If you're in the mood for a campy horror hoot with a bunch of old pros at the tops of their games: The Comedy of Terrors (1963, Jacques Tourneur)
Check this cast list: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone. A lot of genre heavy-hitters show up for Jacques Tourneur's ghoulishly cheerful black joke The Comedy of Terrors. So there's something irresistibly cheeky about a film with this kind of firepower giving a starring credit to a cat.
Price takes the lead as Waldo Trumbull, a delightfully snide undertaker with a fondness for the drink and a poisonous contempt for everything else. Lorre is Felix Gillie, his long-suffering bumbler of an assistant, well-meaning yet terminally inept, and an amusingly addled Karloff plays Trumbull's father-in-law, an ancient man whose faculties are long gone yet his body refuses to shut down. The ensemble, rounded out by Joyce Jameson as Trumbull's wife, a ditzy would-be opera singer who bears the brunt of her husband's scorn, plays terrifically off each other — the majority of the early laughs come from watching these disparate personalities clash and bang together at odd angles, whether it's Price's exasperated declaration of, "I'm going out to drink myself into a state of stupefaction," Lorre's meek pride in a hand-built coffin that crumbles at the merest touch or Karloff's yammering about the burial rituals of the ancient Egyptians ("...yank their brains out with a hook!"). A story eventually emerges, and in doing so it provides a framework for more slap-happy goings-on. (Rathbone's dying burlesque on "Macbeth" is killer stuff — a gag drawn out past all logic, past of the point of losing the joke and around to where it becomes funny again simply by duration.) The Comedy of Terrors is a macabre lark — a bit weightless, but grand fun anyway, if only to watch a bunch of big names compete over who can slice the most ham.
If you're in the mood for vampires, panthers and malevolent dwarves: Vampire Circus (1972, Robert Young)
"One lust feeds the other..." Sex and death are often intertwined in the horror genre, rarely more effectively than in vampire movies. And if it's a strong shot of bloody perversity for which you're hankering, you could do a lot worse than Vampire Circus. This Hammer production leaps out of the gate with a vampire chowing down on an adorable little blonde girl, then sexing up the wife of one of the local villagers. The village doesn't take kindly to this and storms the castle, managing to slay the vamp after a bloody battle. With his dying breath, the vampire lays a curse on the town; cut to fifteen years later, and the plague is romping through the area, leaving the little village quarantined. It's about this time that a mysterious circus comes to town, featuring animals and acrobats and magic mirrors and all manner of unusual sights.
It's no secret what the circus is (hint: look at the title), and to the film's credit it's working more with the Hitchcockian definition of suspense rather than surprise — we're sitting waiting for the vampiric attacks to begin with bated breath. In the interim, the notion of the vampire as decadent, worldly sex fiend is contrasted against the good, upstanding villagers; it's an old, familiar formulation, but it's still fascinating to see how far Vampire Circus runs with it — past mere seduction into darker, stickier areas like incest and bestiality. (The tiger dance seen during the circus's first performance is one of the most sexually fucked up scenes of the '70s.) There's also the clear correlation of the swath of death cut through the town by the vampires and the similar path run by the plague. Stir in the gloomy atmosphere and the doom-laden score and the overall effect is one of a society rotting away from inside and fighting to keep the sickness at bay. All of which is to say that Vampire Circus takes its careful time setting up its conflicts and then lets the dominoes fall as they should in a creepy-cool explosion of vamp action. Wild cats eat people, evil clown-faced dwarves cackle and a good number of bodices are ripped. What's not to enjoy?
If you're in the mood for total batshit insanity, plus boobs: Nude for Satan (1974, Luigi Batzella)
Like I need to write anything after that title.
Nude for Satan is a singularly daffy triumph of mood over logic. Luigi Batzella's bizarre object du cinema stars Rita Calderoni alongside a dude who looks like a Eurotrash Kirk Douglas and a big-haired creepy dude in a cape who, one presumes, is the Satan of the title. (At the very least, his ability to make Rita's clothes vanish by staring really hard is demonstrably demonic.) There's a car accident which leads the two protagonists to search for help inside a creepy mansion, where they meet their doubles and get unstuck in time and generally wander around wondering what the hell is going on — Eurotrash Kirk Douglas literally says at one point, "What is happening? I don't understand! And yet..."
And yet! Batzella isn't making a whole lot of sense, but then he's not trying to. Nude for Satan isn't exactly good in the traditional sense, but it has a mesmerizing sort of power about it — it's the atmospheric Eurohorror, with its nightmare logic and inexplicable flights of fancy, reduced to its barest elements and then reduced further until all that remains is colors, flames, wind, smoke and bare flesh, a series of images ties together by the faintest hint of a story. It's a film where the best course of action is to sit back and let yourself drift along with it, collecting sights and sounds. Sensation is the watchword here, and Nude for Satan has some serious ones for your senses.
The Netflix streaming library is vast and daunting and mostly filled with crap. Steve Carlson is the Netflix video clerk, and every week he hand-delivers three awesome movies you've never heard of before. He's been writing about movies in one form or another on the Internet since 2002 and co-hosts the Bad Idea Podcast. Someone once called him the lonely Magellan of exploitation cinema. He thinks that's the best compliment he's ever received.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.