Wednesday, February 28, 2018
This year marks the 50th anniversary of George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and Criterion has responded by releasing a magnificent Blu-ray version of the film, stocked with worthy extras.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has been subjected to numerous mediocre public domain home videos releases over the years, but this Criterion edition blows them all out of the water. The visual quality is so fine, it literally is like watching the movie for the very first time. Some may be worried that the sharpness of the picture might only make the movie's low budget seem more apparent, but what it actually does is bring out how Expressionistic the photography is.
Seeing NOTLD in this restored version reaffirms that this may be not just the most influential American independent horror film ever made, it may be the most influential American independent film, period. All you have to do is take a quick look at 21st Century pop culture to bear that statement out. The most popular monster in recent modern entertainment is the zombie--and NOTLD was the progenitor of the entire Zombie Multiverse. (Ironically, the word zombie is not mentioned once during the entire running time of NOTLD.). If George Romero had somehow been able to copyright the Zombie genre that he basically invented, he would have been as rich as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg combined.
This Blu-ray also proves that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has lost none of its power. Many people have attached all sorts of political and/or sociological subtexts to the movie--so much so that the actual movie itself gets taken for granted. It is still as ghastly and as harrowing as anything ever put on the big screen. The plot is deceptively simple, but the way that plot unfolds is brutally effective. Several filmmakers--including Romero himself--have tried (and are still trying) to recreate the uncompromising aspects of NOTLD, but the various elements that came together to make the movie, and the way it was made, would be impossible to do again on purpose.
This Criterion release features an entire disc of extras....so many of them that it would take me forever to list them all. Suffice to say that there are multiple audio commentaries, numerous interviews with many of the folks who were involved in the making of the film, including George Romero, and analyses of NOTLD from the perspective of today. There's even a "work print" version of the film titled NIGHT OF ANUBIS.
I'm sure many of you reading this blog post have seen NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD more than a few times. No matter how many times you may have already seen it, this restoration of it needs to be viewed to really appreciate the film. I will go on record as saying that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is the most important modern horror film ever made, and Criterion has finally given the film the ultimate home video release it has long deserved.
Tuesday, February 20, 2018
While listening to the Milton Subotsky interviews on THE VAULT OF AMICUS disc, the writer-producer stated his belief that the obscure 1970 title WHAT BECAME OF JACK AND JILL? was Amicus' worst film. Writer Kim Newman also disparaged it during his Amicus trailers commentary. As far as I know, WHAT BECAME OF JACK AND JILL? has never received an official home video release, and I certainly don't remember it ever being shown on TV. The movie is on YouTube, so I took it upon myself to see just how bad this production supposedly is.
The story is set in early 1970s London and concerns John Tallent (Paul Nichols), a rather shiftless 22 year-old fellow who lives with his grandmother (Mona Washbourne). John and his girlfriend, bitchy tease Jill Standish (Vanessa Howard), have concocted a scheme to hurry the ailing Gran to her grave, thus allowing Johnny to inherit her life savings. John is slowly convincing his Gran that a political movement known as "Youth Power" is taking over Britain, and that one of their main aims is to make the elderly "disappear". A parade that happens to go right pass Johnny's house gives him the opportunity to make Gran believe that a large mob is coming to get her. The poor woman dies of a heart attack, and the callous duo think that their lives will now be on easy street. To their shock and surprise, however, they discover that Gran recently made a change in her will: John can only inherit the full amount of the estate if he marries someone other than Jill. The sullen pair are allowed to live in Gran's home, but with no steady income, they start sniping at each other, until eventually both get their much-deserved comeuppance.
I wouldn't call WHAT BECAME OF JACK AND JILL? a badly made movie--it's more weird and depressing than bad. There's nothing very entertaining about watching two unappealing characters such as John and Jill drive a poor old woman to her death. If Gran had been portrayed as unsympathetic, and John and Jill as suffering under her, maybe the situation might have had some dramatic interest--but the young couple are outright jerks. The very first scene we seem them together shows them making out in a cemetery next to the headstone of John's grandfather. John and Jill's plans for the money (which isn't really a major sum) are to spend it all as quickly as possible. At one point John fantasizes about being an SS officer and machine-gunning old people down in the street--is this the type of guy you want to spend 90 minutes watching? There's no real reason for John and Jill to be so hateful, other than the fact that they want to get a large sum of money as fast as possible, and they don't want to do anything to lawfully gain it. If this movie was made as a way to tap into the late 60s-early 70s youth market, it was a strange choice, seeing as how anyone viewing this would come away with the idea that young people are the scourge of civilization.
I guess one could say that maybe WHAT BECAME OF JACK AND JILL? was meant to be satirical. There are times when picture feels like that--such as during Gran's funeral service, which shows John and Jill dreaming about what they are going to do with their supposed new fortune. Their dreams are presented almost as TV advertisements, a clever way to show how infantile and materialistic the couple are. But the death of Gran--and the events that make up the climax--certainly are not presented as funny. Director Bill Bain, another one of those many men who made their feature film debuts for Amicus, does a good job in using real locations to define Jack and Jill's lower-middle class surroundings. What he doesn't do is set a consistent tone for the story--but that may have been the fault of the script.
I don't know much about Paul Nichols, the actor who plays John, but he's very effective in being unlikable. Vanessa Howard (who played Peter Cushing's daughter in THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR) is sexy as Jill, but it's the type of sexiness as that popular girl in high school who would just as soon spit in your face and humiliate you. Moan Washbourne doesn't play Gran as a doddering old fool--she plays her as sweet and trusting, which, if anything, makes it harder to accept what happens to her character. (Washbourne played Frau Lang in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA.)
Once again I must point out that WHAT BECAME OF JACK AND JILL? isn't Mystery Science Theater bad--it's just a bad choice to be made as a feature film. It's an odd, mean-spirited production that makes "youth power" seem dangerous and irresponsible.
Sunday, February 18, 2018
THE VAULT OF AMICUS is the extras disc exclusive to Severin's THE AMICUS COLLECTION Blu-ray box set.
The disc features over 30 trailers from almost every Amicus production. Some of the trailers look almost brand new, others look as if they've been through a washing machine. Even trailers from non-horror Amicus films are included, such as DANGER ROUTE and THE BIRTHDAY PARTY. One can also listen to the trailers with an audio commentary from British horror film experts Kim Newman and David Flint. Newman in particular knows these films like the back of his hand, and his comments on them are insightful and entertaining. I expected Newman to be a bit sarcastic towards some of the titles, but he looks back at most of them with a certain fondness--he even goes out of his way to avoid bashing THE TERRORNAUTS!
The disc also has two extensive audio interviews with the men behind Amicus, Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky. Both interviews were recorded years ago on generic recording equipment, so the quality of the talks is sub-standard at times. While listening to these talks, one must take everything Rosenberg and Subotsky say with a grain of salt--both men had a lot of axes to grind (especially against each other).
Max J. Rosenberg's recollections were for Jonathan Sothcott, and they last about 45 minutes. According to Rosenberg, it was he who was the guiding light behind Amicus, and Milton Subotsky caused trouble on almost every production.
The Milton Subotsky interview lasts about three hours, and I listened to the whole thing. (What does that say about my life?) Subotsky's talks were with Philip Nutman, who was planning a book on Amicus. Subotsky's reminisces are fascinating from a film geek's point of view....but after a while one gets weary hearing his diatribes. Subotsky claims to have "saved" almost every Amicus production through either his rewriting or re-editing--and the ones he didn't do any major work on he dismisses as terrible. Not surprisingly, he doesn't have much good to say about Max Rosenberg. Listening to these two men snipe at each other (and at several other people involved in the film industry) is rather sad--you start to wonder how any Amicus production got made at all. The one good thing about these talks is that whenever Rosenberg or Subotsky are talking about a certain film, the poster for it is shown on the screen--it is far better than looking at the same image throughout the talk, or no image at all, which is how many other audio interviews on other DVDs and Blu-rays are presented.
Now that I have finally gone through the entire THE AMICUS COLLECTION box set, what are my overall thoughts about it?
I have to say right off the bat that it is a worthy purchase, just for the extras alone. As I have mentioned in the individual blog posts I wrote on the three films included in the set, all the movies have been released on home video before, but I think that Severin has done enough to make one want to buy these titles again. I do have to say, however, that you certainly shouldn't buy the set just for THE BEAST MUST DIE--that film has below-average visual quality and not enough new extras.
Speaking of visual quality, I have read other internet reviews of this set that have dismissed it out of hand, some even saying that all the films looked horrible. I think that at times genre fans take for granted that every Blu-ray release is supposed to look absolutely perfect. These are low-budget movies made over 40 years ago--it may be that Severin had to deal with whatever elements they could get there hands on. All in all, I think Severin has put out a fine package of material, and I hope this set spurs on other companies to release other extra-laden special editions of these types of films.
Saturday, February 17, 2018
THE PROJECTED MAN (1966) was produced to be part of a British science-fiction double bill along with ISLAND OF TERROR. ISLAND OF TERROR is now fairly well known, due to its starring Peter Cushing and being directed by Terence Fisher. THE PROJECTED MAN fell into obscurity--even I had never seen it, nor do I remember it ever being shown on TV in my area. Under its Scream Factory label, Shout Factory has finally given the film an official American home video release.
Despite its being made in the mid-1960s, THE PROJECTED MAN seems more like it was made in the 1950s. Brilliant, determined scientist Paul Steiner (Bryant Haliday) has developed a way to project matter from one place to another while working at a secretive research foundation. Steiner's work puts him into conflict with the smarmy head of the foundation, Dr. Blanchard (Norman Woodland). Blanchard is actually scheming with industrial spies to undermine Steiner's project and steal his findings. Steiner is helped by Dr. Chris Mitchel (Ronald Allen) and Dr. Patricia Hill (Mary Peach), a former flame of Steiner's. The trio attempt to show off their experiments for a famous scientist from Geneva, but the test has been sabotaged by Blanchard. Seething with anger, Steiner decides to project himself--and, this being a classic sci-fi/horror film, the results go horribly wrong. Steiner is hideously disfigured, and he now has the ability to fry any matter (or any human being) with just the touch of his damaged right hand. Steiner uses his deadly powers to exact revenge on his enemies, while Pat and Chris work to stop him.
THE PROJECTED MAN can't help but remind the viewer of other similar films such as the original THE FLY and THE 4D MAN. It also throws a few nods to THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT. When Steiner explains how his matter projection device works, it reminded me of the transporter in the Star Trek Universe--and I also realized that the Wonka Company was working along the same lines as Steiner in WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY!. The laboratory in which Steiner's projection device is located looks very much like a small TV studio, and the large laser that is used in the experiments resembles a futuristic TV camera. (Ironically the man who directed most of this film, Ian Curteis, spent most of his career working in television.) The projection device is visually striking, and the sound effects that are used when the machines are in operation reminded me of the hum of a Seventies tabletop electronic football game.
THE PROJECTED MAN is an okay movie, but it takes a while to get going, and it seems longer than its 77 minute running time. Bryant Haliday is very good as Steiner, but the story doesn't develop his character very much before his "accident", thus lessening whatever sympathy the audience might have felt for him. He does get to wear an effectively gruesome facial makeup during his after-projected state. The movie spends too much time showing a budding romance between Dr. Mitchel and Dr. Hill (Steiner is jealous of their relationship, but this subplot doesn't amount to much). The excitement that should result from the aftermath of Steiner's projection gets watered down by too many "police inspector questioning people about things the audience already knows" scenes. The circumstances behind Blanchard's decision to ruin and steal Steiner's project isn't properly explained--was it industrial espionage, or the influence of a foreign power?
What also hurts THE PROJECTED MAN is that the cast doesn't have any of the usual faces seen in other British genre pictures made around this time. (Hammer veteran Sam Kydd does have a very small role as one of the Projected Man's first victims.) Overall, the cast plays their roles competently, but I wouldn't say any of them stand out in particular. A small slice of Scream Queen glamour is provided by Tracey Crisp, who plays a secretary for the scientific foundation. At one point she strips down to her skivvies, and the Projected Man encounters her and carries her off in the traditional classic monster movie manner.
Shout Factory has released THE PROJECTED MAN in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and even though the colors are not too vibrant, the visual quality of the film is very fine. The various sound effects come out very strong on this disc. There are a number of extras, such as short interviews with director Ian Curteis, Mary Peach, production designer Peter Mullins, sound editor Brian Blamey, and composer Kenneth V. Jones. Taken together the interviews provide insight into the making of the production--Curteis explains that he was signed to a four-week contract, and when his time was up the movie was over budget and one of the producers, John Croydon, finished directorial chores. The alternate British opening to the film is included, and I would advise anyone who might want to purchase or watch this Blu-ray to play the British opening first, and then the actual film. The British opening shows Steiner and Mitchel using the matter projector on a guinea pig, and it also establishes the friction between Steiner and Blanchard, and leads right into the American beginning of the film. A number of deleted scenes are here as well (none of them are all that important). There's also a still gallery.
Having finally seen THE PROJECTED MAN, I have to say it's not as good as ISLAND OF TERROR--but it is an okay late night sci-fi monster flick. It was made to fill out a monster movie double bill, and it gives what you expect out of it. Shout Factory has done film buffs a service in putting this title out on Blu-ray in such an impressive manner.
Thursday, February 15, 2018
The 1973 Amicus film THE BEAST MUST DIE is one of the most unusual titles in the annals of British cinematic horror. It has elements of Agatha Christie, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, and 1970s action flicks. The lead character is an African-American, and the main threat (or threats) is a werewolf....a monster that makes surprisingly very few appearances in the realm of English Gothic. And let's not forget "The Werewolf Break"--a one-minute interruption before the movie's climax which gives the audience a chance to guess which member of the cast is a werewolf. "The Werewolf Break" is a throwback to the good old days of William Castle, and while it's pretty cheesy, it makes THE BEAST MUST DIE memorable...and isn't that the whole point?
Calvin Lockhart plays millionaire Tom Newcliffe, who has invited guests from around the world to his isolated country estate. The reason for this is that Newcliffe is convinced that one of the invitees is a werewolf. Newcliffe tricks out his estate with all sorts of high-tech (well, high-tech for 1973) security gadgets to track the beast. Newcliffe's apparatus winds up not being all that much help, and he finds out that the werewolf is closer to him than he realizes.
THE BEAST MUST DIE was another of the many. many horror films I saw for the very first time on Svengoolie back in the 1980s. (You can imagine how much material Sven got from "The Werewolf Break".) THE BEAST MUST DIE isn't a great film, but I do think it's very entertaining. Calvin Lockhart is very hammy as Newcliffe, but I think in the context of the story his performance works. Newcliffe is so obsessed that a viewer can't help but wonder if he is the real danger. Because of Lockhart being in this some have called THE BEAST MUST DIE a Blaxplotation type of movie, but I don't agree with that....Newcliffe and his wife (played very capably by Marlene Clark) are a believable couple of characters who could have been portrayed by actors of any heritage.
Like most Amicus features, the supporting cast is first rate: Peter Cushing, Charles Gray, Anton Diffring, and a young Michael Gambon. Cushing plays Professor Lundgren, a werewolf "expert", and even though technically he is grouped in among all the other suspects, one senses that Newcliffe trusts him very early on in the story.
Director Paul Annett handles things very well, despite the fact that this was his first time helming a theatrical feature film. Newcliffe's use of a helicopter during his hunt gives the film a larger scope. Douglas Gamley's music score has a early Seventies funky vibe to it--it's the type of score one expects to hear during a Charles Bronson cop drama. The werewolf unfortunately resembles a big dog (which is exactly what it was)--there's no Jack Pierce-like man-to-wolf transformations here. The "mystery" works best for first-time viewers, but it does lead to a very unexpected (and very downbeat) ending...and this is one of those movies where one of the characters says the title in a line of dialogue ("....the beast must die....").
This Blu-ray of THE BEAST MUST DIE is the bonus feature on Severin's THE AMICUS COLLECTION. Sadly, it is by far the worst looking movie in the set. The transfer is very dark and murky, even during daytime scenes. At a few points during the film one can barely see what is going on. Going just by visual quality alone, this Blu-ray is not an improvement on the DVD of THE BEAST MUST DIE that released by Dark Sky a few years ago.
Most of the extras on the Blu-ray can also be found on the Dark Sky DVD--an interview with Paul Annett, and a audio commentary featuring him as well. The only new extra is a short audio essay on THE BEAST MUST DIE by Troy Howarth. Troy focuses mostly on Agatha Christie's novel TEN LITTLE INDIANS (that's the title I'm going to choose to call it here), the various plays and movies based upon it, and how the famed murder mystery relates to THE BEAST MUST DIE. It's an enlightening talk, and one wishes that Troy had been given a chance to do a new audio commentary for the actual film itself.
THE BEAST MUST DIE holds up a lot better today than many more well-known British horrors made during the same period. It deserves a better-looking home video release than the one it gets here on this Blu-ray.
Sunday, February 11, 2018
34 years ago from this very day--February 11, 1984--the SON OF SVENGOOLIE program on WFLD-TV 32 Chicago showed AND THE NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS. It was the very first time I had seen the film, and 34 years later, I'm now writing a blog post on its Blu-ray release as part of THE AMICUS COLLECTION box set. (For those who didn't grow up watching the Son of Svengoolie, he's now just Svengoolie, and he's now shown nationwide on the MeTV channel--I watched him last night.)
AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS is a departure from the usual Amicus fare. It's not a anthology film and it is not set in contemporary times. In this one Amicus really does venture into Hammer territory, as the movie is a dark Gothic melodrama featuring outstanding period costumes and decor. The production also makes great use out of Oakley Court, the English estate that was the Buckingham Palace of British horror films.
In late 18th Century England, Charles Fengriffen (Ian Ogilvy) marries the young and beautiful Catherine (Stephanie Beacham). As soon as Charles and Catherine arrive at the family estate, the new bride starts seeing disturbing visions, and she claims she has been assaulted by an unknown phantom. A number of mysterious deaths start occurring, and finally Charles allows a specialist of the mind to be called in--Dr. Pope (Peter Cushing). Pope's investigations lead him to confront Charles about a horrible incident involving his grandfather, Henry Fengriffen (Herbert Lom). The incident resulted in the Fengriffen family being cursed, and not even the rational and scientific Pope cannot stop the tragedy about to unfold.
I've always had a fondness for movies I originally saw as a kid for the very first time on Svengoolie. AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS does have many things to recommend it. The movie is probably the most sumptuous looking Amicus film ever, due to the cinematography of Denys Coop and the art direction of Tony Curtis (not that one). English Gothic fans extol the virtues of Hammer production designer Bernard Robinson--and rightly so--but Tony Curtis should get some respect for his overall work for Amicus, especially since he didn't have much of a budget to work with either. The movie goes out of its way to showcase Oakley Court--there's a magnificent slow tracking shot of the estate at the beginning of the film. Douglas Gamley contributes a lush music score. The costumes in the film are exquisite--particularly those for Stephanie Beacham, who is simply stunning in them. I would even venture to say that Beacham never looked better on screen than she did here.
Stephanie Beacham didn't just look fine, she also gave an outstanding performance as Catherine. It's a difficult character to play, since the woman is beset by all sorts of dangers throughout the story but is given absolutely no help whatsoever by those around her. The look on Beacham's face at the end of the film as she realizes the full power of the Fengriffen curse is the most haunting thing in the story.
The film does have many drawbacks as well. There's very little buildup at all--as soon as Catherine steps into her new home she starts getting spooked. We don't even get to know what type of people Charles and Catherine are. I think the story would have worked better with some ambiguity to it--from my point of view it's established very early on that the events that Catherine is experiencing are supernatural. Ian Ogilvy also looks splendid in period costume but he's stuck with a rather thankless role--the husband comes off as weak and indecisive. (Ogilvy does get to go bonkers during the climax.) Roy Ward Baker does a adept job of direction, but the movie winds up being an uneasy mixture of Gothic romanticism and early 1970s horror movie shock tactics.
AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS has a nastier tone than the usual Amicus product, with such things as rape, cursed babies, and bloody crawling hands. (There's so much material here involving hands being chopped off that one wonders if the movie influenced George Lucas.) The flashback which reveals the origin of the curse is very reminiscent of the beginning of Hammer's THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. Some have even said that Peter Cushing's Dr. Pope has a bit of Sherlock Holmes in him as well. Cushing doesn't show up until the movie is halfway over (I remember how I kept waiting for him to appear when I first watched this on Svengoolie). As usual, Cushing brings his quiet dignified authority to the role, but Pope doesn't really succeed in doing much of anything. (The rather off-putting wig that Cushing wears here would be used by the actor again when he starred in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL.)
Like most Amicus productions, AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS is stocked with a number of fine character actors, such as Patrick Magee, Guy Rolfe, and Herbert Lom, who steals the show as the vile Henry Fengriffen. Janet Key plays a maid in the Fengriffen household, and her presence here, along with that of Cushing and Beacham, makes this movie a sort of DRACULA A.D. 1972 mini-reunion.
I already owned AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS on DVD--it was released by Image Entertainment as part of their "EuroShock Collection". Severin's Blu-ray of the title does look better, and I would say that out of all the films in THE AMICUS COLLECTION box set, this one has the best visual quality. The extras include two audio commentaires: one with Ian Ogilvy that appeared on the Image DVD, and one featuring Roy Ward Baker and Stephanie Beacham. Both commentaries are worth listening to, and those involved in them bemoan the movie's title, which was bestowed on it by Max Rosenberg. There's a short archival audio interview of Peter Cushing by Denis Meikle, and Meikle appears in a new featurette in which he gives his opinion of AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS (he's not all that impressed with it.)
The best extra on the disc is a presentation called "The Haunting of Oakley Court". Horror film historians Allan Bryce and David Flint visit the famed location, which is now an expensive hotel/resort. The men relate Oakley Court's history and how it came to be used for so many British horror features. At one point the duo go inside the place and walk down a hallway which is adorned by posters of the numerous movies that featured Oakley Court--and one of them is THE OLD DARK HOUSE....but it's the James Whale version, which was made in Hollywood!! (If you stay at Oakley Court and point this out to the staff, do you get a discount on your bill?) The duo also go over to nearby Bray Studios--but the closest they can get to it is by looking at it from across the Thames river. A trailer for the film and a short radio advertisement is also included, which states the movie's R rating in America (Peter Cushing is the only person connected with the film mentioned in the radio spot).
Many English Gothic aficionados can't stand AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS. I don't hate it, but it is an uneven departure from the Amicus tradition.
Saturday, February 10, 2018
ASYLUM, made in 1972, is one of the many of anthology horror films made by Amicus Productions. The four tales shown in the film were all based on stories by famed author Robert Bloch, and the movie was directed by Hammer veteran Roy Ward Baker. I would place ASYLUM at about the middle of the pack if I was doing a list of the Amicus anthology films (could that be a future blog post?). The best attribute the movie has is the cast--Robert Powell, Herbert Lom, Britt Ekland, Charlotte Rampling, Richard Todd, Patrick Magee, and of course Peter Cushing.
The linking story in the film has a young Dr. Martin (Robert Powell) arriving at an institution where he is applying for a position. He is told that the institution's director, Dr. Starr, is now a patient at the facility, and Martin is challenged to find out which of the inmates is Starr. In the course of Martin's investigations he is told four tales of murder, madness, and revenge.
The first story, "Frozen Fear", details a husband (Richard Todd) killing his wife (Sylvia Syms), cutting up her body, wrapping the pieces in brown parcel paper, and storing them in a freezer in the basement. Since the wife was a practitioner of voodoo, things don't go as planned. The most impressive thing about "Frozen Fear" is how director Baker handled the entire affair without showing one single drop of blood. It does get the movie off to a rousing start.
The next tale, "The Weird Tailor", tells what happens when a down on his luck tailor named Bruno (Barry Morse) makes a mysterious suit for an equally mysterious client (Peter Cushing) for a large fee. Baker gives this story a lot of Gothic atmosphere, and even though his role is very small, Peter Cushing comes through again with his quietly determined portrayal.
"Lucy Comes to Stay" concerns a mentally disturbed young woman named Barbara (Charlotte Rampling) and the trouble she gets into due to her "friend" Lucy (Britt Ekland). This tale was originally written by Robert Bloch before he penned the novel of PSYCHO, and it is sort of a predecessor to the author's most famous work.
At the end of the film the linking story connects to the final tale, "Mannikins of Horror". Here Dr. Martin is introduced to a Dr. Byron (Herbert Lom), a scientist who has constructed mechanical dolls. Byron states that he can transfer human personas into them, including his own. Martin finds out just how truthful Byron is, and he also finds out the real identity of Dr. Starr.
I would call the four tales that make up ASYLUM above-average, but I wouldn't say that any of them are truly great. It is the acting talent and Baker's handling of each segment that make the stories work. ASYLUM also benefits from a thunderous music score by Douglas Gamley, and excellent art direction by Tony Curtis (not that Tony Curtis). The special effects in the various Amicus films may not hold up too well today, but for the most part the movies overall never appeared shoddy or cheap.
ASYLUM was released on DVD by Dark Sky Films about a decade ago. Severin's Blu-ray of the film looks better than the DVD, but I wouldn't say the visual quality is top-notch. Two of the extras featured on the Dark Sky DVD are carried over here--a short featurette called "Inside the Fear Factory" which has insightful interviews with Roy Ward Baker, Freddie Francis, and Max J. Rosenberg, and an audio commentary with Roy Ward Baker and Neil Binney. This Blu-ray also provides a 1972 BBC report on the making of ASYLUM, with footage taken on the set and talks with Baker, Charlotte Rampling, James Villiers, Megs Jenkins, art director Tony Curtis, and production manager Teresa Bolland. The report even shows us Milton Subotsky's office bungalow located on the Shepperton Studios lot (Subotsky is interviewed as well). The report is a fascinating look at the state of Amicus at the time, and it presents the company as organized and efficient.
There are two new featurettes--one has an interview with Milton Subotsky's widow Fiona, and the other has David J. Schow examining how important Robert Bloch was to Amicus. Schow also provides a fond look at Bloch's life and personality. The disc cover sleeve is reversible (I prefer the promotional artwork shown above).
The Severin Blu-ray of ASYLUM is available as an individual disc. I think the extras alone make a worthy upgrade even if you already own the movie on DVD.
Monday, February 5, 2018
As I mentioned in my last post, my copy of The Amicus Collection Blu-ray box set finally came in the mail a few days ago. Whenever I do get a new Blu-ray or DVD I always check to make sure that the disc actually plays (trust me, this is a very good habit to have). I put in the bonus disc from the Amicus Collection and decided to view a few of the trailers on it. One of the trailers was for a film called DANGER ROUTE. The trailer for it made it seem like a James Bond-style action thriller. I assumed that I had never been aware that Amicus had made a 007 knock-off--but after digging out my copy of LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS #20, an issue which is dedicated to the history of Amicus Productions, I found that writer Philip Nutman had briefly covered it. I must have forgotten reading about it. I decided to take a chance and check and see if the movie was available on YouTube--and sure enough, it was. (I do have to give those who might be interested in seeing it this way a warning--the visual quality is not very good.)
DANGER ROUTE was made in 1967, during the movie & TV spy craze. It was based on a novel called THE ELIMINATOR by Andrew York. The movie stars English actor Richard Johnson as Jonas Wilde, an assassin working for British Intelligence.
The movie's opening titles are backed by a song which tries very hard to sound like a James Bond title theme, with lyrics by Lionel Bart and a Shirley Bassey-esque performance by Anita Harris. The rest of the film has very little in common with the world of 007. Jonas Wilde comes back from a mission only to find out that he has to get ready for another one--this time he must eliminate a scientist defecting from the Eastern Bloc to America. Wilde is told that UK officials believe the scientist is a danger to the West. Since this is a 1960s spy flick, it comes as no surprise that Wilde's next mission is not as simple as it seems. Wilde winds up finding out that he's been nothing more than a patsy, and he is determined to get to the bottom of the matter.
DANGER ROUTE is a very talky film with a down-to-earth sensibility. The tone is more John le Carre than Ian Fleming. There's no wild shootouts, crazy car chases, or mad geniuses determined to take over the world. I guess one could say that Amicus should get some credit for going against the grain when it came to their entry in the spy genre, but one has to wonder if this wasn't so much a stylistic choice as it was a budgetary one. DANGER ROUTE makes the spy game out to be a dirty, unattractive profession that is anything but fun or adventurous. There's also almost no humor in the story whatsoever.
Richard Johnson was apparently one of the many actors considered over the years for the role of James Bond. (He does bear a slight resemblance to Sean Connery here). His Jonas Wilde, however, is no high-living playboy secret agent. Wilde is a surly, cynical man who wants nothing more than to get out of his "business" once and for all. His only female conquest in the line of duty in this story is not an exotic glamour girl--it's a married English housekeeper who is estranged from her husband and has seen better days. (This role is very effectively portrayed by Diana Dors.) Wilde doesn't use any fantastic gadgets--his preferred way of dealing with his adversaries is a swift karate chop to the back of the neck (tastefully done out of camera range). Johnson ably brings over Wilde's bitter world-weariness, but those attributes make it hard for a viewer to want to spend a lot of time watching the character on screen.
One thing all 1960s spy flicks had in common was beautiful women, and DANGER ROUTE does have its share in Carol Lynley, Barbara Bouchet, Sylvia Sims, and the aforementioned Diana Dors. Unfortunately the female talent in this film gets very little to do. Like just about every other Amicus production, there's a quality lineup of distinguished male supporting actors in DANGER ROUTE, such as Harry Andrews, Gordon Jackson, Maurice Denham, and Sam Wanamaker in a small but pivotal role as an American intelligence agent. The movie has above average talent behind the camera as well in director Seth Holt and cinematographer Harry Waxman.
DANGER ROUTE isn't a bad movie...but it seems more like a TV drama instead of an exciting big screen spy thriller. It's understandable why the movie is basically forgotten today. The trailer I viewed for it (and the poster above) may try to sell the production as a Bond-like thrill ride, but DANGER ROUTE is nowhere near in the same class as other 1967 spy tales as YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, IN LIKE FLINT, BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN, and THE AMBUSHERS.
Sunday, February 4, 2018
After a bit of a.....delay, I finally received my copy of THE AMICUS COLLECTION, a Blu-ray box set containing three films and a disc filled with extra features.
Amicus Productions, which was run and co-founded by Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, made a number of horror and science-fiction films in the 1960s and 1970s. The company has always been looked upon as the main competitor to Hammer Films, but the Amicus style was quite different. For the most part Amicus stayed away from true English Gothic storytelling--their movies were more contemporary and many of them had a comic book-like feel. Many Amicus titles are mistaken as Hammer product, since both companies used many of the same actors (Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee) and the same directors (Freddie Francis, Roy Ward Baker). Amicus is best known today for their series of anthology films, one of which appears on this set.
The three films are ASYLUM, AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS, and THE BEAST MUST DIE. ASYLUM is the anthology movie, AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS is one of the few times Amicus ventured into true English Gothic, and THE BEAST MUST DIE is a very rare British werewolf tale that has influences from Agatha Christie and the famous short story THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME.
The fourth disc in the set is called THE VAULT OF AMICUS, and it contains a plethora of trailers from most of the Amicus films, and audio interviews with Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg.
Each disc gets its own individual case, which is a nice touch. The main artwork on the disc box is a representation of a still of Peter Cushing from ASYLUM. It's fitting that Cushing adorns the box, since he probably starred in more Amicus films than any other performer. (I will say that the artwork makes the Great Man look rather the worse for wear). The other two men on the box I assume are supposed to represent Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky.
THE AMICUS COLLECTION is limited to 3500 copies--mine is 456--and THE BEAST MUST DIE and the bonus disc are exclusive to the set.
As you might have guessed, I already own the movies included in this set on DVD. So why buy them again? Well, they've never been released on Blu-ray before, and every movie in this set is bristling with extras. Besides, if I don't buy these things, who will?
The very fact that there are so many extras in this set is going to force me to alter my approach on how I cover it on this blog. It's going to take me a while to get through everything in this set, so after I am completely finished with each disc--even the one with nothing but extras--I will be writing an individual post about it. So keep I eye on this blog in the future as I give each disc in this set its due.
Saturday, February 3, 2018
The Sprocket Vault has released a magnificent DVD set of classic comedy shorts produced at the Hal Roach studios and starring Charley Chase. CHARLEY CHASE AT HAL ROACH: THE TALKIES VOLUME ONE 1930-31 contains 18 shorts and bonus material as well.
Charley Chase (real name Charles Parrott) isn't as famous as some of his comic contemporaries, but he was involved in some of the best comedy films produced during the silent and early sound era as either a performer, writer, or director. Before finding a place with Hal Roach, Chase worked alongside Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin, and Fatty Arbuckle, and he would wind up starring in his own series at Columbia where he even directed some Three Stooges shorts. I would describe Charley's typical character persona as that of an amiable goofball who would regularly find himself caught up in farcical or embarrassing situations. The plots of Charley's movies bear a great deal of resemblance to the episodes of later classic American TV sitcoms.
Those who are fans of Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy will find plenty of familiar faces appearing in the shorts here, such as Edgar Kennedy, Charles Hall, Billy Gilbert, Anita Garvin, and James Finlayson. The Crane Twins even recite the titles on a few of the films ("WE THAAANK YOU"). The most familiar (and beautiful) face of all that supports Charley in this set is that of Thelma Todd, who appears in almost half of the films. When viewing these shorts the chemistry between Thelma and Charley becomes obvious (they apparently had some off-screen chemistry as well). Thelma makes such an impression in the titles she appears in that the ones that don't feature her feel as if they have something missing. There's a huge cult around Thelma Todd, and anyone belonging to it should purchase this set just for her alone.
What comes out the most in this set is how gifted and capable a comic performer Charley Chase was. His movies focused more on the unusual situations his characters found themselves in instead of wild slapstick. Charley wasn't as strange looking as most film comics during this time, but he was still able to use his facial reactions to bring over the gags. Charley was also a talented musician, and these shorts provide him with many opportunities to sing and play. Most important of all is that the shorts show that Charley had an appealing screen presence that will still make him likable to audiences today.
The shorts are split up on two different discs. The highlights on Disc One include DOLLAR DIZZY, where Charley and Thelma Todd play millionaires who are trying to avoid golddiggers at a swanky resort, and HIGH C'S, which has Charley serving in World War I and wooing French barmaid Thelma. ROUGH SEAS, which appears on Disc Two, is a direct sequel to HIGH C'S--so much so that one could edit the two shorts together and make a feature film out of it. Charley sings and plays music in both titles, and Thelma gets to use an undeniably cute French accent. Disc Two also has THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG, which has been called one of the greatest short comedies ever made. In this one Charley is cajoled by his friend into going on a blind date. Charley is so annoyed by the situation he decides to show up as slovenly as possible--but then he finds out that the girl is Thelma Todd, which causes him to drastically (and hilariously) change his plans. The fact is that all of the shorts included on this set are of above-average quality, especially to those who are used to the elements of classic film comedy.
Disc One of this set has a poster & stills gallery, and Disc Two features a version of THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG made for Spanish-speaking audiences titled LA SENORITA DE CHICAGO. (The Roach Studios made several foreign-language versions of their product during the early 1930s.) All the shorts in this set have audio commentaries from Richard M. Roberts. During most of the shorts Roberts spends a great deal of time giving extensive biographical and movie career information on the numerous bit players and supporting actors who appear in them. Roberts mentions that he does this because many of these folks have never had their lives properly discussed in any format. He does provide the listener with voluminous knowledge on what was going on at the Hal Roach studios at the time these films were made. I must commend Roberts on calling out those poor souls who would rather obsess over Thelma Todd's death than spend time appreciating her talents. Roberts also puts the kibosh on all those ridiculous rumors surrounding Thelma's tragic demise. These commentaries are very worthwhile to listen to, and they give a wealth of detail and background on each short.
Each disc contains a disclaimer which states that even though the shorts were digitally restored, the visual quality is far from perfect. I personally felt that the shorts all looked at least presentable--though some of them look better than others, none of the titles are in a horrible condition.
I really cannot recommend this set highly enough. The Sprocket Vault has done a wonderful job on this collection, and hopefully this will sell well, because Richard Roberts makes mention of further sets in the future. I certainly hope that is the case--I'd love for The Sprocket Vault to do an official release of the Thelma Todd-Zasu Pitts-Patsy Kelly comedies. Charley Chase may not be as famous as Our Gang or Laurel & Hardy, but that may be due to the fact that his films just haven't been presented as often. This set may help rectify that.