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Bruce Markusen Takes a Look at 6 Underrated Horror Films from TCM’s Halloween Marathon



Bruce Markusen Takes a Look at 6 Underrated Horror Films from TCM's Halloween Marathon

Turner Classic Movies has begun its usual and very extensive presentation of horror films in October—and this year’s schedule may be the network’s most ambitious ever. In addition to featuring a variety of classic films throughout the month, TCM will also culminate the Halloween season by hosting a three-day marathon, running from October 29 to October 31.

The 32-movie marathon will begin at 8 pm on the 29th with the old Vincent Price favorite, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and will conclude with the John Travolta thriller from 1980, Blow Out. In between, the network will present a slew of classics, including Frankenstein, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Night of the Living Dead, and Psycho.

A few other lesser-known films will also be presented during the marathon. Six in particular have caught my eye. They might not all be four-star classics, but they’re all intriguing, and all deserving of more publicity than what they typically receive. Let’s take a closer look at these six underrated horror films that merit some attention during the Halloween season.

6. Curse of the Demon (1957) (airing on October 31 at 5 pm ET):

Curse of the Demon 1957 Monster

This black-and-white release from Columbia Pictures has become a particular favorite for its creepy, atmospheric feel and its well-developed characters. Also known as Night of the Demon, the film stars Dana Andrews as John Holden, an American who is visiting London, purportedly to attend a conference on parapsychology. In actuality, he wants to expose Dr. Julian Karswell, the leader of a local Satanic cult. Soon after, Holden finds himself on the wrong end of a deadly curse, setting up a fierce battle between himself and the paranormally-gifted Karswell.

Director Jacques Tourneur creates an intriguing and visually striking film. The outdoor imagery is particularly good, with the shots of Stonehenge, the British countryside, and the Karswell mansion all adding to the atmosphere.

Under Tourneur’s direction, the actors perform well, thanks in part to good dialogue. Andrews is solid as the skeptical professor, while Niall MacGinnis is brilliant as the diabolical Karswell. Another key performer is Peggy Cummins, who plays Holden’s love interest with genuine likeability while providing some moral support in his conflict with Karswell.

In the era before Satanic themes became very popular, Curse of the Demon represents an excellent early foray into the world of devil worshippers and demons, one that keeps us riveted throughout.

Three and a half stars for Curse of the Demon.

5. Horror of Dracula (1958) (airing on October 31 at 2 pm ET):

Horror of Dracula 1958 Lee

After finding success with Curse of Frankenstein in 1957. Hammer Films felt confident it could tackle another story first explored by Universal Studios in the 1930s. Horror of Dracula emerged as Hammer’s response to Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, which was released 17 years earlier but continued to be shown in theaters into the late 1950s.

The story begins with Jonathan Harker, a man who travels to a strange castle in Germany to become the librarian for the mysterious Count Dracula. There Harker meets The Count, along with a young woman claiming to be Dracula’s prisoner. It is soon revealed that Harker is actually a vampire hunter, someone working in tandem with the famed Abraham Van Helsing.

Horror of Dracula provided Hammer with a second opportunity to pair the two legendary actors, Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as Dracula. The two had become fast friends on the set of Curse of Frankenstein, and while it’s difficult for a hero and villain to achieve much in the way of on-screen chemistry, there’s no doubt that the pairing created electricity while doing battle with one another. The two Hammer mainstays help carry the film, even though Lee has little dialogue and Cushing does not appear until the 25-minute mark. When they are on screen, the two actors fully command the attention of the viewers.

The two combatants supply one of the best finishes to a Hammer film. In a scene that is beautifully choreographed, Van Helsing chases Dracula throughout the castle. Cushing shows surprising athleticism during the chase. His Van Helsing then delivers with an ingenious takedown of Dracula, as he arranges two candlesticks into an impromptu cross and leaps into the air to pull down a large drape covering a nearby sunlit window.

By the end, Horror of Dracula emerges as a superior film to the Universal version of Dracula. The quality of the acting, the direction of Terence Fisher, and the photography make this an essential movie for any horror fan who loves vampires and the Dracula franchise.

Three stars for Horror of Dracula.

4. Pit and the Pendulum (1961) (airing on October 31 at 3:30 pm ET):

Pit and the Pendulum 1961 Price

Adapted from the writing of Edgar Allan Poe, this production from Roger Corman film showcases Vincent Price in one of his best roles. The film tells the story of Francis Barnard, who travels to Spain and finds that his sister, Elizabeth, has died. Her husband Nicholas, played by Price, informs the brother that she passed away due to a blood disorder, according to a doctor’s report. But Francis suspects that Nicholas is not being completely truthful, and that something more sinister is in play.

Price plays against type for much of the film, portraying the tormented widower to Barnard’s sister. But not all is as it seems with Price’s character. As usual, the horror legend hams up the effort with his usual flair, delighting fans who had already enjoyed his performances in films like House of Wax and House of Usher. Another good performer is a young Barbara Steele, who plays the tragic Elizabeth.

If Pit and the Pendulum has a weakness, it is the slow beginning that drags a bit too long. But the story does eventually pick up speed, culminating in a terrific sequence near the end.

Corman practiced his usual magic in completing the film for a paltry $300,000 and on a ridiculous schedule of only 15 days. This is Corman at his best. His outdoor photography of the shoreline and the castle in the opening sequence is phenomenal. Corman’s ability to build tension, and his willingness to allow Price to run the gamut of emotions and behaviors, culminate in an entertaining vehicle for American International Pictures. It was also a profitable one for AIP, becoming the biggest moneymaker among all the Poe films put out by the studio.

Three stars for Pit and the Pendulum.

3. The Haunting (1963) (airing on October 30 at 2:45 pm ET):

The Haunting 1963 Cast

Some films gain in stature and appreciation over time. The Haunting is one of those films. When it debuted in theaters in September of 1963, it did acceptable numbers at the box office, but nothing extraordinary or earth-shattering. The consensus of critics categorized it as a good movie, but not a great one, and one that drew plenty of criticism for having a complicated storyline that did not always make much sense.

While those criticisms might still apply, The Haunting has achieved the status of a supernatural classic. It is one of the must-see movies of the 1960s and perhaps the best horror film to ever deal with a haunted house theme, though fans of The Changeling and Poltergeist might have something to say about that.

The Haunting tells the story of Hill House, a majestic but creepy mansion being investigated because of a sordid history of violence and death. Dr. John Markway, played by English actor Richard Johnson, hopes to prove the existence of ghosts at Hill House. As part of his investigation, he recruits three younger people, including a clairvoyant, a psychic, and a skeptic. A presence will soon manifest itself within the house, creating dangers for all four of its new inhabitants.

Julie Harris and Claire Bloom are terrific as the psychic and clairvoyant, respectively. There is an unusual chemistry between the two, which sometimes degrades into hostile tension but also reflects what seems to be a romantic bond.

The Haunting is good, old-fashioned horror. There is little in the way of blood or violence. Instead, director Robert Wise relies on unusual camera angles to create a character out of Hill House itself. He also black-and-white film as a way of creating an atmospheric and moody film. The special effects are very good, especially the use of a door that appears to be pulsating.

Four stars for The Haunting.

2. The Witches (1966) (airing on October 30 at 11:30 am ET):

The Witches 1966 Cat

Also known as The Devil’s Own, this production from Hammer films represented a departure from the studio’s usual horror fare of vampires, Frankenstein’s Monsters, and mummies. Instead, it deals with the subjects of witchcraft and Satanic worship, themes that would not start to become mainstream until the later 1960s and early 1970s.

The Witches follows the fortunes of a traumatized schoolteacher, Gwen Mayfield, played by Joan Fontaine. Mayfield suffers a life-changing encounter with the occult, resulting in a nervous breakdown. Once recovered, she starts a new life as a teacher in a small village in England, only to see additional signs of suspicious activity.

Fontaine is quite good in what turned out to be her final appearance in a feature film; so is veteran British actor Alec McCowen, who portrays the owner of the elite school that recruits Fontaine to its faculty. As well as Fontaine and McCowen perform, both are upstaged by veteran actress Kay Walsh, who plays McCowen’s sister and ends up dominating many of the scenes in which she appears.

Fontaine, Walsh, and McCowen help compensate for some of the film’s weaknesses, principally a slow pace. The conclusion has also drawn criticism, especially for being too frenetic and wild, climaxed by a long Satanic ceremony that is so over-the-top that it comes across as humorous. But the acting is good, the atmosphere is palpable, and the musical score is skillfully done.

The Witches also deserves credit for its willingness to take the often controversial areas of Satanic worship and witchcraft. It’s not a great film, but it is a good one.

Three stars for The Witches.

1. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) (airing on October 31 at 2:45 am):

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death 1971 Still

Of the six films featured in this article, this is probably the weakest, but it’s still an interesting movie that has eluded the grasp of many horror fans. It’s also worth noting that it is one of Stephen King’s favorite horror films.

The film’s storyline centers on the title character of Jessica, who has just spent time in a psychiatric facility, but has now moved with her husband and a family friend to a remote country farmhouse. Much to their surprise, they discover a young woman named Emily already living in the house. Rather than kick her out, they feel sorry for her and invite her to stay—at least for a while. Soon after, Jessica starts to experience strange visions at a nearby lake. Has she gone mad, or are the visions real?

Other than former Rockford Files actress Gretchen Corbett, the small cast features mostly no-name actors. While it would have been nice to have a brand-name presence in the film, longtime actress Zohra Lampert does well as Jessica, playing her in a sympathetic way that makes viewers truly feel sorry for her plight.

Across the board, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death was clearly a low-budget production lacking in special effects, but the grainy look to the film actually adds to the creepy atmosphere. And then there is a compelling twist to the plot that takes place about two/thirds of the way through the movie.

This would be an ideal film for a current day director to re-make with a much larger budget, but the 1971 film does bring us back to a time when horror films had more a raw and unfinished quality.

Two and a half stars for Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.

These six films are all worthwhile, but then again, most of what Turner Classic Movies is presenting on its October schedule has value for horror fans. In fact, there is so much good material here that it seems impossible to take it all in. So take a breath and try to pace yourself, while appreciating that 2021, thanks to TCM and all of the available streaming services, happens to be a pretty good time to be a horror fan.

Consider picking up Bruce’s new book Hosted Horror on Television, which is currently available through the McfarlandBooks website.



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