31 Days to Scare ~ Scream Pretty Peggy (1973)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A sculptor hires young college girls to take care of his elderly mother and his supposedly insane sister, both of whom live in the old family mansion with him.

Stars: Ted Bessell, Sian Barbara Allen, Bette Davis, Charles Drake, Allan Arbus,Tovah Feldshuh

Director: Gordon Hessler

Rated: NR

Running Length: 74 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: All I keep reading about in the many movie rabbit holes I often find myself in was how different TV movies were before the advent of cable television.  Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s these were stop-what-you’re-doing and watch events that commanded the attention of a public that saw famous faces from screens big and small.  While not the most current A-listers, these stars of yesteryear or rising hopefuls would appear weekly in dramas, comedies, and a rather large selection of mysteries/thrillers or horror films with commercials to break up the mounting tension.  These are the ones that are the most interesting to me (obviously for this series) because to hear people tell it, they still remember the scares these tales of terror gave them. 

One of the most famous stars to grace these pulpy movies was none other than Oscar winner Bette Davis (The Watcher in the Woods). While her time on the silver screen had mostly run its seasoned course by the time the TV Movie of the Week picked up steam, she found regular work as a “special guest star’ in numerous television projects that made good use of her poise and presence.  It could be said the first TV horror for this era was 1973’s Scream Pretty Peggy and while it doesn’t rank high on the list of the most memorable roles Davis created, it is notable for providing the actress some meaty moments to chew on while the rest of the cast is left with paltry scraps to pick over.

It’s almost unfair to promote Davis as being such a star of the movie because she’s really not in that much of the 74-minute film.  The cast is small enough as it is but the bulk of it plays out between young Sian Barbara Allen as college student Peggy Johns who seeks out a job as a housekeeper at the massive estate of famed sculptor Jeffrey Elliot (Ted Bessell).  Hired more to look out for his aging mother (Davis), Peggy’s eager to please Jeffrey because she has an ulterior motive for wanting the job in the first place.  An aspiring artist herself, she seeks his approval for her own piece and maybe something more than their employer/employee relationship but both Jeffrey and his mother keep themselves at a distance for reasons that slowly become clearer.

I’d say more but there’s not a lot of plot left to talk about above and beyond that.  I was surprised the script, co-written by longtime Hammer Studios screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (Horror of Dracula, The Brides of Dracula, among others) and Arthur Hoffe is so staid and without much action.  I’ve a feeling it was Hoffe’s premise that Sangster was brought it to flesh out and amp up.  Yet there’s only so much one can do to raise the stakes, especially in the early ‘70s on network TV, for this particular story with its similarities to another famous suspense director’s most known movie. I won’t say which, but the lead actress has a daughter that followed her into the movie business, same genre too. 

More energy in direction from Gordon Hessler would help, or at least from the cast. However, aside from Davis who is a massive trooper in getting her scenes imbued with some sense of urgency, the two main leads treat the proceedings like they’re acting out a family drama rather than a house of horrors mystery.  In fact, while I liked Allen’s free-spirited Peggy at first, once it becomes obvious how much of a follower she was and to such a wet blanket like Bessel’s cardboard bland Jeffrey I was almost rooting for the sinister figure we assume to be Jeffrey’s insane sister to catch and eliminate her like she had a young Tovah Feldshuh (Love Type D) in the pre-credit sequence.

How glad was I to see that boutique home media distributor Kino Studio Classics was releasing a number of these TV movies in a 2K remaster just in time for Halloween?  I’d started to watch Scream Pretty Peggy on YouTube before (tip, you can watch SO many of these old movies of the week via YouTube) and the quality was good but not great.  The folks over at Kino Studio Classics have obtained a sparkling remaster that looks just gorgeous.  It’s crisp and colorful, down to the gaudy eye make-up and lipstick Davis wears, a small callback to her look in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, maybe?   For that alone, the movie is worth a look, but it will likely be more of a view out of curiosity than anything else.  It’s not bad enough to be laughable, not scary enough to be scream-able, but Davis makes it interesting enough to be watchable.

If you’re looking for reviews of other TV movies of this era, check out my posts on Home for the Holidays (1972) with Sally Field and A Howling in the Woods (1971) with Barbara Eden.

31 Days to Scare ~ Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Dracula is resurrected, preying on four unsuspecting visitors to his castle.

Stars: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell

Director: Terence Fisher

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  After the rousing success of Horror of Dracula in 1958, Hammer Studios moved forward with a smashing sequel, The Brides of Dracula, in 1960 without one key ingredient…Dracula himself.  While the sequel had all the right stuff, gorgeous costumes, lavish production design, a solid plot, and committed performances the absence of our titular creature of the night was felt.  Yet it took the studio another six years to get Christopher Lee back in his fangs and cape for another round as the world’s favorite bloodsucker.  And the wait was worth it.

A prologue recaps the ending of Horror of Dracula which was modeled after Bram Stoker’s classic tale.  Van Helsing vanquishes Dracula by exposing him to sunlight, turning him to dust.  The credits for this film play over the dust being blown away leaving just his ring as a reminder of the evil.  Jumping ahead ten years and we find the tiny European town where Dracula’s castle resides continues to harbor superstitious locals that attribute every strange death to Dracula’s curse.  Early on, a visiting priest (the gruff yet jolly Andrew Keir) stops a band of mourners from driving a stake through the heart of a beauty that passed away from an unknown ailment warning them that not every death is the result of a vampire’s bite.

The priest runs into a sightseeing foursome (Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell) and advises them to steer far clear of Castle Dracula.  Even though he believes the count to be long gone, there are things better left alone.  Of course, curiosity gets the better of the men in the group and when the coach bringing them to their next destination refuses to drop them near the castle they are left to fend for themselves…until a strange coach appears and takes them right to the castle where a gruesome fate awaits them all.  They arrive to find they were somehow expected, with a creepy manservant (Philip Latham) ready to serve them dinner…or does he intend to serve them as dinner?

When Lee finally does appear, resurrected through a fairly gory ritual, he’s all silent malevolence that works like a charm.  With no dialogue, Lee’s performance rests on his physicality and wild bloodshot eyes alone and it’s a highly effective performance at that.  Shelley is a hoot as a tightly-wound shrew that nags everyone so much you kind of hope she gets bitten first.  There’s nice work from Farmer, too, as another blonde beauty Dracula sets his sights on.  If the men fade a bit into the background it’s only because Lee is such a dominating presence they can’t really compete with him before or after he returns from the grave.

Movie monsters weren’t anything new when this film went intro production but this is a seriously high class affair.  The ending may be slightly rushed and not as satisfying as the preceding 80 minutes but there’s a reason why Hammer Studios was known as the prestige horror factory of that era.  While they reused many of the same sets, costumes, and actors throughout their history they manage to make every film feel unique and special.  The Dracula property was one they held in high regard and it shows in every single frame of Dracula, Prince of Darkness.  While Lee would return to the role for five more sequels of lessening impact, Dracula, Prince of Darkness as well as Horror of Dracula are timeless classics, and with good reason.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Brides of Dracula

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young teacher on her way to a position in Transylvania helps a young man escape the shackles his mother has put on him. In doing so, she innocently unleashes the horrors of the undead once again on the populace, including those at her school for ladies.

Stars: Peter Cushing, Martita Hunt, Yvonne Monlaur, Freda Jackson, David Peel, Miles Malleson

Director: Terence Fisher

Rated: NR

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: With the success of Horror of Dracula in 1958, British film studio Hammer Pictures realized they had a property with franchise potential and started plotting out a sequel.  Two years later, director Terence Fisher and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster collaborated again and walked The Brides of Dracula down the aisle at cinemas to another round of bloody good box office returns. The first of eight Dracula sequels filmed between 1960 and 1974, this is truly representative of a sequel that’s equal to its predecessor.

Lovely French teacher Marianne (the, um, lovely and French Yvonne Monlaur) is bound for her new position at a girls school on the outskirts of Transylvania.  With her carriage driver going full tilt to make it through the forest before nightfall, it’s a rocky road to travel especially when a stowaway hitches a ride after the carriage stops to clear a log blocking their path.  Arriving at a small village inn, as she dines the coachman takes off without her, stranding her in town for the night. She’s not put out for long though as the inn is visited by a Baroness (Martita Hunt, grandly ghoulish) that bids her to dine in her castle and stay the night, an offer the townspeople advise her not to take.  Before you know it, Marianne has freed the son (David Peel, arguably the most movie-star handsome of the Hammer vampires) of the Baroness from his shackles and he has taken flight (as a bat!) on the hunt for blood.  Thankfully, Dr. Van Helsing (the always excellent Peter Cushing) happens to be traveling in the area and knows the mark of a vampire when he sees one.  Will he be able to save Marianne from the Baron before he sinks his fangs into her?

This is a very fun, entertaining film and one that I’d miraculously not seen before.  The Dracula films featuring Christopher Lee always felt very intense with melodramatic acting that seems to pay special attention to the heaving bosoms of the women Dracula has the hots for.  How interesting that in the first sequel to their blockbuster, Hammer only brought back Cushing to reprise his role and focused on an entirely new (albeit descended from the big D himself) bloodsucker.  While Lee was an excellent Count his presence isn’t missed here, mostly because Sangster and Fisher have filled the film with appealing characters and splendid dialogue.

Sure, there are some holes here and there and some characters introduced as important are never heard from again.  I also wished more time was spent at the boarding school for girls, seems like there was missed potential there to add a few more brides to the mix.  As is typical of all Hammer creations, this one oozes opulence in every frame with gorgeous costumes and rich production values.  The acting is strong and cinematographer Jack Asher films the action with a Technicolor flourish.  While the action of the finale takes place in a well-designed windmill, it comes up ever so short by rushing through the dénouement to get to the credits.

If you wore out your copy of Horror of Dracula like I did or just would like a new old classic to keep your attention, The Brides of Dracula is one you can commit to without any fears of getting cold feet.

31 Days to Scare ~ Nightmare (1964)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Janet is a young student at a private school; her nights are troubled by horrible dreams in which she sees her mother haunting her. Expelled because of her persistent nightmares, Janet is sent home where the nightmares continue.

Stars: David Knight, Moira Redmond, Jennie Linden, Brenda Bruce, George A. Cooper, Clytie Jessop

Director: Freddie Francis

Rated: NR

Running Length: 82 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: As a life-long fan of scary films and all things that go bump in the night, I frequented the horror sections of local video stores in search of something to give me the shivers.  No matter what I saw from hungry piranhas to red-coated killer dwarves, my favorites were always the vampire movies.  That dates back to the first movie I ever rented (back when you rented the movie AND the VHS player at the same time!) which was Hammer Studios production, Horror of Dracula.  An ever-so slight re-working of the classic Bram Stoker story, this Dracula re-telling had Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in roles they would return to in the ensuing years.

I give that context because aside from Horror of Dracula and several of its sequels, I’m not as familiar with the Hammer Stuidos catalog as I should be.  Not just focused on vampires, mummies, creatures, or monsters, the studio also produced a range of thrillers where psychotic men and women were the ones to be feared.  I recently picked up an 8-film collection with an assortment of offerings from Hammer Studios and Nightmare was the first film I gave some attention to.

Directed by Oscar winning cinematographer Freddie Francis (who would film Cape Fear for Martin Scorsese late in his career) in glorious black and white, Nightmare has some twists that could be considered cliché by today’s standards but still manage to work well thanks to the overall strength of the production. Janet (Jennie Linden) is sent home from her boarding school when her night terrors become too disruptive.  Accompanied by a kindly teacher (Brenda Bruce), Janet arrives back at her stately country manse and is welcomed by her loyal chauffeur (George A. Cooper) and housekeeper (Irene Richmond).  There’s also a new nurse (Moria Redmond) sent by the family lawyer (David Knight) to keep an eye on the unstable Janet who fears she is insane just like her mother was.

A change of scenery doesn’t help things and it isn’t long before Janet begins to see a strange woman in white walking the hallways and beckoning her to follow.  When the woman turns up with a knife in her chest only to disappear again before anyone else can bear witness, the line between nightmares and reality begin to blur as Janet comes to realize she can’t trust herself or her actions.  But is she really losing her mind…or is someone helping her descend into madness?

As is typical of any Hammer production, the production design and costumes are gorgeous and the music loud and dramatic.  While there aren’t any true ‘scares’ in the picture, it’s nicely ominous with above average performances from every single actor – overall, quite enjoyable.  Those that have been around the block with these movies will be able to spot the clues that lead you to solve the mystery long before the characters do, but the ride is brisk and entertaining.