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DVD SAVANT

Legend Horror and Sci-fi, Now in Color for the First Time!
Devil Bat, Phantom from Space,
Bride of the Monster, Creature from the Haunted Sea,
Phantom Planet, The Last Man on Earth


Legend
B&W & Colorized / Street Date October 21, 2008 / 14.98 and 9.95
Starring Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, Anthony Carbone, Betsy Jones-Moreland, Colleen Gray, and, uh, other actors.
Cinematography yes, definitely
Directed by Roger Corman, Sidney Salkow, Edward D. Wood Jr., William Marshall, Jean Yarbrough, W. Lee Wilder

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Legend Films DVD label is releasing six separate Public Domain titles, all likely Halloween candidates and a couple not available in decent DVD versions, at least not that this reviewer has yet come across. Public Domain titles usually circulate on VHS, DVD-R and even on the web in pretty mangled copies. They can be derived from television broadcasts, 16mm prints, or expensive transfers financed by other companies. In one case, it seemed that every time a particular P.D. distributor released a DVD, another particular P.D. distributor would duplicate it, slap on its own ownership bug and undercut their competitor's price! (All company names omitted to protect, um, to protect ... Me!)

Most of Legend's releases better or at least equal the quality of earlier editions, and clearly come from very good elements. New copyright disclaimers appear on most of the discs, which raises the issue of what is and isn't P.D. beyond this reviewer's sphere of knowledge. Legend's website promotes its colorization process as a way of adding value to video libraries, and it stands to reason that an old movie colorized might be eligible for a new copyright. But the FBI disclaimers are on the B&W versions as well ...

Savant has gotten over his outraged attitude of a couple of seasons back, at which time I hoped that colorization, a technique that appeared with the earliest home video releases, had breathed its last gasp. If I tell myself that colorized movies are a novelty, sort of "moving tinted lobby cards" my blood pressure stays where it should. At any rate, Legend consistently includes a good B&W encoding for elitist cranks, I mean, concerned film historians like Savant. In fact, I specifically asked to review these titles because I had never seen a watchable version of one of them. Legend came through with a good copy.

The titles are from all over the map, source-wise, with the one common denominator their Public Domain status.

1941's The Devil Bat (14.95) is a little gem from the poverty row storefront studio Producer's Releasing Corporation. Bela Lugosi is charmingly fruity as the diabolical doctor Carruthers, a vengeful madman who uses electricity to produce giant bats, and then sends them out to kill using his "new aftershave lotion" to mark his victims. The preposterous story is great fun, as Lugosi bumbles in his secret lab and makes ironic comments to the young men slapping his lotion on their necks: "Over the jugular, please!" Carruthers seeks to eliminate his employers at a cosmetics company, the same folks who give him a $5,000 bonus check. A reporter and his sidekick take on the job of tracking down the monster bat; Yolande Donlan (Director Val Guest's longtime spouse) is a saucy French maid. But the show is Lugosi's all the way.

Legend's copy is impressive almost all the way through, and comes complete with logos and fade-out intact, something not to be taken for granted in P.D. releases. Only a few minutes exhibit a jump in contrast and grain, and it isn't very severe. The Devil Bat once played constantly on TV but since the onset of Home Video has appeared in increasingly worse copies. I frankly don't know if this one is actually the best.  1

Phantom from Space (9.95) leaps ahead twelve years to the anemic cinema output of W. Lee Wilder, Billy Wilder's prolific but talent-challenged brother. After a couple of uninspired potboilers in the late 1940s (The Pretender is actually a good movie), Wilder hit his groove of incompetence with this no-budget wonder concerning the saddest space invader on record. Early Warning Radar stock footage accompanies at least a reel of shots of a Federal Communications Commission radio direction vehicle (with the word "Federal" taped over) driving up and down the same stretch of Griffith Park roadway. Endless talky scenes alternate with the entire cast of 6 running back and forth in the old interior of the Griffith Planetarium. The poor invader is a bald muscle beach type in a radioactive space suit and a helmet that appears to be the same prop from Robot Monster, somewhat altered. Invisible when naked, the alien tries to communicate and asphyxiates when his breathing supply runs out.

Phantom from Space seems to be everywhere, in good copies and bad. Legend's looks great, with good blacks. If you're a Science Fiction completist looking for a decent copy, this one is fine.

Fans of Tim Burton's Ed Wood will be dumbfounded at the "world's worst director's" Bride of the Monster (14.95), the 1955 release filmed under the more reasonable title, Bride of the Atom. A physically diminished Bela Lugosi is joined by Wood's horror "find" Tor Johnson, a beefy Swedish wrestler, for a movie too endearing to hate. Even with the occasional competent actor like Harvey B. Dunn (who comes with his talented parrot!) nearly every dialogue exchange is an embarrassment and every camera setup somehow "wrong." But Bela is better than okay, rising to the demands of the awful script and doing his best for his buddy Ed. He cranks up the energy for Doctor Vornoff's famed speeches -- "Home? I have no home!" and "I will build race of atomic supermen!" Then there's the moment in which Vornoff uses a doctor's stethoscope to listen to a man's heart ... and his head ... and his wrists .... And don't forget the rubber octopus ...

Although Image has some good source material on this title, Legend's Bride of the Monster is the best I've seen. Even if the scenes aren't quite as incompetent as pictured in Ed Wood, they're still a revelation.

The prize title here is 1961's Creature from the Haunted Sea (9.95), one of Roger Corman's Filmgroup productions that he was apparently too cheap to register with the Library of Congress. Jammed together with two other productions on a Puerto Rican shoot organized to sidestep Hollywood's new Screen Actor's Guild rules, Creature from the Haunted Sea is a minor gem. Charles B. Griffith's amusing script ribs Humphrey Bogart, To Have and Have Not and the Fidel Castro revolution. Anthony Carbone, Betsy Jones-Moreland and Robert Towne have fun with characters right out of a Mad Magazine parody, but Corman's production is just too damn cheap and hurried to develop Griffith's scattershot satires, such as an elaborate takeoff on South Pacific's "Younger Than Springtime" romance. Likewise, Corman is too rushed to catch most of Carbone's good Bogie impressions, or to exploit Towne and Jones-Moreland's "get away creep" Harvey Kurtzman-style relationship.

In a nutshell, a Mafia gunrunner helps some Battista generals abscond with a third of the Cuban treasury, and invents a fake sea monster to aid in eliminating them one by one. Of course, the boat runs afoul of a real monster -- one of the silliest ever filmed -- and the whole cast ends up in the drink.

This is one title that Savant has never until now seen all the way through, due to miserable video versions. The flat image (which could have benefited from a 1:66 transfer) looks very good, even seeing into the facial shadows of Jacques Marquette's no-frills, no lights camerawork. The soundtrack isn't great -- we can tell that a lot of work has been done on it -- but the movie is finally watchable. This transfer completely outclasses Retromedia's effort from two years ago.

At age nine, I thought The Phantom Planet (9.95) was pretty cool, an opinion I've definitely outgrown. It must be the tenth Sci-Fi or fantasy picture of the time featuring a futuristic civilization ruled by a dotard with a sexy daughter and a jealous, conspiratorial young henchmen, who usually wears a skirt. After an interminable first reel in a spaceship cockpit, astronaut Dean Fredericks crash-lands on a small asteroid, where he shrinks to Robert Scott Carey proportions. The tiny kingdom is waging a This Island Earth- like war with attacking spaceships. Instead of a Metaluna Mutant, we're given a pathetic dog-like rubber creation that, as a child, I don't remember looking so foolish. What happened to the ferocious beast of my faulty memory? The film plays for laughs and is a waste of time for good actors like Francis X. Bushman and Coleen Gray.

The Phantom Planet is available almost everywhere in transfers as good as this one; it too would have been improved by an enhanced widescreen transfer. Right now, the only curiosity about this show is finding out if it was the source of the space shots in the grindhouse movie theater scene in John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy ... they look very similar.

1964's The Last Man on Earth (14.95) exists as a fine MGM disc that I have reviewed elsewhere; it's an "almost classic" that can boast an unusual performance from Vincent Price.

In all fairness, Legend's transfer looks good. The box claims a 1.33 flat aspect ratio, proudly calling it an "Original Full Frame Edition." That's entirely wrong in more than one sense, because the film was originally anamorphic, and both the flat and colorized versions on the disc are enhanced widescreen, just like the earlier MGM copy! Of course, the best deal for this title is still MGM's earlier Combo disc with the exciting Panic in Year Zero! According to Amazon, it is still in circulation.


Legend's six releases are just in time for Halloween; fantastic film freaks with a taste for the amusing fringes of the genre will definitely welcome some of them. Bride of the Monster comes with a short, battered 1950 interview with Lugosi on a boat deck; because of the mouthy host, Bela gets few words in edgeways. Also included is an un-attributed sequence from what looks to be a Pippi Longstocking TV show (?) with circus strongman Tor Johnson defeated by the pig-tailed brat. Bridehas a misleading but interestingly designed cover illustration, that re-cycles the same Lugosi close-up from the cover of The Devil Bat. A TV episode from a Vincent Price show called It Happened in Hollywood appears as an extra on The Last Man on Earth. The great transfer shows Price touring a western back lot and using a Movieola to review old film footage of stunts and western stars -- the show simply raids old feature stock footage libraries!

The credit blocks on the disc boxes integrate Legend personnel with the original makers of the movie, a particularly annoying display of hubris. On Creature from the Haunted Sea Betsy-Jones Moreland is erroneously credited by her character name Betsy Belle Monahan, and The Last Man on Earth lists Ubaldo Ragona as the director, even though that name is mentioned only in reference books as the film's credited Italian director. As you can see, most of the photo-shopped cover artwork is fairly attractive.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Legend Horror and Sci Fi (Separate releases) rates:
Movie: The Devil Bat: Good, Phantom from Space: Fair --, Bride of the Monster: Good, Creature from the Haunted Sea: Good, The Phantom Planet: Fair, The Last Man on Earth: Very Good
Video: Basically good throughout, original B&W
Sound: Good
Packaging: Keep cases
Reviewed: October 14, 2008

Footnotes:

1. Legend's disc probably IS the best quality ever for The Devil Bat. I asked correspondent and film preservationist Bob Furmanek about the source elements for Legend's superior copy:

Hi Glenn. Regarding Legend; yes, I did provide the film elements for The Devil Bat. Around eighteen years ago I located a 35mm dupe nitrate picture negative and separate track negative. They were created in the late 1940's for a theatrical re-issue by Astor. The materials were in excellent shape but reel three of the picture negative was missing. I created a new composite, preservation 35mm wet gate positive print and utilized that element for a laser disc release through Lumivision. (It was the first time that 35mm elements on the film had been utilized for any distribution since the late 40's theatrical re-issue.) I was never able to locate the original camera negative and doubt that it survives today.

To fill in the missing reel three for the transfer, I used a mint condition 16mm print for the picture and matched it to the 35mm track. Unfortunately, my transfer was copied over and over again by various companies that specialize in public domain films. Much to my regret, I received no credit or compensation for these un-authorized copies of my work.

For this Legend release, I provided all of my original 35mm and 16mm film materials for a new digital transfer. Legend was able to do much more with Digital Noise Reduction than I could afford for the laser disc release, so it will look much cleaner. (The dupe nitrate negative was created dry and had quite a bit of printed in dirt and artifacts. Wet gate printing did not exist in the 1940's.) I had no input on the colorization, but I did mention that Bela had blue eyes!

I hope this information is useful. Best, Bob
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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