My 31 Days of Halloween Retrospective

Moon5

Each year, I always promised myself that I’d watch a horror movie a day and was never able to get around to it. (I’ve gotten to the age where my goals aren’t as lofty anymore, apparently.) Due to time constraints and other circumstances, the whole plan always fell apart and usually early on in the month (which was nice because then I didn’t have to watch everything go down the drain later on).

This year, I was finally able to complete my task. Not only was I able to watch one a day, but nearly all of them were films I had never seen before–the one lone exception was The Legend of Hell House, something I’d seen years ago, but had never viewed on Blu-Ray with additional special features.

Anyway, here’s the complete list of every film seen and reviewed (the grades I gave each are within the posting at the end of the review). They span nearly 100 years, from 1921 all the way up to 2014. Hopefully, there are a few that will catch your eye and that you’ll enjoy (or despise) as much as I did. Thanks to all of you who read and commented the past month. Who knows, maybe I’ll do it again next year.

Dead Snow (2009)

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

The Sacrament (2013)

The Stepford Wives (1975)

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962)

White Zombie (1932)

Dementia 13 (1963)

Zombie Strippers (2008)

Tentacles (1977)

Screamtime (1984)

Hatchet For The Honeymoon (1970)

Happy Birthday To Me (1981)

Blue Sunshine (1978)

The Haunted Dollhouse (aka DevilDolls) (2012)

Stake Land (2010)

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

The Hearse (1980)

Death Bed- The Bed That Eats (1977)

World War Z (2013)

Doc of the Dead (2014)

Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

Blacula (1972)

In The Mouth of Madness (1995)

The Psychopath (1966)

13 Sins (2014)

House of the Long Shadows (1983)

Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told (1967)

All The Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006)

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Scarecrows (1988)

Torture Garden (1967)

 

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Review: Torture Garden (1967)

Torture Garden

 

“It will show you nothing but what is in your own heart.”–Dr. Diabolo

When I randomly selected Torture Garden as the final film in my 31 Days of Halloween movie marathon, how could I have known that it would come from the same team that created a movie I saw a week ago today (The Psychopath)?

Director Freddie Francis (Tales From The Crypt), writer Robert Bloch (Psycho), and producer Milton Subotsky (The Monster Club) came together again in 1967 to make the anthology film starring Burgess Meredith (The Twilight Zone, Batman) and Jack Palance (City Slickers, Shane).

Torture Garden follows the same basic structure as other Amicus anthologies such as The Vault of Horror, Tales From The Crypt, and From Beyond the Grave in that a mysterious main character allows several individuals to obtain a glimpse into their very often ominous futures. In this film we meet:

  • A man who finds himself driven to murder by a mesmerizing, man-eating cat
  • A Hollywood actress who will do anything to become one of the top 10 stars
  • A famed pianist whose grand piano holds an evil sway over him
  • An Edgar Allan Poe collector (Palance) who murders another collector (Peter Cushing) to gain access to his items and uncover dark secrets

None of the segments are particularly bad. However, none are particularly memorable either. They’re basically watered down morality tales you might find on TV shows like The Twilight Zone or Thriller (both of which were far better at executing this type of material).

If you’re looking for something to pass the time on a gloomy afternoon, you could do a lot worse than Torture Garden, but I would recommend checking out one of the later Amicus anthologies–they had a bit more flair and the twists were a little more creative. Seek this one out only for a rare villainous turn by Burgess Meredith, a great character actor whose performance always elevated any story.

Torture Garden grade: C


Torture Garden (DVD)

Director: Freddie Francis
Starring: Jack Palance, Burgess Meredith, Beverly Adams, Peter Cushing, Maurice Denham
Rating: NR (Not Rated)

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Review: Scarecrows (1988)

Scarecrows

Five paramilitary bank robbers steal three million dollars from Camp Pendleton, murdering soldiers in the process. After they hijack a plane and take the pilot and his daughter hostage, one of the thieves, Bert (B.J. Turner) takes the money and parachutes out, landing in a field filled with scarecrows. To get the money back, the others track him down and, in the process, awaken the scarecrows that protect the land.

Now it’s a race against time as they try to recover the money and fight to stay alive. Can they make it to safety before the scarecrows hunt them down?

As it is, Scarecrows didn’t exactly work as a full length feature (even though it only clocks in at a scant 83 minutes), but there’s a hell of a great idea at the root of the movie. In fact, there’s even some really interesting stuff peppered throughout the course of the film.* However, what actually makes it on to the screen displays more of an interest in the characters, which aren’t at all developed, and the crime plot revolving around the money that eats up the first half hour.

*At one point, one of the thieves suggests that they all might have been killed during the robbery and that they might be dead and in hell. That was a really interesting take on it and, although it’s not necessarily something the film had to explore, I thought mentioning the possibility showed insight into their predicament. Too bad it was little more than a throwaway line.

Another huge issue I had with Scarecrows is the absence of any reasoning behind the attacks from the monsters–or even why they exist at all. We’re repeatedly shown a photo of three men (who I would assume are the scarecrows), but there’s no explanation, logical or otherwise, as to why they adopt murderous tendencies while protecting the area or even if the men are indeed the titular monsters. Why do they kill others and make them into scarecrows? Is it because these are bad people? If so, why try to kill those who aren’t?

As a horror fan, I’m never one to want more information about why something is happening within a story. For example, both the original Halloween and Black Christmas never really provided you with the reasoning behind the killings. However, there’s enough exposition within the story and plenty of interesting characters–both of which Scarecrows sorely lacked–that help to move the tale forward and provide genuine terror for both the characters inhabiting the film as well as the audience. Scarecrows could have used some sort of basic explanation to invest viewers a little more.

I can’t say I wouldn’t recommend Scarecrows because there’s so much here that I wished would have been executed in a more coherent manner to make it somewhat entertaining. However, there’s not enough here to give it a positive review either. If you’re at wits end and there’s nothing else on, sure, give Scarecrows a look, but there are a lot better films out there on which to spend your time wisely.

Scarecrows grade: C-

 

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Review: Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Nosferatu

 

“Time is an abyss… profound as a thousand nights. Centuries come and go. To be unable to grow old is terrible. Death is not the worst. There are things more horrible than death. Can you imagine enduring centuries, experiencing each day the same futilities?”–Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski)

Simply put, Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre is a splendid retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, albeit with a few minor twists.

In this version, Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is an estate agent married to Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) and is commissioned by his boss, Renfield (Roland Topor) to finalize a property deal with Count Dracula (Kinski), a nobleman looking to purchase a house in the area.

Harker travels to Transylvania so that Dracula may sign the papers, even though local townspeople warn him repeatedly not to make the trip. Harker dismisses it as superstition and continues on his journey. He finally meets Dracula, who bears a resemblance to a rodent, complete with sharp teeth, pale skin, and long nails. Enamored after a glimpse of Lucy’s photo, the count hastens his plans to relocate, taking his coffins with him to the high seas while leaving Harker to plot an escape and stop him.

After seeing that trailer, I really wish I would have watched the German language version with subtitles. Apparently, the actors found it much more comfortable to use their native languages rather than speak English and I can see the difference immediately in just those few scenes. There are times in the English version (which isn’t dubbed; it’s an alternate version where it’s done completely in the language) where the acting seems a bit stilted, most likely as a result of the lack of confidence in speaking another language.

In either case, Nosferatu the Vampire is an amazing film. Herzog (who also wrote the script) fills the movie with the lingering threat of dread and death and his direction complements it beautifully. Regardless of whether it’s the scenes with the coffins being carried across the town–the result of local residents falling prey to the vampiric “plague”–or the stark shots of the ship on the ocean (where the same fate befalls its passengers), Nosferatu the Vampyre delivers on every level and is a must see for not only film fans, but also those who love the vampire subgenre.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this version is the fact that it treats Dracula with a level of pity that hadn’t been touched upon in many films at the time. Thanks to Kinski’s performance, Dracula is a haunted individual, doomed to repeat the same cycle for eternity and searching for someone he can love. Kinski’s version of the mythical vampire carries a weariness about him that sets his portrayal apart from so many others who have inhabited the role and that alone should carve out a special place for him among vampire fans.

Yet I really never hear much about Kinski when people talk about vampire films and that’s sad. He certainly should be mentioned along with Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, and Max Schreck.

Just for Kinski alone, Nosferatu the Vampyre shouldn’t be missed. But take my word for it, seek out the German subtitled version. You’ll probably enjoy that one a little more.

Nosferatu the Vampyre grade: A


Nosferatu The Vampyre [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)

Director: Werner Herzog
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz
Rating: PG (Parental Guidance Suggested)

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Release date May 20, 2014.
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Review: All The Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006)

Mandy Lane

A bunch of teens go to a ranch and get picked off one by one. Oh, and the boys totally want to get with Mandy Lane (Amber Heard).

That’s it. That’s basically the whole plot of the movie.

Well, there’s a little more to it than that if you consider the twist ending you can see coming from miles away.

All The Boys Love Mandy Lane is derivative of a slew of other genre and non genre films, hearkening all the way back to 70s “grindhouse” movies. The only problem is that it doesn’t really offer anything new. The characters are little more than stereotypes stuck in a story that doesn’t have much going for it. You can easily see where screenwriter Jacob Forman was heavily influenced by the events at Columbine and his bare bones script is jazzed up by an overly artsy directorial turn by Jonathan Levine. Unfortunately, Levine ends up tipping off the climax thanks to several of those artistic choices.

The only thing that made All The Boys Love Mandy Lane worthwhile was the stark cinematography by Darren Genet. His work also evoked some of the films in the 70s, but in a positive way and lent some authenticity to the movie.

Apparently, All The Boys Love Mandy Lane was originally completed in 2006 but, due to distribution issues, wasn’t released to the masses until 2013. Perhaps the film would have felt a little more fresh back then. It’s difficult to say, but I have a feeling that my reaction would have been the same eight years ago. In addition to the issues listed above, nothing happens for at least the first 40 minutes. All we’re treated to is everyone loving the empty vessel that is Mandy Lane. That’s not enough to spark interest or care about any of the characters in the film.

My advice is to avoid All The Boys Love Mandy Lane and seek out some of the grindhouse films. At least you’ll have more fun.

All The Boys Love Mandy Lane grade: D

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Review: Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told (1967)

Spider baby

Oh Spider Baby, if there was any lingering doubt I wouldn’t love you, it was washed away when your theme song kicked in.

The orphaned Merrye children–Virginia (Jill Banner), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), and Ralph (Sid Haig, House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects)– live in a dilapidated mansion and are looked after by their guardian and family chauffeur, Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr., The Wolf Man, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein). The kids are afflicted with “Merrye syndrome”, a genetic disorder that causes them to regress emotionally and physically thanks to family inbreeding.

Though Bruno is loving toward the children, his authority over them is tenuous at best. Their condition causes them to deteriorate and they start to exhibit murderous tendencies. Virginia, the “Spider Baby”, enjoys trapping people in a “web” and then using butcher knives on them to sting her prey. Ralph is simple minded and lecherous, especially when an attractive female is around; he communicates only by grunts and groans. Elizabeth is the one usually put in charge of the others when Bruno runs an errand, but she’s just as demented as the others.

When two cousins, Peter (Quinn Redeker, whom I remember fondly as Alex Marshall on Days of our Lives) and Emily (Carol Ohmart) arrive along with a lawyer (Karl Schanzer) and his assistant (Mary Mitchel) to take control of the property, the children become even more unstable leading to even stronger murderous impulses.

Spider Baby is one hell of a good time and it’s easy to see the influence it had on House of 1000 Corpses and other genre films thanks to its combination of horror and very black comedy. Though it was released in the late 60s (but filmed in the early part of the decade and not distributed until later), it almost feels timeless.

Writer-director Jack Hill has created a classic that is as effective today as it was when released. I can imagine Spider Baby threw audiences for a loop back in ’67 and it might actually have the same effect on some today considering its morbid subject matter. The acting is first rate with all of the players contributing their own brand of oddball humor yet balancing it out with the right amount of dramatic weight to make the film as believable as possible.

Spider Baby has endured all of these years not only in the hearts of filmgoers, but also in various incarnations (as a stage show, for example) and rightly so. It’s a definite must see and highly recommended, especially as a double feature with The Rocky Horror Picture Show or one of Zombie’s films. It’s a perfect little film any time of the year, but might just be added to my permanent Halloween rotation in the future.

Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told grade: A-



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The Rocky Horror Picture Show (35th Anniversary Edition) [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)

Director: Jim Sharman
Starring: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick
Rating: R (Restricted)

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The Devil's Rejects / House of 1000 Corpses (Horror Two-Pack) [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)

Director: Rob Zombie
Starring: Sid Haig, Karen Black, Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon Zombie, Chad Bannon
Rating: R (Restricted)

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Review: The Walking Dead – “Four Walls and a Roof” S05E03

WD2

“You’re eatin’ tainted meat!”–Bob Stookey

I guess we all know the answer to the question I posed at the end of last week’s episode, “Strangers“.

Bob (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.) was indeed bitten in the cellar and laughs when he shows Gareth (Andrew J. West) and the other Terminus cannibals that they’ve eaten the flesh of an infected man.

Later, after roughing him up, the Terminus group deposits Bob outside the church. After Sasha and the rest bring him in, he informs them that he’s been bitten and they all know it’s only a matter of time before he turns. In the end, Bob gets a nice sendoff, sharing some heartwarming scenes with both Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green).

It’s really too bad Bob died because he was becoming a much more interesting character than when first introduced. His rapport with Sasha was an invigorating change for the series because it added a bit of lighthearted banter in the midst of abject horror.

WD1

We also find out Gabriel’s (Seth Gilliam) secret. Turns out that when the world went to hell, so did he to a certain extent. He locked the church doors and turned away his congregation when they sought shelter from the walkers. The guilt eats away at him every day and he’s a tortured man as a result.

Though he still believes that his church is the house of the Lord, it becomes a slaughterhouse not long after. The Terminus group breaks into the church when Rick and the others go searching for them in the middle of the night. In a very tense scene, Gareth and the others stalk those who stayed behind, promising to kill all of them. That is, until Rick and the others return and Rick makes good on the promise he made to Gareth back in the season opener–he kills Gareth, slicing into his head with a blade while the others make quick work of the cannibals, effectively ending the threat.

While it’s necessary that the Terminus story came to an end, I enjoyed the work of West as Gareth and I’ll miss his presence on the show. He played a pitch perfect villain, calm and frightening all at once. However, that particular storyline didn’t really have much more steam remaining to keep it going any longer. There’s only so much you can do with it and having Rick and the others brutally murder them unveils a side of them that will spin their future interactions with other survivors in an interesting direction.

That said, I wish they would have explored the idea of consuming infected flesh a little more, but since it’s already been established that the virus resides within everyone, does it really matter? Still, that particular aspect was an interesting one that I’d like to see raised again somewhere down the line.

Oh, and I wanted to see a character turn. I was hoping Bob would have before Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) ended that threat, but my hopes were dashed. It would have made an interesting visual effect and I don’t believe we’ve seen that event in the series thus far.

Speaking of visual effects, that opening scene juxtaposing the walkers inside the schoolhouse with the Terminus group outside eating Bob’s flesh showed a lot of flair. Not that the direction was in any way poor before, but the stylistic choices this season have improved dramatically, complementing the narrative and providing a welcome artistic bent to the series.

WD3

The second half of the episode once again finds our group splintered, with Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) heading off to DC with more than half of the others including Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Glenn (Steven Yeun). In the climax, Michonne (Danai Gurira) comes across Darryl (Norman Reedus) in the woods–and he’s acting a little strange with an unseen person tagging along.

Overall, “Four Walls and a Roof” is another strong outing for the series which has been consistently enjoyable and balanced in its fifth season. For the first time, The Walking Dead doesn’t seem to be lagging in any aspect of the series and displays a sense of forward momentum that’s lacked thus far in early episodes of prior seasons.

The Walking Dead – “Four Walls and a Roof” grade: A-

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Review: House of the Long Shadows (1983)

House of Long Shadows

I guess I didn’t know what to expect with House of the Long Shadows. On one hand, it features four horror legends–John Carradine, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, and Christopher Lee–sharing scenes together for the first and only time in their careers. On the other, the lead is Desi Arnaz, Jr., someone not really known for either horror or being a lead in a major motion picture.

What I do know is that I went in with the expectation of having a really good time. What I got was something completely different.

Arnaz plays Kenneth Magee, a writer who bets his publisher that he can churn out a Wuthering Heights style novel in 24 hours. To ensure total isolation, Magee stays at an old Welsh manor where he will spend the night typing away. However, as the evening progresses, he discovers that he’s not alone.

First, he’s startled by two caretakers (Carradine and Sheila Keith) who are later revealed to be Lord Grisbane and his daughter, Victoria. It’s their home and, with the help of sons Lionel (Price) and Sebastian (Cushing), they plan to release their son, Roderick, from the room in which he’s been imprisoned for 40 years. Roderick killed a pregnant village girl decades ago and the Grisbane family meted out their own justice.

Next, Magee allies himself with Mary Norton (Julie Peasgood), his publisher’s secretary, and Corrigan (Lee), a prospective buyer of the manor, to help track Roderick down when it’s discovered that he’s escaped and is dangerous. Later, two travelers find themselves stranded at the manor and become part of the festivities.

Then the murders begin as family members are picked off one by one. It’s a race against time to hunt down Roderick before everyone dies.

Sounds great, right? Well it’s not.

Arnaz just doesn’t have the acting chops to really make his character believable. In his defense, however, his role (as well as the other characters in the film) isn’t well developed. Even horror giants like the four mentioned above can’t do much with the material they’ve been given.

House of the Long Shadows also lives up to it’s name because the film is bathed in darkness. I could have put up blackout curtains on my windows and sat in total darkness and still wouldn’t have been able to make out images for at least 60% of the movie. I’m not certain if it was the quality of the video (which I watched on Amazon instant) or poor choices made by whomever was responsible for lighting the film, but much of House of Long Shadows is unwatchable (and that’s not even considering the plodding pacing). If the lighting was an aesthetic choice, it was a bad one. There’s a big difference between creating atmosphere and complete ineptitude and if it was done purposely, I’m afraid the latter would describe this movie.

And don’t even get me started on the double twist ending that left me scratching my head. One twist is fine. Two is a clear sign you’re trying too hard to be clever and it just didn’t work in the movie’s favor. At one point, I had to ask whether a character had a twin the story failed to mention because it was the fourth name the character used in the span of an hour and forty minutes.

If you’re looking for a movie with a clever twist and a better storyline, try either Return to Horror High or April Fool’s Day and leave House of the Long Shadows sitting vacant. Unless you want to see Lee, Cushing, Price, and Carradine together, it’s a waste of time.

House of the Long Shadows grade: D


Return to Horror High (DVD)

Director: Bill Froehlich
Starring: Richard Brestoff, George Clooney, Vince Edwards, Al Fann, Panchito Gómez
Rating: R (Restricted)

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April Fool's Day (DVD)

Director: Fred Walton
Starring: Deborah Foreman, Griffin O'Neal, Clayton Rohner, Jay Baker, Pat Barlow
Rating: R (Restricted)

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Review: 13 Sins (2014)

13 Sins

Elliot Brindle (Mark Webber) is in dire straits. His fiancee (Rutina Wesley, True Blood) is pregnant. His brother (Devon Graye) is mentally handicapped and about to be shipped back to an institution. To top it all off, Elliot just lost his job as an insurance salesman because he was too mild mannered to soak customers for more money.

Then he receives a call from a mysterious stranger telling him he can change his life. The caller knows everything about him, including his financial troubles, and offers him a way out. Just swat the fly buzzing around his head and he’ll receive $1,000. Eat it and he’ll get an additional $3,000.

Those were just the first two of 13 challenges he must accomplish to win the grand prize of six million dollars. But here’s the catch–he can’t tell anyone about his actions or interfere in any way with the outcome.

Oh, and each additional challenge becomes a little more inventive–and a little more heinous.

Elliot accepts the challenge and finds himself growing bolder and more fearless even as he’s heading down a path of self destruction. Soon his antics gain the attention of a cop (Ron Perlman) who, thanks to a conspiracy theorist (Pruitt Taylor Vince), discovers someone might be playing a dastardly game that began many years ago.

The premise of 13 Sins is a cross between Richard Matheson’s story, “Button, Button” and 1997’s The Game. When a more recent film attempts to tread familiar ground, especially with material that’s originally groundbreaking, it can turn out poorly (in which case it’s denounced as a rip-off) or distinguish itself from the others (and it’s referred to as an homage).

I’m very happy to say that 13 Sins falls into the latter category.

Director Daniel Stamm (The Last Exorcism), who co-wrote the script with David Birke, has created a taut thriller peppered with moments of black comedy (in my opinion, anyway, but I have a pretty warped sense of humor) and a sense of momentum that builds to a satisfying resolution.

The cast is also top notch, with Webber’s performance standing out as a man in despair whose very personality adapts to the ever increasing demands of the game. It takes a lot to pull that off and Webber does a great service to the character throughout the course of the film.

13 Sins isn’t without flaws, however, but they are minimal. The biggest one lies with a particular character that you realize there’s more to than meets the eye. I can’t reveal which because it would give away a large part of the mystery, but viewers should be able to pick up on that immediately. The other relates to the revelation that Elliot isn’t the only one playing the game. When the other player is revealed (as well as the twist regarding former players), it seemed a bit of a stretch considering who it is and what physical actions they’ve performed. Then again, if there are more than one, the contestant that Elliot sees while playing might have been someone completely different than who we suspect.

The most interesting aspect of 13 Sins is that it touches upon current issues facing America–debt, the economy, conspiracy theories, reality television, the 1%–without being really overt or preachy. Instead, they all combine to create a sense of realistic tension that enhances the horrific nature of Elliot’s choices. After all, what would you do if you were in his shoes?

All in all, 13 Sins is a great movie that shouldn’t be missed. It’s currently streaming on Netflix and is available on both DVD and BluRay.

13 Sins grade: A


13 Sins [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)

Director: Daniel Stamm
Starring: Mark Webber, Ron Perlman, Christopher Berry, Devon Graye
Rating: R (Restricted)

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Release date June 17, 2014.
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Review: The Psychopath (1966)

Psychopath

When I have to repeatedly pause a film to determine how much time remains and I discover myself thinking “Too much”, it’s never a good sign.

Written by Robert Bloch (Psycho), directed by Freddie Francis (Tales From the Crypt, Torture Garden), produced by Milton Subotsky (The Monster Club, From Beyond the Grave), and released by Amicus, The Psychopath should have been a solid film considering the level of talent involved. In fact, as it started, I found myself acting like Flounder from Animal House when, excited, he said “Oh boy! Is this GREAT!”

Sadly, The Psychopath is not great.

Men who investigated a German millionaire after World War II are being systematically killed with the assailant leaving a small plastic doll that resembles the victim as a calling card. Inspector Holloway (Patrick Wymark) turns a suspicious eye toward everyone, including: Mrs. Von Sturm (Margaret Johnston)–the millionaire’s widow, her son Mark (John Standing), and several other players.

For the majority of the film, The Psychopath is more crime drama than horror film as the Inspector tracks down the killer while suspects are murdered. And it’s quite a dull murder mystery at that. Even clocking in at 82 minutes, The Psychopath feels longer with a plot no more elaborate than an episode of Castle. Though the ending does provide a bit of a shocker, it’s also indicative that Bloch went to the whole “mommy issues” well one too many times.

The Psychopath grade: D+

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