Criterion continues to release a wide range (some would say eclectic)
of quality films often restored. One of their latest releases is
a set of four sci-fi and horror films from the 1950's, Monsters and
Madmen. Consisting of a quartet of films produced by Richard
and Alex Gordon, these are all low budget efforts to be sure, but each
of them manages to raise above their poverty row origins. The first
two are horror films, The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of
Blood which star Boris Karloff, and the second pair are SF films The
First Man into Space and The Atomic Submarine. While none
of these can be considered classics of the genres, they are all good examples
of just would could be accomplished on a shoe string budget with a little
The Haunted Strangler (1958):
Rankin (Boris Karloff) is a novelist in 1880's London researching the case
of the Haymarket Strangler. Twenty years earlier a man named Styles
was executed as the Strangler but Rankin thinks that the evidence was flimsy
and that if the man had a lawyer to represent him, he would have been acquitted.
Against the protests of him loving wife Barbara (Elizabeth Allan), the
Rankin investigates a theory of his: that the real murderer was actually
the doctor who performed the autopsies on the victims: Dr. Tenant.
He follows Tenant's trail after the accused murdered was hanged, but loses
him after he was admitted to a hospital and disappears. Rankin does
discover Tenant's belonging that he left at the hospital including his
medical kit that is missing the scalpel, a weapon that could have been
used by the Strangler. Becoming obsessed with finding the scalpel,
Rankin digs up Styles grave in the dead of the night and discovers the
weapon. When he does, the killings start again.
This was an effective film that works very well. Director Robert
Day, despite working with a tight budget, manages to create a realistic
feeling 19th century London and a gives the film a lot of atmosphere, especially
in the second half. The scene where Karloff digs up Styles grave
is eerie though it was obviously done on a set, and the parts where Karloff
stalks the dancers at a night club had a fair amount of suspense.
The main thing that the film has going for it is the strong script.
The story is well plotted with a few surprising twists that make it fun
to watch. Though the romantic sub-plot between Rankin's daughter
and his assistant seems extraneous, it doesn't take up as much time as
it could have.
Another aspect that has to be mentioned is the wonderful job Karloff
did as the monster. Instead of using makeup, Karloff removed his
dentures, distorted his face, and turned his left hand into a claw.
Though it many sound lame, his transformation was very effective and made
the film seem even more creepy because of the lack of fake looking appliances.
Corridors of Blood (filmed 1959):
Thomas Bolton (Boris Karloff) is one of the best surgeons in 1840's London.
Not because of his diagnostic skills or because of his steady hand with
a blade, but because he's the fastest. In this day before anesthetic,
an operation was accomplished by having several burly men hold the patient
down while the doctor sawed through a diseased arm or leg as fast as he
could. The pain was unimaginable and many patients went into shock
and never recovered.
Going against popular opinion, Bolton is looking for a way to separate
"pain and the knife." He's sure that he can come up with a gaseous
substance that will dull the pain and remove the trauma of surgery.
To achieve this end, he experiments on himself at night, administering
different drugs in the hopes of discovering an anesthetic. Ridiculed
by his coworkers, he becomes a driven man who eventually becomes addicted
to the drugs he's using.
Despite the title, this wasn't a horror movie; it's more of a heavily
fictionalized history of the discovery of ether. There really isn't
much that is scary or horrific aside from a couple of scenes in the operating
room. Even the sub-plot involving an inn owner who, along with an accomplice
(played by Christopher Lee) cons Bolton into signing death certificates
of men they have murdered in order to sell the cadavers to the local medical
school fails to give the film much of a chill.
The movie also drags a bit. Thought Karloff does an excellent
job as the noble but misguided doctor, the plot doesn't actually gallop
along. Christopher Lee is menacing as the cold blooded murderer and
the scenes that the two horror greats have together are fun to watch.
Director Robert Day does an excellent job once again of recreating 19th
century London. The sets are realistic looking (though I'd imagine
that there'd be a lot more excrement in the streets) and that helps create
the atmosphere of the film. While this is more historical drama than
horror film, the movie does have enough to recommend it.
The First Man in Space (1959):
ho air force test pilot Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards) likes to fly high and
fast and hates to take orders, especially from his commanding officer who
also happens to be his brother Charles (Marshall Thompson). When
Dan is given the chance to test a new plane he breaks with protocol and
takes the plane up higher than he should...so high that he actually reaches
outer space. Unfortunately his plane runs into a meteor storm and
crashes to earth. When the wreckage is discovered, there's no sign
of Dan and he's presumed dead. Soon a string of murders start with
the victims having their blood drained from them and a mysterious residue
left at the murder scenes, the same residue that was found encrusted on
Dan's ship. Charles realizes that his brother has changed, and vows
to track him down.
This was a fairly typical monster movie from the 50's that rises over
the others due to some creative use of stock footage. They
bought some film that was taken by rockets in the upper atmosphere and
superimposed a cockpit over it. This makes the flying scenes look
particularly impressive and realistic and makes the film feel much more
expensive that it really is. The monster makeup was adequate, creating
a plausible (well, sort of) creature that looked creepy while not betraying
its human origins.
The movie was hampered by a pretty hokey script with some absurd dialog.
One of the most idiot scenes involve a Mexican diplomat who complains to
the Air Force officials about the wayward US missiles that are falling
on his country. Doctor Who fans will recognize Roger Delgado who
was the first to play The Master as the delegate who is basically blown
off by the people he's talking to.
The Atomic Submarine (1959):
set concludes with the best movie, The Atomic Submarine. In
this futuristic drama commerce and travel between hemispheres is accomplished
by submarine, with a popular sub-sea route passing right over the North
Pole. When subs start to disappear, the government assigns the Tiger
Shark, one of the newest nuclear subs, to hunt down the parties responsible.
Arriving at the pole, the Tiger Shark discovers an alien space ship,
and tries to hunt it down. They play a game of cat and mouse for
a while until one of the on board scientists discovers a pattern to the
attacks; after each attack the extraterrestrial ship returns to the North
Pole to 'recharge.' The Tiger Shark waits in ambush and attacks,
but has little success fighting the alien menace until the commander gives
the order to ram. The sub hits the space vessel but becomes entangled
and a crew of officers has to enter the space ship to free the Tiger Shark.
Despite wooden acting and some ridiculous dialog, this was an intriguing
and fun film. The fact that the story takes place underwater is unique
in the alien menace genre (well, in the 50's at least) and makes the film
stand out from the crowd. The films strength is in the way they stretched
their small budget when coming up with the interior for the alien craft.
Instead of building elaborate sets that would have looked a bit hokey,
the creators took a minimalist approach. The alien ship is cavernous
and black, with walkways leading to more empty spaces. The alien
itself, when it's finally revealed, is startling and creative and works
very well. Though the plot is similar to countless other alien invasion
films of the time, this one has enough new and creative twists to make
it seem new and different.
The mono audio track that accompanied these four films has been restored
and sounded very good. Typical audio defects that typically plague
films of this age are either very minor or nonexistent. There is
no hum or background hiss, and the range is adequate though not incredibly
wide. The dialog is easy to hear and the background music is strong
without being overwhelming.
All four films are presented with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which Criterion
claims is how the films were originally displayed. DVDTalk reviewer
Glenn Erickson in his review of the set correctly asserts that most films
by this time were framed at 1.66:1. My own research couldn't determine
for sure how these films were shown theatrically, though I did think that
images were a little tight, especially on the Karloff films.
Aside from that possible flaw, these films look great. The black
and white images are crisp and clear with a good amount of detail.
The blacks were solid and the range of grey shades was wide and appropriate.
On the digital side things look just as good. Aliasing and other
compression artifacts were nonexistent. This is a wonderful looking
set of films.
Each film comes with a good selection of bonus items. There is
a commentary track with the ever knowledgeable Tom Weaver who has written
extensively on this period of film and producer Richard Gordon. These
tracks are informative and enjoyable and though a couple drag in places
they are well worth listening to.
Every film also has a short (about 10 minute) featurette where the cast
and director (of three of the films) Robert Day reminisce about the movie.
These were fun, and everyone who worked with Boris Karloff has nice things
to say about him.
There are trailers for all of the films and often radio commercials
touting the movie as well as still galleries. A nicely produced package.
While these are not the best films Criterion has ever released, all
four are above average examples of low budget 50's SF and horror movies.
Entertaining and fun these pictures use imagination and creativity to overcome
their meager budgets and are well worth watching. Criterion has done
a wonderful job restoring these films, they look much better than one would
expect. Fans of the genre should run out and pick up this excellent
set. Highly Recommended.