Cult Classics, Collection 2

Rating: D+

Released: AMC Monsterfest

Again with the word “classics”, the most overused word in the budget DVD lexicon. As a general rule of thumb, it should probably be translated as meaning little more than ‘old’, and such is the case here, with nothing made after the last time England won the World Cup. Mind you, this does come from AMC; the channel’s name supposedly stands for ‘American Movie Classics’, but looking at their schedule over the next few days, the films they’re playing include Fletch Lives, An American Werewolf in Paris, and City Slickers II. Their definition of ‘classic’ clearly extends to include crap sequels. They also interrupt their films for commercials, and edit them for content, so are basically no better than a network channel

At least AMC go a little off the beaten path with Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. However, there are big differences between alleged + actual running times: Dementia 13 claims 81 minutes, and runs 75. While a dumb mistake, that’s tolerable, since it still seems uncut. However, both the box and the Internet Movie Database say Frozen Alive should be 81 minutes long – but it’s only 63 here, and thus presumably a badly-hacked print. [I note with interest the plot outline on the box is also copied word-for-word from the IMDB!]

Of course, at the price, it seems churlish to complain, but it’s really a question of truth in advertising. We’re still being misled, regardless of the cost, and that’s no encouragement to buy other volumes in the set. Of the four films, the only one we’d whip out again is Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, purely for its high cheese value. The Elite DVD (with a Joe-Bob Briggs commentary) is out of print and it’s a title that doesn’t crop up in box-sets much – you can buy it alone, but it’s no cheaper, has no extra features that way, and will occupy as much shelf-space. I’d be inclined to wait for Jesse to appear with a better selection of co-features.

Dementia 13 (1963)

Rating: C+

Dir: Francis Ford Coppola
Star: William Campbell, Bart Patton, Ethne Dunne, Patrick Magee

Coppola’s first “proper” feature – he had made a couple of nudies – was the result of producer Roger Corman having a bit of spare cash and the use of an Irish castle, after an earlier film came in under budget. He asked Coppola to come up with some kind of Psycho knock-off, and this script was popped out in a few days. In particular, the set-up copies the early stages of Hitchcock’s masterpiece, with Louise Haloran plotting to cover up the death by heart-attack of her husband, so she can still profit from his family’s wealth. However, while working on a scheme to drive the matriarch (Dunne) insane, who still mourns the death of her daughter in a drowning accident years earlier, Louise ends up falling victim to an axe-wielding psycho. Who might it be? One of the remaining brothers, such as Billy (Patton), who is still troubled by nightmares of his sister’s demise? Or John, a sculptor with a sharp temper and fondness for blowtorches. Family servant, Arthur? Cheerily “eccentric” local poacher, Simon? It’s up to the abrasive family doctor, Justin Caleb (Magee), to untangle the web of deceit and psychological disorder.

To be honest, you can tell the script was thrown together on the back of a Guinness beer-mat, after a couple of viewings of Psycho. However, Coppola doesn’t have any apparent way to tie the strands into a coherent finale, instead coming up with something which a drug-crazed Dario Argento would likely have rejected as implausible. It’s much better teasing out those strands, Coppola generating more atmosphere than in others of its ilk. It’s helped by Magee’s excellent performance, both acerbic and intelligent, with the good Doctor being one step ahead, not just of the other characters, but mostly of the audience as well. That kind of smart-assery can easily become irritating – I’m looking at you, Benedict Cumberbatch – and credit to Magee that isn’t the case here. If this certainly isn’t great art, and likely not even very good among B-movies, it’s a lot better than it should be, considering the impromptu nature of its origin, and serves its purpose perfectly well.

[What we said then: Aug 2004] The jewel here is Coppola’s directorial debut (though it’s hardly a exclusive to this particular set), and initially, it’s an effective Psycho knockoff, with the central character not who it appears at first. It centres around a family of Irish nobility, tormented annually by the insistence of its matriarch, Lady Halloran (Dunne), on marking the anniversary of the drowning of her young daughter. But when a gold-digger arrives, intent on getting the mother to change her will, it triggers more than tearful regret – specifically, the rampage of an axe-wielding killer. It falls far short of the glorious pull-quote on the poster: “Makes Psycho look like a Sunday School picnic,” though it’s hard to see how any film could live up to that. While it opens well, the story soon collapses into people meandering around the dark corridors of the family castle. There are occasional breaks for grim, if not particularly gory, murders by the aforementioned loony, before a rushed ending that fails on almost every level. Magee stands out as an inquisitive doctor, sinking his teeth into the melodramatic dialogue with a relish not matched by the other performers, who make little impression. For a debut, it’s competent enough, even if little suggests that Coppola would go on to win Oscars for the likes of The Godfather or Apocalypse Now. D+

Frozen Alive (1964)

Rating: D-

Dir: Bernard Knowles
Star: Mark Stevens, Marianne Koch, Delphi Lawrence, Joachim Hansen
a.k.a. Der Fall X701

I think a quiet word needs to be had with the distributors over the meaning of the words, since even the broadest definition would cough up a hairball at the claim that this is a ‘cult classic’ – any such cult must hold its meetings in a telephone booth. It’s mostly a melodrama: Frank Overton (Stevens) is a scientist conducting experiments in cryogenics, who has a shrewish, unfaithful and alcoholic wife (Lawrence), and a sympathetic lab assistant (Koch, best known for A Fistful of Dollars). When his wife is found shot dead, Overton has been frozen as part of an experiment. Can he be revived to assist the police with their enquiries?

Spoiler alert! That’s it. The last quarter is solely concerned with his slow resuscitation, and the film then ends, certainly ranking among the worst finishes I’ve ever seen. End spoiler. An Anglo-German co-production, it comes across as contrived, but the actors are solid; it’s the script that seems to have had no thought put into it. The problem may be that, this version appears to run about twenty minutes short, so who knows what has been cut; few films could lose 25% of their running time without pain. However, here, we’re not concerned with what might be, just what is – and that’s something tame, lacking in imagination, and not worthy of serious attention.

The Screaming Skull (1958)

Rating: C-

Dir: Alex Nicol
Star: John Hudson, Peggy Webber, Alex Nicol, Russ Conway

You have to admire any film that starts with a shot of a coffin that opens, revealing a sign saying “Reserved for YOU…”, as a voice-over promises a free funeral to anyone who dies of fright while watching the movie. I really doubt they had to pay out, but for a film with one location and a tiny cast, it remains not unwatchable. Eric (Hudson) takes emotionally-fragile, rich, second wife Jenni (Webber) back home, and keeps going on about first wife Marion, who suffered an “accident”. Inevitably, Jenni soon starts to have nightmares: is Marion’s spirit still around, or is Jenni going mad? Or is she perhaps being driven that way – and if so, who is responsible?

Three guesses there – and since there’s only four other people in the cast (including the director, who doubles as a retard gardener), it shouldn’t be hard. Webber certainly has a decent set of lungs on her, and the cast are about as effective as they are allowed to be, given it was Nicol’s first time behind the camera, and the script lurches along like a Yugo missing second gear. There is one remarkably cool moment though, where Jenni sees a skull, but another character says there’s nothing there – even though there is. This kicked off all manner of speculation about how long you could stay sane under relentless external pressure; truth be told, this side-line was rather more interesting than the movie’s climax…

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966)

Rating: B

Dir: William Beaudine
Star: John Lupton, Narda Onyx, Estelita Rodriguez, Stephen Geray

Ideally seen on a double-bill with Beaudine’s Billy the Kid versus Dracula, this entertainingly-bad B-movie is probably partly why horror-Westerns are rare. When James’ sidekick (Cal Bolder) is shot, the nearest doctor happens to be Miss Frankenstein (Onyx), though contrary to the title, she’s a grand-daughter of the monster-maker – here referred to as “Count”, not “Baron”. She’s delighted to have the sidekick, seeing him as fodder for experiments which even her brother (Geray) has qualms about. Meanwhile, local senorita Juanita (Rodriguez) has set her cap at James (Lupton), despite appearing to possess precisely one set of clothes.

This is fabulously awful; the acting runs the gamut from Onyx, who chews scenery with the vigour of a wood-chipper, through the half-decent Lupton, to Rodriguez, who redefines “bad” in a way only English-as-a-second-language actors can. [Admittedly, I doubt my dramatic talents in the Spanish language would come over any better.] There is lots to entertain here; the elegant Rasta colour scheme of the helmet used by Miss F. to make her monsters; the scarring on the head of “Igor”, which resembles a strip of Play-Doh. Jaw-dropping lines like, “Don’t do it, Maria! You are going too far – no-one should tamper with the laws of God!” The fun here just never stops: beer and mocking tone sold separately.