For the movie lover in your life whose cinematic tastes hew toward the obscure, offbeat and arcane, the following vintage horror/science fiction/cult DVD titles – all available from your better retailers and streaming services – will expand and enhance their appreciation for all things bizarre.
Blood Freak (1970) Florida-lensed drug/monster lunacy about a straight-laced biker whose affections for a pot-addled hippie girl leaves him hopelessly addicted to weed. Things take a traumatic turn for the worse when he consumes turkey filled with experimental drugs, which leave him with a huge, stiff turkey’s head on his shoulders and a thirst for blood. Jesus saves, more or less, in the end. Available on DVD from Something Weird Video and Image Entertainment.
The Brainiac (1962) Abel Salazar, the elegant star of numerous Mexican genre films, stars in and produced this hallucinatory monster movie about a Satan-worshipping baron sentenced to death by the Inquisition. Moments before dying at the stake, he vows to return from the grave with the next passage of a comet to avenge his death; flash-forward four centuries to 1961, where the Baron makes good on his promise, with one extraordinary wrinkle in his plan: he transforms himself into a hairy, bulbous-headed monster with a forked tongue that can jab into his victims’ necks and suck out their brains. It’s entirely possible that The Brainiac is a comedy. Available on DVD from Casa Negra Entertainment.
Incubus (1966) Disorienting fantasy from Leslie Stevens, creator of “The Outer Limits,” with William Shatner as a young man who becomes the target, and eventual paramour, of a female demon with aspirations of luring a “pure soul” to damnation. The theatrical performances and allegorical premise are made all the more unusual by the fact that the dialogue is delivered entirely in the constructed language of Esperanto, which enjoyed popularity as an alternative to English in the middle of the 20th century (and still exists, to some degree, today). The gorgeous black-and-white photography by Oscar winner Conrad Hall and an uncredited William Franker makes excellent use of the Big Sur and Monterey County locations. Available on DVD through Winstar.
The Mighty Gorga (1969) Jungle thrills meet stark budgetary restrictions in this fantasy-adventure about a circus owner (Anthony Eisley) who travels to an unknown jungle region populated by ‘40s-style natives, dinosaurs and the titular monster, the colossal ape-god Gorga. Stock footage of natural disasters and the dragon from “Goliath and the Dragon” attempt to obscure the fact that the dinosaurs are plastic toys waved at the camera and Gorga is a man in a ratty gorilla suit with an immobile, cross-eyed mask. On the plus side, there is a visit to Bronson Caves, which should provide a dose of nostalgia for giant monster fans. Available on DVD in a double bill with the Ed Wood-penned “One Million AC/DC” from Something Weird Video and Image Entertainment.
Zaat (1971) Narcotic-paced underwater monster movie from Florida (again) about a deranged scientist who seeks redress for his colleagues’ dismissal of his crackpot experiments with aquatic life by soaking himself in a bath of chemicals to induce a transformation into a half-man, half catfish. The resulting monster (which the doctor himself admits looks nothing like a catfish) dispatches his academic nemeses while spraying the water supply of a small town with his creature-making formula. Like its eponymous monster, “Zaat” takes a long time to get anywhere, but the filmmakers’ obvious affection for ‘50s-style science fiction does lend an air of earnestness to the project. A longtime staple of VHS and late-night TV screenings, often under the title “Blood Waters of Dr. Z,” the film is available in an authorized DVD/Blu-ray from Cultra.
The Mask (1961) Canada’s first horror film – and its first feature in 3D – opens like a low-budget thriller, with a psychiatrist investigating the suicide of a young man who allegedly committed murder under the psychic command of a tribal mask. Before his death, the young man mailed the mask to the doctor, who is compelled to put it on, which unleashes a torrent of startling and surreal horror imagery. The 3D sequences – designed by avant-garde filmmaker Slavko Vorkapick – unfold like Big Daddy Roth at play in Salvador Dali’s garage, with hooded ghouls, gouts of flame and yawning skulls roaring straight at the viewer, making it one of the most arresting and unusual black-and-white horror films of the early ‘60s. Available on 2D and 3D Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.
Matango (1963) Eerie, doom-laden science fiction from director Ishiro Honda, who oversaw much of the Godzilla franchise and other Japanese giant monster films for Toho in the 1950s and ‘60s. Here, his protagonists are human: the crew and passengers of a luxury sailboat that runs aground on a deserted island. Their exploration uncovers the wreckage of other ships, and a journal that seems to indicate that previous castaways disappeared after consuming the only food item on the island: huge and unpleasantly tumescent mushrooms, which appear to move on their own. Honda overcomes the absurdity of the core premise, which is neatly summed up in the film’s American title – “Attack of the Mushroom People” – through slow-boiling tension (well maintained by the ace cast, all veterans of Toho’s sci-fi and fantasy efforts) and an atmosphere that suggests both psychedelic disorientation and hideous decay. The surprise ending still packs a palpable shock half a century later. Available on DVD from Tokyo Shock.
The Frozen Dead (1966) Two well-worn horror tropes are available for the price of one picture in this English-lensed science thriller: Nazi scientist Dana Andrews struggles to revive cryogenically frozen SS soldiers, but his plans are undone by another failed experiment – the severed head of his daughter’s friend, kept alive and horribly mute, in a box in the lab. There’s an air of unseemliness to the one-two punch of Nazi zombies and disembodied heads that pushes “The Frozen Dead” into territory that’s a bit more morbid than the picture’s inherent pulpiness – it’s the same feeling that infects the similar “Brain That Wouldn’t Die,” albeit not as completely out to lunch as that grisly film. Available on DVD from Warner Archives Collection.
The Hypnotic Eye (1960) Jaw-dropping thriller about a hypnotist (Jacques Bergerac) whose astonishing powers apparently convince female members of the audience to horribly disfigure themselves after the show. One victim washes her face with acid, while the most disturbing of the lot involves a woman drying her hair over a lit burner on a stove, with appropriately gruesome results. The picture’s gimmick, “Hypnomagic,” involves Bergerac addressing the audience to conduct (real) suggestibility tests with the “Hypnotic Eye,” which appears to be a small white ball over which a whorl pattern and strobe lights are imposed. It doesn’t work. Allison Hayes – the 50-Foot Woman herself – appears as Bergerac’s sullen assistant, while Ed “Big Daddy” Nord and Lawrence Lipton (father of James Lipton) get an extended beatnik jam and poetry session at what appears to be Nord’s Venice club, the Gas House. The strange doctor who briefly pops up is Fred Demara, a professional imposter whose life story was made into “The Great Imposter,” with Tony Curtis. Available on DVD from Warner Archives Collection.