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Fear Chamber

Elite // Unrated // December 13, 2005
List Price: $9.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 9, 2005 | E-mail the Author
Fear Chamber is probably best remembered for...well, it's really not remembered by anyone, anywhere, although I guess it's notable for being one of Boris Karloff's last movies, and it was written, produced, and partially directed by Jack Hill a few years before he made Pam Grier a kinda-sorta-household name in movies like Coffy and Foxy Brown.

Karloff stars as a bed-and-occasionally-chair-ridden scientist too weak to venture out into the field, so he has his daughter and her lover descend deep into the earth. They stumble upon a sentient rock who coos like a cross between someone twirling a bunch of knobs on a Moog synthesizer and a sixteen year old dog repeatedly being kicked in the stomach. They study this mysterious rock over the months that follow, discovering that it's able to interface with their bank of computers and transmit data. They can't figure out what it's trying to communicate, exactly, but they know that the rock feeds on human terror (y'know, chemically). Thankfully, the good doctor has a handy fear chamber on-site where they bring women to the brink of madness by feigning Satanic sacrifices, take blood samples from their unconscious victims, and...I don't really know what happens to them from there. But anyway, the rock needs more and more of the stuff, and when it evolves to be able to feed itself, the project is terminated. A deranged psychologist and a mildly retarded doctor who really likes diamonds are enthralled by the rock's seductive power and carry on their work in secret, culminating in...well, the same stuff that happens in every '60s sci-fi flick.

The first few minutes of Fear Chamber are amazing. The movie kicks off with two scientists in a basement set that uses a red light to help pass for a subterranean cavern, and they spout off some of the most hyper-expository dialogue ever committed to film. From there, it incoherently flashes forward to the first (and only on-screen) victim of the fear chamber, which is kind of like the Jaycee's haunted house at the Upstate Fair, only even lower-rent. Tentacles barely moved with rods, paper maché skeletons, crappy proto-"Sledgehammer" stop-motion, bizarre intercut slapping, a midget and a scarred ex-con with a turban...the works.

From there, though, it's just lots and lots of talking. Fear Chamber tries to toss in some PG-rated exploitation, with plain-bordering-on-unattractive women stripping down to their skivvies, often with no explanation, and a mostly-bloodless body count. I kinda like the core of the story, to be honest, but the execution is pretty lousy, and as incoherent as the movie gets, there's nothing that matches the ridiculousness of the first reel or two. Fear Chamber might be more tolerable with a six pack and a couple of friends for some homebrew MST-ing, but the movie isn't bad enough and definitely isn't good enough to really recommend.

Video: The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen video looks about like what you'd expect from a no-budget movie shot in Mexico that wound up on a $6 DVD thirty-five years later -- baffling framing, wonky contrast, smeary colors, soft, grainy, kinda jittery, some artifacting... I doubt Fear Chamber ever looked all that much better than this, and I think this is one of those cases where a not-so-hot transfer winds up being a good match for such a trashy movie. Sometimes a glossy, pristine, suitable-fer-framing image doesn't fit. Pretty much exactly what I was expecting, so I'd be lying if I pretended to be disappointed.

Audio: Fear Chamber sports a 448Kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 remix that sounds...well, strikingly like a mediocre vintage-schlock mono track that kinda leaks into different channels but mostly sticks front and center. No shimmering highs or thunderous lows, and the muffled dialogue and some of the thick accents can be tough to make out at times, but it's listenable. There's a stereo mix too, but alas, no subtitles or closed captions.

Supplements: Writer/producer/uncredited-partial-director Jack Hill contributes an audio commentary. Hill notes that this was one of four Mexican horror movies that Karloff shot back-to-back on a stage in Hollywood in 1968 while dying of emphysema. His parts for all four movies were shot over the course of three weeks, and then the crew and the rest of the cast would head
"Diamonds! Diamonds! I love diamonds! King of the world! Diamonds!"
back to Mexico City to finish 'em. Hill's not overly enthusiastic about most of these movies, but he thought Fear Chamber turned out alright, at least by comparison.

His commentary spends a lot of time talking about the difficulties encountered in making these movies, from casting headaches to seeing large chunks of his scripts discarded. Hill also comments on some of the tricks he used to get the most out of a threadbare budget and points out things like the fake-looking skeleton that really is a former Mexican. Later on, he weaves a bunch of stories about his early days working with Roger Corman and Francis Ford Coppola. Hill isn't extremely talkative, and the lengthy gaps between his comments make me think that an interview might've been a better idea than a commentary. Still, it's a very interesting discussion and definitely elevates this DVD beyond bargain bin filler.

Also included is a six-minute windowboxed extended take of an inexplicable strip tease, ditching the 'tease' part and showing some actual titties. The DVD includes a set of static 4x3 menus that show off the movie's fantastic poster art, and the disc comes packaged in a keepcase with no insert.

Conclusion: Fear Chamber is already available on DVD from a couple of different DVD houses, but Elite's disc not only undercuts 'em in terms of price -- one online store carries it for under $6 -- it trounces 'em with a pretty decent selection of extras, especially considering the movie's age and obscurity. Unfortunately, Fear Chamber isn't a winner even by campy, schlocky standards, so six bucks is still too much. Skip It.
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