DVD REVIEWS (5/18/02):

BALLYHOO!

Monsters Crash the Pajama Party Spook Show Spectactular (1965); available now from Image Entertainment, Inc., $19.99 SRP or $14.99 (plus shipping) online from www.dvdplanet.com or by phone at 1-800-624-3078.

     Many years ago I ordered a "Bag of Laughs" from the back of a comic book. Couldn't have been more than seven years old at the time. The product promised to be, upon arrival, a "party in a box."
     Actually, the damn thing didn't come too much alive even after installing batteries. A few giggles and nothing more for a week or so, and then just nothing. It died, and it quickly received a garbage can burial in the box it was mailed in.
     But this past autumn I felt like I'd finally got the replacement to the promise of a "party in a box." Something Weird Video not only delivers that phrase with Monsters Crash the Pajama Party, they also take advantage of the DVD format in a new and exciting way.
     After all, even the best of DVDs on my shelf (and there are plenty, believe me) offer only supplemental materials to a larger project. You get the film you want and then a bunch of "supplementals." Even when those go way beyond a French-language option or a coming attraction trailer, they are still generally nothing more "extras" supporting a larger whole.
     By contrast, PJ Party is a vast collection of materials designed to recreate the wonderful old days of the travelling live "spook show." Rather than showcasing a centerpiece film, the disc provides an amazing array of short subjects that together recreate the lost spook show experience far better than any book or article has ever done.
     Navigating through over three hours of (mainly) short material is not that difficult, however, thanks to what has certainly become my favorite DVD menu. Imagine artwork of a cemetery resembling something out of an old Charlton horror comic or maybe products on 1960s department store shelves at Halloween, which is then coupled with wonderful horror sound effects.
     With a little use of the arrow keys on the remote, you can highlight art of a gravestone, an owl, or even a dagger that moves into the deeper recesses of the cemetery and finally lands beneath the ground in a crypt.
     And what do you get when you finally brave pushing "enter" on these icons?
     Well, the first few I hit helped prep me for the spook show experience with vintage radio spots for shows paired with on-screen ads, as well as film trailers brimming with phony but fantastic monster costumes. There's also the title short, which accompanied live spook shows in the days of old.
     But from there I'm afraid of simply rattling off a laundry list of the infinite number of goodies. Some favorites of mine: The Asylum of the Insane, a 3-D short that can be viewed through the glasses enclosed with the disc; the educational short Don't Be Afraid! (part of the old ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITTANICA series of films); and Drive-In Werewolf, a short about, well, a drive-in werewolf.
     Most intriguing, perhaps, are the "horror home productions" from the 1920s, '40s, and '60s. These 16mm shorts mimic known horror movies, with the London After Midnight short being worth the price of the disc alone. With that 1927 Chaney film missing in action, the home movie gives insight into its popularity with some original viewers and, perhaps, just perhaps, a flavor of how Chaney acted in the role of the pseudo-vampire.
     Though the historian in me did find the London After Midnight takeoff to be the most engaging, I guess I got the strongest nostalgia from Spook House Ride, a short 16mm bit that simply has a camera mounted to the front of a carnival vehicle going through a 1960s haunted house. Nothing special cinematically, but unbelievably special in preserving the kind of youthful event that got many of us interested in horror to begin with.
     Of course, all of the shorts on this disc seem to go on and on, thankfully. And there is even a feature-length flick on the disc, the 1960 Bert I. Gordon film Tormented, the movie that caused Joe "The bartender from The Shining" Turkel to receive a permanent hearing impairment when Richard Carlson shot a prop gun off next to his ear as a joke.
     But the spook show experience itself keeps going with two audio commentaries, a wonderfully written and printed booklet in the case, and an on-screen reprint of the illustrated essay "How to Put on Your Own Spook Show."
     You know, I've written a lot of film reviews of differing kinds through the years, and I can't think of another that I procrastinated writing as much as this one. PJ Party so excited me and so ignited nostalgia for me that I knew it would be tough to write a review that did justice to the disc and truly conveyed my positive feelings about it. Last night, during another evening of putting off writing this review, I visited a local electronics chain with my friend Alex, and I didn't let him leave until he had PJ Party in his hands at the checkout.
     After all, for horror fans this disc does even more than provide a "party in a box" and an insightful and very historical recreation of a spook show experience: It wonderfully captures the spirit and flavor and fun that horror can provide.

--Gary Don Rhodes

LADY OF THE HOUSE!

Lady Frankenstein (1972); available now from DVD Drive-In, $29.95 SRP. Visit them online at www.dvddrive-in.com for more information and for the latest in genre DVD reviews and news. 1-800-624-3078.

     Best remembered as Gravis Mushnik in Roger Corman's The Little Shop of Horrors, Mel Welles also directed a couple of perverse Euro horror flicks: Maneater of Hydra with Cameron Mitchell and this one (for Corman's New World Pictures).
     Tanya Frankenstein (Rosalba Neri), heir to her family's dubious legacy, arrives at the castle of her father (Joseph Cotton) in time to witness his successful attempt at reviving the corpse of a hanged criminal. The hulking creature---whose face is scarred during the resuscitation when an ember from a lightning strike incinerates it---turns on its creator and crushes him, afterward escaping the confines of the castle. A competent physician herself, Tanya decides to continue the patriarch's work.
     She recruits the services of her father's assistant Charles (played sympathetically by Paul Muller), whose brain she proposes transplanting into the body of a much younger though mentally challenged hired hand. While she seduces the youthful stud, Charles reluctantly smothers him. At first, it looks as though her motives for carrying on with her father's work are selfless...but looks can be deceiving.
     Viewers of Lady Frankenstein have sometimes had trouble getting past the hydrocephalic look of Cotton's monster. However, the screenplay---from an original story attributed to Dick Randall, the man behind the goofy gore epic Pieces---does have some clever touches. It contains references to the 1931 Universal classic, updated and skewed to the more permissive '70s audience.
     As if to outdo Colin Clive's heretical and once-censored line, "Now I know what it feels like to be God," Cotton utters not one but two such defiances. When Muller expresses reservations about tampering with the domain of the Almighty, Cotton corrects him: "Here on Earth, man is God." And to emphasize this point, just before the experiment Cotton calmly proclaims, "Man's will be done."
     Once freed, the rampaging zombie throws a nude women into a stream right after she has had carnal relations, as if the filmmakers wished to mock the drowning of an "innocent" in the original (another once-censored moment). Even the interrupted wedding is given a modern slant when the creature intrudes upon Neri and her new lover during the consummation of their passion.
     The script toys around with the notion that the line between sexuality and sadism is very thin by giving the monster a damaged hypothalmus, making him susceptible to extreme modes of "anger and pleasure." It's too bad only the former mode was explored.
     Drive-In DVD's supplements are commendable. The 27 chapter breaks---given rock 'n' roll titles to describe the scenes---are non sequiturs but nonetheless humorous. There is a short interview from last year with Ms. Neri at around age 60; she speaks English better than she understands it. There is a much longer session with Welles, who seems an affable sort. A photo gallery of shots from the movie is included, as well as a separate one for Neri, with stills from the Latin goddess's other exploitation classics such as Slaughter Hotel and The Devil's Wedding Night.
     The addition I enjoyed the most was the surprise group of trailers. Besides Lady Frankenstein, you'll find previews for Legend of the Wolf Woman, The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, the rarities Beyond the Darkness (released on video as The Devil's Female) and The Night Child, and a few others. These were unexpected but welcome.
     The presentation of the movie itself is another matter. The main problem is that the bottom and top of the 1.33:1 image have been masked. This was seemingly done to simulate the 16 x 9 aspect ratio. So while the print used is virtually identical to the 1984 Embassy Home Entertainment tape, the latter, full-frame rendition (which is actually a bit sharper) has significant visual information not in the letterboxed DVD.
     I haven't seen Madacy Entertainment's release of this picture (on a double bill with Bert I. Gordon's Tormented). Their track record isn't good, but they can usually be purchased at Best Buy for around $8.00, which is certainly cheaper than DVD Drive-In's $30.00 price tag. Still, this disc---which may be the "official" version according to Welles but, hopefully, won't be the definitive one---might be worth acquiring for the extras. Just don't auction off your old VHS copy yet.

--Lorne Marshall

DRIVE-IN CREATURE FEATURES!

Killer Creature Double Feature: Bloodlust (1959) / Atom Age Vampire (1960); available now from Madacy Entertainment, $11.98 SRP or $8.99 (plus shipping) online from www.dvdplanet.com or by phone at 1-800-624-3078.

     Those of you unfamiliar with Madacy's Killer Creature series of "B" double-feature DVDs could start with the one-two punch of this entertaining disc. Each Killer Creature's Double Feature platter begins with the most creative and amusing FBI copyright warning ever conceived: A Frankensteinian Claymation creature walks into a jail cell wearing a prison uniform, sits on the cot, and holds his head in his hands. The scenario is followed by the standard FBI warning message that appears on every DVD and laserdisc. This delightful intro also underscores Killer Creature's humorous and entertaining approach to the low-budget horror films of the 1950s and early 1960s.
     I picked this particular disc because it contains one of my all-time low-budget guilty pleasures: 1959's Bloodlust, a lurid remake of The Most Dangerous Game (1932), directed by Ralph Brooke and featuring Walter Brooke (Ralph's brother). What makes Bloodlust especially endearing to me is that it was photographed by Richard Cunha, my favorite 1950s "B" movie director, who helmed such classics as Frankenstein's Daughter, She Demons, and Giant from the Unknown (all 1958). Cunha's grimy, sleazy style is evident throughout the movie, and it contains his usual characteristically heavy doses of gore and bloodletting. (I still feel Cunha is the original father of the splatter film, preceding even Herschell Gordon Lewis in pioneering the use of grue to pump up the shock quotient in his films.) Bloodlust is noteworthy for one particular scene in which one of the villain's henchmen is seen disintegrating in an acid bath.
     But director Brooke also coaxes good performances from his low-budget cast. Wilton Graff, as the maniacal big-game hunter, limns his performance with an arrogant, cultured touch, reminiscent of Leslie Banks' work in the original 1932 classic. The women in the film also deliver memorable work: June Kenny (the leading lady in Bert I. Gordon's Earth vs. The Spider [1958]) actually plays the film's strongest character, one of Graff's abductees, who engineers the escape of her fellow prisoners; and Lylyan Chauvin, who gives an articulate, posed performance as Graff's helpless wife, who assists Kenny in plotting their escape from Graff's island. The only weak link is an ineffectual, pre-Brady Bunch Robert Reed, as the leading man. Kenny and Chauvin both upstage him in heroics and strength of character. I recall seeing Bloodlust for the first time late one Saturday night about 35 years ago on Philadelphia's Double Chiller Theater, and I found it a memorably twisted, grimy, and gruesome experience. It is a film that still does not disappoint, and it's nice that Madacy brought it out from the depths of obscurity for full DVD treatment.
     Unfortunately, Atom Age Vampire has held up less well over time. It's a talky, derivative Jekyll and Hyde knock-off that stars Alberto Lupo as a mad doctor who uses radiation treatments to treat scar tissue. His exposure to the radioactivity inevitably results in the man-to-monster transformation. Alas, dumb dialogue dominates and Lupo's monster is all-too-rarely seen.
     However, the disc also contains a pleasant surprise: Sandwiched between Bloodlust and Atom Age Vampire is a delightful 1932 Betty Boop cartoon that intercuts filmed imagery of Louis Armstrong and his Band with the animated characters. The cartoon was made at the height of Fleischer Studios' creativity and contains imagery that is just as bizarre as either of the disc's feature presentations. In addition, the disc's menu contains black-and-white images of both films' main characters (a leather-suited Graff holding a rifle and Lupo in full monster makeup) superimposed over an actual 1950's drive-in---perhaps the best-looking and most interestingly designed menu of any double-feature disc. While time has not been kind to Atom Age Vampire, both Bloodlust and Boop make this disc an essential Saturday night companion.

--Steve Kronenberg



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