BluRay/DVD Reviews

A BROTHERS GORDON EXTRAVAGANZA

By • Jan 23rd, 2007 •

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(The Criterion Collection)
MONSTERS AND MADMEN: Four Thrilling Tales of Inner Torments and Outer Space
Featuring: THE HAUNTED STRANGLER, CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, FIRST MAN INTO SPACE and THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE.
Supplements include interviews with Richard and Alex Gordon, conducted by Tom Weaver.

Criterion has eventually followed up what must have been a lucrative decision on its part – the 2000 release of Richard Gordon’s revered ‘B’ sci-fi/horror flick FIEND WITHOUT A FACE – with this package of four films created by either Richard Gordon or his brother Alex. It’s a unique piece of merchandising, from the utterly uncharacteristic box cover art (which has the feel of a graphic novel), to the wonderful feature-length commentaries which are captivating and re-listenable, moreso, perhaps, than a few of the films are re-watchable…

The two best films are presented in one of the two boxes, on separate discs. THE HAUNTED STRANGLER was the best work Boris Karloff had done in many years, a Jekyll-Hyde story in which the nearly-70-year-old actor, believing strongly in the project, undertook some physically challenging scenes. He also showed off his chest, something usually reserved for Steve Reeves or Clint Walker, and revealed himself to be in nearly as good condition as he was in THE BLACK CAT, where he was skinned alive by Bela Lugosi some twenty+ years earlier.

I like this film a lot; quality-wise, it’s right behind FIEND in Richard Gordon’s extensive catalogue. The commentary track features both brothers: Hollywood-situated Alex, in an interview conducted in 2002, the year before he died, and Richard, in a separate interview, recorded a year later in his New York City stomping grounds. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Richard Gordon for a number of years, but I’d never met Alex. I confess I wasn’t fond of Alex’s Hollywood productions, but from the interview, I’m sure I would have very much liked the man. Like Richard, he was a film lover from childhood, who saw his passion for the movies turn into a profession. I was laughing out loud as he ripped into Tim Burton’s ED WOOD, labeling the film’s two writers ‘charlatans’ (both Gordons knew Bela Lugosi well, and both have testified to the fact that he was a gentleman, and never bad-mouthed Boris Karloff in all their years of dealing with him).

Alex names his three favorite Karloff films (having seen 90 of the actor’s 137 films by the time they met): THE RAVEN…THE INVISIBLE RAY…and THE OLD DARK HOUSE , with SON OF FRANKENSTEIN a close fourth. Tom Weaver later presses Richard to name his three Karloff faves, and they are: FRANKENSTEIN, THE BLACK CAT, and THE WALKING DEAD. Weaver then lists his: THE BLACK CAT, THE BLACK ROOM, and THE BODY SNATCHER. And I may as well add mine: THE BLACK CAT, THE BODY SNATCHER, and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

The Brothers Gordon display remarkable recall, and we are treated to pretty much all we could ever hope to know about producing low budget films in the 50s and 60s, about independent producers dealing with the major studios, about working with all the actors involved (the leads being usually American ‘B’ names like Marshall Thompson). And whereas Alex tried to give aging Western genre stars bit roles in his productions (which is the best thing about THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE), Richard was doing a similar thing with old British character actors.

CORRIDORS OF BLOOD took a troubled and circuitous path to release, and its narrative is meandering as well. Over at Hammer Studios, where CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN had just been completed, James Carreras advised Richard Gordon to pair Christopher Lee with Boris Karloff. His sense was that Lee was going to break out with CURSE. Gordon listened to him, and it’s a treat to see these two horror legends from different generations in the same project. While the script is loosely based on early factual experiments with anesthesia, for me it’s more a narrative retread of Val Lewton’s 1943 THE BODY SNATCHER, with its distillation of Burke and Hare into a single person. In CORRIDORS that person is Lee, playing “Resurrection Joe”, and in SNATCHER it was Karloff, as the multi-layered grave-robber Gray, so there’s another nice link between the two actors beyond just their reputations. Also, in CORRIDORS, Karloff is playing the Henry Daniell part from THE BODY SNATCHER, a well-meaning doctor who, eager to help his suffering patients, starts dealing with the wrong kind of people.

FIRST MAN INTO SPACE came out within a year of the first manned space flights. There were a spate of films about that theme – ON THE THRESHOLD OF SPACE, TOWARDS THE UNKNOWN and I AIM AT THE STARS are three invoked by commentary track host Tom Weaver – but they tended not to have monsters in them, whereas this one did. It’s a decent little sci-fi-horror thriller, and it’s rather mournful, too.

Weaver, perhaps anticipating a lull in commentary strength over four discs, has done copious amounts of homework, such as in FIRST MAN where he keeps presenting a space travel time-line. In CORRIDORS OF BLOOD he reads from literature on the history of anesthesia, and he does a similar thing about atomic submarines in THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE, which is the only film in the collection produced by Alex Gordon, though he appears on more than one commentary track. The problem with SUBMARINE is paradoxical, in that these are near-pristine masterings, and in the case of well-shot films like the Karloff titles, that’s a plus, but with SUBMARINE, a cheap film with a painful TV look, the visual flaws are only intensified by the transfer.

There are rewarding extras beyond the commentaries on all four discs. A videotaped interview with Yvonne Romain is nicely chapter-listed by film appearances (including CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF), and in the one labeled “Elvis” she discusses her co-starring role in DOUBLE TROUBLE. Director Robert Day (STRANGLER, CORRIDORS, and FIRST MAN) shares his memories with us on video as well. And the censorship bureau’s letter to Gordon listing demands for cuts in CORRIDORS is highlighted by cut, followed by the deleted footage. There are also thick little insert booklets within the two disc boxes. It’s a classy release.

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