Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A Quick Look: FRANKENSTEIN 1970 (1958)

   In the 50's, it was common practice to take gothic horror elements and adapt them to contemporary times. FRANKENSTEIN 1970 tried to go one better and move it's story into the near future (although, the placement along the timeline has little bearing on the story itself, which remains very firmly anchored in the 50's). Boris Karloff is the latest Last Of The Frankensteins, and he rather resentfully rents out his ancestral castle to a television crew filming a documentary about the infamous Frankenstein legend. Frankenstein, his body broken by brutal treatment at the hands of his Nazi captors during the War, has little in the way of love for any other human being. He's also got a monster... Though it blows it's shocking twist ending by telegraphing it nearly half way in, FRANKENSTEIN 1970 is a fair addition to the 50's monster cycle. Filmed in CinemaScope, the picture manages to make use of several moody sets despite being confined to the castle and grounds of the Frankenstein home. Karloff had played the Monster, so his casting as Frankenstein seems a natural. Boris despised having to do the picture, however, and let some of his bitterness come out through his crotchety elder Frankenstein (which actually works as he's a brilliant surgeon who lost the full use of his hands thanks to the Nazis). Not perfect, of course, but it's always fun to see another of these 50's gems.

A Quick Look: BILLY THE KID VS DRACULA (1966 - color)

   There were surprisingly few horror-western hybrids during the heyday of the horse opera, although there were so many oat burners that a few with monsters did get made. The ones I've seen tend to be really good, too, so I've always lamented the fact that they didn't make more of them. In the mid 60's, an iconic drive-in double feature presented the true zenith of this subgenre in JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER and BILLY THE KID VS DRACULA. I've never understood it, but BILLY THE KID VS DRACULA is seemingly always written off as a terrible movie. Having screened it again just recently, I still don't know why. The film is a dandy mixture of straight horror and western drama. Billy has found a new life of honest work and the love of a good woman, but his past still dogs him. When a vampire turns up in town, Billy is the only one who can stop him! Needless to say, there are certain historical inaccuracies concerning Billy, but I've always liked the idea that the film is set after his faked death (as we saw in THE OUTLAW), after Billy turned over a new leaf and tried to put his old life behind him. John Carradine returns to the role of the vampire king, although the name of Dracula is never actually spoken in the film itself. The real shame is that, while the co-feature can at least boast a nice DVD release, this one is almost impossible to come by. Despite some semi-regular television play in the last few decades, a good official release has never come to VHS or DVD. The TV prints, meanwhile, tend to be processed too dark. I'm hoping the film gets it's long-deserved pristine release to home video very soon. We can only use more delights like this. For more vampire-western thrills, see CURSE OF THE UNDEAD.

Monday, October 16, 2017

A Quick Look: SHOCK WAVES (1977 - color)

   One of the better genre films of the 70's, SHOCK WAVES was also one of the earliest in the subgenre of Nazi zombie movies. It was also the only good one, going by what I've seen. Castaways find themselves on an island seemingly inhabited only by mysterious Peter Cushing, but it turns out Cushing is an exiled Nazi scientist responsible for creating an undying squad of aquatic SS killers -still lurking just off shore! Silly as it might sound, it's actually a boffo picture. "Once, they were ALMOST human!" screamed the ads. Also starring John Carradine, although the main focus of the film is a very young Brooke Adams (who looks incredible in her teeny yellow bikini, it must be noted). The premise of undead Nazis surfaced again in the 80's. OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES was an indecipherable little film set in the desert, while ZOMBIES LAKE was an astoundingly inept French(?) picture in which Nazi zombies rise from a lake near a secluded mountain town where the girls tend to spend their free time skinny-dipping. This film seems to be set in the late 50's, but there's not a single element (hair, cars, technology, clothing, etc) that doesn't scream 1980! Makeups change from shot to shot, camera equipment is boldly in frame, the tone changes constantly, the script makes no sense whatsoever, it truly defies description (but whatever it is, it ain't boring). I believe more recent years saw a snow-bound Nazi zombie movie. It all started (arguably*) with SHOCK WAVES, though, and the film remains the high water mark (no pun intended) of the subset.

(*Indeed, one could make a case for MADMEN OF MANDORAS or THE FROZEN DEAD -that one I haven't seen yet, but I must, Dana Andrews fan that I am- as really originating the theme, but SHOCK WAVES really solidified it.)

A Quick Look: THE RETURN OF DR. X (1943)

   Here's one remembered mostly for it's trivia value, as THE RETURN OF DR.X was the only horror movie to star Humphrey Bogart! Reportedly, Bogie was acting up and the film was given to him by the studio as a way of putting him back in his place (sort of like Paul Kelly being in the serial THE SECRET CODE). THE RETURN OF DR.X follows the investigation of a series of blood-drained murder victims, and clues point to a hemophiliac research scientist who seems to be a man who was put to death some years ago! Mild programmer has some nice atmospheric visuals and good performances, but would likely be forgotten today if not for the lark casting of Bogie as a boogieman. The title may imply it, but this has no connection to the popular DOCTOR X from a few years previous. Those looking for a good October movie, though, really should give DOCTOR X a go. An early two-strip Technicolor science fiction murder mystery combines full moons and shadowy figures with massive art-deco sets to provide a real treat! My highest recommendation. I also highly recommend the Peter Lorre vehicle MAD LOVE.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Quick Look: PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1965 - color)

   Here's one that combines the gothic horror of the Hammer cycle with the science fiction trappings of a space opera, both very popular themes in the mid 60's. PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES tells of a spaceship forced down on a very old, very evil world populated by invisible beings seeking to take over the bodies of our heroes. Barry Sullivan stars. From the over-rated Italian director Mario Bava, the film is heavy on atmosphere and has some strong visuals (Bava's real strength was as a cinematographer). Some amazing sets include the massive interiors of the spaceships, which seem to have room enough for 80 basketball courts. The black leather uniforms look particularly uncomfortable, though! Near perfect pulp drive-in space opera.

A Quick Look: NOT OF THIS EARTH (1957)

    Director Roger Corman and actor Paul Birch teamed up yet again, this time for Allied Artists, to make NOT OF THIS EARTH. This is a really solid little B picture that's rather sadly on the obscure side today. Birch is an enigmatic gentleman with a peculiar blood condition. He hires pretty nurse Beverly Garland to tend to his nightly transfusions. In truth, Birch is a scout from a planet of vampires looking into the possibilities of conquering Earth and turning us inhabitants into a blood bank! Like a good many 50's B pictures of this sort, it ran too short to fit comfortably in television time slots. Footage was repeated and a long text prolog about the nature of dreams added. The film eventually vanished from TV in the 60's, when color programming became the norm. This television version is the one most of us videonauts have seen, although I believe I heard of a nice DVD release in recent years. Despite the film's relative obscurity after it's theatrical run and subsequent television visit, the film left an impact with viewers. It's been officially remade at least twice, the first time in the 90's and generating a bit of notoriety in filling the Beverly Garland role with infamous former jail-bait porn queen Traci Lords.

A Quick Look: ORGY OF THE DEAD (1966 - color)

   Here we have an interesting little number. ORGY OF THE DEAD was a bizarre cross between a horror movie and a nudie cutie (pre-porno skin flicks focused on naked girls). It plays like halloween night in a strip club, in fact. The story, such as it is, involves stranded motorists who have the misfortune to break down next to an isolated cemetery hosting the annual Review Of The Dead, or some such. Horror novelist Bob and his gal Shirley look on as the King of the Ghouls passes judgment on a series of dead women -which basically means that they each do a themed dance number and if they please the King, they get to move on to the afterlife. There's a Roman slave girl, a Squaw, a Hawaiian dancer, a murderous bride, a stripper, and so forth, each topless. Though it's short on story (eventually the King's mummy and werewolf henchman snatch Bob and Shirley and tie them to stakes closer to the action, where they will be the victims of the King's Vampira-esque moll if the festivities don't last until sunrise), the film is wildly entertaining. The script was provided by Ed Wood, based upon his novel of the same name! Though Wood himself didn't direct, all his usual directorial flourishes are on display. Continuity is non-existent, day and night are interchangeable, stock footage is ineptly spliced into the action, cues are blown, camera work is incredibly poor, etc. The dialog is a scream, particularly the lines spouted by the King -played by Wood regular, TV "psychic" Criswell. Criswell is obviously sauced through the whole affair, and on top of that had difficulty reading his cue cards through the heavy fog pumped onto the set. He visibly looks beyond the actors and strains his eyes to read his lines before turning back to the scene and delivering his words with all the conviction of a five year old in a school play about vegetables. On the plus side, the film is in gorgeous color and the photography is nice and sharp. The music is interesting and at times even catchy. The cast has some interesting faces and figures. Burlesque starlet Pat Barrington plays two roles, one as redheaded Shirley and another as a platinum blonde ghost obsessed with gold. The Hawaiian dancer is 60's nude model Mickey Jines, who has the body of an Elvgren girl! There are a few girls here who are pretty easy on the eyes, so there's visual interest beyond the technical ineptitudes. For the most part, though, entertainment is derived from the wacky production values of a typical Ed Wood master work. Criswell in particular gets funnier and funnier as the show progresses. Not for everyone, obviously, but ORGY OF THE DEAD has a lot more (granted unintentional) entertainment value than one would expect. Released on a very nice DVD by Rhino Home Video. By the way, "Shirley" was the name Ed used when he was in drag. Freud would have had a field day with Wood.