The explosion of DVD has proved a great boon for both consumers and canny companies like Diamond, Brentwood and Platinum. They are able to put out packages that make up for in quantity, what they lack in quality, while we are able to pick up sizeable amounts of ‘entertainment’ (quotes used advisedly), at bargain-bin prices. ‘Classics’ is, obviously, Platinum’s way of describing them, not mine – I think, however, even they would have to admit that it requires a broad, sympathetic definition of the word to encompass the titles, mostly from the public domain, released under this umbrella. But does this necessarily make them a bad thing?
My main problem is their overlapping nature: for example, Sisters of Death is also available in the Cult Horror Classics, Fright Night, Nightmares from the Crypt, Pray for Death and Tales of Terror box-sets. As these packs get more common, and bigger (the ultimate – for the moment! – are the 50 film sets in SF, horror and mystery genres, for around $30), inevitably you find you own half the films in another form. Paying $4.99 for four unseen movies is one thing; paying it for two is something else. And certainly, you get what you pay for: extra features are usually minimal and print quality varies wildly.
However, when you’re talking about a cost around one penny per minute, it seems unreasonable to quibble over trifling details. We’ve covered some of these sets individually before, but here’s our first co-ordinated look at one…
King of the Zombies (1941)
Dir: Jean Yarbrough
Star: Mantan Moreland, John Archer, Henry Victor, Dick Purcell
This was a cheap entry in the slew of walking dead films such as I Walked With a Zombie, popular in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. It’s from Monogram; a running-time measuring a brisk 67 minutes suggests a life on the bottom half of a double-bill, accompanying a more illustrious cinematic work, and little else about the film dissuades you from this impression. Three men crashland their plane on a Caribbean island, owned by mysterious ‘Austrian’, Dr. Sangre – given the date is 1941, no prizes for guessing his true sympathies. The black manservant, Jefferson (Moreland), keeps seeing zombies; he can’t get the other two to believe him, but they eventually realise the Doctor is up to no good, and discover he is using hypnotism in his evil scheme.
The script is a not-exactly slick blend of horror and comedy, though the latter aspect is lifted by Moreland’s wonderful performance, which fully lives up to lines like, “If there’s one thing I wouldn’t wanna be twice – zombies is both of ’em!” His energy and enthusiasm lights up the film, and stands out, since most of the rest of the cast appear to be played by zombies, with Archer particularly bland as the hero. However, his attempts to engage in fisticuffs with a zombie – rather than the modern practice of shooting them in the head – is naively charming. It sums up the perils and delights of these cheap box-sets: definitely no classic (though the score was Oscar-nominated!), yet still entertaining fare.
Lady Frankenstein (1971)
Dir: Mel Wells
Star: Joseph Cotten, Sara Bay, Paul Müller, Mickey Hargitay
a.k.a. La figlia di Frankenstein
Despite the great poster, this is a surprisingly ‘straight’ and largely predictable version of the Frankenstein tale: it starts in the usual fashion (bodysnatchers, lightning storm, damaged brain, rampage), and finishes there too. The only twist is in the middle, where the creature’s first victim is his creator (Cotten), and his daughter (Bay, a.k.a. Rosalba Neri), fresh out of medical school, decides it takes a monster to catch one. Her loopy scheme involves transplanting the brain from her husband’s assistant (Müller) into the sturdy-but-dumb body of their handyman, which will also give her a husband with brains and brawn. Needless to say, a local cop (Hargitay) is lurking around too, asking awkward questions.
If you suspect that this is heading towards a mob of torch-carrying villagers…you’re dead on. Bay/Neri does hold the film together, with a creepy intensity which lends her character much-needed credibility. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the monster, which resembles a bee-stung version of the Toxic Avenger more than anything else. Cotten’s career was spiralling down from Hush…Hush… Sweet Charlotte and The Third Man, but he and the rest of the cast are okay – please, no sniggering at the name of the actor playing the local graverobber: Herbert Fux. This being 1971, there is some gratuitous nudity (Chris was impressed by the size of Bay’s nipples), but apart from that and the feminist undertones, you could turn down the colour on your TV, and hey presto, welcome to the 1930’s.
The Monster Maker (1944)
Dir: Sam Newfield
Star: J. Carroll Naish, Ralph Morgan, Wanda McKay, Tala Birell
Another near-short (63 minutes), but this just doesn’t have the ‘oomph’ necessary to last the six decades since its release. A mad scientist (Naish) lusts after the daughter (McKay) of a concert pianist, who resembles his dead wife. When she spurns the conventional flowers, notes, etc., he kidnaps her father and infects him with ‘acromegaly’, a disease (actually, a disorder of the pituitary gland) for which only he has the cure. I guess it’s at least an original, if somewhat optimistic, method of wooing: “Okay, you abducted my dad, and inflicted a grossly disfiguring illness on him. Of course I’ll spend the rest of my life with you, and promise not to stab you repeatedly with a carving-knife the instant he’s well again.”
It’s all very pedestrian, and even at limited length, there’s a lot of stuff not necessary to the plot. For example, you keep waiting for the doc’s gorilla (a man in an unconvincing suit, naturally) to do something, but even when released, the expected rampage never materializes. Naish appears to be channelling Bela Lugosi, so rants, raves and is cruel to his lab assistant (Birell), who loves him anyway – and would, it seems to me, be less likely to do the carving-knife thing. Hey, who said mad scientists were logical? In a three-decade career, Newfield made, according to the IMDB, no less than 269 films, mostly quickie Westerns – but also Marijuana, the Devil’s Weed and the all-midget Terror of Tiny Town. I guess that last one was also a short film… 😉
Sisters of Death (1977)
Dir: Joseph Mazzuca
Star: Arthur Franz, Claudia Jennings, Cheri Howell, Sherry Boucher
When a sorority initiation rite goes wrong, and a recruit is killed, it’s called an accident. But seven years later, the participants are lured to a remote house, where someone wants revenge for the victim. And because the place is surrounded by a high-voltage fence, they can’t leave. Fortunately for them (you’d be hard pushed to find a more irritatingly helpless band of bimbos), the two sleazeballs who were hired to deliver them also end up inside the stockade, fair game for their hunter. Can they escape before ‘justice’ is served?
It’s a very interesting premise – an unseen hand terrorises a group of former friends, who gradually start to show their true colours under pressure – but after the electric fence is activated, all that potential evaporates like mist. The film persists on showing the tormentor from the ankles down even though we’ve never seen him before; it’s absolutely no stretch to work out who it is, however. The first death doesn’t occur until 50 minutes in, and far from building tension, they’re entirely flaccid affairs, carried out with little style or sense of menace. Even drive-in queen Claudia Jennings hardly stands out in the (remarkably tame, sex ‘n’ violence wise) proceedings, and if the ending is memorable, it’s mostly for the wrong reasons, since it makes little sense. Nice idea; shame about the execution.