Vamp Champ

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2019

As far as I’m concerned, all you classic movie collectors can stop right here (well, after the first sentence):  The Warner Archive Collection has released a restored Blu-Ray edition of Terence Fisher’s 1958 masterpiece HORROR OF DRACULA.  ‘Nuff said.

(And yet, he continues…)

To call HORROR OF DRACULA a great horror flick is an understatement.  For me, it’s the best Dracula movie ever made.  The directing, the acting, the writing, the photography, the music…it just doesn’t get any better.  I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that it scared the bejesus out of me back in ’58 (when I saw it with my dad) and, again, in the 1965 re-issue, where it was paired with Curse of Frankenstein (and, once more, in the company of my patient pater).

It’s a landmark effort on so many levels that it’s hard to pinpoint where to start.  Certainly, it proved that the previous year’s Curse of Frankenstein wasn’t an ambitious one-off.  And definitely, HoD’s worldwide grosses toward the end of 1958 had every major studio in existence lining up for the privilege of distributing future Hammer productions.  Long story short, along with Curse, DRACULA put Hammer Films on the international map.  The movie instantly became influential, and, in the 61 years since its American release has inspired (and created fans of) such diverse masters of cinema as Joseph Losey, Nicholas Ray, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, Andy Warhol, Francis Ford Coppola and Quentin Tarantino.  Key to the pic’s success was the graphic depiction of Bram Stoker’s characters.  The English language ads stressed “The Terrifying Lover Who Died Yet Lived!” And they weren’t kidding.  Christopher Lee, in HORROR OF DRACULA, more than Lugosi’s interpretation, stressed the danger to Victorians of an overtly sexual villain.  Never before had vampiric “turning” been equated with such amourous coital seduction.  Lee’s presence is beyond outstanding. Clock his screen time; it’s less than a reel (approximately seven minutes) – yet his overpowering ubiquity is epic, from his intro to his sporadic nocturnal visits to the action-packed finale.  Beautifully keeping the narrative going is the roster of fine Brit actors and scene-stealers, led, of course, by the wonderful Peter Cushing (the best Van Helsing ever!) plus Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, John Van Eyssen, Charles Lloyd Pack, Miles Malleson, George Woodbridge, Valerie Gaunt and (I can’t praise her enough) Carol Marsh as Lucy Holmwood.  The movie’s first jump-out shock was the library scene at Castle Dracula, then the crypt…But, pour moi, the scariest, creepiest moment occurs when vampire Lucy returns to corrupt the family maid’s child (Janina Faye).  “Let’s go for a walk,” she purrs in the moonlight, revealing her fangs and breathless lust for claiming a child’s innocence.  I couldn’t sleep for weeks after seeing that.  Much of scripter Jimmy Sangster’s approach to Stroker takes liberties, but nevertheless contains the essence of Victorian comportment and mores – in essence bringing righteous sticks to a fully-armed supernatural battlefield (it takes Van Helsing to make those sticks into crosses), but, of course, it’s the disbelief of intelligent beings that ultimately provide Dracula and his minions with their greatest weapon.

Enough cannot be said about Fisher’s brilliant direction.  He thrives on detail and 19th century technology (recording cylinders to chronicle Van Helsing’s audio journal) and artifacts that recall the best of von Stroheim and Borzage (the latter being one of Fisher’s favorite directors).  Blood flowing (and spurting) in vivid Technicolor is admittedly what blew audiences away in 1958; in spite of the gore, many reviews were amazingly positive, including Vincent Canby in The New York Times.

As indicated, HORROR OF DRACULA made a mint globally, and what product studios couldn’t lock down from Hammer was appended by other small studios offering knock-off Hammer titles (Blood of the Vampire, Jack the Ripper, Corridors of Blood, etc.).

The new Blu-Ray of HORROR OF DRACULA is sensational.  The Technicolor of Jack Asher’s palette (my favorite of all the great Hammer d.p.s) has been faithfully reproduced.  Add the chilling James Bernard score and stunning period décor (Bernard Robinson) and costumes (Molly Arbuthnot, Rosemary Burrows) and you’ve got a magnificent guide on how to make a movie on a modest budget (hard to believe that it cost 81,000 pounds (or about $104K in current U.S dollars, cheap in even 1950s money).  Best of all, Warner Archive utilized the 2007 BFI restoration, so the sanguine inserts (often removed or displayed by jolting cuts) are near-seamless.  Since this is from the British sources, the main titles simply herald DRACULA (the way it was released across the pond).  HORROR OF DRACULA was the American addition, in order to underline the fact that this was all-new, and not a re-issue.  A major coup is the return of the original Universal-International logos on the head and tail of the pic; they have been missing for more than forty-five years!

This Blu-Ray is a must for every horror fan or (as indicated earlier) classic movie buff’s library.  It’s the movie that more than any other brought pure goth to the genre, and it just gets better with every screening.

HORROR OF DRACULA. Color. Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Entertainment. CAT #  1000695601. SRP: $21.95.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

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The Morgue the Merrier: Grindhouse “Sleepers”

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2019

Somewhere between the fine line of “guilty pleasure” and “wait a minute, this ain’t half bad” lies a twilight pantheon for horror buffs containing a handful of titles that needn’t have resorted to lurid hype and trailer-trash…well, trailers.  In any other genre, they’d be called “sleepers,” movies worth watching that slipped through the cracks.  In horror, I guess – I dunno – “creeper-sleepers”?  Or, specifically here, simply “Eeewww!”  In any case, two such disturbing entries have now been made available in excellent Blu-Ray editions from Kino-Lorber (one, in conjunction with Code Red; the other, from 20th Century-Fox/MGM Studios):  1972’s LOVE ME DEADLY and 1974’s DERANGED.

 

1970s exploitation doesn’t get much more grisly-sensational than the plot/movie hype of LOVE ME DEADLY.  As one might deduce, it’s a pic about necrophilia.  That it manages to avoid all the awful and obvious lowest common denominator traps and emerges as a genuinely well-made movie is a nod to director/coscripter Jacques Lacerte and writers Robert Cleere and (producer) Buck Edwards (from a story by Roger Wall).

The plot’s a lulu.  Lindsay Finch (Mary Wilcox) is a stunning, intelligent, young woman with a…shall we say…strange jones.  It goes back to her childhood, where she worshiped her father (Michael Pardue), whose untimely death she witnessed.  The death part stuck with her.  “Every girl wants to marry her father,” says many a head-shrinker.  Regarding Lindsay’s situation, it’s all the more perversely obvious.  She’s totally turned on by dead males; not surprisingly, her favorite section of the newspaper is the obituary page.  When she spies the notice for a recently deceased man, who matches her age (and, sort of resembles her pater), Lindsay swings into action.  And we’re not kidding with the “swings” part.  She cruises funeral parlors, attending the ceremonies with lip-biting restraint, often giving way to winching quiet (must be respectful) orgasmic desires.

When not diddling the dead, Lindsay lives quite a normal life and with (almost) normal relationships.  Alas, they, too, eventually end up doomed, as nothing’s hotter than a cold one.  Lindsay Finch knows she’s sick, but it’s an addiction she can’t shake (and her libido doesn’t want to).  This soon goes from bad to hearse.

One day, Lindsay is spotted by a mourner, who isn’t a mourner.  It’s Fred McSweeney (Timothy Scott), and, as he sardonically informs her in that telltale Tod Browning way, “you’re one of us.” (apparently, funeral-fuckers run rampant in L.A.).  Lindsay is terrified, but intrigued, and soon gives in and attends their frequent rituals.

McSweeney himself is progressive – or rather his “group” is.  They are equal opportunity defilers.  They patrol the nocturnal streets looking for attractive men and women, straight and gay.  But they can’t have normal sex with them.  The pickups are shuttled to a private “operating room,” where they are murdered, and then their killers are turned on.  Lindsay has never abided to homicide, and her deciding to ditch this cult results in some horrific events that seal her fate and her new husband’s.

The fact that LOVE ME DEADLY isn’t smarmy is what boosts it to the “you really gotta see this” category.  Its approach is (dare I say?) dead serious.  As indicated earlier, it’s genuinely well-directed and scripted.  It’s also excellently photographed (kudos to d.p. David Aaron).  Phil Moody’s music track is typical, with an admittedly over-the-top tune “You’re Something Special” (Love Theme from Love Me Deadly),” warbled in a sultry lady lounge lizard manner by Kit Fuller (and written by Moody), but that’s about the only unintentionally cringe moment in the flick.

The cast is authentically good.  Lead Wilcox is really terrific, and the fact that she’s a gorgeous woman makes her stripping down to mount  a gurney’s occupant for some truly “stiff” action all the more shocking.  The rest of the cast is memorable too, especially Scott as the ghoulish McSweeney and, as Lindsay’s lovers Christopher Stone and Lyle Waggoner (yep, THAT Lyle Waggoner – and, no, this wasn’t BEFORE The Carol Burnett Show – it was DURING its run).

Mastered from a new 2K High Definition scan utilizing the original 35MM negatives, the Kino Blu-Ray looks aces (it’s also the complete, uncut 91-minute version).  Extras include the trailer, audio commentary by producer Edwards and an alternate B-Movie Intro by WWE’s sexy Maria Kanellis, obviously a fan.

 

Following a similar theme, but in an even more unnerving way, DERANGED, made two years later, lingers in the mind long after the final fade-out.  Why?  Because it’s based on a true story, in fact, a very famous true storyDERANGED tells the tale of Ed Gein, infamously portrayed in literature and cinema as Norman Bates (due to the incarcerated Gein’s still being alive at the time, the main character’s name was changed to Ezra Cobb).

In 1957 rural Wisconsin, Cobb is a middle-aged semi-recluse, who enjoys a sheltered life with his mother (Cosette Lee), a dying, matriarch who is a domineering and monstrous influence on her loyal-to-a-fault son (the southwestern desert locale of the book and Hitchcock movie isn’t the only change; there is no motel).  The pair lives alone, with Ezra earning a living as a handyman in the neighboring suburban town.  His most constant employer is Harlon (Robert Warner), the head of the Kootz family, who take amusement at Cobb’s awkwardness and lack of social skills, but genuinely enjoy his company (often having him at the dinner table).

When Ezra’s mother finally passes, the grief and stress proves too much; he has never truly been by himself.  And soon, he begins talking to his departed mom.  And then, she starts talking back.  But that’s not enough.  Reading up on taxidermy, he exhumes her corpse, carries it home and preserves it.  And the relationship continues.

Then one day at the Kootzes, another local death is discussed.  When Ezra inquires how they knew who died, Harlon explains the concept of the obituary.  Soon, Cobb is adding to his acquisitions, digging up deceased females to keep his mother company and exploring the possibility of at last having a sexual mate in his life.  Maureen Selby (Marion Waldman), his mother’s former BFF then takes an interest in Ezra.  But “mother” warns him of her scarlet ways, so Cobb disposes of her, and brings the cadaver home (a good op for Maureen and mum to have a catch-up).  Completely over the edge, Ezra next woos and lures an attractive roadside waitress (Arlene Gillen) to his lair, kills the woman, and ravages her remains.

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time” wisely wrote Maya Angelou.  When a character becomes curious as to where the missing women are, Ezra honestly replies, “I got ‘em up at the house.”  It’s perhaps the movie’s most chilling moment in co-director (with Jeff Gillen) Alan Ormsby’s script. And, yes, I’ve just linked Maya Angelou to Ed Gein.

The grand guignol Psycho moment comes when Cobb gets a glimpse of Kootz’s teen son’s (Brian Smeagle) new girlfriend, Sally (Pat Orr) a beautiful shopkeeper.  Crazed hobbyist that he is, Ezra Cobb knows he HAS to have her as part of his collection.  It’s the gruesome, nightmarish end to this real-life American horror story.

Made for nearly zero bucks, DERANGED (subtitled Confessions of a Necrophile) nevertheless got an AIP pickup, and garnered some positive reviews when released in 1974.  Lead Roberts Blossom became a late-bloomer super-character-actor star because of his performance as Ezra, and subsequently worked constantly in mainstream movies and TV until 1999 (he died in 2011).  Also gotta give some juice to game actress Pat Orr, who plays Sally.  No budget for special effects or stuntwomen/doubles. So, in frigid temps, she got naked and was hung upside down on a barn door for the scenario’s final act.

DERANGED looks better than it ever has in this newly unrated Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray remaster (extras include audio commentary by Ormsby, another with film historian Richard Harlan Smith, an interview with producer Tom Karr, plus the theatrical trailer).  That said, don’t expect a Visconti-looking flick, and, in all fairness, why would you want one?  Jack McGowan’s gritty camerawork eerily gives a documentary feel to the unsavory proceedings, and, ultimately, that’s a good thing.  The score by Carl Zittrer does its job, too; the music is unobtrusive as it must be – as to not get in the way of the maniacal unravelling of DERANGED‘s dangerous and pathetic psychopath.

 

LOVE ME DEADLY. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber/Code Red/United Talent Productions. CAT # CRDBLU-161. SRP: $29.95 .

DERANGED. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios. CAT # K1638. SRP: $29.95.

OmaHorror

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2019

Perhaps the greatest movie ever produced in Omaha, NE, Daniel Liatowitsch’s  and David Todd Ocvirk’s 1999 terror trip KOLOBOS comes to Blu-Ray in a spooktacular collector’s edition, thanks to the thoughtful folks at Arrow Video.

I’m not sure if the above yet rates a low-budget locale pantheon spot next to such classics as Kansas City’s Carnival of Souls, Evans City’s Night of the Living Dead or Pomona’s Lemora, but it surely crawls around in that vicinity.  Yes, it’s flawed, but it’s also unique in the genre – not necessarily in plotline, but rather in the way it visually unfolds its eerie scenario.  Leotowitsch and Ocvirk, who also crafted the screenplay with Nne Ebong, not only have a knack for this kind of thing, but they’ve done their homework; they’re movie lovers – a plus attribute that KOLOBOS relies upon and pays homage to without (like so many schlocky competitors) spiraling downward into the copycat rip-off abyss.  The movie is also innovative, hitting a now-tried-and-true cinematic device before anyone had ever heard of Blair Witch and its gazillion followers.  I’m talking about the “found footage” horror sub-genre; while KOLOBOS avoids using this technique for the entire duration of the pic, it does utilize elements for creepy and essential background info.

In a psychotic nutshell, KOLOBOS begins with a couple, looking for a destination shortcut and discovering the bloody near-dead body of a young woman.  As they take her to the nearest hospital, she barely manages one word, “Kolobos.”

In recovery, and under strict psych observation, Kyra Mitchell (Amy Weber), the victim (and ex-mental patient), relates the events of the past thirty-six hours as best as she can recall.

An up-and-coming artist (of nightmarish canvasses), fragile Kyra is coming back from a serious breakdown, and resides in an institute, under the care of her therapist Dorothy (a brief appearance by icon Linnea Quigley, no doubt to push video sales/rentals).

Much to her surprise, Kyra is chosen at random to take part in a 90-day anthropological film experiment along with four other young people.  They will live and interact in a luxurious home while being recorded for a commissioned study (it’s unintentionally humorous to see the era’s idea of a high-tech big screen TV being a 25” tube job).  The other folks comprise a standard horror movie victim check list: hottie actress Erica (Nichole Pelerine), college drop-out Gary (John Fairlie), fast-food worker Tina (Promise LaMarco) and insufferable wiseass Tom (Donnie Terranova).  But already, this premise adds something new to the stale “dumb teens we want to see killed” flicks that have populated the American horror movie jungle since the Jamie Lee Curtis post-Halloween days of Prom Night and Terror Train.  Indeed, this idea is almost like a hybrid between an ID Channel offering and Big Brother, but much more fun (as its self-serving citizenry gets knocked off rather than voted off).

Having improved enough to get her doctor’s blessing, Kyra joins her selected housemates and soon regrets the decision.  And so do her roomies (the gig and Kyra’s presence).  Pretty, smart and gifted, the sensitive artist is nonetheless morbid – with a penchant for disturbing imagery that unnerves everyone around her.  Furthermore, she recounts her eternal nightmares of a faceless man who inspires her “art.”

Before you can say “Kolobos,” the name christened to this supernatural dream demon, members of the experiment begin dying in violent ways previously depicted in Kyra’s paintings.  Was she chosen to intentionally add a lethal element?  Could this be a freakish coincidence?  Or a snuff film?  Or is Kolobos real?  Survivors want to know.  Worse, the house has been automatically locked down with no outside communication, so there’s no escape.  How the resourceful young woman manages to outwit the likely phantasmagorical being makes for some tense and vivid viewing.

KOLOBOS, by virtue of its participants taking it so seriously (the cast is really better than you have any reason to expect, especially lead Weber), pushes the pic into the “give it a shot” category.  I won’t reveal anymore about it, save that it conjures up themes that have since surfaced in such other praiseworthy works as Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension  and Sergi Vizcaino’s 3-D hoot Paranormal X-perience (if you’re a horror cineaste, I’ve probably said too much).

Fans of this movie will be delighted by the treatment Arrow Video has bestowed upon it.  It looks terrific, bristling with 1080p clarity and rich colors.  The widescreen transfer bolsters the work of d.p. Yoram Astrakan (previous incarnations have been on the dull side) and a prerequisite tense score by William Kidd.  Like with all Arrow titles, KOLOBOS also gets a cache of enticing extras, including interviews with Illa Volok (the faceless man) and composer Kidd, a making-of documentary, audio commentary by Daniel Liatowitsch and David Todd Ocvirk, an image gallery, the theatrical trailer and an early Super 8 movie by codirector Liatowitsch.

Treading on familiar territory, KOLOBOS gets there by way of a strange and clever cinematic detour – one that those seeking alternative routes for this kind of pic might consider taking.

KOLOBOS. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA or LCPM 2.0. Arrow Video/MVDvisual. CAT # AV190. SRP: $39.95.

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Futuristic Classic Horror

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2019

Ever since Universal set the Dracula and Frankenstein stories in contemporary times (contemporary, being the 1930s and 1940s), movie producers have been intrigued with the concept of  iconic monsters running amuck amongst our modern byways and highways (also, you save on period décor).  Truth be told, early 1930s Transylvania wasn’t THAT MUCH different from 1870s Transylvania.  This all changed in the post-war era, aka The Atomic Age.

 

Not surprisingly, the first suits to glom on to a supersonic jet-propelled version of the Mary Shelly story were enterprising moguls Aubrey Schenck and Howard W. Koch – the founders of the low-budget company Bel-Air Pictures.  Horror, after all, is what started their B-movie enterprise (The Black Sleep) before subsequently notching film noir, rock ‘n’ roll, and westerns under their faux leather belts.  Since returning to one’s roots is exploitation filmmaking manna from heaven, Schenck and director Koch flicked a leftover dashboard switch from an Enola Gay knockoff, added a solid helping of disbelief, and, voila!, the infamous (and thoroughly entertaining) 1958 epic FRANKENSTEIN 1970 was born.

The plot is a WTF gem.  In 1970 (originally 1960, but the powers that be thought it not sci-fi enough; nevertheless, the Seventies as depicted here are sooooooo 1958), the aged, living descendent of the original Dr. Frankenstein ekes out a humble existence in his ancestors’ mammoth Bavarian castle.  Approached by a movie/TV crew, interested in filming a 100th anniversary of the monster who terrorized the world, Baron Victor von Frankenstein (played beautifully by Boris Karloff) initially refuses, but changes his mind when the production company acquiesces to his demand that they can film their program on the condition that they buy him a nuclear reactor (apparently, TV stations have plenty of contacts, OR, by 1970, anyone can purchase atomic weaponry if they have the bucks).

Why no one questions his motives is the very definition of “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,” since there are, as they say on the ID Channel, “signs.”  And here is the one genuinely fascinating aspect of the narrative, coscripted by Richard Landau and George Worthing Yates (from a story by Schenck and Charles Moses), whose collective credits include such essential grindhouse fare as Voodoo Island, The Pharaoh’s Curse, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Attack of the Puppet People, etc (okay, admittedly Yates was involved with THEM!).  Frankenstein, known throughout the land as a benevolent, genial kind of dude, was captured and tortured by the Nazis during WWII.  He spent most of the war as POW in a concentration camp, where he was disfigured for disobedience.  Eventually, he came ’round, which releases his family’s notorious batshit crazy gene.  And, there’s the gold nugget that moves and grooves FRANKENSTEIN 1970.

As indicated, no one questions his desire to mess with atomic energy in his dungeon; strangely enough, no one in the film company likewise is curious why so many cast members/crew/castle workers are disappearing at an alarming rate.  Do I even have to say it?  Things do not end well (the shake-and-bake ending is a howl).

Karloff, naturally, commands FRANKENSTEIN 1970; the remaining cast comprise a mixed bag of thesps, some notable, others a disaster.  In the former column is stuntman-turned-actor Don “Red” Barry as Douglas Row, the wise-cracking director/producer of the movie-within-the-movie.  His gorgeous girl Friday (aka, continuity girl) is the movie-maker’s former wife, the snarky Judy Stevens (Charlotte Austin, one of the decade’s most beauteous starlets, and not a bad actress).  Key on-screen screamer is platinum bombshell Jana Lund (the fade-in of the movie, which turns out to be a staged chase sequence has become legend – often prefacing many a horror fest on TV; it was, for years, a major lure in the opening montage of WOR-TV’s Supernatural Theater).  If only the whole meshugaas had displayed such showmanship.  Other reputable cast members include Norbert Schiller, Rudolph Anders, and Mike Lane (as the Monster).

In the latter group is…well, really only one name – the supposed romantic lead, a local LA talk-show stiff named Tom Duggan.  He’s absolutely terrible (which admittedly ratchets up the camp factor), unable to convey emotion during the most tense moments.  He wears a smarmy grin throughout, as if auditioning as a replacement for Ralph Edwards on This is Your LifeSIDEBAR:  Duggan’s participation was likely a perk that could be used as publicity gimmick; alas, this, too, failed, when he welcomed his former costars Barry and Austin to help promote the pic on his television series.  They both showed up three sheets to the wind, and essentially trashed the movie in front of a live audience.  As usual, Duggan grinned like the sock monkey he was (FYI, Austin, now 86, provides a second audio track on this Blu-Ray, along with Bob Burns and Tom Weaver).

Will Hutchins told me that the movie was mostly shot on Stage 3 at Warner Bros. (using existing interiors from the recently completed Diana Barrymore biopic Too Much too Soon), soundstage space rented by Schenck and Koch (they were hoping Warners would pick-up the title like their other 1958 offering, the noir thriller Violent Road; they didn’t, and FRANKENSTEIN ended up at Allied Artists, where it played on a double-bill with House on Haunted Hill).  During breaks on Sugarfoot, Will would scoot over to the FRANKENSTEIN 1970 company and watch Karloff from the wings (“He was amazing, doing pages of dialog in one take!  What floored me was his graciousness and kindness.  He’d joke with cast and crew, ask about family members…Then, the director would shout ‘ACTION!,’ and, in an instant, the smile would turn to a scowl and a glare that would freeze your blood, and he’d go on ‘I have created a MONSTER for the Atomic Age!’ Incredible.”).  Another disappointment for Schenck and Koch came via the censors.  Karloff’s bone-crushing machine (to get rid of unusable body parts), while not graphically shown, made a grisly grinding sound.  The Breen Office ordered the producers to replace it with another piece of audio.  The unfortunate choice of a trap door into an underground moat effect backfired with a vengeance, as it was basically a toilet flushing.  The only theater/drive-in screams during these sequences were of laughter variety.

Karloff aside, there are genuine attributes to this opus – the main one being the stunning black-and-white/CinemaScope photography (unusual for this kind of movie) of the great Carl Guthrie.  The creepy score, a now-horror standard of shrieking crescendos, came from the prolific quill of Paul Dunlap.  The Warner Archive Blu-Ray is excellent, and the availability of FRANKENSTEIN 1970 in 1080p High Definition practically makes it a must for an annual Halloween unfurling.

 

Schlocky producers weren’t the only ones who saw the benefits of updating classic goth tales to modern environs.  Hammer Films decided to take a chance at the vampire-in-hippie-land stakes (no pun) when, in 1972, they released Dracula, AD 1972.  It was a pot well-sweetened (if not boiled) as the two protagonists were the stars who helped put the studio on the map:  Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, reprising their iconic roles as Van Helsing (well the great-great-great grandson of) and the screen’s Technicolor Nosferatu.  I remember the pic started out well, but I couldn’t connect to the Stoker character roaming through 1970s culture.  The addition of evil hippie Johnny Alucard (an “oh, HELL, no!” play-on-names throwback to Universal’s 1943 Robert Siodmak classic Son of Dracula, minus the atmosphere) had me screaming “Oy vey!”  That said, with a game cast, including Stephanie Beacham as Cushing’s granddaughter and Caroline Munro as basically “hot hippie girl,” the movie ended up turning a tidy profit for Hammer and Warner Bros.  Director Alan Gibson, Cushing and Lee were called back to active duty for the inevitable sequel, 1973’s THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (a better title, and a better movie).  To give this pic any credibility, one must divorce it from the classic Hammer universe of the 1950s and 1960s.  When you do that, it’s fun, if not ridiculous Saturday afternoon fare.  Van Helsing, realizing that Drac’s disciples still flourish, must hunt them down – again with assist from granddaughter Jessica (with AbFab‘s Joanna Lumley replacing Beacham).  Soon, things take a turn for the worse; not only are disciples rampant, but their contaminator, Dracula himself, still lives.  Tossing away the crypts and churchyard refuge, the new Drac is a Howard Hughesian billionaire business magnate, living in a monolithic skyscraper tower.  His plan isn’t merely to convert humans to vampirism.  He’s had it with that – it’s now just take out the entire human race with biological warfare.  While you’re still shaking your heads, bear in mind that this kwazy movie (as contrived by Don Houghton) also includes detours into sci-fi, crime thrillers and even secret agent Bond nonsense.  When you’re this far out – why not go the limit?  With a supporting cast, including such stalwart performers as Freddie Jones, William Franklyn, Richard Vernon, Patrick Barr, and Valerie Van Ost, draped in trippy 1970s zoom-lensed candy colors by Brian Probyn (oh, for the days of Jack Asher and Arthur Grant!), and a John Cacavas pop score more suitable to Z Cars than a Hammer flick, SATANIC RITES checks off all the grindhouse boxes.

Apparently, it was too much for even Hammer fans to accept; the picture didn’t do particularly well (at least here in the States).  It was dropped by Warners, and the rights of RITES went to a variety of exploitation outfits (where it was oft retitled Count Dracula and his Vampire Bride), playing bottom-half bills and drive-ins throughout the Seventies/early Eighties (and then hitting the P.D. home video market in unwatchable, washed-out VHS copies).

It’s nice that The Warner Archive Collection has not only resurrected RITES, but given it a Blu-Ray 1080p upgrade.  While the movie remains the type of car-wreck pic viewers gawk at for no other reason than to verify it exists, it’s carrot of being the final Van Helsing/Dracula confrontation between Cushing and Lee makes it quintessential for Hammer completists.

FRANKENSTEIN 1970. Black and white. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  CAT # 1000727118.

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # 1000730510.

Both released through the Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Entertainment.  SRP: $21.99@

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

 

Frozen Veggies

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2019

“An intellectual carrot!  The mind boggles!”  So spaketh the prize-winning journalist stranded in a military Arctic research station under invasion from an outer space alien in Howard Hawks’ classic 1951 masterpiece THE THING (aka, The Thing From Another World), now (at last) on Blu-Ray from the inhabitants at the Warner Archive Collection.

The movie has long been controversial, as to who really directed it.  Certainly, it’s a Howard Hawks production, so his influence is evident (much like Lubitsch on Borzage’s 1936 comedy Desire); but this pic is SO Howard Hawks (from the overlapping dialog to the male-female crackling sexual byplay, etc., etc.) that the claims editor-turned-director Christian Nyby (known mostly for his TV work) helmed this brilliant exercise in claustrophobic terror all by his lonesome is often hard to swallow.

Cast and crew members are likewise divided.  Star Kenneth Tobey swore that Hawks directed the movie; James Arness definitely places Nyby in control.  Personally, I believe Hawks (literally) was calling the shots.  In any event, without A-list names, and a ridiculously low budget ($40,000), THE THING didn’t exactly warrant DGA arbitration.  The fact that, back in 1951, it helped save RKO from going under due to the excesses of owner Howard Hughes is one of those “ain’t life a bitch?” tales that wizened industry veterans still tell around the campfire.

The movie, in any case, was a dream come true for Hawks.  He had long been fascinated with the horror genre, and, as early as 1944, wanted to do a vampire pic (at Warners).  He even brought William Faulkner on board to craft the screenplay (to take place in the bayous of the Deep South).  The finished product, Dreadful Hollow, does exist as a script (and it’s amazing that no one’s bothered to tackle it); it never reached fruition due to Jack Warner’s hemming and hawing, and finally admitting to Hawks that “we don’t do those kind of pictures here.”  Well, they did do them at RKO – at least Val Lewton had.  And this modern upgrade of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s 1938 chiller Who Goes There? beautifully melded the horror genre to the up-and-coming sci-fi phenomenon of the 1950s (in addition to THE THING, 1951 was also the year of Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, Paramount’s When Worlds Collide and Columbia’s Five; ironically, Warners, who gave Hawks such tsuris, would jump into the fray with one the best of them  via The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, released in 1952).

The narrative, a superb study of isolated suspense, takes place in one of the director’s typical mini-societies; the Arctic unit is not unlike the airport in Only Angels Have Wings, the brownstone in Ball of Fire, the African farm in Hatari! or the jails in Rio Bravo and El Dorado.  It should be noted that a far more faithful adaptation of the Campbell story would emerge in 1982 with John Carpenter’s excellent remake (the creature’s shape-shifting abilities are key in the 1938 work; it’s totally omitted from the Hawks version, mostly due to the budget restrictions).  What most intrigued Hawks was the fact that the gargantuan extraterrestrial visitor was, in essence, a space vampire.  While vegetable in anatomical construction (hey, some plants CAN be nasty), thus immune to bullets or amputation (it merely grows back severed limbs), the thing thrives on human blood.

The famous “we’ve found a flying saucer” moment (a national goose-flesh raiser obsession since the 1947 Roswell incident) reveals the spacecraft frozen under the surface (it was actually filmed at the San Fernando Valley RKO Ranch in 100 degree heat; not a fun shoot for the Arctic parka-wearing actors).  Blowing it out destroys the ship, but exhumes its pilot, trapped in a massive block of ice.  Carelessness thaws it out, and the monster goes on a rampage, killing and drinking the life out of everything thing in sight, human and canine.

Worse, the station does not comprise a group of unified happy campers; factions break off consisting of the pure military, led by Captain Patrick Hendry (Tobey) and the scientific community, featuring the Atomic Age’s renovated mad doctor, Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite).  In the middle is the aforementioned journalist, Ned Scott, desperately trying to get a story, but stymied by red tape, ignorance and stupidity.  While Tobey gets top male billing, the actual hero (as far as I’m concerned) is Scott, played by the terrific character actor Douglas Spencer.  Spencer, who bore a slight resemblance to former newshound Charlie Lederer (who, coincidentally, also wrote the movie’s script, along with assist from Ben Hecht and Hawks), reveals that his character is a veteran from the late 1920s – a snarky, wily and resourceful writer who recalls his first glimpse at tabloid sensationalism by bringing up the 1927 Judd Gray-Ruth Snyder case (the real-life murder that was the basis for James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity); Scott also reminiscences about WWII (likely where he met and befriended many of the officers in the pic).  That he protects the outrages of Carrington toward the end (when he is finally permitted to wire his story) merely further serves to elevate his status as a writer and a mensch, or, in pure Hawksian terms, a professional (“Good for you, Scotty,” says James Young’s Lieutenant Eddie Dykes with respect).

The rest of the cast consists of recognizable supporting players, including John Dierkes, Eduard Franz, Robert Nichols, Paul Frees (the voiceover maestro), George Fenneman (Groucho’s announcer on You Bet Your Life), future producer William Self, Edmund Breon and David McMahon.  Hawks’ discovery Dewey Martin plays the courageous Crew Chief Bob; as Nikki Nicholson, top-billed beautiful actress Margaret Sheridan (another Hawks find) is in looks, demeanor and intelligence what we cineastes classify as the perfect Howard Hawks woman, joining the ranks of  Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck, Lauren Bacall, Ann Sheridan and Angie Dickinson.  Of course, the major star of THE THING is the title entity, a career-making performance that helped James Arness cinch his way into TV history four years later as the lead on Gunsmoke (ironically, the 6’7” actor was embarrassed by his role, refusing to even attend the premiere).

For its time, the special effects in THE THING are quite amazing (they still hold up today), and, indeed, while liberally (and cleverly) dosed with desperate humor (including references to other Hawks movies – a Sergeant York aside regarding shooting prowess), the picture contains several sequences of unadulterated jump-out shocks.  Back in the 1970s, I screened a 16MM print for an apartment full of friends, and, during the “open the door” scene, the entire room erupted in screams.

THE THING was a mammoth hit in 1951 (knowing my love for this genre, my parents’ friends confided to me that it was the only horror movie they ever saw/liked).  Nevertheless, cuts were made to the negative, resulting in a slightly shortened version, or, according to what a film collector told me in the 1980s (he was then in his mid-late fifties), a butchery – maintaining that he and a friend saw a preview in early 1951, and that the movie ran over two hours.  He thought it was, in that form, one of the greatest pictures he had ever seen.  By the time, THE THING went into general release in April of that year, it was down to the standard 87-minute version that exists today.  I’ve never met anyone else who mentioned this, but he swore by it (the fact that Hawks’ other RKO production from the same period, The Big Sky, DID have nearly a half hour restored, tends to bear him out).  That said, restorations of several minutes were made in the 1980s (usually from washed-out 16MM prints); this now has been corrected, and this new Blu-Ray from Warner Archive looks tremendous – completely all-35MM. It’s truly a joy to see Russell Harlan’s great photography with 1080p detail, and to listen to noise-free mono audio featuring Dimitri Tiomkin’s (no pun) chilling  theremin-fueled score.  “Keep watching the skies.”

THE THING From Another World. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. CAT # WAC 476872BR. SRP: $21.99.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

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Grindhouse Arthouse

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2019

Every so often, movies meant for the lower depths attain a lofty status, due to the tendencies of the more liberal critics.  Occasionally, some of these pics – and even their directors – gain cult followings, shelves of awards and (usually too late) posthumous acclaim.  Two such entries (DRACULA’S FINACEE and THE ORCHARD END MURDER) have now become available on luxurious Blu-Ray editions via the cineastes at Kino-Lorber, in conjunction with Redemption Films.

 

The works of French writer/director Jean Rollin are an acquired taste.  His trademark junior high school scenarios, lip-biting dialog (at least when translated), strange character development (I’m being kind) and bizarre structure are transcended by a dreamlike fantasy style that truly few directors (especially today) are capable of.  Rollin also gets mucho points for his absolute love and enthusiasm of/for his subjects (more so, the extraordinary females he manages to “discover” and cast in these swirling, erotic sanguine fantasies).  I try to rarely use the word (or any derivative of) “poetry” when describing modern cinema, specifically grindhouse stuff, but, in all actuality, there’s really no other way to brand Jean Rollin’s take on movie-making.  Some shots may be off, others may not exactly connect continuity-wise, but the sweeping camera movements at dusk and dawn of the misty French countryside and ocean shores with their sensational vampire women nakedly (and seemingly) floating across the landscapes are undeniably addictive and beautiful.  The plots are fantastic, bordering on inane, but the imagery memorable in that Bunuel/Dali way (luscious vampires emerging from grandfather clocks, hauntingly gorgeous undeadizens using coffins as rowboats…).  Like we Hammer fans learned eons ago, vampirism and sexuality are strongly linked.  In Jean Rollins’ universe, it’s Terence Fisher on steroids (even with those plastic fork fangs).  The coitus/bloodletting has regularly prevented Rollins’ movies from being screened intact, if at all. Fortunately, home video has rectified this egregious error; his pics can now be viewed complete and uncut, and in spectacular 1080p High Definition.  The latest to get this treatment is 2002’s DRACULA’S FIANCEE (La fiancée de Dracula).  As one might surmise, a break-ice synopsis isn’t really necessary.  Getting from point A to point B, however, is a totally different matter.

The movie opens in a cemetery at midnight. Watching the ritual of heavenly-hellish vampire-vamp (Sandrine Thoquet), aided by dwarf underlings, rise and prepare to prowl are the righteous (and incredibly unpleasant) Van Helsing character (here simply named Le professeur, and portrayed with a coldness only a puritan asshole could love by Jacques Regis) and his young protégé, the aroused (and authentically stupid) Eric (Denis Talleron).  After dispatching her and then doing same to a corrupted nubile teen vixen, they proceed to The Order of the White Virgins, a convent where all the nuns have gone insane.  No, seriously – they’re harboring and preparing Isabelle (Cyrille Iste), a chosen bride for the famed fangsta, and have suffered the consequences.  They skip across the screen, mumble childish babble, play with toys, giggle like lovesick schoolgirls and will even resort to murder to hold the young woman hostage without realizing that their insanity may now be working for the “other side.”

The nunnery provides a plethora of wacky and commendable visual feasts and goodies.  And, this being a Jean Rollin flick, nothing or no one is spared.  CASE IN POINT: for apparently no discernable reason, other than titillation, at the witching hour, in gallops former French adult star (and Rollin favorite) Brigitte Lahaie, atop a jet black horse.  She dismounts, seeks out the “bride,” seduces her to weigh whether she’s worthy, deems her approval, mounts up and, satiated, rides off into the darkness.

It’s that kind of a movie.

Soon, Drac himself (Thomas Desfosse) makes an appearance, primped and primed for the honeymoon (and, like all the males in this opus, is portrayed in an uninteresting, dullard manner; mercifully, his screen time is brief).  The final ritual offers up some additional visual surprises and delights highlighted by killing off the annoying humans – most prominently, the men, since like all Rollin fans (and movie-goers in general) know, women cine-characters are always way more fascinating, complex and engrossing.

Typical of Rollin’s filmography, DRACULA’S FIANCEE is lushly photographed (in widescreen) by Norbert Marfaing-Sintes, and offers an appropriate score by Philippe D’Aram.  Seeing nuns as idiots, and doing naughty things is always a perk, and just makes this entry particularly worthy.

Kino-Lorber/Redemption has crammed the platter with a couple of terrific extras, including audio commentary by Rollin scholar Samm Deighan.  The best supplement is an entire separate feature-film, the 58-minute 1989 made-for-TV curiosity LOST IN NEW YORK (Perdues dans New York). Heralded as the director’s version of Alice in Wonderland, the movie chronicles two aged sorceresses (one being noted film editor Nathalie Perrey), endowed with fantastic supernatural powers, who met while young, vibrant women and transported themselves to New York City (where they engaged in a multi-cultural/multi-ethnic hooking up and conjuring odyssey that ended in tragedy – their being separated).

It’s an uncharacteristic piece for Rollin, as, while the younger incarnations of the femmes are striking (real-life sibs Adeline Abitbol and Funny Abitbol), the camerawork (Max Monteillet) isn’t up to his usual standards.  Worse, rather than select mystical, beauteous settings, the locations (it was indeed shot in Le Grande Apple) are the sleaziest, dingiest, grimiest that one could imagine (perhaps they were grabbing back alley material on the cuff).  More amusing is the fact that the two protagonists are major movie fans, and relate their plights to classic, renowned cinema; that said, Rollin (slyly, if not conceitedly) slips in most if not all his titles along with Citizen Kane, etc.  Oy!

 

Up until now, 1981’s THE ORCHARD END MURDER has been considered a hen’s tooth horror-thriller – a 49-minute UK pic that was pretty much impossible to find, save in unwatchable bootlegs.  That’s all been rectified in this top-drawer High Def 1080p remaster/restoration.

The mini-epic follows the weekend getaway of a young couple, Pauline (Tracy Hyde) and Mike (Mark Hardy), just at the beginning of their dating cycle.  Mike sweetens the (sex) pot by inviting his smashing new girlfriend to the picturesque Kent rural environs where he is to participate in a cricket match.  Once there, Mike is corralled by the locals at a fete, leaving a bored Pauline feeling abandoned.  She makes the most of her desertion by exploring the lush rural surroundings, eventually finding the picture-postcard home of the village railway master (Bill Wallis), a kindly, middle-aged raconteur who invites her in for tea.  Eventually, their pleasant conversation turns a bit weird, underlined when he introduces Pauline to Ewen (Clive Mantle), a brutish neighbor/laborer, who essentially barges in unannounced.

Understandably unnerved, if not unabashedly frightened, Pauline makes her excuses and departs, quickly heading back to the festivities.  As this is a horror entry, we don’t have to fill in the blanks.  She is raped, murdered and buried amongst tons of apples ready for the harvest.

What happens to the culprits responsible is a twist and a turn – and one that stretches into many years after the awful event.  Suffice to say, THE ORCHARD END MURDER is based on a true story that occurred in 1966.

Writer/director Christian Marnham is to be commended.  The movie superbly plays like a top-notch episode of a current British crime drama (albeit one without a star investigative team).  The performances are excellent, primarily that of Wallis as the station master and former child star Hyde as Pauline.  The fact that she was a child star intentionally makes her fate all the more terrifying and shocking; as Hyde herself reveals in a neat supplementary interview, her nudity and assault shocked audiences in 1981 (the movie opened in the UK as a mini-appendage to Gary Sherman’s Dead and Buried).  It should be noted that this film is the movie debut of the great Rik Mayall, who appears as a policeman.

THE ORCHARD END MURDER looks great on Blu-Ray, with Peter Jessop’s location photography absolutely stunning.  The images of a body hidden by bushels of apples is creepily beautiful, a credit to the macabre mind of Marnham.  A decent music track by Sam Slair completes the tidy package.  Other extras include an interview with Marnham, plus another work by the director – 1970’s The Showman, a documentary short.

THE ORCHARD END MURDER is a perfect way to commence a grindhouse night and, I suspect, would work quite well as the lead-in for Sidney Hayers’ 1971 UK giallo Assault (should that ever become available here in the States).

 

DRACULA’S FIANCEE/LOST IN NEW YORK. Both color and widescreen [1.66:1]; 1080p High Definition; DTS-HD MA [French w/English subtitles]. CAT # K23592.

THE ORCHARD END MURDER. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; DTS-HD MA. CAT # K22927.

Released through Kino-Lorber/Redemption Films.  SRP: $29.95@

 

 

A Death of Fresh Air

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2019

Taking a pulpy page from the 1940s Universal ghoulash Bs (more monsters than you can stick a stake at), exploitation producers Aubrey Schenck and Howard W. Koch brought the concept into the 1950s with one change: instead of more classic monsters per reel, their update comprised more classic monster actors. This worked admirably well for their (then-new) indie Bel-Air company when they unveiled THE BLACK SLEEP (now available in dazzling 1080p High Def Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios) before appreciative audiences in 1956.

Koch’s and Schenck’s wise choice of a grand guignol Gerald Drayson Adams’ source-work allowed scripter John C. Higgins to pull out all the horror stops and surround his nutty scenario with lightning storms, creepy castles, dungeons of mutants, plus the revelation that Lon Chaney, Jr.’s character was once a brilliant surgeon!

Opening on execution day in an English prison, condemned recently graduated med student (and I’m trying to write this with a straight face) Gordon Ramsay (aka, the romantic lead Herbert Rudley, the 1950s’ Lewis Stone who never looked young – even when he was) is visited by his idol, the revered Dr. Joel Cadman (a hand-wringing Basil Rathbone), who offers him a cleaner way out – drinking a special potion, rather than facing a cheering bloodthirsty public.  Ramsay agrees, and the next thing he knows, his “corpse” has been reanimated, due to Cadman’s expertise and knowledge of a secret taboo drug, known as “the black sleep.”  It’s like being dead, only better ’cause you’re alive!

Cadman’s true calling is his experimental brain surgery, the type which got his protégée in trouble to begin with. You see, the doc’s gorgeous wife fell into a coma that even the black sleep can’t slap her out of.  A rather graphic (especially for 1956) demonstration of brain functions arouses Ramsay more than a night in an Amsterdam bordello.  And soon these two cooperatin’ ghouls are a couple of operatin’ fools.

But it’s waaaaayyyy creepier than that.  Dr. C. has been withholding several secrets.  First off, his experimenting has produced a number of failures (encompassing not only disappearing locals, but colleagues, like Chaney, formerly Professor Monroe – now Mungo!).  But many of these rejects aren’t dead – they’re residents in the doctor’s dungeon of freaks, and comprise lobotomized psycho women (Sally Yarnell), religious fanatics (John Carradine) and tear you limb-from-limb brutes (Tor Johnson).  All of this is viewed by the sinister mute butler, Casimir (poor Bela Lugosi, in his last fully-completed role).  Even worse, Cadman has jovial body snatcher Odo (Akim Tamiroff) on call, who, if freshly dead specimens aren’t available, will redefine the business mantra of “supply and demand” in its most macabre terms.  In short, deviled ham and brains are on display in equal deluxe portions.

But there’s even more.  Ramsay falls in love with Laurie (Patricia Blake), the castle’s beautiful maid, in reality Mungo’s daughter, out to gather enough info to send the sawbones to the gallows.  Also in Cadman’s  employ is a sadistic matron, Daphne (Phyllis Stanley), sort of a Nurse Ratched for the hatchet set (won’t give anything away, but her fate is quite deservedly ugly).

THE BLACK SLEEP, as directed by veteran journeyman director Reginald La Borg (Weird Woman, The Mummy’s Ghost, Diary of a Madman) moves at a fairly rapid pace.  By the time the castle freaks take over the asylum, it’s a 24/7 Halloween free-for-all.

This movie genuinely is as kooky as it sounds, and  SLEEP’s become a bona fide cult classic, due to constant broadcasts on TV’s Chiller Theater during the 1960s (a choice monster rally clip was used in their lead-in montage for years).

FUN FACTS: Originally, Peter Lorre was named as the sardonic Odo, but, depending on who/what you want to believe, had scheduling conflicts or simply bowed out.  Tamiroff copped the part, due to the likelihood that Lorre’s costumes fit him perfectly; that said, sans Lorre’s snarkasm, Tamiroff’s grinning spare parts supplier comes off more frightening.  Which brings us to the pic’s infamous negative publicity that ultimately proved a boon at the box-office.  During the initial run, Stewart Cohen, a nine-year-old child with a heart condition, suffered a ruptured artery in the lobby of a theater showing SLEEP, and shortly thereafter was pronounced dead.  The idea that finally a horror flick lived up to reams of previous genre ballyhoo and ACTUALLY HAD SCARED SOMEONE TO DEATH helped add to the coffin-klatch’s coffers.  UA didn’t actively promote what would have been notorious bad taste, but didn’t go out of their way to hide this tragedy either.  The movie was part of a horror double-feature, the second offering being the far more superior Hammer title, The Quatermass X-periment, edited and retitled The Creeping Unknown for American release (the uncut Quatermass is also available through Kino-Lorber, allowing us cineastes to recreate the 1956 twofer).

The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray of THE BLACK SLEEP is everything horror/psychotronic fans could hope for, beautifully remastered in the original widescreen aspect ratio (1.85:1), showcasing Gordon Avil’s atmospheric black-and-white cinematography.  A brooding/booming score by Les Baxter accompanies the on-screen goth nightmares, probably the reason (for good or ill) that he became AIP’s monster movie music maestro during the Sixties.

Cool extras include audio commentary by Tom Weaver and David Schecter and a Trailers from Hell segment with host Joe Dante.  Even with blood-spattering CGI ruling today’s kiddie fare, urchins under ten will nevertheless still probably be kept awake for years after sampling a dose of THE BLACK SLEEP.

THE BLACK SLEEP. Black and white. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios. CAT # K20066.  SRP: $29.95.

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Deutschland Uber Malice

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2019

If Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino teamed up with David Lynch and Kinji Fukasaku to smoke some weed they copped off Jordan Peele at Guy Ritchie’s house, the result couldn’t be a more trippy, gonzo, batshit crazy cinematic excursion on-screen than 2017’s SNOWFLAKE.  Fortunately, for the ever cost-conscious indie community, the aforementioned overpriced artistes’ services weren’t required, as these positions were admirably filled by director Adolfo J. Kolmerer (with guest assist from William James) and writer Arend Remmers in this German-made wacked horror-sci-fi-action-adventure-fantasy, now on Blu-Ray from the supposed sane suits at Artsploitation Films (in league with the evil forces at Raven Banner).

The movie almost defies explanation, but essentially plays like a Rod Serling phantasmagorical take on a John Wick bloodbath.  Two psychotic hitmen, Javid and Tan (Reeza Brojerdi, Erkan Acar), who love their gangsta work, alternately search for the killers of their families in a not-so-near futuristic Berlin.  What they find creeps them out.  Every breath they take, every move they make is/has been meticulously scripted by a movie-loving dentist Arend (Alexander Schubert), out to create the most violent sick-flick ever lensed.  Their tracking him down makes matters only worse, as while one begins torturing the doc (who’s as perplexed by these events as the killers are), the other is reading each pummel in real time – you know, as its happening.  The hitmens’ disbelief is finally salved, but they’re faced with a dilemma:  do they kill this cavity-filling screenwriter, or, collaborate with him and help “create their future”?  These possibilities are beautifully cinematically realized as Javid and Tan merrily skip down the psychopath to their fates (and vocation) in this beyond loopy modern fairy tale, coming across Hyper Electric Man (Mathis Landwehr), singing angel nightclub music interludes, a fellow parent-killer hunter and her failed bodyguard companion (Xenia Assenza, David Masterson) a demonic cult, cannibal serial killers, blind assassins, an armed Jesus Christ, and more.  All of this is watched over by the title character’s heavenly blood-spattered guardian angel (Judith Hoersch), who may or may not be on their side.  And, BTW, do they kill the dentist afterward to ensure he never writes another word that could harm them?

Yes, SNOWFLAKE (aka, Schneeflockchen) really IS that crazy.  It’s also that much fun and exciting.  The movie avoids pretentiousness and goes for the jugular.  And succeeds stupendously.

It certainly affected the cast and crew, who spent nearly four years – off and on – getting the pic made, working gratis and using hijacked software and borrowed equipment.  Amazingly, thanks to the director and d.p. Konstantin Freyer, SNOWFLAKE doesn’t exhibit any of its no-budget roots; it really looks like a movie!

SNOWFLAKE debuted at many international film festivals, and pretty much copped awards at each one (and deservedly so).  I suspect it’s the kind of movie Fritz Lang would have loved, to say nothing of James Whale, Jacques Tourneur and Jodi Arias.

The Artsploitation Blu-Ray looks da berries in widescreen 1080p, and sounds just as good in 5.1 surround (the flick is appended by an excellent score, courtesy of composer Roman Fleischer.  And did we say there are songs?); it is (mostly) in German with English subtitles.  Extras include nearly an hour of behind-the-scenes footage and a gallery of Artsploitation trailers.

This movie really has something to please every picture-goer who can already smell the popcorn at the mere mention of the words “Times Square.”  Simultaneously, there’s the laughing at the “Sssssshhhh!!!” MoMA-MoFos factor, as SNOWFLAKE is arthouse worthy inventive and ingenious, but demands shrieks of “Oh, shit!” Definitely something different, be prepared to have your mind blown.

SNOWFLAKE. Color. Widescreen [2.39:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 stereo-surround [German w/English subtitles]; Artsploitation/Raven Banner. CAT # ART59B.  SRP: $10.69.

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Grindhouse: Psychotronic Tonic

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2019

There’s a difference between Bad Cinema and Authentic Bad Cinema.  The former can be enjoyed for all its shortcomings, as the bungled end result remains entertaining (often for all the wrong reasons).  Hey, entertainment is entertainment.  The latter is beyond reproach, and cannot be saved even with free Oprah cars as a lure.  A long-desired pair of the former, ASTRO-ZOMBIES and THE INCREDIBLE TWO-HEADED TRANSPLANT, have been lovingly restored – to Blu-Ray no less – and are now available to collectors of the bad and the booty-full, thanks to the exploitation meisters at Kino-Lorber (and, IE/Worldwide Entertainment/Jack H. Harris Enterprises and 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios).

 

1968’s ASTRO-ZOMBIES is like giving a deranged child a movie camera, and access to a sorta name cast.  That deranged child is none other than the notorious Ted V. Mikels, who produced and directed this glorious mess that (I’m not kidding) has haunted me since the 1960s.  To say that Mikels makes Ed Wood look like Erich von Stroheim, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch “put ta-gither!” is an understatement.  And, yet, for some hellish reason, it all melds into a watchable cinematic train-wreck that practically defies explanation (but I’ll try).  Oh, yeah – Mikels also co-wrote this extra chromosome celluloid heap with co-Executive Producer Wayne Rogers (yeah, that Wayne Rogers)!

ASTRO-ZOMBIES, admittedly one of the greatest drive-in titles ever, concerns a murderous invasion upon L.A. citizenry by hulking helmet-wearing Mars Attacks-looking muthafuckas.  No, they’re not aliens from Uranus or any other body part, but rather the monstrous creation of mad scientist John Carradine, in cahoots with hunchbacked, stinky assistant (wait for it) Franchot (William Bagdad).  These gruesome killings soon pique the interest of the CIA, and, apparently the Mexican arm of the Acapulco 007 club, who send their best agents to help destroy these creatures.

Now, trying to combine the Bond mania with horror and sci-fi seemed a win/win in 1968 – and I suppose it was.  Add naked babes on slabs, bikini-clad, go-go boot-wearing chippies and Automan (who creatively and efficiently has a flashlight in his head) and you’ve got the makings of one wild keg party. But it gets better.  Aside from Carradine (joyfully over-the-top as long as the paycheck clears) is an ensemble cast psychotronians usually can only dream of.  As the head Mexican investigator, Blackboard Jungle‘s Rafael Campos excels as Juan.  Then, before you can say “faster pussycat, kill…kill” viewers are introduced to evil, busty Dragon Lady, none other than Russ Meyer’s famed babe Tura Satana.  And the CIA dude orchestrating the zombie take-down is Wendell Corey.  Truth be told, Satana’s brief participation almost looks bootlegged, as if Mikels spotted her in a restaurant, and rolled a hidden 16MM camera with the intention of dubbing in dialog later.  Worse is Corey, who practically is in tears during his scenes, wondering how it all ever came to this.

Earlier I mentioned how this movie haunted me.  I’ll tell you why.  Prior to its “release,” the leading monster magazines published stills and one lobbycard of an eyeglass-wearing suburbia middle-class dude with a machete sticking out of his head.  How could you NOT wanna see that?  Short answer: you can’t.

The genius of ineptitude throughout ASTRO-ZOMBIES goes beyond the narrative, acting, direction and writing.  Falling right in line is the music (by Nico Karaski), the editing (by auteur Mikels) and the photography (Robert Maxwell).  Another enticing psychotronic come-on comprises the main titles, which bear no relation to ANYTHING in the movie, but encompass a series of wind-up toys bumping into each other.

Extras in the excellent widescreen High-Def Kino Blu-Ray include three commentaries: one by Mikels, the RiffTrax version with Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, and one by horror flick scholar Chris Alexander.  There’s also the theatrical trailer, which might become a standard for every screening you ever hold.  WARNING: to friends who dare you to come up with something different on movie night – you asked for it!

 

Because ONE 1970’s two-headed monster flick wasn’t enough, AIP, possibly keen on starting a genre, had to come up with a second rendition.  Now, fans of the decade and exploitation know exactly what we’re talking about – 1972’s The Thing with Two Heads, that classic where racist Ray Milland’s toupee-tussled melon is forced to share a body with felon Rosey Grier.  It’s a masterpiece.  Prior to that, however, was the studio’s pickup of a lesser-known version, 1971’s THE INCREDIBLE TWO-HEADED TRANSPLANT.  Elements of a similar scenario are present because, after all, how many two-headed grafting movies can you come up with?

Here, the dual protagonists are psycho-rapist on the run Cass (Albert Cole) and simple-minded gargantuan handyman Danny (John Bloom).  The mad doctor who envisions this splicing is Roger Girard, a brilliant surgeon who dropped out of the medical community when the MDA decided that head-grafting wasn’t kosher.  Independently wealthy, he lives in a mansion with his super-gorgeous bikini-wearing wife Linda (The Munsters‘ Pat Priest) and a bonkers aged physician/assistant, Max (noir’s repugnant go-to thug Berry Kroeger).  This unorthodox doc is flick-fave Bruce Dern, caught in the middle of some weird career moves.  While he had indeed appeared in some biker pics, he also had, by this time, racked up an impressive array of TV work.  TRANSPLANT also debuted around the same time as his far more high-profile gigs in The Cowboys and Silent Running (and he was a mere five years away from starring in Family Plot, Alfred Hitchcock’s final movie).  Whether a lark, a dare or a paycheck, he doesn’t flinch for a moment.  He goes all-Bruce Dern for the pic’s duration, giving us AIP- addicts top bang for our buck.

TRANSPLANT was cowritten by John Lawrence and James Gordon White (the latter who is interviewed on a supplement in this excellent Kino Blu-Ray, which also includes another RiffTrax audio commentary by them MST3000 dudes Nelson, Murphy and Corbett, the trailer and a radio spot) and directed by Anthony M. Lanza (who previously helmed the 1967 Dennis Hopper cycle pip The Glory Stompers).  It’s actually fairly professionally executed (at least, in comparison to ASTRO-ZOMBIES) with decent photography (Glenn Gano, Paul Hipp, Jack Steely) and music (John Barber), but nevertheless, as one might glean from the subject matter, contains some rather disturbing elements, the major one being that the show’s hero is Casey Kasem.  I can’t wrap my head around that – let alone two of them.

Both color and widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. SRP: $29.95@

ASTRO-ZOMBIES. Kino-Lorber/IE/Worldwide Entertainment/Jack H. Harris Enterprises. CAT # K20402.

THE INCREDIBLE TWO-HEADED TRANSPLANT.  Kino-Lorber/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios. CAT # K1940.

 

Kid’s in the Wall

HALLOWEEN BLITZ  2019

A TV Boomer favorite, Buzz Kulik’s 1974 Movie of the Week, BAD RONALD, slithers unto Blu-Ray from the handlers at the Warner Archive Collection.

Based on a very disturbing novel by John Holbrook Vance, BAD RONALD tells the tale of Ronald Wilby, the average American son of single mom Elaine, living the (supposed) good life in suburbia.  But, as they say on The ID Channel, there were signs.  Ronald is obsessed with the human anatomy – particularly those of nubile young females, and especially the one belonging to affluent next door neighbor Laurie (Shelley Spurlock).  Mommy thinks this is swell, since Ronald wants to pursue medicine (and has the smarts and curiosity to do so).  Ronald is also into creating gruesome, horrific graphic comics – imagining himself as a superhero, who often must resort to nasty methods to dispatch villains (villains being anyone who doesn’t agree with Ronald).

Ronald plans to enjoy the last days of summer by hanging out at neighbor Laurie’s pool – except he really isn’t welcome, and, as we learn, is chided by the “cool kids,” comprised of said secret love, her jock brother Duane (Ted Eccles), and, pretty much everyone else in the community.  Ostracized to the point of tears, Ronald skulks his way home, running into Laurie’s younger sib Carol (Angela Hoffman), who doubles down on the insults (“You’re weird, Ronald. So’s your mother!”).  Unable to stand the abuse anymore, Ronald decides to take matters into his own hands.  Literally.  He kills the girl, and buries her in a shallow grave.

“I’ve killed Carol Matthews,” he tells his loving mum.  As they both see his private practice future go up in smoke, mother does what every adoring parent must:  she walls her son up in a secret storage room in their Victorian abode.  Bringing him food, making him study and encouraging his penchant for violent art becomes the norm – as the police search for the missing boy, now an extremely desirable person of interest in Carol’s murder.

All of this is awful enough, but it gets worse.  Elaine’s short hospital stay results in the worst possible scenario for mother and son.  Complications set in, and mommy dies on the operating table.  Ronald decides to remain ensconced in the manse, sneaking out at night to steal food – giving rise to tales of “the neighborhood phantom.”

After a while, the property is sold, redecorated (the secret room undiscovered) and a new family moves in – with three sisters, two being stunning, blonde teenagers (one being dated by Duane).  Left alone for a long weekend as their parents attend to a family matter turns into a worst case scenario when a lusting, rapacious Ronald finally decides to make his presence known.

No doubt about it, BAD RONALD is a hell of a creepy ride.  Along with Paul Wendkos’ 1985 TV remake of The Bad Seed, it remains one of the small screen’s squirmiest triumphs.  Nearly 50 years after its broadcast debut, the pic still is the subject of much discussion among horror fans and movie-makers; RONALD‘s influence can be seen in such recent fare as The Boy and at least 200,000 Lifetime Movies.  Talk of a remake has been volleyed back and forth for years, the most notable one being announced back in 2010 (a more graphic 1992 French remake was filmed, though never released in the States).  Nevertheless, for its sheer simplicity (there’s no gore, no grandiose SFX – but some nice jump-out shocks) and typical 1970s TV Brady Bunch/Eight is Enough sitcom/drama look, nothing can surpass the original.

The cast is top-notch with lead Scott Jacoby in his Norman Bates breakout role.  As his mom, the great Kim Hunter delivers a smothering portrayal that only Tennessee Williams could love.  The remaining thesp roster is equally impressive, and includes Dabney Coleman, Pippa Scott, Cindy Fisher and Cindy and Lisa Eilbacher (as the new family residents), plus Aneta Corsaut, John Fiedler and Linda Watkins; furthermore, there’s John Larch as the detective investigating the case, who proves himself even less effective than he was essentially playing the identical part three years earlier in Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me.

Kulik’s direction, aided by Andrew Peter Marin’s script (or teleplay, as they were called back then), hits all the right shuddery moments, appended by Charles F. Wheeler’s rainbow-colored innocuous look (which, as indicated, contributes – intentionally or not – to the movie’s unnerving effect); likewise, the era’s TV composer extraordinaire Fred Karlin delivers a suitable, tense score.

An excellent Blu-Ray transfer, BAD RONALD holds up remarkably well.  Forty-five years after its debut, it’ll still creep you out.

BAD RONALD. Color. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition. 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video.  CAT # 1000730168.  SRP: $21.99.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

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