Movies Till Dawn: Horror Business (Cold War Creeps and Creatures)

The Giant Claw” (1957, Arrow Video) Jeff Morrow and a host of fellow ’50s sci-fi stalwarts (Mara Corday, Morris Ankrum) battle an enormous extraterrestrial bird that lays waste to the U.S.-Canadian border (played by Griffith Park) and later, the New York City skyline. Columbia Pictures release from prolific low-budget producer Sam Katzman has earned its place in the halls of movie infamy for its creature, a poorly constructed marionette with an accordion neck and google-eyed visage that strains even the furthest boundaries of “bad” monster FX. The movie itself doesn’t deserve the same degree of brickbats: as directed by former actor Fred F. Sears, who worked himself into an early grave with a constant stream of poverty row movies like these, “The Giant Claw” is no worse than any other independent sci-fi/horror title from this time period. You won’t mistake it for “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” but it’s also not on par with Ed Wood. Arrow’s Blu-ray is part of its enjoyable “Cold War Creatures” set, which bundles “Giant Claw” with three other Sam Katzman sci-fi films: “Creature with the Atom Brain” (the source for Roky Erickson’s song), “Zombies of Mora Tau,” and the Fred Sears-directed “Werewolf.” The “Claw” disc features commentary by critics Emma Westwood and Cerise Howard, a video essay on Cold War paranoia in Katzman’s monster movies, an introduction by the great Kim Newman, and a condensed presentation of “Claw” in 8mm, which essentially served as your grandparents’ version of Netflix and chill six decades ago.

The Raven” (1963, Kino Lorber) 16th-century magician Vincent Price is alerted by fellow spellcaster Peter Lorre that his wife (Hazel Court), whom he believed dead, has been seen in the castle of evil wizard Boris Karloff. The pair, accompanied by Lorre’s son (Jack Nicholson) and Price’s daughter (Olive Sturgess), then sets out to rescue Court, which requires a duel of magical powers. Frothy and fun comedy from Roger Corman and writer Richard Matheson, who offer a palate cleanser from the Gothic thrills of their previous collaborations on adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe. “The Raven” has little to do with the poem beyond the presence of a bird (for which Lorre provides occasional squawks), but Matheson’s breezy script provides its trio of leads with the opportunity to spoof their boogeymen personas (with Nicholson as adenoidal straight man), and the final face-off between Price and Karloff manages to be both charming and exciting, due purely to the actors’ straight-faced delivery. Kino’s Special Edition Blu-ray includes a new commentary track by David Del Valle, whose perspective is both entertaining (he was a friend of Price’s) and scholarly; brief interviews with Corman and Matheson are followed by the trailer and previews for other Corman/Price films from Kino’s library.

Death Curse of Tartu” (1966, Arrow Video) Short-tempered archaeologist Fred Pinero, his equally aggrieved wife Babette Sherrill, and four students whose interests lie more in making out than discovering artifacts disturb the tomb of Seminole sorceror Tartu (Doug Hobart), prompting him to making good on his promise to kill anyone who trespasses on his burial grounds in the Florida Everglades. Low-budget, regionally made supernatural thriller from Florida filmmaker William Grefe was filmed in seven days to serve as one-half of a double bill with Grefe’s astonishing “Sting of Death.” The production and budgetary restrictions result in the usual shortcomings inherent to independent drive-in fare, but Grefe benefits from the oppressive Everglade locations, some unnerving (seemingly risky) work with real snakes and alligators (the shark footage is a ruse), and Hobart’s makeup as Tartu, which manages to be both a touch silly and more than a bit creepy. Junkfilm fans will also note the presence of fellow Sunshine State exploitationeer Brad Grinter (the unbelievable “Blood Freak“) as Tartu’s first victim. Arrow’s Blu-ray – part of its “He Came from the Swamp” set – includes enjoyable commentary by Grefe and “Basket Case” director Frank Henenlotter; a long audio interview with Hobart about his days in the spookshow business, and a brief video essay on rock and roll monster movies by C. Courtney Joyner fill out this fun disc.

Flight to Mars” (1951, The Film Detective) The first manned rocket voyage is hobbled by a meteor storm and crashes on the Red Plane, where the Earth crew discovers an advanced civilization with an ulterior motive. One of the first feature film takes on interstellar Manifest Destiny, Monogram Pictures and producer Walter Mirisch’s “Flight to Mars” is clunky, cash-strapped (the rocket set and many props are recycled from “Rocketship X-M,” the first postwar space adventure movie) and saddled with grisly gender politics – Martian females sport costumes more suited to figure skaters, and the sole Earth woman, Virginia Huston, spends much of her time pining over her big dope of a boss, Arthur Franz. But as Eisenhower-era pulp entertainment, it’s talky but fun once the ship makes it to Mars and its gaudily-dressed inhabitants; Film Detective’s Special Edition Blu-ray features a 4K restoration of the original print, which was filmed in the decidedly lesser Cinecolor process; it looks better than most previous releases, but don’t expect Criterion quality. Commentary by Justin Humphreys is brisk when the movie itself lags, and two extras – one on producer Mirisch (who later oversaw “The Apartment,” “West Side Story,” and “The Great Escape”) from Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, and one on space travel flicks – round out the disc.

Hercules and the Captive Women” (1961, The Film Detective) Despite its hot-blooded title and unsubtle poster art, which echo the covert fetishism inherent to men’s magazines of the period, this Italian/French sword-and-sandal picture is a guileless fantasy-adventure. English bodybuilder and three-time Mr. Universe Reg Park handles the Hercules duties here, which require him to take on the queen of Atlantis (Fay Spain, a staple of American low-budget features in the early ’60s) and her magic stone, with which she’s building an army of beetle-browed super-soldiers. “Captive Women” is a cut above most Italian muscleman pics by virtue of its production value (impressive sets and a terrific concluding explosion) and cast (Spain as a hissable villain and arthouse stars Gian Mario Volonte and Enrico Maria Salerno in supporting roles); Park fills out the physical requirements as Hercules but remains somewhat granite in performance (he’s somewhat better in Mario Bava’s “Hercules in the Haunted World), and the monster portion of the program, embodied by Maurizio Coffarelli’s shape-shifting Proteus, is serviceable. Film Detective’s Blu-ray, which features the American edit of the film (new titles by the Reseda-based Filmation of “Archies” and “Fat Albert” fame and score, dropped scenes, and an English language dub, which are detailed in Tim Lucas’s informative commentary track) includes an overview of sword-and-sandal movies by Ballyhoo Productions, liner notes by the busy C. Courtney Joyner, and the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” version of the film (funny) with an intro by TV’s Frank himself, Frank Conniff.

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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