Greetings, all. Ambush Bug here with another AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column. Why ZOMBIES & SHARKS? Well, those are the two things that I’ve had the most nightmares about. It’s the reason I rarely swim in the ocean. It’s the reason I have an escape plan from my apartment just in case of a zombie apocalypse. Now if you’ve ever had those fears or fears like them, inspired mainly by nights upon nights of watching films of the frightening kind, this is the place for you. Look for AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS every Friday for the foreseeable future, horror hounds, where we’ll be covering horror in all forms; retro, indie, mainstream, old and new.
This week, in celebration of the release of Nic Cage’s witch-toting knight tale, SEASON OF THE WITCH, I unearthed a quartet of other witchy treats to cast a spell on you. Some of the films shed light on the horrors the victims of the witch-hunt endured at the hands of evil men while others give horrific reason for the witchfinders to have existed starring creatures with evil in their hearts.
(Click title to go directly to the feature)
BLACK SUNDAY (1960)
WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968)
SEASON OF THE WITCH (1972)
BLACK DEATH (2010)
And finally…NOT THE BEES!
BLACK SUNDAY (1960)AKA LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO/THE MASK OF SATAN
Directed by Mario Bava
Written by Nikolai Gogol (based on the short story “The Viy”), Ennio de Concini & Mario Serandrei(screenplay), Mario Bava & Marcello Coscia (screenplay)Starring Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checci, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
I can’t say that I am an expert on the work of Mario Bava, but you can’t do a witch-centric column without BLACK SUNDAY, the grandmother of all witchy films. Bava starts out this film in brutal style as the viewer watches the tail end of a witch trial. A punishment is being enacted upon a so-called witch, played by the seductive and deadly looking Barbara Steele. I know us horror fans like to categorize our terrors, but here, Bava blends witchcraft, Satanism, and vampirism all into one gorgeous villainess with Steele’s Princess Asa Vajda. Steele’s cold stare is but one of many mesmerizing aspects of this film, but without Steele’s sultry performance, I doubt as many folks would have seen BLACK SUNDAY.
After a very brutal execution, the narrative skips to 200 years later as a traveling professor’s carriage loosens a wheel by an old cemetery. The professor manages to bumble together a perfect storm of resurrection when he battles a larger than life bat (hokey-looking, but effective), accidentally destroys the cross keeping the witch in check for all of these years, removes the mask nailing her corpse down, then cuts himself dripping blood into her scorpion infected eye sockets. Is it much of a surprise the villainess rises and seeks out her look-a-like descendant to embody her so her reign of terror can begin anew?
Though the story is somewhat hokey horror, Bava amps up the atmosphere and makes every scene ooze with fog, shadows, spires, sculptures, spooky sounds and ominous piano scores. BLACK SUNDAY is somewhat of a perfect bridge between the classic gothic horror movies of old (from Universal and even Hammer) to the more modern horror ushered in by Bava and his Italian contemporaries toward the late sixties and through the eighties with a more palpable sense of violence and terror. The bloody opening sequence, albeit in black and white, still packs a bloody wallop as the executioner slams a spiked mask over the face of the witch with a large mallet. That’s a level of intensity only hinted at in FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, but one Bava doesn’t shy away from. So while this may look like a Universal film, Bava immediately lets you know this is something much more gruesome with that opening scene.
BLACK SUNDAY is a perfect example of Bava’s talents as a director. One scene in particular reeks with tension as a farm girl is milking a cow in a barn. Outside is a storm and a cemetery. The little girl hears the thunder and moves to the window. Bava follows her to the window then back again to the cow, then Bava leaves the girl to her work and returns to the window to show the same scene, but this time the dirt over the grave is lifting. It’s already been established that the girl is afraid of the dark. Now Bava shows us that there really is a reason to be afraid (even though the body when risen and the devil’s mask is taken off looks a cross between Danny Trejo and Richard Mulligan from EMPTY NEST). It’s a great little sequence that is filled with imposing chills and thrills. BLACK SUNDAY is filled with little moments of brilliance like this.
The hokey gets a bit hokier as the film progresses. Lots of faux battles with the dead, races against time, and evil leerings toward the camera. But by now, you’re sucked in by Bava’s amazing gifts behind the camera. BLACK SUNDAY doesn’t have the most thrilling story, but it looks spookily fantastic and with the eyes of Barbara Steele staring into your soul, it’s a film that sticks with you long after the credits. Haven’t seen BLACK SUNDAY? Fear not, you can see the whole darn thing starting here.
WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968)AKA THE CONQUEROR WORM
Directed by Michael Reeves
Written by Ronald Bassett, Edgar Allen Poe (poem at the beginning), (Screenplay) Tom Baker, Michael Reeves, Louis M. Heyward
Starring Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Hillary Dwyer, Robert Russell, & Rupert Davies
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
I can’t say enough good things about this movie. WITCHFINDER GENERAL was one of those films I saw as a kid on one of those Saturday afternoon matinee TV shows and even though I’ve revisited it over and over, I could never get sick of seeing it. It’s a brutal, evil little film which doesn’t pull any punches and bites deep into any viewer’s heart brave enough to watch it.
Director Michael Reeves does a fantastic job of making this film look and feel authentic. There are so many shots of the English countryside in this one, it is almost a beautiful movie if not for the brutal acts depicted in it. When watching WITCHFINDER GENERAL, you might notice that it’s more of a Western than anything else, following an anti-hero as he rides into town on horseback. It’s easy to shoehorn this film into the horror genre, but Reeves’ attention to character, setting, and authenticity to the time make it so much more. The shots of the characters racing across the screen on horseback--some to save the day, others to ruin it--are the stuff of John Ford’s best cowboy films.
Michael Reeves provided the amazing camera work and direction, but WITCHFINDER GENERAL is what it is because of Vincent Price’s callous and conniving portrayal of real life witch hunter and self appointed Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. Though it was rumored that Price and the director battled with one another on set, it doesn’t show at all in this, in my opinion one of Price’s best performances. He is absolutely evil in this role—his dead eyes staring at the burning “witches”, his pompous posturings as he rides into town to pass judgment. Price owns this role and sheds his usual wink and smirk one often sees in his other horror film roles that were indeed schlocky. Price leaves the schlock at home here and plays it completely straight. In Matthew Hopkins, Price gives us one of the most evil men in the history of cinema.
What more can I say? I love WITCHFINDER GENERAL more than any other film in this week’s column and probably most of the previous columns here at AICN HORROR. I loved it so much, when I had a chance to write a prequel to it, I did so for Bluewater Comics’ VINCENT PRICE PRESENTS comic ( you can pick up a copy of VINCENT PRICE PRESENTS #20 WITCHFINDER GENERAL here if interested ). Though named after Edgar Allen Poe’s THE CONQUEROR WORM here in the States, apart from a line at the beginning of the film, WITCHFINDER GENERAL has nothing to do with the poem. Nevertheless, it’s such a solid movie filled with a memorable villain, delicious direction, and characters you care for. It’s an unflinching film that looks at a terrible man doing terrible things. It’s not a witch film, per se, but about a persecutor who would stop at nothing to fulfill a misguided quest. If you haven’t seen WITCHFINDER GENERAL, you can see the whole thing on YouTube starting here. After watching it, you’ll know SEASON OF THE WITCH has some pretty big shoes to fill.
SEASON OF THE WITCH (1972)AKA HUNGRY WIVES
Directed by George A. Romero
Written by George A. Romero
Starring Jan White, Raymond Laine, Ann Muffly, & Joedda McClain
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
One of George A. Romero’s more obscure films, HUNGRY WIVES aka SEASON OF THE WITCH may not be as good as his DEAD films, but it still contains a lot of what made the man the horror master he is today. SEASON OF THE WITCH was made when Romero was still pretty fresh and inventive behind the lens. Though bored suburban housewives may not tingle the spine like hordes of living dead do, he still finds ways to make this film pretty creepy.
The film starts out with a trippy dream sequence as our central bored, repressed housewife Joan (played by Jan White) is following a suited man in the woods. In the distance someone is laughing and the whole sequence, as tree branches slap the damsel in the face leaving bloody lashes, proves to be disquieting to say the least. By the time church bells are ringing and the man is leading Joan around by a pink leash, you can probably tell by the not-so-subtle imagery this is a tale of the horrors of domestic subservitude.
To call this film slow would be a compliment. But I believe Romero’s snail’s pacing of SEASON OF THE WITCH was intentional to highlight the monotony of Joan’s existence and give her reason to turn to the world of witchcraft. I remember watching this film as a kid and being bored to tears by it, so if you’re the type of horror fan who likes a jump scare or a kill in every other moment, this isn’t the film for you. But SEASON OF THE WITCH does succeed in passing on feelings of unease. Because of the slow pace, Romero really lets you slip into Joan’s skin feeling the dread that she does. She has lived her life and now must stay at home, growing older, watching the same TV shows, having the same conversations with her husband, talking the same talk with other housewives sharing her same dilemma. It’s no zombie at your door. It’s a more realistic horror.
Romero’s dream sequences are really great here. It’s almost Lynchian in that the people walk around in a dream-like state and the barrier between dream and reality is always unsure. The home invasion sequences are especially disconcerting throughout the film. Romero keeps the camera tight, which could be intentional to give a claustrophobic feel or could be just due to budgetary limitations. SEASON OF THE WITCH is not the most exciting film, but it is one of those movies that uses metaphor in a pretty powerful manner and is further proof that Romero was at one point one of the most talented masters of horror out there. Watch this for the freaky dream sequences. They’re worth it, but you may want to push the fast forward button a few times. You can see the whole thing on YouTube starting here.
BLACK DEATH (2010)Directed by Chris Smith
Written by Dario Poloni
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Carice van Houten, David Warner, & Kimberly Nixon
Reviewed by Ambush Bug
I went into BLACK DEATH not really expecting much. I knew it starred Sean Bean, but having seen THE HITCHER remake, I know that his appearance in a film doesn’t always mean it’s good. But being a sucker for knight movies, throw in hints of witch-hunting and the Plague and it seems like a pretty potent stew. What I had seen of the film didn’t really do it justice (see the trailer below). Turns out BLACK DEATH is actually a pretty fantastic film. It won’t blow the barnacles off your whale, but it is a lot better than it seems.
The film centers not around Bean’s character, but Eddie Redmayne’s Osmund, a young monk who is secretly having a relationship with a pretty young waif named Averill (played by the equally pretty and young Kimberly Nixon). Osmund looks for a sign from God to see if he should leave the monastery pursuing his true love and shedding his monkly vows. And a sign does come in the form of a cadre of swarthy knights lead by Sean Bean’s Ulric. Word arrives to the monastery that there’s a town that is untouched by the Black Plague and Osmund volunteers to be their guide in hopes of finding his Averill and having a save haven to live. Ulric makes a promise to the Abbot (an almost unrecognizable David Warner) to find this town and find out its secret to avoiding the Plague. And so our gang of toughs, lead by a pamby monk, take off and the real movie begins.
This is your typical men on a mission story. It could be set in the Old West (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) or World War II (DIRTY DOZEN) or the swamps of Louisiana (SOUTHERN COMFORT). Like all of those classic team on a mission stories, it stars a group of memorable characters, one tougher than the next, lead by the toughest of them all. BLACK DEATH, at its core, is a guy film about a bunch of guys working together to survive. Director Chris Smith did a great job of assembling a cast of unique and gruff characters and giving them a lot of weird and wild things to face on their journey. The group runs into witchhunters, self-flagellating monks, savages, swamps, and a town led by a witch. Of course not all survive, but the ones who do will probably surprise you.
My favorite part of BLACK DEATH comes during the closing sequence, but it’s an ending that will definitely split the audience in half. Right after the “climax” of the film, BLACK DEATH sort of becomes a totally different movie and rushes in with a whole new concept that, to me at least, was even more fascinating than the first hour and a half of the film. Though it may have been a missed opportunity to make an intriguing follow-up, this change of events for one character certainly leaves you wanting more. I wasn’t expecting this sort of TWILIGHT ZONE twist ending, but it’s a fun one and worth revisiting should Mr. Smith care to do so.
The performances in BLACK DEATH are solid throughout. All of the actors look authentic—like they’ve been rolling in the dirt and most of them seem like they eat it given their sunny dispositions. It’s great to see Sean Bean in a beard again. No Medieval Ages story is complete without Bean’s whiskers these days. The kid playing the monk who acts as the audience’s eyes and ears is pretty good as well, though at times he looks a bit too much like the creepy ginger Malachi from the original CHILDREN OF THE CORN for my comfort. There’s a shit ton of violence and some pretty groovy gory bits as well here. All in all, if you’re looking for a modern tale that isn’t weighed down with Hollywood stars and CGI, BLACK DEATH is the medieval tale to beat. Something tells me readers of this column will probably enjoy this film more than Cage’s SEASON OF THE WITCH. I want SOTW to prove me wrong, but it’s got its work cut out for it.
And finally, there are some movie scenes which strike a person deep to the core of his or her being. You signify time as you know it as before you saw that performance and after you saw that performance. This is not one of those performances…Enjoy!
See ya, next week, folks!
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Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, original @$$Hole / wordslinger / reviewer / co-editor of AICN Comics for over nine years. Support a Bug by checking out his comics (click on the titles for purchasing info)!
MUSCLES & FIGHTS VOL.3 & MUSCLES & FRIGHTS VOL.1.VINCENT PRICE PRESENTS: THE TINGLER #1 and #2 (interview, interview, preview, & review).
VINCENT PRICE PRESENTS #20 WITCHFINDER GENERAL (preview, review).
NANNY & HANK miniseries #1, #2, #3, and #4(interview, interview, interview, preview, & review, Check out the NANNY & HANK Facebook Page!).
Zenescope’s upcoming WONDERLAND ANNUAL 2010.
THE DEATHSPORT GAMES miniseries #1, #2, #3, and #4 (in September Previews Order #SEP 100860, in stores in November 2010! Check out THE DEATHSPORT GAMES Facebook Page!).