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Maniac, Mill of the Stone Women, Boris Karloff: The Man Behind The Monster, and Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror
Horror Bulletin Week 159
This week, we’ll watch four movies and a short film as always!
We’ll start out with “Boris Karloff: The Man Behind The Monster” and “Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror,” two recent documentaries. Then we’ll discuss the class films, “Mill of the Stone Women” from 1960 and “Maniac” from 1980.
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Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster (2021)
Directed by Thomas Hamilton
Written by Thomas Hamilton, Ron MacCloskey
Stars Guillermo Del Toro, Ron Perlman, Christopher Plummer
Run Time: 1 Hour, 39 Minutes
When asked about his break-out role, people expected Karloff to talk about Frankenstein, but he always considered it to be his role in “The Criminal Code from” (1930). This documentary contains a huge number of interviews with people who worked with Boris Karloff over his 60-year-long career, as well as reflections from his daughter.
It obviously starts off explaining how Frankenstein was originally planned to be a vehicle for Bela Lugosi, Universal’s up-and-coming megastar. Bela wasn’t too thrilled with the non-speaking role, and James Whale didn’t really want him anyway. Whale decided to go with Karloff instead. Karloff and Whale worked again on “The Old Dark House” (1932).
Not long after, he became an actual star in “The Mask of Fu Manchu” (1932) and then “The Mummy” (1932). At that point, he pretty much became a household name.
From there, the documentary steers into the childhood of young William Henry Pratt. His mixed-race ethnicity and family legal issues were an ongoing theme in his youth, but he eventually fell in love with the theater. He then got numerous small parts in the teens and early 20s. There were a lot of “throwaway” films that were cranked out quickly and forgotten. At one point, he quit and went back into construction, which caused Boris lifelong back issues.
Karloff was instrumental in helping to found the Screen Actor’s Guild, SAG, partly due to conflicts he endured during shooting Frankenstein and The Mummy. He was a firm believer in working hard and being professional, but that actors needed to have rights and be respected as well.
Broadway called, and “Arsenic and Old Lace” reinvigorated Karloff’s career. Because of his commitment to the stage play, he missed out on being in the film version, as well as the remake of Phantom of the Opera. After World War II, horror movies in general dried up for a while, so he went back to Broadway.
He got yet another revival with TV and the Shock Theater films of the late 50s. This led directly to the TV anthology series “Thriller” which eventually led to his collaborations with Roger Corman toward the end of his career.
It does, in fact, talk quite a lot about Karloff’s film career, especially his early stuff, but there’s not a lot of surprises here. It feels thoroughly by-the-book as far as biographies go, but there’s nothing especially stand-out in any of it. Granted, we have seen all these movies, so there wasn’t much about Karloff that we hadn’t already known, but it was just… unexciting. It may be better for someone who isn’t an expert on Karloff, but I won’t say that for a fact. It all just feels a bit uninspired.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (2021)
Directed by Kier-La Janisse
Written by Kier-La Janisse
Stars Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer, Piers Haggard
Run Time: 3 Hours, 14 Minutes
After a very cool credit sequence, the film begins by asking, what is “Folk Horror?” Folk horror asks, “What if the old ways were right?” “It’s a back-to-the-land kind of thing.” They continue to explain it and detail it throughout.
Although the term “Folk Horror” was first used in the 1930s, there were three especially influential films that got the genre started: “Witchfinder General,” “Blood on Satan’s Claw,” and “The Wicker Man.” They’re all about clashing belief systems and the corruption of the establishment. “Paganism has a habit of surviving.”
Then we move into the literary arena with M.R. James and his works. “Whistle and I’ll Come to You” and “The Stalls of Barchester” are discussed. “Psychomania” and a dozen other films of the early 70s are discussed as part of the “back to the land movement.” Even something like “Quatermass and the Pit” and Nigel Kneale’s work on “Doctor Who” gets included here. This section speaks almost exclusively on British films.
Then we move into part 3, where it discusses paganism and witchcraft as well as feminism and women’s power. “Witchcraft is the only religion that the UK has ever given to the world,” one woman said. “The Wicker Man” and “The Witch” are discussed here, along with many others. Because of the Salem witch trials, the US comes into the witchcraft discussion now. The topic was used in film all the way back to 1922’s “Haxan.”
The next chapter is all about American folklore. Native American/Indigenous people’s mythologies are a great place to start. “Pet Sematary” (1989) is mentioned as well as “Grim Prairie Tales” and even “The Shining.” Lovecraft and New England rural settings come into play here. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is a great example. Utopianism, cults, and communal living in the 70s were a big influence on a lot of these films, even “Midsommar” and “Children of the Corn.” Voodoo and slave history is also discussed as a particularly American invention, all the way up to “Candyman.”
Part 5 is all about horror around the world. Australia comes first, with “Lake Mungo” and “Wolf Creek,” among others. Israel and Poland get “Demon” (2015), Venezuela with “La Llorona,” Russia with “Viy,” and Japan with “Kwaidan” and “Noroi: the Curse.” Films from Africa, Brazil, France, Germany, Mexico, Iceland, and many others are discussed.
Part six is about the folk horror revival. Newer films, such as “Wake Wood,” “Midsommar,” Pyewacket,” “The Ritual,” and “The Witch” are discussed.
This documentary discusses an overwhelming number of movies, a large number of which I’ve not even heard of before, much less actually seen, but I found a list, so hope is not lost. Someday, we’ll get them all…
It’s a very long film, at over three hours. It’s super-in depth and well researched. There’s just a ton of information here, it’s not a fluff documentary. It’s smart and has lots of connections about concepts and films I had not considered before.
Between film clips and interviews there are several fun animated segments used between the “chapters” of the documentary.
Set aside a few hours for this one, but it’s really good. Well worth checking out.
The Rapunzel Horror (2022)
Directed by Alexander Henderson
Written by Alexander Henderson
Stars Jess Adams, John Alan Hulbert
Run Time: 9 Minutes
It’s a sort of “found footage” story that shows a man being called to document Annalise’s experiences with something called a Rapunzel Doll. She’s… strange. She literally has a doll from the Rapunzel movie, and she says it has an evil look in its eyes. We definitely get the impression that Annalise isn’t quite all there. “I’m not crazy, you know,” she says, although we have serious doubts.
Then the doll starts chasing them…
It’s definitely well done. Going into this obviously crazy woman’s house and watching her freak out is bad enough, but then seeing Rapunzel, well, that’s another whole level.
Absolutely worth your nine minutes!
Mill of the Stone Women (1960)
Directed by Giorgio Ferroni
Written by Remigio Del Grosso
Stars Pierre Brice, Scilla Gabel, Wolfgang Preiss
Run Time: 1 Hour, 36 Minutes
Spoiler-Free Judgment Zone
It’s a really slow burn that looks really good. The sets, scenery, and costumes are very impressive. The acting is decent. It’s slow enough to border on boring for the first half, but it gets there eventually and picks up to a pretty strong finish.
Hans von Arnim gets off the boat and asks where Professor Wahl lives. He lives in a windmill nicknamed, “The Mill of the Stone Women.” A sad-looking woman watches him from behind a curtain. Professor Wahl is a sculptor, and we see lots of creepy-looking sculptures in his studio. Arnim gets to see an automated show with statues.
Arnim is here to write a paper for the centenary celebration. It’s been a hundred years since Wahl’s family opened the place. Wahl shows him documents about the building and history of the windmill. He only has a few days, and the last boat back leaves at seven.
Lottie, one of Wahl’s students, knows von Arnim. Meanwhile, Arnim gets a look at a girl that he doesn’t get a chance to talk to because he’s interrupted by Dr. Bohlen interrupts him. At the pub, Annelore sings a song, and Raab is her number one fan. Arnim and Lottie come in and talk to Raab. Raab explains that the strange girl is Elfie.
The next morning, Elfie introduces herself to Arnim at the mill. She says there’s always someone watching her. She can’t talk now, but she gives him a key to get in later. Dr. Bohlen says he’s the only one Effie can love.
When Arnim arrives later that evening, she’s in bed, sleeping. She was having an erotic dream about him, and she wants it to continue now that she’s awake. They kiss and turn out the lights.
Later, Arnim tells Lottie that he loves her, and Elfie watches; her jealousy growing. Lottie watches Wahl’s show and screams in terror at the moving statues.
Professor Wahl later explains about his family to Arnim. Elfie is very ill with the same illness that killed her mother. That’s why Dr. Bolem is here. She doesn’t realize how serious her illness is, but it’s important that she doesn’t feel stress or strong emotion. Armin agrees to stay away from her.
Arnim tells Elfie later that he can’t see her any more. She doesn’t take it well and has an attack. As he carries her back to her room, he notices that she’s dead. When he goes back the next morning, she’s gone. Dr. Bolehm gives him a tranquilizer to calm down.
Wahl accuses Arnim of killing his daughter. Elfie has already been buried in the family tomb. Wait– was that real or a hallucination? He sees a vision of himself carrying Elfie’s body to bed. Arnim goes to the crypt and opens it; yeah, she’s in there. He wanders around a bit and finds Annelore tied to a chair. When he looks again, she’s gone.
He catches up with Wahl, who says he doesn’t remember any of this. Armin swears it’s not his fault, but Wahl says his daughter is alive and fine. Then she walks down the stairs and asks what’s going on. Wahl says Arnim needs to leave right away, as his mental state is disrupting the household.
Elfie hates Dr. Bolem, but he says she is bound to him. What would Armin say if he knew what she really was? Wahl tells Armin not to tell anyone anything, or they’ll think he’s crazy.
Wahl and Bolehm talk about how their plan to make Arnim think he’s insane worked. A lot of it was the drugs. Wahl says Armin will never come back, but Bolehm doesn’t think it’s going to end that easily. Bolehm mentions that Elfie has been dying and coming back to life for three years. Armin could find out how they keep bringing her back to life.
Suddenly, Elfie has another attack and dies again. They wheel in Annelore, strapped to a cart, and hook her up to a transfusion machine. They give Elfie all of Annelore’s blood. Elfie wakes up, and Annelore dies. Even the sores on Elfie’s face fade. Bolehm refuses to help dispose of the body, saying he doesn’t want to help make any more “stone women.” Wahl poses Annelore’s stiffening body like a statue and covers her face with a rubber mask. Bolehm says he’s found the ultimate blood match for Elfie; Lottie. Lottie’s blood will cure Elfie forever.
Raab and Lottie take care of Arnim. He proposes to Lottie. The next day. Lottie has gone missing. Armin spots a photo of Annelore in Lottie’s apartment, and he remembers seeing her at the stone mill. He once again believes what he saw was real.
Bolehm and Wahl get things ready for Elfie’s final operation tonight. They carry out the new “Statue” into the museum.
As they look for proof, Armin and Raab go back to the crypt. Elfie’s crypt is empty. They do find a discarded wax statue that looks like Elfie. They head back to the museum and find Annelore’s statue and realize what it is.
Wahl and Bolehm argue about Elfie marrying Bolehm after the operation. Wahl stabs Bolehm. Wahl knows how the machines work, and he starts the blood transfer process. Unfortunately, Bolehm had the special serum in his pocket, and it broke when Wahl stabbed him. Wahl sets the lab on fire and carries Elfie out. Arnim and Raab break in and release Lottie as the fire spreads.
Wahl carries Elfie up into the tower and the building burns up around them. We watch the “skin” burn off the statues, revealing skulls beneath.
It’s like the Italian version of “House of Wax” only with a little mad science thrown in.
It’s got some seriously nice looking sets. The visuals have a sort of “Hammer Horror” vibe to them, but this was entirely made in Italy. It’s very slow paced, edging into boring territory. It’s not clear until about halfway through what’s really going on, but it gets there eventually.
I have seen this mentioned in more than one list of top horror films of all time. It’s fine, but there’s really nothing that impressive about it.
Directed by William Lustig
Written by C.A. Rosenberg, Joe Spinell
Stars Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro, Abigail Clayton
Run Time: 1 Hour, 27 Minutes
Spoiler-Free Judgment Zone
There’s no mystery or suspense here, just a crazy guy on a killing spree. Maybe even more horrifying because it’s just a guy, not a literal monster or alien or anything. The gore is over the top practical effects. Joe Spinell gives a great performance. It’s unsettling to watch and overall very good.
A man watches through binoculars at a couple sleeping on the beach. The boyfriend gets up to get firewood, and the stalker goes over to the girl and cuts her throat. When the boyfriend returns, he gets it too. Frank Zito wakes up; it was all a dream. RIght? He’s got a bedroom full of dolls, and he touches his scars in the mirror. Credits roll.
In downtown New York City, the prostitutes have a discussion about making rent. Frank picks up a hooker ($25 for basic; $50 for French; $75 all the way, or $100 for the Ultimate if you were curious) and goes to a cheap motel. Things are going well until he strangles her. He cries and says that he didn’t want to do that, but then he scalps her.
We see that at home, Frank has an old mannequin that has a real scalp stuck to its head. Tonight, he brings home a new mannequin and puts the fresh scalp on it.
Frank loads a shotgun into a violin case and goes out again. He follows a couple out to an isolated spot where they park to make out. They get in the back seat and we see Frank watching through the window. The girl spots Frank and when they start the car to leave, Frank shoots the gun with the shotgun, through the windshield, and we get to see his head explode… everywhere.
Frank tells the mannequin that he can’t go outside for even a minute or something like that happens. He admires new mannequins in the shop window. That night, he stalks a nurse through the streets and the subway. She hides in the restroom, but Frank eventually tracks her down and gets her just when she thinks she’s escaped.
Anna, a female photographer in the park, takes a photo of Frank, and he goes over to her house to talk about it. He takes her out on a real date. She explains that her model, Rita, is coming over later for some work, so they agree to meet again tomorrow night.
Frank follows Rita the model home that night and gets inside her apartment. He kidnaps her and takes her home; he seems to believe that she’s his dead mother who finally came back to him. He plans on keeping her forever and ever, at least until he stabs her in the heart.
Frank calls Anna, and they go out on a second date. On the way, they stop off at the cemetery and visit Frank’s mother’s grave. He gets upset and starts talking about Rita; Anna gets scared and runs off with Frank pursuing through the cemetery. Frank hears his mother’s voice, an audio-only flashback to when she locked him in the closet. He imagines his dead mother reaching up out of the grave and grabbing him.
Frank goes home alone. His arm is wounded from his fight with Anna. He looks at all his bloody mannequins and watches them all come to life and pick up weapons. They tear him apart.
The next morning, the police break down the door and find that Frank has stabbed himself and died.
Kevin pointed out in the scene with the nurse that it’s unlikely that the subways in NYC would ever be that deserted, even in the middle of the night.
If the violence wasn’t enough, Frank’s inner monologues let us know what he’s thinking at all times. Unlike a lot of serial killers in film, we can see that he’s really got a sick mind, a real mental illness. He’s not exactly evil, he’s literally and obviously insane. Frank’s growling, moaning, and heavy breathing also lend support to being “inside his head.”
The gore effects are way over-the-top with this one. Supposedly, reviewer Gene Siskel walked out of the movie theater when he saw the shotgun scene.
This was a super-influential film with its excessive violence and “sympathetic point of view” of the maniac. It holds up just fine, but many of these things have been copied or duplicated elsewhere, so it doesn’t seem like much today. A lot of the content of the film was really shocking and innovative back in the day.
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