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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BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER (1960-1962): EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS

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The reputation of  Boris Karloff’s “Thriller,” which ran from 1960-1962, is such that it was one of the most highly anticipated DVDs until its 2010 release. Despite its somewhat hefty price tag, it became a best seller (and was followed by a ‘greatest hits’  top ten release in 2012). Author Steven King’s proclaiming it the “best horror series of all time” (in his 1981 book, ‘Danse Macabre’) certainly enhanced its eminence. Of course, a statement that absolute is going to be argued, and it was (with naysayers pointing to the earliest crime oriented episodes as evidence against King’s boast). Naturally, like all series, “Thriller” is uneven. Still, the positives outweigh the negatives enough to justify its cult status.

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Karloff hosted each episode, and acted in a few. This was his second horror anthology series. His first,  the ten episode “The Veil,” from 1958, never actually aired; after its DVD release in 2001, it was dubbed by some critics as “the best television series never seen.” A later DVD release, under the title of  Tales Of The Unexplained From The Veil,” featured two additional “lost” episodes. “The Veil” has also been referred to as a precursor to “Thriller,” although it’s not quite as good and the flavor is different. Hopefully, we’ll get around to reviewing the earlier series by next Halloween.

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“Thriller” premiered on September 13th, 1960 with the episode “The Twisted Image” (directed by Arthur Hiller), which starred Leslie Nielsen and Natalie Trundy. “Her possessive eyes… Alan Patterson was aware of her eyes at the newsstand, at the lunch counter, in the elevator. He was aware of them for almost a month and they were to lead him into guilt, and terror, and murder as sure as my name is Boris Karloff. ”

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As we watch, Karloff informs us that this a tale of watching and being watched, assuring that a shattering effect lies within the “Twisted Image.” Nielsen, as Patterson, a married, successful business man, is watched by four psychotic eyes belonging to Lily (Trundy) and Merle (George Gizzard). Lily lusts after him and, at least on the surface, Merle is insanely jealous. Although director Hiller denied it, as it was written (by James P. Cavanagh adapting William O’ Farrell’s novel) and played by Grizzard, there is sexual longing in Merle’s voyeurism as well. Still, we’re not entirely convinced he deserves all the attention, as the very young Nielsen has none of his later charisma. Grizzard walks away with the episode playing a scheming, destructive looney tune coworker. Competent, but unimaginative with no surprises, this debut waddles its way to a lackluster finale.

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“Child’s Play” (also directed by Hiller and written by Robert Dozier): With marital discord between his parents (Frank Overton and Bethel Leslie), young Hank (Tommy Nolan) is overdosing on B-Westerns and William Tell while vacationing at a cabin. The potentially darker side of the imagination is explored, with young Hank transforming into a symbol for gun control. A slight improvement over the pilot episode, it’s surprisingly a stationary affair that could have used a dose of fantasizing.

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“Worse Than Murder” (directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by Mel Goldberg) takes a turn for the worse. If television viewers of 1960 relied solely on first impressions, it’s relatively easy to see why “Thriller” failed to find its audience. This one’s about a murder motivated by love of dyed green paper. Constance Ford kicks into high gear as a scheming gold digger, but her acting is the only thing that thrills here. Otherwise, it’s pedestrian in both writing and direction.

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While the first three episodes are dull and conventional, “Mark Of The Hand” (directed by Paul Henried, Laszlo of Casablanca fame, and written by Eric Peters) may be the series at its lowest ebb. An eight year old (Terry Turnham) may or may not be guilty of murder. While that premise might have potential in better hands, this is a mystery devoid of mystery: predictable, campy, and a sluggish affair.

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“Rose’s Last Summer” (directed by Hiller and written by Marie Baumer) could be easily dismissed as a small screen ripoff of Sunset Boulevard (1950) or a lame warmup to Whatever Happened To Baby Jane (1962). It’s about the murder of an aging actress, which remarkably fails to generate even the slightest interest, despite starring one time Oscar winner Mary Astor.

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“The Guilty Men” (directed by Jules Bricken and written by John Vlahos) is a run of the mill crime melodrama starring Frank Silvera  as a mobster who is trying to go clean and… yawn. On the plus side,  Silvera’s campy acting is a hoot.

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With “The Purple Room” (written and directed by Douglas Heyes)  starring Rip Torn and the house from Psycho (1960), we finally have a genuine “Thriller.” It’s hardly original, having an old dark house plot, but there’s some fun to be had in the send-up of genre traditions and stereotypes. Karloff never resented being stereotyped, believing that it gifted him a career niche. Additionally, unlike many actors of his period Karloff, had no qualms embracing the small screen medium, and with new producer William Fry, the series takes advantage of its host’s screen persona none too soon.

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Duncan (Rip Torn) has inherited his sibling’s Bayou mansion, with the condition that he must live there for a year. However, as lawyer Ridgewater (Alan Napier, best known as Alfred from TVs “Batman”) informs Duncan that, if he fails to do so, the mansion falls to scheming cousins Rachel and Oliver (Patricia Barry and Richard Anderson, who would later be known for rebuilding the Six Million Dollar Man ). Naturally, as host Karloff warns us in the intro, the mansion has a little problem with ghosts. Being a pragmatist, Duncan isn’t worried in the least, and to prove it, he will spend the night in the Purple Room, where a murder took place one hundred years before. Shot in crisp black and white, this episode almost makes up for a lack of originality and uneven acting with atmosphere.

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“The Watcher” (directed by Jon Brahm and written by Donald Sanford) is serial killer Freitag (Martin Gabel) who is so good at dispensing with his victims and playing the role of religious zealot that local law enforcement (Alan Baxter) believes the deaths to be unrelated suicides. Freitas sets his sights on sinful lovers Larry and Beth (a pre-“Doctor Kildare” Richard Chamberlain and Olive Sturges) and attempts to convert them before he judges them. There’s a latent bit of same sex lusting in Freitag, but despite the peanut butter and jelly theme of religious hypocrisy, this somewhat grisly episode is an also-ran in the “Thriller” canon.

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“Girl With A Secret” (directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by Charles Beaumont) missteps back into the crime melodramas of the first six episodes, courtesy of producer Fletcher Markle. Newlywed Alice (Myrna Fahey) discovers that her husband Anthony (Rhodes Reason) is not who he says he is. The same goes for his “family.” It takes a deft hand to sell this kid of espionage nonsense, and Markle is no Hitchcock. Also starring Victor Buono.

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“The Prediction” (directed by Brahm and written by Sanford) stars Karloff himself as a phony psychic who begins to have death visions for real. A first season “ Adventures Of Superman” episode covered related ground, and did it in a more entertaining way. Karloff wrings pathos out of his role, which almost makes up for the contrived plot.

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“The Fatal Impulse” (directed by Gerald Mayer and written by Phillip MacDonald) features a superb cast, which includes Robert Lansing, Conrad Nagel, Elisha Cook Jr. and, briefly, a young Mary Tyler Moore. It’s another preposterous melodrama about a loony named Harry (Cook) who gets caught in an attempt to kill Mayor Wylie (Nagel). Not one to concede defeat, Harry plants incriminating evidence—a bomb–in the purse of an office worker, which brings in a bleak Lt. Rome (Lansing). This crime caper has a different producer in Maxwell Shane, and it helps considerably. There’s tension aplenty as Rome races to find the bomb before it is set to go off. The flavoring of this episode supersedes awkward writing. Mary plays a librarian named Mary.

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“The Big Blackout” (directed by Maurice Geraghty and written by Don Tracy) is an anonymous, dull episode about an alcoholic amnesiac named Burt (Jack Carson) who belatedly discovers he was involved in some shady business.

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“Knock Three One-Two” (directed by Herman Hoffman and written by John Kneubuhl) stars Beverly Garland as Ruth, the put-upon wife of gambling addict Ray (Joe Maross). Ray, having cried wolf one time too many, is not going to be bailed out this time by his wife, which inspires him to hire killer Benny (Warren Oates) to make him a widower. Garland steals the show, although there’s not much to steal in this episode of contrived irony.

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“Man In The Middle” (directed by Fletcher Markle and written by Howard Rodman) miscasts comedian Mort Sahl  in the dramatic role of Sam, who overhears Mr. Clark (Werner Klemperer—son of conductor Otto and star of “Hogan’s Heroes”) plotting a murder. Reluctantly, Sam decides to try and thwart the thug’s evil plan. If the plot sounds hackneyed, that’s because it is. Series Producer Markle is also out of his element and bowed out for good after this entry.

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“The Cheaters” (directed by Brahm and scripted by Sanford from a story by Robert Bloch) is the first authentically “classic” episode, one worthy of the series’s cult reputation. It kicks off in an entirely different mood: rather than the usual Pete Rugolo jazz opening, producer William Frye brings in composer Jerry Goldsmith, who expertly shrieks and enhances the drama about to unfold. Former Karloff co-star Henry Daniell (from Val Lewton’s The Body Snatcher) briefly appears as an inventor who puts on a pair of queer “cheaters” (sunglasses) and has a vision that leads him to hang himself before dawn. His failure to destroy the lethal eyewear proves unfortunate for the victims ahead, who include “A little old fashioned lady named Miriam Alcott played by Miss Mildred Dunnock, a nephew named Percy Dean played by Mr. Jack Weston, and finally a man who discovered the real purpose of the spectacles, Sebastien Grimm played by Mr. Harry Townes. What they saw through those yellow gold lenses they never forgot, and neither will you, my friends, because as sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is a thrillah.”

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This time, Karloff’s lisp lingers, convincing us of goosebumps ahead. Inscribed in the “cheaters” is the name Veritas, the Roman goddess of Truth and, like Dorian Gray’s portrait, the spectacles reveal the soul, shorn of pretense. In a cast of superlative performances, Paul Newlan is a standout as the junk dealer Joe Henshaw. Most fans and critics rank “The Cheaters” in the top five episodes and, for once, the consensus is spot on.

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25TH ANNIVERSARY: WILLIAM SHATNER’S STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER (1989)

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William Shatner’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) has been called the “Plan 9 of Star Trek.” There is no denying that it is awful, but it is more like the misfit Yukon Cornelius of Trekdom. It is not quite as bad as Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984), and to say that Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) is ludicrously overrated is a given, especially when the best performances are by two anonymous trash collectors. William Shatner, perhaps feeling envious of Leonard Nimoy’s directorial “successes,” insisted on his turn at bat. Rather than keeping the franchise in the experienced, imaginative hands of director Nichols Meyer ,who had written and directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982), Paramount and producer Harve Bennett foolishly handed the asylum keys to lunatic stars who had no experience in big budgeted space oaters apart from acting.
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ROGER CORMAN’S THE INTRUDER (1962)

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The Intruder (1962) is a film that Roger Corman, star William Shatner , writer Charles Beaumont (who penned numerous Twilight Zone episodes) and a cast of relative unknowns can put atop their resumes. Predictably, Corman’s most progressive endeavor was his only commercial flop. The Intruder can also lay a considerable claim to being Corman’s best film. Shot in 1961, during the very early stages of the civil rights movement, The Intruder was extraordinarily risky, so much so,  that AIP, Corman’s studio, would not touch it. Corman and his brother Gene produced by refinancing his home. A few gutsy critics lavished admiration and praise, and, after Cannes banned it, a few smaller overseas festivals gave it awards. Alas, awards do not count as a return on investment, and a desperate Corman and his initial distributor Pathé made the drive-in rounds with four different titles in a vain effort to recoup costs. Whether under the moniker Shame, The Stranger, or I Hate Your Guts, it was a hopeless cause. Pathé eventually backed out and Corman distributed the film itself, securing the loss of his own investment. Continue reading