Saturday, February 3, 1973: Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) / Chamber of Horrors (1940)

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Synopsis: Young Jan Peters (Autumn Russell) has just arrived in Africa, on her way to visit her grandmother’s estate. Less than a mile from the house, a man wanders out into the road and tries to stop the car she’s riding in. Driver Sam (Gene Roth)  does not stop and runs him over. Jan is appalled and when they arrive she tells grandmother Peters (Marjorie Eaton) what happened. Sam says pointedly that it was someone “with seaweed on him”. On hearing Sam’s account, Grandmother Peters tells Jan that there was no one in the road, and she should forget that the incident occurred.

Meanwhile, a team of treasure hunters has just arrived by ship off the coast. They are led by George Harrison (Joel Ashley), his wife Mona (Alison Hayes), diver Jeff Clark (Gregg Palmer) and Dr. Jonathan Eggert (Morris Ankrum). They are specialists in salvaging shipwrecks, and they hope to locate the wreck of the Susan B, lost off the coast of Senegal some 60 years ago and which they believe contains a box containing a fortune in diamonds. Drinking heavily, George promises to shower Mona in diamonds when their work is done, but Mona seems only interested in Jeff — and doesn’t seem to care if Harrison knows it.

Suddenly, one of the crew is pulled overboard by a man who has climbed up to the ship from the water. George shoots at the intruder, to no seeming effect. The intruder escapes and the crewman is found floating in the water, dead from a broken neck.

Back at the Peters estate, Jan sees her grandmother standing outside staring out at the water. In the darkness Jan thinks she sees a man slipping back under the waves. But grandmother says she has been watching to ship anchored offshore. “After what happened to you on the road,” Grandmother Peters says, “I knew they would be here tonight.”

A launch from the boat arrives. Harrison and company are greeted by Grandmother Peters, and it becomes clear that she has been anticipating their arrival. “I wrote to you and warned you not to come,” she says, but Harrison’s group rejects this as so much superstition. They want the police to investigate the death of their crewman, but Grandmother Peters tells them the police are far away, and could do nothing in any case. Harrison decides to bury the body in the cemetery on the Peters estate.

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At the cemetery, grandmother leads them on a tour of the graveyard. There were six expeditions to recover the diamonds over the years, she says, and all those who took part in those expeditions are buried here. So sure is she of the current group’s fate that she has had graves already dug for Harrison’s team. “She’s just trying to scare us,” Harrison says.

Later, Grandmother Peters tells Dr. Egger that the captain of the Susan B was her own husband, and that she still sees him, even though he has been dead for sixty years….

Comments: Tonight marks the first appearance of Edward L Cahn on Horror Incorporated. Cahn was a prolific B-movie director who is probably best known for the genre effort Invisible Invaders. Like that film, Zombies of Mora Tau features the walking dead shambling around killing people. But while Invisible Invaders falls into the mainstream of 1950s sci fi (the zombies were corpses reanimated by aliens who sought to use them as an invading army, as in Plan 9 From Outer Space from the same year) Zombies of Mora Tau is much more old-fashioned, a throwback to the horror films of the 1930s and 40s.  We have treasure hunters, an unspecified region of Africa (though local place names suggests Senegal), a canny old woman nursing a secret, and a zombie crew guarding their cargo long after they themselves have stopped collecting paychecks.

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Like many zombie movies this one requires a cast large enough to get whittled down steadily over its running time. And like many zombie movies, the result is characters who are only ciphers. The only member of the cast who commands your attention is Alison Hayes (Attack of the 50-Foot Woman). Autumn Russell and Gregg Palmer are far too dull to matter and their budding romance seems perfunctory. Morris Ankrum — more than welcome in any movie – is unfortunately wasted in the part of the ineffectual Dr. Eggert, whose main function is to dispense expository information.

The movie sees the zombies basically as an obstacle to be overcome in recovering the diamonds, and to be honest, they are overcome a little too easily. But in the main this is a solid little programmer, one that fits right in the Horror Incorporated wheelhouse, though viewers would not be blamed for thinking it’s a much older movie than it appears on the surface.

Chamber of Horrors

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Synopsis: The wealthy Lord Selford (Aubrey Mallalieu) is on his deathbed. He tells his attending physician, Dr. Mineta (Leslie Banks), that he will not make it through the night. To those gathered around he declares that the vast majority of the estate will go to his young son John when he turns 21. He instructs Dr. Mineta to open a small box, inside of which are seven very old keys. All seven keys, Lord Selford tells them, are needed to open a door which contains the so-called Selford jewels. To safeguard the treasure, Lord Selford asks seven of the most trusted men to each safeguard one key on behalf of the estate. We know that Dr. Mineta has one, as does Mr. Silver, the executor; and Havelock, Selford’s attorney.

Ten years later, Silver is being held captive in what appears to be a hospital of some kind. He keeps his Selford key hidden inside a bible, and he arranges for it to be delivered to young June Lansdown (Lilli Palmer), who is second in line for the inheritance after young John Selford.

The key comes with a note imploring her to come to a certain address, and demand that she be allowed to see him. She is told that she will not be refused admittance. Lansdown goes to the address, and does get in to see Silver — but before he can explain what is going on, Silver is shot dead. Fleeing the room, she runs into a woman dressed as a nun, who tells her that the place is a nursing home but that it has been closed down.

Going to the police along with her comic-relief gal-pal Glenda (Gina Malo), Lansdown meets Dick Martin (Romilly Lunge) a police detective who just moments before quit his job after coming into a sizable inheritance. But he is so taken with the lovely June that he offers his services as “advisor and friend” — free of charge — promising that with his help  she will get “a fair shake from the crooked police”.

Lansdown, Martin and Glenda visit the Selford mansion and find Dr. Mineta managing the estate in the absence of young John Selford, who is apparently enjoying a dissolute lifestyle somewhere on the continent. But questions quickly begin piling up: who tried to trap the visitors in the Selford crypt? Where is Dr. Mineta going off to late every evening? Why has no one seen John Selford? And what will Mineta do when it becomes clear that June Lansdown holds the last key standing between him and the Selford fortune?

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Comments: It’s time for me to ‘fess up: this is not the movie that was on the schedule for February 3, 1973. Or more precisely, this isn’t the Chamber of Horrors that is listed in the newspapers for that date. The Minneapolis Tribune instead promises the 1966 movie of the same title, starring Patrick O’Neal, which I previously reviewed. I had been extremely skeptical that the 1966 Chamber of Horrors was the right movie (or for that matter the 1962 West German Chamber of Horrorswhich had turned up in the listings the previous year) and helpful readers have assured me that my skepticism is well-founded. So tonight we’re reviewing the 1940 version on the faith that this is what played that winter night so many years ago.

The movie’s original title was The Door With Seven Locks, but like its predecessor The Dark Eyes of London (also adapted from an Edgar Wallace novel) the title was changed to something more lurid for American audiences.  The new title isn’t a great fit, especially since Chamber of Horrors doesn’t really qualify as a horror film. Rather, it’s a mystery / thriller, and a very good one at that. Ingeniously plotted and very quickly paced, it’s one of the best films of this type from its era, and it’s a great addition to the Horror Incorporated canon.

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Edgar Wallace’s novels were not well-regarded by critics, who liked to point out their many logical absurdities, but readers couldn’t get enough of them. They were enormously entertaining, written in a spare, workmanlike style that made them easy to set down and come back to.

Dick Martin is a bit more light-hearted than Hugh William’s detective in The Human Monster, and that’s to be expected, as the storyline here is less grim. It’s one of those movies where, even though various people get killed, it’s never anyone we care about, and the Selford estate becomes like a spooky old house on Halloween night — scary in a fun rather than nerve-jangling way. Overall, this is a smartly-plotted adventure, well worth your time.

Leslie Banks was the best-known actor in this ensemble, and he gets top billing even though he’s the heavy. Lilli Palmer is quite fetching and her June Lansdown is terrific. Poor Romilly Lunge — ostensibly the lead — doesn’t even make the top three billing. Instead he’s upstaged by Gina Malo, bright as a new penny even though she doesn’t get a chance to do more than be the man-obsessed comic relief.

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2 comments

  1. Two films that also made the rounds on Pittsburgh’s Chiller Theater, though CHAMBER OF HORRORS had to wait until the 70s. ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU first aired in 1967, after George Romero had begun shooting NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, changing the origin of zombies forevermore.

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