This Week’s Horror Movies: Ranked

[Note: Rankings are subject to wild swings based on the randomness and intensity of my movie moods]

1. Candyman (2021)

Consider me an instant fan of Nia DaCosta. She shows a superior eye for color, composition, and movement, and she had my rapt attention for 91 straight minutes. Her work is meant to be seen on the big screen.  

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Teyonah Parris struck the right notes in the lead roles, and most of the supporting performances were larger-than-life enough to suit the material without becoming campy.

Candyman isn’t without its flaws. There’s a little too much plot coming at the audience a little too fast, which rendered the final 20 minutes of the movie confusing. I would love to see a cut in which the finale plays out at a more deliberate pace.

2. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)

An hour into watching this film, I wouldn’t have imagined I’d end up ranking it so highly. The story is almost impenetrable and even frustrating as we follow the overlapping lives of three characters, all of whom have secrets they aren’t inclined to share with anyone, including the audience.  

But as the truth reveals itself over the final act, we begin to realize the true extent of the horror that’s unfolding, and the payoff is a shocker. The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a film that will stick with me.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter

3. The Severed Arm (1973)

What this cheap and nasty 1970s slasher lacks in polish, it makes up for in grisly nihilism. The Severed Arm is not FX-driven like a classic 1980s slasher, though it does feature some rather bloody violence. What stands out most is the unrelenting bleak tone. It looks like a slasher movie but feels like survival horror.

The acting is hit or miss and the dialog is clunky, but, hey, it’s a grindhouse movie. You know what you’re getting. Be sure to watch the uncut version (available from Vinegar Syndrome).

4. Mountaintop Motel Massacre (1983)

The deranged proprietor of a rundown motel takes advantage of a power outage to start picking off her unsuspecting guests.

[That’s not a spoiler. We know from the opening scene.]

After watching this film again—my first revisit since the VHS era—I’m revising my opinion upward. It’s not a great movie. The acting ranges from passable to amateurish and the editing is choppy and awkward. However, the persistent griminess and gloom lend it a nice, greasy drive-in vibe. The use of doorways to symbolize the killer’s warped mind is a stylish touch in an otherwise straightforward piece of trash horror.

5. Vampira/Old Dracula (1974)

Man, this movie is embarrassing. Dracula revives his long-dead bride, Vampira, with a blood transfusion from a black woman, which has the inexplicable effect of turning Vampira black. Dracula, portrayed as a stiff-upper-lip Englishman by David Niven, is politely distressed by the situation and decides he must do whatever it takes to turn her white again.

Had Vampira been conceived and filmed as a bawdy, bad-taste, trash comedy, it might be appallingly funny on some level. Imagine a collaboration between John Waters and Rudy Ray Moore! But aside from one comedic supporting character, it plays more like a drama with Dracula depicted in a sympathetic light, despite the character being a snob and a bore.

As a Linda Hayden completist, I had to give it a watch, but the 5 minutes she’s on screen are the only bits I enjoyed.

Linda Hayden in Vampira

6. Girls School Screamers (1984)

My bar for slasher movies is pretty low. I like a trash film that embraces its trashiness, and a slasher delivering on its lurid promise is usually enough for a passing mark.

Girls School Screamers starts off well enough: 7 young women at a Catholic college head to an old mansion, bequeathed by a dead benefactor, to spend a few days cataloging the valuables inside. When one of the students discovers that she bears a striking resemblance to a 45-year-old portrait on the wall, she and her classmates decide to hold a séance to contact the now-dead subject of the artwork. Which, of course, results in unintended consequences.  

Except the consequences are barely coherent. Something about a killer, a ghost, ghost possession, incest, and dead people who sit upright with their eyes open. The kill scenes are tame (except for one over-the-top electrocution, which, now that I think about it, isn’t even a murder. It’s more of a bad-wiring accident). The film’s melodramatic story pretensions, revealed in the second half, do not befit the genre or its miniscule budget.

About my forthcoming book (the title and cover of which will be revealed soon):

There’s something about American Gothic horror. Much like a curse placed on a town by a defiant witch (as the fire licks her toes), its potency never fades. Whether it’s the work of Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, or Stephen King, horror fans continue to be fascinated by dark family secrets, doomed New England towns, creepy old mansions, and occult iconography.

I didn’t set out to write an American Gothic horror novel. After publishing two post-apocalyptic survival tales and a high-concept sci-fi/horror hybrid, I wanted to go back to my roots and tell a straight-up horror story. In fact, I didn’t even realize I was writing American Gothic until I got about 1/3 of the way through the first draft. Once I found my muse, I rolled with it.

That said, readers should expect more from me than a bunch of Gothic horror clichés strung together or tired tropes they’ve encountered a million times. Mine is a contemporary tale that brandishes familiar gothic and occult story elements in new ways. There’s no passive, florid prose in the style of Lovecraft, nor do the characters spout theatrical dialog. American Gothic encompasses much more than foggy streets and gloomy mansions. I mean, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is American Gothic. It’s a broad genre.

I still have a bit more work to do, but I hope to make my new novel available sometime in the next month or so. It’ll be a perfect read heading into October.

Of course, I will post more info here when I have it.    

Read an excerpt from ALL THE COLORS OF THE DEAD

When: September of 2704

Where: Brighton, England, Europa Federation. Inside a residential tower. All of southern England is now one vast megalopolis where city limits are demarcated by a web of elevated maglev tracks. Inside one particular flat, a lonely middle-aged woman cares for her enfeebled mother …

All the Colors of the Dead by Alex Vorkov is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble in paperback and ebook. UK and Canada too!

All the Colors of the Dead by Alex Vorkov is live!

At long last, my new horror/dark sci-fi novel is out there in the world. Expect scares.

Set in the year 2704, ALL THE COLORS OF THE DEAD tells the story of a secretive deep-space mission to scout a remote exoplanet for possible colonization. Piloted by commander Derek Rain and carrying a small science team, the starship Dragonfly uses breakthrough technology to leap across vast distances instantaneously. But when the team arrives at their destination, they find not a verdant world but a planet of the dead scattered with a sea of corpses. Human corpses. By the time they realize they aren’t the first to set foot on Draconis IV, it’s too late: their presence has already unleashed a terror that reaches far beyond the desolate landscape they stand upon … all the way back to planet Earth.

ALL THE COLORS OF THE DEAD is available in paperback and e-book in the US and Canada, paperback in the UK, and e-book in Australia.

Severin’s Umberto Lenzi/Carroll Baker Blu-ray box set: So sweet, so collectible

Severin umberto lenzi carroll baker blu ray

As fantasies go, mine aren’t that salacious. They tend to revolve around physical media releases, like, for example, desiring a Blu-ray box set of the four cinematic collaborations between Italian director Umberto Lenzi and American actress Carroll Baker. Produced between 1969 and 1972, the films include the giallo thrillers Orgasmo, So Sweet … So Perverse, A Quiet Place to Kill, and Knife of Ice.

Well, you can consider this fantasy fulfilled thanks to Severin Films, a boutique media label that specializes in rescuing and restoring obscure movies. Their new Lenzi/Baker collection is everything I’d hoped for. Right down to the handsome packaging.

Carroll Baker

A quick backstory on the collaboration between the filmmaker and movie star: In the 1970s and early ’80s, Umberto Lenzi garnered attention from English-speaking movie audiences as director of the notorious and controversial jungle-cannibal films The Man from Deep River, Eaten Alive, and Cannibal Ferox, but knowledgeable Eurocult fans recognize that his filmography goes much deeper and begins much earlier. Back to the dawn of giallo cinema.

Carroll Baker, a veteran American actress who had experienced her share of ups and downs in Hollywood, was nearing 40 when she left the United States in the late 1960s to work in Italy. She looked no older than 30, however, which enabled her to convey the youthfully glamorous yet world-weary air Lenzi sought for the protagonist of the film project he was about to undertake.

In 1969, the two joined forces, and Severin’s box set represents their shared output.

The Complete Lenzi-Baker Giallo Collection consists of six discs: the four movies as well as two CDs of music from the films. Technical specs can be found here.

OrgasmoOrgasmo (1969) stars Baker as Kathryn West, a recently widowed American socialite who flees the U.S. to seek solitude at her late husband’s Italian villa. Quickly bored, she falls in with two attractive strangers (Lou Castel and Colette Descombes) who seduce her into a lifestyle of partying, booze, and sex. In time it becomes clear that they want more from her than a good time, but by then she’s in too deep. Can Kathryn escape their clutches before the pair’s nefarious plans come to fruition?

With Orgasmo, Lenzi demonstrates a more sophisticated grasp of filmmaking than he’s often given credit for, as the film’s tone shifts almost imperceptibly darker from scene to scene. Baker’s Kathryn is not an especially likable protagonist in the early going, but viewers soon come to fear for her as she is sucked into a vortex from which she can seemingly never escape.

The image quality is very good—certainly better than the film has ever looked on home video in the U.S.—and more than satisfactory for a relatively low-budget production from 1969.

So sweet so perverse posterSo Sweet … So Perverse (1969). Jean-Louis Trintignant is bored by his loveless marriage to Erika Blanc (how that would be possible is beyond the scope of this review). So, when beautiful, mysterious, and troubled Carroll Baker moves into the upstairs apartment, he is naturally drawn to her. As you might guess, this dicey situation sets them on a course toward jealously, mayhem, and murder.

The cast and crew list features a strong giallo pedigree: the aforementioned Erika Blanc, Helga Liné, Sergio Martino (producer), Ernesto Gastaldi (screenplay), and Riz Ortolani (score). Despite that, So Sweet … So Perverse is my least favorite film in the set. It’s an enjoyable movie but lacks the tension and storytelling patience of Orgasmo, and Baker, while top billed, seems more of a supporting character this time around. Not that I’m complaining about Erika Blanc taking center stage.

As with Orgasmo, the transfer of So Sweet … So Perverse is sufficiently impressive.

A quiet place to kill

A Quiet Place to Kill AKA “Paranoia”

A Quiet Place to Kill (1970). Baker stars as a financially strapped race car driver (!) who cannot resist the charms of ex-husband Jean Sorel, despite his current marriage to another woman. Never mind that their marriage ended because Baker had once attempted to murder him. Now they’re one big unhappy family, including the new wife’s attractive adult daughter from a previous relationship. Someone’s ending up dead here, kids.

This film is my favorite in the set. It’s got all the lurid, over-the-top elements that draw modern film buffs to the giallo scene, and Baker cuts loose as a wild and unpredictable protagonist torn by inner conflict.

The transfer sparkles. If you’re old enough to have grown up on VHS or once collected crappy bootleg videotapes of otherwise-unattainable genre films, you’ll be stunned by the image quality.

Knife of IceKnife of Ice (1972). Baker, in a far more chaste role this time, plays a mute woman named Martha who may be the target of a sex maniac, a devil worshiper, or a serial killer … it doesn’t matter which. What matters is that people are dropping dead all around her, and she won’t be able to scream or cry for help when danger arrives.

Between the releases of A Quiet Place to Kill and Knife of Ice, the giallo scene had changed, and the impetus for that change was Dario Argento’s blockbuster The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Forget the worldly glamour and jet-set lifestyles depicted in the previous Lenzi/Baker collaborations. Thanks to Argento’s impact on Italian cinema, this final pairing is all about knife-wielding, black-clad killers. It’s a well-made, classic-style giallo that nevertheless lacks some of the uniqueness that defines the other three films. From a stylistic standpoint, this box set can be viewed as a trilogy with Knife of Ice included as a bonus film.

Aside from some graininess in the night scenes—there are a lot more such scenes in Knife of Ice as compared to the others—the transfer is razor sharp and offers pleasing color saturation.

Content warning: Knife of Ice includes graphic stock footage of a Spanish arena bullfight.

Understanding Umberto Lenzi

When the subject of giallo films arises, people tend to mention Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Mario Bava. Lenzi’s name might be invoked later in the conversation … despite the fact that he directed as many gialli as Fulci and Bava combined.

As I wrote of giallo master Sergio Martino, Lenzi suffers in reputation for what should be viewed as a strength—versatility. Whereas a genre fan can identify a Fulci or Argento film immediately based on those filmmakers’ distinctive visual styles, Lenzi is a chameleon.

One can even question whether the first three films in Severin’s set are true gialli, since they don’t always exhibit the established conventions of the genre. To me, they owe more to Alfred Hitchcock than to Mario Bava.

So Sweet … So Perverse and A Quiet Place to Kill in particular remind me of early Hitchcock thrillers such as Notorious and Suspicion. Deceptions, veiled threats, and uncertain identities are more significant elements than straight razors and killers in black gloves. Stir in James Bond-style glamour, exoticism, and sensuality, and you’ve got an Umberto Lenzi thriller from 1969-70.

But forget that argument and whether you agree with me about what defines a giallo. Consider that Lenzi made other gialli like Eyeball, a satirical slasher film, and Spasmo, a reality-bending fever dream, and it becomes apparent that he was less about obsessive artistic vision and more about following his stylistic whims. Since film fanatics, myself included, tend to latch onto obsessive visionaries, we fail to give the Umberto Lenzis of the movie biz their proper credit. Perhaps Severin’s box set will help change that.

So crack it open, pull up a chair, and find yourself a quiet place to watch.
Umberto Lenzi

A quick update on my forthcoming horror novel …


photo by Alex Vorkov

Well, horror and sci-fi readers. Things don’t always go as planned, do they? Now that I think of it, someone ought to write a book with that theme. I’m spitballing here, but how about calling it, I don’t know, Two Dudes and a Mouse? Lennie Buys the Farm?

Not my genre, I guess. Anyway …

In summer of 2018, as I launched my second novel, GENERATION 0: UNHUMANS, I did not imagine two whole years would pass before I published my third.

I also did not expect my father to spend several months in hospice care and die. I did not expect to lose two long-time family friends to a fatal car crash. I did not expect one of my closest pals to have an allergic reaction to a medication, plunge into a coma, and require several emergency surgeries to save his life.

I did not expect a year and a half of professional upheaval that ended with my job being eliminated in an acquisition. I didn’t expect a global pandemic or nationwide protests and turmoil, either.

You get the idea. Writing momentum has been a struggle. Though I wrote every day, progress proved strangely elusive.

But, like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, I’m too dumb to stop. After slashing and chopping my way through two years of research, writing, revision, and formatting, I’m nearing launch. And ain’t no Final Girl gonna stop me.

For almost a year, people have been asking me when my next book will arrive. I can finally give a (relatively) specific answer: I will have cover art and print and e-book formatting done by the end of July, with the goal of publishing in August.

People have also asked, “Is your next novel going to be another GENERATION 0 book or something else?”

Answer: My new book will be unrelated to GENERATION 0, which, if you’re unfamiliar, is a post-apocalyptic series. My new book inhabits the realm of adult horror (within a sci-fi setting).

Do you love classic horror/sci-fi hybrids like ALIEN, ALIENS, and EVENT HORIZON? Do you enjoy the visceral intensity of modern horror classics like TRAIN TO PUSAN? If you’re ready for a horror novel that captures the essence of those stories in literary form, you’ll dig my new book. It’s a scream.

Stay tuned to this blog, Twitter, Instagram, and possibly even Facebook (gag) for updates on title, cover art, and release details.


What are Giallo Films? An FAQ

Florinda Bolkan and Anita Stindberg in Lizard in a Woman's Skin

Lizard in a Woman’s Skin

Giallo films are murder mysteries that emerged from Italy in the mid-1960s and peaked in popularity during the early 1970s. Gialli, as they are known collectively, belong to a unique movie genre that straddles a line between horror and crime thriller. A giallo film is typically characterized by

  • a convoluted plot laden with deceptions
  • lurid scenes of sex and violence
  • melodramatic music scores that mash up jazz, funk, and lush string arrangements.

How to pronounce giallo like the Italians do: say “JAH-lo” (not “gee-AH-lo,”) and soften the J a bit.

How to pronounce gialli, the plural form: say “JAH-li” (not “gee-AH-li”).

Dead body in What Have You Done to Solange

What Have You Done to Solange?

For a deeper dive into the giallo genre, read this post. A warning: it stirred controversy among fans on social media, primarily because of my assertion that true gialli cannot be “supernatural.” I made the statement because I had observed people describing Italian horror films like SUSPIRIA and THE BEYOND as gialli, which they are assuredly not. However, not everyone interprets the word supernatural the way I do. Let’s resolve the dispute with a quick FAQ:

What is a giallo?

Giallo films are mysteries. If there’s no mystery to solve, it’s not a giallo.

Why are they called giallo films?

The word giallo means “yellow” in Italian and is derived from the colloquial term for old Italian detective novels, which sported yellow covers.

Why is it wrong to call SUSPIRIA, INFERNO, THE BEYOND, and BLACK SUNDAY gialli?

Giallo stories do not incorporate zombies, werewolves, vampires, witches, living mummies, or demonic possession.

So, gialli are never supernatural?

A few gialli involve psychics or clairvoyants, but it’s important to note that extra-sensory perception/premonition was being studied as a real phenomenon at the time these films were made. To those who equate ESP with the supernatural, I offer my best shrug emoji and move on.

Are giallo films a sub-genre of horror?

Giallo films and horror films belong to two different genres, and neither is a subset of the other. It’s fair to say, however, they share DNA.

I’m confused. I’ve seen gialli that feature gory kills and scares.

Some gialli do a good job of also being horror films and have been marketed as such on home video. TORSO, EYEBALL, DEEP RED, and BAY OF BLOOD are popular examples. They’re still murder mysteries featuring the core elements described up top, though. Think of those titles as the overlapping area of a Venn diagram.

What gialli should I watch to get a feel for the genre?

Try CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS or THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE for instant immersion into the genre’s best quirks and tropes. For more recs, click the link under the second image above. And this post.

Ivan Rassimov

All the Colors of the Dark

The Madness of King Vincent

Vincent Price as Dr. Death

The film business loves to make movies about making movies, and the horror genre is no exception. The legendary, career-destroying classic PEEPING TOM (1960), a tale of a cameraman who moonlights as a serial killer, might be the finest example.

The horror genre also loves its icons, and in 1968 gave us Peter Bogdanovich’s excellent TARGETS, which stars Boris Karloff as a faded horror-movie actor forced to confront real-life horror in the form of a rifle-toting mass murderer (Tim O’Kelly).

Things became truly meta in 1974 upon the release of the American International Pictures-Amicus co-production MADHOUSE, a horror movie about horror movies starring horror stars playing other horror stars that uses clips from real horror films as fictional horror films within the MADHOUSE universe.

Are you still with me?

MADHOUSE stars Vincent Price as Paul Toombes, an actor famous for his recurring portrayal of one “Dr. Death.” The film begins at a New Year’s Eve party in Toombes’ home (the guests are watching a Dr. Death movie, which is actually AIP’s THE HAUNTED PALACE—convenient having AIP has a co-producer when you need clips from Vincent Price movies). Peter Cushing plays Paul’s best friend and business partner Herbert, and Robert Quarry (COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE) is Quayle, a greasy pornographer who lets slip that Paul’s lovely young fiancée Ellen (Julie Crosthwaite) used to be a porn actress.

Paul storms away in a rage upon learning the news, and, when Ellen turns up ten inches shorter, via decapitation, he is the natural suspect.

Peter Cushing and Vincent Price

Several years later, Paul is released from a mental institution (not guilty by reason of insanity, one presumes). By now Quayle has gone legit as a TV producer and lures Paul back into the entertainment biz by offering him the chance to revive Dr. Death as a television series.

Things go awry when, once again, bodies start piling up, and Paul Toombes is eyed by police as the likely culprit.

MADHOUSE is at its best when dealing in delicious ironies, the primary one being the depiction of Vincent Price and Peter Cushing as washed up and forgotten when, at that point in their careers, they were veritable household names and likely had to turn down piles of scripts simply for lack of free time to act in the ensuing productions.

A meta moment in MADHOUSE: Robert Quarry as “Quayle” dressed up as Count Yorga (a Robert Quarry character) for a costume party.

There’s also sharp commentary about the pecking order of “unsavory” entertainment like horror films and pornography. When Paul finds out his young bride-to-be did adult films at the outset of her career, he adopts a haughty attitude, in his rage forgetting all the critics and concerned parents who considered his films equally filthy.

A related element is that the murders echo scenes from Dr. Death films, leading to debate, within the story, whether fictional violence begets real violence. Unfortunately, this idea is underdeveloped at the expense of a weird and out-of-place subplot that I’ll discuss below, but suffice to say, the film seems to hold the view that, no, horror films do not cause real-life violence. It would be odd for an Amicus movie to opine otherwise, one supposes.

Of course, Vincent Price brings his usual mix of over-the-top monologue and biting wit, and his verbal takedowns of secondary characters—including a talentless co-star foisted upon him by Quayle—are acerbic.

Amicus corrected a major mistake from their earlier “star-laden” feature, 1970’s SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, which featured Price, Cushing, and Christopher Lee but forgot to give them any scenes together, save for one that never showed any of them in the same shot. MADHOUSE pairs Price with both Cushing and Quarry in multiple scenes. Cushing’s character is a meek fellow, which limits the firework to an extent, but Price’s Toombes and Quarry’s Quayle despise each other, and the resulting back-and-forth of biting commentary and smarmy condescension is fun to watch.

Ultimately, though, MADHOUSE falls well short of being a classic. It fails to mine its themes for substance and does not fully exploit the horror-movie-about-horror-movies potential. Of greater concern, instead of focusing on the murders and the investigation (I yearned for the humorous police constables from THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES), the film veers into a bizarre subplot about a disfigured woman (Adrienne Corri) who lives in Peter Cushing’s basement and collects spiders. These scenes appear to have been shot by a different director, with incongruous cinematography that resembles a weak attempt to emulate Mario Bava, and an exaggerated, theatrical acting style that does not match the rest of the film. Maybe it was an attempt to bring a Gothic element from the AIP side, but no matter, it’s a damaging choice.

Another, smaller subplot involves two supposedly comic characters trying to blackmail Toombes over a missing pocket watch, which plays out nonsensically.

The two main flaws of the film are what feels like an unfinished script with too many loose ends that go nowhere or are tonally wrong, and pedestrian direction that struggles to generate much suspense. Aside from Price, Quarry, and a too-brief appearance by the underrated Linda Hayden, MADHOUSE has difficulty sustaining its energy level.

Vincent Price and Linda Hayden in MADHOUSE

Although a minor entry in the Vincent Price oeuvre, and one with significant flaws, it’s still a Vincent Price film. You can’t go wrong when one of the greatest of all horror legends takes top billing and is supported by another legend in Peter Cushing as well as the charismatic and under-appreciated Robert Quarry. If you haven’t seen it, track it down, and tell ‘em Dr. Death sent you.


Why have I decided to analyze a semi-obscure Vincent Price film from 1974 in seemingly random fashion? Because the Vincent Price Blogathon is on!

Barry from Cinematic Catharsis and Gill from Real WeegieMidget Reviews have teamed up to host a blogathon honoring the horror legend, bringing film writers together from all over cyberland for two days of Vincent Mania. Check out their sites for more Price-themed content.

[I’ll resist the urge to make a “Price is Right” pun in anticipation that many others already have, and also because I don’t want to sound like an old guy]

In the same spirit of sharing, here are some screen caps I took from MADHOUSE while preparing this post. You’re welcome to reuse them as it pleases you, no credit needed. They’re free. Say, maybe the price is right!