Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Horror Hags Part Two
Another star hitting the horror hag circuit for Hammer at the time was Tallulah Bankhead, who was predominantly famous for her stage work but in later years was more notable for her outrageous excesses and smoky voice. In 1965's Fanatic (aka Die, Die, My Darling), she plays Mrs. Trefoile, a religious nut who blames her son's ex-fiance (Stefanie Powers) for his suicide and holds her prisoner. She's surprisingly restrained—maybe too much—because anyone wanting to enjoy Bankhead's trademark bizarre mannerisms ("dah-ling") here will be disappointed.
Museum delivers the blood (including an excruciating death by spring-loaded spikes in a pair of binoculars), but it doesn't have Hammer's wonderful cinematography, story structure or the magnificent performances of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. It's fun to watch, but for all the wrong reasons. Michael Gough (Hammer's Dracula and the '80s Batman remakes) is the star, minimally supported by a Diana Dors lookalike (Dors was England's answer to Marilyn Monroe) who provides the cleavage, but she can't act and does a spastic dance in a sleazy nightclub that's so hilarious you have to rewind the tape (or DVD or DVR) to see it again. She accidentally pokes herself in the eye and they use the take!
Meanwhile, Davis made The Anniversary for Hammer, starring as the abusive one-eyed matriarch of a dysfunctional family. She's fun as she verbally hacks her children and grandchildren to pieces, but like all forced camp, it doesn't really work.
But that same year in the U.S., Roman Polanski's magnificent Rosemary's Baby hit the screens. Not only is it a freaking great horror film, it's also a terrific time capsule of New York in the 1960s, a location and era that I would've loved to have been an adult in. Ruth Gordon plays the neighbor from hell, whose nosiness and constant prying deflects what's really going on—the intention to impregnate Rosemary with Satan's baby.
Don't believe how great she was? Catch it on cable and watch the scene where Minnie is serving Rosemary's (Mia Farrow) husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), some of her homemade cake. Messily cramming forkfuls into her mouth, she watches intently to make sure he's enjoying it, mugging relentlessly through the other actors' dialogue, and swooping in to offer him another slice. Sure, she's shamelessly stealing the scene, but she's hilarious.
Remember, true horror hag films have questions as the titles, so Gordon made the grade in the Robert Aldrich-produced Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969). Geraldine Page stars as a pine-tree growing widow who murders a succession of housekeepers for their money and buries them in the garden. Gordon arrives to investigate the disappearance of her friend, who had been dispatched by Page, and the mayhem ensues.
Sadly, Crawford's last theatrical release, also for Cohen, was Trog (1970). She plays Dr. Brockton, an anthropologist who discovers a troglodyte in a cave and wants to study, much to the dismay of the locals, led by religious fanatic Sam Murdock (Gough again), who wants it dead. The film is dull and the troglodyte makeup is ridiculous—a hair shirt topped off with an ape head. Still, Crawford, brings a surprising dedication to her role. She finished her career playing bit parts on television, the most notable of which was the pilot for Night Gallery (1969), in which she was directed by a young Steven Spielberg.
Shot for not a lot of money, it has a marvelous period flavor, the creepy little Shirley Temple impersonators are fun, and the great Agnes Moorehead roars onscreen as the fire-and-brimstone breathing Sister Alma, modeled after real-life evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.
In Whoever Slew, Winters plays Auntie Roo, a seemingly kindhearted and wealthy matron who lives in an English country mansion and has an annual custom of bringing children from the local orphanage into her home for the Christmas holidays. One of the kids (played by Oliver himself, Mark Lester) is convinced that she's a witch, intent on fattening him up and eating him. Winters' performance is suitably broad and it has a nice fairytale feel, but it's kind of ho-hum after the many pleasures of Helen.
Part Three—Horror Hags on TV—coming up next!