Most of the early American International Pictures (AIP) titles have their video rights scattered amongst two parties. The one series films, identified as the Arkoff Library, have been released on DVD over the last few years in other countries, but are just premiering on the format in the U.S. now (January, 2006), courtesy of Lions Gate Films. One would have hoped that these precious cult items would have ended up in the hands of a company with a genuine interest and affection for them, as Lions Gate is mostly preoccupied with their recent horror theatrical releases, and have unleashed these Arkoff titles with little fanfare or enthusiasm. Much in the tradition of MGM’s Midnite Movies line, four films have been issued as two double features (with more to come) and at the least, the transfers are nice (albeit full frame), the packaging is attractive, and the price is right.
The first disc pairs two Herman Cohen attractions both directed by Herbert L. Strock as sort of follow-ups to I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF and I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN (these two are still missing in action in the other party’s ownership, so don’t even asked when they’ll ever be released on DVD). HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER (1958) has always been a big treat for monster movie fans for being a fun send-up and tribute to the genre. The film has veteran make-up man Pete Dummond (Robert H. Harris) getting his pink slip from "American International Pictures" after being told monster pictures are passé. While working on his final picture, "Frankenstein Meets Werewolf," he concocts a numbing ingredient into his make-up mix that will enable him to hypnotize young actors into bumping off the studio heads. "Teenage Frankenstein" Tony Mantell (Gary Conway, reprising his role) and "Teenage Werewolf" Larry Drake (Gary Clarke, taking over for Michael Landon) are unleashed to do damage, and even Pete dons make-up to attack a nosy studio security guard.
BLOOD OF DRACULA has nothing to do with Dracula, but rather taints the vampire legend into the fate of a cranky teenage girl. Headstrong Nancy Perkins (Sandra Harrison) is brought to a private school by her recently re-married father, wed six weeks after her mom’s death. After proving she can easily fit in with her annoying dorm mates, her hot temper draws attention to Miss Branding (Louise Lewis), a chemistry teacher working on an experimental behavior theory. Using an authentic Carpathian amulet, Miss Branding hypnotizes Nancy, who then transforms into a bloodthirsty creature who offs various students on the school grounds. The film basically takes the same route as I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, but never lives up to that effort, especially with Harrison’s monster turns kept to a bare minimum. But her wild bat make-up is memorable, looking closer to “Nosferatu” with big hair than anything else, and an impromptu musical number, “Puppy Love” is a hoot.
The black and white transfer on HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER looks fairly good, just a bit soft in spots, but otherwise fine, with minimal blemishes on the source print. The original color sequence--displaying the last ten minutes in full color--is thankfully included here and is a delight to behold. In appearance, it reminds one of a later episode of “The Adventure of Superman,” and it's great to see busts of other AIP monsters (some the work of Paul Blaisdell) in full color. Presented full frame, HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER's original aspect ratio was most likely 1.85:1, as its stagy scene set-ups display far too much headroom with an open matte. Overall, BLOOD OD DRACULA looks even better, with excellent grays and decent black levels. The picture detail and texture also come off well, and the open matte aperture doesn’t harm the compositions too badly. The mono audio on both titles is fine, if a bit a flat.
The other double bill pairs two from beloved director Bert I. Gordon (aka "Mr. BIG"): EARTH VS. THE SPIDER (aka THE SPIDER) and WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST. EARTH VS. THE SPIDER is no doubt one of Bert's best, being AIP’s answer to Universal’s TARANTULA. When a teenage girl's (June Kenney) father doesn't come home, she and her boyfriend go out searching and discover his wrecked car, leading them to a nearby cave with a giant creepy crawler in it. They bring back the Sheriff (husky Gene Roth from SHE DEMONS and 1950s "Three Stooges" shorts) and a concerned teacher (Ed Kemmer from GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN) and spray the bugger with DDT. Thinking it dead, they haul it back to the school gymnasium where it awakens to terrorize some rock n' rolling teens, and then the entire town. A real tarantula is used for most of the creature's shots, and the usual rear projection effects are in check.
WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST is an inferior sequel to Burt's THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN (with lengthy stretch of padding from it), with Duncan 'Dean' Parkin (also the titular THE CYCLOPS for Mr. BIG) this time as the enlarged Col. Glenn Manning. The giant has now lost an eye, and half his face is skull-like, probably to hide the fact that he's played by a different actor (he also groans and growls, speaking only once or twice). The colossal man is discovered in Mexico, and the military catches him by feeding him drugged loaves of bread, and he's then subjected to a home-movie slide show before escaping and wreaking havoc in Griffith Park. His over-concerned sister (Sally Fraser, IT CONQUERED THE WORLD) stops him from tossing a bus full of kids, and at the very end, the picture turns to full color (a typical AIP gimmick appropriately restored on this DVD presentation).
Both WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST and THE SPIDER are presented full frame with sharp enough transfers, both looking about the same in terms of presentation. The black and white visual textures are smooth, with hardly any noticeable grain and detail is sufficient. There are instances of print speckling, but it’s minimal. These two Bert Gordon titles most likely should be letterboxed at 1.66:1 or 1.85:1, but the full screen framing doesn't look that awkward, unlike HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER. The mono audio tracks are limited by their age, but satisfactory.
Aside from the great packaging (including original poster art), there are absolutely no extras included, not even trailers or subtitles/alternate language options. Still, these AIP classics are a must for any real monster fan’s DVD collection. (George R. Reis)
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