It's taken me weeks - that's weeks, plural, as in pushing a full month - to trudge my way through Retromedia's three-disc, nine-movie box set "Mad Monster Rally," with each movie taking several days to complete. I thought it would be fun, a nice romp through the world of schlock, and yet these are eight pictures devoid of even the faintest So Bad They're Good quality. These movies are So Bad They're Bad. Each film is its own endurance test, and each time, I flunked out, sometimes only making it five or ten minutes before needing a quick escape and a day's rest.
The set should've been a cakewalk. It's a simple repackaging of three previously released collections. Included here are a few obscurities and some familiar titles, like the MST3K favorite "Hobgoblins" and Larry Buchanan's dreckfest "Creature of Destruction." But those movies - and many more found within - are just no fun when viewed without the company of your funniest friends and a couple pizzas; some of them, like the mind-meltingly shrill "House of Blood," are flat-out unwatchable under any circumstance.
The set simply wraps a thin cardboard slipcover around the three original keepcases. (Note: For whatever reason, "Hobgoblins" is not listed on the box set packaging, leaving the set to brag about showcasing eight, not nine, films. Whoops.) Let's take a rundown of what each disc has to offer:
Disc One: "Morella's All-Nite Spooktacular"
Who's Morella? The self-proclaimed "ghost hostess with the mostest" is another in a long line of Vampira/Elvira knockoffs, complete with black wig, ample cleavage, and an endless supply of terrible puns and lousy boob jokes. The twist here, apparently, is that the bubble-voiced Morella is a boneheaded bimbo unaware of her own stupidity - although it's not clear if the actress' wooden, stumbly line readings are part of the act. The crummy yuks are accompanied by a cheap laugh track, the obviousness of which seems to be a punchline in itself, but it's not a very good one. Maybe I've been spoiled on better horror hosts, but Morella's shtick is just plain junk.
It turns out Morella's "Graveyard Theater" isn't a full-on movie show but merely a series of two-minute introductions accessible through the DVD menu; since this was never meant for TV, the movies play out uninterrupted and unedited. Strangely, these quickie pieces - barely long enough to be worth called "episodes," although the DVD tries to convince us that's what they are - don't even mention the movies being introduced. Morella tosses out some non-specific jokes, allowing each segment to mix-and-match with whatever movie they have sitting around the office that day.
Huh? That's the whole point of the horror host game, and movie tie-in punchlines should've been a snap considering these Morella segments were produced specifically for these DVDs. But all we get are generic, interchangeable pieces filled with generic, interchangeable jokes, as Morella just tells us to enjoy "the movie." Why bother at all?
As for the features themselves, the set gets off to a questionable start with "Hobgoblins" (1988), a film that was all set to slip away into obscurity as a barely-remembered "Gremlins" knock-off, until "Mystery Science Theater 3000" revived it in a fan favorite 1998 episode. The film quickly gained a new reputation among connoisseurs of celluloid crap as one of the all-time disasters, and rightly so. There's not one aspect of this movie that isn't the Worst Thing Ever.
But here's the thing: without the "MST3K" assist, "Hobgoblins" is impossible to watch. There's nothing charming about writer/director Rick Sloane's oily failure, no sense of glorious insanity that accompanies the most charming flops, no feel of outlandish camp that comes with an over-the-top bomb. What we have instead is a loathsome, ugly, and downright dumb stab at comedy, a sort of "Ghoulies" reimagined by someone who doesn't have a single clue as to what he's doing.
The plot, for those not in the know, involves a gaggle of puppet-monsters unleashed from a movie studio vault by a hapless rookie security guard; these creatures have the ability to make your greatest fantasies come true, but the price is that the fantasies will kill you. Sloane, taking a page from the "Gremlins" comedy-horror playbook, strains to carry a winking, silly tone, but his script just isn't clever enough, and his amateurish actors just aren't talented enough, to sell the concept. (Perhaps realizing his limitations, Sloane pads the film with unerotic T&A, a device that would serve him well in a career that would eventually feature six "Vice Academy" movies.)
The movie's irony-based cult popularity eventually grew enough to convince Sloane to make a sequel, which was recently released earlier this year. Promoting that film, Sloane gave interviews in which he tried his darnedest to convince us that "Hobgoblins" is bad on purpose, that he was aiming for intentional cheese. I don't buy it for a second. There's nothing snarky or smart behind the badness of "Hobgoblins" - its terribleness is honest and open. That might make for a great two hours with Mike and the Bots, but on its own, there's just no reason to watch.
Equally unwatchable is "House of Terror" (1973), retitled here as "House of Blood." Reminiscent of such loonies-in-a-house flicks as "Don't Look in the Basement," this one is ninety minutes of non-stop shrill, with most of the pain coming from Jacquelyn Hyde's performance of a cranky, whiny, bitchy old hag who's dying of something that makes her never shut up. (Hyde also plays the woman's sister, in a double role that's meant to impress but never does.)
A totally bland young woman (Jennifer Bishop) is hired to be the hag's nurse, resulting in a long, dreadful series of scenes in which Hyde does her worst Anne Ramsey. If you can make it through the initial irritations, you'll be treated to a lifeless thriller where the nurse and her ex-con boyfriend try to steal the woman's hidden fortune. The movie aims for a sinister tone throughout, and while it most certainly achieves a sense of unpleasantness, there's nothing in the suspense itself.
Our third movie is "The Cremators" (1972), a Roger Corman-produced sci-fi thriller about a rolling fireball from outer space that turns people into body-shaped piles of ash, written and directed by Harry Essex, the former Universal workhorse whose few directorial efforts include the Mike Hammer-in-3-D opus "I, the Jury."
This should be a perfect storm of delicious cheese, and in spots there's some giddy awfulness that'll make schlock fans grin - especially since Essex seems to be going for a retro vibe here, presenting a story of space monsters and scientists that would fit right at home in the old Universal line-up of B pictures.
But it's all done so much on the cheap, and without any notable skill or interest, that the fun wears off all too quickly. The cast looks bored with the flat dialogue, the effects are half-assed and tiresomely repetitive (the same shots are used ad nauseam), and the plot is completely uninvolving, even on a camp scale. Barely tipping seventy minutes, "The Cremators" still feels far too long.
Video & Audio
All three films are presented in cruddy 1.33:1 full frame transfers, full of grain and grimy colors and soft detail. These prints are hard on the eyes. The Dolby mono soundtracks aren't much, either, just enough to get us through - although, again, we can blame the original sources. (Has "Hobgoblins" ever sounded even halfway good?) No subtitles are provided.
In addition to the three Morella introduction "episodes," we also get "original drive-in segments" for "Hobgoblins" and "The Cremators" (1:40 each; 1:33.1). Here, Retromedia honcho/B-movie legend/all-around doofus Fred Olen Ray and sidekick "Miss Kim" deliver a second set of introductions (leftovers from previous Retromedia releases), complete with standard horror host jokes and the like. The scripts are slightly better than those given to Morella, especially since these are thankfully movie-specific (they even wrangle an authentic Hobgoblin puppet for one shot), but Ray bungles the line readings and looks quite uncomfortable in front of the camera.
More impressive is an interview with "Cremators" co-star Maria de Aragon (8:22, 1.33:1), apparently shot on home video in the corner of some sci-fi convention. De Aragon briefly discusses her early film work, plus her memories of starring as Greedo in "Star Wars."
Trailers for "Hobgoblins" (2:03; 1.85:1 flat letterbox) and "The Cremators" (:50; 1.33:1) are also included.
Disc Two: "Morella's Blood Vision"
Morella returns for a second triple feature, but this time, we're only offered "episodes" for the first two of the three movies on the disc. (I'd complain about the missing third intro, but why grumble about less of a bad thing?) At least this time around, she actually talks about the features by name, even including a couple snippets of micro-trivia. Hooray for actually making sense!
First up on the disc is "I Eat Your Skin" (1970) - here rechristened "Zombies," which was the film's working title before it was picked up to be the second half of a cheapo double bill with "I Drink Your Blood." The film was produced in 1964 but went undistributed for six long years, and one look explains why: it's an utterly square attempt at early-60s hipness, with a jazzy soundtrack and a hero (William Joyce) who fancies himself a Connery-era James Bond, surrounding himself with platinum blondes.
Indeed, the only reason the guy heads off to "Voodoo Island" (really) is to get laid - his manager, who wants to visit in hopes of finding a scientist who's working on a way to turn snake venom into a cancer cure, suggests the place is loaded with native virgins who are easily wooed by a handsome chap from civilization.
Written and directed by Del Tenney (in the same year he also churned out "The Horror of Party Beach" and "The Curse of the Living Corpse"), "Skin" (or "Zombies," or whatever you want to call it) spends most of its time cooped up in the local hotel, forcing us to watch our hero macking on whatever blonde costar crosses his path. Zombies reveal themselves to be ethnic extras with faces covered in dried oatmeal; they wander about and occasionally attack, and Tenney pads the picture with a couple exploitation scenes of witch doctor rituals, and we fall asleep.
The international intrigue continues with "Blood Seekers" (1971). The film, also known under the titles "Blood Thirst," remains one of the odder chillers around, if only for its almost inexplicable tone. The film was shot in 1965 on cheap black-and-white stock, then had its scenes tinted shades of blue, sepia, etc., in an effort to hide its visual shortcomings; the story has only hints of the supernatural and spends most of its time in detective yarn territory, a tale obviously inspired by the film noir works of the previous decade. (The soundtrack lays it thick with the jazz, too.) The result is a movie released in 1971 that looks and sounds like it was made in 1952.
Robert Winston (of the epic flop "The Starfighters") stars as a "sex crimes expert" summoned to the Philippines to help investigate a string of murders. Seems somebody's been offing beautiful dames and draining their blood - could a vampire be involved?
Short answer: yes, but only if by "vampire" you mean "guy with a head made of melted caulk." Yes, the monster here is one of those poorly conceived messes, the costume consisting of a blobby, featureless mask resembling a melting ice cream cone, after which the effects crew just gave up. You're glad the film spends most of its time instead watching the hero wander around Manila, running into mob bosses and a bellydancing blonde. Granted, all of this filler is packed with limp dialogue and stiff acting, and the plot never makes a lick of sense, especially once the Aztec cult nonsense pops up.
Oh, and only after we've finally gotten used to all the plain, non-horror detective stuff, the script finally decides to pile on all the monster movie madness all at once, in a finale that apes the tone of a 1940s Universal horror flick - it's all very "mad scientist dungeon," minus the excitement.
Finally, we have "Blood Stalkers" (1978), a backwoods monster mash from writer/director Robert W. Morgan, whose only other film credit is as co-writer of the 1976 junker "The Jaws of Death." It's an odious mix of hixploitation, revenge thriller, slasher flick, and Ford administration-era bleakness. Um, fun?
Two Yankee couples roll into the Florida backwoods in their ratty Oldsmobuick. Take a good long look at their vintage 70s clothes, because they're the only enjoyable thing about the next ninety minutes - they're outlandishly dreadful, worse than anything someone trying to parody the idea of plaid pants and polyester jackets could possibly conceive.
Anyway, they're looking for a long-abandoned family cabin when they run afoul of a gang of yokels warning them about "the blood stalkers," savage creatures roaming the woods, ready to eat ya alive. The city slickers ignore the threat and drive on, which pisses off the locals enough to head out into the woods, pretend to be blood stalkers, and kill all but one of the city slickers. (Yup: the whole point of the movie is that there are no monsters, but if you laugh at a guy telling you about monsters, that guy'll kill you. Fine, whatever.)
It's a long, long time before the killings get underway, and we spend that time watching the Yankees make out, go skinny dipping, and be idiots. They occasionally hear something scary outside, but not much comes of it.
The film's handful of defenders suggest this waiting game makes the final half hour all the more worthwhile, since the change in pace and attitude comes as a shock. And while I see what Morgan was trying to do by adding some unique audio/visual flair to a stale genre, there's ultimately nothing here that makes up for the utter dullness of the first hour. In fact, most of the finale is a mess, a blend of pretentious silliness (Wilson intercuts a killing with the sights and sounds of a church choir) and rushed thrills (by wasting too much time on set-up, the third act plows by more quickly than we need to appreciate it; the murders then turn into a string of shock gore with no accompanying tension). Wilson tries a manic, gonzo approach here, but the shoddy effects and poor direction leave it merely exploitive and limp.
Had the rest of the movie worked, the downbeat finale might've been far more effective in leaving us unsettled. (Spoiler alert: Leading man Kenny Miller, having watched all his friends die gruesomely, slaughters all the locals, then staggers, dazed and silent, out of town on foot during a long, quiet series of final shots.) Standing alone, this sequence has some power to it. But as part of the movie, it's just feels like Morgan's rubbing it in by leaving us with one more ridiculously overlong sequence.
Video & Audio
"I Eat Your Skin" is presented in full 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, a treat for fans who've had to deal with full screen prints for years. The transfer features some nice detail, about as good as a low budget flick like this can provide. "Blood Seekers" also looks decent in its 1.33:1 full frame transfer, again with unexpectedly decent detail. "Blood Stalkers" gets the 1.85:1 flat letterbox treatment, coming from a dirty print with muddy colors; the image is soft and ugly all around.
All three films feature a Dolby mono soundtrack. Dialogue is clear enough, if a bit uneven, in the first two features, likely resulting from iffy source material, while the sound on "Blood Seekers" is at times distractingly fuzzy. No subtitles are provided.
The only extras here are the two "Graveyard Theater" intros (1:50 each; 1.33:1) The cover art lists a trailer for "Blood of the Man Devil" as a bonus, but it's not on the disc.
Disc Three: "Sci-Fi Trash-O-Rama"
Morella is mercifully absent from the final disc, but that doesn't help things much. We start off with "Creature of Destruction" (1967), an utterly bizarre and amusingly chintzy remake of the 1956 "The She-Creature" that would almost be interesting if not for Buchanan's directorial incompetence. "Creature" was one of several rush-job remakes churned out by AIP in the late 1960s when the studio realized they were a few movies short of a package deal for television distribution; Buchanan and screenwriter Tony Huston were called in to rework a few of their lesser properties into even cheaper works, creating a smudgy, useless copy of something you barely wanted the first time.
Whatever charm and verve "The She-Creature" might have had are gone in this redo. The story's the same: a stage show psychic (radio and voice over vet Les Tremayne) hypnotizes his assistant (Pat Delaney) into remembering past lives; along the way, her ancient, "primal" psychic self materializes in the form of a two dollar fish man costume with ping pong ball eyes.
Tremayne is the film's saving grace, in that he makes a handful of scenes tolerable with his restrained, classy presence. It's not much, considering how horrid everything else here gets, but still, a couple minutes with a pro like this giving a pinch of sincerity to a throwaway project helps plenty. Buchanan must have sensed this, as he grants ample screen time to the vet; there's a decent amount of time in the middle section of the story where the script forgets about the monster and focuses on Tremayne's character and his schemes, and it's better than anything a dime store costume and badly framed fright sequences can offer.
With a mere twelve-and-a-half minute run time, our second movie, "The Flying Saucer Mystery" (1950), hardly qualifies as a feature, and Retromedia's billing of it as such is highly questionable. The short is a pseudo-documentary cashing in on the UFO craze of the time, passing itself off as reputable research when it's really just a series of interviews with dingbat "witnesses" and stern "experts" eager to discuss little green men and their spaceships. As a time capsule, it's interesting enough, nicely capturing the early days of the flying saucer fad, but as a movie (even if you agree to laugh off all those dubious claims), it's a cheapskate shambles.
Flip the disc over to get to a (slightly) more interesting take on this flying saucer business. "UFO: Target Earth" (1974) isn't a very good movie, but it's sorta fascinating in spots, with a relentlessly eerie mood. The psychedelic opening credits and hippy-dippy theme song set the stage for a new Age drama most certainly of its time - with such a peculiar tone, it'd work well as a companion piece to "Chariots of the Gods," "In Search Of," and those "Mysteries of the Unknown" books from Time-Life.
The story finds electronics expert Alan (Nick Plakias) stumbling into an investigation of aliens and their visits to Earth. He discovers Vivian (Cynthia Cline), a woman with some sort of psychic sensitivity to alien signals, which seem to be originating nearby.
Most of the film is peppered with dopey interviews with locals eager to discuss their close encounters, and the whole thing leads up to a dopier "2001" wannabe lightshow, but the tone remains consistently mysterious, never allowing the viewer to find comfortable footing with the material. There's a sequence where Vivian endures one of her psychic freak-outs, and it's rather unsettling. Earlier, a bit of dialogue between Alan and an astronomer on the likelihood of alien visitors adds a pinch of intelligence to the proceedings.
Ah, but the film is also undone by later scenes that fail to keep up the ominous tone, as it becomes clear writer/director Michael A. DeGaetano is struggling to make his few effects sequences work. DeGaetano certainly isn't up to the challenge - in a movie filled with cruddy dubbing issues and slapdash camera work, the filmmaker isn't able to turn a couple shots of light-and-color trickery into the spectacular finale he thinks he's making. (The clumsy acting doesn't help much, either.)
The film builds up enough goodwill in its early scenes to keep us watching as it deteriorates, and its efforts to tell a brainy alien tale are commendable. But you can't deny the overall cheapness and eventual silliness of the project, and this box set ends as it began, with a dud.
Video & Audio
Again, all three features are presented in 1.33:1 full frame, with all the problems that come from no-budget sources. Colors are muted, dirt covers the prints, and "UFO: Target Earth" looks like it was filmed through a coffee filter. (It also looks like "UFO: Target Earth" was supposed to be matted to widescreen; one full screen shot reveals a boom mic so obvious, it'll leave you giggling.)
The issues with the Dolby mono soundtracks come squarely from dealing with movies that relied heavily on clumsy recording and clumsier re-dubbing. No subtitles are provided.
Since they're not counting "Flying Saucer Mystery" as an extra, the lone bonus here is a tiny set of black-and-white retro commercials (2:58; 1.33:1) for old school sci-fi toys "Great Garloo," "Robot Commando," and "King Zor."
Lousy movies, lousy transfers, lousy extras. Unless you're really hard up for your next bad movie marathon or want to be thoroughly, utterly, completely defeated, you should definitely Skip It.