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HALLOWEEN TRICKS AND TREATS 2011

By • Oct 24th, 2011 •

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It appears the studio Archives are doing the heavy lifting this year. Some exquisite delights and rare turkeys have crept out of the vaults by the way of internet orders. These titles include THE BLACK SLEEP (wonderful), CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN (really bad), BURN, WITCH, BURN (good), THE BABY (good), THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK (good), THE SANDS OF THE KALAHARI (terrific), THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (remarkable), PLANET OF BLOOD (very good), THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN (dreadful), and SUGAR HILL (bad, yet fun).

Doled out the old, traditional way, as well as an archive item or two, are the following titles, which are causes for rejoicing and/or cautious consideration:

THE ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (Criterion) DVD & BluRay. 1932. 70 mins.

This is the last treasure of Horror’s Golden Age to hit the stores. It’s full of mutations playing at being human, the brainchildren of vivisectionist Dr. Moreau, interpreted with sadistic and gay-tinged gusto by Charles Laughton. His delicious performance is the centerpiece of a truly eerie excursion into H.G. Wells’ perverse tale, framed by heavily shrouded cinematography that makes for intentionally hard-to-see the images, rendering them all the more creepy. A reviewer at the time called the atmosphere suffocating, and Richard Stanley, the original director of the 1996 remake, in his supplementary interview, refers to it as an atmosphere of oppression and pain.

Richard Arlen is picked up at sea, the lone survivor of a shipwreck. He’s dehydrated and practically delirious, but his misadventures are just beginning. Deposited against his will on an uncharted island, he becomes part of the grand scheme of exiled bio-experimentalist Moreau, and we cringe every time he upbraids the loose-cannon scientist, as we know more than he does about the perils of existing on the savage island.

A rogue’s gallery of half-human creature make-up designs, from what must have been a small army of application artists under the leadership of Wally Westmore, adorn Moreau’s experimental surgery rejects, who lurk in the jungle, just a hair away from reverting to their primitive states. Moreau’s laws have been laid down to keep them thinking they should act like people, and the ‘sayer of the law’ is an unrecognizable Bela Lugosi, looking as if he’s wearing Jack Pearce’s wolfman facial application upside down with every hair sticking straight out as if he’d jammed his finger into an electric socket. It was another dubious career choice for Lugosi within a year of his ground-breaking turn as DRACULA. He had nixed the role of Frankenstein’s monster because it offered him no opportunities to flex his Hungarian vocal chords, and he certainly summons all the majestic notes he can in this role, but that distracting eruption of facial hair makes one wonder just what animal he’s devolved from – a giant Polynesian hedgehog perhaps?

The visual quality of this title has always looked degraded – lots of gauze over the lens in addition to whatever else the years have done to the vault materials; I remember it looking thus from screenings and TV broadcasts fifty or so years ago. I think that, given the Criterion make-over, this is as good as we’re ever going to see it. There’s a band of negative wear on the left center of frame, which is visible in some scenes, but usually slides under our conscious notice. The sound is decent, though one no longer senses why audience members vomited upon hearing it eighty years ago.

Arlen looks like my former LA manager, Randy Warner, who is now a practicing therapist in Hollywood. Arlen is intense and forceful. You believe him when he agrees, out of an acknowledgment that he is an unwanted guest, not to talk about what he sees, nor violate the area he is consigned to within Moreau’s compound, and you believe his moral indignation upon learning the extent of the doctor’s procedures causing him to say drastically unwise things which could place him in danger at any moment. A feeling of dread hangs over the entire running time, and that’s a neat achievement. One can still feel it today.

Special kudos to first time actor Kathleen Burke, plucked (possibly) from a job in a dentist’s office to play the sexual, sympathetic panther-woman, Lota. A nation-wide search was whittled down to four women, who came to Hollywood for the final judging at the hands of directors like Cecil B. De Mille, and Ms. Burke walked away with the coveted role. She’s particularly well directed by Erle C. Kenton, who did a few other equally fast-moving, juicy horror items – GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN and HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN among them. He’d been around since the early silent days, and would hang around long enough to make the transition into TV, dying in 1980 at age 83.

Supplementals, a la the Criterion treatment, are lavish. Greg Mank provides the commentary track, overflowing with fun into, but trying a bit too hard to connect the dots. John Landis sits and discusses the film with make-up great Rick Baker and horror historian Bob Burns. David Skal weighs in. And as mentioned above, they’ve even interviewed Richard Stanley, who was unseated by John Frankenheimer on the most recent version of MOREAU, which starred Marlon Brando in a wacky performance as the titular doctor and Fairuza Balk as the panther woman/Cheyenne Brando character. In between there were a few other versions – one with Burt Lancaster and Michael York which was terminally sedate, and another from the Phillipines (TERROR IS A MAN) with Francis (RETURN OF DRACULA) Lederer and Greta Thyssen, a good ‘B’ effort. Harder to find is the adult film version, THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR PORNEAU.

According to Mank, H.G. Wells hated the film. He was overly critical.

THE HOWLING: REBORN (ANCHOR BAY)

I was very happy and pleasantly surprised with this franchise reboot. Victoria Alexander, our first string film critic, is always moaning that directors and cinematographers no longer know how to light their leading ladies beautifully. Well, here’s the exception to that recent rule. Leading lady Lindsey Shaw looks lovely all the time – it’s near impossible to take your eyes off her. The director, who must have been enraptured by her, even gives her one long close-up reaction shot where she’s crying, snot is pooling in her left nostril, and he’s literally daring me – “C’mon, Roy! Do you still think she’s beautiful?!” Well, yes, I still do; I just don’t think that particular shot belonged there. But a director, especially one who wrote such a clever script and kept the narrative moving at such a brisk pace despite what appears to be a dangerously low budget, deserves an indulgence or two at the expense of a little dramatic momentum.*

Now there’s nothing unique about the plot. High school nerd, high school fox, high school jocks/bullies, high school monster of some sort. We’ve all been there…so many times. But Hollywood lives by playing it safe, so then it becomes a matter of what do you do with the clichés to freshen them up a bit? And that’s where this film also shines.

By the way, protagonist Landon Liboiron is also shot attractively, and Ivana Milicevic, as a key figure whose identity I shouldn’t reveal, also looks just great all the time. Ms. Milicevic is a sensational actress whose ability to completely change her emotional state at the drop of a film frame is given dozens of opportunities to flaunt this gift.

On the commentary track (which happily features Ms. Shaw who, I failed to mention two paragraphs ago, is an intuitive and engaging actress), director Niziki sounds a little as if he’s been inhaling helium. I’m bewildered that he hasn’t done another feature film (according to IMDB) since1989. I really can’t figure it, as he displays such a confident and successful directorial hand. He hasn’t been idle, but his recent work has been mainly short form.

Also worthy of praise are DP Benoit Beaulieu who makes the director’s vision come palpably true, and Editor James Coblentz who takes us for quite a spin, leaping the 180% line repeatedly to great effect, and getting us in on the action for long, poetic stretches of time.

I’m not sure the effects work was everything the crew had hoped for. There’s a lot of dodging around the werewolves rather than showing them off (we see less of them then we saw of the creature in ALIEN), and fortunately they’re less central to the film than the romance is. Also, there’s a sermonizing voice-over from the protagonist at the end which clobbers the pacing, but the earlier voice-over moments are good, and there’s a whole lot of good spoken dialogue, so even though third act missteps are harder to forgive, this is in balance a very effective screenplay.

* I checked out an earlier film featuring Ms. Shaw – DEVOLVED (2010) – a variation of LORD OF THE FLIES with High School nerds and jocks stranded on an island. She is not photographed nearly as well, a testimony to Beaulieu’s work, but she does show all the intuitive physical gifts that really shine in THE HOWLING: REBORN.

THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (MGM Archives) 1956. B&W.

The release of this ‘B’ budget level classic is a cause for rejoicing. The first of several theatrical adaptations of Nigel Kneale’s brilliant meditations on science/scifi/horror/and the supernatural, all blended into captivating narrative fiction, this was originally a BBC miniseries, much of which, sadly, has either deteriorated or disappeared. But Val Guest’s condensation of the script, and his documentary-flavored direction, have created a timeless adventure into the unknown (in fact, in its US release, it was called THE CREEPING UNKNOWN). I have been showing the PAL disc in my History of Horror class for years with unanimously positive reactions from the students

An accident has befallen three astronauts in space. Only one returns, and he is not who (or what) he was when he left. Professor Quatermass, who pioneered the rocket program, tries to put the pieces of the solar mystery together as the death toll mounts and life on earth is threatened with disaster, as it usually is in the Quatermass films. ‘Ticking Clock’ syndrome drives the third act.

Subtexturally the narrative is an examination of the British population’s distrust of science after the bombardment of World War II, and of departmental hostilities within the government. It stars American actor Brian Donlevy (a popular practice with ‘Quoto Quickies’ and larger budgeted films in the UK after the war was to secure a second tier, affordable American actor for the cast, to help with foreign and US sales) as the cantankerous, egomaniacal ‘old man’ of rocketry, Bernard Quatermass. He tolerates no fools, and for him, everyone other than himself is a fool. Kneale despised Donlevy’s interpretation of his creation and never missed an opportunity to rail on the guy when doing commentary tracks or interviews. But I disagree. I find Donlevy’s rude characterization fun, exhilarating, even amusing, as it pumps the narrative relentlessly forward. Hammer Films produced this little gem. My advice to you would be to go buy it. Even people not into the horror genre find it compelling. (But if you have the PAL version, don’t dump it just because you’re getting this one – the European disc has good supplementals, such a commentary track from director Val Guest).

A SERBIAN FILM (Invincible Pictures) 2011. Unrated (even with a few seconds edited out to avoid legal problems [and with good reason]).

Boy, this calls for careful handling, possibly with asbestos-lined gloves. If you were looking for the sub-genre in which to place it, ‘Torture-Porn’ would do the trick. Except that unlike, say, HOSTEL, which is a key title in that sub-genre, where the appellation ‘porn’ is meant to stress how brutal the narrative is, A SERBIAN FILM really is about torture and really contains pornography. So please, while it is totally defensible technically and aesthetically – beautifully made, extremely effective, and about something beyond just the exploitative thrills – please be careful about who sees this one with you. What can I compare it to? Pasolini’s SALO? Buddy G’s SLICE OF LIFE? Wes Craven’s original THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT in its day? Respectable films created by respectable directors, but aimed at viewers with extremely specialized, tolerant tastes.

An ex-porn actor is lured back into the biz by an offer of mucho cash, which he desperately needs to support his lovely family – a tall, beautiful, loving wife, and a sweet young son (who he talks to guardedly about masturbation). You know this is going to go bad, you just don’t know how bad.

While there are clear instances of directorial restraint, nothing is finally left to our imagination. Gory violence, graphic nudity, hard-core scenes (even if the guy’s penis is bogus, a la BOOGIE NIGHTS, it appears real in a few shots). What makes it painful to watch, apart from the obvious qualities listed above, are it’s unsympathetic characters. Our main guy maintains one disenchanted expression almost throughout, which can also be read as the cluelessness that seals his fate. His cop brother lusts for the protagonist’s wife to the extent that, while visiting their home, he has to excuse himself to jerk off in the bathroom.

The filmmaking is slick (it would almost have to be to support this narrative for audience consumption), with pleasing lighting, often harsh color design, experimental editing and imaginative art direction, most of it in line with the hard-edged tone of the film. Referring back to HOSTEL, while I like that film very much, it cops out on the nudity level: when the young tourist protagonist is tied in the chair, about to be eviscerated, the ‘client’ leaves the kid’s underpants on. I just didn’t buy it, but this was, after all, a film out of Hollywood, and some concessions had to be made. No such concessions are made here.

I had a few reservations. The lead villain is distractingly over the top (that’s a directorial choice which called for a less flamboyant approach), and there seemed to be illogical elements in the narrative. It’s not bereft of inner logic like, say, a Dario Argento film. I has inner logic; it just doesn’t let us in on it, which is a different kind of problem.

I couldn’t help thinking, during the film (as the film was no doubt prompting me to), about the entire story being a painfully bleak metaphor for what Serbia is actually going through in these desperate economic times. I hear there are other, similar-themed films in the Serbian pipeline waiting to be picked up and released here. Things are bad in the U S of A, but probably considerably worse in some Eastern European countries. And all this depravity, the film says between the frames, is what a country in precipitous decline leads to. Metaphorically, I hope.

An Excellent Halloween Book:

THE HORROR HITS OF RICHARD GORDON – A Book-length interview by Tom Weaver. BearMountain Media. $24.95

I’ve always referred to him as the British Roger Corman, and yet I’ve always felt that it was a troublesome analogy, not because Richard Gordon produced far fewer films than Corman, nor because he didn’t ‘discover’ talent such as Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Francis Ford Coppola, Jon Davison and scores of others as Corman did. I felt uneasy about the comparison because Gordon’s ratio of admirable films to misfires in the 1950s was actually far better than Corman’s. He was a true film lover from early childhood on, and though he, like Corman, produced his projects cheaply, he always maintained a dedicated eye toward quality and class.

Most of Gordon’s horror flicks are out on DVD, most gratifyingly the five that Criterion has released. It’s wonderful to see FIEND WITHOUT A FACE sitting on the Criterion-reserved shelves in stores along with the films of Bergman, Fellini, and Dreyer. They have also released four films from Richard’s and his brother Alex’s canon as a collection. And with Universal joining the ‘Archive’ distribution model, could THE PROJECTED MAN be far behind?

Tom Weaver’s book-length interview goes in depth into not only the making of each film, with plentiful anecdotes supplied, but also into the state of the film industry here and in the UK during the 50s and 60s, since Gordon had offices in both countries. Gordon’s memory is razor sharp and this is not only a fun read but a valuable text about the film biz in the decades covered.

Gordon is the last man standing who worked with Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. His recollections about the two stars of Universal’s Golden Age are priceless. He is a staunch defender of Lugosi’s image and character (which he maintains were diametrically opposed to the Martin Landau portrayal in Tim Burton’s ED WOOD), and he paints a warm, genteel portrait of Karloff. THE HAUNTED STRANGLER and CORRIDORS OF BLOOD are two of Karloff’s finest late-career performances.

The soft-cover coffee-table book is amply illustrated, and while I don’t care for the quality of BearMountain’s replication of stills, they are nonetheless wonderful shots, meticulously selected to give the interview ample visual support.

When it comes to the horror genre, Weaver is the planet’s foremost archeologist. I’m thrilled to see that this entertaining, edifying biographical journey was a stand-alone volume, and not part of a collection of interviews as is more often his wont. You should buy this book; you’ll get lots of revisitation use out of it.

Even at this late date, with so many titles having appeared on DVD, there are still some that are yet to see the light of a home theater monitor. Among these are:

THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS

THE MAZE (3D)

THE PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE (3D)

NIGHT MUST FALL (Albert Finney)

BLOOD AND ROSES

THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN (and its sequel, THE WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST)

THE INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN

IT CONQUERED THE WORLD

GOG (3D)

The 2nd UK DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS miniseries

THE FIEND WHO WALKED THE WEST

THE UNINVITED

THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS

C’mon guys! Dig ’em out and hand ’em over!

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4 Responses »

  1. I was under the assumption that THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS and THE UNINVITED are on dvd thru TCM DVD. The second DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS is on DVD. WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST is. MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS can be found on ebay and can be ordered from SINISTER CINEMA.
    Francis Lederer was in RETURN OF DRACULA, not RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (that starred Bela Lugosi).
    The British finale to the Hammer Quatermass has Donlevy walking off into the night, no music just sound of footfalls. The scene fades to the rocket taking off with “A Hammer Film” appearing. Most copies use the U.S. “Creeping Unknown” version, like the dvd and laserdisc!

  2. Hey Richard,

    If you’re right about those four titles, than Xmas has come early for FIR’s editor. I usually go by Doug Pratt’s vast listing of upcoming titles in his excellent Laser Disc DVD newsletter, but I’m sure some of the esoteric archive titles may have slipped by. Several people have offered to make me a DVD off VHSs of PIEDRAS BLANCAS purchased from Ebay, and I’m aware of the Sinister Cinema VHS of the title. But I’ve always found that transferring from VHS to DVD results in a degraded image. Unless Sinister has it on DVD off a 35mm master. I’ll check. But I’m a bit of an oddball in respect to VHS. I’ve never bought one in all my years of manic collecting.

    Further good news. In MGM’s latest archive offering, GOG is among the titles. It won’t be in 3D, as I originally saw it multiple times as a kid, but it’ll still be nice to catch up with it again.

    The DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS I was referring to is the second UK mini-series. I haven’t been able to find it, but with your inspiring belief in its DVD existence, I will redouble my efforts.

  3. I had watched the second DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS from the library in our area, who were kind to order it. I liked it as much as the original film, which I have in WS on laserdisc! Ck Amazon UK for the second version!

  4. I had forgotton to mention that Philip J. Riley and myself, with Bear Manor Media, have presented the Philip J. Riley “NIGHTMARE SERIES”, which is the release of new editions of long out of print film tie-in edition paperbacks. The first, now available in hardcover as well, is “THE BRIDES OF DRACULA” by Dean Owen (from the ORIGINAL screenplay by Jimmy Sangster with a little ‘spice added’ by Mr. Owen) which will be followed by, first U.S. Printing, of “THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN” by Jimmy Sangster. These feature Introductions by myself. A long list of other titles will follow! 25% of each edition bought will be donated to ST JUDES CHILDREN HOSPITAL in the original authors name. Also, hopefully by next year, will be the release of my own book on the telefilm, “FEAR NO EVIL”!

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