Movies Till Dawn: Horror Business (Blood in Black and White)

Dr. X” (1932, Warner Archives Collection) As I mentioned in a 2016 write-up, this absolutely out-to-lunch thriller, from “Casablanca” director Michael Curtiz, “folds cannibalism, serial murder, deranged scientific experiments, artificial flesh, and unseemly obsessions into its 76-minute running time.” The new Warner Archives Blu-ray doubles down on its previous DVD release by bundling both versions of the film – one in restored two-strip Technicolor (which lends a hallucinatory quality to the already bizarre proceedings) and another in black-and-white (and long unavailable) – with commentary tracks by historian Scott MacQueen (who covers the film’s  production) and Curtiz biographer Alan K. Rode. A lengthy featurette on Curtiz’s horror output (which included 1933’s “The Mystery of the Wax Museum,” another two-strip chiller for Warner that featured “X” stars Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, and 1936’s “The Walking Dead,” with Boris Karloff) and a brief look at the film’s restoration for Blu-ray are also included.

Thank you to Warner Archives Collection for providing a free Blu-ray for this review.

The Last Man on Earth” (1964, Kino Lorber) Further along in the Wayback Machine: I covered this Italian-U.S. feature in 2014, and noted that Vincent Price’s subdued turn as the lone survivor of a global plague that turns its victims into blood-drinkers is closer in tune to the everyman hero of Richard Matheson‘s source novel than Charlton Heston in “The Omega Man” and Will Smith in the overblown “I am Legend.” The movie isn’t perfect: the Italian locations and dubbed supporting cast are awkward stand-ins for Middle America, but the film’s shuffling, kohl-eyed vampire horde play like a forerunner to George Romero’s zombies in “Night of the Living Dead” and the walking dead genre that followed. Kino Lorber’s Special Edition Blu-ray substitutes many of the extras featured on the Shout! Factory disc, including a new and typically informative (and droll) commentary track by historian Richard Harland Smith, who details the differences between the novel and the script by Matheson (for which he’s billed under a pen name) and subsequent adaptations, its connection to Hammer Films, directorial choices, and various cast and crewmembers. You also get an alternate ending (which differs only slightly from the theatrical release), a Trailers from Hell edition with Joe Dante, and the American and Italian trailers; ported over from the SF disc is a segment of the “Richard Matheson: Storyteller” documentary which concerns his thoughts on “Last Man” (in short: he didn’t like it).

Monster a-Go-Go” (1961/65, Arrow Video) A space capsule lands in rural Illinois and produces not its astronaut pilot but a giant humanoid (vaudeville performer Henry Hite), which runs amok in Chicago before… well, before nothing of consequence actually happens. Infamous no-budget creature feature began life as “Terror at Halfday” before Wisconsin-based producer/director Bill Rebane abandoned the project due to a shortage of funds. Herschell Gordon Lewis of “Blood Feast” fame bought the unfinished film to complete a double bill with his hillbilly terror fest “Moonshine Mountain” and added the entirely ineffective and sad-looking Hite, as well what can only be described as a barrage of visual non sequiturs – cars in motion are a favorite – and leaden narration that explains action (including major plot points) we never get to see, as well as a denouement that pushes the limits of belief (to his credit, Lewis does add a few seconds of people dancing to justify the title). The result can be easily dismissed as a craven attempt to separate moviegoers from their money by promising everything and delivering nothing, though the most hardy psychotronic types may view it as the equivalent of a sound bath: a meditative experience composed entirely of delirious junkhorror imagery and technical ineptitude. As such, it’s enormously satisfying. Arrow Video’s Blu-ray is part of their “Weird Wisconsin” box set, which bundles the film with other Bill Rebane efforts, including the eccentric sci-fi titles “Alpha Incident” and “Invasion from Inner Earth” and a action-thriller about a talking monster truck (“Twister’s Revenge”) among others. A short segment of an interview with Rebane that’s spread over the other discs is included here, as is perspective from Kim Newman and three Rebane-directed shorts: “Twist Fever” and “Dance Fever,” from 1961 and 1962, respectively, and a restored version of a 1973 industrial film called “Kidnap-Extortion: Robbery by Telephone,” which advised Wisconsin bank customers on the proper way to negotiate for their loved one’s lives.

The Great Gabbo” (1929, Kino Lorber) Ventriloquist Erich von Stroheim‘s abusive treatment of assistant/lover Betty Compson sends her into the arms of another man (Donald Douglas), which puts von Stroheim into a psychological spiral manifested by another love-hate relationship: with his dummy, Otto. Two fallen titans of silent film – von Stroheim and director James Cruze – entered talking pictures with this willfully unclassifiable and perverse feature, which veers from backstage melodrama and romance to semi-horror material (Gabbo’s increasingly co-dependent relationship with Otto) and eye-popping musical numbers, including the ornate and berserk “The Web of Love” (with Compson and Douglas as insects in a pas de deux before a colossal spider’s web) and Otto’s appropriately titled “Icky (The Lollipop Song),” which becomes a ghastly extended metaphor for a different sort of oral fixation. Admittedly, the inclusion of “Gabbo” in a horror roundup is a bit of a cheat, but its influence on a popular horror subgenre – the ventriloquist assimilated by his dummy (see “Magic,” “Dead of Night,” etc.) – merits mention (and yes, this is the inspiration for Gabbo the dummy in the “Simpsons” episode “Krusty Gets Kancelled”). Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray offers a 2K print with restoration by the Library of Congress; the storied and long-missing color sequences and musical number remain out of reach, but there is an excellent and informative commentary track by historian Richard Barrios.

The Possessed” (1965, Arrow Video) Dispirited writer Peter Baldwin returns to the Italian coastal hotel where he once trysted with icy blonde maid Virna Lisi; his visit this time finds Lisi dead by suicide (or murder?) and the hotel and town residents unwilling to discuss it. A sort of proto-giallo flecked with Continental arthouse ennui from directors Luigi Bazzoni and co-writer Franco Rossellini– better known as a producer for Pasolini, as well as the original “Django” and “Caligula”(!) – “The Possessed” benefits from an appropriately haunted performance by Baldwin (later a prolific director for episodic TV) and gorgeously Gothic photography by Leonida Barboni, which should hold horror fans’ interest when the script wobbles under the weight of its own uncertainty. Arrow Video’s Blu-ray is a vast improvement over previous releases (fuzzy-lookng grey market presentations) and includes commentary by Tim Lucas, who provides a wealth of info on the production, as well as interviews with two legendary figures who worked on the film: production designer Dante Ferretti and makeup artist Giannetto De Rossi. An essay on Bazzoni (who also the excellent Italian thriller “The Fifth Cord” and the Western “Man, Pride, and Vengeance“) and his cinematographer brother Camillo, and Italian and English trailers (the latter emphasizing the film’s original title, “The Lady of the Lake”) round out the set.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury, and George Newall, who created both "Schoolhouse Rock" and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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