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MONSTERS AND MADMEN COLLECTION

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Marshall Thompson, Marla Landi, Arthur Franz, Dick Foran
Directors: Robert Day, Spencer Bennet
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, full-screen 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Four commentaries, trailers and radio spots, art galleries, four featurettes, censored scenes, audio interview, two booklets
Length: 315 minutes
Release Date: January 23, 2006

"A man must do the work in which he believes!"

Films ***

Beware!  Keep an eye on the skies!  Run for your lives!  They're coming to get you!  Monsters and madmen are on the loose!  From the wild imagination of film producers Alex and Richard Gordon comes four vintage tales of terror from the crypt.  The four films contained in this Criterion box set, Monsters and Madmen, pack enough ticklish chills and thrills to make for some merry midnight mayhem.  Read on below for the scoop on these low-budget gems:

1)  First Man Into Space (1959, 77 min.)

"Who's going to forget the first man into space?"

Back in the 1950's, a spunky little collection of nuts and bolts by the name of Sputnik was catapulted into space.  With this significant footnote in human history, the Space Age was launched.  Socio-political ramifications aside, however, the launch of Sputnik also had the more ignominious effect of igniting the fanciful imaginations of various enterprising and opportunistic Hollywood producers.  Not long after Sputnik's launch, a virtual invasion of low-budget B-films emerged to capitalize upon the public's newfound fascination with the idea of space flight and interplanetary travel.  Who would be the first man into space?  Who, or what, would humanity then encounter in that great vastness of outer space?

Producer Alex Gordon provided one such answer in the aptly titled First Man Into Space.  While hardly a household name, the modest Gordon was still a successful film producer during the final years of the Hollywood studio era.  He helped to found American International Pictures in the 1950's and during his time there even had the dubious distinction of scripting various Ed Woods films such as Bride of the Monster!  After eventually leaving AIP, Alex Gordon, along with his brother Richard, would focus on making low-budget horror films exploiting the current headlines for sensationalism and shock value.

First Man Into Space was originally envisioned as part of a double feature with Corridors of Blood (also included in this Criterion set).  Its premise is ludicrous enough, its budget non-existent, yet any young boy who saw this film when it first hit the theaters back in the late 1950's would hardly have noticed or cared.  Even now, First Man Into Space remains a surprisingly entertaining film with its modern Frankenstein twist and not-so-subtle morality tale.

The film opens with a highly suspenseful flight sequence.  Maverick test pilot Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards) braves the unknowns of supersonic travel and escape velocity flight in his experimental jet while an anxious ground crew follows his progress.  Needless to say, something goes horribly wrong.  Prescott survives his close encounter, but his disregard for safety and regulations irks his brother Charles (Marshall Thompson), the no-nonsense commander in charge of the test flight program.  Nevertheless, a new flight is soon scheduled, and Dan Prescott, again disregards orders like a modern-day Icarus venturing too close to the sun.

This time, Dan Prescott tempts the Fates once too often.  He does indeed become the first man into space, but the consequences are dire.  An accidental overdose of cosmic rays alters his body chemistry, and Prescott is transformed into something not exactly human upon his crash landing back on Earth.

This new Prescott meta-human, like a particularly Black Lagoon-ish, growling horror, soon menaces the entire countryside.  Commander Charles Prescott must race against time to find a way to control this powerful monster.  The creature is driven by rage and pursued relentlessly.  Dan Prescott is believed to be dead, and the world must think that he is dead until...wait a minute, this certainly sounds a lot like an episode of Incredible Hulk!

Well, you get this picture.  This sci-fi monster extravaganza is basically Captain Caveman meets Fantastic Four meets...Space Mummy!  Just shut down your mind, and enjoy!

2)  The Atomic Submarine (1959, 72 min.)

"It won't take me long to defrost."

Producer Alex Gordon again drew inspiration for his next film from current headlines, this time the launch of world's first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus.  Not content merely to regurgitate a simple low-budget exploitation picture for his latest sci-fi horror flick, Gordon instead crafted a high-pressure cat-and-mouse chase between a nuclear submarine and a destructive, if perhaps otherworldly, adversary.

In The Atomic Submarine, an unknown entity, be it man, mineral, or vegetable, is preying upon vulnerable arctic shipping lanes.  Unless something is done quickly, international commerce will soon be crippled.  Never fear, as America's best naval vessel, the U.S.S. Tiger Shark, is dispatched to handle the crisis.  The Tiger Shark is a powerful nuclear submarine armed with torpedoes and ICBMs, but is it capable of stopping the unknown threat?

This film bears an uncanny resemblance, at least in parts, to sections of Homer's Odyssey.  Despite some obvious model work and some grainy (if impressive) naval stock footage, The Atomic Submarine succeeds in being suspenseful, eerie, and utterly absorbing.  At times, it even plays like an underwater version of Arthur C. Clarke's sci-fi novel, Rendezvous with Rama.  With a healthier budget or better effects, this film would have been a smash hit.  I cannot give away any more of the plot's surprises, but The Atomic Submarine did prove to be another solid success for producer Alex Gordon.

3) The Haunted Strangler (1958, 79 min.)

"Would I have been wiser to let the dead rest?"

Godzilla fans may beg to differ, but for decades the undisputed "King of the Monsters" was Boris Karloff.  However, by the late 1950's, Boris Karloff had approached the limelight of a long and illustrious film career.  While his reputation as a horror film icon generally assured him of steady work, by now most of his roles were in low-budget cheapies, a B-film purgatory unworthy of the great horror master.  Fortunately, The Haunted Strangler was not one of these forgettable films and in fact proved to be Karloff's finest film since his collaboration with RKO horror film producer Val Lewton in the 1940's.

The Haunted Strangler was produced by Richard Gordon, younger brother of Alex Gordon, and was originally released on a double bill with Fiend Without a Face, another Richard Gordon-produced film.  The film opens in 1860 with the anticipated hanging of Edward Styles, a man identified as the Haymarket Strangler, a murderer who had stabbed and killed five women before his eventual capture.  Yet as he is led to the gallows, Edward Styles desperately pleads his innocence to no avail.  Is he the wrong man? 

The questions remain unanswered, and two decades later, a novelist, James Rankin (Boris Karloff), in search of new material, decides to re-investigate the case of the Haymarket Strangler.  He believes that Styles may have been innocent after all and hopes to unearth some discriminating clues which will reveal the truth.  Rankin suspects another man as the actual perpetrator, but to prove his case, Rankin must exhume or relocate twenty-year-old evidence.

Rankin's investigations take him on a path through numerous vile settings - a den of debauchery, the wondrously-named Judas Hole; a graveyard of murderers and killers; a Bedlam-like torture chamber for prisoners and condemned men.  Rankin's persistent inquiries begin to stir up unwanted memories and attention.  Soon enough, a new murderer begins to masquerade about town and even claims a new victim.  Has the spectre of the Haymarket Strangler arisen once again for a second reign of terror, or was he never apprehended, having merely awaited the right opportunity to strike again?  I cannot reveal any more of the plot except to say that The Haunted Strangler delivers a few stunning surprises and boasts one of Boris Karloff's most satisfying performances in years.

4) Corridors of Blood (1958, 87 min.)

"Pain and the knife are inseparable!"

Lastly, what better thrill for fans of classic horror films than to have both Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, together, in the same movie?  Corridors of Blood offers this very treat!  The success of The Haunted Strangler encouraged Richard Gordon to recruit Boris Karloff's services for a second film.  This time, Karloff portrays the notable surgeon, Thomas Bolton, a charitable nineteenth-century physician with the desire to discover a way to operate without inflicting pain upon patients.  In these antediluvian days before anesthesia, most patients remained fully conscious during their operations.  Not surprisingly, as many succumbed to the shock of the actual surgery as to the severity of their illnesses, ailments, or infections.

Bolton wishes to stop this mindless pain.  But without the availability of test subjects, Bolton must ceaselessly experiment upon himself before demonstrating his findings before his peers.  Bolton tinkers with nitrous oxide, or "laughing gas," and then opiates.  Unknowingly, he soon develops an addiction to his own chemicals, not to mention an unpleasant Jekyll-and-Hyde reaction!

Bolton's increasing need to maintain his supply of chemicals soon brings him into contact with low-lifes eager to exploit his good intentions.  Among them is Resurrection Joe (Christopher Lee), a petty crook who helps run a murder racket in which vagrants and street hobos are killed and then sold to a local hospital hungry for bodies to dissect.  All Joe needs is a proper certificate of death for each victim, and who better to provide such documentation than a physician in need?

Corridors of Blood is reminiscent of Karloff's efforts with 1940's horror film producer Val Lewton, particularly 1946's Bedlam.  Thanks to MGM, which help to produce Corridors of Blood, it boasts the best production values of the four films in this set.  However, the film still retains the typically lovable qualities of any B-film - a bizarre plot, cackling madmen, horrific settings, and even a few pneumatic damsels in distress.  In fact, this film was eventually released as part of a double bill with Werewolf in a Girl's Dormitory!  You have to love it!

Video **

These films are proudly presented to the viewing audiences in chilling Horror-ama!  And shocking Nervo-Rama!  Need I say more?

While The Haunted Strangler looks the best of the four films, in general, the video quality of all four black & white films is quite good.  Image clarity, detail, and sharpness are all up to the usual high standards of the typical Criterion release.  There are a few dust specks or scratches, but these are mostly confined to the grainy naval or military stock footage used in First Man into Space and The Atomic Submarine.  That said, the stock footage is integrated seamlessly into the films.

Audio  **

Listen to that Electro-Sonic sound!  It brings back those wonderful Saturday matinee days of creature feature double bills, shrieks of terror from petrified damsels in distress, and growling stuntmen in monster rubber suits!  You really just have to love it!  Yes, the audio is only monaural, but it more than suffices.

Features ****

Monsters and Madmen is a four-disc extravaganza.  Disc One holds The Atomic Submarine and its related extra features.  In "Atomic Recall" (15 min.), star Brett Halsey recalls his early film career in films such as Submarine Seahawk and its immediate successor, The Atomic Submarine, which used basically the same production crew.  The film was shot in six days, typical of B movies of the time.  Halsey also discusses the film's other stars, producer Alex Gordon, the primitive blue screen technology used at the time for special effects, and his early film career in monster movies such as Revenge of the Creature and Return of the Fly.

Producer Alex Gordon and writer Tom Weaver participate in an audio commentary for this film.  Gordon does most of the talking and offers a great amount of background information concerning the concept for the film, its actors (including Joi Lansing, Frank Sinatra's then-current and very luscious girlfriend), and its production in general.  Also included on this disc are a trailer and an art gallery with 27 selections of The Atomic Submarine stills and lobby cards.

Disc Two holds First Man into Space and its related extra features. "Making Space" (9 min.) is a short interview segment with director Robert Day and star Marla Landi, both of whom recall working on the film and the monster costume, too; also included in this featurette are short clips from the film.  An art gallery provides 31 selections of various stills and promotional art.  Lastly, there are four cool radio spots and one trailer for the film.

Alex Gordon and Tom Weaver re-unite for another audio commentary, this time for First Man into Space.  The commentary plays much like an interview, with Weaver posing the questions and Gordon providing plenty of reminiscent answers and discusses the inspiration of Sputnik upon the plethora of space genre films produced around the time of First Man into Space's production.  Gordon also speaks about his early film career before he became known prominently as a horror film producer.

Disc Three contains The Haunted Strangler and its related bonus features.  The short featurette "Haunted Memories" (12 min.) offers comments and recollections from director Robert Day and some of the film's stars about the film and especially Boris Karloff.  Also on-disc are a trailer, four radio spots, and an art gallery with 26 selections of movie stills and promotional art.  The commentary for this disc presents a discussion between Richard Gordon and Tom Weaver.  Alex Gordon also contributes a half-hour of  pre-recorded comments, made before his death in 2003.

Disc Four contains Corridors of Blood and its related bonus features.  In the featurette "Corridor Gossip" (14 min.), Robert Day and the film's costar Francis Matthews recall working with Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee and the film's then-unusual theme of drug addiction.

Richard Gordon and Tom Weaver return for the fourth and final commentary.  They recall how Boris Karloff was enticed into appearing in this film.  They also discuss the long "lost" Karloff film The Ghoul (now found and happily available on DVD).  Gordon and Weaver also mention Christopher Lee's participation in Corridors of Blood and his relationship with Boris Karloff.  Interestingly, Gordon mentions that MGM had announced Dracula's Revenge, a Technicolor horror film to star Karloff as the undead Count!  Alas, Universal still owned the rights to the character (and would later contract with Britain's Hammer Films instead to re-visit the character with none other than Christopher Lee in the lead).

There is also an audio-only interview (32 min.) with Yvonne Romain.  She discusses her fifteen-year acting career, which involved other horror films such as Circus of Horrors and Curse of the Werewolf and even an Elvis Presley film!  In Corridors of Blood, she portrayed a luscious and naughty barmaid (be sure to check out her glamour shot in the art gallery on Disc Four).  Believe it or not, Romain also reveals that Christopher Lee, before becoming an actor, used to be a hangman!

"Censor Cuts" (3 min.) shows three scenes excised from Corridors of Blood due to gore or violence - the cutting of a leg and a pair of stabbing scenes.  Coincidentally, even today any scene depicting actual penetration of human flesh with a sharp or blunt instrument earns an automatic R rating (at the time, this film earned a British X certificate).  Lastly, there are a trailer and an art gallery with 29 selections of movie stills, publicity photos, and promotional art.

There are two booklets included in this set.  The first booklet offers crew and cast information, vintage artwork and photographs, and a couple of articles about the two Alex Gordon films.  "First Man Into Space, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Began to Seriously Consider Marrying a Monster from Outer Space," by Michael Lennick, puts the film into historical perspective but generally gushes nostalgically over 1950's monster flicks.  "The Atomic Submarine: Saving the World on a Shoestring Budget," by Bruce Eder, describes the film's guilty pleasures and wacky cast of old character actors, former silent film stars, horror film vets, and even a 50's bombshell.

The second booklet focuses on the Richard Gordon films.  "In Praise of Karloff the Uncanny," by Maitland McDonagh, is obviously a tribute to the film career of Boris Karloff.  "On the Set with Karloff," by John Croydon, is a discussion of Karloff's transformation in The Haunted Strangler, achieved almost entirely through facial contortions, and Karloff's sympathetic portrayal of the well-meaning doctor of Corridors of Blood.

Summary:

Each of these low-budget B-films is a blast from the past.  Monsters and Madmen may not be the typical Criterion fare, but this four-disc box set reminds us that creative film-making can transform even men in rubber suits and miniature props into rip-roaring, highly entertaining monster flicks.

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