King of the Zombies (1941) review-possibly the worst Oscar contender of all time

To properly gauge the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ historic distain for the horror genre, one need only consider the curious case of Jean Yarbrough’s King of the Zombies (1941).

As it stands, this low-budget film is, according to IMDB, the only zombie-related property to ever be nominated for an Oscar, with Edward Kay getting the nod for Best Original Score for a Dramatic Picture.

Now, there’s a lot wrong with that scenario, the most obvious gripe being the fact that King of the Zombies actually bills itself as a comedy and features truly forgettable music.

But the bigger problem emerges once you realize how bad this 1941 shit-fest actually is in comparison to all the other great horror cinema that came along after it, only a small fraction of which got any attention from the Academy Awards.

The plot of King of the Zombies, if you can call it that, revolves around three travellers (a pilot, a passenger and his manservant) who crash land on a mysterious Caribbean island that’s inhabited by a mad scientist.

After a lot of haunted house hijinks transpire, the trio eventually discover that their host has enslaved the native population and turned them into mindless zombies, hoping to use their voodoo magic to extract military secrets from a captured US Admiral.

As zany and madcap as that plot recap sounds, it’s incredible how dull and devoid of life (pun intended) King of the Zombies actually is for most of its runtime.

Most scenes just involve the film’s principle characters standing in the middle a static shot and spouting off one-liners, like they are rehearsing for a high school play.

Even when zombies finally enter the picture, at least two out of three leads treat this situation way too casually and do a really poor job of conveying the fact that anything remotely supernatural is happening.

The filmmakers also put next to no effort into establishing a macabre or spooky atmosphere, as most of the props and sets seem like they were recycled from a patchwork of other, better movies.

Of course, as I’ve mentioned in the past, most of these cinematic shortcomings can be forgiven if a comedy manages to bring the laughs on a consistent basis.

Unfortunately, King of the Zombies only has one big comedic trump card in the form of Mantan Moreland, who plays the befuddled manservant Jeff.

On one hand, Moreland is the most endearing character in the movie, since he reacts appropriately to the existence of shambling corpses, as opposed to his fellow co-stars who might as well be replaced with cardboard cutouts.

The actor also manages to score some of the movie’s only genuine laughs through his natural comedic timing, something that he probably developed through years of performing vaudeville.

But it’s impossible to talk about Moreland’s performance without tackling the style of comedy that he employs, which is heavily influenced by southern minstrel shows.

Now, I don’t usually like to bash older movies for containing elements that [inset current year] audiences might find distasteful. But when it comes to King of the Zombies, the filmmakers’ over reliance on Moreland’s bugged-out eyes and dull-witted enunciation gets old quickly, especially when you realize that the movie has nothing else to offer in terms of comedy.

It also doesn’t help that Moreland’s Jeff is constantly put in a position to try and convince the other characters that they are in danger, even though his concerns are regularly swatted away like he is an over-imaginative child.

Racial stereotypes aside, the biggest acting sin on display in King of the Zombies actually belongs to Henry Victor, who plays the mad scientist Dr. Miklos Sangre.

Reportedly, Victor was a last-minute replacement for a role that was designed for two other actors and it really shows.

Outside of being of horribly miscast as a villain, Victor also can’t seem to remember his lines half the time, resulting in a bunch of awkward scenes that should have been relegated to a blooper reel.

Even though the film’s two remaining leads (Dick Purcell and John Archer) can at least deliver their dialogue confidently, the pair still have very little personality or charisma to speak of.

This leaves Moreland to carry the entire movie on his back almost single-handedly, even though its screenwriter (and broader society at the time) didn’t view him as anything more than a cheap comedy sidekick.

As a result, King of the Zombies’ biggest failing, outside of its piss-poor production values, is the fact that it doesn’t provide the audience with any emotional weight to anchor all of the supernatural shenanigans.

And it’s not like this is a tough formula to crack. Around that same time, actors like Bob Hope, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello found a lot of success mixing comedy and horror through projects like The Ghost Breakers (1940) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

But King of the Zombies probably didn’t have a hope of being good at its conception, since it was produced by Monogram Pictures.

Unlike Universal Studios or any other big-time operation in Hollywood, Monogram employed a “fast and dirty” approach to film production that emphasized speed over quality, resulting in movies that managed to turn a profit despite not getting a lot of attention from critics.

But even with this reputation, King of the Zombies still managed to snag a historic Oscar nomination in 1941, which is either the result of an insider bet gone wrong or someone working at Monogram knowing how to play the system.

Either way, this movie remains an interesting footnote in the Academy Awards’ storied history, serving as a small exception to the organization’s traditional disdain for horror filmmaking.

It’s just a shame that such a historically significant film is the cinematic equivalent of watching paint dry.  

Verdict:

2/10

Corner store companion:

Twizzlers (because you deserve to enjoy something tasty while watching this dreck)

Fun facts:

-Release date: May 14, 1941

King of the Zombies ultimately did not take home the Oscar for Best Original Score for a Dramatic Picture at the 1942 Academy Awards. That honour went to Bernard Herrmann for his work on All That Money Can Buy.

-Both Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre were considered for the role of the film’s mad scientist, but a deal could not be reached in time for either actor.

-While horror movies routinely get snubbed at the Academy Awards, some films have managed to break through that barrier and actually bring home a gold statue. These movies include: Rosemary’s Baby (Best Supporting Actress-Ruth Gordon), The Exorcist (Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound), The Omen (Best Original Music), Misery (Best Actress-Kathy Bates), Black Swan (Best Actress-Natalie Portman), Get Out (Best Original Screenplay) and Silence of the Lambs (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor-Anthony Hopkins and Best Actress-Jodie Foster).

-Monogram Pictures operated in Hollywood from 1931 to 1953 before transitioning to the name Allied Artists Pictures Corporation. Monogram/Allied ultimately filed for bankruptcy and dissolved in 1979.

– Mantan Moreland reprised his role as Jeff in the film’s sequel Revenge of the Zombies, which was released in 1943.

King of the Zombies is currently in the public domain and can be watched in its entirety on YouTube.

The Terror (1963) review-the only thing scary about this movie is how cheap it is

Before we get started let me make one thing very clear: I did not walk into Roger Corman’s The Terror (1963) expecting to see opulent production values.

I was fully aware of Corman’s status as an iconic B-movie director/producer ahead of time and adjusted my expectations accordingly.

But even if I grade this gothic horror film on a curve it’s is still dreadfully boring, confusing, and not scary in the least.

The plot itself follows a fresh-faced, 26-year-old Jack Nicholson, who plays a French soldier in Napoleon’s army who gets separated from his regiment and wanders into a spooky castle occupied by the reclusive Baron Von Leppe (Boris Karloff).

There, Nicholson’s character becomes obsessed with a young woman (Sandra Knight) who resembles the Baron’s dead wife and he attempts to unveil the mystery of what happen to her and why.

And that’s about as succinct a synopsis as I can provide, since the film’s story is all over place and never really provides concrete answers as to what’s going on.

One of the biggest plot points that drove me crazy is the Nicholson’s love interest (Knight), since it’s never clearly established if she’s a zombie or a ghost.

Despite disappearing at random times like an apparition, she also talks about being “possessed” and under the influence of a local witch.

She also might have the ability to Animorph into a hawk, although (again) the screenwriters never make that clear.

Legend has it that Corman only filmed four days worth of footage with Karloff before handing the reins over to a handful of other second-unit directors to bring this film up to feature length.

There was apparently no real script during this part of production either, which probably explains why so many important plot points later on in the film come across as being an afterthought or improvised.TheTerror2

Corman’s corner cutting approach to filmmaking also affects the way the movie looks, since he apparently just re-used some of the same sets from his previous project The Raven (1963).

Because of this, the filmmakers never really establish a consistent mood or atmosphere, and it just feels like they’re throwing any kind of horror movie set dressing at the wall to see what sticks.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Corman recycled old costumes as well, since Nicholson’s period appropriate military garb really clashes with the Hugh Hefner-style robe that Karloff wears most of the time he is on screen.

But those aesthetic discrepancies are the least of the movie’s problems, since The Terror is also littered with shoddy filmmaking techniques like bad ADR, obvious day-for-night shooting, and shockingly incompetent scene transitions.

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The only element of the film that doesn’t come across as being cheap is its score, and that’s only because Corman’s production company found an inexpensive way to record it in Germany.

Now, all of this could be forgiven is the movie wasn’t painfully dull.

But I’d guess that 70% of the runtime features Nicholson and Karloff walking around dark hallways looking confused, with the occasional telegraphed jump scare thrown in to keep the audience awake.

And since the two actors aren’t given any consistent direction, their performances come across as being completely lifeless, with no clear motivation driving their characters’ actions.

Admittedly, there is some novelty in watching Nicholson play a handsome, leading man since most of us have only seen perform him as a balding, middle-aged reprobate.

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Unfortunately, that element alone can’t salvage the fact The Terror is a barely qualifies as a movie, with a story that goes nowhere and production values that are on par with a high school play.

Now, this whole diatribe isn’t meant to crap all over Corman’s legacy, since the man’s definitely earned his stripes as a trailblazer in the world of independent cinema.

But it’s obvious that this film didn’t receive his full attention, since he couldn’t even be bothered to come up with one of his trademark zany titles like Angels Hard as They Come (1971) and Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959).

Anyway, Happy Halloween and Hail Satan!

Verdict:

3/10

Corner store companion:

Candy Corn (because it’s barely food, the same way The Terror is barely a movie)

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Fun facts:

-Release date: June 17, 1963

-Five second-unit directors were ultimately tasked with finishing this film after Corman wrapped-up his four days of shooting. This group included Francis Ford Coppola and even Jack Nicholson himself.

-Not only were Nicholson and his co-star Sandra Knight married during the production of The Terror, but Knight was pregnant with the pair’s only daughter, Jennifer, as well.

-IMDB credits Roger Corman with producing 415 films between 1954 and today. He’s also responsible for directing 56 films in his career, with his last full-length feature being Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound (1990).

-If you Google “The Terror,” make sure you don’t get this film mixed up with the AMC horror anthology series of the same name.

The Terror is currently in the public domain, which means you can watch the whole movie on YouTube.

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) review-Christopher Lee deserved a better send-off as the Count

Besides Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee is probably the most prolific actor to ever don Count Dracula’s cape on the silver screen.

This is no easy feat, since the Prince of Darkness has been portrayed in over 200 films by some of the industry’s most respected thespians, like Gary Oldman, Klaus Kinski, and Frank Langella.

But from 1958 to 1973, Hammer Studios turned Lee into a horror icon by casting him as the main antagonist in their revival Dracula series that took the character into new and interesting directions.

This is definitely true for The Satanic Rites of Dracula, the last film in the series to feature Lee, since the story revolves around a morbid cult helping the Count carry out his evil deeds in 1970s London.

Luckily, the descendent of Dracula’s old foe Van Helsing (played by Peter Cushing for the fourth time) catches wind of these malicious machinations and teams up with a group of government agents to stop this undead fiend once and for all.

Full disclosure, I haven’t watched any of the other Hammer Dracula films starring Lee, since my horror DVD 12-pack only came bundled with this single entry.

But based on what I’ve been able to glean from online critics like James Rolfe, the series’ continuity is all over the place and doesn’t really make sense anyway.

All you need to know is that Dracula is skulking around modern day London and most of the older films’ gothic sets and atmosphere have been replaced with cheap on-location shooting.

For some reason, the filmmakers also decided to try and modernize this story by imbuing it with period appropriate funk music, which makes it sound like Shaft is going to jump out of the shadows at any moment and kick vampire ass.

The movie’s tone in general is all over the place, switching from scenes involving satanic cults and human sacrifice to dry exchanges between government agents that resemble a John le Carré spy novel.

Based on this description, you might be fooled into thinking that The Satanic Rites of Dracula is a fascinating mess of a film that keeps you hooked based on how off-the-wall some of its ideas and concepts are.

While this does happen occasionally, the movie is mostly a giant bore that barely features Lee in any meaningful way.

Dracula himself doesn’t show up until half-an-hour into the film and takes up less than 20 minutes of total screen time.

While this is apparently par for the course when it comes this series, critics like Rolfe said that previous entries at least made up for the lack of Dracula by providing some interesting performances, eerie atmosphere, and impressive gore effects.

Satanic Rites really doesn’t bring any of that to the table with its bland main characters, goofy score, and tepid use of bloodshed.

The most compelling thing about the film is Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, since he at least tries to take this bonkers material serious. Sadly, he isn’t given that much to do, since 90% of his dialogue consists of dolling out exposition.

The movie’s plot also really starts to go off the rails in its second half when Van Helsing discovers that [SPOILERS] Dracula is planning to wipe out humanity by developing a new strain of the bubonic plague. How he would be able survive in a world without human blood to feast on I have no idea.

The writers try to salvage this idiotic turn by suggesting that Dracula wants to die himself and take the world down with him. However, that doesn’t explain why he spends so much of film’s running time turning pretty English girls into his vampire brides instead of focusing on his plan to commit mass genocide.

The last nail in this film’s coffin is its insulting finale, where [SPOILERS] Dracula meets his end by walking into a hawthorn bush.

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Obviously, the people over at Hammer were running out of ways to kill Lee at the end of every movie, so I guess they came up with some bullshit about how vampires are vulnerable to the crown of thorns that Jesus wore on the cross.

So yeah, not a great way for Lee to cap off his iconic run as Dracula.

Even though the actor revealed in later interviews that he grew less and less fond of playing the character as time went on, there’s no denying that he injected some new blood into Bram Stoker’s original creation.

Not only was Lee one of the first actors to portray the Count in vivid Technicolor, but horror movie fans also got to see this classic character inflict new levels of gratuitous violence on his victims thanks to Hammer’s famously schlock-heavy approach to filmmaking.

Sadly, that initial spark of creativity is completing lacking in Satanic Rites, which ends this franchise with a dull whimper rather than a deafening bang.

But luckily, I don’t think this film hurt Lee’s legacy in the long run, since he would go on to portray a litany of other iconic movie villains until his death in June 2015 at the age of 93. And that’s on top of his decorated military service and amazing run as a heavy metal recording artist.

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So yeah, I don’t think he gave this movie a second thought after he collected his paycheck … and that’s about all it deserves.

Verdict:

3/10

Corner store companion:

Glade scented candles (because they provide better gothic atmosphere than the movie itself)

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Fun facts:

-Release date: November 3, 1973 (West Germany), January 13, 1974 (UK), October 1978 (US)

-Box office gross: ₤223,450

-Alternative title: Dracula Is Alive and Well and Living in London

-While Hammer produced nine films in their revival Dracula series, Christopher Lee only appeared in seven of them. However, the second and ninth films in the franchise, The Brides of Dracula (1960) and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), still feature Peter Cushing as Van Helsing.

Satanic Rites wasn’t the last time Lee would be cast as Dracula, since he donned the cape one last time in the 1976 French comedy Dracula and Son.

-Before he played Dracula for the first time in 1958, Lee also got the opportunity to portray Frankenstein’s monster in Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein from 1957. Lee’s run as the creature only lasted one movie, since the remaining six films in the franchise focused on the adventures of Baron Victor Frankenstein, played by Cushing.

-Musical highlight: “Massacre of the Saxons” by Christopher Lee (this song has nothing to do with the movie, I just wanted to remind everyone that Lee recorded a series of heavy metal albums when he was in his late-80s and early-90s).

Lady Frankenstein (1971) review-This exploitation film is poorly stitched together, just like the monster itself

Comic book franchises and cinematic universes are all the rage in Hollywood right now, but any keen film historian could tell you that this trend was pioneered way before the Avengers assembled back in 2012.

The Universal Studios monster mash of the 1940s is probably the earliest example of this, where larger-than-life characters like Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s monster dominated the box office and would regularly pop up in each other’s movies.

While Universal’s take on the Frankenstein monster was one of the most iconic figures to emerge from this cycle, neck bolts and all, he wasn’t the only version of Mary Shelley’s original characters to grace the silver screen.

Outside of being featured in eight movies made by Universal, Shelley’s Frankenstein characters would play a prominent role in at least 58 other feature films produced by film studios from around the world, ranging from Britain (Hammer) to Japan (Toho).

In 1971, the Italian studio Alexia Films took a stab at adapting this property with Lady Frankenstein,which shifted the focus to a female perspective and injected a healthy dose of sex and violence into the proceedings.

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Even though this movie starts off by following the basic framework of most Frankenstein stories (where an eccentric European aristocrat digs up corpses and uses their limbs to create a unholy monstrosity) the filmmakers begin to deviate from this source material around 30 minutes in.

After completing his initial experiment, Baron Frankenstein (Joseph Cotten) is killed by his creation and the rest of the story follows his daughter Tania (Rosalba Neri) as she tries to carry on the family name by bringing her own “monster” to life.

On the surface this premise is full of potential, since Frankenstein stories aren’t usually told from a female point-of-view. With a motivated creative team behind it, this film could have subtly explored gendered expectations in the 19th century scientific community and how that influences Tania’s monster making process.

However, the filmmaking on display is shackled by grindhouse sensibilities and an extremely low-budget, which means that most of that interesting subtext gets swept under the rug in favourof bad monster make-up and cheap nudity.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with selling your film using this kind of lurid subject matter, but the filmmakers decided to take the laziest possible route to get there.

For example, the screenwriters decided to put their unique stamp on that famous scene from the 1931 Boris Karloff Frankenstein film where the monster accidently drowns a small girl by throwing her into a lake.

In Lady Frankenstein, the monster’s drowning victim is an adult female … and naked, which is an edgy 13-year-old’s idea of making a classic story more “mature.”

This grade school understanding of adult dynamics also pervades the rest of the movie, since Tania’s motivation for carrying on her father’s work is to create the perfect “man” through combining the body of a hunky servant and the brain of her father’s assistant.

This is a big step down from most other Frankenstein protagonists, since they were mainly preoccupied with unlocking the secrets of life and death and couldn’t care less about their own sex life.

The filmmakers pay some lip-service to the idea that Tania’s creation is the only thing that can stop her father’s original monster from rampaging throughout nearby villages, but they seem much more preoccupied with the idea of an Italian beauty like Neri bumping uglies with a reanimated corpse.

Again, this concept could have been salvaged if it was put in the right hands, since acclaimed storytellers like David Fincher and Bryan Fuller have established successful careers through creating high art from trashy source material (like in Gone Girl and the most recent Hannibal TV series, respectively).

However, it doesn’t help that the film’s production values are in the toilet.

I didn’t expect much from a 70s exploitation horror movie, but the least they could have done is sync up the actor’s dialogue with their lip movements, which seems to be off at least 70 per cent of the time.

The film’s editing also operates on the same level of incompetence, since scenes abruptly change without any natural rhythm. These transitions are so sudden that the editor even managed to cut off key lines and important pieces of music.

And since most Frankenstein films live and die based on their unique monster design, the specimen on display here is mostly forgettable. The only interesting thing about Lady Frankenstein’s signature creature is a goofy prosthetic eyeball that looks equal parts fake and laughable.

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Not even a solid lead performance from Neri can salvage this exploitation remake, since she does an admirable job of balancing Lady Frankenstein’s alluring sensuality and her drive to meddle with the forces of nature.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film buckles under the weight of its own unrealized potential, poor production values, and unmitigated sleaze, which makes it much more interesting to talk about rather than to actually watch for entertainment purposes.

Lady Frankenstein isn’t even interestingly bad enough to justify viewing it as a cult classic, which means you might have to dust off that old Blu-ray copy of Blackenstein to get your fix.

Verdict:

3/10

Corner store companion:

Cheezies (because they’re just a cheap imitation of a better product)

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Fun facts:

-Original release date:

October 22, 1971 (Italy)

October 1973 (US)

-Budget: Under $200,000.

-Box office gross: ₤ 139.683 (Italian lire).

-This film was distributed in America through Roger Corman’s New World Pictures after this American studio provided the Italian filmmakers with an additional $90,000 to complete principal photography.

-Musical highlight: “Living Dead Girl” by Rob Zombie (Rob samples a line from the movie’s trailer at the very beginning of the song).

-You can watch the full movie on YouTube here.