The Spiral Staircase (1946) This superior gothic suspense film from director Robert Siodmak (based on the novel Some Must Watch, by Ethel Lina White) is short on plot but heavy on character, and dripping with atmosphere. Dorothy McGuire plays Helen, a young mute woman who might be next on a serial killer’s list. George Brent and Gordon Oliver are stepbrothers at odds with each other, and Ethel Barrymore appears as Mrs. Warren, a feisty bedridden matriarch. Elsa Lanchester almost steals the show as Mrs. Oates, a plucky housekeeper. It’s slow burn, leading to an explosive finale inside a shadowy old mansion (where the majority of the movie takes place). It’s a nail-biting experience, anchored by McGuire’s riveting performance and a cast of eccentric supporting characters.
Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Vanishing Waves (2012) Co-writer/director Kristina Buozyte’s Lithuanian science fiction thriller plays like a more cerebral version of The Cell (2000). An emotionally stunted researcher, Lukas (Marius Jampolskis), participates in an experiment to access the brain waves of Aurora (Jurga Jutaite), a comatose patient. As he delves deeper into Aurora’s fantasy world, Lukas becomes infatuated with her, much to the detriment of his girlfriend, Lina (Martina Jablonskyte). Lukas and Aurora seem to share a strange symbiosis, as their bond becomes increasingly emotional Meanwhile, he attempts to keep his relationship a secret from his colleagues. It’s a brooding, sometimes frustrating, meditation on science, love and ethics, that will likely captivate some and alienate others.
Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Kanopy
Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) Drector Mario Bava takes a shot at sword and sandal movies with this mildly entertaining entry into the long-running series about the mythical Greek strongman. Hercules (Reg Park) and his pal Theseus (George Ardisson) travel to the underworld, in search of the golden apple, which will purportedly restore Hercules’ betrothed, Deianira, back to good health. Unfortunately, there’s push-back from the god Pluto when Theseus attempts to escape the underworld with the god’s daughter, Persephone (Evelyn Stewart). Christopher Lee also appears, as devious, would-be ruler Lico. Considering what was probably a very tight budget, the film looks great, bathed in bold reds and greens, with some inventive set design.
Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Kanopy
Night of the Big Heat (aka: Island of the Burning Damned) (1967) With the presence of director Terence Fisher, along with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, you would be led to believe this low-budget British film came from Hammer. Unfortunately, it’s a talky exercise, missing the spit and polish of that legendary production company. Lee plays a scientist, researching a potential alien invasion, and Cushing is a small-town country doctor. An inordinate amount of time is spent on a love triangle between a cocky author (Patrick Allen), his wife (Sarah Lawson), and mistress (Jane Merrow). It’s a big disappointment when we finally catch a glimpse of the aliens (which resemble glowing, pulsing lumps), as well as the abrupt, deus ex machina ending, but the movie has its moments.
Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray (Region B), DVD and Tubi
Evil Toons (1992) – First of all, don’t expect toons in this direct-to-video T&A fest from Fred Olen Ray, obviously intended to ride the coattails of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. There's only one (crudely animated) cartoon character in the whole flick, and he barely has any screen time. Four nubile women (in various states of undress) are hired to clean up a dusty old house. One of them encounters an ancient book that looks suspiciously like Evil Dead's Necronomicon, becoming possessed by a malevolent creature. Even bit parts by veteran actors Dick Miller (as their gruff boss Burt), Arte Johnson (as Mr. Hinchlow, a pervy neighbor), and David Carradine (as Gideon Fisk – some sort of mystical guy), can’t save this painfully dumb movie from itself. Just say no.
Rating: *½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD