The She-Beast (orig. La sorella di Satana), 1966, b&w. Michael Reeves (dir.), Barbara Steele, Kohn Karlsen, Ian Ogilvy, Mel Welles. 1:19.
We start with a drunken guy lurching down a tunnel, picking up an odd semi-book and reading about the death of a witch in 1766—not an innocent this time, but an evil woman who killed children. The townsfolk, led by the priest, grab her, tie her to a dunking chair, pound a stake through her and then repeatedly dunk her in a lake as she curses the entire town—although you’d think the stake would have done the job. The townsfolk seem to be doing some early version of The Wave or some odd form of aerobic dance while this is happening. Meanwhile, a little person and a regal sort watch this from a nearby hillside.
Back to the present, where a handsome young couple of Brits find themselves lost in Transylvania (where the flashback was also set), getting out of their Beetle to check maps. A loutish cop happens by on a bicycle and points them to the nearby town with “lots of hotels,” only one of which is open. They go to this dump of a hotel, where they find the drunken guy (now sober and regal in bearing) swinging on an adult-size swing set and a loutish hotel owner. Since it’s 40 miles to the next town and it’s getting dark, they decide to stay the night—on what turns out to be their honeymoon. Well, the hotel owner is also a voyeur (and, we later find, would-be rapist), and things start getting strange…and somehow, the next morning as they drive off, the car won’t steer properly and they end up in the lake. She’s drowned (presumably), he’s not—and the trucker who saw the accident takes both of them back to the hotel, saying not to call the police because they’ll just cause trouble.
That’s just the beginning. The witch has taken on the spirit of the wife; the regal guy—who turns out to be Count Von Helsing, the Von Helsings having stayed around since offing the vampires so as to deal with other demonic issues—brings her (now in witch form) back to life as part of some convoluted exorcism scheme (she wasn’t properly exorcised the first time around), and she escapes and starts killing descendants of the original villagers. Von Helsing drives a bright yellow Model T (or some other crank-started car), for what that’s worth.
So far, a straightforward horror film…but then it descends into a strange combination of farce, presumed commentary on the incompetence of Communist officials (since this was set in Romania), car chases (with scooters somehow involved), Keystone Kop antics and more. Eventually, things work out, but it’s a truly odd third-rate flick that seems to have started out as horror, run out of plot ideas (or money?) and turned into some strange mélange. In case you’re a Barbara Steele fan: She’s barely even in this movie, only there for perhaps ten minutes total. The print’s not very good, the acting’s no better, and I honestly can’t give this mess more than $0.75.
Manfish, 1956, b&w (this print). W. Lee Wilder (dir.), John Bromfield, Lon Chaney, Jr.=, Victor Jory, Barbara Nichols, Tessa Prendergast. 1:28.
Airplane (propeller-driven) lands at Montego Bay airport. Guy gets off, goes to constabulary, says he’s from Scotland Yard there to pick up a prisoner. The local cop says he can’t have the prisoner and tells a story…which is the picture (although people getting on the airplane show up over the closing credits).
The story: Four guys on a turtle boat (that is, people who grab and sell giant turtles, presumably still legal in 1956), with it becoming clear that the captain is sort of a jackass—gambler, doesn’t pay his crew, about to lose the boat over debt. The name of the boat? Manfish, thus the name of the movie. The two divers discover a skeleton in the water, panic, return to boat. The captain finds the skeleton, takes a bottle and message out of the bony hand. The message is half of a treasure map written in French.
All else evolves from that, and includes an aged Brit living on an out island with his local woman, who turns out to have the other half of the map. The two (plus the boat’s skipper, regularly derided as stupid and ignorant by the captain but clearly the best man of the lot) go hunting for the treasure—and find it, the old guy only staying alive because he’s memorized the map and burnt both halves, and says there’s more (and much bigger) treasure elsewhere.
A big portion of the film has to do with a murder, the long time required to hide the body, and a leaking scuba tank that gives us a Tell Tale Heart scenario (yes, the movie credits say it was based on that and another Poe story, The Gold Bug). Murder eventually does out, and the only character I found at all sympathetic—the skipper—ends up doing the best of anybody.
Here’s the thing: This is a slow-moving, almost languid film, but with lots of scuba diving in coral reefs, climbing over scenic rivers and waterfalls and other scenery. (Never mind the director’s bizarre method of cutting—rapid sweeps from one scene to another.) I thought: “This would be a much better film in color”—still seriously flawed, but at least a decent flick. Then we get to the very last credit: Color by Deluxe. Not in this print it ain’t, and the print’s badly damaged at points as well. Too bad; color scenery (in a really good print) would have helped a lot. As it is, the best thing this has going for it may be Lon Chaney—appearing with that name, although it’s apparently Lon Chaney, Jr.
The Devil Bat, 1940, b&w. Jean Yarbrough (dir.), Bela Lugosi, Suzanne Kaaren, Dave O’Brien, Guy Usher, Yolande Donlan, Donald Kerr. 1:08.
Bela Lugosi as a mad scientist—mad in both the “really upset about something” sense and the slightly-deranged sense: Check. Absurd method of taking revenge on one’s enemies—in this case, by getting them to test a new and fairly pungent after-shave lotion (or perfume), then releasing a humongous bat (made larger by electrical stimulation in a classic mad scientist’s lair) that hates the scent and kills the victims: Check. Generally implausible plot and second-rate acting: Check.
And yet, this one’s not so awful. OK, it’s thoroughly implausible—Lugosi is portrayed as the Beloved Family Doctor who’s also the Brilliant Chemist whose concoctions form the basis for the town’s primary employer, a cosmetics company whose founders paid him $10,000 for the formulas because he didn’t want to be part of the company. (But he frequently speaks as though he’s part of the company, and is still concocting formulas for them.) He feels cheated, so he’s out to slay the two founding families. Enter an out-of-town reporter and his photographer sidekick (nicknamed “One-Shot” and I think he only manages one good shot in the entire movie). Oh, did I mention a beautiful young woman who’s part of a founding family, and who has a nice-looking maid? Do I need to go much further? (The less said about the quality of the special-effects bat, the better.)
Somehow, it works better than most of Lugosi’s mad-scientist, low-budget horrors. I’ll give it $1.25.
The Devil’s Messenger, 1961, b&w. Herbert L. Strock (dir.), Lon Chaney Jr., Karen Kadler, Michael Hinn, Ralph Brown, John Crawford. 1:12.
A curious little trilogy of temptation, framed by the gateway to Hell, with Lon Chaney Jr. as the friendly old gatekeeper (or Satan, maybe) who greets people, looks them up in his big Rolodex, comments on what got them there and sends them through the open door to the fiery pits. Lots of people waiting in line coming down some rocky stairs…
And there’s a young woman, Satanya, who took her own life. The gatekeeper offers her a deal: Make a delivery Back Up Above (which turns out to be three deliveries) and The Tribunal will consider her case—after all, suicide doesn’t hurt a bunch of other people. So she does, and each delivery leads to murder and death. First, there’s a photographer who, when he meets a beautiful woman at a snowy farmhouse where his agent has ordered him to vacation, somehow finds it necessary to kill her…and deals with the ghostly outcomes badly. Second, there’s a frozen woman found in a glacier by Swedish miners and one scientist’s obsession with her. Finally, Satanya goes back to deal with the former lover whose rejection caused her suicide, in a tale that involves crystal balls (always the tool of the devil, don’cha know). Apparently, this is a feature version of three episodes from a Swedish TV series; it’s assembled into a not-too-bad combination (although Chaney doesn’t really do much of anything). The tacked-on ending is, well, a waste of footage.
Unfortunately, the sound’s frequently distorted and the print badly digitized. That makes what might otherwise be a nice little trio of horror tales difficult to watch, and reduces its score to $0.75.