Journey Into The Public Domain

PrintE-mail Written by Martin Unsworth Friday, 14 October 2011

Horror Obscura - by Martin Unsworth

To celebrate the fact that the reborn Starburst Magazine is a wonderful 6 months old, and as Samhain is almost upon us, I thought I would give all you lovely readers a treat of some free movies. All thanks to the wonderful loop hole of copyright that lets films fall into the public domain. Ever wondered why there are so many cheap copies of Night of the Living Dead (1968), Carnival of Souls (1962) or Nosferatu (1922)? All these genuine classics, and many more – and some downright awful ones, it has to be said – have for one reason or another fallen out of copyright and can be distributed free of charge. Sometimes the copyright is not renewed or, more astonishingly, they get released with no visible copyright notice on the credits, making them fall instantly into the public domain. So, as my gift, or curse, which ever way you would like to view it, I advise you to point your browsers in the direction of, but not after you've read my handy guide to what I would recommend for you to download, completely legally, and endure. I mean, enjoy.

Before I go into a few films that I would recommend, I will point out that a lot of these films are not presented in the best quality, in fact some are in quite low resolution and at such small file sizes that they are best watched on your PC or mobile. So no moaning, you are getting them for free after all. I'd recommend you go for the largest file size you can, they do not take too long to download.

One film that I would consider an 'every home should have one' movie (much in the same way as Jaws or Star Wars) is William Castle's House On Haunted Hill (1959). A wonderful Vincent Price shocker that still stands up well to repeat viewings today. Price is Frederick Loren, a millionaire who throws a strange party for his wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) by inviting five apparent strangers to the titular house, rented from the owner -and guest -Watson Pritchard (the brilliant Elisha Cook). Pritchard is convinced the house is haunted and tells the tale of the murders of the previous occupants. All the party goers have been promised $10,000 to stay the night in the locked house. Now that's a party I would like an invite to! Each guest is given a pistol 'for protection' or to use on themselves if the going gets too tough. A night of twists and turns and spooky housekeepers make it a fun romp. If you want to go the whole hog, have a friend dangle a plastic skeleton in front of you during the dramatic climax in the cellar with the acid bath! Castle's gimmicks for pulling the punters into the cinema are well documented, and are never anything less than a lot of fun. His films stand up surprisingly well too, even with the short comings of the low budgets. House On Haunted Hill is the only Castle film in the public domain, but I would whole heartedly recommend a lot of his output, especially The Tingler (1959) once again with Vincent Price, The Night Walker (1964) a genuinely effective thriller with Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor from a story by Robert (Psycho) Bloch and with a stunning Vic Mizzy score and Strait-Jacket (1964), once again a Bloch story, this time with Joan Crawford chewing the scenery and making sure she gets lots of product placement for Pepsi since she was on their Board of Directors at the time. Castle was also the producer of Rosemary's Baby (1968). He originally wanted to direct, but Paramount Pictures would not allow it, opting for a pre-scandal Roman Polanski instead. Castle can be seen in a cameo in the film though, Hitchcock style, outside the phone booth when Mia Farrow is making a call.

Genre legends Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are reunited in the Spanish made flick Horror Express (1972). Professor Saxton (Lee) has found the fossilised remains of what he believes to be 'the missing link'. Even before he has managed to get it aboard the Trans-Siberian Express, a thief has been found dead in the station, his eyes as white as a blind man and blood dripping from his extremities. A monk (Alberto De Mendoza) at the station, who is the travelling companion of a Count and Countess, believes it to be the work of Satan, and when he attempts to draw a cross on Saxton's crate in chalk no mark is made, proving his point (to him at least). Dr Wells (Cushing) is an old rival of Saxton, Curious as to what the fossil is, Wells bribes the baggage handler to discreetly drill a hole in the crate so he can have a peek inside. When he does this, he is attacked and killed by the beast, which then goes missing, the body of the dead baggage man replacing it in the crate.

Wells and his assistant, Miss Jones (Alice Reinheart) perform an autopsy on the body and find that, as well as the blank eyes, the brain has been 'wiped clean' of all its memories, which is obviously what you can tell when you find a perfectly smooth brain. He comes to the conclusion the creature is taking the memories and knowledge from its victims. A perfectly obvious deduction, especially from someone in 1906, when this is meant to be based!

When the creature is gunned down by the on board inspector, (of police, not ticket inspector) rather than just dying, it transfers its powers and memories to the inspector. Saxton and Wells team up to examine the remains. They remove its eye, and after taking a sample from it, discover images embedded, not only of the last thing it saw - the inspector - but also of prehistoric creatures, and then more startling - the earth from outer space! The creature is in fact, an alien form that was using the human body as a host.

Telly Savales later turns up as an over zealous Cosssak, Captain Kazan and a final showdown involves the monk becoming the host to the creature, and all its victims coming back to life as white eyed zombies. So, what is not to like about this then?

Considering this was a low budget European movie you'd expect it to be really bad, right? No, how wrong can you be! There is so much to enjoy here, Cushing and Lee are at their top form, and play well off each other. There is some ripe dialogue, - the police inspector to Cushing's Wells  “Is it true you're a doctor? Ask me when I've finished dinner, It's urgent. What are the symptoms? He's dead”. Later, when the creature is passing between bodies both Cushing and Lee could be under suspicion, “Monster? We're British, don't you know!” The music is fantastically atmospheric, there are lashings of gore, much more than you would expect and certainly not one for eye-phobics (all you Fulci haters out there). The biggest plus is the cracking dialogue, there are some intentional laugh out loud lines that you'd just not expect. The story isn't too bad, robbing as it does from John W. Campbell's Who Goes There? which was also the basis for The Thing From Another World (and more so the John Carpenter remake). There is a 'special edition' DVD/Blu-ray on its way in the next couple of months from the wonderful people at Severin Films (although the release date keeps getting put back), so it will be good to see the film looking its best, and with some nice extras.

The City Of The Dead (also known as Horror Hotel) (1960) was the first film made by the producing partnership of Milton Subostsky and Max Rosenberg, here under the heading of Vulcan films, but would soon change their name to Amicus and have great success with the horror anthologies of the late 60s and 70s such as Asylum and From Beyond The Grave. Christopher Lee is Professor Driscoll, an expert on the occult and witchcraft, who recommends his top student Nan (Venetia Stevenson) to go and do some research at his former home town, Whitewood, where the witch Elizabeth Selwyn had famously been burnt at the stake in the 17th century. City is an under rated film, visually quite stunning and moody and taking it's cue from Psycho in doing away with your heroine part way into the film. The City Of The Dead was directed by John Llewellyn Moxey who would later make a name for himself directing on TV, with scores of hit shows to his name, and some fondly remembered (by me at least) TV movies including The Night Stalker (1972) which introduced the character of Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin), the intrepid monster fighting newspaper reporter, and Smash Up On Interstate 5 (1975) which I think was my first experience of watching a film that used backwards narrative. He ended up doing a long stretch with Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) on Murder She Wrote. Some clips from the film ended up in the promo video for Iron Maiden's Bring Your Daughter... To The Slaughter and Lee's dialogue was sampled by Rob Zombie for his Dragula song (the promo for which incorporates quite a few public domain clips – cheapskate!)

A much more earnest look at the occult is Benjamin Christensen's silent classic Haxan (aka Witchcraft Through The Ages) (1922). Part documentary, part horror film this is a scholarly look at the superstitions and hysteria of witchcraft and Satan worship. Rarely seen for many years, this is a beautifully made film that deserves a much wider audience. The depiction of hell and witches' ceremonies that are shown are quite startling in their explicitness (for it's time), as we see babies being thrown into cooking pots, naked nocturnal wanderings, evil demons simulate masturbation and serving wenches line up to kiss the devils' behind. Witches give out love potions to help a wench who wants to seduce a gluttonous and slug like monk, which culminate in a Benny Hill style chase around the dinner table. Drawings are animated to show the devils at work, along side old woodcut illustrations. Old hags are tortured into confession in scenes just as powerful as those seen nearly fifty years later in films like Witchfinder General. The director turns up as both the Devil (complete with Gene Simmons flicking tongue) and Jesus Christ, so that tells us a lot about his thoughts on himself! The film techniques used are stunning - models, stop motion, make up and double exposure are among the camera tricks implemented to great effect and way ahead of their time. The film was banned for many years in the US, finally getting released in a truncated form in 1968 by director/distributor Antony Balch (most famous for the completely out there 1973 classic Horror Hospital) with a jazz score and narration by famed oddball William Burroughs. If you enjoy the free version of this, I would thoroughly recommend the US Criterion Collection DVD version, as it contains both versions and plenty of background information.

Maniac (1934) is often singled out as one of the worst films ever made. A reputation I feel is a little harsh, but it is fun in the same way Edward Wood films are. In order to get round the Hayes Code that had just been imposed on filmmakers at the time, Maniac is presented as an education piece. Every so often, some captions appear on screen (copied from medical books) to explain various mental states, not always connected to the preceding or previous scenes. An introduction to the film tells us sternly about fear being a psychic disorder and highly contagious and infectious. “We live in an age when unhealthy thoughts create warped attitudes and in turn create criminals and maniacs”.

Dr Meirschultz (Horace Carpenter) is a doctor whose experiments in bringing dead cats back to life are ready to be tested on a human subject - shades of H.P. Lovecraft here - so he decides to go to the morgue and collect a subject. He is aided by Don Maxwell (Bill Woods), an ex-vaudeville impressionist who is on the run (we never find out why). Masquerading as the coroner, Maxwell and the Dr examine a young female suicide victim, and inject her with the serum the doc has been working on. As she is coming back to life, they are watched by two embalmers who, it has to be said, are obviously not actors. There is a subtle suggestion that the real coroner might be a bit of a necrophile, with one remarking “You seen beauty come in today? She's the one that's having the coroner doing the night watch

When the doc wants Maxwell to find a body for him to transplant the heart he has kept alive in a jar, and he fails to bring a body in, the doc suggests that Maxwell simply shoot himself so he could bring him back. A perfectly rational idea. He is handed the gun, and promptly turns the tables and shoots the doc. He is interrupted by a visit from a Mrs. Buckley (played by Phyllis Diller - NOT the famous one by the way, she's old, but not that old -just!), who is concerned about her husband who is having hallucinations and is convinced he is the orang-utan killer in Murders In The Rue Morgue - the Bela Lugosi film version of the Poe story had not long been released - and insists the doc sees him. Panicking, Maxwell uses his stage skills and takes the place of the dead doc and covers his body with a sheet. He injects Mr Buckley with 'super adrenalin' by accident, and he goes 'ape' and abducts the recently re-animated suicide victim, taking her out into the woods and stripping her – well, a woman who is meant to be her, but we're not meant to notice that she does not look like her at all!

The power of being the doc is driving Maxwell more and more insane, as is the pressure of keeping up the deception. He bricks the docs body up in his cellar and, horrified that he is being watched by the doc's cat, Satan, grabs the feline and plucks its eye out - All in view of the camera, I must point out. Then to further cement his madness, eats the eye - "just like an oyster, or a grape!" Just before the last brick is laid, the cat leaps into the makeshift tomb, obviously sick of the abuse and hysterical acting it has had to deal with.

Maxwell's wife, on the other hand - a showgirl, who we meet in a changing room with lots of scantily clad girls - has found out the he had a rich uncle who has died and left him a fortune. So she goes to seek him out, surely just to break the good news of course. Under the influence of his growing paranoia, he believes she wants him for the money, and that Mrs Buckley wants him to kill her husband. He conspires to get the two women to do away with each other. Trapped in the basement the two women have a screeching fight, involving plenty of torn clothes, duelling with syringes and some quite frankly harsh violence. The police arrive just in time to discover the cackling Maxwell and feuding girls. They are also alerted to the doctor's corpse behind the brick wall by the cat's meow. Maxwell's descent into madness is complete and justice is done.

Despite it's reputation as a badly made film, (well, okay I admit it is, but...) Maniac is way ahead of it's time in its depiction of mental illness, as well as violence and nudity, all added as pure exploitation in the same way HG Lewis would do many years later. There is also some very questionable animal rights issues but for all its faults it's a striking early horror film. The ultimate mad doctor film maybe. Reoccurring images of fighting cats are interspersed throughout the film - cats with mice, cats fighting cats and cats fighting dogs - which are paralleled with the girl's fight in the cellar at the end, and there's even a strange man who lives next door who breeds cats for their coats! It's worth pointing out for the animal lovers out there the cat that is used in the gouging had already lost it's eye, and is in fact a totally different colour to one used in the scenes leading up to it. Probably thought we wouldn't notice, eh?  However, it does appear that to achieve the shots of the cat 'leaping into frame', they just threw the feline and hoped for the best. I think there is a least one of it's nine lives gone in one scene. Personally – and controversially amongst my friends - I hate cats (I am violently allergic to them) but would like to point out I do not condone cruelty to them (but it sure is fun to watch here).

As previously mentioned, the film owes more than a passing nod to Edgar Allan Poe, with at least three of his stories referenced, maybe even by accident. The Black Cat is the most obvious, but there are recurring images of eyes, Maxwell becomes convinced the cat, and the women have a 'gleam' in their eyes - a nod maybe to The Tell Tale Heart? - The cat, by the way, ends up eating the heart the doctor has beating in the jar. There is also of course the mention of The Murders In The Rue Morgue.

Maxwell's downwards spiral into madness is overlaid with images stolen from old silent films which, along side the general mugging to the camera involved, is actually quite effective, and there is plenty of stock footage of racing police cars. There are several parts however that are genuinely shocking - the gouging of the cat's eye for one - and some just plain shocking - the acting, and the out of focus camera work. Even the over the top dialogue is entertaining. But for all its faults, it's an enjoyable 50 minutes of film. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. It is not Citizen Kane, but it is entertaining, and isn't that what films are meant to be? Director Dwain Esper made movies to make money not art, the public wanted to see this sort of thing, and the cheaper he made them, the more he'd make. Good business sense! He also made films exploiting the drug scene (Narcotic, Marihuana) and about STDs, Sex Madness (aka They Must Be Told) which are also available to download.

A very rare treat that is worth anyone's bandwidth is the American This Is Your Life show featuring Boris Karloff, which gives a brilliant look at the legendary actor's life, and shows him to be the wonderful, self effacing gentle soul that everyone who met him said he was. It is genuinely touching, especially seeing him trying to stop someone reveal his charitable side. I believe it is also the only sound film of Universal's master make up artist, Jack Pierce, which makes this even more important and essential.

Special mention for some of the more well known films that grace the archive, and are worth having. Especially for free. As well as the aforementioned Night Of The Living Dead, Carnival Of Souls and Nosferatu, (all of which no horror fan should be without, and can not be recommended enough) you can find copies of Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), Edward D. Wood Jr's most famous, or infamous work, Roger Corman's brilliant A Bucket Of Blood (1959) and The Little Shop Of Horrors (1960) – worth watching for many reasons, not least Jack Nicholson as the masochistic Wilbur Force, White Zombie (1932), a creaky but still very enjoyable Bela Lugosi classic and the first use of the Z word in screen history. More highbrow fare, and well known titles include Fritz Lang's disturbing masterpiece M (1931), Abel Ferrara's former video nasty The Driller Killer (1979) and Dario Argento's brilliant giallo Deep Red (1975), although only the US cut down version (mostly known as The Hatchet Murders), the original version of I Am Legend, starring Vincent Price, The Last Man On Earth (1964) (see Robin Pierce's Future Imperfect column for more on this one), The Ghoul (1933), which I covered a couple of columns ago, and a smattering of Paul Naschy classics.

Finally, one film that I maybe would not recommend as a good watch, but interesting never the less, is the 1967 film Night Fright starring B movie veteran John Agar. People of a certain age will remember this when it got a release on UK home video at the height of the video nasty controversy as E.T.N. - The Extra Terrestrial Nasty, complete with Spielberg bating rip-off artwork. I recall watching it back then expecting to see something really horrible. Oh, how right I was.

Hope you all enjoy what you find, and if you do, come back and tell me what you watched!

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Other articles in Horror Obscura - by Martin Unsworth

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Film Festival Fever 14 November 2011

It's scary, Jim, but not as we know it.. 14 September 2011

Where there's Atwill there's a Fay... 14 August 2011

Mucha Naschy 14 July 2011

Comedy Sucks... 14 June 2011

Sentimental? Just a little... 04 May 2011

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