The Arkoff Film Library Volume Two Review
Of the two Samuel Z. Arkoff box-sets released to date (both of which house a quintet of previously available titles), this second volume should represent the more enticing, not to mention superior, prospect. After all, this collection offers Reform School Girl, a juvenile delinquency picture to offset the more typical sci-fi/horror fare, plus two features from B-movie maestro Roger Corman, undoubtedly the most interesting filmmaker to cross paths with Arkoff during the earlier stages of his career.
Corman’s great talent as a director (which, some would argue, pales against his talents as a producer) was his ability to simultaneously provide his films with the characteristic low-budget thrills and to move beyond them by adding an extra - often tongue-in-cheek, occasionally subversive - dimension or two. Day the World Ended (1956), is a case in point. On one level it conforms to mid-fifties sci-fi expectations with its atomic age paranoia, post-apocalyptic landscape and collection of stock characters menaced by a barely glimpsed mutation, yet it also serves as a chamber piece; Corman’s ambitions and the limited budget conspiring to keep the small cast (including B-movie favourite, Raymond Hatton) confined within four wall for as often as is possible. Indeed, such is the interest in the ensuing psychodrama that the “creature feature” elements become almost secondary. Moreover, it is difficult not to sense an air of self-parody to these more generic instances, especially during the moment in which one scientist recalls the laboratory he once worked in and the mutations he observed there. There was a “law against photographs [but] not sketching what you’ve seen” - at which point he reveals a hastily assembled collection of appallingly drawn mice and like augmented with enormous teeth.
By relegating the science fiction to the status of a MacGuffin, so to speak, Corman can’t help but prompt the following question. Is he simply enlivening tired genre tropes with his ambitious ideas, or was he only able to satisfy such ambitions by working with the low-budget arena? Unfortunately, The Undead (1957), the other feature of his to feature in this volume, doesn’t point towards any easy answers, though it does demonstrate how he could sometimes get it wrong despite repeating Day the World Ended’s formula. Once again, a catalogue of over-familiar cliches - reincarnation, time travel, hypnosis and witchcraft - rubs shoulders with moments of inspiration, but sadly without any true sense of cohesion. By focusing on the (admittedly more enjoyable) ephemera, such as the cod-Shakespearean dialogue and its purposefully appalling punning, Corman has neglected the disparate narrative threads and produced an only intermittently amusing mess. Incidental pleasures do of course arise, such as the appearance of a very young Dick Miller (playing a leper who sells his soul to the Devil) or the line of dialogue which explains why a prostitute has been chosen for the central hypnotism experiment (working girls are “devoid of all will power”), but at the expense of the more straight-forward B-movie thrills that should be integral to its enjoyment.
The same criticism can also be levelled at the remaining three pictures: Reform School Girl and two other “creature features”, The She-Creature (1956) and Voodoo Woman (1957), both directed by Edward L. Cahn. Despite its difference in subject matter, Reform School Girl, offers the greatest disappointment, especially as its opening 20 minutes are so gloriously sleazy and positively dripping in atmosphere. Yet following an encounter with her a pervy uncle and an involvement in a surprisingly distasteful hit-and-run accident, our titular protagonist is whisked away to reform school and a cliched road to redemption.
Sense of place also proves to be the highpoint of the first of the two Cahn films, The She-Creature. Set in a coastal town populated by freak shows, carnies and hypnotists (again!), the mood is such that a film noir comparison wouldn’t be too unlikely (Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach with a dose of Tod Browning perhaps?). Sadly, as was the case with The Undead, any success is undermined by only minor attention being paid to the narrative. Tom Conway, best known as brother of George Sanders and for playing the Falcon for RKO in the forties, lends an air of professionalism but can’t quite salvage the confusion.
Ironically, it is Voodoo Woman, in which Conway also takes the star turn, which comes across as most successful - outside of Day the World Ended, that is - inasmuch as it is the film which proves the least ambitious. As with the features which made up volume one of the Arkoff Film Library, Voodoo Woman is often quite happy to simply go from scare to scare with a limited amount of fuss. Certainly, its representation of black culture may be less that progressive, but it does at least hold the interest as well as display Cahn’s obvious talent at producing a fright or two (he understands that an obscure close-up can be far more effective that a long shot revealing some guy in a suit). Indeed, has the other titles in this collection offered such simple pleasures then is would undoubtedly represent a superior offering to the other release. As it is, however, it must settle for (a marginally interesting) second place - not that the completists will complain, especially at such a low price.
As was the case with the previous Arkoff release, each of the films is presented in a ratio of 4:3. With the exception of Day the World Ended, this doesn’t pose a problem for any of the films. Each would appear to have either an original ratio of 1.37:1 or is being presented in an open-matte format. Day the World Ended, however, was filmed in Superama (meaning an OAR of 2.35:1) and has been appallingly panned and scanned. The film remains watchable in most instances, but scenes such as the conversation which is only heard as the only thing on-screen is the gap between the speakers prove overtly distracting. As for quality, each of the films is generally fine (though Reform School Girl is touch on a grainy side) except during any scenes shot on location. This is especially noticeable during the night scenes in The She-Creature, but as this problem affects all of the features it is difficult to ascertain whether this was a flaw in the film stock, the cinematography, the prints used as the sources for these discs or their production.
With regards to sound quality, each disc is presented in its original mono - split over the front channels - which generally fares better the picture. At times the dialogue can sound a little too tinny, but never to any distracting effect, and only Day the World Ended suffers from any audio drop-outs (though, bizarrely, these only seem to happen in scenes which feature Raymond Hatton!?).
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.