1965 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: DIE MONSTER DIE, MONSTER A GO-GO, AND INCUBUS

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After the bonanzas of 1963 and 1964, 1965 was a comparatively lackluster year for horror and exploitation flicks, with a few exceptions at both ends of the spectrum. Boris Karloff, Nick Adams, Suzan Farmer, and Freda Jackson starred in Die, Monster, Die, directed by Daniel Haller, which was one of the first big screen attempts at an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation. Released by AIP for the drive-in double feature circuit along with Mario Bava’s  cult fave, Planet Of The Vampires, Die, Monster, Die has more kinship to that studio’s Poe  product than to Lovecraft. It also has a distant relationship to Hammer Horror: Jackson previously appeared in Brides Of Dracula, and Farmer went on to do both Dracula, Prince Of Darkness and Rasputin, the Mad Monk for the studio the following year. Additionally, elements of Die, Monster Die are clearly related to Universal’s Man-Made Monster(1941) and Columbia’s mad doctor series.

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With Universal horror icon Karloff and Rebel Without a Cause heartthrob Adams as the two leading men, Die, Monster, Die feels like a queer hybrid. The aged Karloff, suffering the effects of emphysema, is wheelchair bound (and will be for the rest of his career and life), but he evokes formidable English mystery from his blanket and chair. In sharp contrast is all that pent-up, pushy, youthful American angst from Adams, who is aptly vulgar and a standout in his Jersey accent.

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Stephen Reinhart  goes to visit Susan Witley at her parents’ home in the English village of Arkham. Stephen had met Susan at the college they attended together in the States, but when he stops at a local pub, he discovers the entire village paralyzed with fear in regards to the Witley estate (calling to mind Ed Wood’s daffily delivered dialogue from 1955’s Bride Of The Monster, “stay away from the old Willow’s place!”) Poor Stephen can’t get anyone to give him transportation and is forced to walk. Upon finally arriving at the Witley estate, he discovers that the surrounding plant life has all mysteriously died. He is greeted with hostility by Susan’s crippled father, Nahum (Karloff), who demands that Stephen leave at once. Nahum is interrupted by a beaming Susan and introduced to her mother, Letitia (Jackson), who is bedridden and hidden behind a veil. Letitia intercedes for Stephen and asks him to take Susan away from this charnel house. A short while later, Nahum’s servant, Merwyn (Terence De Marney) collapses and dies. After Merwyn’s late night burial, followed by a phantom-like figure appearing at the window, Stephen and Susan make their way into Nahum’s greenhouse and discover abnormally enlarged plant life and mutated critters. “It looks like a zoo on hell,” declares Stephen. After some Sherlock Holmes/Watson sleuthing, he and Susan unlock the dreadful secret: Nahum has been “experimenting” with radioactivity from a meteorite. Hoping to undo an ancestor’s evil deeds (whatever those were) Nahum plans to help feed the world with mutated plant life! Of course, things go awry and everyone who worked in the greenhouse has been either mutated or killed. The phantom figure turns out to be a former maid, now a butcher knife-wielding mutant. Both Letitia and Merwyn were victims, and now it’s Nahum’s turn as he transforms into a green thing with an axe, leading to a fiery climax.

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The opening plot sounds like a number of the Vincent Proice/Roger Corman screen treatments of Edgar Alan Poe. Despite the ho-hum overfamiliarity, Die, Monster Die has rich cinematography (by Paul Beeson), delightfully dated FX (including Karloff’s green thing stand-in), a vibrant score (from Don Banks), and a crackerjack performance from Karloff. Performances like this explain how an almost eighty-year-old, handicapped actor kept getting parts personally tailored to him up until his death four years later. Even Adams is pretty good (much better than his other ’65 performance—see below). With a zippy pace and Gothic sci-fi milieu, Monster is perfect drive-in fodder and must have made a helluva cinema-under-the-stars bargain when paired with Planet of the Vampires.  First released for home video as part of MGM’s Midnight Movies series (coupled with 1970’s Dunwich Horror, also directed by Haller), it has been upgraded to Blu-ray in a gorgeous transfer from Scream Factory and looks better than ever. Primarily criticized on its release for straying too far from it’s source story, “The Colour out of Space,” it has since has garnered a cult reputation as a fun mix of nostalgic Gothic horror and science fiction.

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1964 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES, 2000 MANIACS, AND THE CREEPING TERROR (WITH BONUS: STRAIGHT-JACKET )

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1964 was nearly as productive a year for the cinematic horror genre as 1963 was. Coming from the barrel bottom was Jerry Warren’s improvement on 1960’s La Casa del Terror, Face of The Screaming Werewolf, starring (sort of) Lon Chaney, Jr. and Yerye Beirut (who later co-starred with Boris Karloff in a string of Mexican films co-produced by Jack Hill). Chaney was probably less embarrassed (although doubtfully any less sober) working for Hammer director Don Sharp in the well-received Witchcraft. Fellow Hammer veterans Freddie Francis and Peter Cushing collaborated on the actor’s only non- Terence Fisher directed Frankenstein opus, The Evil of Frankenstein, which initially received poor reviews, but has since been reassessed in a more positive light (in some quarters). Without a star actor (or competent director) Hammer’s The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb (DirMichael Carreras) was as limp as its title character. However, the dynamic trio of Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Barbara Shelley did their best work (despite a silly-looking title creature), as usual, for Terence Fisher in The Gorgon. Lee didn’t fair as winningly in the Warren Kiefer/Luciano Ricci co-directed Castle Of The Living Dead, despite having closing scenes directed by an uncredited Michael Reeves. Lee moved from a castle to a mere crypt in Crypt Of the Vampire (directed by Camilio Mastrocinque), which was as narratively pedestrian as its title,despite undeniable atmosphere. The icon of Italian Gothic cinema Barbara Steele (and the last living of the classic horror stars) was also at home in a castle setting in Castle Of Blood (Co-Directed by Antonio Margheriti and Sergio Corbucci) and teamed again with Magheriti in The Long Hair Of Death, which we will be covering soon in a Steele triple feature. The final two Poe films from Roger Corman and Vincent Price, Masque Of The Red Death and Tomb Of Ligeia were  among their best received, although the latter features yet another ingratiatingly whiny, flowery performance from its  star. Rounding out a busy year, Price starred in The Last Man On Earth (Co-directed by Ubaldo Ramona and Sidney Salkow),  the first of several big screen adaptations of Richard Matheson’s “I am Legend,”none of which astoundingly could get right.

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Blood and Black Lace predictably became yet another cult film from Mario Bava, but even he could not compete with the legendary Kwaidan (directed by Masaki Kobayashi), which puts most Western horror anthologies to shame. Down several notches is Del Tenney, who has an inexplicable cult reputation, but as both I Eat Your Skin and The Horrors Of Party Beach prove, that status is undeserved for such a dullard. Spiraling downward, ever downward we come to Ray Dennis Steckler’s biggest budgeted film, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies, which is more famous for its title than the film itself. There’s a reason for that; It also commits the cardinal sin of being hopelessly dull. It doesn’t have zombies per se, but victims of the carnival fortune teller, Madame Estrella who throws acid in people’s faces, turning them into “monsters.” Despite bad sound, obnoxious acting (including Steckler himself under the pseudonym Cash Flagg) and execrable “rock and roll” numbers that have nothing to do with the plot, it’s sort of decently shot-in color- by Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters Of The Third Kind-1977), but even the lensing is guilty of “incredibly slow and pointless shots of carnival rides,” which would perhaps be a better title.

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1963 EXLPOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: THE SADIST, BLOOD FEAST, & THE WHIP AND THE BODY

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1963 was such a productive year for horror/exploitation that even Arch Hall, Jr. was involved in a better than normal effort. The Sadist is the film Hall Jr. will most likely be remembered for (if he is remembered at all). Here, Junior pivots away from the low-rent Elvis Presley persona that daddy Arch Hall, Sr. was crafting for him to instead play a cartoon psychopath inspired by the real-life sadist Charles Starkweather (in the first of several films loosely based on Starkweather’s infamous 1958 killing spree—to make sure we get the reference, writer/director James Landis names the antagonist “Charlie”). The Sadist is easily the best film of both this actor and this director, which is not to say that it’s great cinema. Surprisingly, the best thing about it is Hall’s energetic performance. Away from daddy, Junior bounces through the entire film with a near-perfect trash performance.

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While Landis wasn’t quite the hack that Hall, Sr. was, he still hampers the production with rusty pacing and ill-conceived narration (supplied by Hall, Sr). The headlines of murderous mayhem proved to be the inspiration for the Landis/Hall Jr. team. They worked together in two additional features: 1964’s The Nasty Rabbit, about Russian spies smuggling killer bunnies into the U.S.A., and 1965’s Deadwood 76, which features Junior as a singing Billy the Kid. Both were written by Daddy Hall and again reveal a lead who clearly wants to be elsewhere. Junior seemed to reserve all of his enthusiasm and hammy tricks for The Sadist. He giggles. He slaughters. Once The Sadist locates Hall as its steam, it transforms into a model of creaky relentlessness. The small cast is exceptional, with Helen Hovey  memorable as Doris, who is pushed to the verge of victimization and fights back. Mother Nature serves Charlie his sentence.

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