Dagon (2001), straight up Lovecraft

There’s something to be said for a faithful adaptation, but sometimes the changes work out. This movie is pretty true to the original short story except for the setting, and that change of location makes the story even more satisfying. So let’s dive in.

Dagon (Movie Review) | Bloody Good Horror
Macarena Gómez as Uxía Cambarro

The film is an adaptation of the classic H.P. Lovecraft story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, wherein a small fishing community is taken over by a sinister cult. Director Stuart Gordon just loves Lovecraft, but as always has adapted the story to modern times and it is wonderful. They made the (probably financial) decision to shoot in Spain, but instead of pretending to be somewhere else like so many low-budget films do, they decided to embrace it, turning Innsmouth into Imboca.

After a boat crash with his friends Howard and Vicki (Brendan Price and Birgit Bofarull), the protagonist, Paul Marsh (Ezra Godden) and his Spanish girlfriend Bárbara (Raquel Meroño), find themselves in the small town trying to find help for their friends. By setting the film there, the protagonist faces a language barrier that only adds to his sense of discomfort and helplessness. Even Bárbara is out of place as a Spanish-speaker in a town that speaks Catalán. At first I was like, “oh cool, representation for the minority Catalán community” but then my husband pointed out “they’re all evil fish people, though”.

So… fish people. Glorious, practical make-up effects. Some of them make dolphin noises. It’s great. But, alas, this is also tempered by some very dodgy CG effects at points, which are completely distracting. Honestly, those effects are the only thing keeping this from being a perfect movie for me. (Also, why do they collect skins, though?) The acting is all good for a low-budget foreign production. Ezequiel (Francisco Raban) is a great old-school wino character, and he even has the acting chops to pull off a huge expository scene. So there’s a good range of humour, drama, and horror.

This movie altogether lived up to my expectations for the creator of Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986). It’s not perfect, but it is fun and makes the most of its status as an adaptation rather than being too cute with the source material. If you like Lovecraft, I would say this is essential viewing. It’s free on Tubi! But be forewarned, the subtitles don’t translate the dialogue in Catalán so if you don’t know that language and/or Spanish you will have a hard time.

The Lair of the White Worm (1988) horror comedy… mostly comedy adventure

Lair of the White Worm - Home | Facebook
Amanda Donohoe as Lady Sylvia Marsh

Imagine, if you will, Doctor Who fighting a snake person with the power of bagpipes. This movie is not trying to be a horror film, it’s an old-school adventure story and if you take it on that level, it’s super fun. It’s based on an original Bram Stoker short story, and the film itself is an homage to swashbuckling serials from the 1930s, with larger than life characters, big accents, and beautiful women in danger. Pure camp. Elevating it, there are some great trippy dream sequences where you go “Oh yeah, he directed Altered States (1980)”. So, altogether, it’s massively entertaining.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot because it’s very simple. There is an ancient town where a local lord once killed a great dragon, the white worm of the title. Now, in the 1980s, there is still one acolyte of the serpent, facing off with the lord’s descendant, James D’Ampton (a smarmy Hugh Grant), and a plucky archaeologist, Angus Flint (a very Scottish Peter Capaldi). Amanda Donohoe dominates as Lady Sylvia Marsh, chewing all the scenery while the other female characters, Eve and Mary Trent (Catherine Oxenberg and Sammi Davis), do a fine job but don’t contribute much (and that’s okay in this genre).

It’s currently on Tubi, but leaving soon, so catch it if you can.

The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972), Giallo to the max!

The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972) - IMDb
Edwige Fenech as Jennifer and the longest title ever: “Why are those strange drops of blood on Jennifer’s body?”

Jennifer (Edwige Fenech) and her friend, Marilyn (Paola Quattrini), move into an apartment building where two other women were murdered, but you know… vacancies are low in Rome so they are delighted. The commissioner (Giampiero Albertini) is tracking down information about Mizar (Carla Brait), the second victim. Be prepared for some racism there. Andrea (George Hilton), the building’s architect, is the chief suspect and he strikes up a relationship with Jennifer. All that we see of the murderer is creepy, transparent, tight rubber gloves and a head to toe black outfit, even a black scarf over the face. Complicating things is Jennifer’s personal history. She was in a polyamorous sex cult run by her husband, Adam (Ben Carra), who is now stalking her, leaving behind the bloody irises from the English title. In typical Giallo style, the plot is convoluted beyond belief but it’s fun rather than exhausting to keep up with.

This movie is so stereotypically Giallo that it’s the platonic ideal. Right away, the soundtrack is fabulous. It’s exuberant, it’s intrusive, it’s so seventies it hurts. They filmed in Rome, and the city looks great, not even that different from now, with the boxy little cars zipping around. The fashions are to die for and all of the characters look flawless with those heavy fake lashes and big hair. Even the violence is stylish rather than gory. The inevitable huge cast of side characters is all more wonderful than expected, especially the photographer Arthur (Oreste Lionello). The person dubbing Arthur is just too good, he plays the worst gay stereotype you will ever hear and it is utterly compelling. The lesbian neighbour, Sheila (Annabella Incontrera), is beautiful and just slightly too intense but Marilyn doesn’t seem put off. There is even a running gag where the inspector, Renzi (Franco Agostini), always gets clocked as a cop in public: genuinely funny. And to cap it all off, the film ends with a random new character mirroring the first scene of the film about getting the apartment, making it all a commentary on the housing market in Rome or something? Thus, the vibe for the film is non-stop fun. A perfect treat that I can highly recommend, and not one I’d ever seen on a list of top Giallo films (it’s available on Shudder).

Vampire Circus (1972) a hidden gem

Everybody knows Hammer Horror, right? They were a mainstay of 70s British horror. The first thing you probably think of is Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as Dracula and Van Helsing, it’s a classic combo! I especially adore Dracula A.D. 1972 for its crazy 70s twist on the character. And yet, I would argue Vampire Circus is more creative and fun to watch. Hear me out, okay? You can even watch it for free on Tubi.

Drive-In Dust Offs: VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1972) - Daily Dead
No, it cannot be! Better than Christopher Lee?!? (Anthony Higgins as Emil)

Rather than your typical Dracula adaptation, this movie builds its own vampire family lore. It begins with Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman), who lives in a castle outside of the town of Stetl in what can loosely be described as the 19th century. The town tires of him seducing women and eating children, so they decide to attack with torches and some pretty nice pyrotechnics. Piercing his heart with a stake, the Count’s last words are to swear vengeance against the town. His human lover, Anna (Domini Blythe), hides his body and flees. 15 years later, the townsfolk are suffering from an unknown plague and superstitiously blame it on the murder of the Count., while the local doctor seeks a rational explanation. The town has been placed under quarantine, so anyone who attempts to leave is shot and misery abounds.

Somehow, a circus makes its way into town, with its leader “Gypsy Woman” (Adrienne Corri) laughingly declaring that that they have “come to steal the coins from the eyes of the dead”. Their act is a delight to all, as the townspeople return every night even as some of their number start to disappear. Interestingly, the performers are not just vampires, they include humans like a little person barker, Michael (Skip Martin) and a mute strongman (David Prowse) as well as the mysterious Gypsy Woman. Rather than just bats, the vampires can transform into a variety of exotic animals. Emil (Mitterhaus’ brother), for example spends most of his time as a black panther when not seducing women in his sparkly collar and pink blouse. The circus performances are all beautifully shot. The plot is pretty thin, but nice visuals (especially a bit with a magic mirror) are enough to keep a viewer engaged. Of course, it helps that the main characters are all incredibly gorgeous. I was totally surprised by how fun this film was.

Vampire Circus (1972) Robin Sachs and Lala Ward | Hammer horror films, Vampire  circus, Robin sachs
Vampire twins Heinrich (Robin Sachs) -somehow selling a shag haircut- and Helga (Lalla Ward) -just naturally stunning

Basket Case (1982) puppet rating: 8.5/10

Do you like puppets? Gross puppets? Consider watching Basket Case (1982). It’s the madcap tale of a young man, Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck), and his parasitic twin, Belial (puppet in basket). Separated without consent, the two team up to take revenge on the doctors that tore them apart, Dr. Lifflander (Bill Freeman), Dr. Needleman (Lloyd Pace), and Dr. Kutter (Diana Browne)… who is now a veterinarian. Along the way he meets the sympathetic medical receptionist Sharon (Terri Susan Smith), who falls head over heels for him for no reason apparent to the viewer. All of this takes place in a sleazy, early 1980s New York which is always a good time (think Muppets take Manhattan but icky).

It Came From the '80s] Belial is a Total 'Basket Case' - Bloody Disgusting
Belial, or “BeLyle”, as Tubi subtitled it

There’s even a bit of a weird Canadian trivia for those keeping score: the first evil doctor who is killed, Dr. Lifflander, is played by a writer of Canadian historical fiction, Bill Freeman.

Now. The puppet. Sometimes he’s stop motion. Sometimes he’s a real person’s face in a prosthetic. Sometimes he’s rubber gloves, like it’s filmed from his perspective. But most of the time, he is a hand puppet in a basket. I would argue that the fact he is all of those things is what takes this movie from garbage to glory for most of its run time. The gore effects? Surprisingly competent.

But then… I started getting a bad feeling when he tries to feel up Duane’s raunchy neighbour, Casey (Beverly Bonner). And, finally, there’s no two ways about it, he kills and rapes and Sharon. It’s so very tragic because I really did love that puppet. The film ends when Belial strangles Duane before they both plummet to their deaths. And because the world is a terrible place there are sequels. Sequels which I don’t think I’ll watch.