Monday, August 18, 2008

DRIVE-IN CULT CLASSICS Volume 2 (2008) r. Navarre/BCI Eclipse

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Mega-Movie multi-disc packs can be a blessing or a curse. If a large number of films are crammed onto a disc that means the compression levels are high and the quality of the visuals could be compromised. In addition, the releasing company may have used a poor source or created a bad print transfer, thus further diminishing the viewing experience. Sound levels could be inconsistent and the authoring of menus could be uninspired. Fortunately, most of these problems do not afflict BCI Eclipse’s DRIVE-IN CULT CLASSICS Volume 2: Eight Movie Collection and as a result, this 8-disc pack is a blessing. Not only do most of the films look as good as they can and sound pretty good too, there is an eclectic mix of flicks in this pack that spans nearly 20 years of cinema history. There is a splendid mix of sub-genres within this “horror film” canon and there are celebrities of all types in this collection. There are well-known stars at the end of their careers, equally luminescent actors just starting out, classic “that guys” and “that girls” at the peak of their character-actor ascendancy and little known faces or nobodies who got their brief fling with fame. DRIVE-IN CULT CLASSICS Volume 2 takes you through a series of movies that may or may not have been “Drive-In Classics”, but most have that drive-in feel, others recall flicks you would have seen on late night or Saturday afternoon horror-host shows, and some feel like they were movies you saw at the $2 second run theater down the street when you were a teen. The aura of nostalgia is thick in this pack, which is a very good thing and there are some films that are very worthwhile in their own unique ways, so let’s begin the journey.

On disc 1A, we start with THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN (1963), which is a re-edited version of THE MADMEN OF MANDORAS (1963) on disc 1B. Starring Walter Stocker, Audrey Caire and Carlos Rivas, THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN is the story of a group of Nazis who escape Berlin in the final days of the Third Reich. Fleeing to a Latin American island nation called “Mandoras” with Hitler’s living head, these megalomaniacs try to rid the world of “undesirables” by stopping production of an antidote to a deadly nerve gas they wish to use to help restore The Reich and The Fuhrer. THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN is an inferior film to THE MADMEN OF MANDORAS for several reasons. Even though it says “1963” as its release date, THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN is a television film release that actually dates from the very late 1960s. The extra footage added of “Vic, Toni and the CID” is clearly from a date after 1963 due to the fashions and hairstyles evident. The new footage doesn’t add anything to the original story to make it more suspenseful, it just makes it choppier. The original concept of THE MADMEN OF MANDORAS is ingenious and fun and while the performances of the principal actors was usually pretty weak and more often overly melodramatic, it gives this film a campy feel that is quintessentially “drive-in” or “horror-host”. While more a “spy film” than a horror/sci-fi movie, there is just enough suspense and science fiction medical imagination to blend the genres and while the story winds in some illogical and improbable directions, it is an entertaining film in a mindless but delightfully warped way. The cheap interior and exterior sets in and around the hills of Los Angeles were effectively used to create a “Latin American Island” feel, while most of the actors and actresses were attractive or well cast older people who fit their roles quite well. Stick with THE MADMEN OF MANDORAS and skip the feature film THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN, but don’t skip that side of the disc completely. On either side of Disc 1 are some of the most enjoyable extras. Disc 1A THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN has four trailers; SECRET FILE HOLLYWOOD, DANGEROUS CHARTER, CATALINA CAPER and LITTLE LAURA & BIG JAKE. Disc 1B THE MADMEN OF MANDORAS has an even richer haul. It’s “drive-in” inspired menu leads to an authentic “Welcome Back to the Drive-In” spot, 1959 “rocket ship” and a “keystone cops” intermission opener spots, trailers for SECRET FILE HOLLYWOOD and THE HOSTAGE and an “And Now on with The Show” intermission closer. Sadly, the condition of the drive-in spots is very dicey and they are black & white in nature, probably to fit with the black & white films, but those animated drive-in spots were once in full color. Still, the vibe that is created is 100% drive-in and creates a lot of good will.

Disc 2A has one of the most enjoyable films in this pack, BLOODLUST (1961) starring Wilton Graff, Robert Reed and June Kenney. That’s right, you read it correctly, Robert Reed of The Brady Bunch fame. BLOODLUST is a retelling of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, and in this version, Dr. Albert Balleau is hunting people on his little private island. Two couples fall into his clutches when they land on the island as a vacation lark. Before long, they and other unfortunates on the island are fighting for their lives against a hunter whose craving for blood is insatiable. BLOODLUST has many elements that make it one of the most watchable “horror movies” of this 8-pack. It is an attractively filmed flick with compelling interior and exterior sets, especially Dr. Balleau’s “trophy room”. While the caliber of the performances is a bit mixed and the dialogue is a bit awkward and hokey at times, BLOODLUST has a palpable sense of menace and suspense, sprinkled liberally with some of the most intense gore to be found in this collection. Watching Robert Reed play the tough and resourceful he-man and Wilton Graff as the sadistic and diabolical Dr. Balleau and they track each other through a jungle of horrors is a great way to spend a dark night watching a scary movie. BLOODLUST feels much more like a film you would have seen late-night on Chiller Theater than at the drive-in, but who cares, it’s got the right mood and feel for this collection. Sadly, BLOODLUST has a generic Crypt of Terror main menu and nothing in regards to extras, but one can’t have it all.

On disc 2B is THE DEVIL’S HAND (1962), probably one of the most unusual of the films on DRIVE-IN CULT CLASSICS Volume 2, and has an indescribable air of old-style film for drive-ins or television purposes. It is the story of Rick Turner, a man who becomes embroiled with the Cult of Gamba, the Devil-God of Evil. Rick is bewitched by the intoxicating Bianca Milan and once under her power, he swears an oath of loyalty to the cult and they nearly steal his very soul. THE DEVIL’S HAND is an attractive and stylish film that is patient and surreal in building its unique blend of occult drama. It juxtaposes the imagery of ancient pagan practices and modernist d├ęcor and fashions of the early 1960s to achieve a compelling look all its own. It also stars some immediately recognizable actors for those steeped in the lore of the past, like Neil Hamilton of the 1960s Batman TV Show and Robert Alda of THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, and father of Alan Alda. The print transfer of THE DEVIL’S HAND might be the best of this 8-pack, for this film has never looked so good. THE DEVIL’S HAND also has one of the deepest extras menus found in the drive-in inspired main menu. In addition to a classic Woody Woodpecker cartoon Pantry Panic, there are six short drive-in concessions ads for ice cream, candy, soda pop and pickles. The cartoon and the concessions reels all evidence the same poor visual quality of earlier seen such tidbits, but it is all about atmosphere and these add-ons fit well with this feature film. There are two trailers for CARNIVAL OF CRIME and DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE and we end with the “And Now on with The Show” intermission closer.

Disc 3 has two of the weaker films in this collection, but depending on your tastes, there could be some redeemable qualities to them. Disc 3A has THE CREEPING TERROR (1964), which is arguably one of the worst films ever made and right in the same class as PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE and MANOS HANDS OF FATE. THE CREEPING TERROR is the story of husband and wife Martin and Brett Gordon, who are forced to battle an alien invader, which lands its ship in the California hills and proceeds to gorge itself on whatever people are too slow, too stupid or too stunned to run from it. If you have every seen IT CONQUERED THE WORLD or FROM HELL IT CAME, you got to see two of the more ludicrous and wonderfully entertaining monsters ever unleashed on the viewing public. Those carefully crafted beasties were as Michelangelo’s sculptures when compared to the slouching pile of rugs that is the monster of THE CREEPING FLESH. Some monsters are created to look bad to add humor to a film like the sea creatures in HORROR OF PARTY BEACH or CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA, but this monstrosity was meant to be seriously frightening and it is just seriously ridiculous. It looks like a cross between a horse costume with two men inside, a Chinese New Year’s dragon costume and an avalanche of shag carpeting all rolled into one, and it moves VERY SLOWLY like a giant inchworm with bowel problems. Add to this cinematic nightmare the fact that there is an atrocious voice-over that runs throughout this meandering and glacially-paced “story” and the fact that the acting is terrible, the dubbing is worse and the camera work is grainy and overexposed and you’ve got a train wreck of Biblical proportions on your hands. Here’s the good news though; this is exactly the kind of drek you’d get at the drive-in every now and then and if you want to invite friends over to mock a film while you swill down a beer and eat some pizza, this is the film to do it with. You will get to revel in loads of pointless dialogue, horrifically padded action sequences where the monster squelches and trundles its way across the screen and thrill to the sound of incessantly looped screams of victims and the roar of a monster that sounds suspiciously like Ethel Merman getting her prodigious rear-end pinched by an angry lobster with ten claws. It is for that reason alone that this pile of dung is a “good-bad” film and can be enjoyed on some level if you go into it knowing what to expect. Like BLOODLUST, THE CREEPING TERROR has the Crypt of Terror main menu and nothing in regards to extras, but that’s okay because you may need to take a break for a bit after this “drive-in gem”.

On disc 3B is the hardest film to review, TERRIFIED (1963). TERRIFIED is the story of Ken, David and Marge, a trio who become ensnared in the villainous machinations of a masked killer whose favorite pastime is to inspire deep terror in his victims before he takes their lives. The strength of TERRIFIED is that it is a dark, psychological drama dealing with the essence of what creates profound fear and at various times during the film, the mood matches the underlying concept beautifully. There is tension between the characters and the interior and exterior settings, especially the cemetery and the interiors of the ghost town, create a “dark and spooky nighttime viewing experience” aura that is conspicuous. Added to that is a diverse score that is at once emotive and dramatic, but then can become almost dreamlike, and you’ve got a film that hits some of its notes brilliantly. At other times, TERRIFIED is very “talky” and the intensity slows and the story becomes quite sluggish during many of those stretches. The acting is weak at best during TERRIFIED, the casting of “good looking people” obviously being the focus, and Rod Lauren and Tracy Olson certainly fit the bill. What isn’t too good from a sensory standpoint is the audio and visual condition of TERRIFIED. The audio quality of this movie is quite poor, as it is crackly and low. The print condition and/or transfer is one of the poorer ones of this collection. Just like BLOODLUST and THE CREEPING TERROR, TERRIFIED has the Crypt of Terror main menu and nothing in regards to extras. All in all TERRIFIED is an enjoyable experience if you go in with a patient mindset, allow yourself to be swept away by Tracy Olsen’s lovely face and figure, groove to the somber and creepy feel of the “terror” segments of this movie and watch it very late at night with all the lights turned off in a house where you are the only person around for miles.

On disc 4A, LAND OF THE MINOTAUR (1976) is the feature film, which is the story of Father Roche, played by Donald Pleasance, a priest trying to save three young people who are his friends from the clutches of a pagan cult run by Baron Corofax, played by Peter Cushing. Along the way, Father Roche enlists the aid of Milo and Laurie, who have their own reasons for helping Father Roche, but who almost fall victim to the bloodthirsty cult. LAND OF THE MINOTAUR is a serious departure from the essence of the other offerings in this pack. It is one of only two color films, is the only film from the 1970s and has the most European feel and cast, since it was shot in Greece and has a mostly Greek cast and crew. Despite these “differences of tone”, LAND OF THE MINOTAUR has many things going for it. Due to its European pedigree and the presence of three English performers (Mr. Pleasance, Mr. Cushing and Luan Peters), this movie almost feels like one of the later and slightly lesser Hammer Films. The costumes are colorful and the performances are relatively well-acted. When you have star-power like Donald Pleasance and Peter Cushing, even if they were both comatose, the flick would have a legitimacy that others wouldn’t. The exotic interior and exterior sets are another great strength of LAND OF THE MINOTAUR as is the fact that it is the most salacious of the set. Crown International films had a history of being marketed as “super-sexy”, but not really delivering on the goods. While there is no overt nudity in LAND OF THE MINOTAUR, you do get to see Luan Peters and Vanna Reville (aka Gelsomina) arrayed in short shorts, sexy tops and high-heeled wedges that would have made Catherine Bach and her “daisy dukes” exceedingly jealous. These two curvy blonds are a feast for the eyes and when coupled with the high profile actors and the lavish settings, it is an attractive end result. The story of LAND OF THE MINOTAUR is thin and predictable, but still atmospheric and creepy at times. Typical of a lot of Crown International’s later productions, the pace is very slow and talky at times, but in the end, it doesn’t matter, this film is all about its visual impact. Sadly, there are some splicey moments here and there and the heads and tails of the reel changes show some damage, but fortunately there are not too many of these issues. LAND OF THE MINOTAUR has no main or extras menus at all and you go straight to the film when the disc is inserted, which felt a little cheap and unworthy.

On disc 4B is the most recent of the films in this 8-pack, THE HEARSE (1980) starring Trish Van Devere and Joseph Cotton. THE HEARSE is the story of Jane Hardy, who leaves behind sorrow in San Francisco to find meaning in the mists of her past in the little town of Blackford. Upon arriving, she finds that the stories about her late aunt and the house she once lived in out on County Road have made Jane a very unpopular girl with the superstitious townspeople. Before long, supernatural occurrences and frightening dreams cause Jane to question her sanity and ultimately she must face a choice offered by Evil Incarnate. THE HEARSE has a lot in common with some of the films in this 8-pack from the earlier 1960s, but what seemed so charming and enjoyable twenty years earlier felt old hat and out of place by the early 1980s. Possibly that was the fault of the film makers. The timing of the scares and the creation of atmosphere and mood seemed very tired and late in THE HEARSE. The old conventions and vehicles for fear, unfriendly townsfolk, the sense of being watched, unexplainable phenomena and things seen out of the corner of the eye just didn’t work as well as they should have in this motion picture. Part of the problem is that it seemed to be less of a horror film and more of a supernatural drama/romance. THE HEARSE needed to dig more deeply into the horror roots it was trying to tap and had it done so, it might have been a movie with more impact. THE HEARSE is most definitely a perfect example of why Crown International Pictures had become a name synonymous with boring movies by the time the 1980s had dawned. THE HEARSE has its own title menu with a small cache of trailers as extras. You can see the theatrical trailer for THE HEARSE as well as trailers for BLOOD MANIA and DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE. Being the last film in this pack, I had expected a better send off, but just as Crown International quietly faded into the shadows, DRIVE-IN CULT CLASSICS Volume 2 went out with a gentle spark instead of a bang.

Despite the less than rousing finish, DRIVE-IN CULT CLASSICS Volume 2 was an enjoyable experience. It was an appealing selection of films that sampled a wide variety of drive-in fare, most of which I had seen in just as diverse a manner. If you have never seen any of these films before, be sure that what you are getting is very different from what you will see in theaters today. If you have been initiated to the cinema of the early 1960s, especially what are considered to be B-movies, you will probably enjoy this trip down Nostalgia Boulevard and with the additions of drive-in style extras sprinkled about along the way, DRIVE-IN CULT CLASSICS Volume 2 is a worthwhile addition to anyone’s collection of cinematic ephemera.

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