Cool and the Gangs

With the holidays rapidly coming upon us, many friends, paramours, and mishpacha of DVD collectors are looking for the perfect Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa gifts. If that person in question is a music lover (and who ISN’T?), look no further. Time-Life, that company always at the forefront of mammoth collectable mini-libraries, has come up with a (solid) goldmine: THE SOUL OF THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, now available in a mind-boggling 10-platter set, housed in a retro slipcover.

In case there are a few out there unfamiliar with THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, it was an extremely popular late night rock TV series that ran from 1972-1981. Produced by Burt Sugarman, this slicker grandchild of Hullabaloo and Shindig was, in effect, the whistle stop made by Soul Train. And, indeed, there was a lot to whistle about. While an amazing amount of eclectic rock was presented on the SPECIAL, it was the extraordinary soul talent that music aficionados remember. And with good reason.

But don’t trust me (although that would be nice); let the discs do their own talking (or rather singing). Ensconced within these DVDs, presented in two parts, 1, from 1973-1975, and 2, 1977-1980 are 130 live, uncut numbers, plus some nice supplements.

Alfred Hitchcock once termed movies (and all entertainment drama) as “life with the dull bits cut out.” Producer Sugarman apparently took that advice when he culled his archives. The two parts (572 and 428 minutes, respectively) are 100% pure full-length performance art. And the roster is Hall of Fame-plus. The collection presents now-legendary songs (and artists) as you’ve never seen or heard them (bootlegs have been circulating since the 1980s, with smeary colors and undistinguished flat audio). While the shows were never filmed on celluloid, they did render a respectable enough visual presence to have the series get several Emmy nominations during its nine-year-run. To reiterate (with benefits), they look and sound better here than they did in their original broadcast.

With brief intros by guest hosts like Lou Rawls and Don Cornelius , THE SOUL OF THE MIDNIGHT SPECIALS features iconic appearances by James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Issac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Billy Preston, Diana Ross, Chuck Berry, Natalie Cole, Teddy Pendergrass, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Chaka Khan, Sly and the Family Stone, Earth, Wind and Fire, The Commodores, Billy Preston, The Spinners, Barry White, Bill Withers, Sister Sledge, The Staple Singers, Chic, The Stylistics, Kool and the Gang, Al Green, The O’Jays and tons more music heavyweights.

I’m not going to list all the songs, but, for me, the most memorable sweet segments of my past include “Could it be I’m Falling in Love,” “I’ll be Around,” “Love Train,” “Georgia on my Mind,” “What’d I Say?,” “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “Freddie’s Dead,” “In the Midnight Hour,” “Midnight Train to Georgia,” “Stand!,” “Superfly,” “Thank You for Letting me be Myself,” “Show and Tell,” “You Make me Feel Brand New,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean on Me,” “Everybody Plays the Fool,” “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything,” “Lady Marmalade,” “Lovin’ You [just to be clear, Minnie Riperton, not Elvis],” “Respect Yourself,” “Sex Machine,” “Cold Sweat/Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “You Sexy Thing,” “Love Hangover,” “Nothing from Nothing,” “Le Freak,” “We are Family,” “I Will Survive,” and “What’s Goin’ On?” to name but a few.

But there’s even more.

Each DVD contains special interviews with such luminaries as Gladys Knight, Bobby Womack, Patti LaBelle, George Benson, James Brown, Thelma Houston. Teddy Pendergrass, and Quincy Jones. PLUS, Disc 10 is a complete 1974 Midnight Special Special: Marvin Gaye, Live from the Atlanta Stadium, August 5, 1974. Furthermore, there’s a 40-page full-color illustrated booklet that offers some historical background, and, natch, the complete chronological roster of artists and songs.

In a perfect world, I might have included maybe one complete Midnight Special, just for the experience/comparison. Or, at the very least, a collage of TV commercials that accompanied the actual broadcasts. But, as I often bitch, that’s just me. The world, after all, is NOT perfect. Although for soul addicts, this set comes about as close as one could wish.

THE SOUL OF THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. Color. Full frame [1.33:1]; Mono audio. Time-Life Video/Burt Sugarman Productions. CAT # 33571-X. SRP: $119.95.

Victorian’s Secret

Outside of Hollywood and the Karloffs, Lugosis and Chaneys (Sr. and Jr.), no one, prior to WWII, personified movie horror more than Tod Slaughter. Even the name is a charmer. The UK-based actor had been around for years, but it was his embracing of lurid Victorian Era penny dreadfuls in all their graphic glory than cinched the deal (Slaughter was the first to do a sound version of Sweeney Todd, the straight razor/non-musical edition, released in 1936). This is no more apparent than in the recent Kino-Lorber Studio Classics (in concert with Euro London Films, Inc.) release of 1939’s THE FACE AT THE WINDOW, one of over a dozen grotesque delights Mr. Slaughter chilled and thrilled his admirers with.

Working from F. Brooke Warren’s 1897 play, Slaughter (with his oft collaborator producer-director George King) relishes every bit of villainy that can be squeezed out of the vehicle. It’s 1880 France, and the nastiest, richest dude in the country is none other than Chevalier Lucio del Gardo. Satanic in appearance, with top hat and cloaked black cape, del Gardo’s/Slaughter’s mustache practically twirls itself. He’s a womanizing, thieving, murdering, torturing mofo of the worst order. Currently, he’s out to ravish Cecile de Brisson, the gorgeous daughter of a banker facing a disastrous financial tsunami (and guess who was responsible for that?). Chevalier’s solution: sell me/marry me/trade me your luscious spawn, and I’ll cover your losses. Banker Brisson is in woe-is-me territory, disgusted by the prospect, but… The woman in question understandably feels worse, as does her poor but honest fiance, Lucien.

As if this isn’t enough, the city of Paris is being laid waste by the Wolf Killer, an apparent lycanthrope, who’s repugnant face is always seen at the window of his victims before he kills and robs them (guess who’s involved in this as well!?).

Del Gardo, who’s sexual desire for Cecile puts him at the top echelon of the Snidely Whiplash Club, can’t wait to fate-worse-than-death the virginal damsel (and then toss her aside when he’s done and merrily trot off to look for his next female). Will he? Can he? Who can stop him? Is he even human?

All these questions and more are answered in this swift, crowd-pleasing shocker, rife with lust, sadistic chicanery and, natch, horror.

Without actually tying actress Marjorie Taylor (as Cecile) to the railroad tracks, Slaughter indulges in a myriad of other ways to have tons of fun, savoring every sinister cliché and seemingly awaiting for the audience to hiss his every entrance. The supporting cast is as game as Tod, and includes John Warwick, Leonard Henry, Aubrey Mallalieu, Robert Adair, and Wallace Evennett.

LSS, watching a Tod Slaughter movie is truly like being transported back to a mid-late 19th century gaslit local playhouse. One can’t peg these enjoyable dark frolics as simply good or bad; they’re in a class by themselves. Indeed, Tod Slaughter is virtually his own genre. The movies, not surprisingly immensely popular (and we’re not just talking about the masses; Slaughter’s pics found great nostalgic favor with major show business/literary players, not the least being critic/author/screenwriter Graham Greene, who wrote “You find yourself immediately…in the grip of the fine firm traditional dialogue [and] the magnificent casting…which plank you surely back into that vague Victorian period, when anything might happen.”), took each narrative seriously enough to decorate the frame with terrific authentic sets and period costumes (art direction by Philip Bawcombe). The scripts, this one by A.R. Rawlinson (treatment by Randall Faye), likewise remain faithful to the time when were written; there is no emotional spectrum of multilevel shading, mere pure black and white. SEGUE to the excellent, atmospheric photography by Hone Glendinning, and the foreboding score by Jack Beaver. Which brings us to the subject of sight and sound; it should be mentioned that the one caveat of the Slaughter movies has always been the lousy condition of most of the prints. Hard to watch, even harder to understand over the “bacon frying” soundtrack. No more (at least, in this case). The new 1080p transfer of THE FACE AT THE WINDOW is extraordinary. I have never seen a Slaughter pic look or sound this good. Extras include audio commentary by film historian Jean-Claude Michel, and a trailer gallery. We can only hope that Kino-Lorber plans on releasing more of the actor’s work, giving us devotees a veritable Slaughter fest.

THE FACE AT THE WINDOW Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Euro London Films, Inc. CAT # K25066. SRP: $24.95.

Japanese Chaplinese

“Tash would constantly be at us to check out these silent one and two-reelers playing at some rundown theater in L.A.” This reminiscence was told to me by the brilliant animator Bob Clampett about his days and nights at Warner Bros. Termite Terrace back in the 1930s and ‘40s. “After a long – and I mean LONG – day’s work, the last thing we wanted to do was to watch twenty-year-old movies into the early morning hours. Back then, it was the only outlet for seeing these pictures. Frank would remind us that it wasn’t just Chaplin and Keaton – but scores of other fantastic then-forgotten comedians…All that second-tier Mack Sennett and Hal Roach stuff…I guess he had the last laugh.”

To be sure, there are many laughs to be had with the Olive Films/Paramount Blu-Ray release of 1958’s THE GEISHA BOY, one of the director’s finest (of eight) collaborations with frequent star Jerry Lewis.

Frank Tashlin, whose Looney Tunes are among the funniest cartoons ever made, dreamt of breaking into live-action comedy – a goal realized by his contributing inventive visuals for the Marx Bros. and, more prominently, Bob Hope. Tashlin’s work on A Night in Casablanca encompasses its most memorable gag. A cop approaches Harpo, who is leaning against a brick structure. “What are ya doin’, holding up that building?” he asks the mute funnyman, who ecstatically nods. Need I divulge the punch line?

Ben Hecht wrote that one of his more pleasurable Hollywood writing sojourns occurred when shacked up with Harpo and Tashlin in Marx’s abode hammering out a 1949 silent feature to star the clown sans his siblings. Once the sleazy producers sold the project to UA as a Marx Bros. comedy, both Hecht and Tashlin (with Harpo’s blessings) left the now-unhappy former labor-of-love project, which ironically became known as Love Happy.

Tashlin’s ideas for Hope translated into mucho critical and audience acclaim via his cartoonish bits for The Paleface. When The Lemon Drop Kid started to drag in the rushes, Hope asked Tash to step in and pep it up without credit. The picture was huge, and Hope rewarded the former animator with Son of Paleface; the rest be history (Clampett told me that at Tashlin’s 1968 funeral only three members of the show business community were present: himself, Hope and Ray Walston).

That Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis should collide like two locomotives hellbent for mischief was a near-given; how unsurprising is it that this former Merrie Melodies master would be best remembered for his big screen efforts starring either Lewis or Jayne Mansfield – the movies’ closest evocation to live-action cartoons.

Tashlin’s first Jerry adventure had been the 1955 Martin & Lewis Technicolor riot Artists and Models, arguably the team’s best movie (with a plotline concerning the effects of comic books on America’s deteriorating youth). Now working as a single, Lewis chose Tashlin to helm 1958’s Rock-A-Baby, a strange re-working of Preston Sturges’ Miracle at Morgan’s Creek. Lewis, who increasingly disliked his position in the Hollywoodland pecking order as what he termed “…a second-class citizen.” wasn’t that far off base. His vehicles were often remakes of earlier movie triumphs – with Lewis’ roles having been previously enacted by African-Americans or women (Scared Stiff, Living it Up, You’re Never Too Young).

By 1958, Jerry had risen to the position of one of the top entertainers in the world – and here his desire to emulate the great Chaplin surfaced with a vengeance. Tashlin thus concocted a story wherein Lewis – an inept magician, known only in the picture as The Great Wooley – finagles a USO tour of Japan. His numerous faux pas, mostly regarding lewd sexual confrontations with a buxom Hollywood starlet, bring unprecedented joy to an orphaned Japanese boy – thereby setting up the narrative.

One might think this poignant twosome betwixt the big kid and small one would be lip-bitingly cloying, but they amazingly work. The scenes involving Lewis and the child actor Robert Hirano make the fast and furious sight gags ring louder than the bells of Notre Dame.

And dames there are plenty. The child’s aunt is the ridiculously beautiful Nobu Atsumi McCarthy, who instantly becomes devoted to Lewis. Ditto the female sergeant assigned to the tour – Suzanne Pleshette in her screen debut (who looks like she’s all of 15 years old). Finally, there’s the literal butt of all the pic’s jokes – the mercifully good sport Marie McDonald, who was saddled with the moniker “The Body” throughout her Tinsel Town tenure (comedy fans might best remember her as one of Abbott & Costello’s island objects of affection in 1942’s Pardon My Sarong).

As reel after reel unspools, McDonald, thanks to Jerry, is embarrassed in a bathhouse, has her clothes repeatedly torn off, gets Barton MacLane shoved into her business and is booty-bounced down an airplane gangplank – much to the giggling delight of the up-till-now solemn tiny tot Mitsuo Watanabe (Hirano), whom Lewis hilariously name-mangles as Mitzvah Wet-Nebble.

As with most Tashlin pics, the underlying sexual material is as eyebrow-raising as it is obvious. This is immediately evidenced via the lush main titles, which are akin to the director’s attempt to do a color video promo for Naruse’s subsequent When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Tashlin’s credit is plastered over a gorgeous geisha’s bare breasts).

Pleshette, who already has mastered the disbelieving Oliver Hardy double take (which she would further hone on The Bob Newhart Show), gets some big yuks in an essentially thankless role. Her seriously disturbed “ewww” looks at Lewis whilst he tosses a salad (in the most extreme clean slapstick sense of the word) skillfully underlines the joke. Ditto her deadpan response to Lewis’ fears of being captured and brainwashed by the communists (“I don’t think there’s much chance of that.”). Less so is her Fifties feminine politicizing once she realizes that Lewis and Kimi (McCarthy) are becoming an item. Eschewing all that “women’s emancipation” jazz, Pleshette vows to be submissive to the next man she meets…like all the Japanese girls. She really needs to see a Meiko Kaji/Lady Snowblood movie.

The hysterical head-on meets with Kimi’s behemoth boyfriend, the pituitary Great Ichiyama (Ryuzo Demura) represents Tashlin and Lewis in high gear. It also punctuates the fact that THE GEISHA BOY is an incredibly smart movie for 1958.

The American obsession with the Japanese post-war culture that began specifically with two Brando pics Teahouse of the August Moon and Sayonara is continuously stated via the color scheme and set design. Suburban homes were regularly hanging multi-hued paper lanterns over their patios, and becoming kimono-obsessed. Furthermore, the influx of the Kurosawa imports on Yankee shores were reaping hefty profits. That Ichiyama is a Japanese baseball player and, in the course of events, gets pitted against the recently-transplanted Los Angeles Dodgers (who guest star) is another shrewd marketing move.

The supreme coup is the casting of former silent screen star Sessue Hayakawa as Kimi’s stern father. His efforts to cheer up his grandson result in the picture’s biggest single laugh: his using slave labor to construct a mini bridge on the River Kwai in their backyard. Hayakawa, dressed in the identical military uniform that he had worn a year earlier in the David Lean WWII epic, had them falling out of the aisles in 1958. A friend of mine once told me that he and his mom were passing by a theater playing THE GEISHA BOY and you could hear the laughs out on the street. The manager told his parent, “It’s the bridge scene. This is a very funny movie.”

In contrast, Lewis’ devastating treatment of Mitsuo – even when prefaced by his “I hate to do this” twinge of conscience does grate on one’s nerves, bringing to mind the occasionally leaked episodes of the comedian’s dark side. The adoring idolizing child is crushed as Lewis all-too-realistically delivers the ultimate snap: “I don’t like you anymore. I don’t want you anymore. You’re not my son. I don’t love you!” Little Mitsuo’s pained reaction suggests he’s a tick away from committing hara-kiri – or, perhaps more appropriate in his case – hara-kiri, jr.

The last but not least facet of THE GEISHA BOY‘s success is the connection between Tashlin and his Warner Bros. roots – the astounding non-human sidekick, Harry Hare (whose “introducing” card in the credits gets larger billing than Pleshette’s).

Per capita, Harry probably ratchets up more chuckles than Lewis and the cast combined. In a series of impossible visuals, Harry Hare proves himself a master of comic timing. Reportedly when an adolescent once asked Lewis about the rabbit, the comedian replied, “What do you mean ‘rabbit’?” He then went on to terrify the youth by disclosing that there were multiple bunnies utilized for the picture – since the hot lights and hours had them dropping like flies. Whether he was being sarcastic, bluntly honest or simply Jerry, he set the stage that undoubtedly culminated in years of therapy for the inquisitive sprout. If indeed true (and we hope it isn’t), our hats are off to Harry and all the other Harrys who, unbeknownst, gave their lives for their art.

The final denouement comes when Lewis discovers that Mistuo has stowed away and is ensconced with Harry in the rabbit’s carry-on traveler. Strapped on top of a fast-moving taxi, this simultaneously becomes both a harrowing Mitsuo and Mitt Romney moment. Oh, yeah, and speaking of taxis, we can’t sign off without mentioning Sid Melton as a wise-cracking cabbie – a plus if ever there was one!

Like Rock-A-Baby, Olive Films’ 1080p anamorphic transfer of THE GEISHA BOY is A-1 from the get-go. Haskell Boggs’ VistaVision cinematography is so sharp and detailed that it borders on the outrageous (and revealing, as in the one teeth-grinding occasion where viewers can clearly see wires stringing up Harry for a gag). The Technicolor pops with rich comic strip swatches, especially in Lewis’ Great Wooley red carry-on, the deep blue skies and nighttime Japanese lanterns adorning the Hayakawa’s pond. Walter Scharf’s mono score sounds terrific with its buoyant riffs and Asian motifs.

All said, THE GEISHA BOY is a Jerry Lewis vehicle that even his non-fans will find hard to resist – although I’m sure they’ll try.

THE GEISHA BOY. Color. Letterboxed [1080p High Definition]. Olive Films/Paramount Home entertainment. CAT # OF349. SRP: $29.95.

Advanced Demonology 666


Back in 1969, I anxiously (but dubiously) awaited the broadcast of FEAR NO EVIL, a made-for-TV horror pic, filmed by Universal for their NBC prime time At the Movies slot.  While the ABC TV movies occasionally dealt with the supernatural, NBC/Universal rarely did (ironic, since Universal is the studio most synonymous with the genre).

Imagine my delight when FEAR NO EVIL turned out to be a sophisticated, libidinous look at demon worship among the Jet Set.  The lead was the (in my opinion) underrated Louis Jourdan, a very personable (and quite good) actor.  He had a command of the screen, big and small, aided and abetted by a plethora of seductive charm.  He starred as Dr. David Sorell, a famed psychologist enamored of/with the occult – its mysticism, power, and, as the title indicates, evil.  No, he wasn’t a bad guy; he was the hero – a role he’d have to prove to save his friends and colleagues, who seemed to have fallen under a strange and deadly spell.

Of course, the addictive demon worship “drug” is one or all of three things:  power, money, sex.  So the question remains, why did it take so long to bring this tale to fruition?

The movie was quite a ratings grabber, and, it was, thus, with impatient fervor that I awaited the announced sequel, RITUAL OF EVIL, which would be broadcast the following year.  The EVIL pics were so popular (always a major discussion the following school day) that, at one point, rumors abounded that Jourdan and the concept would become an NBC series; therefore, I practically freaked out when (between the two Jourdan telepics’s broadcast) EVIL was tossed aside for Night Gallery.  The major hook for Universal choosing Gallery over EVIL (they couldn’t do TWO horror series, although I didn’t know why not!) was the additional carrot of the former bringing host Rod Serling back to TV.  To say I was disappointed is an understatement.  I always thought Gallery was a bit too smug for its own good, and that the later Night Stalker series (also Universal, but for ABC) made better use of the snarkiness via its streetwise protagonist Kolchak (Darren McGavin, who had also appeared in two made-for-TV NS movies).  Jourdan was definitely high-brow, which gave the proceedings added class…and genuine believability.

Never mind, they’re all dust now.  But the good news is that Kino-Lorber, in a covenant with Universal, has unearthed both EVIL movies, enhanced them with new 1080p High Definition transfers – and unleashed the pair upon the public (housed in a handsome slipcover featuring striking cover art).  TV trailers and (for FEAR) an image gallery are included as supplements, along with notable Gary Gerani audio commentary.  Suffice to say, my approval from over a half-century ago did not go for naught; they hold up nicely.

FEAR NO EVIL comes from good stock – a story by author Guy Endore (Werewolf of Paris); the chilling script (or teleplay, as they were called), by Richard Alan Simmons, offers us a tantalizing taste of the supernatural in the groovy late Sixties.

Happy, cool couple Peter Varney and Barbara Anholt are having some problems as their wedding looms before them.  The usually fun-loving Varney has become prone to violent outbursts, some troubling thoughts and suffers from an increasing (and alarming) number of blackouts.  A top computer scientist (then, a novel almost futuristic vocation), the groom-to-be’s close friend and coworker, Myles Donovan, suggests he visit progressive psychologist David Sorell.  A gathering at the doctor’s home reveals a number of fascinating guests, including the doc’s close associate Harry Snowden. 

Intrigued by Varney’s affliction, Sorell agrees to attempt to help the frightened man – a fear that seems to be connected to the purchase of an antique mirror for the couple’s eclectic digs.

It all goes bust when Varney is killed is a freakish car crash.  But the strange trauma experienced by the late patient has apparently attached itself to his stunning would-be bride.  Sorell, determined to save the woman from her own destruction…and, possibly, the murderous intent she will inflict upon others, begins the unraveling of a satanic plot, whose leader is a shock to all.

A masterful horror-mystery, FEAR NO EVIL is stylistically handled with panache by the immensely talented director Paul Wendkos (he would explore similar territory on the big screen with the terrific 1971 paranormal thriller The Mephisto Waltz).  Excellent color photography (Andrew J. McIntyre) adds to the mood, as does the period score by Billy Goldenberg.  The outstanding support Jourdan gets is supplied by an amazing cast, comprising Lynda Day George, Bradford Dillman, Carroll O’Connor, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Marsha Hunt, Katherine Woodville, Ivor Barry, Lyn Peters, and Robert Sampson.

In 1970’s sequel, RITUAL OF EVIL, Dr. Sorell (once again, with Harry Snowden in advisory assist) examines a terrified, young heiress-turned-patient who claims that she has uncovered a cult of Satanists in her upscale neighborhood.  Now, for me, pegging the 1% as demon worshipers certainly explains a lot.  But Sorell needs more proof – and what he finds is astounding.  It seems the affluent,  “Beautiful People” are all members of a take-no-prisoners sex cult that consistently lures and/or sacrifices victims to the Devil.  The fun begins appropriately on Walpugis Night, but other dates are pegged for their orgiastic shenanigans (“I guess I kinda dig graves,” chides a willing participant).

Led by a self-proclaimed witch (“She turned us all on,” offers a horny specimen, in dialog indicative of the era), the group is flummoxed by the intrusion of Sorell and, more specifically, Loey Wiley (the aforementioned troubled girl), whose up-to-now hidden powers come to light and cause quite a sensation among these lust-craved monsters.

There’s about as much erotic/sacrificial imagery that was permitted for American television in 1970 – some of it still a bit surprising for today.  At times,  RITUAL appears to have been a slight influence on the far more graphic 1972 Italian giallo/horror All the Colors of the Dark.

Once again, Jourdan (himself, in several scenes, possibly tempted to the dark side by the beauties on view) is excellent, with fine support from Belinda J. Montgomery, John McMartin, Diana Hyland, Carla Borelli, Georg Stanford Brown, Wilfrid Hyde-White (as Snowden), and Anne Baxter.

On this outing, the directorial reins have been handed from Wendkos to Robert Day.  While not as adventurous (style-wise), the telemovie, scripted by Robert Presnell, Jr., moves at a brisk pace.  Day, no slouch to horror, was the force behind such efforts as The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood.

The camerawork by the great Lionel Lindon is nostalgically reminiscent of the hippie era (rose-colored without being rose-faded), and the pic, once again, contains a score by Goldenberg.

FEAR NO EVIL/RITUAL OF EVIL.  Color. Full Frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K25084.  SRP: $29.95.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Vamps


A mesmerizing, unnerving yet sensual neo-Goth experience, Harry Kumel’s iconic 1971 horror pic DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS descends upon 4K Ultra HD, thanks to the enablers at MVDvisual/Blue Underground.

Addictive from the fade-in, this offering begins with randy honeymooners Stefan and Valerie taking care of business as they tour Europe en route to a stay with the groom’s mater.  They never make it.

Arriving off-season at the vacay town of Ostend (incredible “down time” Brugge, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium location work, making the popular place a grisly, creepy gray retreat – a sort of cemetery city) was probably not a good idea.  The locals are particularly upset, due to the uptick of strange murders (beautiful young women drained of blood). 

Oblivious (or too lust driven), the couple nevertheless stop at the elegant Palais des Thermes hotel (a genuine prominent structure since its opening in 1932).  They are the only guests.  But not for long.  The resident gentry, a renowned Countess, arrives with her assistant.  Her name is Elizabeth Bathory, which should raise eyebrows; accompanying the Countess is Illona, an alluring, cold associate who seems to have partaken upon her employer’s “specialty.”  Is she really a descendant of the infamous evil monarch?  The Countess smiles whenever asked, ‘cause she’s the real deal – a gorgeous perk example of drinking and bathing in female blood.

In no time at all, the titled woman is taken, then obsessed with Valerie, much to Ilona’s chagrin.  Things are definitely about to happen.

Oh, and hero Stefan’s mom – there’s another horrific secret there, but it takes a backseat to the goings on at the hotel.

The atmosphere, erotica and haunting beauty of DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS transcends any graphic displays of gore (although there are one or two set pieces).  The pic’s tantalizing script, matched with the spectacular widescreen photography and intense direction perfectly match the thoroughly weird cast, especially the young leads John Karlen and Danielle Ouimet and the morbidly desirable Andrea Rau.  It’s the Countess who specifically carries the show, and the production scored a major coup with the participation of the extraordinary French actress Delphine Seyrig.  She’s simply magnificent.  Director Kumel admits that they threw out her name when casting, figuring she’d turn them down.  Reportedly, Seyrig’s lover, director Alain Resnais, loved horror and graphic novels, and pushed her to do it.  Suffice to say, Kumel and Co. were delightfully amazed and awed.  The entire cast, too, was enraptured by the actress, who newbies Ouimet and Rau revealed was kind, generous and helpful to them throughout the shoot.

Yet, the filming was not a happy one.  The chilling, deserted surroundings certainly didn’t bode well for the sparse cast and crew.  But that was secondary.  Director Kumel was a bit of a tyrant, and, at one juncture, disappointed with Ouimet’s performance, slapped her; Karlen responded by punching him out.  In supplementary new interviews Ouimet reveals that otherwise everyone seems to have gotten along, with the exception of Rau, who proved distant and aloof (much like her character); in another interview Rau disagrees, claiming that they all got along, and even suggests a genuine sexual charge between herself and Seyrig (DAUGHTERS was Rau’s first legit outing, having made her name in softcore pics).

The great thing about this striking new 4K platter
(Blu-Ray also included) is the outstanding quality. Crystal clear 2160p resolution with a soundtrack (featuring Francois de Roubaix’s score) remixed in Dolby Atmos (the original mono is offered as an option, too).  What more could one ask?  I’ll go one better.  Since the pic’s original release in the States, I tried to embrace the movie like so many European fans.  I couldn’t, mainly because of the lousy prints.  Even in 1971, the visuals looked soft, faded, washed-out, and under a pinkish haze.  A subsequent laserdisc didn’t change my opinion.  But now, seeing a fully restored edition with razor focus and rich colors (faded, where necessary, save the crimson reds), I understand what Kumel and d.p. Eduard van der Enden were going for – and brilliantly succeeded with. 

In addition to the aforementioned interviews, the 4K set, packaged in a stunning 3-D anaglyph slipcover, includes a collector’s booklet, the CD soundtrack, a poster and still gallery, additional interviews, audio commentaries and mini-docs featuring Kumel, John Karlen, Kat Elinger, and David Del Valle, plus trailers and radio spots (remember those?).

Here, at last, is the version of DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS that horror fans have been waiting for.  It’s a title that has been seemingly made for 4K (the standard Blu-Ray is also included).  A must for devotees of all things phantasmagorical.

DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS. Color. Widescreen [1.66:1; 2160p High Definition; DTS-HD MA [Dolby Atmos, 5.1 or 1.0 mono].  MVDvisual/Blue Underground. CAT # BLU-BD-8019.  SRP: $59.95.

TV or Not TV


“Victims of their times,” certain movies occasionally got boosted or booted from their respective media.  Two unusual examples of what I’m talking about constitute a pair of low-budget horror pics, made at Universal over a six-year period: 1959’s CURSE OF THE UNDEAD and 1965’s DARK INTRUDER, now both available on Blu-Ray from the resurrectionists at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics and (natch) Universal Studios.

1959’s CURSE OF THE UNDEAD is certainly an original “can’t miss” genre hybrid.  Yep, it’s the first horror western.  The question is not “Why did they do it?”, but “What took them so long?”  Especially at Universal.  The reason is obvious.  A) Horror, thanks to Hammer Films, had returned in a big way, and, B) Westerns, at the time, were the most popular type of TV show (and were likewise enjoying big screen approval).  How could it miss?  The ultra low-budget of CURSE is another guarantee; in fact, it looks like a television series – more precisely, a pilot.  Drake Robey, the good-bad guy, an outlaw and hired gun (think a darker Paladin) almost reeks of TV sponsor pitch.  I suspect it might have been, but with the glut of oaters on the small screen, it came off as unremarkable; making him a vampire upped the game, and definitely made it nabe and drive-in friendly.  I say this because even vamp Robey never quite goes Bela enough to fully satisfy the horror crowd.  Yet, an undead denizen he is – and a conflicted one.  His profession ensures much available hemoglobin, so his Have Corpse, Will Travel persona works.  Even as a B-quickie, the idea is so intriguing that it never really disappoints.  Much of this is due to the cast.  The very excellent Michael Pate scores big as Robey (a phantom of the plains since before there was an America, a holdover from the old Spanish days).  Kathleen Crowley is fetching as the pretty rancher in his fang sights.  And, since we are talking vampires, the sheriff isn’t his nemesis, but rather stoic Preacher Dan (enacted by stoic Eric Fleming, soon to hit his stride as the star of Universal’s TV smash Rawhide).  The supporting cast is impressive as well, comprising John Hoyt, Bruce Gordon, Edward Binns, Helen Kleeb, Jay Adler, Eddie Parker, Henry Darrow and Amzie Strickland.  Universal absolutely knew what they were doing.  The Edward Dein-directed epic (cowritten by him and wife/partner Mildred; check out their bizarre 1955 noir Shack Out on 101) perfectly fits into their then-schedule of pairing a black-and-white home-grown cheapie with a Hammer Technicolor pickup; CURSE OF THE UNDEAD was bottom-billed with The Mummy (previously, The Thing That Wouldn’t Die supported Horror of Dracula, and, The Leech Woman would back up Brides of Dracula). 

While CURSE may not scare the crap out of you, it will hold your attention, thanks to the cast and some genuinely creepy atmospheric set pieces (as lit by d.p. Ellis Carter; a standard music score by Irving Gertz doesn’t disrupt the fun).  Extras include a trailer gallery and audio commentary by noted horror pic scholar Tom Weaver.

1965’s DARK INTRUDER was a movie I was dying to see for years.  While CURSE OF THE UNDEAD took a popular TV genre and mixed it with horror for the big screen, INTRUDER actually WAS made for television, during that iffy period that taunted and tortured sponsors and censors.  Like Don Siegel’s 1964 The Killers (also at Universal) and Warners’ Chamber of Horrors (1966), DARK INTRUDER was considered “too rough” for TV viewers.  The hour pilot was originally part of a summer replacement series for The Hitchcock Hour.  But dumber heads prevailed, and axed it.  Universal, not to be daunted, added a couple of eschewed scenes (it still runs a brief 59 minutes), cropped it minimally to 1.66:1 widescreen, and released it to the theaters, where it performed admirably alongside William Castle’s I Saw What You Did (remarkably, in some venues, it supported The Beatles’ Help!).

Like Chamber of Horrors, INTRUDER takes place at the end of the 19th century (1890, to be exact).  When a series of brutal, ritualistic murders (dubbed American Ripper) plague the city, top police officials call in occultist Brett Kingsford. What he discovers is, to put it mildly, quite horrific. Tracking down the mysterious statuettes left at each crime scene, Kingsford uncovers the loathsome truth:  before Babylon, before Egypt lived/lives a perennially reanimated demon who takes possession of a human…for power, for sex, for blood.  Even those close to Brett are affected, including a beautiful friend, Evelyn.  The tense but ultimately comfortable conclusion seems to end the reign of terror.  Or does it?

DARK INTRUDER moves quickly during its short duration, taking us through the excellent, atmospheric period sets, and into the lives of a foreboding group of inhabitants.  While Leslie Nielsen may have seemed perfect for the heroic occultist in 1965, it’s difficult not to occasionally chuckle at his exploits in 2021 – more than forty years after his pratfall into slapstick comedy.  The supporting players are quite engaging, however, and include Judi Meredith, Peter Mark Richman, Gilbert Green, Vaughn Taylor, Peter Brocco, Bill Quinn, and Al Lettieri.  The mysterious, imposing Professor Malaki, a consultant on the case, and only seen in cloaked form, is enacted by Werner Klemperer, the same year he debuted as Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes; it’s certainly his oddest credit.  The telepic was helmed by Harvey Hart, later to direct the Canadian cult flick The Pyx, and the script is by Barre Lyndon, who authored the George Pal War of the Worlds (1953), and, in closer proximity to this title, 1944’s The Lodger, plus 1945’s The Man in Half Moon Street and Hangover Square.

While the other “shoot them into the theaters” movies were lensed in color, INTRUDER was shot in black-and-white; not a bad thing, offering us some nice monochrome by John F. Warren (Oscar nominee for The Country Girl).  The music score is by the then-rising star Lalo Schifrin, and the production was produced by Jack Laird, soon to be the force behind Night Gallery.

Again, while it might not terrify you into screaming fits, DARK INTRUDER is an unsettling entry into the horror genre, replete with fog-shrouded nocturnal sequences, effective shock makeup, and even one or two authentic “jump” scares.  The Kino-Lorber 1080p Blu-Ray looks and sounds excellent; extras encompass the theatrical trailer, an interview with makeup artist Bud Westmore’s nephew, Mike Westmore, and, best of all, an informative audio commentary by movie historian and screenwriter (Pumpkinhead) Gary Gerani.

CURSE OF THE UNDEAD. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; CAT # K25070. SRP: $24.95.

DARK INTRUDER. Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; CAT # K25184. SRP: $14.95.Both Black and White; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios.

1980’s Nosh-talgia


Perhaps the perfect last-minute release for the Halloween season, the double dose of Italian demons pics, 1985’s DEMONS and 1986’s DEMONS 2, come to roost in the best way possible, as a two-disc 4K (limited release) set, thanks to Synapse Films.

The movies, particularly the first one took the world by storm, when originally sprung upon the unsuspecting public in the mid-1980s.

“Produced by Dario Argento” should tell you all you need to know, but there’s more.  Both movies were directed by Lamberto Bava, son of Dario’s mentor Mario Bava, and an excellent horror helmer in his own right. Argento also cowrote the scripts with Bava, Franco Ferrini and Dardano Sacchetti (the initial installment, from a story by Sacchetti).  To those in the know, these are formidable credits.

So, are these movies deep?  Well, not really. What’s the plot?  Ummm, okay: in Part One, a phantom of the opera-masked street dude hands out tickets to a screening of a special movie at the Metropol theater in Germany.  Students, curious movie fans and a cross-section of (basically) gullible morons descend upon the posh Bijou only to discover that the horror show on the screen (the discovery and wearing of the mask of Nostradamus) is happening in the audience (a female viewer dons the face covering on display in the lobby).  And it ain’t pretty.  She starts to morph into a zombie-demon, spurting pus and blood and with a hunger for human flesh.  The infected react by putting the concession stand out of business.  There’s even a trio of punks escaping the law, who sneak into the show and get an unexpected surprise.  And that’s it.

Back in 1985, when released here in the States, I went with my BFF, director and screenwriter Ric Menello, as we were attracted by the Argento name and wondering about Bava.  The movie certainly delivered what it promised.  In buckets.  At the time, we were wondering what the point was – while simultaneously admitting that it was done with great style and panache.  The packed house definitely loved it.  I was glad I saw it, but wasn’t sure if I’d ever watch it again.

That said, I never forgot it.  And then, it happened.  The picture started breaking box-office records across the nation (it had already done the same around the world).  It became Argento’s biggest hit.

Of course, there would be a sequel, and in 1986, it came to pass.  DEMONS 2, containing an additional sidebar of sick humor, was unleashed upon the world, with a similar prosciutto-thin plot, this time taking place in The Tower, a modern apartment high-rise.  It proved to be another ka-ching bonanza.

What I’m getting at here is that the DEMONS pics can’t be judged on their narrative abilities; they are pure adrenalin gross-out extravaganzas.  The casts in both are perfect for the task:  good-looking male and female victims, specifically selected for the main menu.  Part One features Urbano Barberini, Natasha Hovey, Karl Zinny, Paola Corzo, Fabiola Toledo, Stelio Candelli, Nicole Tessier, Geretta Geretta, Bobby Rhodes, Bettina Ciampolini, and Sally Day. Argento’s eldest daughter Fiore makes an appearance, as does future director Michele Soavi (as the Phantom dude), and, most notably, Nicoletta Elmi as the Metropol’s gorgeous usherette (Elmi, as a child, portrayed the creepy little girl in Argento’s 1975 classic Deep Red); Part Two: David Knight, Nancy Brilli, Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, Bobby Rhodes (again, but in a different role, but just as angry), Virginia Bryant, Anita Bartolucci, Antonio Cantafora, Luisa Passega, and, in her screen debut, 10-year-old Asia Argento.  Each gore-met treat is highlighted by Bava’s direction – nicely composed, tight widescreen images, lit and shot to perfection by Gianlorenzo Battaglia.  The hellish oozing and squirting comes by way of special effects maestro, Sergio Stivaletti, who magnificently matches the look and feel of the era, with the results being of a hard candy, bubble-gum-gooey texture, predominantly green, but still offering a rainbow palette of revolting liquid hues and tones.

The soundtracks are as important as the visuals, and, suffice to say, are “killer.”  Argento carefully made sure to give the metal-heads wall-to-wall rock, and the audio, in addition to DEMONS’ score by Claudio Simonetti, comprises the works of Motley Crue, Billy Idol, Go West, Saxon, Rick Springfield, The Scorpions and others; DEMONS 2 hands the main reins to Simon Boswell, with assist from The Cult, The Art of Noise, Gene Loves Jezebel, The Smiths, Dead Can Dance, and Love and Rockets.  They have since become classic movie soundtracks, practically iconic since their Eighties’ debut.  DISAPPOINTING FUN FACT: about a decade ago, Argento, Bava and Stivaletti congregated to seriously discuss a 3-D reboot; alas, it wasn’t to be.  What a trip that would have been!

The Synapse Films 4K disc set of DEMONS/DEMONS 2 is superb.  After seeing the company’s 4K rendition of Suspiria, I HAD to see the DEMONS twofer.  While not as sensational as Dario’s 1977 masterpiece, it is, without question, quite spectacular and absolutely essential for one’s extreme horror archive.  The extras alone encompass hours of supplemental fun, and contain/include both English language and Italian language (with English subtitles) versions, plus the original American 1985 cut of DEMONS (which runs slightly shorter, who knew?), audio tracks in original mono and/or full coat studio mixes in either 2.0 or 5.1, essays, mini-documentaries/featurettes, interviews about/with Argento, Bava, Stivaletti and Simon Boswell, theatrical trailers, audio commentaries by Kat Ellinger, Heather Drain, Travis Crawford, and Bava, Stivaletti, Claudio Simonetti, and actress Garetta Garetta.  There’s also a foldout DEMONS artwork poster and a full-size facsimile of the ticket handed to the victims in the first outing.

Those intrigued shouldn’t wait; this double-bill is a limited edition.  Act today!  It’s chewy good.

DEMONS/DEMONS 2.  Color.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 2160p High Definition]; 2.0 mono or 2.0, 5.1 stereo-surround DTS-HD MA (in English or Italian w/English subtitles). Synapse Films.  CAT # SFD0201.  SRP: $79.95.

Rainbow Fright


Another Holy Grail title I’d thought I’d never see, a correctly-hued edition of Michael Curtiz’s frightening 1932 two-strip Technicolor classic, DOCTOR X, creeps magnificently onto 1080p High Definition Blu-Ray (thanks to the folks at The Warner Archive Collection, along with a crypt-load of movie historians and film restoration experts, comprising the UCLA Library, The Film Foundation and the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation).

Back in the early 1970s, I was delighted when it was reported that DOCTOR X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, two pre-Code horrors, directed by Michael Curtiz and costarring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, had been discovered in Jack Warner’s private collection.  True, each had been available for years in black and white; but this was a prize package:  35MM nitrate two-strip Technicolor prints.  We movie and horror fans had heard of these versions, but never thought we’d actually see them.

My delight soon turned to “feh,” when quickly-made Eastman color slop prints were run off for TV distribution (I missed the actual 35MM screenings at MoMA).  They looked like monochrome with a Winky Dink screen over them.  “Oh, well,” I thought with great disappointment.

CRI improvements and genuinely dedicated movie archeologists remedied this slightly with the advent of DVD, aided when all the old Warners product, “curated” by MGM/UA, reverted back to its rightful owners.  The Burbank studio did everyone proud – giving us the beautiful home vid platters (and TCM presentations) we now cherish.  Big YAY!

Still, my general take on the two Technicolor horror pics was:  Wax Museum noted and corrected the difficulties of shooting in color that made DOCTOR X such an unmemorable Technicolor experience.  LSS, the latter way outshined the former.  As is often the case, I was wrong.  A gorgeous restoration of Wax Museum surfaced on Blu-Ray in 2020.  Too bad nothing could be done about the latter (I thought).  Hold on to your hats, folks.  The new DOCTOR X Blu-Ray will knock your socks off.  It’s simply stunning – a perfect example of HOW to film a horror movie in color.  It quite possibly now may be the best two-strip I’ve ever seen.  You read right – it actually blows away Wax Museum (which, as noted, looks terrific).  The rich ghoulish greens and crimson reds are jaw-dropping.  And all the available hybrids in-between are amazing as well.  The most marked improvements are the flesh tones – no more orange-tinged.  They often look real.  And the washed out backgrounds are lush with color – the spliced jump cut reel changes and dirt and emulsion scratches gone!  This was obviously a labor of love, and dudes such as Scott MacQueen (head of preservation at the UCLA Film & Television Archive) must be given their due.  This was a mammoth undertaking and the results will forever change the way anyone has judged the early Technicolor process (it makes sense, Herbert Kalmus and the Technicolor Company were constantly striving for upgrades; DOCTOR  X utilized the then-new single film print (Process #3), rather than pasting red and green emulsions together (all while they were concurrently working on three-strip imbibition).  Translation:  Ray Rennahan’s innovative use of lighting and color, combined with Michael Curtiz’s stylish and taut direction is a Technicolor win/win!

The movie, which I always liked (even with the typical wise-guy Warners snarky reporter as the hero) nevertheless always seemed a bit murky – as if the studio, not known for the genre, really didn’t care.  Not so.  This is a carefully plotted “A” title, obviously looking not-so-hot in black and white – the only way I could watch it during my childhood.

DOCTOR X, like so many Warners movies of the era, is a New York picture, opening on a fog-enshrouded night on Mott Street.  Another victim of the Moon Killer has been found.  The bodies have not just had the throats ripped out – there are definite signs of cannibalism.

Tabloid maestro Lee Taylor is determined to get to the bottom of these killings – even if he is creeped out by the surroundings…and the suspects.  All clues seem to lead to a university cartel of professors, led by Dr. Xavier.  On hiatus, during the school recess, these men use their time for research – almost exclusively concentrating on cannibal rites and organ transplants.  This crew, as Taylor rightly assumes, are rather macabre, starting with Xavier  himself,  then young, deformed amputee Dr. Wells, crippled Satanic-resembling Dr. Haines (casting a Devil silhouette shadow), and others.  At least half of the doctors have been involved in cannibalistic rituals which doesn’t help salve the police investigations, Xavier’s striving for innocence, or Taylor’s suspicions.  For Lee, that all changes when he spies Xavier’s  beautiful daughter Joanne, who, at first has an oil-and-water response to the reporter, then becomes attracted to him.  Won’t give away the goosebump-raising climax, save with the words “synthetic flesh!”

Major fright sequences (including hideous makeup, courtesy of Max Factor) highlight this excursion into monster mania – the result actually being far more terrifying than anything in Universal’s Dracula or Frankenstein, the success of which spurred DOCTOR  X into production.  The excellent actor Lee Tracy effortlessly glides through the proceedings, along with pros Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, and a wonderful supporting cast, including Preston Foster, John Wray, Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Robert Warwick, Leila Bennett, George Rosener, Willard Robertson, Thomas E. Jackson, Tom Dugan, Louise Beavers, and Selmer Jackson.  The script by Robert Trasker, Earl Baldwin, and costar Rosener (from a play by Howard Warren Comstock and Allen C. Miller) shows you how far a pre-Code horror pic could go – not only with gore and shock (of which there is plenty), but with some risqué dialog, and even a sequence in a Lower East Side whorehouse (with Mae Busch as a Madam, her only appearance in color!).

DOCTOR  X in color played only a scant few houses around the country (color was rather expensive, and Warners, who had initially embraced the process, was now trying to veer away from it); most theaters played it in black and white.  And here’s another falsity.  It was assumed that the monochrome prints were mere strike-offs from the color neg.  Nope.  The black and white version was actually a separately simultaneously-shot film with several scenes utilizing different angles, compositions and dialog (of course, the color X is “the” edition to see).  To prove the point, the B&W DOCTOR X is also included as a supplement for comparison.  With early Technicolor relegated to limited runs, sometimes of only 30, 50, 80, 100 prints (depending on the production), as opposed to the later general rule for a major studio wide release of as many as 1500 prints for a top title, it’s astounding that ANY two-strip survives!

Other wonderful extras in this package encompass a featurette on the horror flicks of Michael Curtiz, a UCLA before and after restoration reel (highly recommended), audio commentaries by Scott MacQueen and Curtiz author Alan K. Rode, and the theatrical trailer.

DOCTOR X, in restored two-strip Technicolor, is one of the finest discs in my collection.  Get your own copy and prove me wrong!  One more time: “synthetic flesh!”

DR. X. Color. Full Frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. CAT #B08YDNPHW8.   SRP: $17.99.

This title and others can be purchased at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

Donovan’s Grief


A beautifully-crafted, low-budget gem melding sci-fi and horror, 1953’s DONOVAN’S BRAIN comes to Blu-Ray, thanks to the top medulla oblongatas at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics and 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.

While a common theme now, transplanted for such guilty pleasures as The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (aka Jan in the Pan) and the comedic delights of The Man with Two Brains, DONOVAN’S BRAIN, the original sourcework, hailed from the most-talented cranium of author/screenwriter Curt Siodmak, whose scary 1942 novel was adapted for the movies by Hugh Brooke, and scripted by director Felix Feist.

It’s an extraordinary idea involving high-tech (for then) brain surgery, the burgeoning concept of telepathy and basic themes from Shelley’s Frankenstein (some things Man just shouldn’t futz around with – and, if he does, get the right brain, damn it!).

Dr. Patrick J. Cory is a brilliant scientist married to Janice, an equally accomplished egghead.  They conveniently live off the main road of a typical suburban community; many think they’re a bit off the main road themselves.  Recovering alcoholic Frank Schratt, a once-promising professor/doctor, is a close friend and works with them on their groundbreaking experiments.

All good, so far.

The crash of a private plane brings the grim news for 1%-ters that billionaire Warren H. Donovan has perished.  Carting the corpse to the nearest home (guess who?) until the authorities can claim the body provides the Corys with the perfect op to advance their work on thought and thought progression.

Turns out that Donovan’s brain wasn’t damaged in the crash – it was demented way before then.  A cruel, vicious psychopath, the oligarch got his way by terrorizing those around him – making them rich along the way.  He raped companies, ravaged women, destroyed men – totally believed he was above the law.  Sound familiar?  Except he wasn’t an idiot, merely pure evil.  Donovan’s brain does respond slowly to the lab work…then begins to look for a host, selecting the liberally progressive Patrick as his latest victim.  Soon, Dr. Cory is adapting Donovan’s mannerisms, figures of speech, and fits of violence.  His misogyny emerges as he brutally mistreats Janice.  Now occupying Cory’s body, Donovan’s brain begins a nationwide assault on his competitors, and former partners (who were relieved that he was dead).  When a reporter guesses the unbelievable truth, Donovan/Cory resorts to murder.  And he likes it.

Can Janice and Frank reverse the process before they become the maniac’s next victims?

As one might expect, this is one wild 86-minute ride.  The performances are excellent, particularly that of lead Lew Ayres (essentially inhabiting two personas).  Nancy Davis (soon to be “Reagan”), as Janice even comes off unscathed, giving a respectable account of herself.  The always-reliable Gene Evans is another plus (he does, pre-DeForrest Kelley, get to utter the line: “I’m a doctor, not an electrician!”).  Other support is valiantly provided by sleazy Steve Brodie (as the unethical reporter), Tom Powers, Lisa Howard, James Anderson, Harlan Wade, Shimen Ruskin, Don Brodie, and John Hamilton.

Director Feist was an underrated force in Hollywood, known for doing a lot with a little; his noirs 1949’s The Threat, 1951’s Tomorrow is Another Day, etc. are quite good, and worth seeking out.  DONOVAN’S BRAIN is likely Feist’s most famous movie, and definitely worthy of a spot on your library shelf.  The crisp black-and-white photography is by Robert Aldrich fave Joe Biroc, and a suitable music score is provided by Eddie Dunstedter. 

The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray looks and sounds swell, and comes with the original theatrical trailer, as well as a short “Trailers from Hell” segment, hosted by Joe Dante.

Adding this tense item to one’s collection is…well, a no-brainer.

DONOVAN’S BRAIN. Black and White. Full Frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios. CAT # K20068. SRP: $29.95.



One of a handful of horror flicks that scared the bejeezus out of my little preadolescent ass, 1958’s GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN rises from grave (in a High Def 1080p widescreen 4K transfer from 35MM camera elements yet!), thanks to those kiddie-frightening ghouls from The Film Detective/The Wade Williams Collection.

That so much of my childhood was spent cowering under the covers at night was due, in part, to director Richard E. Cunha, who helmed this “classic” along with Frankenstein’s Daughter (which even scared me more).  I get it now – it was largely the spooky makeups that did it.  But for an impressionable 8-year-old, that’s really all you need (even his laughable Missile to the Moon gave me the willies, thanks to a scene were a juvenile delinquent gets his flesh melted off by exposure to the lunar sun).  The fact that other pics that terrified me at the time included William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill, Edgar Ulmer’s Daughter of Dr. Jekyll puts the former TV commercial director in good company (okay, Monster from Piedras Blancas did its job, too).

Examining GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN now, as I quickly descend into old age, offers up some intriguing revelations.  Cunha is actually quite a good director, setting up the shock sequences rather well, doing some nifty widescreen compositions and utilizing the Fawnskin, CA locations to excellent advantage.  The plot, too, as scripted by Frank Hart Taussig, and Ralph Brooks (from their story), is a notch above the usual outlandish misghegas.

In the 16th century, a band of Spanish conquistadors arrive on the shores of what is now California as part of the Ptolemy Firello expedition, ostensibly to explore – but mainly to greedily search for gold.  They are never heard from again.  Key to anthropologists and archeologists delving into this mystery is the uncovering of a rather disturbing fact:  among the crew was one Vargas, a gargantuan specimen, revealed to have been a sadistic psychopath.  Vargas especially enjoyed tearing his victims limb from limb, particularly indigenous women after he ravaged them.  To this day, the local Native Americans in the area fear the myth and curse of the monstrous goliath.

So, natch, a dedicated professor and his prerequisite hottie daughter arrive to do some excavating, and…well…do I need to go any further?

What freaked me out then is what still works on a lesser level now, the image of the resurrected, behemoth Vargas.  Encased in rusted armor and towering over everyone, Vargas is enacted by the equally imposing Buddy Baer (one of them Baers, the Max and Max, Jr. variety…and, reportedly, a truly nice guy).  The makeup is hellish, and comes to us via the genius of Jack Pearce, creator of the original Universal grotesques of Frankenstein’s monster, The Mummy and The Wolf Man.

The cast itself is genuinely game (even though many of them end up as game), and features a cluster of familiar thesps, including Morris Ankrum, Bob Steele, and, as the love interest, Sally Fraser and Ed Kemmer.  A beautiful actress, Jolene Brand, is on view briefly before she, like the vicinity’s horses and cows, gets “ripped to pieces.”

The location photography by director/auteur Cunha is, when viewed in 35MM, really top-notch.  A music score by Albert Glasser adds to the creepiness and, undoubtedly, tingled the tiny pliable spines of brave Fifties and Sixties kiddies (although today’s crop of sanguinary sprouts may find the proceedings a bit too pedestrian).

The new Film Detective Blu-Ray of GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN comes with a grave full of extras, comprising audio commentaries by Tom Weaver (who also contributed liner notes) and GIANT costar Gary Crutcher, plus mini-documentaries on Crutcher and Bob Steele, an interview with film historian C. Courtney Joyner, an illustrated booklet, the theatrical trailer and a still gallery.

A movie I still proudly defend, GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN is a disc well-worth reviving (if only as a co-feature) for Drive-In retro horror movie nights.

GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN.  Black and White. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Film Detective/The Wade Williams Collection. CAT # FB1009.  SRP: $24.95.