DARK SKY FILMS DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE & THE HELLFIRE CLUB
“Blood of the Vampire” (1958) Starring Donald Wolfit, Barbara Shelley, Vincent Ball, Victor Maddern, William Devlin. Written by Jimmy Sangster. Directed by Henry Cass. Color/1:85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
“The Hellfire Club” (1961) Starring Keith Michell, Adrienne Corri, Peter Cushing, Kai Fischer, Peter Arne. Written by Jimmy Sangster and Leon Griffiths. Directed by Robert S. Baker and Monty Norman. Color/2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Special features include a selection of vintage drive-in ads for refreshments and safety policies, and several trailers for other drive-in feature (several available on opher Dark Sky DVDs) including: “The Horror of Party Beach”, “Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster”, “The Soldier”and “Kill, Baby… Kill!”, plus a “Blood of the Vampire” audio commentary featuring Robert S. Baker and Jimmy Sangster.
Given the popular success of the color horror films of Great Britain’s Hammer Films beginning with “The Curse of Frankenstein” in 1957, it was only natural that other productions turning their attention to lurid tales of the macabre, mixed with appropriate dollops of blood and sex, would find their ways to cinemas throughout the world, especially to that harrowed destination of nocturnal nightmares: the drive-in. Surely those of the generations of folks who frequented the local drive-in theater may recall the abundance of such films which were actually often produced with the outdoor experience in mind rather than hardtop theater distribution. With their crackly speakers, elfin intermission cartoons, weirdly green burgers and hot dogs on sale at the refreshment stand (at least as envisioned in the inevitable onscreen ads and the opportunity to steam up the windshield (or for the more advance and adventurous patrons: testing the sturdiness of the fliver’s spring suspension), at night at the drive-in is an experience which is almost impossible to replicate in the home arena, though many film companies have given such a attempt the old college try, even going so far as to obscure the featured film soundtracks with a garbled pseudo-speaker sound and even projection room announcements. However, a more practical (and commonplace) approach is taken by Dark Sky Films in their interesting and ambitious Drive-In Double Feature series, including this double bill featuring two movies by the producing-directing team of Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman, films which clearly indicate an intention of directly competing with the rising star of Hammer Films in both Gothic horror trappings and historical costumers, but more importantly, in gratuitously colorful bloodletting and bodice ripping.
“Blood of the Vampire” (1958)
Masquerading (even with the usual cautionary onscreen how-to text in destroying a bloodsucker) as a vampire film, while more accurately within the context of a mad scientist film, “Blood of the Vampire” follows the traditional path of the Universal horror films by making the villains of the piece- a sadistically cruel prison warden, Dr. Callistratus -the most interesting person in the room, but makes the fatal mistake of placing the extremely stalwart and extremely dull “romantic” lead John Pierre (played by the obnoxiously stiff piece of lumber Vincent Ball, whose limp sparks generated with the wasted Barbara Shelley couldn’t ignite an open pool of gasoline), a doctor wrongly convicted of medical malpractice, front and center for an inordinately greater portion of the film. While Pierre’s time in prison is spent whining and overtly telegraphing his every halfhearted escape attempt to the delight of the hungry guard dogs (whose initial menace becomes tiresome from overexposure and thus evaporates the intended shock of the less than lurid finale), it is revealed that his presence there is designed by Callistratus to assist him in an obscure blood experiment which in reality turn out to be elementary blood typing and transfusions) which supposedly will cure the evil doctor of his “anemia” and restore him to normalcy; a rather bizarre medical state of affairs considering the film opens with the revival of Callistratus from the dead through a heart transplant performed in a makeshift surgery by a physician who moments before was seen drunkenly cavorting at a local inn with an oversexed barmaid. (Ah! The Hammer influence reasserts itself.) Neither the nature of Callistratus’ infirmity (he seems healthy as a horse and overpowers Jean Pierre at every opportunity) nor the title reference to vampires is made clear nor connected by anything except the desperate wishes of film distributors in search of a matinee audience, and the film slowly (ever so slowly) devolves into a typical “lady in distress” drama (the transparent masquerade of Madeleine posing as a housemaid to gain access to the prison- which seems pointless except to set the stage for her to be subjected to some not atypical mad scientist bondage -is not worth summarizing) in which Callistratus’ Quasimodo-like assistant Carl (Victor Maddern) chooses romantic longings over loyalty, saving Jean Pierre’s hide but laying further evidence to the inescapable conclusion that the “hero” of the drama has been entirely unnecessary. The film is a muddled amalgam of Dr. Crippen and Alexandre Dumas as seen through the convoluted prism of that ace of Hammer scribes Jimmy Sangster whose script predictably features the a number of sensational events whose inclusion defy both logic and coherent narrative credibility to all but the most cursory observance. Unfortunately, despite the workmanlike efforts of director Howard Cass, the pacing of the film gives the impression of impatience inducing foot dragging due to the unrelievedly vacant presence of Vincent Ball, even with the slightly compensatory pleasures afforded by Stanley Black who contributes a score that is both colorful and robust. However, the film is somewhat salvaged from a most unlikely source: the normally embarrassingly hammy acting of Donald Wolfit, who for once seems perfectly in tune with the already absurd nature of the material and wisely modulates his performance as Dr. Callistratus to accommodate the melodramatically Gothic aspects of the role, ironically but effectively shaming the rest of the lethargic cast into an imperative need for their own widespread transfusion of stimulated blood
“The Hellfire Club” (1964)
“The Hellfire Club” is a would-be swashbuckler suffering from far more buckle than swash, by taking the eponymous real-life secretive society and reducing a fertile subject rich in dramatic possibilities concerning decadent privilege and class conflict into a dreary drama concerned with the restoration of a proper inheritance and- complete with moldy internecine familial in-fighting and an obvious villain so comfortable with exaggerated sneering you expect him to start tying maidens to railroad trestles at any moment -personal revenge born of childhood bullying and jealous rivalry. The film borrows many elements from the then-popular period thrillers Hammer Films, the most prominent being the sordid depiction of a completely morally corrupt titled social class which sets up a classic clash between those whose injudicious abuse of unbridled power is asserted under the arrogant presumption that with lavish prosperity comes sadistic predilections toward immoral entitlement (following the notion that any power corrupts absolutely), and an unrealistically noble peasant class (it appears that the more dirt on the face, the more substantially emerges the heart honor among the working stiffs).
This pandering to social class anxieties might not be as problematic in this case except that it ignores the central motivational elements of the story in which a discarded noble spends the entire film attempting to reestablish his proper gentrified heritage; a situation hardly without cinematic precedent, yet the displaced hero of “The Hellfire Club”- Jason Caldwell, played with an unfortunate trace of square-jawed dullness by the capable Keith Michell -is hardly a magnanimously unselfish crusader for the victimized underprivileged in the Robin Hood mode, but a singularly driven individual to whom an injustice may have been dealt (though as this action is primarily due to the self-interests with his immediate family rather than a larger conspiracy- as might be misleadingly suggested by the title of the film -which deflates the socially critical undercurrent of the story, since the only one among his loyal confederates who emerges physically unscathed in reclaiming the family fortune is Jason himself. (The late introduction of Merryweather as a tactical legal ally is meant more as an excuse for Hammer star Peter Cushing to make a fleeting appearance than as the film encouraging a more civilized path to settling disputes as, true to form, everyone knows that in this brand of film the complex legalities of the case will be settled with swordplay rather than solicitation.)
The problem with the film is that while it assembles the expected elements of the cinema of costumed action adventure, we do expect every plot turn as we have seen it done so many times before, calling for an energetic reivigoration of those genre elements which captured popular interest in the first place. Unfortunately, the creative team of Baker and Norman have their collective hands in too many cookie jars on the shelf, acting as co-producers, director and photographers, with the resulting movie looking and acting like a familiar shadow of past entertainments but with a studied, exhausted air: the film relies on nostalgic window dressing of Hollywood romantic adventure, while oddly miscalculating the degree of malicious sadism by the villains which is entirely disproportionate to the rather pallid comeuppance screenwriters Jimmy Sangster and Leon Griffiths have devised. For a pseudo-swashbuckling adventure “The Hellfire Club” reeks of stately inertia (in a B movie fashion) and is ultimately unsatisfying.
This Dark Sky disc is typically representative of of the company’s attention to technical detail (think Criterion for trashy movies) with both films receiving colorful, aspect ratio appropriate digital renderings and crsiply delineated aural reproductio. Wisely the disc can be easily enjoyed as stand alone feature film presentations or easily played in full drive-in mode which features continuous play from the opening drive-in shorts/trailer segment, to “Blood of the Vampire”, to an Intermission segment featuring more snack bar commercials and trailers (though the absence of the traditional countdown to the second feature is keenly felt), to “The Hellfire Club”. One curious feature is the inclusion of the trailer to “The Hellfire Club” in the opening segment, a rather unnecessary redundancy that might have been better filled with one of Dark Sky’s other DVD offerings.)
THE VERDICT: A well produced, fun package despite the shortcomings of the features.This package gives a fairly accurate representation of the programming of a drive-in double feature, with the handsome visual presentation scoring points against the rather colorful but mundane substance of the two films.
TCM GREATEST CLASSIC FILMS COLLECTION: SCI-FI ADVENTURES
Includes: “Them!” (1954) Starring James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, James Arness, Joan Weldon, Onslow Stevens, Sean McClory, Fess Parker. Directed by Gordon Douglas. B/W. 92 minutes, full frame, Language: english, Subtitles: english, french, spanish, portugese, japanese.
“The Beast from 20.000 Fathoms” (1953) Starring Paul Christian, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway, Kenneth Tobey, Lee Van Cleef. Directed by Eugene Lourie. B/W. 79 minutes, full frame, Languages: english, french; Subtitles:english, french, spanish.
“World Without End” (1956) Starring Hugh Marlowe, Nancy Gates, Rod Taylor, Nelson Leigh, Shawn Smith, Lisa Montell. Directed by Edward Bernds. Color. 80 minutes, Widescreen, Language: English.
“Satellite in the Sky”(1956) Starring Kieron Moore, Lois Maxwell, Bryan Forbes, Donald Wolfit. Directed by Paul Dickson. Color. 84 minutes, Widescreen, Language: english; Subtitles: english, french.
Special Features in this set include: for “Them!”- a photo gallery, original trailer, cast listing, outtakes and production footage and notes on major giant bug films; for “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms”- a video featurettes and a gallery of film trailers.
This two DVD set featuring a pair of films on each disc, is promisingly presented under the characteristically modest heading of TCM’s GREATEST CLASSIC MOVIES Collection. One might immediately ask what constitutes a “Classic” movie as much as what designates a “Greatest” of the “Classic” films, but one will hardly be enriched with insight to tackle such an inquiry on the basis of this four film collection under the useful category of SCI-FI ADVENTURE (A vulgarism despised by many science fiction or speculative writers who prefer the more appropriate and proper designation of SF.) which include two traditionally well regarded 1950’s thrillers and two others which could most charitable referred to as garbage. Greatest Classics indeed.
Presented by Warner Bros. Video, despite the fact that the source of one the lesser vehicles is unsurprisingly from Allied Artists, (WB now owns the AA catalog) the set features two films which have seen several past manifestations: the 1953 “Them!” and the 1953 “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” which have both seen single disc presentations as well as having been previously paired as a fairly low-cost duet. Both “World Without End” and “Satellite in the Sky” have been previously paired by Warner Bros.- the disc included in the set -and are interesting mainly for completists of the genre, though if in a generous critical frame of mind, conjure quaintly nostalgic visions of what the future (and the future in space) was once imagined to be like, if that vision had as it’s genesis either George Petty pin-ups or television’s “Captain Video”.
For aficionados of 1950’s SF films, “Them!” is widely considered the grandaddy of all giant bug films. The first to declare that atomic radiation is responsible for giantism in Nature and that Mankind has opened an atomic Pandora’s Box that is just beginning to haunt him. (To be fair, warnings of impending disaster by atomic methods was also prominent in such earlier non-mutant 1950’s efforts as “Rocketship X-M”, the revived monster epic “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” and, of course, “The Day the Earth Stood Still”.) Yet, with “Them!” the focus of Space Age (read: Atomic Age) perils shifts it’s attention in dramatic fashion. Instead of heeding the warning at the finale of 1951’s “The Thing (From Another World)” to “Watch the skies!”, this Gordon Douglas issues a warning to look under your feet.
Befitting any early entry into what would later become a clichéd subgenre template, “Them!” features the now-usual suspects of the Atomic Age mutant thriller: the isolated desert backdrops, the mysterious “sounds” of the bugs , the scientist with sexy female assistant, the “nature documentary” film explaining the nature of the bug in it’s natural habitat (always accompanied by the most dire of warnings about [A] the innate ferocity of it’s nature and [B] that Mankind doesn’t stand a chance), the odd disregard for an appropriate military hierarchy to take charge (after all, Mankind doesn’t stand a chance) of the situation- instead conceding all authority to a Colonel or a Major- whoever happens to be on the scene at the moment, in this case a State Police sergeant and an FBI agent.
Where this film interestingly veers off from the route of it’s ensuant siblings is that it is initially structured as a mystery film (the giant ants make a very delayed entrance, whereas the poster leaves nothing to the imagination) and using the elements of that genre as a springboard that inches it’s way into the more fantastique elements. Since this was the first of this kind of film, it was essential to carefully lead the audience from a traditional film type- one that the audience would be comfortable with it’s genre attributes -into a realm requiring a greater capacity for accepting the unacceptable. (One of the weaknesses of later Atomic mutant films is the unrealistically restrained reaction of the scientists following the emergence of the monster, as if their characters had all seen the other films in the genre in preparation to such an event.) Thus, the destructive phenomena responsible for the film’s initial mysteries- the disappearance of the little girl’s family, her strange catatonic behavior, the mysterious imprint found at a crime scene the destruction of a desert store -is investigated as a straight case of criminality in the desert, rooting the film in the real world.
It is only with the introduction of the scientific figurehead in the form of entomologist Doctor Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his lovely daughter and fellow entomolgist/doctor Pat (Joan Weldon) that the conventions which will swiftly be identified with this specialized subgenre of SF films begin to take root, though unlike many later films of this type, “Them!” manages to maintain a comfortable balance between the realistic and the phantasmagorical without sacrificing the strengths of either perspective, avoiding a formulaic laziness that would intrude upon subsequent films, reducing the story lines to tried and tested strains of cliché. The strength of “Them!” is that it never sacrifices it’s pretensions as a thriller to concede to the initial conceptual vagaries of what would become Hollywood monster movie conventions. It, in fact, maintains the feel of a traditional suspense thriller (aided enormously by the straightforward, unpretentious style of director Gordon Douglas) to the finale, where the message conveyed by the supposed victors in the battle of Man vs. monster is rather bleak and pessimistic; entirely in keeping with the film’s deliberately serious tone.
The second feature in the set is famous for it’s special effects sequences by Ray Harryhausen (this would be his rookie effort as special effects chief) but Eugene Lourie’s “The Beast from 20.000 Fathoms” actually predates “Them!” by a year, and may be regarded as the genuine blueprint for the entire cycle of Atomic monsters on the loose (certainly it’s influence in inspiring Toho’s “Gojira” is unmistakeable) and it uses Arctic backdrops (as did it’s predecessor, the 1951 “The Thing”) to effective advantage in the film’s central mystery and menace, and is a memorable inclusion of the dinosaur into the science fiction genre- of which, before this film, there were scant representations in American film, most memorably the 1925 Harry O. Hoyt production of “The Lost World”, “King Kong” and less so in it’s obscure progeny “Son of Kong” and the 1940 Hal Roach/Hal Roach Jr. production “One Million B.C.” which featured optically enhanced reptiles- though none before this featured a single creature so prominently as the main attraction. [For further analysis on this film, see coverage on the Nites at the Drive-In page.]
Despite variations in written characterization, the cast- outside of a flavorless Paula Raymond -gamely applies itself to the absurdities of the narrative with nary a hint of self-deprecation. The film maintains a level of dramatic credibility as it refuses to yield to the caprices of camp that would later define similar genre films would concede to as the over familiarity of the genre mechanics seemed to bring an increased level of This film maintains a high tolerance for the suspension of disbelief (as do all superior SF and fantasy based films): there is nothing in the behavior of the characters, nor in the filmmaking approach to the material to make one consider the possibility that the fantastic events taking place couldn’t happen.
This is more than can be said for the next film in the set. “World Without End” follows the more realistic intentions of depicting space travel within the pseudo-documentary flavor of George Pal’s “Destination: Moon”, managing to straddle several different conceits of popular science fiction- including time travel -and has the unsavory distinction of handling them all badly. As a space exploration film, it contains not a shred of scientific intelligence, depicting a supposed mission around Mars with the same attention to detail you would expect in a Winnebago down to the corner market. Given the nature of the film, it is also odd that the film wastes so much time on a press conference scene (since none of the characters will exist beyond the next five minutes running time) except to play a quick game of “spot that actor” with a momentary appearance of Richard Deacon as a reporter.For some inexplicable reason, the ship propels to over 2.000 miles a second and suddenly breaks into a time barrier (ignoring the fact that to theoretically do so it would would have to eclipse the speed of light, but why quibble over a quarter million miles a second more or less) that manifests itself as the flames of a propane torch while the ship dances on a wire in a most unconvincing manner,
After crash landing on a snowy landscape, the astronauts wander a few feet an- lo and behold! -they’re in the middle of rock formations overused in hundreds of B-Westerns and Serial chapters. Suddenly, we are in a post apocalyptic SF film haunted by beanbag giant spiders (these are truly embarrassing) and mutants in Alley Oop caveman outfits, giant wax teeth and prosthetic bulging eyes. Later, the lads find themselves captives/guests of a subterranean civilization which shows it’s intellectual prowess by wearing glittery shower caps and Nehru jackets (while the women, of course, are all low cut, high hem ripe sexuality) and demonstrating it’s scientific superiority by growing useless plants in aquarium tanks. (You’d think someone would think to grow some food.) Suddenly, we’re in a very low level “Star Trek” episode, including one rather gratuitous scene where hunky newcomer Rod Taylor spends an entire sequence shirtless and flexing his muscles by the dynamic exercise of combing his hair. None of this makes a bit of sense at all, and only leads to ask the most obvious question: why are all 1950’s astronauts always equipped with an arsenal of firearms? Do they anticipate encountering a rival gang of bootleggers mid-flight? Just what is the thinking since a stray bullet through the skin of a spaceship would mean curtains for everyone involved?
Even as a curiosity, “World Without End” is meaningless as both fantasy and dreadful as entertainment; exposing to it’s audience, not a sense of wonder, but a crawling feeling of embarrassment for the entire cast. It’s confusion of themes leaves the viewer with a sour taste, as it’s ultimate message of peace through killing more primitive cultures (once vanquished, it is only the more comely non-mutant surface dwellers who are invited to join the enlightened society, the homelier mutant unfortunates need not apply) betrays all of the plodding declarations of idealism laced throughout the script that bog down the action between fisticuffs and bazooka battles. (The intricate nuances of the peace process obviously taking a recess during the more practical elements necessary for marketing to the Saturday matinee audience.)
The only one who escapes unscathed is the remarkably inert Hugh Marlowe (Look at his shirt, does the man even breathe?) who delivers his greatest impression of a Moon rock yet. Just who repeatedly decided to turn this (only slightly) more animated version of a Cigar Store Indian into a 50’s action hero is one of the cinema’s great mysteries.
Which brings us to the fourth and final offering in the set, “Satellite in the Sky”, a particularly arid British stiff-upper-lip space opera, sanitized of all suspense, drama or interest, yet featuring the most horrifying concept unleashed within a SF film from any decade: a fully unrestrained performance by Donald Wolfit.
The film approaches a theme quite common in British SF, the synchronized development of scientific technology with the secretive military applications of said discoveries; not a subject unworthy of serious cinematic undertakings and on the surface, light years ahead in sophistication as opposed to the American submersion of the genre, (especially when problems inherent in Atomic applications are central) yet it is within the fundamental area of simple dramatic exposition that the film manages to trip over it’s own feet. If the film is overly talky, it is because every action, no matter how trivial must be prefaced by a full and irritatingly obvious conversation featuring dialogue of the most mundane kitchen sink drama variety. For a film concerned with Man’s first flight into space, there is a disheartening quantity of scenes involving the dissolution or desire for domestic tranquility, rather than attention given to a supposedly historic, not to mention dangerous, scientific advancement.
Square jawed Kieron Moore and future director Bryan Forbes head a small crew who undertake to pilot the massive rocket Stardust beyond Earth’s atmosphere and gravitational influence. Complicating matters are Lois Maxwell in coquettish pre-Miss Moneypenny days, as a nosy reporter who decides to stowaway aboard the ship (a process that is so embarrassingly easy, she comes equipped in tweed skirt, high heels and armed with her purse)despite the fact that she has a personal grudge against the mission, but usefully fills the prerequisite 1950’s SF female role of sexy accessory who is there in a crisis to make sandwiches and coffee. Also, inhabiting the monumental rocket is the aforementioned Donald Wolfit as a key military representative Professor Merrity (A sly allusion to Moriarty?) who accompanies the more idealistic scientists with baser, and thus secretive, (despite the fact it is said the entire world will be watching the results of his covert mission) goals in mind: to release into space and test explode a new kind of weapon- a tritonium bomb- far more powerful than any H-Bomb and so dangerous it cannot be tested on Earth. One doesn’t have to have seen another SF film to know that something terrible goes wrong with the plans, and the bulk of the film becomes a rather tepid thriller (forgetting all of the SF trappings the film was building toward) about how to disengage the device before it blows up the hapless crew; all the while affording the uniquely eccentric theatrics of Wolfit to grow exponentially out of control until it appears a far greater bomb is exploding amid the crew. (He is the only man in screen history to make the simple act of looking at his wristwatch appear as if he is aiming at the fifth balcony.)
Despite the varying degree of qualitative content, all four films have been presented with a pleasurable sharpness of image (especially in the many nighttime scenes of the b/w films in which the blacks are solid and betray no hint of artifacting) with only the very occasional sign of dirt or wear and with crisp sound, each in it’s own original aspect ratio. Special features foe “Them!” are rather disappointing with some interesting BTS photos and a few archival clips involving the manipulation of the giant ants but the promised cast info and history of big bug films are merely graphic cards with little useful information. For “Beast”, the featurettes are short but packed with information featuring Harryhausen in both and Ray Bradbury in the second.
VERDICT: A useful collection for anyone interested in 1950’s SF, although if one already has the first two black and white films (there is no evident visual or audio upgrade from previous releases) it may not be recommended to buy the set simply for the additional color features, whose lack of historical or artistic value make them an easy consumer pass. WHERE TO BUY: Amazon carries this set through independent sellers for as little as just under $11 plus postage, though it is often available at Barnes & Noble during frequent 40% off sales for under $15.
This curious DVD release has the foresight to highlight not only a sparkling copy of the Vincent Price horror favorite, but also an equally impressive presentation of the original film from which it took it’s inspiration; an occasion for comparisons that is useful for cinephiles and a treat for the more casual horror film enthusiast as well.
Spearheading the initial 1950’s 3-D fad was “House of Wax”, Andre de Toth’s 1953 remake of the 1933 Michael Curtiz horror-mystery “Mystery of the Wax Museum”. The film is significant for several reasons, not only being the first major studio feature released in 3-D, but also as the vehicle which launched Vincent Price on a path to become the modern cinema’s most identifiable star of American film horror.
de Toth, a veteran studio director was an unusual directorial choice for the project as he had only one eye, thus no depth perception, the obvious key ingredient to any 3-D film, yet his effort is the most signatory of all 1950’s 50’s multi-dimensional productions, displaying less of an interest with 3-D as a strict visual gimmick (though there are the blatant tossing of objects into the audiences lap and the infamous, but amusingly witty paddle ball sequence), than as an intelligent extension of his visual compositions. One exception to this rule stands out in an extraneous dance hall sequence featuring a lackluster cancan number, which seems to have come from an entirely different picture. The sequence stops the film cold; it’s inclusion unjustifiable by the minimal expository dialogue it contains, being merely in the service of a series of poorly staged shots of high kicking legs and ruffling petticoats. Additionally, this scene exposes a glaring problem with the picture and that is with the casting of Paul Picerni as the “heroic lead” who exemplifies the leading man as well-meaning dope whose only purpose is as a sounding board for the leading lady in peril, and to uselessly distract from the primary action during the film’s climax. Otherwise, the stereo optical novelty is used effectively to enhance the existent horror elements carried over from the original production. Especially noteworthy is an imaginative use of spatial perspective during a nocturnal chase through abandoned city streets with a chilling use of lighting, menacingly silhouetting the pursuing slouch hatted, cloaked killer, accompanied by the underrated David Buttolph’s energetic “spook show” scoring.
Being a remake two decades removed from the 1933 original, several important alterations take place between the two versions, many related to Warner Bros. evolving stylistic signatures over the respective decades, though as matter of interest, there do not appear to be any major concessions made necessary by the censorial cloak of the Production Code. (The ’33 production blessed with the more liberal reach of “Pre-Code” era.) “Mystery” is saddled with a narrative subplot that, at times, threatens to submerge the horror elements of the film, and is illustrative of the schizophrenic nature of the film, while the 1953 film is presented as a straightforward mystery/horror film. “Mystery” is shot in a two-strip Technicolor process which is usefully exploited by Curtiz as a bold extension of the prominent color tinting in German Expressionist films of the Silent Era. The color imbues the scenes of mystery with a palpable aura of otherworldliness which is successfully put to the test in several startling sequences, especially the early burning of the wax museum, a sequence far more effective in it’s visual intensity than it’s 3-D progeny. and though the color palette is a limited one is may be considered a precursor to later color experimentation by directors such as Mario Bava. The physical design of the film, in it’s more fantastical elements, is also influenced by German Expressionism, particularly in subterranean settings straight out of Werle’s “Kabinet de doktor kaligari” although the practical aspects of it are dubious as it doesn’t present itself as particularly functional and merely conceived in a way which will dazzle with scenic exoticism.
However, with the 1933 production, it’s not the physical design that is the problem, but the seesawing nature of the script, one part horror, one part gangsterism, one part spunky New York reporter comedy. The disparate elements never really mesh- it’s like watching the reels from several different pictures being mixed up in the projection room, and the rhythms of the performances are entirely at odds with each other. In scenes with a Torchy Blake-like character played by squinty, side talkin’ Glenda Farrell, belting out her lines as if she were in a summer stock production of “The Front Page” and Frank McHugh (who seems merely irritable) the pace is one of the high-energy Warner Bros. cityside comedy-dramas that were their signature dish for the 30’s, whereas scenes involving Lionel Atwill are deliberately paced, sniffing for Gothic atmosphere in the great silent German tradition. Bridging the plains of disparity is Fay Wray, eminently unsuitable as the targeted victim of malicious enterprise, equipped with little from the thespian trunk of tricks save for her acclaimed ability to produce ear-piercing shrieks. Her performance could charitably be regarded as an embarrassment; which may explain the inclusion of the ill-suited but lively Farrell. Wray’s amateurish delivery of lines such as “You fiend!” are so cringe-inducing, it’s almost a relief when she begins her concert of otherwise annoying screams as it prevents her from butchering any further dialogue. Atwill, however, is in fine form, pouring on less corn than usual, as the ill-fated sculptor who through the actions of others is consigned to become a monster; emerging, oddly enough, more sympathetically than his Vincent Price counterpart of two decades hence.
In a sense, the Curtiz film is a throwback to Gaston Leroux’ “The Phantom of the Opera” with the victimized “monster” and narrative driven by an investigative journalist central to revealing the story, retained from the original novel, though this film purports to be an original creation. The de Toth version, emphasizing the horror elements is farther removed from the elements of sympathy, with Price emerging more civilized, but colder than Atwill, (oddly Atwill is more sinister in the beginning whereas Price, by comparison, is extremely engaging) and in the end less prone to audience empathy; no doubt in small part due to the improvement in casting of the central feminine target of homicidal obsession: a marked step up from the appalling Wray to the lovely, capable Phyllis Kirk. (Though the less said about Carolyn Jones’ dog whistle scenery chewing, in a supporting but vital role, the better.) One cannot help but notice there is less of an eerie sense of mystery in the remake, (except in the aforementioned chase through deserted city streets, a scene in which all the right elements are working at full throttle) possibly due to the fact that, 3-D production aside, this production is saturated in the trappings of 1950’s movie showmanship: bright colors, a heightened self-conscious humor (tongues are more often in cheek than not) and a virtually sexless romantic non-chemistry between the leads.
Both films are given an impressive presentation with certain scenes from “House of Wax” so vivid (note the opening credits) they virtually pop out of the screen at you, despite being presented in the 2-D format, with a clean well balanced audio mix. “Mystery” is impressively sharp (considering the nature of two-strip Technicolor) for a film of this vintage with an audio that is fairly distortion free. Extras include a rather incidental film clip of the premiere, but a dynamic copy of the original 1953 teaser trailer featuring original scoring, heard nowhere else, by Max Steiner.
VERDICT: Invaluable viewing for the horror enthusiast and cinephile interested in the ranges of stylistic evolution of the genre. How often does one find a DVD where there is actually a second feature included as a bonus that enriches the enjoyment of the first feature? WHERE TO BUY: Oldies.com for $6.98, a considerable savings from the SRP of $14.98.
_______________________________________________________________KWIKY KWIZ TIME: From the 1950’s SF epic “Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers”. Joan Taylor and company look on as Hugh Marlowe (a) tests out a piece of captured alien headgear, (b) is taking a break in an isolation chamber, or (c) is demonstrating the 1950’s most ill-conceived example of contraceptive devices.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN GIFT SET
Set includes the following films: “It Came From Beneath the Sea” (1955) starring Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue; Directed by Robert Gordon; b/w; aspect ratio 1:85 anamorphic widescreen; english language w/english,french,chinese, thai, spanish, portugese subtitles; running time: 78 minutes; no rating.
“Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers” (1956) starring Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor; Directed by Fred F. Sears; b/w; aspect ratio 1:85 anamorphic widescreen; english language w/english, french, chinese, thai, spanish, protugese subtitles; running time: 83 minutes; no rating.
“20 Million Miles to Earth” (1957) starring William Hopper, Joan Taylor; Directed by Nathan Juran; b/w; aspect ratio 1:33 full screen & 1:85 anamorphic widescreen; english language w/english, french subtitles; running time: 82 minutes; no rating.
Special features in set: “The Harryhausen Chronicles” documentary; “This is Dynamation” promo short made for the release of “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad”; “The Making of Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers” featurette; stills gallery; theatrical trailers; 42 page illustrated scrapbook booklet.
The three films contained in this boxed set are from a particularly formative period in the career of Ray Harryhausen. They represent the three films he participated in immediately following his successful solo effects outing with “Beast From 20.000 Fathoms” and also the first three films involving his career-long creative partner, producer Charles H. Schneer.
Conceptually, each film represented a unique challenge to the animator: in “It Came From Beneath the Sea” there was the problem of taking a rather personality-passive creature, an octopus, and bringing it to life in a way that would create a compelling protagonist. His six tentacled (budget restrictions prevented the requisite eight) creation, seemingly more plastic than marine-based, projects personality through it’s multi-functional tentacles which probe, seemingly sniff the air and generally act as the wagging tail of a dog. Scenes of mayhem usually involve these six wiggly appendages (one at a time, though) and are well presented in a memorable street battle with a flame thrower. (Though why does this marine creature roar like a dinosaur?) However, it is also difficult to determine intended size of the creature since it’s scale seems to fluctuate wildly with each appearance. Further Harryhausen shortcomings arise in scenes of water displacement with lazy opticals of oceanic disturbance laid over obviously calm water when the monster rises from the depths; a not uncommon characteristic throughout Harryhausen’s career.
Ultimately what makes this a watchable little thriller is the almost documentary approach to the lengthy expository set-up and the interesting interplay between the three principals: marine biologists played by Donald Curtis and Faith Domergue and the stalwart submarine captain played by the ever-reliable Kenneth Tobey who is able to express more character with how he cocks his cap on his head than most actors can do with a lifetime of Method training.
“Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” presents an entirely different set of challenges. A film constructed for the sole purpose of the destructive set pieces, Harryhausen finds himself locked into a corner here by having his animation limited to the saucers themselves, not particularly engaging entities, which leave us at the mercy of a script that is meandering and lacking in depth and actors who seem uncommitted to the foolish nature of their film; as reportedly passionately-in-love characters, Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor generate as much heat as two wet planks of wood. The celebrated climax of the saucers attacking Washington D.C. is not unlike many of Harryhausen’s efforts from the 50’s, long on repetitively useless shots, like jeeps armed with sonic devices tootling around the city and short on genuine action.
With “20 Million Miles to Earth” Harryhausen is on more familiar territory- with the film featuring a creature possessed of almost-human behavioral traits- and it would also prove to be his last production filmed in black and white. Yet despite the presumed advantage of a more exotic locale for the story than the previous two films- the story unfolds in Italy and Sicily, climaxing in Rome- the narrative displays no use of the foreign backdrops and could have just as easily been presented from any studio backlot. (The depiction of the fisherman is especially egregious with affected Chef Boyardee accents and insulting peasant affectations.) Meanwhile, the preposterous plot, in which a Venusian is allowed to run about fairly unchecked by a multitude of characters (has no one ever seen the end of “War of the Worlds”?) under circumstances that border on the incredible in their lack of common sense, is fairly entertaining despite itself as you constantly have sympathy for the animated Ymir (never called that in the film but historically recorded by Harryhausen as the moniker of choice) and not the humans. It’s the “King Kong” story all over again but with peripheral SF trappings, in which the beastie is rudely taken from his native habitat, quite against it’s will, and ultimately menaced by an excitable Mankind and shot down from an elevated perch. (In this case, being the not-so-vertigo-inducing Roman Colosseum.) It’s all merry matinee hokum, with William Hopper ascending to the usual Kenneth Tobey military role and not acquainting himself well in the comparison, and “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” Joan Taylor, who seems present simply because these films always require a sexy female to be tagging along, but here looking rather lost and a little weary.
The three films are presented complete, with no great effort at remastering but the images are solid, with only the barest noticeable dust and scratches betraying their vintage origins. Sound is also OK with all dialogue entirely intelligible and the sound effects and music tracks sensibly balanced to provide the right chills, but not obscure the scenario. Extras include the engaging documentary “The Harryhausen Chronicles” which may be familiar to fans as it makes an appearance on almost every Harryhausen DVD release, a none too valuable “This is Dynamation” puff promo piece, really only an extended preview for the unincluded “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad”, a fairly interesting featurette on “The Making of Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers” (although it would be great if someone besides Harryhausen were available to speak, as although he is gregarious and charming to a point, he’s not exactly a vault of untold information) and the usual stills and trailers. The real bonus is a well presented 42 page scrapbook brimming with stills and useful information.
VERDICT: A great buy for the 50’s SF fan and Harryhausen enthusiast as it puts the bulk of his early b/w period in easy, well presented reach. WHERE TO BUY: http://www.oldies.com has this $49.95 SRP set available for a bargain $19.98. A steal. However, at Amazon.com, the set is listed new for as little as $12.79! A virtual happy act of larceny.