On a recent communal viewing of 80s shlocker Witchboard, it’s not so much that I knew an awful lot of miscellany on the life of leading lady and Whitesnake-divorcee Tawny Kitaen, it’s that I assumed everyone else in our movie group would know it too. The film is ostensibly about a Ouija board used by college professor Brandon for his class (um, why?) that subsequently finds its way into demonic possession. Brandon (played by Stephen Nichols from “Days of our Lives”) is friends with student Linda (Kitaen) and her jerky blue collar boyfriend Jim (Todd Allen). The couple live in an implausibly fabulous house (used in a couple favorites of mine from 1988: Waxwork and Elvira: Mistress of the Dark) and bicker, because Jim is an abusive jerk.
There appears to be some kind of bromance-gone-wrong angle between Brandon and Jim, who’d previously been childhood friends; Linda is caught in the middle of their difficulties – while, almost forgot to mention, she encounters an evil spirit that starts murdering people with a variety of blades and blunt force trauma. The demon’s name is Malfeitor (played by J.P. Luebsen in practically his only role), and he’s pretty damned scary, even by today’s jaded standards.
Although Jim and Brandon’s friendship-gone-awry is pretty good subtext, it is Kitaen’s Linda who carries the proceedings with her charisma and beauty, and some acting (a little). She does most of her own stunts, including a knock-down drag-out fight with Jim in the film’s finale; more impressive still at one point, fully naked, she scrambles out of a broken shower door!
But this is all icing on the cake. Because what Witchboard is really about, is Tawny’s many choice outfits.
At first I thought I’d order this list in order of best ensemble o least-best (there is no “worst”, here), but I figured that this might confuse the audience in terms of plot development – so I’m just going to go in chronological order.
Tawny starts it off bold with an Edwardian-styled tea-length peasant frock in a mini-polka dot challis, with split sleeves and a cameo brooch – paired with a Gibson girl updo and white pumps. It’s like: she’s setting off her amazing head of hair with one of those “effortless” styles you envy in other women. You know you’re going to see her hair down and fabulous, maybe flipping it around even a bit. But for now, she’s hosting a party with Jim (who gets drunk and acts rude to his guests) and keeping it super elegant.
What would Witchboard be without Tawny in the nude or near-nude? Our first glimpse of our lady in her unmentionables: a gorgeous lace-embellished cami and tap-pants ensemble. I thought, OK, that’s fine – I’ll be seeing this set several times in the film. But oh no. She is not repeating outfits, even bedtime ones, for the 98-minute runtime!
Next: the jewel tone vertical stripe shift dress with button side placket and taffeta hair bow in lavender, paired with pale pink cut-out heels. Keep in mind, this is apparently her, “just hanging around the house chillin’ & messing with ZoZo the Demon” outfit. I didn’t even dress up this much for my own wedding.
Another nightie – a lace maxi in champagne with belt tie and deep u-cut back. Listen. I sleep in a t-shirt and huge men’s baggy PJ pants. I am seriously considering upping my game.
Time for a funeral – so we gotta make it look good! Our lady is somber and sweet in a black trilby, slouchy blazer and skirt set in charcoal pinstripe, and gold disc earrings shown off with a side part.
At this point in the film, the action is heating up and Ms. Kitaen is having a pretty stressful week. She soothes her frazzled nerves in a full-length satin robe with blouson sleeves in peach, paired with pompadour pony (this is way before they were trendy, Millennials!) and a matching hair tie. Additionally, this is one scene in at least a half a dozen where Jim, the lout, “sneaks up” on someone to scare them. He does this even after the murders start, by the way. He is a dumpster fire.
Time for a dream sequence: a Grecian-style organza peignoir in a pretty soft maize colorway. I am almost in #ICantEven territory at this point!
Apparently the peach satin robe is for nighttime-only, because in daylight hours Tawny chills in a casual Japanese-inspired cotton shortie over a simple white tank top and – this is the kicker – tomato red nails. Tawny takes care of her nails gorgeously throughout the proceedings, ghoulish possessions be damned! However it must also be admitted that at one point she sticks her finger down a gross drainpipe. This is probably the nastiest part of the film, and I’m including the skulls getting cloven in twain!
Curiously, Tawny moves to royal blue for the next two pieces in the film. We only get a glimpse of this drop-sleeve oversize blouse – paired with white hi-cut briefs, both wholesome and sexy at the same time – as she’s in general being thrown around by a demon possession. Lights out!
Another brief glimpse: a blue buffalo plaid, for checkout from the hospital after she wakes up (which as it turns out, was a pretty ill-advised move). Now, here’s where I was a bit confused. Linda couldn’t have packed this garment herself, as she was transported while unconscious. This means Jim probably packed it for her. This might be the only worthwhile thing this dude did the whole film!
Our penultimate ensemble: fully possessed by Malfeitor, Linda butches up. She’s wearing the same trilby and blazer from the funeral (the hat gets knocked off in the fight), coupled with a menswear shirt, grey bias-stripe tie, and coral lipstick. Yes, this look will straight up make you gay because she is foxy AF!
After throwing Jim out the window like he deserves, we get our final ensemble: a wedding dress and veil. Tons of lace, pretty standard boilerplate for the 80s. Tawny looks perfectly lovely here, but it’s all a bit of a let-down after the fashion-forward pieces we’ve been treated to.
Still, I think what we can agree that costume designer Merril Greene went above and beyond on this film. Honorable mention to Tawny’s nails, which are in evidence often (as we might suspect in a film about a haunted Ouija board)…
and the over-the-top ensemble of doomed medium Zarabeth as played by Kathleen Wilhoite (an actress endeared to me as Carrie Ann from Roadhouse). You could write an article alone on Zarabeth’s ensemble, which includes a jean jacket with extensive button and sequin applique and knotted, beaded fringe, along with trainers and lime-green lace leggings.
A rude, driven stage director (is there any other kind in horror films?) locks his production indoors to push them for a better performance. Mind, this is after one of the troupe was murdered five feet outside the doors of the playhouse, with the madman still on the loose.
An Italian-American slasher with giallo roots, Stagefright has a bit of a darling following in horror crowds. If you like these kinds of films, the movie is definitely a must-see as it is better than most of its ilk. There is a lot of artsy-fartsy silliness to the film (and an uneven, dated score) but there are still some genuinely scary moments – for instance, the first public murder in the playhouse and the blackout that immediately follows. David Brandon (known to bad move enthusiasts for his turn as Zor in the second Ator film) stars as the unlikeable director; Italian scream queen Barbara Cupisti as the virginal “final girl”. The film is directed by Dario Argento‘s protege Michele Soavi; direction and pacing are well done and the film only gets boring in the last third. The characters good-looking and, even given boilerplate “bitchy drama players” caricatures, fairly relatable. The film capitalizes quite effectively on the creepiness of costumes, mascot heads, and creepy playhouse backspaces.
And of course, there’s a lot of silliness. As in so many films built on misogynistic murder, the women in the film are written as passive, hysterical, and unintelligent – or all three. As is often the case in these “trapped with a killer” murder-offs, the killer seems incredibly physically strong, clever, and somehow able to do a lot of things at once. In one scene, an unfortunate actor is literally ripped in half – seemingly, by the powers of the killer’s bare strength. (I think they meant this death to be by chainsaw, but if so, it was a silent chainsaw.) The end is embarrassing, and by that I mean the second and “final” ending – although the penultimate face-off between killer and last victim is also rather silly. But I suppose if would-be victims behaved intelligently in horror films, we wouldn’t get to see all the blood and guts.
Stagefright was also released as Aquarius, StageFright: Aquarius, and Bloody Bird.
- The House of Seven Corpses is a zombie drama that’s not that dramatic, co-written and directed by television writer and producer Paul Harrison. Ostensibly about a doomed movie production filming on haunted grounds, it is plainly obvious Harrison was much less interested in horror as he is the workings of film direction itself. The lines he gives his lead, curmudgeon chauvenist director Eric Hartman (John Ireland), show this. Harrison likes some lines so much he gives them to Hartman repeatedly (“That was good for me. Was it good for you?”); and a few are genuinely groan-inducing (“Dying’s easy! Living is hard”). Props to Ireland at least, for enthusiastically grouching about the task.
“I’m not having fun and you won’t be allowed to either!”
- Under Hartman’s care are a crew of bitchy filmmakers, including B-movie perennial John Carradine as Price the superstitious caretaker, “washed-up primadonna” stereotype Gayle (played by Faith Domergue, a successful film actress beloved in genre fandoms for her roles in It Came from Beneath the Sea,This Island Earth and Cult of the Cobra – all from 1955), and youngsters Anne (pianist and television actress Carole Wells) and David (television actor Jerry Strickler). There’s a handful of other characters and – spoiler alert! – no one makes it out alive as eventually an unconvincing zombie starts menacing and apparently murdering them.The film has many detriments: the first, that the personalities within are to a soul uninteresting and unpleasant. Second: the supernatural “action” doesn’t start until an hour into the film. Third: the main premise, that the Tibetan “Book of the Dead” is a creepy corpse-raising text (it’s actually a proto-Buddhist volume), is lazy – and confusingly realized in the denouement. The film resorts to boilerplate horror fodder – animal cruelty and a few attempts at sexual titillation – none of which are particularly gripping. The makeup/effects are such you can’t quite tell when something “movie within a movie” is supposed to be happening versus something genuinely sinister, and thus it’s perplexing how the characters within the movie would have been able to tell the difference either. The last third of the film features people one at a time being slowly attacked by a shuffling zombie, screaming loudly, and succumbing passively to death. Then, another character carefully, quietly, and sloowwwwly creeps around in the dark house to see what the screaming was about. Rinse, and repeat.A fun film to put on while you’re knitting or cooking; not much else to recommend it.
1932’s third film in what is commonly thought of as the Universal classic monster films (the talking pictures, anyway), 1932’s The Mummy is the more lush and sophisticated when compared to 1931’s Dracula and 1931’s Frankenstein. The film also employs actors from the previous two – for instance, Edward Van Sloan plays the expert doctor in all three, and David Manners the rather ineffective male love interest in both Dracula and The Mummy. Most contemporary viewers have seen modern versions of the mummy legend, but this is rather the granddaddy of most. The film also came on the tail end and is perhaps the most well-known of early Hollywood’s fascination with Egyptian storylines; early cinema had already produced over forty films on such material.
In the film, we open in 1921 when an archeological expedition led by Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) finds a tomb, corpse, and mysterious scroll in a dig. The mummy they’ve unearthed is Imhotep (Boris Karloff), and as they pore over the runes on his sarcophagus they discover he was tortured and executed for some gross sacrilege. They also discover that by messing with the scroll they’ve unearthed (the mysterious Scroll of Thoth) they risk the wrath of the gods (or so the hieroglyphs say). At this point, Whemple’s colleague Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), an expert in Eastern occult, pulls Whemple aside to urge the scientist to abandon the scroll, and destroy it if possible. While they are quibbling, Sir Joseph’s assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) furtively opens the scroll, and sweatily whispers the incantations. You guessed it: the mummy awakens – to steal the scroll and terrorize Norton. The other two scientists burst into the room and find Norton laughing madly, and both the scroll and the body missing.
Ten years later, Whemple has left Egypt for good. His son Frank (Manners) works alongside a Professor Pearson (Leonard Mudie), pillaging Egypt’s tombs. They complain about the lack of a significant find; as they bicker, a mysterious Egyptian darkens the doorstep and introduces himself as Ardath Bey (Karloff, again). Bey tells the two men he will lead them to a significant find: the tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon. Ignoring any misgivings at this strange, creepy stranger, the two archeologists eagerly agree. Both Bey and the younger archeologists’ movements soon introduce us to Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), a young woman Egyptian on her mother’s side, and fathered by a colonial governor in the Sudan. Bey is smitten, and is immediately sure she is from the lineage of Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon, if not the Princess herself reincarnated.
Flashbacks ensue, and Helen begins to experience the confusion of being both herself – and someone else, someone drawn to this mysterious stranger. The gentlemen scientists are soon on to Bey’s game though, and try to resist his designs on Helen. Employing powers of telepathy, as well as blood-lineage sway over the household servant – dismayingly referred to as “The Nubian”, and played in blackface by actor and history-making producer Noble Johnson – Bey (who is indeed the revived Imhotep), manages to secure Helen/Ankh-es-en-Amon in the temple. Will our bumbling heroes arrive in time to save her?
I love The Mummy. The pacing is good – if, yes, it does employ a lot of stuffy fellows talking in drawing rooms – and of course, Karloff is riveting. Zita as Helen/Ankh-es-en-Amon is also compelling, even if her affection for the milquetoast Frank seems difficult to believe. She is courageous and gorgeous; her costumes and gowns rank alongside Karloff’s mummy makeup in terms of glamour. The score is a bit uneven; the credits open with “Swan Lake”, and there are periods of both tension-laced orchestral bits – and utter silence (the latter most notably when the mummy awakes). The film is if not racist, at least racially insensitive and steeped in Western Imperialism with its portrayal of the Egyptian people and history, and its digs at the “modern” (Islamic) Egypt versus the “Classic” one of 3500 years ago.
Well-executed and beautiful, The Mummy is an absolutely essential film for any horror fan, and especially any monster movie completist.
After the box office success of Conan The Barbarian (1982), a number of American and oversea film enterprises quickly worked to make cheap fantasy sword-and-sorcery copies of the film. One of the fastest to hit the presses was Ator, The Fighting Eagle (Italian release: Ator l’invincibile), co-written and directed by Joe D’Amato, whose career mostly consisted of soft- and hardcore pornography. Very little pornographic values are seen in this film, except for perhaps bad wigs and clumsy dialogue.
The story opens in typical S&S fashion: a dark lord (the “High Priest of the Spider”) finds out something or other about a prophecy and orders a marked infant killed for safe measure. The target infant, however, is carried off to safety by the bewigged and mysterious Griba (British actor Edmund Purdom). The boy, now named Ator and played by Tarzan actor Miles O’Keeffe, grows into strapping manhood unaware of his lineage. He falls in love with his sister (?!), and upon confessing this to their father, is relieved to hear he was adopted and can therefore marry her (?!). Inexplicably, at this point he is spotted and recognized (?!) by the dark lord’s minions and, on his wedding day, the village is raided. His parents are killed and his sister/bride (Ritza Brown) is carried off by the horde. Ator collects his best loincloth and sets on a quest, battling giant spiders, blind seers, a seductive witch, and a small undead army.
Unless you love the hokeyness of these kinds of epics (and I do!) you’re not likely to find much compelling fare in this film. Ator is played in this film (as well as the two sequels) by O’Keeffe, whose main strengths seem to be a gorgeous head of leonine locks and an impressively fit physique. D’Amato quickly produced a sequel (wonderfully lampooned in Season 3 of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”), absented himself for the third film, and returned to direct the fourth. A small role goes to Laura Gemser, the Indonesian-Dutch actress who made D’Amato’s career with the Emmanuelle series. The cast is rounded out by Italian actress Sabrina Siani, Peruvian actor and wrestler Dakar (credited as “Dakkar” in the film), and spaghetti Western actor Nello Pazzafini.