Retromedia has collected a quartet of underseen classic thrillers onto a bargain set they're calling "Forgotten Terrors." The title is just about right - I haven't heard of, let alone seen, any of these movies before. Chances are good you haven't either, although looking at these iffy B entries, it's easy to see why they'd gotten lost to time. While it's nice to see something other than the usual line-up of familiar public domain titles, these aren't exactly the best alternatives out there.
Curiously, only one of the four features is a straight-up horror film. The rest are mystery-thrillers. The artwork, then, which features an axe poised to strike and a giant spider eager to feast, is both misleading and pointless.
Dead Men Walk
Character actor George Zucco lands the starring role in the "Dead Men Walk" (1943), a poverty row quickie from prolific director Sam Newfield, writer Fred Myton, and B movie experts PRC. The film is a mish-mash, combining elements of "Dracula" (or, more appropriately, rip-offs of "Dracula") with black magic thrillers; the film is weak on both ends, making the combination rather shaky.
Zucco plays a double role, as that of respected doctor Lloyd Clayton and his demented brother Elwyn, a dabbler in the dark arts. It seems that Lloyd has killed Elwyn, but Elwyn isn't staying dead; his magic skills have turned him into a vampire (don't ask), and he's rising nightly to drain the life out of the lovely Gayle (Mary Carlisle), leaving only the tell-tale double puncture marks behind. Meanwhile, Dwight Frye, perhaps longing to once again play the demented assistant, pops up as Zolarr, a character who is pretty much Renfield, only without any of the creepiness or cleverness.
The film has its moments - the sight of Zucco emerging from his grave is effective, and occasional bits of dialogue like "You'll pray for death long before you die" work well in setting the mood. But it all fizzles under lackluster direction, a story that drags, and a conflict that ultimately just isn't that interesting, let alone frightening. It's more a curiosity piece than anything else, and not a very successful one at that.
Unquestionably the oddest title in this set, "The Intruder" (1932) manages to cram in a murder mystery, a shipwreck, and jungle adventure into its brief running time. It's an absolute mess of a film, but it's so far out there that at times it becomes impossible to turn away.
The set-up is promising: a valet is murdered aboard a luxury liner, and a detective (Monte Blue) is on the case. But then the ship crashes, and all the suspects wash up on the shore of an uncharted desert isle. Working for survival is one thing, but that detective sure isn't about to let the case drop just because they've been marooned. Did I mention the wild, screeching jungle man (Mischa Auer, of all people) wandering the woods, the skeleton of his beloved Mary still hanging out in his hut? How about the deadly gorilla, which looks suspiciously like a dude in a cheap gorilla suit?
The wrap-around mystery portions are interesting enough; it's a great opening, and the revelation at the end is nifty enough to pay off. But the insanity that comes in between, well, it goes beyond crazy and reaches that special realm of ridiculousness reserved for only the most ill-conceived of stories. By the time Auer shows up in his Cast Away garb, yelling his Tarzan call, we know there's no turning back.
A major improvement over the rest of this set, "Tangled Destinies" (1932) is an enjoyable, straightforward mystery. When a plane makes an emergency landing during a storm, the crew and passengers find refuge in a nearby mansion. Then somebody winds up dead, and it's up to the dutiful hero to solve the crime. Somebody's been reading their Agatha Christie.
It's the simplicity of the piece that makes it work. We meet the characters, we get the murder, we discover that plenty of people have a good secret or two, we uncover a few clues, we solve the crime, we call it a night. Director Frank Strayer (who would go on to helm twelve Blondie movies) keeps everything moving briskly, and the script (credited to "House of Dracula" scribe Edward T. Lowe, Jr.) is only interested in getting us right to the point. The characters are lively and interesting, so even the down time before the mystery gets rolling is watchable.
Only a bit of dated racism involving a Chinese servant spoils the mood - but even then, the character becomes a hero of sorts, and it's the racism of other characters that's painted in a bad light.
A brilliant opening sequence is not enough to save "The Phantom" (1931) from utter boredom. The movie kicks off with a daring prison break, highlighted by a jump onto a speeding train and a rescue by airplane - an impressive, Jackie Chan-worthy stunt that grabs our full attention.
That attention doesn't last long, however. We then move on to some bland "old dark house" stuff, with the escaped convict (a master criminal calling himself the Phantom) threatening to kill the man who sent him to prison (Wilfred Lucas). There's another escape, this one leading all the characters inexplicably to an insane asylum, but the atmosphere of an old timey nut house isn't nearly enough to provide any real thrills.
I'll give the film credit for effort, however, as it seems to be eager to try anything to get a chill going. Heck, we even get some sidekick to the Phantom, a mangled killer called "the Thing," and although he's about as threatening as Hello Kitty, you can't blame the filmmakers for wanting to cram in as much as they could into as limited a running time.
The main problem is that this film, coming in the early years of sound, is particularly clunky. Action scenes, obviously influenced by the silent days, work fine, but sound scenes become staged and rusty, with writer/director Alan James seemingly uncomfortable with the talkie format. The result is a major snooze that not even the Thing could fix.
This set places all four films onto one double-sided disc, with two movies on each side. Although that's not really bad, considering each movie runs around the one hour mark, so there's no real cramming involved.
"Forgotten" is definitely the key word here, as Retromedia is working from prints that haven't been touched in decades. All four movies are scratched and messy, images washed out beyond their limits, other scenes too dark to be watchable. "Dead Men Walk," the youngest of the four features, is the best looking, but even that one has some major print damage issues. All four films are tolerable, and considering their age and low totem pole status, it's understandable that these wouldn't be in the best condition… but it's also regrettable that this is all we get.
All four films are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios. "The Intruder" is presented in a windowbox format, in an attempt to curb overscanning. (And even then, it looks like we're still missing a smidge of visual information around the edges, especially at the top. Not enough to harm the film, but enough to be noticeable during the credits and a few of the more tightly shot scenes.)
Like the video, the mono soundtracks leave quite a bit to be desired. Again, "Dead Men Walk" is the cleanest of the group (reasonable, as by 1943, sound recording had evolved significantly). The others are loaded with hiss and pops that have gotten worse over time - which then only amplifies the problems of early sound era recording. No subtitles are provided.
None, although in a nice touch, each film is preceded by a short (five to ten seconds tops) retro "feature presentation" clip.
The strength of "Tangled Destinies" is enough for me to grant this disc a Rent It recommendation - you can watch that one and ignore the other three. Fans of classic cinema, especially that of the B variety, might find some interest in the other titles, but not enough to make this worth owning. The crummy audio and video presentation only seals its fate.