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Monsters and Madmen DVD Review

Monsters and Madmen

January 23, 2007

Director: Spencer C. Bennet, Robert Day,
Starring: Arthur Franz, Dick Foran, Brett Halsey, Marshall Thompson, Marla Landi, Robert Ayers, Boris Karloff, Betta St. John, Christopher Lee, Jean Kent, Elizabeth Allan, Anthony Dawson,

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DVD Review

This box set by the folks at the Criterion Collection is sure to divide fans of B-movies and the company’s traditional arthouse aficionados as to the validity of the films included. It’s true that Criterion has released these kinds of films before (glorious editions of the original The Blob and Carnivals of Souls to name a couple of examples), but one has to question why these films in particular? There is an obvious link as the Gordon brothers – Alex and Richard – produced these movies and thematically, all four are horror/science fiction hybrids.

The Atomic Submarine (1959) focuses on vessels of the same name that transport cargo and passengers deep under the Arctic Circle. Recently, they have been threatened by mysterious disasters near the North Pole. The most recent mishap involved the destruction of a submarine by a UFO. Top government officials and scientists are understandably alarmed at the disappearance of seven subs so they bring in Captain Dan Wendover (Foran) to help skipper the Tiger Shark, a state-of-the-art sub to find out what happened and destroy the threat. Commander Richard “Reef” Holloway (Franz) is assigned to command the vessel much to the dismay of his girlfriend Julie (played by blond bombshell Joi Lansing). Of course, scientists come along in order to operate new, experimental underwater diving gear, including a stuffy English gentleman and his younger, headstrong partner, Dr. Carl Neilsen. This sets up the inevitable tension between the brainy scientist types and the gung-ho military men.

This film features wonderfully cheesy B-movie dialogue typical of the era delivered in stiff fashion and with grave importance. The special effects (extensive use of miniatures) coupled with stock footage is surprisingly effective and is enhanced by Alexander Laszlo’s eerie electronic score.

The opening moments of First Man Into Space (1959) come across as a crude prototype for Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in The Right Stuff (1983) complete with hallucinations as Captain Ben Richards (Ayers) launches himself into the outer reaches of Earth’s atmosphere. He’s a great pilot but a bit of a show-off, much to the chagrin of his brother, Commander Charles Prescott (Thompson). There is friction between the two men with the former being all about ego and fame, while the latter cares about duty and honour, but they’ll have to find a way to work together on a new flight.

Richards ignores orders and goes into outer space – the first human being to do so. However, while up there, he and his craft become immersed in some kind of mysterious space dust before crashing back to Earth. His craft is found but no body. When Richards does emerge it’s as some kind of horrible creature, a monster that must be destroyed. What is so striking is the subtlety (for a film like this) in how they reveal the monster. Our first glimpse is a misshapen silhouette and the sound of inhuman breathing. An unaware nurse becomes its first victim but we don’t see her death, just hear her terrified scream. The make-up effects of the creature are crude, vaguely resembling the Swamp Thing dipped in chocolate pudding but that’s kinda part of the film’s low budget charm.

There’s nothing like a good hanging to start off a horror film and that’s just what we get with The Haunted Strangler (1958). James Rankin (Karloff) is a writer who believes that a man who was hanged 20 years ago wasn’t capable of the murders that he was convicted of. Something about the man’s case doesn’t add up for Rankin and he is convinced that someone else might have committed the crimes. As he interviews witnesses and acquaintances, Rankin uncovers a horrible secret while exhuming the hanged man’s grave.

He finds the murder weapon and touching it instills the poor writer with homicidal impulses (apparently contorting his face is also a side effect) and he kills a beautiful cancan dancer. Rankin awakens the next day back to normal and obsessed with solving the case seemingly unaware that he’s carrying on the tradition. Boris Karloff plays a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde split personality character consumed by his own obsessions. It’s a juicy role for the veteran actor to sink his teeth into and provides a good lead in to the next film in this collection.

Corridors of Blood (1959) is set in London, 1840 with Dr. Thomas Bolton (Karloff) as a surgeon who performs operations back in the day when anesthesia was not used. So, when he performs an amputation on an unlucky patient, the man is simply tied down and takes the pain. Afterwards, Bolton laments this method but one colleague consoles him, “You can’t have operations without screams.” Bolton is something of an innovator, conducting chemical experiments and devoting some of his time to the poor who can’t afford proper medical attention. He’s kind and genuinely cares about helping those who are sick or injured in some way.

However, some petty criminals take advantage of his charity and make murders, conducted by a killer known as Resurrection Joe (Lee), look like natural deaths and then sell the body for money. In the meantime, Bolton begins to make progress on his chemical experiments, getting closer to his goal of painless surgery. The film is a harsh reminder of how barbaric medicine was at that time. Life was tough and any serious medical problem usually resulted in a painful death. Boris Karloff is excellent as the driven doctor who cares too much about his patients and it’s also fun to see him pitted against Christopher Lee’s amoral killer.

The Monsters and Madmen box set is a veritable treasure trove of delights for the B-movie fan. The price may be a little steep, especially considering the quality of the movies (they’re certainly not great but fine in their own entertaining way), but Criterion has done a nice job presentation-wise with the crystal clear transfers and supplementary material that is certainly keeping in the spirit of all things B-movie.

Special Features:

The Atomic Submarine features an audio commentary by producer Alex Gordon and writer Tom Weaver. Gordon had always enjoyed submarine films and wanted to make one of his own. His wife suggested the sci-fi angle. The producer takes us through the origins of the picture and talks about how it all came together, pointing out bits of background information on many of the actors (what they were known for, etc.). Weaver keeps things going by constantly prompting Gordon with questions.

“Atomic Recall” features an interview with actor Brett Halsey who talks about his collaboration with Gordon on Submarine Seahawk (1958) and The Atomic Submarine. He explains how he prepared for his roles and mentions that principal photography on the film was done in a staggering six days!

Also included is a trailer and a collection of stills from the movie.

The First Man Into Space features a commentary by producer Richard Gordon and writer Tom Weaver. While his brother Alex worked in Hollywood, Richard worked out of London, England. He talks about his haste to capitalize on the emerging space race for topical subject matter for his movies. Gordon also speaks about how the film came together and how he sold it as a sci-fi film.

“Making Space” features interviews with director Robert Day and actress Marla Landi as they recount their experiences working on the film together. It was supposed to take place in White Sands, New Mexico but they shot it in England instead during the winter which forced them to rely on a lot of stock footage.

There is a trailer, four radio spots and a gallery of photographs from the world premiere, merchandising and stills from the movie itself.

Corridors of Blood features a commentary by producer Richard Gordon and writer Tom Weaver who sets the record straight by stating that the first painless surgery was actually done by an American.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance

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Rating: 83%

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