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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

ROGER CORMAN'S HORROR CLASSICS VOL. 1 -- DVD review by porfle


Every once in awhile something comes along that gives me that dancing-around giddy feeling and makes me glad that DVD players were born.  Today, that thing is the 3-disc DVD set ROGER CORMAN'S HORROR CLASSICS VOL. 1 from Film Chest and HD Cinema Classics.

This is just the sort of thing that would've had me flying around the room back in the pre-home-video days when you could only catch movies like this on the rare occasions when they showed up on TV (or, even rarer, at the Bijou), and you'd scour the pages of "Famous Monsters" just for pics and info on them.

But thanks to the wonders of modern science, you can now have three of legendary independent filmmaker Roger Corman's most celebrated horror films--THE TERROR, DEMENTIA 13,  and BUCKET OF BLOOD--nicely restored and right at your pulsatin' pinky-tips to indulge in anytime you feel like it. Woo-hoo!  And now that I've sufficiently contained myself, let's discuss them, shall we?

THE TERROR (1963)

This picturesque mood piece moves about as fast as the hands of a clock, so you might as well just gear down and settle in if you want to get anything out of it.  "The French Connection" it ain't.  That said, it's a pretty rewarding experience for the patient Gothic horror fan, especially one who appreciates aesthetically-pleasing filmmaking on a tight budget.

One thing about it, THE TERROR looks great--probably better than it has a right to considering its hasty schedule and slapdash origins.  Roger Corman had some sets left over from THE RAVEN which were due to be demolished in a matter of days, so he hired actor/screenwriter Leo Gordon and Jack Hill to knock out a script around them, managed to snag RAVEN leftover Boris Karloff for three more days' work, and was off and running. 


Aside from Corman's own efforts as director, parts of the picture were co-helmed by Francis Coppola, Monte Hellman (TWO-LANE BLACKTOP), Jack Hill, and co-star Jack Nicholson himself in his fourth film for Corman. 

The young Nicholson's acting chops hardly dazzle us here as he portrays Andre Duvalier, a French soldier separated from his regiment circa 1800 and drawn into a ghostly mystery involving reclusive Baron Victor Frederick von Leppe (Karloff) in his isolated seaside castle (with location footage shot at Big Sur).  Still, just watching this seemingly unprepossessing young actor with the knowledge that he will someday be widely regarded as a "national treasure" is interesting in itself.

The meandering plot is rather negligible and is mainly an excuse to let us observe the historic pairing of Karloff and Nicholson as they wander around the impressive castle sets and agonize over whether or not  the ghost of the late Baroness, whom Karloff's character killed in a fit of jealous rage years earlier, still stalks the dark hallways and surrounding forest.

Nicholson's wife at the time, Sandra Knight (already immortalized in the trash classic FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER), plays the elusive Helene, who may or may not be the Baroness' ghost, while Corman fave Dick Miller (billed here as "Richard" to give the film more class) is the Baron's faithful servant Stefan. 

Dorothy Neumann plays a local witch with a intensely personal interest in the affair, and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS alumnus Jonathan "Seymour Krelboyne" Haze is also on hand as Gustaf.  Most of the acting is stilted, thanks mainly to some unwieldy dialogue, although Karloff comes through with his usual unfailing professionalism and the real-life Nicholsons are a passable onscreen couple. 

Colorful cinematography, some nice stock shots of the castle and churning sea, and a typically robust musical score by the great Ronald Stein (the main titles theme and artwork are a highlight) contribute to THE TERROR's modest but rewarding appeal.  The DVD is in 16:9 widescreen with 5.1 surround sound and Spanish subtitles.  Extras consist of a trailer and a "before and after" restoration demo.

Things heat up (finally!) in the excitingly staged finale when the Baron's darkest secret is revealed at last and the entire surviving cast face death by flood, fire, bird attack, or melting into an oozing mass of putridity.  The ending,  I must say, is enough of a shock to put a satisfying cap on the whole thing, making THE TERROR a pleasantly chilling way to pass some time. 

DEMENTIA 13 (1963)

One of my most vivid childhood memories is of accompanying my older brother to a Saturday screening of a new horror movie with the puzzling title, DEMENTIA 13 (1963).  The stark black-and-white photography and dreary Irish castle setting were spooky enough, but it was this film which would introduce me,  for the first time, to genuine, grueling screen terror.


The credit "Directed by Francis Coppola" meant nothing to me or anyone else at time--the future creative genius behind the GODFATHER films was merely an aspiring Roger Corman protege' helming his first "real" movie--and neither did the rather mundane plot about an eccentric Irish family, the Halorans, who were obsessed with the drowning death of the clan's youngest child Kathleen several years earlier. 

I wasn't yet a fan of the wonderful Luana Anders (EASY RIDER,  THE LAST DETAIL) as Louise, John Halloran's scheming wife.  In the opening scenes, we see John die of a heart attack and Louise dump his body into a lake lest his death be discovered and she lose her share of the family fortune. 

Nor did I know that William Campbell, playing oldest Haloran son Richard, would later guest star in two of my favorite episodes of "Star Trek: The Original Series" (he was Trelane in "The Squire of Gothos" and Koloth in "The Trouble With Tribbles"), or that Patrick Magee as family doctor Caleb would feature so prominently in Stanley Kubrick's  sci-fi classic A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.


All I knew at the time was that part of Louise's inheritance scheme involved stripping down to her bra and panties and taking a creepy late-night swim in the same murky pond in which little Kathleen had drowned.  What happens when she resurfaces--and the spoilers are right there in the poster and trailer themselves--is one of the homages to the likes of PSYCHO that Corman instructed Coppola to include in his script.  (Corman also got Jack Hill to write and direct additional scenes to pad the running time and gore content, to Coppola's dismay.)  It's also the first-ever movie scene that really and truly scared the ever-livin' crap outta me.

But DEMENTIA 13 isn't done yet, because later there's a beheading (also a first for me) and other creepy goings-on thanks to an axe-wielding maniac who seems to be stalking the Halorans.  Unfortunately, much of these doings have lost their edge over the years--the leisurely-paced story is dishwater dull at times and most of the scares no longer chill the blood quite like they used to.  But the film still has a strong Monster Kid watchability factor and (thanks largely to the authentic Irish locations) eerie, Gothic atmosphere to burn.

Hearing music maestro Ronald Stein's creepy, harpsichord-based theme music kick in during those pleasantly-morbid opening titles always makes me want the soundtrack CD.  Come to think of it, I feel that way about all of his film scores.  The DVD is in 16:9 widescreen and 5.1 surround sound with Spanish subtitles.  Extras include a trailer and a "before and after" restoration demo. 

After seeing DEMENTIA 13 that first time back in '63, I found its double-bill companion (Ray Milland's colorful PREMATURE BURIAL) a relief for my jangled nerves much the same way DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS would help me recover from the traumatic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD some years later.  Modern viewers may find this hard to imagine since the film now plays as a slow but satisfying murder mystery with some mildly effective scares.  But it was my PSYCHO, and lovely Luana Anders' midnight swim was my shower scene. 

A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959)

This is the title that I was the least familiar with since I bought the dollar DVD years ago at Wal-Mart,  watched it once, and then sold it in a garage sale.  I probably only got 50 cents for it,  maybe even a quarter, but I was glad to get it because that's the kind of year I was having. 

Corman regular Dick Miller plays a guy named Walter Paisley, who's also having a bad year (how's that for a segue?)  He's an insecure milquetoast who buses tables in a coffee bar where beatniks hang out, but dreams of being a creative artist like pretentious poet Maxwell (Julian Burton) in order to impress his heartthrob Carla (THE WASP WOMAN's Barboura Morris).  Another Corman fave, the great Antony Carbone of THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH, CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA, and PIT AND THE PENDULUM, is Walter's overbearing boss Leonard.


When Walter accidentally kills his landlady's cat, he covers the evidence with modeling clay and then shows off the result as his own artistic creation, garnering instant fame as a brilliant new talent.  But a hunger for greater recognition leads to murder when he whacks a gun-waving narc (future game-show host Bert Convy) over the head,  killing him, and then turns him into a highly-praised clay sculpture as well.  With more money and fame rolling in, Walter's trail of  victims grows longer, eventually leading to Carla herself. 

If you liked 1960's THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS you should really be interested in this amusingly morbid tale which amounts to pretty much a dry run for the later film.  Besides also being helmed by Corman,  both were penned by Charles B. Griffith, whose sense of humor seemed to play into the then-current appetite for beatnik culture and "sick" humor (the film's tagline is "You'll be sick, sick, sick--from laughing!") 

Both feature typical be-bop musical scores by Fred Katz and similar production values (moody black-and-white photography, modest stage-like sets, a "skid row" ambience).   Carbone's bullying boss Leonard, just like flower shop owner Gravis Mushnik, first sees dollar signs from his employee's creative efforts but grows increasingly squeamish when he discovers the truth behind them. 

Walter could be a first cousin of Jonathan Haze's Seymour Krelboyne,  another mousey shlub stuck in a dead-end job with an oppressive boss, who yearns to break out of his rut by doing something creative which will lead to murder.  We almost expect him to have a clinging, overbearing mother when he shleps back to his cheap apartment, and indeed his landlady is played by Myrtle Damerel, who was Seymour's hypochondriac mom in LITTLE SHOP.  

Barboura Morris, however, grounds the film by playing her role straight, and Griffith's script for BUCKET isn't nearly as whimsically farcical as the later story.  Carbone maintains a delicious deadpan even when Leonard's dazed reactions to Walter's bloodthirsty activities threaten to incapacitate him.  Other familiar faces include Ed Nelson as Bert Convy's undercover vice-cop partner,  Lynn Storey of LITTLE SHOP (she played "Mrs. Hortense Fishtwanger") as a curious square, and, as an art patron interested in Walter's work, the ubiquitous Bruno Ve Soto. 

In the lead role that would define his career as a cult actor, Dick Miller wrings every nuance of nebbishness out of his pitifully desperate character and manages to remain likable even as his murderous tendencies spin out of control.  Corman's camera explores Miller's manic expressions with his own artistic eye and the collaboration results in a truly memorable performance.  A BUCKET OF BLOOD itself stands as a minor classic and a model of efficient, creative low-budget filmmaking as well as simply being a real kick to watch.

The DVD is in 16:9 widescreen with mono sound.  No subtitles.  A trailer is the sole extra.  All three films in this set are restored in HD from the original 35mm prints.

Considering the depth and breadth of the man's career as a whole,  ROGER CORMAN'S HORROR CLASSICS VOL. 1 may not stand as a comprehensive overview.  But as a trio of spooky fright flicks to delight the old-school Monster Kid down to the very marrow of his or her rattling bones, it's a three-course feast in a keepcase. 

Buy it at Amazon.com



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