prove his innocence at any cost, even if that means killing a few people in the process. As the whodunit slowly unravels for the big reveal, we can’t help but wonder if Radcliffe is really any better than the individuals that he is trying to track down. Price has some great chemistry with Grey, but she isn’t really given much to do other than look worried about Radcliffe’s safety. Cecil Kellaway, another familiar Universal face, also shows up as Inspector Sampson, who pieces together Radcliffe’s disappearance.
Much like the original film, The Invisible Man Returns has some jaw dropping special effects, especially incredible for the time in which the film was made. The effects ended up nabbing an Oscar nomination but it sadly didn’t take the award home. Yet director Joe May doesn’t lean on the impressive special effects even though he very well could and no one would blame him. The film, which is based once again on the story by H.G. Wells, doesn’t find the original invisible man, Jack Griffith (Played brilliantly by Claude Rains), rising from the dead to continue his rampage. The film wisely elaborates and continues the story in a clever and respectable fashion. The Invisible Man Returns also runs a full eighty-one minutes, which allows the storyline to fully develop. Overall, it could have been scarier but there are still plenty of extraordinary shocks and thrills throughout The Invisible Man Returns to keep the story engrossing. Plus, it has Vincent Price and how can you argue with that?! Grade: B+
The Invisible Woman (1940)
Feisty model Kitty Caroll (Played by Virginia Bruce) is tired of being pushed around at her job by her insufferable boss. On a whim, she answers a newspaper add posted by the eccentric Professor Gibbs (Played by John Barrymore), an ad that asks for human guinea pigs for his invisibility machine. Professor Gibbs is on the verge of loosing funding from the wealthy playboy Dick Russell (Played by John Howard) but when the invisibility machine works successfully, he launches a campaign to convince Dick that the machine is fully operational. However, the real challenge comes from trying to contain the mischievous Kitty and fighting off local thugs who want to steal the machine.
What little traces of horror you could find in The Invisible Man Returns disappears completely in The Invisible Woman, which was released the same year as the Vincent Price thriller. A cheeky screwball comedy that is more of a wild party, The Invisible Woman is quite a bit of fun if you are in the market for a whole bunch of laughs, but if it is horror you are after, it is best you look elsewhere. It is a bit odd that this film gets lumped in with the Universal Movie Monsters but the film is still a pretty solid watch on its own terms. It is very difficult not to like Bruce as the playful Kitty, who enjoys getting some hilarious revenge on her snippy boss Growley (Played by Charles Lane). The second half of the film morphs into more of a romantic comedy, with Howard’s playboy Dick falling for the leggy Kitty. The budding romance is sweetly written and delivered by the actors, making it an easy pill to swallow. There is also plenty of silliness thrown in from Barrymore’s Professor Gibbs, who acts as a strict father figure for both Dick and Kitty. There is also plenty of physical comedy from Dick’s butler, George (Played by Charles Ruggles), who is constantly mortified or taking a nasty tumble.
The Invisible Woman’s overall quality is done in by the unnecessary addition of the gangster side plot, which finds sinister thug Blackie (Played by Oskar Homolka), trying to steal the invisibility machine. The only good thing that can be said about this side plot is that it gives Ruggles a break from the physical comedy and places it on the shoulders of a slew of extras. Many of the delivered jokes fall flat, mostly because Homolka just isn’t that funny as the jumpy gangster. Even if it technically isn’t a horror film, The Invisible Woman still applies the invisibility aspect smartly and there are plenty of sly remarks made over the fact that Kitty is nude the entire time. There was quite a bit of controversy surrounding this aspect but by today’s standards, it is rather tame. Overall, The Invisible Woman is a sweet little romantic romp that fits nicely in the romantic comedy genre but trips over a pointless gangster subplot that should have been left out completely. Grade: B
Invisible Agent (1942)
The Invisible Man’s grandson, Frank Raymond (Played by Jon Hall), has been trying to live a quiet and normal life in Manhattan. It turns out that Frank still possesses a small amount of the invisibility formula that drove his grandfather insane. Frank soon finds himself approach by secret agents from the Axis powers, who are determined to get their hands on the formula. Frank refuses and makes a narrow escape with the formula in hand. America is soon dragged into World War II and Frank decides to make a deal with the Army—use the invisibility formula to spy on Nazi Germany. The army agrees and Frank is sent behind enemy lines where he does battle with a slew of S.S. buffoons and falls in love with Maria Sorenson (Played by Ilona Massey), a British secret agent.
Stripping away the romantic comedy and acting as part of a war time propaganda movement to boost American morale, Invisible Agent is much more a thriller with some chuckle worthy aspects. Just as it was in The Invisible Woman, the invisibility is often times played for laughs rather than scares. The comedy really takes flight during a scene in which Frank terrorizes a pudgy S.S. officer who lusts after Maria. When Frank isn’t invisible, he is a fairly forgettable character and he even remains a bit dry when he has injected the formula into his bloodstream (shockingly). Massey is certainly the life of the party but her character often times seems too eager to fall in love rather than do anything constructive. Cedric Hardwicke shows up as Conrad Stauffer, an S.S. officer doing anything he can do get his hands on the invisibility formula. Peter Lorre is handed the job of playing Baron Ikito, a Japanese officer with a thing for amputation (just wait for THAT scene). There is no question that Lorre is the most colorful one in Invisible Agent but his character is so obviously American that it is almost hard to take.
Invisible Agent does have plenty of action to thrill us throughout its eighty-one minute run time. The film has lots of impressive aerial battles that find Frank trying to sneak out of Germany with Hitler’s plot to attack New York City. There are plenty of fiery explosions and narrow escapes to have you on the edge of your seat. The downside is that Frank is such a bland hero that it is hard to really care if he makes it out alive. Invisible Agent also boasts some of the most impressive special effects of the series yet, some of them mind-boggling for the time. Overall, as an action thriller, Invisible Agent executes the mission with ease but you will find yourself starting to long for the science fiction chills of the Claude Rains original. Grade: B-
The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944)
Robert Griffith (Played by Jon Hall) escapes from prison and makes his way to London to find Jasper and Irene Herrick (Played by Lester Matthews and Gale Sonergaard), a wealthy couple that Robert believes cheated him out of a small fortune years earlier. When the Herricks turn him away, Robert seeks out Dr. Peter Drury (Played by John Carradine), who has created a formula that can turn a man invisible. After demanding that Dr. Drury test the formula on him, the newly invisible Robert sets out to get revenge on the Herricks.
The Invisible Man’s Revenge finds the Invisible Man series moving away from the comedy that The Invisible Woman and Invisible Agent were so fond of and returning to the horror that kicked the franchise off. Not nearly as absorbing as The Invisible Man or The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Man’s Revenge does wrap up the series in a fairly respectable manner even if the story is starting to fade right before our eyes. The real downside to the film is the fact that there is no sympathetic monster at the heart of the terror. The Universal horror films were notorious for including monsters that we actually felt bad for. The Invisible Man’s Revenge serves up a psychotic villain right from the start and refuses to make him a multifarious character. Claude Rains earned our sympathy through the fact that he was desperately trying to outrun madness but in the end he slipped into it. In The Invisible Man Returns, Vincent Price was a man framed for a crime he didn’t commit and his quest for the truth was causing his sanity to deteriorate.
Then we have Jon Hall, who picks up where Rains and Price left off. Hall, who also appeared in Invisible Agent, does a passable job with the role of Robert but he lacks the unruly insanity of Rains or the creeping terror of Price. Still, Hall manages to outshine everyone else in the film, as the rest of the characters seem to disappear from memory when the credits roll. Universal regular Carradine steps in as the gentle doctor who comes face to face with pure evil. Carradine is forced to take a stale role, one that completely takes away from his always-welcome presence. The effects here are just as solid as they were in the other films but near the end, it seems like some of the effects were getting sloppy. Overall, The Invisible Man’s Revenge is running on empty but director Ford Beebe still manages to send the character off on a dark and ominous note. Grade: B-
The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Woman, Invisible Agent, and The Invisible Man’s Revenge are all available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
The first pairing between director Tim Burton and versatile actor Johnny Depp would become one of their most beloved collaborations in the years the duo have been working together. The 1990 gothic fairy tale Edward Scissorhands is a fragile and enchanting bedtime story that seems to come from a personal place within Burton himself. Over the years, Edward Scissorhands has climbed the classic film ranks as it seems to gain more and more popularity as the years pass and new generations are introduced to it. While a wide audience sticks by Burton’s tale, the film has really resonated with the Hot Topic goth crowd. It’s easy to see why they love the film, as it follows a soft-spoken misfit who is encouraged to mingle with conformist suburbia where he is at first viewed as an alluring oddity and then is quickly misunderstood. Edward Scissorhands also features a tender love story, one that ends in a cracked heart but also happens to be vaguely romantic in its longing. The film is also incredibly memorable for Depp’s performance as shy recluse who is inquisitive of the world around him, a world he has never ventured out to explore.
Edward Scissorhands ushers us into candy colored suburbia where we meet local Avon saleswoman Peg Boggs (Played by Dianne Wiest) who has a heart of gold. While going door to door, she makes her way up to a seemingly abandoned mansion where she stumbles upon a shy young man cowering in the shadows. It turns out that this shy young lad is Edward Scissorhands (Played by Johnny Depp), who Peg manages to coax out and interact with. She notices that his face is horribly scared and that his hands are made out of scissors. Noticing that he is alone in the dilapidated mansion, Peg encourages Edward to come home with her and to meet her family. Upon arriving, Edward meets Peg’s husband Bill (Played by Alan Arkin), her young son Kevin (Played by Robert Oliveri), and her beautiful teenage daughter Kim (Played by Winona Ryder), who Edward quickly falls in love with. Peg begins to introduce Edward to the rest of the curious neighborhood, who quickly discover his stunning artistic talents. It turns out that Edward is a master at hedge trimming and hair cutting, making him an instant hit of the neighborhood. Soon, Edward meets Kim’s boyfriend Jim (Played by Anthony Michael Hall), who refuses to warm up to Edward. Edward also finds himself being seduced by the sultry neighbor Joyce (Played by Kathy Baker), who after being rejected by the nervous Edward, accuses him of trying to rape her. The neighborhood soon grows suspicious of terrified Edward and they begin attempting to run him out of the neighborhood.
Edward Scissorhands is such a joy to watch because we get to see Edward exploring a world that he never knew existed. It’s a delight to see him interacting with a waterbed, a mirror, and whatever else he happens to come in contact with. A scene where he attempts to eat peas is a pure “awwwwe” moment. He warms your heart with his attempts to fit in with the neighborhood. He is unassuming and always has a sheepish smile for the eccentric housewives who flock around him. He is even more intriguing because he never has too much to say and he lets his twinkling eyes do most of the talking. Credit the talented Depp, who says so much with just his movement. When he cuts hair and trims hedges, his face contorts with extreme focus and confidence but when he wanders around the neighborhood, that confidence dries up and in its place is uncertainty and wonder. In my opinion, Depp makes this film the heartwarming tale that it is.
Director Burton, who is working with a script by Caroline Thompson, allows his interest in Vincent Price and classic horror films to find a place in Edward Scissorhands. Vincent Price has a cameo in the film as a lonely inventor who creates Edward but dies of a heart attack before he is able to finish Edward’s hands. When the film is wandering the halls of the mansion, Burton relentlessly tips his hat to films like 1931’s Frankenstein and the Hammer horror films that he loved as a kid. The film also happens to be about a misfit loner artist who is misunderstood by the conservative suburbia, who only seem to accept him when they are benefitting from his talent. Even the character of Edward seems to be a haven for both Burton and Depp, a misunderstood outcast who is tormented by Kim’s jock boyfriend. In many respects, the world that Edward comes from seems much more normal and disciplined unlike the circus that is suburbia. Burton twists this suburbia into a day-glo world of routine and ennui, a place where many take comfort in gossip and empty pampering, nothing that is ever truly fulfilling.
Edward Scissorhands also finds a strong supporting cast, especially Ryder as the sympathetic Kim. Kim begins to find herself hypnotized and attracted to this peculiar young man and rejecting the obnoxious jerk that mistreats her. Her performance is absolutely magnetic. Wiest shines as the kindhearted Peg who sticks by Edward until the very end, becoming a motherly figure to poor Edward. Her patience and grace are absolutely stunning. Arkin is comical in the role of a dry husband who does his very best to connect with Edward even if that connection is a weak one. A scene in which they share a drink is absolutely hilarious, especially Edward’s reaction to the alcohol. Baker as the dishonest housewife Joyce who accuses Edward of rape is a despicable individual as is Hall’s aggressive Jim, who is equally terrible to the naive Edward. The dark horse here is the briefly seen Price as the inventor that builds Edward. The few scenes in which we get to see his radiant love for Edward is the strongest part of Edward Scissorhands and the ones that hit the hardest.
Tragic and sweet, Edward Scissorhands does have a handful of dark and sinister moments that are a staple of Burton’s work. You can try to resist the film all you want but there are moments that will charm you whether you like it or not. Like any good fairy tale, Edward Scissorhands lures us back to its magical world again and again to make us feel all warm and fuzzy from it’s fish out of water story. The film proves that there was magic to be found when you pair up Burton with Depp, as it leaves us ravenous for another collaboration from the unconventional duo. Overall, Edward Scissorhands stands as one of Burton’s strongest efforts and one of Depp’s best performances to date. If you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to step into the wondrously gothic world and get to know Edward Scissorhands. A true marvel in every sense of the word.
Edward Scissorhands is available on Blu-ray and DVD.