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Bonus Reviews: The Thing that Couldn't Die (1958) and The Mephisto Waltz (1974)
Horror Bulletin Bonus for Week 190
For this week’s bonus films, we’ve got a pretty dumb one, "The Thing That Couldn't Die" from 1958, and a mostly-forgotten deal-with-the-devil film, "The Mephisto Waltz" from 1974.
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The Thing That Couldn't Die (1958)
Directed by Will Cowan
Written by David Duncan
Stars William Reynolds, Andra Martin, Jeffrey Stone
Run Time: 1 Hour, 9 Minutes
Spoiler-Free Judgment Zone
It’s okay in pretty much every way. Horror Guy Kevin had never even heard of this one before, and it’s clear why this one isn’t really a classic. It’s not bad. Everyone shows up and does the work. There’s just nothing really exceptional about it. The story is pretty basic and ends abruptly. You probably wouldn’t regret watching it, but don’t feel like you need to make a special effort.
Gordon, Hank, and Linda watch Jessica with her dowsing rod. She's out trying to find water, but she comes up empty. Gordon has doubts, but Aunt Flavia knows Jessica can do the job. Her stick points down, so she’s found something. Suddenly, she yells for the digging men to stop; “There’s something evil down there!” Aunt Flavia overrules her. Jessica calls them all terrible people and says she hopes a tree falls on them. A tree then falls on Linda, so the digging stops. Temporarily. Linda is shaken but okay.
Jessica thinks she made the tree fall. “It was an evil wish!” Gordon still thinks it’s all fairy tales. Jessica tells them where to find the watch Linda lost last week - a pack rat stole it for its nest. They also find a really old medallion and some other stuff down there. Gordon then apologizes to Jessica; he’s a believer now. She admits that sometimes she hears evil voices too. He puts the medallion on her, telling her it’s medieval and benign and she should keep it on for protection.
The diggers finally find something. It’s an old chest. Aunt Flavia thinks it must be gold, but they can’t get the chest open. Gordon thinks the chest itself might be valuable, since the date of 1579 is on the top, and he advises her to not bust it open by force. There’s a warning to “not open this accused chest,” but of course that’s just superstition. Only Sir Franic Drake would have been in the region in the 1500s. He wants to open the lock with chemicals to preserve the chest itself, so he goes off to town to pick up what they need.
Jessica doesn’t want to stay in the house with the evil chest, so she stays in the cabin with Linda. Ranch hand Boyd peeks through the window to watch Jessica get ready for bed. Then Boyd goes into Aunt Flavia’s room with a knife and steals the key to the door where the chest is stored. His sidekick Mike is really strong, and he thinks he can open the chest without destroying it.
Mike finally gets the chest open, and he finds a head inside. A living head. The head hypnotizes Mike, and then Mike kills Boyd. Flavia calls Jessica to help, and they find the chest open and empty. “Mike wouldn’t hurt anyone,” Jessica insists. Mike carries the head around, and it notices the amulet around Jessica’s neck.
Gordon returns, and he brings Julian Ash, the president of the historical society. The police don’t show up right away, so Gordon suggests that Jessica use her stick to find the wounded man. Julian reads the inscription on the chest; the disembodied spirit of Gideon Drew was said to be inside. No one notices that Jessica is out in the woods following her stick.
Mike and the head of Gideon see her coming, Gideon can’t speak, but he communicates with Mike telepathically. Jessica gets a flashback to 1593 and watches as Gideon is beheaded and his head and body are buried separately. He was cursed to never die.
Jessica wakes up from her flashback and finds Boyd in the hole where they found the chest in the first place. Linda and Hank return at the same time the police finally arrive. Linda opens the window and gets a face full of hypnotism from Gideon. Gideon sends Mike toward the police with his knife drawn; they shoot Mike. Now they’ll stop searching the woods and go home! Linda is his new minion.
Hank goes to talk to Linda, and she seems like a different person suddenly. Linda wants to try on Jessica’s medallion, but Jessicsa won’t take it off. Linda suggests that maybe Jessica can help them find the other casket– the one with the body. Jessica gets upset and storms off. Julian suggests that maybe Aunt Flavia could try the dowsing rod, since the ability is supposed to run in families.
Jessica lets Gordon have the amulet back before she gets the car with Linda, who volunteers to take Jessica to the bus station. Linda gives Jessica a hat box, but there’s just a creepy hypnotic head inside! Jessica suddenly decides not to leave the ranch. Now, Jessica wants to help find the other chest. She changes to wear all black now because she’s evil.
Everyone goes out into the woods to look for the body. It takes a while, but she finds the spot. They all dig, and soon, they find the coffin. Evil Jessica kisses Gordon, because she’s easy now. They lug the coffin back to the house. Jessica goes to get the head and winks at Linda conspiratorially. The coffin opens, and the dead, headless body stands up. Jessica walks in and hands it the head. They become one. “At last I breathe again,” says the now-whole Gideon.
Gordon empties his pistol into Gideon, but that doesn’t do anything. Gideon pulls a knife, but he’s awfully picky about whose blood he wants to drink. Gordon pulls out the amulet and Gideon screams and falls into the coffin, which they re-seal. The amulet does its job and turns Gideon to bones.
It’s really obvious that they took the musical cues for Gideon straight from “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” They overused that little tune so much in “Creature” that it sticks in the memory pretty easily.
It’s hokey and pretty dumb overall, but it’s not badly made, and I wasn’t bored. It's definitely the kind of story that was written to scare an eight year old, but other than that… it’s… OK.
The Mephisto Waltz (1971)
Directed by Paul Wendkos
Written by Ben Maddow, Fred Mustard Stewart
Stars Alan Alda, Jacqueline Bisset, Barbara Parkins
Run Time: 1 Hour, 55 Minutes
Spoiler-Free Judgment Zone
It’s a nice mix of things you see coming and things you don’t see coming. The music is a little overbearing, but the cast is good and the story is interesting. All three of the leads are recognizable faces who continued on to do lots of other things, and it’s strange seeing them so young here.
There’s a really annoying cat that wakes up Myles and Paula Clarkson. Duncan Ely calls, and the daughter Abby answers the phone. Myles is a musical journalist, and he’s got an appointment with Ely, who’s world-renowned for his playing. Ely’s arrogant and grouchy, but wants to hear Myles play. Myles went through Julliard, but wasn’t good enough to become a pro; Ely likes his hands. He likes those hands a lot. Ely’s daughter Roxanne likes them too.
There’s a dinner party, and Ely discusses death. Roxanne thinks Myles should be a concert pianist, but he has no confidence. Still, he plays a duet with Ely, and he keeps up with the old man. Ely’s dog doesn’t like Paula very much.
The next afternoon, Roxanne, Ely, and his entourage come to visit Paula’s boutique. Just to help out on their opening day, he claims, but Paula wonders why they did it. Are Ely and his friends just generous and eccentric rich folks? Paula’s assistant remember reading about Duncan Ely’s wife being murdered by a dog. Ely has many nosy questions about Paula and Myles; it’s like the old man is studying Myles.
Duncan Ely throws a costume party, and even the dog is wearing a mask. It soon becomes obvious that Roxanne is more than a daughter to the old man. It quickly gets too overwhelming for Paula, who goes upstairs to get away from the crowd. She wanders into the old man’s office and finds some weird-looking occult stuff– as well as a very angry guard dog. Roxanne comes in and mentions that she wants to do a face mask of Myles.
Not long after, Myles sits for the plasterwork. While he sits there, Duncan stumbles in, and he’s not healthy. Myles goes home really late, and Paula is both jealous and annoyed. “I hate Roxanne,” she snipes. “I don’t want you to go there anymore. They’re too damned friendly!” Myles explains that Duncan has leukemia and is going to die soon.
Myles actually donates blood to help the sick old man, and he passes out afterward. Roxanne gives the sleeping man a funny look and says, “Goodbye, Myles.” We see Roxanne draw a pentagram on the floor while the old man recites from a book in his bed. She feeds Duncan some of Myles’s blood and puts a blue dot on Myles’s forehead. At midnight, the old man dies, and she places Myles’s face mask over the old man’s corpse.
Myles wakes up and admires himself in the mirror. He stumbles downstairs and looks at his hands. Those young hands. Myles then goes home to Paula, and he likes what he sees there too.
At the funeral, Roxanne does more spellcasting, and most of Duncan’s friends are right there; they are either all in on it or they don’t think it’s strange. Then it’s time for the reading of the will; Myles gets a Steinway and the entire collection of musical scores as well as $100,000 in cash. Roxanne gets everything else.
Myles starts forgetting things he ought to know. Paula notices that he’s also a lot more romantic than he used to be; it must be all that money. Roxanne gives their dog to Abby, who falls in love with the animal, but Paula says she has to give it back. Myles has given up smoking and he doesn’t like the scotch at home. Roxanne gives Myles a key so he can play on Duncan’s grand piano anytime he wants. Well, it’s really his inherited piano, but he has no room for it at his home.
Paula thinks Myles wants to be someone else; he’s changed. Roxanne and Paula watch Myles playing, and he’s gotten a lot better. Roxanne says she can fix it so that Myles can take over Duncan’s scheduled concert this Friday.
Paula dreams that Duncan comes for Abby, “Sorry, it’s part of the bargain.” He puts a blue dot on her forehead as she sleeps. Abby comes in, and she’s had a similar dream, except she actually has a blue dot on her forehead and a fever to match. Abby dies in the hospital shortly thereafter.
Paula thinks Duncan had something to do with it, even though he’s dead. She remembers Roxanne's occult books in their library. Paula starts researching things, starting with Roxanne’s ex-husband Bill. She wants to know if Ely’s former wife was murdered by their dog.
Myles does the concert, and he’s great. Afterward, he’s more interested in Roxanne than Paula. Bill is at the afterparty, and he talks to Paula about Satanism and the murder of Mrs. Eli. Roxanne sees them talking. Myles is offered the rest of Duncan’s tour, all over the country.
Bill and Paula meet the next day, and he says he doesn’t believe in the devil. They end up back at his place. He says “they” play with witchcraft so they can do anything they like. He thinks Duncan got Roxanne pregnant, which led to a miscarriage. The next morning, Paula finds Bill’s dead body on the beach– he’s got a blue dot.
She tells the police that her husband killed Bill; not really, but someone who was using his body. The police are not impressed with that story. Paula goes home and has a dream that Myles and Roxanne sneak into her bedroom. She tells them she knows what’s going on, and they put the blue dot on her. Paula dreams that Myles and Roxanne have sex right there in her bedroom while she sleeps.
She gets in the car and goes to Roxanne’s house. She breaks in and takes some of the blue liquid from Roxanne’s office. The guard dog then attacks her, but she grabs a knife and kills the dog. She takes the blue stuff and the magic book and leaves. She wrecks the car on the road.
She wakes up in the hospital. The doctor thinks she had a minor stroke. She thinks “they” did this, just like with the others. Her friend Maggie says Paula should get a divorce. No, she wants Myles, even if he isn’t really Myles.
Paula starts studying the Satanic book. She does her own ritual. The literal devil walks in, and she’s ready to bargain. She rushes over to Roxanne’s house and tells her the master is on her side now. Paula pushes her down the stairs to knock her out, pulls out a syringe to get some blood, and completes her own ritual.
Maggie comes over to Paula’s place later that night and finds Paula dead in the bathtub of suicide. With a face mask of Roxanne over her own face. Maggie thinks Myles and Roxanne made her do it. Over at the big house, Myles comes home, but Roxanne seems a little different now…
This one is probably most noteworthy for having a pre-MASH Alan Alda as its star.
As soon as Duncan expressed interest in Myles’s hands, Kevin said he was going to steal the younger man’s body. He called it.
It used way too much of the blurry “dreamy” effect, especially for scenes that weren’t dreams. There’s also way too much repetition of the same song over and over; it got old pretty fast, even if it is the source of the name of the film. The music throughout is loud and overbearing throughout.
The twist at the end where Paula does the ritual as well, was unexpected. So basically, Paula wound up with Duncan, which wasn’t the outcome I was expecting.
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