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Archive for December, 2013

Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956) / The Neanderthal Man (1953) Blu-Ray Review

Friday, December 27th, 2013

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Stars: Guy Madison, Patricia Medina, Carlos Rivas, Mario Navarro, Robert Shayne, Richard Crane, Joyce Terry, Doris Merrick
Directors: Edward Nassour and Ismael Rodrigue on Beast, E. A. Dupont for Neanderthal

Released by Scream Factory

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

These are two classic B monster movies that used to play on weekend afternoons or in the middle of the night until they seemed to drop out of sight. Beast of Hollow Mountain never had much of a presence on home video. Both of these titles should really be considered rescues. The fact that these two have come out in Blu-Ray, with a DVD version as an extra should say something about the enduring buying power of monster move fanatics and collectors. Many fans can recall watching Beast of Hollow Mountain as a kid on TV knowing full well that this was based on an idea by the guy who made King Kong. Hopefully a gentle wave of nostalgia has washed over the constant thoughts of “When are we gonna get to the part with the monster?” There were many kids who sat through all kinds of films of varying quality just to get to the good parts with the monsters, which always seemed to be held until the end. You may still have to wait, but you’ve never seen quality like this on a TV with rabbit ears on top of it. Yes, those were the years when these titles popped up in TV Guide and flickered on your huge cathode beast of a TV set.

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Beast of Hollow Mountain takes place in Mexico. The hero is Guy Madison who was best known then as the star of the Western TV series, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickock. He plays Jimmy and you know he’s the hero because he saves two lives before the picture even catches its breath. He pulls his partner from the muddy quicksand. Jimmy then saves the charming town drunk from being dragged through the streets on a runaway horse. It’s not even lunchtime. He’s then courted by a lovely lady. They clearly have a past but he just can’t make the commitment. The town drunk has a wild son, Panchito who Jimmy takes under his wing. This kind of stuff goes on for an hour before anything really happens.

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The real draw for monster fans is that this was based on an idea by the original stop motion man Willis O’Brien. O’Brien is best known for his pioneering work on The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933). He had an idea for combining his animated dinosaurs with cowboys. Most would agree that this idea got its best expression in the hands of O’Brien’s famous pupil Ray Harryhausen when he made The Valley of Gwangi (1969). However Mighty Joe Young (1949) which was done by Willis O’Brien “supervising” the new kid on the block , Ray Harryhausen and features some absolutely incredible scenes with the big ape fending off the lassoes of a group of cowboys led by Ben Johnson. He even unhorses several pulling them off by their ropes. The intricate work that combines these cowboys tossing off multiple lariats while riding horses with the antics of the gentle Joe Young is an outrageous sight to behold. With The Beast of Hollow Mountain you’ve got to slog through an hour of pretty tepid, though well photographed melodrama and the juvenile antics of Panchito till you get to the monster. The last twenty minutes are indeed packed with scenes of the Allosaurus–like beast on the rampage. The color choice that was made for the dinosaur doesn’t quite look right but that was what they wanted back then. The animation is sometimes a little wobbly but we get to see plenty of him doing his thing. He picks up cattle and people in his teeth and runs amuck in the wide open plains. It’s a long wait and it sure won’t give any serious competition to Ray Harryhausen but it is a lot of fun.

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Oddly and much to my surprise I had a much better time with The Neanderthal Man. The story concerns a scientist who has a controversial new theory about the link between the brains of Neanderthal and modern man. He’s developed a kind of way-back serum and turned the house cat into a Saber-Tooth Tiger. Most of the time we see the tiger a long shots and the few close-ups won’t win any awards for realistic make-up. However this is handled with just the right amount of B movie seriousness. The local sheriff and others are concerned about livestock attacks and the sightings of a really big cougar or cat out there. Meanwhile the scientist has a great confrontation scene with all the members of the Naturalists’ Society. They sit there with their arms crossed huffing and puffing on their pipes and cigarettes, looking down at him over their beards as they dismiss his findings as ridiculous. He screams at them that they have sight but no vision. A zoologist has been called in and he begins to think there just may be something to this as he examines the plaster cast made from an oversized paw print. Then he sees the real thing and is certain.

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Professor Clifford’s long suffering fiancé can’t take his obsession with his work anymore. She leaves but tells him he knows where to find her. We learn that he’s turned the deaf housekeeper into a cavewoman but only get to see sketches of her with bushy eyebrows and a fearsome scowl. This film is full of so many familiar touchstones and comfortable B movie landmarks. The waitress at the local café is Beverly Garland before she did the science fiction films It Conquered the World and Not of this Earth. Mostly what makes this so easy to get comfortable with is Robert Shayne as the Professor. He is instantly recognizable at Inspector Henderson from the Adventures of Superman TV series. Shayne has been in Bowery Boys movies. He was in The Indestructible Man and can even be spotted at the hotel where Cary Grant gets mistaken as the spy in North by Northwest. A word also has to be said for the transformation scenes that are done with lap dissolves taking Robert Shayne from clean shaven to unkempt to gruesome and finally to the Mr. Hyde like Neanderthal Man. The make-up and effects are well below Jack Pearce’s work at Universal but it’s still fun.

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These two fifties flicks look great. They are not classics at all. After you’ve seen dozens and dozens of horror films in search of the real good ones, you develop a taste for those second tier and third ones. It’s not all that defensible on a critical level, none the less films like this are just part of the diet. The Beast of Hollow Mountain and The Neanderthal Man are genuine rescue efforts. Fans of the films will be more than pleased. Those new to these give them a shot but try to watch them on a bleak afternoon or at 2:00 AM some desolate morning.

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Video – Beast of Hollow Mountain – 2.35:1 / The Neanderthal Man – 1.33:1 It is a real treat to see Beast looking so sharp and clear and in its original scope presentation of 2.35:1. This film looks great. Better than it deserves. Colors and fine and the landscapes look terrific. The Neanderthal Man gets another first class treatment. The black and white photography looks crisp and clear throughout. This is an excellent looking transfer. The transfer gods must have a thing for cheap fifties flicks like this.

 
Audio – DTS-HD Master Audio Mono All dialogue is clear. Music cues and f/x are all fine in the mix.

 
Extras – A DVD version of the same titles is included.

 
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movies – Fair/Good

Nightmare City (1980) Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

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Stars: Hugo Stiglitz, Laura Trotter, Francisco Rabal and Mel Ferrer
Director: Umberto Lenzi
Released by Raro Video / Kino

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

First of all these are not really zombies, they are more like crazies. Secondly there is not enough make-up to go around for all of them. The film opens with a TV journalist and his cameraman meeting a big plane on the runway. Lots of military personnel with rifles, pistols and machines guns are looking at the plane. The door opens form the inside and a parade of poorly dressed wild folks empty out. They were able to open the door. They grab guns from the soldiers and fire them. They drive cars. These are not really proper zombies. Most of them have some kind of appliance or mask on their face. Some have full masks. Their necks and hands all are completely devoid of any kind of make-up.

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In between this mayhem we see an attractive woman fooling around with someone. There is a general and his wife. Then are a few rooms with lots of military guys who talk on and on. But best of all is the real eighties styles TV dance show. Guys and gals in leotards and colorful spandex prance about to bouncy pop music. This goes on and just when you can’t take it anymore a few of the crazy people come in. There is a lot of biting and slicing and even disrobing. Why a crazy zombie killer thing would have to rip a woman’s top off before he bites her is beyond me. But it does make the scene more interesting. Meanwhile the TV journalist guy has a girl. More mayhem on the streets and still more generals talk.

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There are some pretty bloody and gory encounters. Director Umberto Lenzi never goes for tension or looks to build any kind of scares. Some have called this the worst zombie film ever made. You can find worse. When it hit theaters in the US it also sported the title City of the Walking Dead up on the marquee. It has the look and feel of the second picture in a triple bill that you wandered into on a hot day to get in out of the sweltering heat. Hopefully you went with a few friends who’ll help you to enjoy this in the proper frame of mind. This is a ridiculous film. Take it for what it is and have a good time with it.
Video – 2.35:1 Though the picture is on the soft side and the colors feel a bit muted this is a perfectly watchable presentation.
Audio – Italian and English tracks with subtitles offered in English. This was dubbed and mixed after the fact. It has a cheap feel to it though everything is understandable even those guys in the military suits who prattle on and on while you wait for the mayhem to resume.
Extras – Interview with Umberto Lenzi, booklet, English and Italian trailers.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic

Blu-Ray – Good

Movie – Fair

Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

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Stars: John Phillip Law, Douglas Wilmer, Tom Baker, Caroline Munro, Gregoire Aslan
Director: Gordon Hessler
Released by Twilight Time
Limited edition of 3,000 units
Available at screenarchives.com

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Ray Harryhausen’s last two Sinbad films have always been viewed as second class citizens. Granted The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) is regarded as one of his very best works and these two have an awful lot of expectation to live up to. In between the grandmaster of stop motion special effects did plenty of films including what many consider to be his very best work, Jason and the Argonauts (1963). It was fifteen years later, though the story is a completely different tale and has no real continuity to speak of. This one and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) seem to linger at the bottom of many fans’ list of favorite Harryhausen movies. While Golden Voyage is admittedly not the best of Ray’s work, it is still a solid second tier Harryhausen and one that should never be dismissed or passed up by those who love solid special effects and adventure fantasy films.

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The story will seem familiar because all these tales involve the famed hero setting out to sea in search of some mysterious and very rare treasure. He will encounter trials and dangers. His crew will have a long time trusted right hand man, a bumbling newcomer who will earn respect by the end, some kind of oracle or magic talisman and a few assorted colorful scallywags. The villain will be memorable and a bit over the top. The one thing you can be sure of though is that it will have several set pieces that let Ray Harryhausen demonstrate his magic and indulge his imagination. His creatures have more character and personality than a bazillion gigabytes of CGI.

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This time around Sinbad finds a piece of a puzzle that when combined with one that is held by a Vizier in a golden helmet, who he meets in a gorgeous palace, will reveal a treasure beyond imagination. While preparing for the trip Sinbad picks up two passengers. One is a good for nothing son whose father believes the voyage will make a man out of him. He also gives away a slave girl who Sinbad fancies because she has an eye tattooed on her palm, and is drop dead gorgeous, too. Fans of Dr. Who will quickly recognize Tom Baker as Koura the mysterious and magical bad guy. With each spell cast Baker ages and deteriorates. Baker delivers a terrific role here making the evil prince quite a bit of fun. John Phillip Law plays a swarthy and relaxed Sinbad. He’s got a great look for the part and has an easy going charm. Caroline Monroe is a delight as the slave girl though she mostly gets to look scared and scream at the monstrosities the crew encounters. Perhaps the producers were mindful that these films had an appeal to more than just youngsters. Any of the ads and posters for the film capitalized on the tantalizing figure of Miss Monroe.

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The true stars though and the main attraction are Ray Harryhausen’s creations. This is not his best set of creatures. The ones that Jason and his Argonauts encountered ten years earlier were far more imposing and fearsome. They really felt like dreadful legends come to life. A few of these feel like we have seen them, or parts of them before. There is a small winged homunculus that Koura sends to sneak around and spy on Sinbad and his gang. Koura sees and hears what the creature does. This little guy though, when we get a good look at him bears more than a resemblance to the Ymir creature from Harryhausen’s 20 Million Miles To Earth (1957). The one real standout  is the six armed statue of Kali that comes to life. She does an intricate dance with her many hands gesticulating gracefully. Then armed with six swords she has a terrific battle with Sinbad. This is first rate Ray at his finest. The articulation of the arms is fascinating. Each of Kali’s feet also move in perfect time with her whether she is dancing or fighting. The other thing about Ray’s work that feels like a signature to his style is the emotion he gives his characters. They readily express fear, anger and sometimes a delightful almost juvenile petulance. He gives them lives not only in movement but in attitude.

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There is an on going line about trusting to Allah but always making sure your camel is tied up. The phrase seems to make little sense yet the characters always say it with knowing assurance. Kudos to the writers for getting a last scene pay off to the phrase with a corny joke that did indeed get me to laugh. Golden Voyage is a very enjoyable outing. With this new blu-ray the colors are very attractive giving the whole affair a Classics Illustrated quality. Golden Voyage plainly does not have the magic and robust sense of adventure that Jason and  Seventh Voyage had. Still it’s very easy to get lost in the look of the film. As the somewhat loosely structured narrative flows one can be sure that there will be plenty of stops for fantasy creatures.

Video – 1.85:1
Colors are delightfully bright throughout. Detail is fine. When opticals and mattes are used to blend several images together there is a quality drop, but that is to be expected. The increase in detail afforded by the HD process enhances these kinds of fantasy films immensely. None of the effects shots are spoiled for this viewer at all. Instead the wonderful and imaginative world they inhabit seems that much more real and inviting. Also it is a real joy to get a good look at Harryhausen’s work in that kind of detail. His creations are stunning. Stop motion animation is a very hands on art. It’s a pleasure to behold when the hands belong to Ray Harryhausen.

Audio – 5.1 DTS-HD, subtitles offered in English SDH
All dialogue is clear, even the lines about tying up your camel. Bernard Herrmann had done the spectacular score for Seventh Voyage of Sinbad which has everything a good fantasy film orchestration should have. You’re practically bouncing in you seat as the credits roll waiting for it to start. The Golden Voyage score by the usually dependable Mikos Rozsa is a bit of a let down. The main theme doesn’t have that majestic kick and many of the cues are too obvious. The orchestrations which are usually a big contribution to these adventures fall  short in this film. The soundtrack is good though not outstanding.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature Isolated Score Track , Mysterious Island featurette, 3 Worlds of Gulliver featurette, Earth vs The Flying Saucers featurette and Trailer. The featurette for EVTFS is hosted by Joe Dante. Joe has good questions for Ray and has an infectious appreciation for the film.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic
Movie – Good

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Crawlspace (1986) Blu-ray Review

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

Crawlspace (1986)
Director: David Schmoeller
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Talia Balsam, Barbara Whinnery & Sally Brown
Released by: Scream Factory

Reviewed by Mike Kenny

The Criterion of Cult, Scream Factory, is back yet again to deliver fans with a much needed injection of some Empire Pictures goodness! The maestro of creepiness, Klaus Kinski (Nosferatu the Vampyre), takes center stage as a murderous landlord with an obsession of peeping on his female tenants. This supremely scary flick was helmed by David Schmoeller, responsible for other cult gems such as Tourist Trap and Puppetmaster. Curious minds want to know how well this Kinski creepfest holds up so let’s not dawdle any longer…

Crawlspace focuses on Karl Gunther (Klaus Kinski), a quiet landlord who happens to be the son of a Nazi. Gunther has an obsession with sneaking through the crawlspaces of his apartment building in order to spy on his female tenants. Gunther can barely contain his need to kill and with every new tenant comes a new object to fixate on. Will the arrival of a new female tenant put a stop to Gunther’s heinous acts or is the fun just getting started?

MOVIE:
With such an abundance of films released, Empire Pictures was a well-oiled machine that knew how to keep horror fans occupied. Due to the scarcity of the film, I feel ashamed to admit that Crawlspace evaded me for so many years. Crawlspace is a criminally forgotten flick that hits all the right notes in sending chills down your spine. Klaus Kinski’s terrifying performance is what makes this film so appealing with his ice cold eyes and devilish grin. The decision to make Kinski the son of a Nazi adds a depth to his character unlike most madmen found in films of its ilk at the time. He has been fueled with a believable motivation that drives him mad to the point that only murdering can calm him. In order to settle the score with his conscience, Gunther constantly plays Russian roulette to give faith a chance to punish him for his sins. Another dimension to this maniacal character that made watching this film such a treat. When he’s not spying on his next set of victims, Gunther is devising weapons of torture amongst his pet rats and a female prisoner locked away in a cage. In addition, as the film reaches its finale, Gunther applies makeup that resembles Robert Smith of The Cure for an added level of weirdness.

As a product of its time, Crawlspace does right by the audience for including beautiful female actresses and some nice T&A moments for a tantalizing effect. Talia Balsam (The Kindred) and Tané (Death Spa) both make appearances in the film. Making great use of budget, Empire Pictures shot the entire film on an apartment complex set which works well and adds a nice claustrophobic layer. Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Blow Out) serves up an incredibly spooky score that sets a disturbing tone with its echoing chorus chants. Director David Schmoeller orchestrates the tight 80 minute runtime with suspense and precision that paved the way for more collaborations with Empire Pictures such as Catacombs and Puppetmaster. Crawlspace is a disturbing and creepy diamond in the rough that is driven home by Kinski’s frightening performance. The film’s breezy runtime leaves no room for shenanigans and keeps you firmly on the edge of your seat. To say that I enjoyed Crawlspace would be an understatement, this is a wildly entertaining flick that is without a doubt, one of Empire Pictures’ greatest accomplishments.
RATING: 4.5/5

VIDEO:
Scream Factory presents Crawlspace in a 1080p HD widescreen (1.85:1) transfer that looks remarkable. It surprises me just how good a film from Empire Pictures‘ canon translates to HD and in the case of Crawlspace, it truly shines. Colors, most noticeably in the red carpet in the apartment complex’s halls, comes across bold while nice detail is showcased in facial features with skin tones looking very natural. Instances of flakes and speckles are barely existent on this transfer that boasts clear black levels and a great filmic layer of grain. Another fine job by Scream Factory!
RATING: 4.5/5

AUDIO:
Crawlspace comes equipped with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono mix that is very satisfying. Dialogue comes across clearly even at times with Kinski’s soft-spoken lines. Pino Donaggio’s haunting score really shines with intense scenes pushing the levels of the mix nicely. A rewarding audio presentation for such an effectively moody flick!
RATING: 4/5

EXTRAS:

- Audio Commentary with Director David Schmoeller: Schmoeller touches upon the atmosphere and unique process of how Empire Pictures‘ films were created. In addition, Schmoeller doesn’t get shy when discussing the tense nature of dealing with Kinski who could be ruthlessly uncooperative at times. Originally, Kinski’s character was meant to be a Vietnam POW but Charles Band questioned whether audiences were ready for a film dealing with the war. The decision was then made to make him the son of Nazi which, to this reviewer, was far more effective. There are some dry spots to this commentary, but overall Schmoeller offers plenty of insight into the making of the film.

- Tales from the Crawlspace: An Interview with John Vulich: Makeup-Effects Artist, Vulich, sits down for an interview where he discusses his early career highlights traveling the world and working on Empire Pictures films. Vulich also touches upon his encounters with Kinski and hails them as an unforgettable experience.

- Please Kill Mr. Kinski: Director David Schmoeller’s short documentary film that details the unpredictable and intense temper of Kinski which resulted in several on-set physical altercations.

- Theatrical Trailer

- TV Spots

- Reversible cover

RATING: 3.5/5

OVERALL:

Crawlspace is a disturbingly intense and creepy flick thanks to the unforgettable performance of Klaus Kinski. There’s no denying that this film is one of the best offerings from Empire Pictures and one that has gone far too unnoticed throughout the years. The depth and insane motivations driven by Kinski’s character make this a film that will leave you questioning the late actor’s sanity. Scream Factory has accomplished another victory by resurrecting this frightening flick with a wonderful video and audio presentation as well as a satisfying assortment of supplements. For what it’s worth, winding down on a wildly successful year for the horror label, Crawlspace walks away as one of my most revered non-Collector’s Edition releases from Scream Factory to date!
RATING: 4.5/5