Webster’s Dictionary defines the word “sleeper” as “someone or something unpromising or unnoticed that suddenly attains prominence or value,” and that is just the kind of horror film that I would like to discuss in today’s Shocktober column. Below you will find five examples of what I would consider a “sleeper” horror film; films that are sleepers not because they might put you to sleep – far from it – but rather, because they are seldom-discussed items that just might surprise you with their manifold fine qualities. All five of these films are ones that have somehow managed, over the years, to be pushed aside to make way for the newest flavor of the day, but that have yet been able to stun new audiences over the decades. I urge you to try out any of these films at home one dark and stormy October night, and see for yourself what I mean by a sleeper horror!
Terror Is a Man is perhaps more well known for its status as the first Filipino horror film, rather than for its own fine merits. That’s a real shame, as it turns out to be an extremely well done take on H.G. Wells The Island of Dr. Moreau, but with unique slants all its own. Here, the marooned sailor is played by the likable Richard Derr (who sci-fi fans may remember from 1951’s When Worlds Collide) and the not-so-mad surgeon/scientist by Francis Lederer. The doctor has a hotty wife in this version of the story, and she is played by Greta Thyssen (Miss Denmark, 1954), shown to good advantage in negligee and bathing suit in several steamy scenes. (She really does put the “thigh” in “Thyssen,” lemme tell you!) In addition to uniformly fine, no-nonsense acting, the film boasts beautiful B&W photography (nicely presented on the clean and crisp-looking DVD that I recently watched), eerie and suspenseful music, stylish direction by Gerry DeLeon, and a unique-looking monster that is unfortunately (and literally) kept under wraps until the denouement. The film gives us some interesting speculations on just what makes a man a man, and is really quite intelligent and restrained throughout. A warning bell alerts the audience to a shocking scene (a close-up of a surgical incision) that should gross out only the most squeamish of viewers. My only problem with the DVD in question, really, was the fluctuating sound quality. But that should not deter viewers from checking out this most interesting horror tale. It’s a winner.
THE FLESH EATERS (1964)
Truth to tell, I had not heard of this movie until recently, but after reading several laudatory reviews in various film books, and after hearing a coworker buddy of mine rave about it, I quickly put it at the very top of my list of films to rent. And boy, am I ever glad I did! The Flesh Eaters, as it turns out, is nothing less than a horror minimasterpiece; a genuine sleeper whose relative obscurity may soon change, thanks to the crisp-looking DVD from the fine folks at Dark Sky that I recently experienced. In it, an alcoholic actress, her hotty blonde assistant and their hunky-dude plane pilot are forced to land on a barren island near NY’s Long Island, right before a hurricane. There, they encounter a scientist played by Martin Kosleck, who is working with the teensy critters that give this film its name. Kosleck, a German Jew who nonetheless excelled at portraying weasly Nazi types throughout the ’40s, is superb in the lead role, but then again, all the actors in this film are surprisingly fine. The film, helmed by one-time-director Jack Curtis, also boasts beautiful, high-contrast B&W photography, utilizing bizarre camera angles and point-of-view shots; some highly effective gross-out scenes; and some truly original-looking monsters, both large and small. The film gets wilder and wilder as it proceeds, and offers some real surprises toward the end. Thus, this little independent shocker is just dynamite, and a real find for the jaded horror fan. It’s also suitable for the kiddies … say, from 10 and up. It’ll warp them a little, but they won’t soon forget it, and will probably rave about it to THEIR coworkers one day…
LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971)
Poor Jessica! Talk about needing something like the proverbial hole in the head! Fresh from a six-month stay in a NY mental hospital, she is taken by her husband to their new home in the beautiful, autumnal Connecticut countryside. Too bad that the town is full of strange, bandaged old men, legends of ghosts and vampires, and an unusual woman named Emily who moves into their house and starts to put the moves on Jess’ husband. Before long, Jessica is straddling that thin line between sanity and … the other side, and, to the film’s great credit, the viewer is left uncertain whether poor Jess is indeed “losing it” or not. But this viewer, for one, never doubted Jessica’s true mental state for one minute. Anyway, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, as directed by John Hancock, is a genuine sleeper of a horror film, and not the slasher movie or cheap-scare schlock you might be expecting. Through the use of eerie music, subliminal voices, and strange sound FX, the picture truly does create a suspenseful and menacing aura. Two scenes in particular – that beckoning girl on the hillside, and Emily walking out of the lake – will certainly send shivers coursing down most viewers’ backs. Zohra Lampert, a very attractive although not exactly beautiful actress, with a wonderfully naturalistic acting style, totally convinces as Jessica, a sweet young woman whose already shaky grip on reality is here given several huge shoves that would send the most balanced of us over the edge. She is terrific in the lead; what a pity that she didn’t appear in more starring roles! This film, nicely presented on the crisp-looking DVD that I recently watched, may just suit the bill for those looking for a different kind of spine tingler. I highly recommend it.
1972 was a very good year for the directing and writing team of Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby. First, they came out with the very entertaining zombie gut-muncher Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, and later, with the even better Deathdream, which deals with a different variety of the living dead. In this one, 21-year-old American soldier Andy Brooks has promised his mom that he WILL come back from his tour of duty in ‘Nam. And, as it turns out, even his own death is not enough to make him break that promise, and the folks back home soon mistake his decidedly zomboid demeanor for what I suppose we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. But eventually, Andy needs new blood to stay, uh, fresh, and starts to act a tad homicidal around the ol’ hometown… I’ve gotta tell you, this well-crafted picture really did surprise me. It is a genuine sleeper, with great suspense, some surprising shocks, truly amusing dialogue and fine acting (particularly from Richard Backus’ Andy; get a load of that pitch-perfect, um, deadpan delivery). Anya Ormsby, who viewers may recall as the death-obsessed actress in Children Shouldn’t Play…, is also fine here as Andy’s younger sister. This little picture gets wilder and crazier as it proceeds; just wait till you see Andy on the ultimate double date from hell! I’m not sure what message we’re supposed to take away from Deathdream – whether this is a parable for the soul-stealing nature of war, or a commentary on the plight of the returning Vietnam vet (the picture is like Coming Home with a ghoul!) – but the film does stand on its own as an amazing horror outing. And the DVD that I recently watched, from the fine folks at Blue Underground, is just chockful of extras, too. Get this one!
THE SENTINEL (1977)
Boasting an all-star cast so impressive that it almost seems like the Mad Mad Mad Mad World of horror pictures, The Sentinel is nevertheless an effectively creepy film centering on the relatively unknown actress Cristina Raines. In this one, she plays a fashion model, Alison Parker, who moves into a Brooklyn Heights brownstone that is (and I don’t think I’m giving away too much at this late date) very close to the gateway of Hell. And as a tenant in this building, she suffers far worse conditions than leaky plumbing and the occasional water bug, to put it mildly! Indeed, the scene in which Alison encounters her noisy upstairs neighbor is truly terrifying, and should certainly send the ice water coursing down the spines of most viewers. Despite many critics’ complaints regarding Raines’ acting ability, I thought she was just fine, more than ably holding her own in scenes with Ava Gardner, Burgess Meredith, Arthur Kennedy, Chris Sarandon and Eli Wallach. The picture builds to an effectively eerie conclusion, and although some plot points go unexplained, I was left feeling more than satisfied. As the book DVD Delirium puts it, “any movie with Beverly D’Angelo and Sylvia Miles as topless cannibal lesbians in leotards can’t be all bad”! On a side note, I recently walked over to 10 Montague Terrace in Brooklyn Heights to take a look at the Sentinel House. Yes, it’s still there, and although shorn of its heavy coat of ivy and lacking a blind priest/nun at the top-floor window, looks much the same as it did in this picture. If this house really does sit atop the entrance to Hell, I take it that Hell is … the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. But we New Yorkers have known THAT for quite some time!
Anyway, FanLit viewers, there you go … five genuine sleeper horrors that should surely keep your eyes wide open as you watch them … and perhaps even after you lay down to go to sleep at night! I do hope that you will get to experience one or all of these fine sleepers one gloomy Shocktober evening soon!