The Arkoff Film Library Volume One Review
The title of this release, the first of two volumes, is somewhat misleading. Rather than the Arkoff Film Library it should read the Arkoff and Nicholson Film Library as James H. Nicholson was just as instrumental in the B movie producing partnership as Samuel Z. Arkoff, if not more so. Either way it is difficult to imagine more than a handful of other non-directing producers who would warrant such a box-set, let alone two, even if this particular release doesn’t represent a collection of career highpoints. Indeed, the nurturing of talents such as David Cronenberg, Martin Scorsese and Roger Corman is mentioned only in the attending extras, whilst the dalliances with Italian horror (via Mario Bava), animation (via Ralph Bakshi) and blaxploitation are ignored altogether. Instead the discs concentrate on the mid- to late-fifties period which saw Arkoff and Nicholson at an early stage in their career (they became partners in 1952) and working primarily on low-budget horror and sci-fi quickies - in this case, Blood of Dracula (1957), The Brain Eaters, How to Make a Monster, The Spider (aka Earth vs. the Spider) and War of the Colossal Beast (all 1958).
Unlike the works of Bava, Bakshi, et al, these are hardly films which could be addressed as directorial efforts; Bert I. Gordon (director of The Spider and War of the Colossal Beast) was better known as a special effects man, whilst Bruno VeSota (The Brain Eaters) has a B movie filmography littered with credits under various capacities. (The only true sign of artistic merit can be found in the Saul Bass-ian title sequence that Robert Balser put together for The Brain Eaters.) Rather these are very much producer pictures, one built, as Arkoff explains in the accompanying audio interview, three ideas: “title...poster...concept”.
In the case of the titles, each passes the potency test. Add an exclamation mark to any of the five movies present and each begins to sound like a spoof, thereby attesting to a certain iconic quality (even if none of the films themselves are befitting of such a description). As for the posters, each has been recreated on the sleeve designs (the box-set consists of five amarays, identical to previous individual releases, and a cardboard slipcase) allowing for a full appreciation of these wonderful windows to the past. With regards to the concepts, however, the success rate isn’t quite so high.
One of the problems in collating five pictures from the same period of Arkoff’s career, as opposed to raiding the various decades for a more diverse representation, is that the similarities become unavoidable. Indeed, each is driven by market forces and gimmickry, though without the zeal of consummate showman, and B movie rival, William Castle. As such there are the generic trappings of horror and sci-fi, of course, plus an eye towards various then-faddish elements: teenagers, hypnosis, rock ‘n’ roll (a number apiece for the two Herbert L. Strock efforts, Blood of Dracula and How to Make a Monster, whilst The Spider’s musical interlude is interrupted by the titular creature). The most indicative moments of this approach come in the final sequences of How to Make a Monster and War of the Colossal Beast - both of which switch to colour for no reason other than the opportunity to proclaim the fact on the posters and during the trailers. In terms of plotting, therefore, all the films present are perfunctory at best. Either a terrifying creature wreaks havoc on a handful of cast members (parasites from beneath the earth in The Brain Eaters; The Spider and War of the Colossal Beast being rather more self-explanatory) or a psychopath hypnotises teenagers into carrying out their schemes of revenge (How to Make a Monster, Blood of Dracula - which incidentally has nothing to do with Dracula, rather the script gets around this by using the term draculas as a synonym for vampires!).
That each film is decidedly simple doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be viewed as stupid of idiotic, however. Of course, there are plot holes and definite lack of scientific fact (the giant web belonging to The Spider proves remarkably unsticky) but little that is truly embarrassing. Certainly, a number of scenes, if shown in isolation, would provide ample ammunition for send-up, yet there is a general air of professional, one which even throws up the odd surprise, such as War of the Colossal Beast’s effectively brassy score by Albert Glasser. The guiding factor to each is very much their natures as “quickies”, both in terms of their brisk running times (which never break the 75 minute mark) and swift periods of production. Indeed, if you come away with anything from these features it is their wonderful air of efficiency. Dialogue is kept to a minimum, dealing solely in exclamations and exposition save for the occasional cod philosophical musing, as are the character and even plot developments. The function of the screenplays is often simply to get from one scare to the next, with a reveal of the monster in all its glory at roughly the midway point (surprisingly, this is even true in the case of War of the Colossal Beast, a sequel to The Amazing Colossal Man, meaning the on-screen appearance is somewhat less than a revelation). As such, these may not be especially rich works - there are none of the undercurrents found in Val Lewton’s 1940s cycle of horrors, say, though Blood of Dracula does hint at a queer sensibility with its barely disguised lesbian villainess - yet they easily succeed in doing job of providing cheap and cheerful entertain, something which is hard to refute.
Each of the films present in this collection is presented in the 4:3 ratio. Blood of Dracula aside (which looks as though it has been cropped from 1.85:1), each looks correct. Unfortunately, there is no definitive means of discovering the true ratios and as such they can only be judged by eye. The IMDb gives How to Make a Monster an OAR of 2.35:1, yet this simply doesn’t appear to be the case. No evidence of a pan-and-scan job is noticeable, though there is the possibility of this being an open matte print (not that I’m convinced 100%).
As for the prints’ general quality, they are, on the whole, better than expected. Of course, they are not pinpoint sharp, but they remain watchable and never present any major problems. Only Blood of Dracula looks a little too soft - more in line with what would ordinarily be expected of a minor B movie release, perhaps?
Soundwise, the discs are equally sufficient. Admittedly, there is only dialogue and the occasional shriek of terror to deal with, and most do a respectable job. Again, only one disc disappoints, in this case War of the Colossal Beast, which often sounds excessively tinny and struggles with anything of a relatively high volume.
With regards to the special features, each disc contains identical extras: nine theatrical trailers and an audio interview with Arkoff recorded at the NFT in 1991. It’s easy to dismiss the trailers as mere filler (they cover all the films present in this and the other Arkoff Film Library volume, excepting Corman’s The Undead), especially given their scratchy, washed out condition, but they do provide a certain historical curiosity. Of especial interest is the promo for Day the World Ended, if only for its fabulous voice-over: “Being a scientist he did not consider human emotions... He did not know about the uninhibited exhibitionism of the striptease dance... He’d forgotten about the power of love...”
Of course, the trailers do however pale in comparison to the discs’ centrepiece, the 53-minute Arkoff interview. Actually, the term “interview” is somewhat misleading as this is much more a monologue, with Arkoff selling his career as he would one of his pictures. The lengthy duration allows the chat to cover a wide period of time plus the namedropping of various directors who have crossed paths with the producer at one point or another: Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius, Woody Allen, Michael Reeves, etc. etc. As is to be expected, this is very much an anecdotal piece, and despite Arkoff being 73 at the time of recording and clearly not at his sharpest (mistaking Boxcar Bertha for Bloody Mama, for example, and having a tendency to ramble from time to time), often highly enjoyable.
Unlike the main features, which come with optional Dutch and German subtitles, none are available for this supplementary material.