Friday, December 31, 2021

My Top Five Blu-rays Of 2021


It's the end of another screwed-up year. But hey, I did get to actually attend some baseball games....and I even went to a movie convention, the Monster Bash Conference in Pennsylvania. And I spent plenty of money (as usual) on home video releases of obscure films. 

So it's time for my yearly Top Five Blu-rays list. For 2021 three of the entries on it are considered examples of "Euro Gothic" cinema, and four of the entries come from two companies, Severin and Arrow. 


A fantastic set, and a must for fans of the iconic actor. Five of Lee's lesser known films, all made in Europe, magnificently restored and uncut, along with a ton of extras. I wrote a blog post on this set in June. 

2. MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN from Arrow Video

I haven't written a blog post on this yet--I will eventually--because I still haven't got through everything in this release. MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN (1960) is a very eerie Euro Gothic--and Arrow presents FOUR different versions of the film! The "main" version has been brilliantly restored--the color is absolutely sumptuous--and this has a boatload of extras as well. 


None of the films in this set are what I would call great, or even very good--but the presentation is top notch, with all the bells & whistles one now expects from any Arrow release. I wrote a full blog post on this in September, and individual posts on each of the films in the last few months. 

4. AN ANGEL FOR SATAN from Severin

The last Italian Gothic starring the Queen of that genre, Barbara Steele, finally gets an official major home video release, and with an audio commentary featuring the lady herself. My blog post on this was written in November. 

5. DOCTOR X from Warner Archive

The good folks behind last year's stupendous Blu-rays of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN gift us with another amazing restoration job, this time on one of the wildest Pre-Codes...and we get both the color and black and white versions. My review on this was posted in April. 

Saturday, December 25, 2021



BEAT GIRL (released in the U.S. under the title WILD FOR KICKS) is a 1960 British film concerning teenage rebellion and rock and roll music. It is of interest to fans of English fantastic films due to the cast, which includes Christopher Lee, Oliver Reed, Gillian Hills (DEMONS OF THE MIND), Claire Gordon (KONGA), Shirley Anne Field (THESE ARE THE DAMNED), Nigel Green (JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS), and Delphi Lawrence (THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH). 

Gillian Hills plays Jennifer, the sullen and pouty teenage daughter of a successful architect (David Farrar). Jennifer's father returns from a long trip away with a new, young attractive French wife (Noelle Adam), which makes the girl's attitude even worse. Jennifer spends most of her time at a cafe with her beatnik friends. Across the street from this cafe is a strip club, and Jennifer, by happenstance, finds out that one of the dancers who works there (Delphi Lawrence) knew her stepmother. Jennifer goes to the club, hoping to get more information on her stepmother's past, and she attracts the attention of the club's owner (Christopher Lee). Jennifer's machinations cause problems for plenty of folks. 

BEAT GIRL isn't a social study about angry youth--it's a exploitation movie all the way, with teenagers acting up and performances by exotic dancers. (There's even a few flashes of nudity.) The musical aspects are supplied by a score from John Barry (his first complete score for a film, featuring his jazz band), and a couple songs by British pop star Adam Faith, who plays one of Jennifer's friends. (As an actor, Faith isn't the most expressive guy in the world.) 

Most of the "teenagers" look older than they are supposed to be (Gillian Hills actually was in her mid-teens), and the beatnik dialogue they are given to recite is rather stilted. A lot of the acting in this film is stilted as well. The script tries to suggest that the attitudes of Jennifer and her friends are due to a national postwar malaise, but the kids come off as whiny and lazy instead of dangerous. Oliver Reed has only a small role as one of the teenagers at the cafe, but whenever he is in a scene he always goes out of his way to draw attention to himself. Shirley Anne Field, as another member of the cafe group, gets to sing a song called "It's Legal"....which is ironic, because her dialogue is dubbed by another actress. Noelle Adam, as Jennifer's glamorous stepmother, has such a thick French accent that for the most part it's hard to understand what she is saying. 

The scenes at the strip club are far more interesting than Jennifer's problems at home. Christopher Lee could have easily made the strip club owner an obvious slimeball, but instead he underplays the role, giving the man a quiet menace. (When Lee is informed that Jennifer is underage, his interest in the girl is increased.) We get to see the busty Claire Gordon in a French maid outfit, and Delphi Lawrence gets attention as the bitter dancer who is jealous of Lee's attentions toward Jennifer. Nigel Green provides some humor into the role of Lee's smarmy associate at the club. 

Gillian Hills and Christopher Lee in BEAT GIRL

BEAT GIRL was directed by French director Edmond T. Greville, who would work with Lee soon again in a remake of THE HANDS OF ORLAC. One wonders how realistic the movie looked even back in 1960. Much of the melodramatics seem silly today, but the cast is worth watching, and John Barry's score is quite good. 

Sunday, December 19, 2021



THE FROZEN DEAD is a 1966 British horror film, written and directed by Herbert J. Leder. It's a title I finally caught up with the other day, after seeing various stills from it in books and magazines over the years. The movie has many plot elements that are ripe with possibilities, but overall it's rather disappointing. 

The story is set in contemporary times. Dana Andrews plays Dr. Norberg, a Nazi scientist --yes, you read that correctly--who, for the last 20 years since WWII ended, has been working on reviving frozen human beings. What is left of the Nazi party has been funding Norberg's experiments, and they have even set him up at a large palatial estate outside of London. (Apparently leftover Nazis have plenty of money to spend on wacky projects.) Norberg's experiments have not been very successful--he has revived a group of German soldiers, including his own brother, but the men are imbeciles, locked in a dungeon-like room on the estate. Norberg surmises that he needs a living, functioning human brain to study. Norberg's young niece Jean (Anna Palk) and her friend Elsa (Kathleen Breck) unexpectedly arrive for a visit, and very soon after, Norberg's bungling assistant Karl (Alan Tilvern) kills Elsa, giving Norberg the opportunity to remove the victim's head and use her brain. Norberg and Karl try to convince Jean that Elsa abruptly left without telling her, but the woman is suspicious, and she attempts to get a newly-arrived American doctor (Phillip Gilbert) to help her find out what is going on. Elsa's head still retains a spark of individual humanity, and she tries to mentally contact Jean. Eventually Norberg and his Nazi buddies get what they deserve. 

The first thing one must deal with when discussing THE FROZEN DEAD is the idea of casting Dana Andrews--an actor about as American as they come--as a Nazi scientist. There were plenty of fine character actors at this time in England who would have been much better casting. I assume Andrews was picked to give the film a star name (albeit a fading name), but he seems ill at ease in this role, despite his attempt at a German accent. Anton Diffring would have been perfect here--he also might have given the role a bit more of a nasty attitude. At various times in the story Andrews' Norberg complains to his Nazi overseers about their methods, which comes off as unintentionally funny--what did he expect?? 

Dr. Norberg not only has a fully equipped secret laboratory, he has a wall of disembodied arms, and a giant freezer stocked with Nazis on ice (and still wearing their SS uniforms). The freezer has a full-length glass window to look through, and it resembles a supermarket display. With the Nazis-on-ice and the mentally unbalanced group in the cellar, one expects all these soldiers to eventually break loose and cause havoc, but they never do. The script has far more talk than action, and Leder's leaden direction doesn't help matters. 

Thankfully we don't get to see what happens to transform Elsa into a living brain, but the result is quite unsettling. Elsa's head is on a table, hooked up with tubes and electrodes, and constantly bathed in a eerie bluish light. It's even more grotesque than the living head in THE THING THAT COULDN'T DIE, and Elsa's ability to use her mind to affect others is also used in that earlier movie. A big problem is that Elsa has very little onscreen time before she is transformed, so the viewer doesn't get a chance to know her as a character. 

Dana Andrews and head in THE FROZEN DEAD

Anna Palk is okay as Jean--at one point she actually wanders around wearing a nightgown while holding a candle--but she's not as memorable as any of the Hammer scream queens. Just about all normal leading men in any British horror film made during this period are unmemorable, but Phillip Gilbert is particularly so--he acts as if he's in a sitcom. When Dana Andrews reveals Elsa's living head to Gilbert, instead of reacting with shock or revulsion, he has a goofy grin on his face. The rest of the supporting cast is quite bland, with the exception of a very young Edward Fox, who gets little to do as Andrews' deranged and mute brother. 

The boring cast is one main reason why THE FROZEN DEAD doesn't live up to expectations. The movie tries to be in the Hammer or Amicus manner, but it doesn't have the notable performers those companies used to uplift their fantastic stories. The sets and production design are all right, but not much creative use is made of them. Don Banks, who worked for Hammer a number of times, contributes a fine music score, but many of the most important sequences in the story are without musical backing. 

If THE FROZEN DEAD had been made ten or twenty years later, I'm sure it would have been far more lewd and explicit--whether it would have been a better movie is another matter. There are a number of directors at the time who were familiar with this type of material, and would have been able to make something more out of it, such as Freddie Francis, John Gilling, and, dare I say it--Jess Franco? 

When one finds out about a movie that features disembodied parts and frozen Nazis, one expects it to be diverting--but for the most part THE FROZEN DEAD is as stiff as the SS troops in Dr. Norberg's lab. 

Saturday, December 18, 2021



THE INVISIBLE MENACE (1938) is one of a group of films Boris Karloff made under a contract with  Warner Bros. in the late 1930s. With horror movies temporarily on the wane, Warners gave Karloff character actor parts. THE INVISIBLE MENACE may sound like an imaginative thriller, but it's actually an underwhelming murder mystery, based on an unsuccessful play. 

The story is set on a military base named Powder Island. A dopey soldier (Eddie Craven) sneaks his ditzy new bride (Marie Wilson) onto the island, and while trying to find a place to hide they discover the mutilated body of a murdered man. The base is shut down while the authorities try to find the culprit. 

THE INVISIBLE MENACE runs only about 55 minutes, but even that's a bit too long for this tale. It's a very talky movie, and it really isn't all that different from the Mr. Wong mysteries Karloff would soon be starring in for Monogram. What does help THE INVISIBLE MENACE is a cast made up of veterans such as Regis Toomey, Henry Kolker, and Charles Trowbridge. They give some vitality to the proceedings. 

Karloff plays a suspicious-looking fellow who goes by the name of Jevries.  Jevries is on the base as a civilian contractor, and it is revealed that he not only knew the murder victim, but had a good reason to kill him. This is shown in a flashback set in Haiti, which tries to gain some sympathy for Karloff's character, despite the fact that he's accused of mistreating the natives. Boris spends the entire film wearing a forlorn, hangdog expression, which isn't surprising, considering what his character goes through....but you have to wonder if the actor was showing how he personally felt about being in such a inconsequential movie. 

Karloff, as expected, becomes the main suspect, which means, if you go by old movie rules, he didn't do it. (If you ever see a movie murder mystery with Karloff or Bela Lugosi, be assured that they are never guilty.) A special investigator flown to the island to help solve the case (Cy Kendall) knows about Jevries' past, and he's obsessed with charging the poor guy with the much so that he even resorts to physically abusing Karloff. Boris does have a major impact on the climax. 

THE INVISIBLE MENACE was produced by Bryan Foy, directed by John Farrow, and the screenplay was by Crane Wilbur. These three men did the same jobs on the much better WEST OF SHANGHAI, which was the film that Karloff had starred in at Warners the year before. There's an attempt to inject some atmosphere in THE INVISIBLE MENACE by having the action take place on a foggy night at the island, but this also may have been a way to hide the production's low budget. The story here is just too thin to make the film more than just a below-average programmer. 

Boris Karloff is the only reason for anyone to have any interest in THE INVISIBLE MENACE. Hardcore Karloff fans will be disappointed, though....his whiny, put-upon character isn't very appealing. 


Sunday, December 12, 2021



THE MUTATIONS, filmed in 1972 and released in 1974, is a very weird British horror film that brings to mind the crazy low-budget thriller movies made in the 1940s and 50s. I saw it for the first time on the Xfinity TCM app. 

A quietly sinister professor named Nolter (Donald Pleasence) lectures to a group of bored-looking students at a college in London. His talk is about his belief that a new species of humans, with plant-like capabilities, can be created through induced mutation. Like all horror movie scientists, Nolter does more than talk--at his impressive estate, he conducts experiments on unwilling victims to prove his theories. Nolter's subjects are provided to him by a hulking fellow named Lynch (Tom Baker), who has severe facial disfigurement due to a glandular condition. Ironically Lynch works at a nearby sideshow, which features a number of performers who also have physical disabilities. Lynch helps Nolter in the hope that the man will cure his condition, but some of the doctor's experiments are starting to cause trouble, while the sideshow performers are getting suspicious about what is going on. 

I had seen several stills from THE MUTATIONS in various books and articles over the years, and I assumed that it was a tawdry, seedy example of early 1970s British exploitation cinema. The film does have many exploitative aspects, but it isn't as lewd as nasty as it tries to be. The story has a very slow pace, with sequences that seem to go on just a bit too long. 

Donald Pleasence is surprisingly modulated as Nolter--he has a quiet, deliberate way of speaking, and he acts more like an accountant than a mad medico trying to turn people into plants. Tom Baker gets the best role as Lynch, an outcast from society who does evil deeds while wanting desperately to be normal. The makeup used on Baker here resembles how Charles Laughton looked in the 1939 THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. Baker also wears a brown overcoat, scarf, and wide-brimmed hat....did he remember this costume when he was hired to play Doctor Who not long after this film was made? 

As usual in this type of film, the "normal" male leads (Brad Harris and Scott Antony) are unmemorable, while Scream Queen eye candy is provided by Julie Ege (THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES) and Jill Haworth (IT!). Not only do we get to see Ege in the bathtub, she also winds up naked on Dr. Nolter's operating table. Michael Dunn (THE WILD, WILD, WEST) is in charge of the sideshow, and one gets the feeling he wasn't too comfortable being in this movie. 

It's fitting that a future Doctor Who is in this production, since the plants and creatures created by Dr. Nolter have a rubbery, cheap-TV episode aspect to them. (The creature that figures in the climax looks like a giant walking spinach.) Nolter also has a contraption that could pass for a death ray machine in a 1930s Hollywood serial. Plenty of real-life time-lapse film is used of plants growing (this gets old very quickly), and Basil Kirchin provides an avant-garde music score that is more annoying than suspenseful. 

One shouldn't expect a sensitive portrayal of the afflicted in THE MUTATIONS. If the script (co-written by producer Robert D. Weinbach) was trying to show a parallel between those who are forced into working at a sideshow and Dr. Nolter's creations, it doesn't come off. There's a long sequence where we are treated to the sideshow performers' "acts", and at one point these unfortunate folks even stage a birthday party, where the wedding banquet in Tod Browning's FREAKS is directly referenced. 

The biggest head-scratching fact about THE MUTATIONS is that it was directed by distinguished cinematographer Jack Cardiff. (Was he trying to go down the Freddie Francis route?) The film certainly looks good (the print shown on TCM was fantastic). In fact, the film might have looked too good--most of the outdoor scenes were shot during the day, and Nolter's laboratory is brightly lit. The clear detail makes the makeup effects look even more mediocre. 

THE MUTATIONS is a obscure 1970s British horror film that I finally crossed off my "haven't seen" list. It's strange to be sure--but I felt it might have worked better if it had a bit more gusto. Herman Cohen and Michael Gough would have taken a story like this and really gone off the rails with it. 

Monday, December 6, 2021



Last week, I had a meeting with a financial advisor who works at my bank. He asked me about my hobbies and interests, and I told how much of a film buff I was. He mentioned that on Halloween he had screened THE DYBBUK, a movie I was aware of but had never seen. Ironically, Turner Classic Movies last night showed THE DYBBUK, and it was an uncut and restored version of the film at that. I made use of the opportunity to see it for the first time. 

THE DYBBUK, made in Poland in 1937, is based on various Jewish folk tales (the dialogue used in the movie is Yiddish). Long ago in Eastern Europe, two friends named Sender and Nisn meet during a religious holiday. Both men have pregnant wives at home, and the two come to an agreement that if one of the women has a boy, and the other has a girl, the children will marry one another in the future. Sender goes home to find his wife has died in childbirth (she had a girl), while Nisn drowns on his way back (his wife had a boy). Sender grows rich over the years, and when his daughter (named Leah) turns 18, he plans to find her a husband, having forgotten about the agreement. Meanwhile, Nisn's son Khonnon arrives at the town Sender lives in, and becomes friendly with the man and his daughter. Sender has no idea who Khonnon really is, while the young man and Leah fall in love. Sender does not think Khonnon is good enough for Leah, and he arranges a marriage for her. Khonnon starts to study black magic in order to improve his situation, and when he finds out that Leah will be married to someone else, he calls upon Satan--but he winds up dying. Just at the moment that Leah is to be married, she is taken over by Khonnen, who has become a "dybbuk"--the spirit of a wandering soul. Sender takes his daughter to a powerful rabbi to separate the spirit of Khonnen from her, but the love between the two young people is even more powerful.

I'm certainly no expert on pre-WWII Polish cinema, but I was quite impressed by THE DYBBUK. The production design, cinematography, and editing are up to basic Hollywood standards of the time. The film certainly does not look cheap. Director Michal Waszynski goes into great detail showing the religious and social traditions of the characters involved. The film is a bit slow at times (the full version is 125 minutes), and the overall acting is very melodramatic, but this is, after all, a fable set in the past. 

Waszynski uses the supernatural elements here in a restrained and subtle manner. There are a few expressionist flourishes, such as a couple of graveyard scenes. The most striking character is an unnamed mysterious traveler who suddenly appears and disappears throughout the story. This sinister-looking fellow makes dour pronouncements on whatever is happening when he does show up. The creepiest sequence in THE DYBBUK is when a group of poor villagers "dance" before Leah's wedding. The group gyrates about as if they are possessed by demons. 

While watching THE DYBBUK I felt at times I was watching a semi-documentary about a unique culture. A number of folk songs are sung by the characters, and the importance of the various ceremonies that are performed throughout the story is firmly established. 

THE DYBBUK is not a full-fledged horror film--it's a tragic love story filled with mystical elements. It's also even more tragic when one realizes that many of the cast & crew who worked on it were later mudered during the Holocaust. 

Lili Liliana as Leah in THE DYBBUK

Sunday, December 5, 2021



Universal's 1935 feature THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD is based on an unfinished work by Charles Dickens (the author died while in the middle of writing it). It contains a number of elements familiar to classic Universal horror, but it is a mystery melodrama, with a climax whipped up by a number of Hollywood screenwriters (including genre notable John L. Balderston). Kino gives it a much-needed official release on Blu-ray. 

The story, set in 1864 England, concerns John Jasper (Claude Rains), who is the publicly respected choirmaster of his small town. Jasper, however, is an opium addict, and he is obsessed with one of his music students, teenager Rosa Bud (Heather Angel). Rosa has been betrothed to Jasper's nephew Edwin Drood (David Manners) since childhood, but the two, though friendly, don't really love each other. Rosa is more attracted to the rebellious Neville (Douglass Montgomery). After a stormy Christmas Eve, Edwin disappears....and Jasper takes advantage of the bad blood between his nephew and Neville to accuse the latter of being responsible. Neville goes into hiding to investigate, while Jasper's mental state eventually leads to the solution to the mystery of Edwin Drood. 

This film was directed by Stuart Walker, who had already directed a Dickens adaptation for Universal--GREAT EXPECTATIONS in 1934. EDWIN DROOD has plenty of moody mid-Victorian atmosphere, and the cast of eccentric Dickensian characters is ably portrayed by a number of English performers, such as Francis L. Sullivan, Walter Kingsford, E.E. Clive, Forrester Harvey, J.M. Kerrigan, and Zeffie Tillbury as "The Opium Woman". 

Claude Rains gets a great showcase in this tale as the unstable John Jasper. The movie opens with Jasper having an opium-induced nightmare (which is a hint and a half on how the story is going to go). With his darkened hair, pale countenance, and black wardrobe, Rains resembles a vampire, and just with a gesture or a look the actor is able to put over to the audience what schemes Jasper is up to. David Manners and Douglass Montgomery were both the same type of actors--lightweight leading men--but I have to say the duo do some of their best film work here. Heather Angel is a bit too delicate as Rosa Bud--I felt that Valerie Hobson, who plays the role of Neville's sister, would have been a better choice. Hobson doesn't have much to do, but she still shows more spirit and screen presence than Angel does. 

The combination of production design, cinematography (by George Robinson), and a fine ensemble cast makes THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD an excellent, enjoyable film. This title seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle, due to the fact that it is not a all-out horror story, but there's plenty here for fans of Universal's Golden Age to appreciate. 

Kino's Region A Blu-ray of this film looks quite sharp at times. The main extra is a new audio commentary by David Del Valle, who discusses his love for early 1930s Universal thrillers and his admiration for Claude Rains. He also goes into detail about his multiple meetings with David Manners, when the former actor was an elderly man. 

I'm very pleased that Kino has given so many seemingly forgotten Universal releases from the 1930s and 40s a home on Blu-ray. The present-day Universal is still churning out their famous titles over and over again....but there's an entire catalog of lesser-known films the studio has control of that haven't received a proper home video release, and they have charms and revelations of their own. Here's hoping that Kino has more obscure items coming from the Universal canon. 

Saturday, December 4, 2021



THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK (1946) was made toward the end of what is called Universal's "Silver Age" of thrillers and chillers. The movie is not a sequel to the studio's Sherlock Holmes entry THE SPIDER WOMAN, despite having the same star, Gale Sondergaard. 

A young woman named Jean (Brenda Joyce) returns to her small home town to take a job as a caretaker to a wealthy blind woman with the spectacular name of Zenobia Dollard (Gale Sondergaard). Jean starts to experience weird events at Zenobia's creepy old house, and the intimidating-looking servant (Rondo Hatton) doesn't help matters. Jean learns that Zenobia is conducting bizarre experiments in order to get revenge on the local townsfolk. 

I had never seen THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK, and I must admit that it is a lackluster affair. The production feels like a throwaway--it is only an hour long--and it does not have the usual elements that are beloved by Universal classic horror fans. Brenda Joyce (who was also at the time playing Jane in the Tarzan movie series) isn't very charismatic, and while Gale Sondergaard is fine as always, her character is underwhelming. Rondo Hatton has very little to do, other than just appear and look like....Rondo Hatton. (During one scene it seems that Hatton has feelings for Jean, but this never goes anywhere.) Unlike most of his other Universal appearances there is no attempt here to bulk up Hatton or make him look bigger than he was, which negates his supposedly fearsome presence. 

The director of this film, Arthur Lubin had only a few years ago helmed Universal's splashy color remake of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. He probably wasn't too happy to get a low-budget flick with an unexciting screenplay. 

The folks at Kino must have realized that a Blu-ray of a mediocre hour-long black & white movie needed some juice. They actually provide a "making-of" featurette on this disc, entitled MISTRESS OF MENACE AND MURDER: MAKING THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK, which has genre experts such as C. Courtney Joyner, Bob Burns, and others. Joyner comes right out and calls STRIKES BACK a "bad movie". There's also a discussion of the life of Rondo Hatton. The featurette runs about ten minutes. 

Classic Universal expert Tom Weaver does the new audio commentary on this Blu-ray. He doesn't like STRIKES BACK either, and he gets plenty of opportunity to make sarcastic comments, but with a movie like this you can't blame him. Weaver does give out plenty of relevant info, such as there was labor unrest in Hollywood during the film's shoot, and he allows David Schecter to talk about the complicated music score. The trailer for THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK is also here, which has footage that is not in the actual film. This Blu-ray is coded Region A, and the sound and picture quality is okay. 

THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK is definitely for hard-core classic Universal fans. Kino should get credit for providing some interesting extras for it. If the movie had been made by Monogram or PRC, and starred Bela Lugosi, it might have been even sillier.....but it also would have been more entertaining.