Ray-I-P

Call it a case of a major at a minor, but Oscar-winning actor Ray Milland’s involvement with exploitation masters American International Pictures (at their peak) is a cinematic marriage made in psychotronic heaven.  Three back-to-back “classics” – all exceptionally well-made and respectable – have beautifully stood the test of time.  The trio, made in 1962 and ‘63 comprise THE PREMATURE BURIAL, PANIC IN YEAR ZERO and X – THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES, and they’re jaw-dropping pips.

But, as with so many iconic movies, their coming to light was not all milk and Karo syrup.  In fact, the Milland pics started with a rather nasty altercation that almost ended with a court date (and not Hazel).

AIP’s shining star was the prolific Roger Corman, but, by 1961, after pretty much single-handedly putting the tiny studio on the map, the director-producer was carping about his treatment by the indy’s moguls Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson.  Corman had already created his own releasing arm FilmGroup, which, if nothing else during its short reign, gave us Little Shop of Horrors.  Corman’s return to AIP and his pushing the teen-oriented company into the bigger leagues (via the color and scope Edgar Allan Poe/Vincent Price series) gave him some points.  But not enough to suit him, and too many to appease Arkoff and Nicholson.  Well, the reason the studio picked Poe to cinematize was because his sublimely shuddersome works were so visual, so movie-friendly, so public domain.  Thus, Corman didn’t need AIP to do a Poe adaptation; he put together his core crew of actors and technicians, scored a coup by snaring writers Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell (the latter, who among other things, penned the horror masterpiece Mr. Sardonicus) and put out distribution feelers.  Since horror and westerns were huge during this period, buttressed by the tried-and-true Corman name, the young maverick had little trouble luring potential backers.  Dubious lab Pathe was looking into starting their own producing arm and tentatively made Corman a deal for BURIAL.  This sent Arkoff into a rage, and the pint-sized cigar-chomper immediately flew to the East Coast to rip ’em a new one.  AIP, he informed Pathe, was their biggest client; go with Corman, and the studio would pull their account.  This was no idle threat, and Arkoff going psycho-Pathe-ic worked its charm.  Pathe forgot all about producing, Sam and Jim came to terms with Corman, and PREMATURE BURIAL went out as an extremely profitable AIP release.  But there were codicils.

While Corman had originally wanted Vincent Price to star in BURIAL, Arkoff reminded him that the House of Wax/House of Usher luminary was a “house of AIP” legally contracted talent, and could not appear in any other Poe adaptation (a fine-print clause that probably could have been argued legally).  Nevertheless, Corman cast his net elsewhere and brilliantly snared Milland, whose presence always upgraded whatever project he was associated with.  With everyone kissed and made up, Arkoff offered Milland an additional two-picture deal; Milland agreed on the condition that he would direct one of them (the actor had been directing movies and TV since the early-mid 1950s, and quite well, too).  Arkoff had no problem with that, and the countryside was quickly scoured for suitable macabre properties for all concerned.  It all (obviously) turned out remarkably well – with the aging star returning to the AIP fold the following decade with another pair of kitsch gems Frogs and the outstanding Thing with Two Heads (one of my personal favorites).

In Roger Corman’s rendition of Poe’s THE PREMATURE BURIAL (as eerily scripted by Beaumont and Russell), Guy Carrell (Milland) is a wealthy, scholarly denizen about to marry the gorgeous daughter (the always welcome Hazel Court) of a revered physician.  What’s there to worry about?  Puh-lenty!  Carrell, living a reclusive existence in a creepy manse with his equally creepy, morbid sister (Heather Angel in her final screen appearance) has more phobias than barrel of Elisha Cook, Jrs.  Prime is his fear of being buried alive (as he swears his father was), coupled with the fear that he’s inherited a severe version of narcolepsy (which mimics death, thus allowing one to be…buried alive).  To this end, he’s moved into the family crypt and customized the chamber with a barrage of Rube Goldberg escape devices (in one of the movie’s key sequences, a sardonic anti-Christ nightmare ensues when each fail safe ploy backfires, Wile E. Coyote-style).  A genuinely gruesome shot of pater’s opened coffin revealing splintered, bloody claw marks doesn’t sit well with Guy (and why SHOULD it?).  Add the fact that the local gravediggers are John Dierkes and Dick Miller, and oy vey!  On cue, Carrell expires just as he predicted, and returns insane and out for vengeance (done rather graphically for 1962, as he literally gets the dirt on Court).  Of course, Milland was no stranger to the genre, having starred in the superb 1944 ghost romance The Uninvited and later doing a diabolical turn as a satanic figure in a bona-fide horror noir, 1949’s sadly neglected Alias Nick Beal; can’t not mention his excellent directing abilities, helming a terrific adaptation of Robert Bloch’s Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper for TV’s Thriller series.

Aside from the aforementioned thesps, there’s also Richard Ney as a perhaps too friendly best friend and Uninvited/reunited cast member Alan Napier.

The picture is thick with atmosphere, the interior/exteriors flooded with mist and fog (sumptuously photographed by the great Floyd Crosby), a ghoulish reprise of the song “Molly Malone” (that plays an integral part in the scenario’s shocking climax) and a suitably, sinister score by Ronald Stein.  The Blu-Ray, digitally-restored from the faded PatheColor elements looks better than it likely did during the original release.  FYI, fellow Boomers whom I’ve spoken to throughout the years, and lucky enough to have seen BURIAL in ’62, all admitted that it was the only Corman/Poe flick that seriously frightened them.  Not to besmirch Vincent Price, it’s pseudo-zombie Milland who chills to the bone, oozing evil with dastardly delight.

 

1962’s PANIC IN YEAR ZERO is a fascinating look at that Cold War quick-hide-under-the-desk bugaboo – nuclear devastation.  A trim, unnerving look at how “the bomb” effects a typical American family on vacation is lovingly detailed in a blood-spattered path of violence by director (and star) Milland.  Milland (as Harry Baldwin) and his family (the terrific Jean Hagen, Frankie Avalon and Mary Mitchel) hear that L.A. is now in the partial rubble of a mushroom cloud (ditto, major democratic cities throughout the globe).  Milland/Baldwin wastes no time in swinging into action (“My family MUST survive!”).  Always expert at portraying exasperated “I have no time for your shit” easily-angered protagonists, Milland immediately realizes that humans are basically living fecal specimens and, when a wily shopkeeper refuses his check (what bank is left to cash it?), Milland offers the same argument for cash and instantly brandishes a gun (the new law of the post-nuclear land); ironically, a point is made earlier about firearm purchasing needing to wait for a background check.  It’s difficult not to get political, but YEAR ZERO is definitely a right-leaning vehicle (not unlike Milland).  Teens are not to be trusted, merely killed.  Clean-cut Avalon takes dad’s lead and relishes liquidating the opposition (“[I like the idea of] blowing their heads off,” he gleefully tells papa).  Natch, surviving yoots are portrayed as duck-tailed fugitives from Rebel without a Cause, specifically a trio of psychos (Dick Bakalyan, Rex Holman, Neil Burstyn) who murder a family, take over their home and use their teenage daughter as a sex slave (the beauteous Joan Freeman).  Milland and Avalon have no use for these deviates and systematically annihilate them; even spouse Hagen gets in on the act, and, it’s indeed a hoot to see Lina Lamont using her own daughter as bait and using leather-jacketed felons as target practice.  This American mini-Lord of the Flies eventually concludes with Harry & Co. residing in a cave and coming to terms with their own lust for violence (“I looked for the worst in others, and found it in myself,” reveals Milland with a sense of revulsion).

A cease fire, heard over a radio, offers hope as the Baldwins pack up and prepare to relocate back to the middle class.  Of course, no mention is made of the lethal fallout that will likely make ’em all corpses when they reach the outskirts of L.A. (although it’s probable that the bomb ballast is less toxic than the city’s smog).

The script by Jay Simms and John Morton (from Ward Moore’s short stories, Lot and Lot’s Daughter) is tight, the direction tighter, and the documentary-esque black-and-white/CinemaScope photography (by Gil Warrenton) is top-notch (helped by a superb High-Def transfer). Les Baxter furnishes a reasonable score that nicely appends this mid-century nightmare.  Some cool extras supplement the package, including Joe Dante’s take on the movie and audio commentary by Richard Harland Smith.

Practically piggy-backed on the Cuban Missile Crisis, YEAR ZERO must have made its exiting audience eager to seek out therapy what, in 1962, forebode a very grim and possible future.

 

In 1963’s X – THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES, the “present” of the Ray-IP past, present and (sort of) future triad, Milland plays Dr. James Xavier, striving to better mankind with a sight-enhancing/possible blindness-curing wonder drug.  Need we go any further?  In this clever update of the “there are some things man was never meant to know” warning, scenarists Robert Dillon and Ray Russell (from Russell’s story) have fashioned an engrossing, unsettling version of the negative side-effects one encounters when they shy clear of the FDA.  It’s nicely shot by Floyd Crosby (unequivocally, this Blu-Ray is the best copy I’ve ever seen) and directed by Corman in his usual fat-free, lean and mean style.

Obviously, Milland’s Dr. Xavier has never read H.G. Wells or seen the James Whale/Claude Rains movie.  His drug is the 1960s equivalent of Monocaine – with essentially the same results.  Testing the compound on himself soon alleviates any of that altruistic jazz in preference of power and neo-fascist dreams.  Within a reel, he’s tossing his best friend and colleague (Harold J. Stone) out a skyscraper window, and reveling in the pleasures of his discovery.  This is visualized by a trippy sequence wherein Milland parties with twisting twentysomething babes, whom he lasciviously watches gyrating naked (likely an addition by the director, knowing Corman’s own penchant for that era’s hallucinatory experiences).  Now a wanted felon, he hides out as a freak act in a sleazy carnival, managed by sleazier Don Rickles (engagingly snapping on hecklers Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze).  But no one out-heckles Rickles, so it’s off to Vegas to try and win millions by seeing the baccarat cards before they are turned over.  This doesn’t please the made owners who force him to flee into the desert, where he comes across obsessed preacher John Dierkes (the scariest character in the piece).  Dierkes’ mania offers now totally demented Milland (terrified at what he sees at the spiritual level) the Bible as climactic solace, particularly that wheeze about “If thine eyes offend thee…” well, you know.

THE PREMATURE BURIAL.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  CAT # K1618.

PANIC IN YEAR ZERO.  Black-and-White. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  CAT # K20070.

X – THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES.  Color.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  CAT # K1620.

All Blu-Rays released through Kino Studio Classics/MGM Studios/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  SRP: $29.95@.

 

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