Sharp as a Stake

It’s hard to write about movies that have been written about to the nth degree.  I mean, there are only so many times one can use words like “classic,” “iconic,” “brilliant”…  Of course, it’s a double-edged sword when all of the above is true, and, the reason for this home-video resurrection is a quartet of Hammer Horror (here we go) classics, available for the first time in Blu-Ray.  So, wow!  Yeah, brilliant, classic, iconic.  Go for it!  One of the best B-R releases of the year.  And so it is with great gusto and joy that I announce the Halloween unveiling of Warner Bros. HORROR CLASSICS, VOLUME 1:  4 CHILLING MOVIES FROM HAMMER FILMS.

Please don’t think I’m not excited by this package.  Hell, I’m ecstatic.  Up to now I had not seen a Hammer title in the Blu-Ray format.  That alone is reason for celebration.  The selections themselves span the years 1959-70, covering several prime goth periods in the studio’s history.  Each movie features either Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee (one has both!), and in their quintessential roles – Dr. Frankenstein and Count Dracula, respectively.  Accent on the respect.  The titles in question are all crowd-pleasers:   THE MUMMY, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED and TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA.  Two are directed by the king of Hammer directors, Terence Fisher (the remaining pair by Freddie Francis and unsung hero Peter Sasdy).  Two feature gorgeous costar Veronica Carlson, brief lead appearances that nevertheless earned her Scream Queen Hall of Fame status.  All but one have the ubiquitous Hammer veteran Michael Ripper, plus turns by such thespian delights as Felix Aylmer, Rupert Davies, Freddie Jones, Geoffrey Keen, Anthony Higgins, Isla Blair, to name-drop but a few.  Then there is the Technicolor photography – the gold standard for the genre.  Ditto the art direction and set and costume design, music and a spectacular array of beauteous vics, vamps, scamps and tramps (Hammer job descriptions that occasionally encompass all four categories).

Why the two pictures that helped start it all (also both Warner Bros. titles), 1957’s Curse of Frankenstein and 1958’s Horror of Dracula were not included for the U.S. Blu-Ray debut is certainly curious, but a decision I reckon is due to some future special plans.  Don’t quote me, just trying to be logical.  I’ve heard rumors that there’s a European 3-disc Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray of Dracula, containing that long-thought lost censored deterioration footage. Holy crap, holy water and Holy Grail!   And, like the label says, it’s VOLUME ONE.

Truth be told, these movies are so well-made and preserved that I’ve NEVER seen a bad copy on any of ’em, going back to laserdisc (on some) and even before that at Times Square grindhouse double and triple bills (scratched to hell, yeah – but never missing detail or sumptuous non-fading IB color quality).  So how much better can the Blu-Rays be?  In a nutshell:  much.  I was astounded by the upgrade.  While the old DVDs, for example, looked great, the Blu-Rays noticeably ascend several levels higher, providing salivating viewers with an experience just short of third dimension (particularly in THE MUMMY, shot by the terrific Jack Asher).  So grab your torches and harness up the carriage.  We’ve got some work to do!

1959’s THE MUMMY, directed by Terence Fisher, is an odd duck of a movie, to say the least.  After the rousing successes of Hammer’s Frankenstein and Dracula remakes, Universal finally gave the studio the carte blanche go-ahead and, like the grave-robbing archeologists in the movie, pilfer anything they deemed fit from the Hollywood horror factory’s vault.  Why they chose to avoid the plot of the original 1932 Karl Freund/Karloff pic and opted instead to refurbish the B-movie sequel narratives is a head-scratcher.  Suffice to say, it’s jaw-dropping to see Peter Cushing essaying a character created by Dick Foran (they even used the same family name, Banning).  Thank God they wisely kept the time-frame to the Victorian era, and didn’t go with a modern streamlined version.

Of course, THE MUMMY is a textbook example of a comic book plot elevated to a spectacular-looking series of exquisitely composed tableaus.  As is Fisher’s wont (and art), he takes sympathy away from the heroes (as indicated, basically posh grave-robbers) and bestows pathos on the “monster,” in this case a devoted, love-sick Egyptian determined to spend eternity with his deceased pharaoh queen.  The queen (literally an evocation of “drop-dead gorgeous”) is played by the enchanting Yvonne Furneaux, who also doubles as Cushing’s (possibly) reincarnated wife.  Lee, as the tongue-less title character, does a remarkable job, serving up a spinning wheel of emotions via his eyes.  His performance is all the more amazing when coupled with the fact that he was severely injured during the production and was in back-breaking agony under all that makeup and wrappings.  Maybe that explains the genuine look of pain in his expressions.

Cushing, of course, is wonderful – his blue peepers never more azure than in Blu-Ray.  The top-notch supporting cast includes Felix Aylmer, Raymond Huntley, George Woodbridge, Eddie Byrne and Michael Ripper.  Even George Pascal as a sinister high priest gives off a sympathy vibe, obsessed psycho bastard that he is.

The star for me of THE MUMMY is d.p. Jack Asher.  His lavish Technicolor lighting and cinematography defined what became known as the Hammer look, and, here, on Blu-Ray, each frame becomes an ebullient oil painting.  Ironically, Asher’s tenure at Hammer would soon end, as, reportedly the time-is-money front office was pissed by how long he took to light a scene.  Whether this translated to that much loss in revenue is a question I can’t answer; artistically, it was a disastrous decision (although subsequent speedier d.p.’s weren’t exactly cheapjack).  The ancient Egypt music riffs are provided by Franz Reiszenstein, who only composed a handful of film scores, his other genre effort being Sidney Hayer’s excellent 1960 shocker Circus of Horrors.

FYI, the steamy English countryside bog was originally constructed for Hammer’s award-winning black-and-white war drama, Yesterday’s Enemy, starring Stanley Baker.  It’s cool to see it in Technicolor.

1968’s DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE was the third Dracula outing with Christopher Lee and, I believe, remains the most successful pic in the studio’s history.  Freddie Francis (who replaced Terence Fisher) does a nice job in telling the grisly tale of how the vengeful vampire extracts payback from the righteous Monsignor (Rupert Davies) who barred the Count from his own castle via a humongous cross.  Sumptuous Veronica Carlson makes her Hammer debut and personifies loveliness as Davies’ niece (and, natch, Drac’s designated victim).  There are some nifty storylines, including Carlson’s likable goofy boyfriend, whose undead destruction instructions fail to work because he’s an atheist.  Some cool support from the usual suspects, comprising of a trampy barmaid-turned-disciple (Barbara Ewing), surly landlord George Cooper, S.Z. Sakall-y innkeeper (Michael Ripper), and others. The unfortunate Ewan Hooper appears as a weak priest, corrupted by Lee.  Unfortunate, as, during its 1968 run at the RKO Coliseum, when early-on the top-dome bald Hooper discovers a bloodied woman’s body shoved up into the interior of a giant church bell, some wisenheimer in the audience, doing a perfect Larry Fine impression, muttered “It was an accident, Moe.”  That ruined his every subsequent appearance for us snarky, sanguinary fans (and, no, it wasn’t me).

On the other hand, the sequence where Lee “initiates” Carlson is about as close to a graphic sex scene as we tweenies had ever witnessed.  We didn’t know why, but afterward we all wanted to smoke cigarettes.

Former cinematographer Francis effectively uses color filters to convey virginity, losing it and abusing it via excellent Technicolor photography from Arthur Grant.  This is all accentuated by a fine James Bernard score.

An unforeseen horror for us American Hammer Boomers was GRAVE’s co-feature, a Christopher Jones youth flick entitled Chubasco.  Apparently everyone who went to this double-feature (and millions did) was exposed and tortured by this low-rent Summer Place pastiche, which, by every surviving viewer’s accounts (including mine), clocked in at around nineteen hours.  A lot of seat squirming, and moans of “Is there no end to this purgatory?” segued into wild cheering and applause once the Hammer main credits for GRAVE dripped down the screen.  I once told Veronica Carlson this story, and the actress had the audacity to burst into laughter, evil siren that she is.  The goth female once-you’ve-had-Drac-there’s-no-going-back fantasy aspect was extended to the U.S. posters featuring a bosomy top-half of a negligée-draped blonde, sporting a band-aid across her jugular:  DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE the one-sheets announced, and then, in lower letters, “Obviously.” Those were the days.

1969’s FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED is perhaps my favorite of the series; it’s certainly the nastiest (which, I guess, says something about me).  Forget the kinder, gentler Cushing you saw evolving in the previous three entries.  The movie opens with him calmly chopping the head off an innocent fellow medical practitioner (well, as innocent as a doctor can be) from out of the doorway of a dark, foggy street.  Of course, this perfectly concurs with director Fisher’s view that the “monsters” in his movies are rarely the actual creatures, but their exploiters and (in this case) creator.  Cushing is on the verge of revolutionary brain surgery, but his revered associate has gone mad.  So he kidnaps the screwy sawbones from a mental institution to repair the “insanity.”  But there’s an accident, and the formerly brilliant, now crazed inmate is killed.  Cushing must find another body pronto, so he simply murders another doctor, transplants the brain and then really starts to operate.  Pure cold, analytical science; no remorse, but plenty of waspish anger and impatience.  How incredible that one still cares about this loathsome character at all – a nod to the infinite acting abilities of Peter Cushing.

The only thing worse than the uncaring apathy of Dr. Frankenstein are the fools who represented the medical profession during that period (hey, how ‘bout that thing called anesthesia?).  Worse, the evil doctor has blackmailed a drug-dealing med student (Simon Ward) and his fiancée (another stunning turn by Carlson), coincidentally Frankenstein’s landlady, into helping him.  Freddie Jones almost steals the show from Cushing, as the pathetic victim of his contemporary’s whacked experiments.  Kudos, too, to Thorley Walters and Geoffrey Bayldon as a befuddled police chief and his M.E., Maxine Audley as the suffering wife of the reanimated cerebellum and George Pravda as its original host.  Fisher’s direction is superb, as is the cinematography by Arthur Grant and James Bernard music.  The script by Bert Batt (from an original story by Batt and Anthony Nelson-Keys) is quite literate and often witty, with barbs sharp enough to make Cushing’s incisions.

There’s of course the notoriety about the picture concerning the infamous rape sequence.  Supposedly, it was added to the script while the movie was already in production (a sign of the lax censorship times).  As unscrupulous as Frankenstein had become, both Cushing and Carlson had reservations, and were quite uncomfortable about it.  Nevertheless it was shot and promptly snipped out for the U.S. release by Warner Bros., who knew it might mean a new “R” rating, thereby squelching a huge portion of their intended youth market (it is intact on this Blu-Ray).

The movie is rightly considered a classic by horror fans, especially the Hammer contingent.  Ironic that bat-shit-raving brain surgeons had to once spout their lunacy in secrecy to avoid detection; today they run for President.

1970’s TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA is one of the best of the studio’s later titles.  No accident that it was directed by Peter Sasdy, who certainly deserves mucho praise.  Sasdy helmed one of my favorite twilight Hammers, 1971’s Hands of the Ripper, and many of the inventive cinematic flourishes that made that picture a superior horror entry are evident in TASTE.

The picture begins with a bang…well, a thud.  Portly loudmouth traveling salesman (a bravura turn by Roy Kinnear) is so offensive that he’s tossed out of the coach by an obviously mentally challenged fellow passenger.  Lost in a Bavarian forest, he stumbles upon the last scene of DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, and, in true Mr. Haney fashion, hurriedly runs off with the undead Count’s remains (mercifully before the next showing of Chubasco).

Forward to Victorian England, and a trio of uptight, pious fake Christian businessmen (Geoffrey Keen, Peter Sallis, John Carson) who treat their families with the compassion of Mr. Murdstone, particularly the females of the household.  No surprise that their “helping the poor” outings in the East End comprise frequenting a kinky bordello, catering to the super rich.  It is there that they meet disgraced Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates, in his first Hammer appearance).  Among other things, Courtley was disinherited for turning the family chapel into a Black Mass retreat.  Impoverished, but living off the debauched whores who are thrilled by his “knowledge,” the arrogant nobleman offers the triad of wankers the ecstasy kick of a lifetime if they purchase some trinkets from Kinnear’s private stock.

The narrative, according to various sources, was to be wholly concentrated on Bates’ character until Warners demanded another Lee/Dracula.  So Bates’ resurrection of the Count isn’t mere possession, but total reanimation (but not before the perverted Victorians kill Courtley out of fear).  This naturally upsets Vlad, who vows revenge – the most satisfying route via the corruption of their children, especially the gorgeous daughters.  Keen, the most evil of the bunch, has sired no less than the Jungle Red nail polish on The Blood on Satan’s Claw, Linda Hayden.  Her virginal innocence is a preamble to the one of the sweetest demon woman transformations since Bad Maria in Metropolis.  Reveling in post-vampiric euphoria, Hayden entraps her BFF and, justifiably, her sadistic pater. Gosh, she’s swell!  It’s all served up in lush Technicolor photography by Arthur Grant and beautiful James Bernard music (some of his finest themes, in fact).

For those who relish a vintage sup o’horror, one is hard-pressed to find a better repast than this Blu-Ray collection. If ya can’t “treat” it in time for Halloween, keep the set mind for the year’s remaining upcoming holidays.

HORROR CLASSICS, VOLUME 1:  FOUR CHILLING MOVIES FROM HAMMER FILMS.  Color.  Widescreen [1.66:1 on “The Mummy,” 1.85:1 on the rest]; 1080p High Definition].  DTS-HD MA 1.0.  Warner Home Video/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.  CAT# 1000543129.  SRP:  $54.95.

 

All titles available individually at $19.98@.

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Slap Me Five

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“You wanna know what movie scared me? That crazy picture where a hand chases Peter Lorre all over the house!”

This was the answer I received, circa 1967, from one of my parents’ friends, who still shuddered as she told of her frightening movie-going experience. The question was sparked by my curiosity as to whether or not any adults could give me first-hand information about 1930/40s scary pictures – thus beating Scream to the punch by nearly twenty years (although sadly I didn’t follow it up by brutally murdering them).

The movie, whose title eluded the defiantly non-horror fan, was the classic 1947 Robert Florey-directed chiller THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, now available on DVD-R by demand from The Warner Archive Collection.

Peter Lorre, the movie’s actual star, was relegated to third billing – a move by Warners to legitimize this type of film fare (more about that later); the faux leads are Robert Alda and Andrea King, each then recently contracted to the studio. I guess I don’t have to gush on about Lorre. The role of Hilary – an astrology-obsessed manic personal secretary to a partially paralyzed, wholly crazed piano virtuoso fit him…well, like a glove. His expertise at villainy needs no further explanation. A former student of Freud, pop-eyed Lorre, when prompted, could bug out at the drop of a butcher cleaver – and as his voice shrieked to Kirk Douglas proportions – would systematically blow his costars off the screen. In short, if you had to have ANY human appendage chase someone around the room – you couldn’t pick a better victim than Peter Lorre.

I want to devote more space to French-born Robert Florey – one of Hollywood’s most interesting artists. Florey got his start in the biz by convincing Tinsel Town hoi polloi at an industry gala to look at his avant-garde short The Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra, codirected with Slavko Vorkapich. That was in 1928, and, apparently it was amusing and innovative enough (back when that sort of nonsense called creativity kinda mattered) to get him signed to Paramount. Always keen on the latest technology, Florey was assigned to direct the Marx Brothers‘ first talkie, 1929’s The Cocoanuts. An odd choice, as Groucho recalled, since Florey really didn’t understand English too well; thus, according to the comedian Joseph Santley was called in to codirect. Florey’s fascination with sound nevertheless negated his hands-on participation, as his convulsive laughter at the Brothers’ improvised antics forced him to be relegated to a specially constructed glass booth. When Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo saw him shaking and turning red in the face – they knew they had a take.

Florey’s major interest was in the bizarre and the atmospheric. It’s no surprise that in 1931 he was given the Universal plum assignment of directing Bela Lugosi in Frankenstein – the obvious follow-up to that year’s earlier Dracula. Supposedly problems with the Hungarian actor’s refusal to submit to the torturous makeup halted the production, which was then turned over to James Whale, who eventually recast Boris Karloff. Florey was given the consolation prize of Murders in the Rue Morgue, again with Lugosi. The movie is visual Poe-tic masterpiece; add the speed with which the director achieved his remarkable images…and voila – Florey’s future was assured.

Florey’s quick but inventive style made him the King of Paramount’s B’s; in fact, he made one of (in my opinion) the greatest B-pictures of all-time, 1937’s Daughter of Shanghai, starring Anna May Wong. Despite the pulpy title, it’s a harrowing look at the plight of illegal immigrants.

The Florey/Lorre story began in 1941 with Columbia’s Face Behind the Mask – which chronicled a disfigured Eastern European refugee’s downward spiral into crime. In effect, they did a lot with a little.

By 1947, Florey was firmly ensconced at Warner Bros. (excelling in film noirs like the underrated Danger Signal); whether he asked for Lorre or vice versa isn’t clear to me, but they obviously felt confident working with one another…and the result shows.

The speed-necessity factor required for the emerging television format guaranteed a spot for post-war Florey employment. He remained in TV until the end of his life – helming some of the best episodes of Thriller, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

For Warner Bros. horror was a four-letter word. They avoided the genre whenever possible. Their two pre-code classics Dr. X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) were actually done to use up a contract with Technicolor – a process the studio had initially high hopes for – but now were obligated to quota fill a feature-film schedule. Even later works such as The Walking Dead (1936) and Return of Dr. X (1939) were less horror than gangster-oriented, the latter being a genre they were infinitely more comfortable with.

When The Big Sleep wrapped in 1945, director Howard Hawks pressured Jack Warner about Dreadful Hollow, a gothic vampire thriller Hawks had co-written with William Faulkner.  Warner, who had been waffling on the project since Hawks first suggested it (reportedly as early as 1943’s Air Force), finally lowered the boom and frankly told the director that “…we don’t really do those kind of pictures here.” Hawks unceremoniously left Warners and Dreadful Hollow and began to prep Red River (the completed script to Dreadful Hollow still exists and warrants a reading as it’s friggin’ great).

I should mention that Jack Warner, or more precisely, Jack Warner’s duplicitous ass, is renowned for coining the lip-biting comment “Never let that s.o.b. back here again – unless we need him!” His dissing of horror movies can be similarly adapted to his later curmudgeonly acquiescence to produce 1953’s House of Wax; ironically, it became the highest-grossing fright flick in Hollywood history (bringing in the equivalent of nearly a half a billion 2015 dollars).

What Hawks and Faulkner thought of Warners releasing THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS in 1947 – the year when Dreadful Hollow would possibly have been completed – has never been recorded. Revenge may have reared its deadly head when the pair made Land of the Pharaohs for the studio in 1955 – one of the industry’s most infamous flops (but a pic I love with a passion).

THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS was scripted by the reliable Curt Siodmak and was, in turn, based upon a story by William Fryer Harvey. For Lorre, hand jive was old stuff, having been palm-possessed in 1935’s Mad Love, an adaptation of Hands of Orlac. This was even madder love, as the entire foreboding villa (wherein the Italian-set 1910 period narrative unfolds) is rife with greedy, seedy obsessive lunatics.

As indicated earlier, Lorre is in the employ of a sinister pianist – the outrageously unlikeable Victor Francen. As the wheelchair-confined musician Francis Ingram, Francen salivates over his hottie nurse Julie (Andrea King). He likes touching her with his good hand – but, also, much to his shock, genuinely adores and trusts her. That said, Julie is a virtual prisoner in the joint since, in addition to being a vindictive perv, Ingram is also a miserly bastard (nevertheless he evidently pays Julie enough to afford gowns by Travilla).

Lorre, too, worships Julia, to the extent that he later regrets having to kill her…but that’s neither here nor there. Julie’s true love is Bruce Conrad (Alda) – a brilliant composer and master of one-armed pianist arrangements – who nonetheless makes his living as a con man…selling worthless treasures to dumb American tourists.

Alda was really an unusual Hollywood leading man since, while extremely affable, he always played untrustworthy, dodgy characters…for instance, the shady resistance fighter in Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger, the oily nightclub owner in Raoul Walsh’s The Man I Love and the evil genius George Gershwin in Rhapsody in Blue.  Bruce’s advice to lover Julie is to get the hell out, as whack-job Ingram “…draws his energy from your life.” As he earlier warned a vacationing couple of the dangers of salami, it’s obvious that he’s a man of great knowledge. Of course, perhaps as much he covets Julie, Conrad yearns for the kooky composer’s dough, so the fact that he’s the hero in THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS attests to the picture’s high percentage of lowlifes. Add Ingram’s dirt-bag relatives (Charles Dingle and John Alvin) and a scumbag lawyer (David Hoffman) and you have the perfect ingredients for the title character’s recipe for finger food.

“I want your testimony that I’m not insane,” is the impossible dream Ingram demands. The fact that he’s asking Peter Lorre for this affidavit instantly makes this a Catch-22 request (FYI, it isn’t a good idea to ask anything from someone you had just throttled so viciously that it has left bloodied indents on his throat).

Alas, later amidst a terrifying thunderstorm, a bedeviled Ingram sees Caligari-esque visions which send him careening down a staircase as if pushed by a thousand invisible Richard Widmarks.

Soon there are lights in the mausoleum, which upon investigation by cheery local Police Commissario Castanio (J. Carrol Naish) reveal that Ingram’s corpse has been tampered with – his good hand now missing and roaming the grounds for revenge.

Verification of the ghostly mitt is proven by its nocturnal strangling the ivory – perfect Ingram renditions of Bruce’s Bach for One-Hand Dummies arrangements.

Even the skeptical commissario admits “In my mind there is no doubt – the hand is a-walking around.”

And not just walking: sprinting, choking, vandalizing – doing everything but snapping its digits to Mack the Knife.

This is one eerie, loopy movie – and, despite any Jack Warner’s reservations may have harbored, ended up being one of the studio’s top money makers for 1947 (along with Dark Passage and Life with Father).

It’s the closest a rival Hollywood factory came to copying the RKO Val Lewton style; however, since this is Warner Bros. there’s a sizeable injection of the one emotion missing from the Lewtons – humor, mostly from Naish, the ethnically inclined character actor who repeatedly played every nationality but rarely his own (Irish).

The movie became an entire cottage industry for comics, who based generations of Lorre impressions upon his characterization of nutty Hilary. The hand itself became a beloved quasi-celebrity, notably paid homage as Thing on The Addams Family TV series. The special effects also deserve a big nod – being amazingly graphic (rib meat marrow and bone stumps) and impressively high-tech and sophisticated – the thumbs-up labors of H. Koenkamp and part-time director William McGann.

The 35MM transfer looks terrific – the best quality I’ve ever seen on this title. So, for those BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS buffs, be prepared to be wowed. This ain’t one of them murky B&W prints we grew up with throughout the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a crispy critter – with rich contrast and relatively clean (meaning emulsion scratch and negative dust free – another annoyance from days of yore). Cinematographer Wes Anderson (oh, I so WISH it was the same dude) can at last rest easy. The music by Max Steiner is appropriately loud and onerous, and, indicative of the maestro – never subtle.

There’s even the original theatrical trailer – which I had never seen, but is quite alarming in and of itself. “The most terrifying adventure ever HURLED from the screen!” it threatens making me happy that Warners waited another six years before entering the unhygienic hurl-friendly 3-D arena.

THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS.  Black and White.  Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio.  CAT # 883316843062.  SRP.  $19.95.

Available exclusive through The Warner Archive Collection:  www.warnerarchive.com.

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Troll Play

In the matter of splatter, whether the perp be human or not, genre fans are hard-pressed to find a more engagingly daffy title than 1981’s THE BOOGENS, now on Blu-ray from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

And by title, I mean just that. Regardless of the moniker’s explanation, or some of the horrific goings-on that permeate the lion’s share of the pic’s 96-minute running time, even chronic scaredy-cats cannot help but chortle at the mere mention of this gory epic’s handle. Let’s face it, who isn’t going to think The Boogers? And the consequences of such an abomination are worse:  slimy, crawling crusty balls of Satan-spawned sleazy-sneezies blobbing their way toward a new (and likely nubile) victim. Even to many of the show’s ever-growing buffs, it’s affectionately referred to as The Boogers – creatures to be fought not with holy cross or assault weapon firepower, but a super-steroid version of Mucinex.

Truth be told, this couldn’t be further from the actual facts. I dare say, THE BOOGENS is indeed a modestly tense little item that is remarkably potent, and done, for the most part, without tongue in cheek.

As for the Boogens themselves, they are unfortunate monstrosities (not to be confused with fortunate monstrosities) who, ages ago, were trapped in the mining equivalent of the Triangle Shirtwaist inferno. Unlike those vics, these poor denizens of Silver City, Colorado didn’t perish, but remained trapped beneath the surface of the disaster, caused by corrupt 1%-ers who had taken over the local unions. They are the Yank counterparts of those urban legend bad-teethed Brits who survived a similar mishap during the construction of the London underground. Since they had to eat, they resorted to cannibalism; since they had what Cole Porter deftly termed “the urge to merge,” they grabbed whatever non-human female critters happened on by. From that point it was a closed society of inbreeding/feeding, all the while digging a labyrinth of internal tunnels and passageways (some directly below stately, off the beaten track homes that dot the sparse, rural community). Boogens are fast, turtle-like bastards – comprised of varying levels of sharp teeth and gnarly paws, the latter adept at grabbing the hell out of who/whatever gets in their way. There’s really nothing complimentary about them, including, presumably, their hygiene.  Nevertheless when not gnawing the flesh off pissed-off fleeing organisms, they oft resemble a Mike Myers Special Edition of a Cabbage Patch Gremlin.

So why are they on the attack now? Big business is doing new construction work on the mine and two bussed-in diggers are on the project team. Like their lower common denominator devolved beasties, they, too, crave pootie tang. To this goal, one (Jeff Harlan) has invited his girlfriend (Anne-Marie Martin) who, in turn, has invited her babealicious pal (Rebecca Balding). Object: blind datery.  Martin has also brought her annoying canine along, an unbeknownst perk for the Boogens, as they are particularly partial to oodles of poodles. Ultimately, this bill of fare proves to be an epicurean win-and-a-half preamble, since Boogens’s prime salivate-friendly preference is big-breasted 1980s actresses with bad hair and worse clothes.

The hottie landlady (Marcia Reider) who rents them lodging, apparently designed by the same creep who decorated the Bates Motel, is soon gobbled up herself.  Curiously, her disappearance isn’t thought to be that much of a distraction.  Frankly, during that period, I can think of no worse fate for an American woman – save perhaps being cast on Three’s Company.

In fine 1970s-80s horror movie style, Balding, the demure, shy blind date, instantly gets naked (in a tub, that is), and seemingly immediately becomes McCarren’s new GF.  Romance, however, is put on temporary hold when Harlan is called upon to make an emergency run to the big city (and for tiny Silver City that could mean Crabwell Corners). Naturally, as he revs up the transport in the garage, the floorboards creak, the scurrying sound of tapping claws is heard and, presto, you’ve got Chef Boy R D-licious.

With McCarren/Balding engaged in treacly tavern-imbibing, pool-hustling breaking-the-ice repartee, the sole foreboding manse occupant is now Martin, who literally proves to be so cute that you can just eat her up.

A cranky old John Huston-looking mofo (Jon Lormer) turns up warning the construction workers of the Boogen curse, but, obviously having never studied the Reprobate Horror Flick Geezers Guidebook (aka, John Carradine 101), ends up as a side of pickled herring himself.

A taut climax in the Getdafuckouttathere Mine is arguably thrillin’ an’ chillin’ as the last remaining cast members do their damndest to keep off the menu.

THE BOOGENS isn’t really as cheezy as I’m making it out to be. If you enjoy these kinds of movies, it’s admittedly quite a lot of fun. And, while done on a shoestring-plus, is genuinely well-made. The special effects are wisely held in check, so that huggable Boogens pans are rarely shown in good light; on the other talon, their carnage is gross enough to be classified as borderline retching.  The direction by James L. Conway is tight (with an homage to Jack Arnold-type vintage 1950s shocks) and the camerawork by Paul Hipp (in nifty 1.85:1 widescreen) atmospheric and eerie. Of course, this is immensely helped by the wintry bleak (yet awesome), desolate snowed-in Colorado and Utah locations that are frequently Shining-esque (thus, no accident that Stephen King is an admirer of this movie). The script by David O’Malley and Bob Hunt (story by O’Malley and Tom Chapman) is admirably free of cornball cutesy Spielbergian banter that infected the youth market back then (and, sadly, still does so except now on a grander, more revolting scale). There’s also a decent score by composer Bob Summers that often contains a nice John Barry vibe. The small cast is likewise extremely effective, never too cloying to make you (totally) root for the Boogens (although smarmy McCarren reminds me way too much of Joe Scarborough to give up any sympathy). The goils are swell and (no pun) have the lungpower to let out with some commendable prerequisite screaming. That said, Squeezie, or whatever the pooch (or pooches, two were used) was named, ends up giving the best performance in the picture.

The Olive Films transfer of THE BOOGENS is A-plus. I can’t imagine the movie ever looking (or sounding) as good, even in the original 1981 release. And for those can’t get enough BOOGENS boogeying, there’s a running audio commentary by cowriter O’Malley, director Conway and star Balding.  Bone appetit!

THE BOOGENS.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # OF458.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Underground Movement

Rev up them Ruhmkorff lamps:  one of the cinematic delights of my childhood (to say nothing of millions of fellow Baby Boomers), 1959’s JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, has been exhumed as a second-printing limited edition Blu-Ray disc from the folks at Twilight Time and 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  Yay!

This iconic sci-fi action-adventure really needs no discussion as to its merits – it’s genuinely THAT beloved; added to the fact that, since the advent of widescreen laserdiscs, then DVD, I have yet to come across a lousy transfer.  Blu-Ray naturally ratchets the quality factor up a notch or two – which will be briefly discussed later.  It’s the cinematic journey of JOURNEY, partially through the eyes of an adolescent who experienced it in spectacular CinemaScope and full-dimensional stereophonic sound, that will encompass these few paragraphs…some of it almost as much fun (to me) as spinning the new platter.

The idea of making a lavish science-fiction extravaganza was rife with ulterior motives for those foxy folk at Fox.  The genre was a veritable cash cow during the 1950s.  War of the Worlds, Forbidden Planet, This Island Earth and the Ray Harryhausen epics were filling the coffers at Paramount, MGM, Universal and Columbia – the former two rarely dipping their tootsies in this kind of fare.  Fox had jumped the outer-space bandwagon in 1951 with The Day the Earth Stood Still, but hadn’t really mined the possibilities of their game changing CinemaScope process.  Picking the Jules Verne epic was a no-brainer for several very good reasons:  1) Disney’s 1954 adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea had not only become the studio’s all-time box office champ, but enabled its chief mogul to realize his dream of Disneyland; 2) Michael Todd‘s 1956 Verne odyssey Around the World in 80 Days surpassed the Disney release in coin, and, in many avenues, was still playing to packed crowds as the 1950s was drawing to a close; 3) and, most importantly, Jules Verne, like the Bible, was public domain (even low-budget producers like Benedict Bogeaus had filmed From the Earth to the Moon and AIP was beginning pre-production on Master of the World).  Translation:  no rights, no royalties – this was manna from heaven to any “suit,” particularly a cheap one.

Of course the talent behind such an endeavor was key – and here is where Fox pulled out all the stops.  The set and art direction were top-notch – as detailed as any period piece ever unspooled by the company (it’s almost impossible to tell where the cavernous mock-ups end and the actual location work at Carlsbad Caverns begin).  The cinematography was assigned to Day the Earth Stood Still’s underrated cameraman Leo Tover (whose career began with the 1926 The Great Gatsby and also included 13 Women, I’m No Angel, The Major and the Minor, The Heiress and The Woman on the Beach), the deft first-rate craftsmanship direction of Henry Levin (who made his debut with 1944’s B-horror fave Cry of the Werewolf, followed by a slew of film noirs, Technicolor swashbucklers and big budget comedies; he directed two other Pat Boone Fox pix, April Love and Bernardine, helmed the original Where the Boys Are and ended his career doing episodes of Knot’s Landing in 1980).

The music would be by the great (and that’s an understatement) Bernard Herrmann, who, along with the previous year’s 7th Voyage of Sinbad, the earlier aforementioned Day the Earth Stood Still, 1947’s Ghost and Mrs. Muir and 1941’s Devil and Daniel Webster, was quickly becoming the master of the fantasy film score.  Herrmann’s approach, as one might expect was unique:  “I decided to evoke the mood and feeling of inner Earth by using only instruments played in low registers.  Eliminating all strings, I utilized and orchestra of woodwinds and brass, with a large percussion section and many harps.  But the truly unique feature of this score is the inclusion of five organs, one a large Cathedral and four electronic.  These organs were used in many adroit ways to suggest ascent and descent, as well as the mystery of Atlantis.”  The script was to go way beyond the Boy’s Life approach that Disney so heavily relied upon.  Charles Brackett, one-time co-writing partner with Billy Wilder, had since become a full-fledged Fox producer; he would now wear two hats, and co-author the screenplay with Walter Reisch.  This guaranteed that there would be a plethora of witty dialogue and even some eyebrow-raising risque exchanges, most notably concerning Arlene Dahl’s audible underwear and a physically immobile Pat Boone’s remarkable sexual prowess.

Which brings us to the cast itself.  James Mason, who helped steer 20,000 Leagues to its fantastic success, would now, as Professor Oliver S. Lindenbrook, lead the Victorian quest into the bowels of the Earth.  Mason, who could read Bazooka Joe comics out loud and make it sound like Shakespeare, is a joy to behold.  The smash bonanza of this movie, coupled with his appearance in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, would make this a banner year for the actor, perhaps his biggest of all in The Movies.

Arlene Dahl, the former Miss Rheingold Beer of 1946, who had provided jaw-dropping eye candy for many an MGM and Pine-Thomas Paramount pic, boldly took on this rather athletic role; she was, at last, able to make full use of her Minnesota Norwegian roots as the widow Carla Goteborg, playing the part with a perfect Scandinavian accent.  She also was portraying a character nearly a decade older than her actual thirty years, a brave decision for any hops and yeast veteran – even Old Milwaukee.

For the ever-growing important teen crowd, Fox tossed the prize gig of Professor Mason’s ace pupil, Alec McKuen, to contract star and soft-rock idol Pat Boone.  This, for many at the outset, appeared to be the lead balloon of the proceedings. Surprisingly, he holds his own, and is fairly inoffensive.  To not disappoint his fans expecting at least one song, a second draft of the script romantically paired him with recent Fox contractee Diane Baker (as Mason’s niece), in essentially, the female “wait for the cavalry to return to the fort” role.  They even included a modern-tinged ballad, sung to Robert Burns My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose (initially cut from American prints but restored in subsequent DVDs and this Twilight Time version); this afforded immense amusement to many high-brow viewers – although likely not to Burns’ estate, who fumed at their famed relation having to share credit for his legendary work with Jimmy Van Heusen.  Well, realistically, what was he going to sing, Speedy Gonzalez?!

To Boone’s credit, he handles this plum with aplomb – albeit his major heroics were reserved for post-production.  Being shown the pre-release posters, he was stunned to see that he received top billing over James Mason.  Reportedly, the star marched into the Fox publicity department demanding that Mason be given the lead honors.  He seethed as the ballyhoo boys explained the billing-chops-due-to-drawing-power scenario.  Ultimately a compromise was arrived at:  Boone and Mason received co-star billing (with Boone first).  The actor/singer suffered various indignities during the grueling production where he was pushed, clubbed, shot at, cut, tossed about and, basically submitted to the kind of insensitive brutality usually reserved for Busby Berkeley chorus girls.  One sequence, where he trips over a supposed papier-mache prop quartz rock, remains in the final cut; you can hear him let out with a mournful groan as he kicks the real article full force (he broke his foot).  At one point, Boone is immersed into a terrain of salt, which he tastes as if he’s in some kind of drug lab.  This behavior would be excusable if he didn’t later jump with glee at a forest of mutant mushrooms.  Those substance-loving rock ‘n’ rollers!

The sparse supporting players, too, must be given mention.  Alan Napier as the “you’re daft, man!” college dean who tries to stop Mason’s trek is his usual professional self.  Then there’s poor Thayer David as the evil Count Saknussemm.  His look, demeanor and accent have a decided Russian ambiance about it – not an accident for them thar Cold War years; in essence, borscht without the belt.  David, intent upon making a slave out of Boone (who has become separated from his crew), points to the Scot’s predecessor, a mouth-agape dead servant.  “Too much heat, too much load, too much fear,” he sneers with the lack of remorse that would do any Ayn Rand fan proud.  In fact, he’s really too much of a load himself, smugly superior (memorably categorizing human sleep as “little slices of death”) and having his eventual companions woefully wishing they had included a polo mallet along with their inner Earth grip.  On a personal note, I’d think that such real-life extreme right wingers like Boone and Dahl would have cherished David’s company (indeed the movie’s title is the closest either one of them ever came to the “center” of anything!).

David’s relevancy is all-the-more prominent due to his ultimate screen villainy.  With this one motion picture appearance, Thayer David became the scourge to every movie-going youth – as he murders and eats JOURNEY’s most endearing character, Gertrude the duck.  This event forever traumatized members of my generation and, to this day, whenever David shows up in subsequent flicks and TV reruns, he’s referred to as that “duck-killing bastard!” (Gertrude’s staying power enabled her to be resurrected for a later JttCotE television series; furthermore, a tombstone to an actual Gertrude Duck was later uncovered in a cemetery by a JOURNEY fan, who snapped a photo and uploaded it, where it immediately went viral).

The final member of the JOURNEY cast is the Frankensteinian giant, Peter Ronson (aka Petur Rognvaldsson ).  Ronson, an Icelandic decathlon runner, was recruited at the last minute.  Why he gets an additional “technical advisor” credit, is beyond me (unless he ran up and down mountains).  He did receive a mammoth share of fan mail (mostly from teenage girls) – enough to be offered a Fox contract, which he at once turned down.  Just weeks after the movie’s release, Ronson’s privacy was constantly invaded; he ended up moving his family to the California’s Orange County, where he remained happily secluded until his passing in 2007.

The special effects for JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH were generally 1959 state-of-the-art, with the notable exception of the dinosaurs, a major hook for sci-fi fans used to the SFX in King Kong (already a TV staple) and (then) on-screen Harryhausen creatures.  The dinos, actually blown-up “slow-mowed” chameleons and iguanas with Dimetrodon fins attached, never really are convincing; they only worked once – and that was in the 1940 Hal Roach One Million B.C.  The fact that the rest of the movie was so good enabled critical patrons to let it slide – although it’s a bit uncomfortable to watch as these living animals are obviously sacrificed in the name of art (hot molten coals being poured over them; buried by mountains of rock; speared in the neck and mouth).  A split image of the adventurers rafting to safety, whilst the monsters feast upon each other, is sanguinely bloodied-up to resemble dinner time at Lucio Fulci’s.

The promotion for JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH was a to-the-max triumph of hyperbole in the best 1950s movie fashion.  The year before, we kids had been thrilled as the Viking ship from the UA Kirk Douglas picture (coincidentally called The Vikings) majestically floated down the Hudson.  This year went one better.  Prior to the screenings, Fox installed in key theaters life-sized three-dimensional murals adjacent to the lobby concession stands of the four main characters hugging the underworld crags and stalagmites of our planet.  It was attached from the ceiling to the roof and illuminated by Day-Glo lighting similar to those Fifties magic night table lamps which, when turned on, gave the impression of animals running through the forest (anybody remember those?).  This extraordinary effect was appended by massive stereo speakers on each side of the exhibit, which belched forth with sounds of rocks plummeting and splashes of lava.  A banner heralding, “Our Next Attraction” accompanied this sure-fire stunt.  Trust me:  any kid who saw this was not going to pass up the chance to be engulfed in a terrifying and undoubtedly painful demise.

Early-arriving audiences to each show were treated to free copies of the JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH comic book; bizarrely enough, it wasn’t the sanctioned Dell Movie Classic edition, but the Classics Illustrated version (which had better dinosaurs).  I’m not sure if the Herrmann soundtrack was available, but Boone did record an EP, Pat Boone Sings Songs from Journey to the Center of the Earth.

The outstanding success of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH prompted newly-signed Fox producer Irwin Allen to commence on a quasi-follow-up.  Shortly after the dollars started rolling in, Fox announced a new CinemaScope version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s The Lost World (like Verne, Doyle was public domain).  As with JOURNEY, Allen’s epic would star a renowned actor in the lead, Claude Rains.  Unfortunately, Allen also resorted to using blown-up lizards for the dinosaurs…and worse, updated the turn-of-the-century setting to 1960.  Not forgetting the drawing power of Gertrude the duck, Allen gave co-star Jill St. John a pooch named Frosty.  That Frosty gets equal billing with Rains remains an unforgivable travesty (that said, in the JOURNEY trailer, narrated by Mason, and included on the BD, Gertrude gets cast mention with Boone and Dahl while David, Baker and Napier are omitted).  The B-movie script, which ended where the 1925 Willis O’Brien masterpiece’s climax began (bringing a Brontosaurus back to London, where it goes on the rampage), was another insult – an obvious budgetary consideration, which Allen shamelessly lied to fans about:  “We’re saving that for the sequel (yeah, like that ‘Thumbs Up’ ending to Mr. Sardonicus!).”

Twilight Time’s second limited pressing Blu-Ray of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH looks, as one might imagine, pretty nifty (the first edition sold out almost immediately).  It doesn’t take your breath away like some other TT/Fox titles because, as indicated, transfers on this title have looked really good for nearly twenty years.  Still, the detail of the costumes (Mason’s Scottish tweeds) brings out almost every thread.  This Twilight redux is nevertheless an improvement over the original B-D, serving up a brand new 4K restoration.  What is impressive is the sound.  The audio is the best I’ve ever heard on any home vid incarnation of this title.  The surround effects of the rocks, echoes, dino roars and Dahl’s creaky underwear are as if one is really there (which, for Dahl, might prove a bit unpleasant).  The magnificent Herrmann music, as with all TT releases, can be accessed as an IST (Isolated Score Track).  Alas, this 5000 unit limited release (up from the 3000 minted for TT’s initial JOURNEY), is already in dwindling supply, so organize your hunting expedition today.  As Lindenbrook’s intrepid party discovered, it’s an excursion worth seeking out. Or, to paraphrase Mason’s dauntless prof, for students of classic cinema, this Blu-Ray is “…a scholar’s choice.”

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH.  Color.  Letterboxed [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; Stereo-surround [5.1 DTS-HD MA]. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Mollusk-station Abuse

Nothing says “fun afternoon at the movies” more than a gargantuan 1950s dinosaur wreaking havoc on white Anglo Saxons. Thus, we owe a debt of gratitude to the Levy-Gardner-Laven producer/director team who beautifully fashioned 1957’s popcorn-compulsory THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD, now on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios, Inc.

No mere let’s-make-a-quick-buck piece of junk, MONSTER is, in fact, a carefully plotted, heavily market-researched project that craftily cherry-picked narrative snippets from the decade’s most successful sci-fi pics. Seamlessly stitching these elements together, the filmmakers then chose a sturdy cast of (mostly) supporting players, a fine composer and d.p. and a creative budget-friendly SFX crew. Buttressed by a plausible, quasi-intelligent screenplay, MONSTER’s course, charted by the United Artists, began its cross-country tour of nabes and drive-ins – where, supported by another interesting sci-fi/horror flick (The Vampire), it then ceded to the studio suits’ original objective:  to squeeze every nickel out of adolescent jeans from coast-to-coast (which it did).

The story is typical of the time and genre (and why not – since it glommed bits from proven Bijou blockbusters). Like a Harryhausen Jurassic reptile, the title characters (it is a plural invasion) emerge as a result of American dumb-dumb testing and nature meddling of the explosive kind (TNT or atomic, A or H bomb – your choice, they got ‘em all). These rather violent eruptions cause a fissure to open in the Salton Sea, releasing dormant (but still fertile) prehistoric mollusk eggs, which proceed to hatch with great rapidity. These aqua mollusks grow in varying length and height, none of them puny and all of them craving white meat.  Like Ray’s 20,000-fathomed beast and Golden Gate-humping octopus, they are essentially seafaring, yet entomological enough to sport THEM! pincers and genre prerequisite bug-eyes (ideal for puncturing with harpoon and/or oars).

But there’s another rather unpleasant touchy-feely aspect to the mollusks. “From the instant they’re born, they’re hungry,” assuredly states biological egghead and (apparently) giant mollusk expert, Dr. Jess Rogers (a major-costarring role for the great Hans Conried, best-known to squirt moviegoers as the sinister Terwilliker in the 1953 Dr. Seuss fantasy The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T). This was also an assessment my parents made concerning all my childhood friends, so that’s not so nasty. What constitutes an epic emergency is that they’re not only hungry, but horny. Their appetite is concurrently mange-and-merge, each gluttonous act simultaneously complementing the other. To seal the deal, their sexual arousal (prior to sucking out all human blood and bones) is visually brought forth by their spewing gooey white marshmallow fluffy fluids all over the remnants of the victims. “A simple marine secretion,” ventures the wily Dr. Conried, not wanting to face the ire of the Hays Office. But we savvy grindhouse patrons know mollusk spunk when we see it. And we see it. Like the cast of some John Hughes Harrad experiment gone haywire, the mollusks are virtually insatiable – their eating/breeding activities causing the laying of untold thousands of eggs. In almost no time at all, these slimy behemoths (did I say they resemble uncondomed leviathan penises?) not only challenge the world, they’re straddling it.

The story for the technical jargon-stuffed script by Pat Fielder was concocted by David Duncan, a master of this genre – scenarist of 1960’s The Time Machine and 1966’s Fantastic Voyage. On the flip side, he also gave us the American edition of Rodan (1956), 1957’s The Black Scorpion and 1958’s Monster on the Campus. This is one fun guy!

The tough-as-nails Salton Sea Naval base Commander “Twil” Twillinger is nicely essayed by a puffy, slightly bloated Tim Holt. He, too, has mollusk yearnings for Conried’s gorgeous assistant, a single-parent widow, played by beauteous Fifties starlet Audrey Dalton. Dalton’s precocious brat (Mimi Gibson) likewise is integral to the picture. When I first saw MONSTER (eons ago), I thought she was the same LTG (little THEM! girl), pint-sized Sandy Descher. No matter, Gibson goes one better by inadvertently doing to an incubating mollusk egg what crazy Dr. Carrington did on purpose to the space vegetable in The Thing. Accident or not, this only serves to embolden my adamant belief that children are nothing but tiny insane people.

Also on board for this monster ride are Gordon Jones as the local sheriff, Casey Adams as a frogman (not literally) and cadaverous Milton Parsons as a death-obsessed museum curator. As one might suspect, there’s room for a lot of gallows humor in a project of this sort, and MONSTER doesn’t scrimp there either. A visit to the morgue reveals an undertaker (Byron Kane) who keeps his lunch refrigerated by storing it with the corpses. His offering Holt and Conried (or Twillinger and Terwilliker, as I prefer to call them) some tuna is worth the price of admission alone. There’s also a crusty old disbelieving bastard (Ralph Moody) who guards the canal system, and ends up as a mollusk snack.

The “eewwww” shock shots of finding the remains of once living and breathing folks looking like Tom Brady footballs ain’t a pretty sight, and I’m fairly certain that glimpsing seaman Jody McCrea covered in semen isn’t exactly what the recruiting posters had in mind. Similarly disturbing is the discovery of a hottie (Barbara Darrow), coincidentally also named Jody (hey, even mollusks can have a fantasy name jones), who, like Susan Backlinie in the opening of Jaws (possibly inspired by this scene), gets sucked under during an evening swim.  I imagine it would just be a matter of time before curiosity would cause the Salton Sea area residents to wonder why beach babes are disappearing and/or turning up on shore, half-naked and covered in “simple marine secretion,” although in California that may not be such an unusual thing.

The aforementioned producers-director trio responsible for this carnivorous confection is the formidable triad of Jules Levy, Arthur Gardner and Arnold Laven. They all met at Camp Hal Roach during WWII, where they made propaganda films for the war effort. No doubt, that added the realistic technical military stuff that helps make THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD so groovy. Their first collaboration was a terrific film noir entitled Without Warning (1952). That was followed, in 1953, by the equally intriguing Down Three Dark Streets. Aside from MONSTER, Levy-Gardner-Laven coproduced the earlier discussed cofeature, The Vampire, dealing with the worst-case scenario of suburban substance abuse. The following year, Gardner and Levy produced the well-remembered horror thriller Return of Dracula (like The Vampire, also scripted by Fielder), another UA genre fave that went out on release with It! The Terror from Beyond Space.  All three men struck their nest-egg pay-dirt in TV, the highpoint for Levy-Gardner being the 1960s western The Big Valley.

THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD has surprisingly good special effects by Robert Crandall, Ted Haworth and Augie Lohman. While nowhere near the caliber of Harryhausen, it’s still 100,000 levels above the psychotic Muppet in The Giant Claw.

The reliable Lester White shot the movie and, at last, collectors can relish the slick monochrome feature in its original 1.85:1 widescreen dimensions, and in 1080p High Def no less! Suffice it to say, the Kino 35MM transfer is stunning. The wonderful Heinz Roemheld composed the spine-tingling score, which, dare I say, hits all the right notes.

The trailer to THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD is a jaw-dropping must, as it features a specially-shot teaser not in the final cut: a very graphic insert of a mollusk “sucking” a woman with enough gyrating frenzy to prefigure a 1980s Adrian Lyne-dance. It also contains an unintentionally hilarious composite of one the title stars looming over a modern metropolis. It’s false advertising at its best (or worst). That said, it’s also a testament to the actual movie, which admirably manages to survive the flim-flam ballyoo (and the inevitable shame of eidetic memory-endowed viewers having to resort to yelling out “Gyp!”).

THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD.  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 Studio, Inc. CAT # K1733.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Spacek Training

The first rule of Hollywood Lore 101 is when something sensational catches on, rinse, spin-dry, repeat and repeat again. In the case of AIP, it’s their coat of arms. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the 1976 horror phenomenon, Carrie had producers and hack writers scurrying to their respective legal department’s how-much-can-we-get-away-without-being-sued-for-libel divisions. And, as quick as directors could shout, “menstrual blood in the shower!” the floodgates had opened and out poured a veritable Carrie nation – the jewel in the crown being 1978’s JENNIFER, now on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber, Scorpion Releasing, 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios, Inc.

In its defense, JENNIFER is sincere in its general execution, and ultimately comprises a reasonable carbon copy of the Carrie template. It is, however, the sprinkling of fresh tidbits that occasionally surpass the now-culture imbedded scenario of the Stephen King original.  Add to the mix that JENNIFER is also extremely well-cast, and lays claim to the debut of ubiquitous 1980-1990s TV and B-movie actress Lisa Pelikan (it isn’t, this movie being her twelfth credit). Unlike the geeky, downright strange (or, how Bing Crosby described Danny Kaye in White Christmas: “a real weirdsmobile”) teen lass (so poignantly enacted by Sissy Spacek), Pelikan is an ex-pat from a small mountain community who has been granted a scholarship at a posh school due to her impressive cerebral skills. Because of her slight accent, smarts, and disinterest in trendy assholes (“Don’t ask why the spiders are crawlin’ up your leg, just brush ‘em off”), she is immediately ostracized by the super-rich girl contingent, led by Sandra – perhaps the meanest mean girl ever to skank up celluloid. Sandra (Amy Johnston) is so nasty and cruel that Patty McCormack’s wallet likely came with her picture in it. Can’t be a complete accident that she sorta resembles Seventies international bad girl/goddess Mimsy Farmer. Or is that just my wishful thinking for giving them moguls too much smarty-pants acknowledgement?  Sandra’s uncaring pop is, (big shock) a senator, played with apathetic plasticity by John Gavin. He’s more worried about his career than his sprout’s well-being (she’s already been tossed out of approximately 200,000 schools for aberrant behavior beyond the call of booty). So, I guess one is supposed to feel sorry for her, but that’s a near impossibility as the character is such a goddamned miserable bitch. And since the school relies upon generous donations from her father, the waspy dean (the great Nina Foch) ain’t gonna do shit. Besides, she has to support her drug habit. So, poor Jennifer is made to suffer. And suffer she does.

In the King novel (and movie), the title character’s single parent was a maniacal religious freak, played to perfection by Piper Laurie. Jennifer’s single parent is likewise Christ-fixated (in that precocious Spanish Inquisition sort of way), and is portrayed by the equally superb Jeff Corey. And here the secrets come out. Corey and Pelikan were unequivocally banished from their bucolic homeland for witchcraft. Ya see, Jennifer has a penchant for snakes, and snakes can give one “da power.” This begat a backwater notoriety concert tour resulting in a series of serpent sermonizing an’ a-scarifyin’ (“Give me the vengeance of the viper!”). Eventually, Jennifer’s hillbilly (or is it hillbillina?) Aimee Semple McPherson routine caused the death of a child and excreted the bee-jeezus out of the rubes, Papa Corey included. So the pair high-tailed it out of there and opened a pet shop in the upscale community where Jen aced her scholastic entrance exams.

The fact that Jennifer is fearful of her own powers is yet another intriguing facet to this opus. I mean, we know she’s gonna cave, it’s just a matter of when. Neither Bert Convy, as a sympathetic teacher nor Wesley Eure, a simp pathetic student, provide much help.

Like Carrie’s antagonist, meanie Sandra has a dumbass boyfriend, Dayton (Ray Underwood), sculpted in the John Travolta mold (and, trust me, unlike grease, mold is the word). It doesn’t help that this “teen” looks around forty years old (in actuality, Underwood was 28), and apparently enjoys wearing Liberace’s cast-offs (ah, those disco-pathic Seventies).  And, yes, there is a shower scene – one sans Karo syrup, but nevertheless just as embarrassing.

And, here comes the truly fascinating addition to the story, one that underlines the already-feminist vibe the picture has commendably been giving off (JENNIFER was scripted by a woman, screenwriter Kay Cousins Johnson). Jane, another abused girl (Louise Hoven), is ordered by Sandra to be raped as a goof/punishment. Moron Dayton viciously performs the deed, which finally wakes the up-till-now complacent student up. Rather than go to the authorities, she bonds with fellow pariah Jennifer. This sets in motion the much-anticipated in-prom’s-way final act. The concept of a horror movie wherein a rape victim calls upon the supernatural to extract revenge is genuinely inspired. That producer Steve Krantz (who cribbed the story…ummm, concocted the King “homage”) and writer Johnson didn’t really “go” with this, making it the picture’s prime focus, constitutes a mammoth missed opportunity. I can’t imagine coming up with this plot point, and NOT eschewing the Carrie shenanigans in favor of starting from scratch with a totally innovational horror approach. But WTF do I know?

The climax is suitably karma-friendly, although the budget prevents the prosthetic effects that the villains so richly deserve. It does seem as if the production ran out of funds, since even the non-splatter action effects appear compromised and, truthfully, not all that exciting.

That said, JENNIFER, otherwise ably directed by Bruce Mack, has enough oomph to pass muster, justifying a valid addition to any Seventies horror shelf.

The Kino Lorber Blu-ray of JENNIFER looks pretty good, high praise from a 1970s offering, processed by the likes of MovieLab. The widescreen visuals by Irv Goodnoff are good ’nuff, and replicate a nice, sharp palette of colors indicative of the era. There’s an instantly forgettable score supervised by TV’s Ed. Norton (I wish!), Jerry Styner and Porter Jordan, and an authentically awful title song composed and sung by Jordan that may have your guests hurling projectiles at the screen before the main credits finish rolling, some of the organic variety.

JENNIFER.  Color.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition].  2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino Lorber/Scorpion Releasing/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios, Inc.  CAT # K1418.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Oozy Does It

A (sort of) space age retelling of Frankenstein, Nigel Kneale’s engrossing sci-fi/horror classic THE QUATERMASS X-PERIMENT comes to American Blu-Ray in its first-ever full-length version, thanks to the folks at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios, Inc. Concurrent “Ewwwws” and “Blob’s your uncles” all around!

The picture, a major triumph for Hammer Films, was adapted from a BBC television serial that had British audiences glued to their sets throughout the summer of 1953. It told of the frightening “didn’t-figure-on-that” after-effects of the first manned rocket into outer space. Only one of the crew remains on-board; the others have vanished without a trace. This mystery is slowly and grippingly unraveled by the creator of the ship and mission, Bernard Quatermass.  Mary Shelley by osmosis, Victor Carroon, the surviving spaceman, has been infected by an alien host. This aggressive contagion ingests all living matter around it as it blossoms to full birth – transforming its “container” into an slithering plant-like creature that can sub-divide at regular intervals, eventually taking over the – you know – planet. Yikes, uh-oh, and WTF were you thinking, Quatermass?!!!   For the big screen feature version, much had to obviously be pared down, including a fundamental subplot in which Carroon’s infected body contained remnants of his fellow crewman’s communicable (but rapidly diminishing) intellect; in short, the ability to reason.

Offered to director Val Guest, the original script by Richard Landau was practically rescued from the trash bin by Guest’s wife, actress Yolande Donlan, who thought it interesting. Guest indeed saw possibilities and, if Hammer allowed him to film it in gritty documentary style, he’d accept. They did, at which point former news reporter Guest, utilizing his journalistic touches, did a redux.

Typical of the period, to guarantee an all-important American release, British film companies had to often cede to importing a lead Yank actor/actress to seal the deal. Usually, this meant folks who had seen better days, but whose marquee name could still arouse some interest. In this case, it was actor Brian Donlevy. Donlevy, a raging SOB (even BEFORE he became a star in the States), proved to be (as expected) a royal pain in the ass. Nevertheless he was a fine actor and, as long as he kept sober, Guest was fairly delighted with the results. Less so, Kneale, who thought the diminutive thesp to be appalling – the primary sore thumb in the project. The soft-spoken Quatermass was now an intellectual hothead, prone to violent outbursts if riled (which could be often). In effect, Donlevy’s take turns the revered scientist into a modern Professor Challenger, which ain’t bad. Even in later installments, that diamond-in-the-rough aspect of the character remained, notably in the finest movie Quatermass, 1967’s Quatermass and the Pit, starring the wonderful actor Andrew Keir.

Donlevy was, in effect, the recipient of the Wallace Beery Big Bastard Award, except unlike Beery, Donlevy really was a tough guy. His early years were spent riding with Pershing into Mexico to hunt Pancho Villa and then later, as a pilot, flying with the Lafayette Escadrille in the Great War; yet, contradictory to his persona was his Doc Martin revulsion to the sight of blood – something director William Wellman and costar Ray Milland took advantage during the filming of 1939’s Beau Geste. Milland accidentally-on-purpose nicked Donlevy, causing him to pass out, a bit of nasty business that nonetheless was received with great applause from cast and crew.

Donlevy’s becoming a star a couple of years later made things worse, as more and more folks refused to work with him. This and increased drinking quickly began the Preston Sturges favorite to slip with the velocity of Quatermass’s spaceship. And there you have it. Shooting the essentially low-budget Hammer Film hadn’t given the one-time A-lister any humility. Getting ready daily proved a metamorphosis only slightly bettered by Carroon’s transformation. Only after Donlevy had attached his lifts, corset and toupee would he stumble onto the set/location, generally plastered. Kneale recalls him not knowing any of his lines, the names of his costars, director or even the title of the picture. He’d shout out his dialog as they were being prompted to him off-camera (on the second Quatermass picture, Mother Nature took her revenge, blowing Donlevy’s rug off whilst on-location, resulting in the crew doing an emergency snipe hunt). If this is all true, he’s even a greater actor than I give him credit for. Donlevy’s really good in this picture, but, then again, I love the idea of a bum with the brain of a genius.

The supporting cast was a different story entirely, a hefty helping of iconic British character actors, including Jack Warner (no, not him!) as the (initially) non-believing inspector, plus Gordon Jackson, Lionel Jeffries, Sam Kydd and Thora Hird (who appears as a cantankerous, crusty soak named Rosie, a veritable female version of what would become Hammer’s Michael Ripper role). In another nod to Frankenstein, Guest wrote a bit where the now half plankton/half human Carroon meets up with a little girl a la Maria in the James Whale picture (future starlet, actress and Paul McCartney squeeze Jane Asher). Carroon’s wife was always a head-scratcher for me – a serviceable but unremarkable bit by American starlet Margia Dean. I never could understand why she had to be imported over along with Donlevy until it came to my attention that it was deal arranged by U.S. distributor Robert Lippert, who handled most of the Hammer product in the States. Lippert concurrently had a deal going with 20th Century-Fox, and Dean reportedly was the girlfriend of Fox mogul Spyros Skouras, the man Billy Wilder once defined as the personification of a Greek tragedy. So there you are.

This brings us to the one genuinely brilliant performance in THE QUATERMASS X-PERIMENT, that of Carroon himself – the fantastic actor Richard Wordsworth. Scary but with a broad swatch of pathos, it’s a tortured enactment of a person knowingly losing control. It, dare I say, borders on the Karloffian. One of Wordsworth’s favorite “reviews” was from his landlady. Vividly describing a scene in which he did not physically appear (his carcass now a mass of rubbery, gooey special effects), she praised him for the bit where he was the blob.

Many folks forever associated with Hammer worked on THE QUATERMASS X-PERIMENT. Future producer Aida Young functioned as a second assistant director, while screenwriter Jimmy Sangster functioned as second unit production manager.  But the key addition to the studio’s stock company, was composer James Bernard. QUATERMASS would be his first Hammer Film, and already the score contains all the chilling musical elements that comprise would become known as the Hammer sound.

Guest’s desire for a documentary feel was beautifully conveyed to d.p. Walter Harvey, who relied upon available light and hand-held camera sequences. It’s most effective and adds a realistic aura to the proceedings, so much so that Guest used the technique for his subsequent science-fiction masterpiece, 1961’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire. The screenplay is rife with some goosebumper-to-bumper pips, engineered and delivered with perfection for ultimate flesh-crawling impact (“But these prints aren’t even…human,” “Some force converted two men into jelly”).  There’s even a Donlevy/DeForest Kelley moment (“I’m a scientist, not a fortune teller!”) And, of course, the telltale sign that something god-awful is going to happen (“There is no cause for alarm”).

Censors went ballistic at the violence and carnage in the picture, screaming that it went even beyond their not-suitable-for-children X-certificate (“…so exaggerated as to be nauseating and revolting…”). But X it did get, which Hammer cleverly used as a selling point, hyping the “X” in the unusual “experiment” spelling to promote the fact that this was too-rough-for-TV stuff.

British critics, lying in wait to unfavorably compare the feature film to the television edition, were fairly surprised by final effort. While many acclaimed that it surpassed the way bigger Hollywood productions War of the Worlds and Them!, a few held back and trashed it – although snarkily so (Reynolds News referring to it as “quiteamess”).

Audiences had no problem, however, and flocked to theaters in droves to see the movie, making it one of the most popular British entries of the year.

UA acquired the rights for America (after Fox turned it down, as it negated their new “color and CinemaScope only” policy), and, realizing the non-recognition of the Quatermass name, retitled it The Creeping Unknown. In order to assure its wide release for the pivotal youth market, they also snipped five minutes off the running time before shipping it out on a double-bill with the all-star goofy horrorthon The Black Sleep.  More bizarre was its UK distribution fate where QUATERMASS was co-featured with Jules Dassin’s Rififi!

The Kino Blu-ray of THE QUATERMASS X-PERIMENT is a must-have for all horror/sci-fi and Hammer collectors. As indicated, this is the complete 82-minute version, and it looks (in its 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio) and sounds wonderful.

In addition, there are numerous extras, including cheesy supplements from the original VHS edition, but also audio commentary from Guest and Hammer historian Marcus Hearn (who likewise appear in an on-camera interview), an appreciation of the QUATERMASS and its influence (also on-camera) with John Carpenter, the theatrical trailer and more.

A superbly realized Fifties horror flick – one that would helped to move Hammer Films toward the color goths they’re renowned for – this movie gets better with each viewing. As far as the genre goes, it literally spews with (quater) mass appeal.

THE QUATERMASS X-PERIMENT.  Black-and-white.  Widescreen [1080p High Definition; 1.66:1]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios, Inc.  CAT # K1529.  SRP:  $29.95.

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