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Old 01-22-2007, 08:09 AM
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Default Monsters and Madmen




Reviewer: Rhett
Review Date: January 22, 2007

Released by: Criterion
Release date: 01/23/2007
MSRP: $79.98
Region 1, NTSC
Full Screen 1.33:1



The fifties saw a tumultuous time in terms of horror film trends. The monstrous exploits of Universal’s Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf Man and any other creature of the hour had finally began to wear thin, and the popularity of the post-war film noir genre threatened to eclipse horror altogether. Thus, in the span of only a few years, we saw the births of the creature from outer space picture, the Hammer franchise, the nuclear monster movie and the red scare allegories. Like the nineties, which saw the slasher film die out and many other sub-genres vie for horror prominence (with the horror genre eventually returning, wink wink, to the slasher until asianitus and remakemortis took over the 00’s), the genre was, for a time, in flux. Criterion’s new box set Monsters and Madmen, is an accurate representation of the era, with two straight-laced Karloff horrors mixed with the tentacles and meteor dust of two early space race thrillers. You know with Criterion the quality will be good, but is the high price tag worth it for horror fans?

The Story

inline ImageThe first of four of the brother production team of Alex and Richard Gordon’s late-fifties films included in this set, The Huanted Strangler sees Boris Karloff as a writer out to write a tell all tale. Karloff’s James Rankin sets his journalistic crosshairs on the case of The Haunted Strangler, a man who in the mid-1800’s strangled and murdered six women. Notable for having one arm for which he’d strangle, then slash his victims, the strangler was eventually deemed to be Edward Styles. Styles was hung, but now twenty years later, Rankin thinks someone else had a “hand” in these murders. His investigations lead him to some telling facts about the doctor who performed all of the Strangler victims’ autopsies, but the murder weapon makes things even clearer once it falls into Rankin’s two hands…

inline ImageA classy and well-written little take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, this 1958 production proves that Hammer wasn’t the only company at the time ready to churn out effective gothic horror stories. Karloff does an amazing job in a dual performance, proving in this post-The Nutty Professor age of gimmicky latex that great actors can do all that and more with a mere stare. The script effectively links the main character’s multiple personalities to the haughty class dichotomies that would overwhelm Europe at the time. First, the bourgeois impulse to façade one’s identity is emphasized by the glamorous excess of the dance hall scenes where the murders take place. Secondly and most tellingly, the European class obsession is squandered by having the protagonists wishing to elope to Canada – the world’s classless cultural mosaic.

inline ImageCorridors of Blood sees Karloff as yet another dignified old man ruined by his good, but ambitious, intentions. Here he plays Dr. Thomas Bolton, London’s finest doctor and a master with the knife. It is only 1840 though, and the agony of hearing his patients scream in pain during operation leads him to search for a calming anesthetic. With heretical doubt and a lack of support from his medical community, Bolton is forced to experiment on his own – and on himself. He’s nearly found the cure, but the long days of experimenting catch up with him when he nearly loses a patient in a routine incision. He is banished from the hospital, and is forced to take up residence with a corrupt bunch in an extortionist ring. Led by Resurrection Joe (Christopher Lee), the house bribes Bolton to sign false death certificates in the exchange for the chemicals to experiment. The experiments continue to induce Bolton into an increasingly addictive trance, and if he doesn’t get help soon, he may be signing his own death certificate.

inline ImageWhile The Haunted Strangler was little more than a professionally written and acted variation on Karloff’s monster persona, Corridors of Blood dares go in many greater directions. The story aims non-fiction ground with a prophetic message, and largely succeeds. Ye olde hospital is one founded on closed-minded Christian orthodoxy rather than the scientific method one would expect. The bell is sounded before every operation, the doctors are referred to as “Fathers” and the hospital dictum of “no cure without suffering” immediately recalls the plight of Jesus Christ. Thus, Bolton is dubbed a heretic of sorts, making his struggle for enlightenment all the more suspenseful (and true to life, given the perils such thinkers as Francis Bacon and Galileo Galilei had to endure). With this film too, the horror film of the sixties was born, with Christopher Lee getting his first time to shine as a malicious devil. This anticipates the Roger Corman factory too, given the hallucinating similarities between this early film and Corman’s The Trip (which would be penned by Karloff’s co-star, a young Jack Nicholson, in Corman’s The Terror). Both significant in film history and in the history of scientific development, Corridors of Blood is a great little flick.

inline ImageWith the launching of Sputnik in 1957, fixation on the Karloffian human monster gave way to martians and the extra terrestrial. One of the first films to cash in on this new trend was Richard Gordon’s production of First Man Into Space. Like the previous Karloff pictures, and almost all of Gordon’s output, this was a cautionary tales of the pratfalls of unmitigated ambition. Here we see two brothers, astronaut Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards) and NASA commander Charles Prescott (Marshall Thompson) as they help America send the first man into space. Dan is the high-reaching man of glory, while Charles the more cautioned man behind-the-scenes. After Dan nearly kills himself by disobeying orders on a test mission, his brother is negligent to allow him pilot an even more ambitious mission outside of earth’s atmosphere. Dan achieved such publicity for the stunt however, the suits force Charles to send him into space. Dan again disobeys orders, but this time when he lands on earth there is more than just his ego to be dealt with. Dan has come back a monster, his metabolism altered by a sheath of meteor dust(!) and Charles must balance his allegiances as both a loving brother and as a concerned citizen, in trying to capture his rampant brother without harm.

inline ImageWithout the prestige of Karloff in front of the camera, First Man Into Space feels much more like exploitation compared to the Gordons’ other pictures. Karloff’s monsters were so interesting – complex personalities with the emotional nuance to match the deformed physicality of his demons. Here, the monster is much more one note – a man in a clunky suit, and the actors here are equally as one note. The space age theatrics are really dated too, although there is some glee in witnessing all the analog trickery used to simulate a flight to space (including Google Earth-ish animations of satellite shots simulating a cockpit view). There’s a desire to read into the material a similar brotherly clash behind the camera, given that the two Gordon’s also endured comparable paths. Alex ventured away from their London home to new terrain in Hollywood, founding American International Pictures, while his brother Richard remained tied to English productions. The plot though, is so “aw shucks” predictable and pat that subtext is Mars away. The meteor creature has a good look, and there are some pretty gory moments for 1958, but other than that this is pretty forgettable entertainment.

inline ImageThe final film in the box set, The Atomic Submarine, adds atomic paranoia to the space race theatrics of First Man Into Space. After one of the military’s most notable underwater vessels explodes suddenly near the boundaries of the artic circle, a new fleet is sent out to investigate. The heroic Commander Holloway (Arthur Franz) is joined by a diverse crew, including even a young liberal tree-hugger, Dr. Carl Nielson (Brett Hasley). Holloway was a good friend of Carl’s disgraced military father, and the two’s political beliefs are immediately at odds. This conflict can barely tread water until the third act however, when the crew discovers that the reason for the arctic explosions lies beneath the surface, from a creature from another world! The creature, a cyclopic take on the climactic creature from Curse of the Demon, speaks through brainwaves and helms a ship made of living organic matter. It has been to several planets, but none other provides the colonizing potential as Earth. It can defeat anything in its path…but it has yet to face off with blowhard American propaganda!

inline ImageA change of pace for these Gordon pictures, this is the only film not directed by Robert Day, and like the best of the bunch, Corridors of Blood, The Atomic Submarine is penned by someone other than Producer John Croydon. That’s not to say the writing is on the same par as Corridors of Blood, oh no, this is much worse, but gleefully so – this is bad B-movie blahs done right. An amazing drinking game can be crafted whenever any of the amusingly repetitive occur: The film cuts away to jarringly out of place stock shots of submarines, planes or explosions; Dr. Nielsen interrupts everyone to make obvious an already commonplace acronym (“UFO? You mean, unidentified flying object!”); or the film cuts away to some glaringly obvious miniature footage. If you follow the drinking rules, you’ll be ass-to-the-floor hammered, since I’d wager to guess there is more stock/miniature footage than actual set footage. The squeamish, on the other hand, can reverse the format and drink whenever they see a real set, and as a wild card, swig twice every time atomic jargon or a man getting his body lethally caught in a cardboard door occurs. This is cheese of the highest grade, and while nowhere near on the artful level of the Karloff pictures, makes a much more enjoyable experience than the morose First Man Into Space.


Image Quality

inline ImageEach film is presented on its own dual-layer disc in this four disc set, and all are 1.33:1 full frame. The Haunted Strangler is the first, and by far the best looking, of the bunch. Grain is kept to a minimal, and the dust and specs found on the later films are almost completely absent here. The deeps of the blacks and the effective contrast ratio make this a very detailed and rich viewing experience. The sharpness is incredible too.




inline ImageCorridors of Blood is generally sharp and very clean, although there are minor instances of dirt and debris that show up intermittently. The blacks are quiet as delineated as those on The Haunted Strangler, but the image still retains an effective contrast. The biggest setback to this disc is the slight flicker to the image, evident more in the darker parts of the frame, and it can somewhat distract. Still, there has been a ton of cleanup work done here, and the best film of the package gets a deserving visual treatment.



inline ImageThe first five minutes of First Man Into Space start off with an incredible amount of print damage, but after that point, the debris are more intermittent and by the end hardly noticeable at all. A jittery gate during one scene also has the image shake for a half a minute or so, but thankfully that’s the last of that. Grain remains pretty heavy throughout, with some of the white backdrops of the film really suffering from a scuttle of specks. This is clearly a step down from the Karloff pictures (as likely, without a big name attached, the budget was probably smaller), but considering the number of optical effects (with all those miniature rocket blast-offs), the added grain and debris is to be expected. The character driven moments are for the majority clean with black levels in check, and definitely show that even despite the varied amount of problems with the picture, much work has been done here.

inline ImageSince The Atomic Submarine is such a mishmash of footage (alternating between stock, miniature, special effects and actual set footage) the quality is predictably all over the map. The stock footage has considerable grain and fading black levels on the corners of the frame. The miniature footage has considerable fogging and glare (perhaps done to obstruct the obvious “bathtub toy” look). The effects work has higher contrast than the rest, with oft peaking whites. The actual on-set footage though, looks quite good, with the sharpness and black richness that characterizes the rest of the films in this set. There are a few moments of bad scratching down the center of the screen, but otherwise Criterion has done a great job cleaning up this troublesome product.


Sound

All four films are presented in English mono with optional subtitles, and they all come through with minimal hiss and no distortion. By the time The Atomic Submarine rolls around, there is even a bit of envelopment to Alexander Laszlo’s peculiar electronic score.

Supplemental Material

inline ImageCriterion’s Monsters and Madmen entices right from the beautiful graphic artwork that makes up the sturdy box and the two clear alpha cases that hold both double features. As consistent as the pretty artwork for each film are the extras, which are introduced on each menu with a fun B-movie hyperbole. Each film has a commentary with one of the Gordon brothers and moderator Tom Weaver, as well as a trailer, featurette, and stills gallery. There are a few more extras pertaining to individual titles, and each will be noted for each disc. Two booklets with essays and interviews (including one from Fangoria) cover all four films with a more nostalgic, laymen’s approach (as opposed to Criterion’s usual academic writings).

inline ImageThe Haunted Strangler has, in addition to the standard extras, a lot of radio spots touting Karloff as “King of the Monsters!” in the ads pairing this film with Gordon’s Fiend Without a Face. The featurette included here runs 12-minutes, and has the most interviewees of all other featurettes, with director Robert Day, writer Jan Read and actresses Jean Kent and Vera Day. The first noticeable thing about this, and the remaining featurettes, is the embarrassingly poor sound and video quality, a true lark compared to Criterion’s track record. Looking as if it were shot on a consumer MiniDV camera and recorded using the camera’s microphone, the quality is quite distracting. The editing is rudimentary, but at least the film footage mostly masks the bad production quality of the interviews. All the people interviewed share some nice words about Karloff, how he was such a gentle man in comparison with his Frankenstein image. The commentary is initially with Richard Gordon and Tom Weaver, but the late Alex Gordon chimes in for 30-minutes of separately recorded comments later on. The Gordon’s exude dignity with their taught British accents, but they earn respect through their honest responses and immaculate memories. Much of the talk is devoted interestingly to Karloff and how he was signed on, and how this was the film to revive his career after nearly ten years of “terrible films” as Weaver puts it. No matter what their other supplements, Criterion has always excelled with commentaries, and this one is no exception.

inline ImageCorridors of Blood has the largest wealth of supplemental material, with a 35-minute audio interview with actress Yvonne Romain and an enlightening segment on the cuts that were demanded upon the film for release. The 5-minute featurette starts with a letter to Richard Gordon (reproduced in full), detailing the cuts needed to garner the film releasable. After each demand is highlighted, the uncut footage is then shown, which happens three times in total. While this is nowhere near the kind of uncut footage one would expect, it is humorous to see all the uproar over a bloodless stab or a long shot incision. The totally methodical and arbitrary approach to censorship (that still inexplicably prevails today) is revealed in brutal honesty here. The interview with Romain (which was at one point intended to be a commentary) is fairly dull, with her saying the usual PR stuff, “I’m proud of my career”, yadda yadda. The commentary though, this time with Richard Gordon and Tom Weaver, is most informative, with Gordon having a lot of things to say about the film and its production problems. He sets the record straight on the reason behind the film’s theatrical delay, but also more candidly discusses his dislike for the pompous newcomer, Christopher Lee. The 14-minute interviews with Robert Day and actor Francis Matthews also offers some good anecdotes on the production, and some self-deprecating on Matthews behalf.

inline ImageFirst Man Into Space has yet another commentary with Richard Gordon and Weaver, although this one seems a little more trying than the others. Weaver reveals the Criterion mandate to educate a little too obviously with his continued reciting of timeline facts of space exploration and book citations. When he talks to Gordon though, the activities pick up, since Gordon is such a confident and elegant speaker, with a memory that would put an elephant to shame. Robert Day says right off the bat, in the 9-minute featurette, that he did not care for the subject matter of the film (which reflects the film’s boring treatment of space travel). He has nicer things to say about his actresses, and actress Marla Landi has nice things to say about him, but really, it’s all pretty bland and uninteresting. The rough quality of the interviews, and the stagnant editing rhythms offer no help either.

inline ImageThe Atomic Submarine sees the barest featurette of all with a 16-minute interview with the man responsible for one of cinema’s most redundant characters, Brett Hasley (Dr. Carl Nielson). Halsey is much smarter than his performance would make him out to be, and he talks at length about The Atomic Submarine, its precursor, Submarine Seahawks, and how (not surprisingly) the whole production with the actors took 6 days to film (considering the overwhelming amount of miniature, stock and effects work). The commentary is this time fully with Alex Gordon, joined, of course, by Tom Weaver. Weaver starts each commentary with a quote, and again seems a little too mechanical in his reciting of sources and quotes, but he proves through this, and all the commentaries, to be an impassioned speaker with an infectious love for these little B-movies. Alex isn’t quite as fun to listen to as his brother Richard, but he still has something worthy to remember from everyone involved, right down to the least significant of actors.

Final Thoughts

Were this set just the Boris Karloff double feature, I’d have no problem in highly recommending Karloff’s tour de force dual-performance in The Haunted Strangler and the all around excellence of the timeless Corridors of Blood. But the terribly dated sci-fi pictures that make up the rest of this expensive 80-dollar set are for sci-fi schlock fans only. First Man Into Space is interesting only as a historic film landmark, while The Atomic Submarine is good only for low budget laughs. Criterion does a good job justifying the worth of all these pictures with their thorough and researched supplements, but the average horror fan is only going to want to see the Karloff pictures. The video restoration done by Criterion is up to their normal standards, although the quality of the prints they’ve had to work with is not. The Karloff pictures look generally great, but again, it’s the sci-fi pictures that weigh down the set with some inconsistent image quality. Should the Karloff pictures ever be released on their own they’ll be must-have titles. But considering the price, only fans of fifties movies or film history will want to shell out the big bucks for this handsomely packaged set. You’d be a madman to shell out the monstrous fee for this set otherwise.

Rating

The Haunted Strangler
Movie - B+
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B+

Corridors of Blood
Movie - A-
Image Quality - B+
Sound - B+

First Man Into Space
Movie - C
Image Quality - C
Sound - B+

The Atomic Submarine
Movie - C+
Image Quality - C+
Sound - B+

Supplements - A-

Technical Info.
  • Color
  • Running Time - 5 hours 14 minutes
  • Not Rated
  • 4 Discs
  • Chapter Stops
  • English mono
  • English subtitles

Supplements
  • Commentaries by producers Alex and Richard Gordon and writer Tom Weaver
  • New interviews with actors, directors, and screenwriters who worked on the films
  • Original trailers, radio spots, stills galleries, and publicity and production photos
  • Booklets featuring Fangoria's 1984 interview with producer John Croydon about Boris Karloff, and new essays by Bruce Eder, Michael Lennick, and Maitland McDonagh

Other Pictures


 

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