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BORIS KARLOFF COLLECTION (VCI)

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BORIS KARLOFF COLLECTION (VCI,2 discs, DVD) Released September 2018. Color.  $14.99

https://www.vcientertainment.com/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=1104

Many years ago, when the late great Boris Karloff passed away in February 2,1969, Jim Warren’s and Forrest J Ackerman’s FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND provided two fitting tributes.

One, was issue #56 of FMOF with a beautiful  Basil Gogos cover of Karloff as his most famous role.

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The other was a paperback by FJA called THE FRANKENSCIENCE MONSTER (Ace,1969, a cover not by Gogos but paperback cover artist Verne Tossey.). At the time,before the ability to google, this was the source for any monster news. Many of us though that Karloff’s final film was a classic of modern cinema, Peter Bogdanovich’s   TARGETS  (August 1968,Paramount).

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However, thanks to Uncle Forry , we found out that 80 plus year old Karloff had signed with producer Luis Enrique Vergara and Azteca Films of Mexico (who in turn had a distribution agreement with Columbia Pictures) for a four-picture deal at a salary of $400,000. The actor could have said no to the projects and easily retired, having a comfortable sum saved up over the years. No one could have blamed him, either, as his lungs were barely functional (due to years of smoking as well as damage from pneumonia he contracted in Italy filming BLACK SABBATH,1963,AIP , leaving him dependent on oxygen tanks to aid his breathing) as well as crippling arthritis that made walking difficult.

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Still, as he often said, he wanted to die with his boots on, doing the job he loved if audiences wanted to see him. An example was when he filmed an episode of THE RED SKELTON SHOW (“He Who Steals My Robot Steals Trash” aired September 24,1968, CBS), rather than do the show before the live audience in a wheel chair as rehearsed, he willed himself to walk with the aid of a cane rather than have the people see him so confined.

Thus, the quartet of Mexican horror films were jobs that he readily accepted, feeling fortunate that audiences still wished to see him.

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Difficulties for the productions arose when it was discovered that Karloff’s health would not permit him to film in Mexico, and his sequences were shot in a small studio in Santa Monica, California in April/May 1968, while the rest of the films were completed in Mexico, often with a double for the star.

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The four films were to be made over a 5-week period, so this extra expense of two crews, duplicating sets, and flying up some of the Mexican cast to work with Karloff must have frayed the already low budgets.  Juan Ibáñez directed the Mexican main unit, while cult director Jack Hill (SPIDER BABY,1967, American General) handled the American Karloff unit, as well as contributing to the screenplays.

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Hill it seems was hampered because the producer wanted to use an early form of video playback by tying a primitive video camera to the top of the 35mm Mitchells used to film the movie. Jerry Lewis had pioneered the idea and it is now the common practice, but Hill felt that it slowed down his process.

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With all these problems somehow the four films were filmed and completed. Karloff did not live to see the release of these films, which seemed to have been held back until 1971 for their limited distributions (Cannon also got around to distribute Karloff’s 1967 Spanish lensed CAULDRON OF BLOOD the same year, which got a wider release in the U.S. than the four Mexican thrillers).

 

Over the years, the films have been released on various video labels, including MPI and United American budget label, as well as several of the titles getting a DVD release by Fred Olen Ray’s Retromedia label.

 

VCI has now for the first time put all four films together in an affordable (less than the cost of some single DVD releases) two-disc collection.

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The four titles in the collection are

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(Disc One)

DANCE OF DEATH (aka HOUSE OF EVIL, SERENADA MACABRA)

TORTURE ZONE (edited version of FEAR CHAMBER)

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(Disc Two)

ALIEN TERROR (filmed as THE INCREDIBLE INVASION, Invasión siniestra)

CULT OF THE DEAD (edited version of ISLE OF THE SNAKE PEOPLE, La muerte vivente)

 

The discs seem to be sourced from the old MPI videos, with the same video generated titles (©1987 by the Parasol Group). The prints of the four movies are a bit dark and sometimes the color is a bit off.  The copy  of TORTURE ZONE seemed in the worst condition, with several visible splices.

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It is a shame that they did not seek out the Retromedia or Elite release of FEAR CHAMBER, as both of those are in the original aspect ratio with sharp picture and color quality, as well as extras such as an audio commentary by Jack Hill and a deleted scene.MPI’s TORTURE ZONE is an edited version of this film ,so all of the nudity Is eliminated .

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Only TORTURE ZONE was set in present day, with the rest set at around the turn of the 20th Century. ALIEN TERROR was supposedly the last one filmed, and the only one NOT starring Julissa, giving actress German actress Christa Linder a chance.

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The 2.0 Dolby Digital sound for the films is clear with no noticeable loss in quality of dialogue or the sound effects.

There are no extras to the discs, but again, to get these four films together at such a low price, one should not expect any special edition treatment.

While we would all like to get the best possible and most complete versions, certain films have limited audiences and the profitability is to say the least, narrow.

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One wonders, for example, if VCI had gone out of their way to get new prints, cleaned up and loaded with extras, would fans shell out $29.95 for each of these films?

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DANCE OF DEATH -this film is perhaps the most traditional horror film, with obvious influences of the Roger Corman Poe films. The film even claims to be based upon a Poe story, though none that I am familiar with.hoise of evil                                                  original Spanish language credit

 

Wealthy toymaker Matthais Morteval (Karloff) summons his family to his mansion to discuss how his estate will be divided. Recent murders in the nearby hills has a macabre touch, wherein the victims have had their eyes removed makes Matthais suspect that a member of his family is the killer.

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Karloff has an ancestral portrait that looks exactly like him (these old families have strong genes), and Karloff gets to play huge pipe organ. Matthais supposedly suffers a fatal heart attack half way into the film, and shortly thereafter, one by one his greedy relations die. Keeping with the Corman Poe- like feel, the film ends with a huge fire, as Matthais, obviously not dead, plays his final concerto as the walls burn around him. It is quite amazing that the octogenarian actor is working so close to such huge plumes of flames, controlled or not  .

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Karloff perhaps passed away before being able to loop dialogue, or the final lines were an afterthought , but they are not his voice.

People who dismiss the Karloff Mexican quartet of films have obviously not seen them, as DANCE OF DEATH was quite entertaining.

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TORTURE ZONE – (which in the original titles also claimed to be Poe inspired, though I would say more Lovecraft, like Karloff’s own DIE, MONSTER DIE! 1965 ,A.I.P. ). This one is a bit of a mess, no two ways about it. Psychedelic zooms & colors, and jump cut edits do not make this film any more interesting, and indeed, show how little sense the plot has.  A living rock is discovered within the depths of the earth. Scientist Karl Mantell (Karloff), who spends much of this film either sitting behind his office desk or behind a lab computer table, discovers that the creature feeds on the blood of young women, particularly those who are frightened. Naturally, our loveable scientist and his staff create a fear chamber to terrorize young women who come seeking employment. The rock (no, no that one) starts to grow tentacles, and only then does Mantell seek to stop it.

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Mantell is supposed to be a kindly scientist, but his actions here are in opposition to that appearance. Still, at least, Karloff gets to survive to the end credits. The topless scenes that are edited out of this print were probably shot later, added to try and keep audience attention. Probably one of Karloff’s worst movies, though, as always, he is worth watching.                                                                              .firrreee

Karloff tries to blow up all prints of FEAR CHAMBER .

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ALIEN TERROR– Another period piece, this one is another science fiction/horror hybrid. In an 1890s European country, Professor John Mayer (Karloff) is working on a new power source, when a lab accident sends a pulse off into space, attracting the attention of an alien spaceship passing by. The alien comes across a Jack the Ripper style killer and takes over his body. More killings continue as the alien tries to get to the professor’s invention and destroy it. Mayer uses his invention to defeat the killer, and later, when the alien hops into his niece, he uses the machine again to drive it from her. Mayer lets the machine destroy itself and, in the process, burns down his home.c3f80e4ebb33139abba0d67198ef960c

 

The final shot of the surviving cast members watching the house burn has an obvious Karloff stand in facing away from the camera with hair that looks like it was streaked with shoe polish.

A confusing picture, as if two different scripts were dropped into a blender, yet it held one’s interest and it tried to be original. As mentioned, this was Karloff’s last work in a motion picture.karloff_at_03_dvd

An alien Spaceship, lit and designed to look like a Dario Argento sequence !

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CULT OF THE DEAD – On the island of Korbai, Carl Van Molder (Karloff) is a major plantation owner. A police captain comes to Korbai to try and bring order when it is discovered that voodoo is rampant. This is a much more entertaining film than Karloff’s earlier film VOODOO ISLAND (1957, U.A.), which was one of the only roles I felt the great actor seemed to walk through.

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In this film, Karloff seems fully invested in the part and brings his great screen presence to each scene.  The voodoo scenes are well staged, though once again at the end of the film, a voice not Karloff’s is used for the line: “I’m dying! “followed by some sputtering coughs. The picture ends with a big explosion as the hero and heroine escape with their lives. This too was an entertaining piece of cinema fluff and does not deserve all the scorn heaped upon it.

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To sum up, two of the films (DANCE OF DEATH and CULT OF THE DEAD) I would say are quite entertaining, a third (ALIEN TERROR) is just odd enough to hold your interest with a feeling of “WTF?” throughout and only one (TORTURE ZONE) is close to a complete disaster. Karloff is always giving his all in each work, and for that alone these are well worth seeing.

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Are the prints the best? No.  However, unless some deep pocket cinema collector seeks out original negatives, gives them a 2 K scan and restores them, and licenses the Elite and Retromedia commentaries, this VCI set will be the best way of getting affordable copies of these final films by the Master of Horror, Boris Karloff.

 

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Recommended for – Karloff completists. Fans of Mexican Horror. Cult films lovers.

 

-Kevin G Shinnick

 

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1940s, Blu Ray, Carol Landis, Carole Landis, cult, D.W. Griffith, FILM HISTORY, genre, Hal Roach, https://www.facebook.com/scarletthefilmmagazine/, LON CHANEY JR, monsters, review, reviews, SCARLETTHEFILMMAGAZINE.WORDPRESS.COM, SCIENCE FICTION, tv film radio books theatremusic storytelling horror mystery fantasy science fiction thrillers drama, Uncategorized, UNITED ARTISTS, V.C.I., Victor Mature, weird, wierd

ONE MILLION B.C. (V.C.I. Blu Ray)

ONE MILLION B.C. (Roach, 1940) (V.C.I. Blu Ray) B&W,82 minutes. S.R.P. $29.95

https://www.amazon.com/One-Million-B-C-Blu-ray/dp/B071XF71PD/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1513128658&sr=8-1&keywords=one+million+b.c+1940

Hal Roach (1892-1992) began producing short silent comedies in 1915 after receiving a small inheritance. He became the second largest producer of silent comedy shorts ,right after Mack Sennett.

After distributing through Pathe ,he switched over to MGM selling his product in 1927.

 

He began producing talking short subjects in 1929,often re-shooting in several language, his casts(including the Our Gang kids) learning the foreign languages phonetically.

 

In 1931 he began making some full length features (PARDON US) ,and except for The Our Gang/Little Rascals ,which he sold to MGM completely in 1938 ,he ceased production on short subjects.

Roach had a series of hit films like TOPPER (MGM,1937) and switching to United Artists to release his features, he put out such classics as OF MICE & MEN (1939).

One of his biggest and best known non Laurel & Hardy features from Hal Roach is the unique and well loved fantasy feature ONE MILLION B.C. (1940). The #1 box-office attraction of 1940 (excluding the roll-over receipts for Gone with the Wind (M.G.M. 1939)), the film was a special effects wonder ,whose dinosaur battles and earth splitting images were used as stock shots well into the 1960s .

The last film to have any involvement by the silent screen master D.W. Griffith (he directed many of the screen tests but not the actual film itself) , it earned two Academy Award nominations : Best Musical Score (Werner Heymann,losing to Disney‘s PINOCCHIO ) and Best Special Effects (Roy Seawright, Elmer Raguse, who saw that award go to Alexander Korda‘s THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD team).  Griffith had already dealt with cave men in his 1912 comedy MAN’s GENESIS (Biograph ,1912)

Hal Roach Sr & Junior both are credited as directors, they worked together seamlessly ,aided by superb camera work by Norbert Brodine,who was the studio’s chief director of photography on a majority of their films.

Stan & Ollie in FLYING ELEPHANTS (Roach/Pathe,1928)

 

I never noticed how much sweeping camera moves that were used in the film until I got this  Blu Ray,especially travelling around the studio filled sets created by Charles D Hall .Hall is best known for his stunning design work which defined the look of the Universal horror classics ,with his work on DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN(both 1931) .

This film is probably the closest any film came to creating the sense of wonder that KING KONG (RKO,1933) inspired ,as well as the box office results.Dinosaur pictures movies had been made since the silent era when Windsor McCay’s GERTIE THE DINOSAUR (1914). Sadly, few would use the time consuming stop motion that Willis O’Brien had become the undisputed master. ONE MILLION B.C. was another film that eschewed stop motion for men in T-Rex suits and animals and lizards portraying their prehistoric ancestors.

The film begins with a prologue meant to ease audiences into the main story.When a group of modern hikers take shelter in a cave, they meet an anthropologist (Conrad Nagel, billed as The Narrator) who interprets the cave drawings, saying they are about a young couple, similar to two in the hiking group, namely Carole Landis and Victor Mature .

The film then jumps into the story proper ,where we see the violent Rock Tribe ,led by Akhoba (Lon Chaney ,Jr.,who was about 33 ,wearing old age make up and grayed wigs). Tumak (Mature, who was only in his mid-twenties when he appeared in this. Many say that tHis was his debut ,but he had a small role as “Lefty ” in THE HOUSEKEEPER’S DAUGHTER the year prior)has his first kill in a hunt ,though an elderly man is injured and left to die.

 

The beast is roasted, and after Akhoba, the men fight for their piece, leaving the women and children with what remains. Akhoba is still hungry, and grabs the food that Tumak is eating, who strikes his father. Enraged, the pair fight with staffs, resulting in Tumak falling from a cliff. The tribe return to their cave, without only Tumak’s mother to mourn him.

He is not dead, but has to flee from a mastodon ,climbing a tree to avoid the creature. It knocks the tree over another cliff and Tumak and the tree float down river (an amazing combination of miniatures and rear projection combined with live action) .He is discovered unconscious by Loana (Carole Landis ,20 years old,who had worked as a dancer since age 15,had mostly only done extra work and uncredited bits until this role made her a star.It seems D.W.Griffith pushed for her, due to her natural athleticism ,something that the role would require). She is a member of the more social Shell People .She calls for her tribe, who take the stranger in and care for him.

 

He is not sure how to deal with these strangers, who share their food freely. When he takes food from a young boy, Loana gives her food to the child. Tumak,seeing this ,does his first kind act and gives his bowl to her. The tribe applauds, and Tumak then gets some other food that he has hidden and adds it to the communal pile.

Akhoba is gored during another hunt and and left to die. Another takes over as leader .Akhoba, maimed, crawls back to the cave, but now is a figure shunned by most.

Tumak is finding life is good with his new tribe, and he even saves a small child from death by killing the beast with a spear ,a weapon which the Shell Tribe have just introduced to him.

However, he feels the spear should be his due to his courage, and when he is made to return it, he determines to steal it.

For this ,he is once again banished. Loana has fallen for him ,and follows. They feed on apples (a reference to Adam & Eve perhaps? After all, we have humans around the same time as dinosaurs ) and are chased by one creature, then witness a fight between others .

Loana is captured by the Rock Tribe, and Tumak races to her rescue. Tumak becomes the new leader, and tries to show his people about kindness and sharing, even showing kindness to Akhoba.

The next day the men go hunting .A small child wanders off and Loana goes in search of him. At that moment, a volcano erupts, killing many in the lava flow(including the child’s mother!), though Loana does find the lost boy .

Cut off from the Rock Tribe , she returns to her own people with the child. Tumak finds scraps of clothes and thinks that she has perished.

However, he finds out that she is indeed alive and goes to find, arriving to find that she and her tribe are trapped in their cave that is being attacked by a dinosaur.

Quickly, Tumak gets the Rock Tribe to help him. Akhoba advises someone distract the beast while others while others cause a rock slide which kills the monster.

The two tribes unite, and the film ends with Tumak ,Loana, and the child looking to a brighter future.

Tumak, Loana and the rescued child are framed in the dawn of a new day.

The plot, though simple, works . Griffith probably had a hand in story construction,as the film could have worked as a silent feature. Indeed, except for the opening sequence and Nagel‘s narration, most of the dialogue is in a fake cave dialogue , which we follow by gestures and tone.

What the film is best known for is it’s “depiction” of prehistoric life. This is done by disguising modern animals in furs (i.e. ,the Mastodon is merely a fur clad elephant, an armadillo and a snake are used on miniature sets, as are some poor lizards.Nowadays, the ASPCA would not allow such animal cruelty to go on, but here, they are made to fight, dropped, hit with rocks, etc.

The miniature disaster,combined with on set effects ,makes for effective depictions of the earth cracking open, and volcanoes erupting their destructive forces.

The new VCI Blu Ray is a wonder to see. Most prints I have seen of this film have been muddy and lack sharpness. Indeed, I have read (unfair) criticism of previous VCI Blu Rays quality.

This print, however, is a revelation. It is so sharp that one can at times see where certain matte shots merge ,which gives away the trick but not the charm of the film.The elements come from the UCLA Film Archive ,and are remarkably clean (also aided by a 2K scan)and have wonderful graduations of gray ,and strong whites and blacks.

The audio is also crisp and clear mono . It is fun seeing the pseudo cave language appear on screen when the optional subtitle open is applied.The subtitles ,however, are also serve as good descriptive subtitles for the hard of hearing .

As to extras, there is a non stop and informative enthusiastic commentary from Toby Roan ,whom I first recall enjoying from his commentary on Olive Films’ NIGHT OF THE GRIZZLY Blu Ray. He is obvious a fan of the movie but is not above pointing out items of interest along the way,all the while dropping tid bits about the films production history,its cast ,and reception.

Also, a 10 minute (!) long slide show of ultra rare production stills, private photos, international posters, and re release lobby cards from the films re issue as CAVE MAN .

In 1966 ,Hammer/ 20th Century Fox remade the film ,they added a “Years” to the title, ran about 20 minutes longer(original U.K. release),in color, with incredible special effects by Ray Harryhausen and the incredible effect that was Rachel Welch in a fur bikini.

Both are fun fantasy films but there is a wonderful charm in the original that any fan of classic movie would make this a must have to add to your collection.

Highly recommended .

-Kevin G Shinnick

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