Monsters and Madmen (Criterion Collection) Review
Alex and Richard Gordon produced many exploitation B-movies both individually and with their company, Amalgamated Productions, during the late fifties and early sixties. They were émigrés from Britain who became obsessed with film and, after individual efforts at producing, they joined forces to make the films included here. Quite often the brothers took the inspiration for their films from the headlines in order to catch public interest and this set includes four of their films, two based in science fiction and two based in horror, the Monsters and the Madmen of the box set title.
Corridors Of Blood
With his career beginning to fade, Boris Karloff returned to Old Blighty to make two films for director Robert Day. Corridors of Blood sees Karloff as an earnest surgeon fighting for solutions to the butchery that was pre-anaesthesia operations. As Dr Bolton, Karloff plays a progressive surgeon whose ambition to develop painless surgery leads him into experiments which bring him first ridicule and eventually accidental addiction. His addiction causes him to become drawn into a world of depravity by the local publican Black Ben and his evil sidekick, Joe, played by Christopher Lee, and the good doctor becomes a split personality. Forced into ever greater moral sacrifice and facing greater rejection from the medical establishment, Dr Bolton becomes part of a murder ring.
Corridors of Blood is well mounted and acted with fine direction. The screenplay is not exactly a masterpiece and the film borrows ideas and scenes from other pictures on the mad doctor and medical adventurer theme, but the film holds up dramatically because of the attempts to anchor the film in two very well drawn worlds of privileged surgeons and a Dickensian underclass. The care and craft taken in the set and design of the pub of Black Ben is remarkable for what is a exploitation feature and this perfectly complements the gang of cut-throats and blackguards who are the regulars. Importantly the same care is taken with the stilted world of surgeons with their laissez faire morality and conservatism, and this creates a fine counterpoint to the well intentioned Dr Bolton. Inside of these two worlds Day uses some fine character actors including an interesting cockney Lee and a young Nigel Green to galvanise the plot. Karloff goes from reforming moralist, to an intoxicated fool, to a wrecked man, and, finally a crooks patsy. In all these scenes he gives great commitment and if his performance is not as good as the similar role in another social horror film, Bedlam, then this is because the material is less well composed rather than the film suffering from a lack of energy on his part. The movie does not really set out to be scary and it is much more like a Dickensian fable given a healthy dose of macabre realism, the real horrors in the film are on the operating table and in the slums. Efficiently shot and edited, Corridors of Blood is enjoyable horror with a worthy social point.
The Haunted Strangler
The second Karloff movie is a less successful affair. Karloff is cast as well meaning campaigning novelist, Rankin, who is looking into the conviction and execution of Edward Styles as a Victorian stalk and slash murderer. Rankin becomes convinced that guilt lies elsewhere and his attention turns to a doctor, Tennant, who disappeared after the crimes. Finding that Tennant has lost a scalpel, Rankin goes looking for it in Styles' grave but he finds more than he bargains for and the murders begin again. Rankin discovers that the identity of the murderer is more shocking than he could have imagined.
Made in three weeks and suffering from plot holes the size of the Atlantic, The Haunted Strangler attempts to put Karloff into another complex role and to follow his quest for justice. As the kind crusader, Karloff is dedicated and his belief in the unfairness of the penal system seems well founded, but rather than finding innocence his character discovers that good and evil often reside in the same human being. Caricatured like the previous film but lacking the detail of design of the underworld there, the film struggles to break out of the script's limitations and the plot twist when it arrives is so breathtakingly illogical that you have to keep reminding yourself that it's a horror film and stupid things happen in them. The cast around Karloff is not quite as starry but the scantily clad victims of the eponymous villain allow for some glamour, and the seedy setting of the burlesque adds a bit of colour to the proceedings. In the end though, justice is served, the innocent are saved, and evil is destroyed but the film is limited by paper thin characters, unbelievable twists and minor production values. The Haunted Strangler is a less impressive film than the above movie and Day's direction and Karloff's presence fail to lift it from a rushed production and a botched script.
The Atomic Submarine
At the North Pole, submarines are going missing and the US government orders the super sub, White Hawk, to investigate with the help of top government boffins sporting stereotypical English and mid European accents. This new mission severely cramps the style of ladies man Commander Holloway who must abandon his latest blonde bombshell for his ship where he meets hippy peacenik Dr Nielsen who is along to help. As the submarine nears the pole they witness terrible electric storms and discover that some kind of alien vessel is carrying out the carnage. But can they fight back against this otherworldly underwater highwaymen?
The Atomic Submarine completed principal photography in 6 days and by God it shows. Actors stumble over lines, misread or mispronounced, nothing stops as the tale stomps along at breakneck speed. The film was made on the back of the development of nuclear submarines and their trips under the Arctic, so the producers cashed in on public interest and concern by throwing in aliens into this submarine drama. A goodish cast copes well with the furious pace but the plot is a little silly and lacking in real thrills or suspense. The central idea is the competition between top heterosexual Holloway and pretty boy pinko Nielsen which creates any drama that the film can manage, and this conflict is resolved by both putting aside their cold war differences and deciding to turn the tables on the little green men:
"So our little green men are actually little green fish"
This film is bubblegum exploitation, but time flies by whilst you are watching it. The FX are bathtub models and matte creations of the alien craft's interior but they also include some surprising graphic gore in the killing of crew. Some of the effects are well done and if the monster looks a bit ropey then please remember how good the interior of the space craft appears. The script is better than the two films above because it is so comfortable with the conventions of both submarine drama - male competition etc - and science fiction - geeky impossibly handsome scientists. The cast includes hammy Arthur Franz whose babe magnet abilities are emphasised at any opportunity despite him being a bit of a dumpy 40 something shortarse, and a young pre-Bava Brett Halsey as Nielsen. It also has a cameo by Tom Conway which is always a good thing, and solid support around the leads. You know it's all a bit silly but it is disposable fun that is worth a spin as a guilty pleasure.
First Man Into Space
Robert Day returns to the director's seat for this scifi monster movie. The commanding officer of the Y13 project, Charles Prescott, is on the verge of succeeding in sending a man into space, the only problem is that that man is his incorrigible brother, Dan. During test flights Dan takes the rocket beyond its limits and it falls to Earth in New Mexico a wreck with the pilot presumed dead. Soon a string of violent deaths seem to be linked to the aircraft and a lust for blood is destroying everyone in its way.
First Man Into Space is a gem building on the same anxieties that Nigel Kneale used for the Quatermass Experiment. When Dan goes into space the natural order of things is changed and mankind creates a monster, a monster that the older more mature brother must handle. The small budget and production does show in the rocket sequences but the best parts of the film are the bloody rampage of the monster and the eventual realisation of its nature. Well scripted and featuring sci-fi staples such as the ambitious pilot, the sexy scientist and the man in a rubber suit waving his arms about whilst growling, the film is the best here because of the pathos it creates for its monster. The lighter moments aren't as funny as they should be but Dr Who fans will note a cameo by the Master himself, Roger Delgado, as a Mexican ambassador. Sufficiently enthralling and nasty to entertain modern audiences, First Man Into Space is the best film here and the most fun too.
This set comes in a robust dust sleeve housing the two disc cases. One disc case contains the two Karloff films, the Madmen set I suppose, and the other set contains the two science fiction films, the Monsters. In each case the discs are housed in a figure of 8 pattern and the ease of removing the discs without scratching them or getting fingerprints on them is limited. Also contained in each case are printed booklets containing essays and poster art on the films. In the Monsters case, Michael Lennick writes about First Man Into Space with a special concentration on its Promethean theme, and Bruce Eder celebrates the design and script of The Atomic Submarine. In the Madmen case booklet, there are re-prints of double bills of the films and an essay from the marvellous Maitland McDonagh on Karloff and the place of these two performances in his late career, and excerpts from much hated producer John Croydon about working with Karloff. With the exception of the poor choice of dvd case, Criterion have done a beautiful job in packaging these films.
In terms of A/V quality, not all of the discs are at a quality that you would usually identify with Criterion releases. All of the films are presented in 4:3 but the dual layer capacity of the discs is barely used with 40-60% of disk space filled. As most of the films are quite short, bit rates are still quite high on the discs but they could have been higher still. Generally, these black and white films have excellent contrast levels and sharpness but there are odd scenes where the print is worn and the image looks soft. Any contrast boosting has been done well and edges look fairly natural. The best print here is Corridors of Blood which is stunning at times and the worst is First Man into Space where print damage and lines and marks are regular throughout. The transfer for the latter film also seems to have quite a grainy look and some shimmering. Overall the visual quality is very good and I would be surprised if the presentation here has been bettered elsewhere. In terms of audio, all of the films have mono audio tracks which have been cleaned up through restoration but occasional pops and soundtrack noise can be heard on the poorer prints.
The discs come with a featurette on each and commentaries from the Gordons which are facillitated by the well informed and prepared Tom Weaver. Both Gordons are fine talkers when they get going and the commentaries are chock full of information about casting and production difficulties. John Croydon comes in for quite a bit of stick on the two Karloff movies and the problems with Marla Landi's accent come up on First Man Into Space. For fanatics of B-movies then these commentaries will be immensely interesting and for the casual viewer they are worth dipping into as well. The featurettes include new interviews with Francis Matthews, Landi and Halsey and some archive interviews with Robert Day who talks fondly of Karloff and their chats about cricket. You also get picture galleries on each film and trailers and radio spots on most, the Karloff radio spots are a particular highlight of the package using his fine sonorous voice to creep out listeners.
It's gratifying that Criterion aren't stuck in the ivory towers of great cineastes and have given such minor films such a nice release. The overall quality of the films is middling to good, but all of the films provide entertainment and in Corridors of Blood and First Man Into Space the quality is indeed as high as the entertainment. A must buy for fans of Karloff or bug eyed monsters and a welcome new direction for Criterion.