As Hammer Films ushered in a new era of gothic thrillers during the late 1950s, other parties were constantly trying to replicate their success with vivid color productions, as well as a higher level of graphic intensity. Produced in England by a little company called Caralan and released by United Artists, DR. BLOOD’S COFFIN was directed by 20-something-year-old Canadian Sidney J. Furie, who would quickly go on to do the black & white chiller THE SNAKE WOMAN for the same producer, George Fowler. A long-time staple of public domain video bargain bins, MGM finally bestows us with an official release as part of their Limited Edition Collection.
Ousted by the medical community in Vienna after some blasphemous experiments, biochemist Peter Blood (Kieron Moore, THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS) returns to the Cornish home of his father (Ian Hunter, 1939’s TOWER OF LONDON), also a doctor making a living as a general practitioner. Peter’s secret research involves transferring the hearts of still-living disposable (in his demented eyes) citizens into the bodies of recently deceased men of worth. His arrival in town conveniently brings on a number of village casualties to experiment on while he maintains the guise of a friendly doctor and romances his father’s recently widowed nurse (Hazel Court, MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH) before ultimately reviving a once-buried corpse into a walking monstrosity.
Obviously shot quickly by a very young filmmaker whose best work was still ahead of him (Furie would go on to direct Michael Caine in THE IPCRESS FILE, Rita Tushingham in THE LEATHER BOYS and Dina Ross in LADY SINGS THE BLUES, among many others), DR. BLOOD’S COFFIN’s Frankensteinien high jinks were obviously inspired by the recent success of the Hammer/Cushing cycle, as well as other similar color bloody British biscuits such as BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE. Although the direction is rather flat (apart from a handful of Dutch camera angles during Blood’s lab surgeries) and the film is outright talky, it does have a few memorable scenes, and some surprisingly crimson-soaked pulsating hearts on display, which must have had theater patrons screaming at the time of release. Most of the thrills are saved for the last few minutes, when a rotting corpse (Paul Stockman) torments poor Hazel Court in a gloomy mine where Blood hides some of his victims. The ghoul make-up on Stockman is still pretty impressive, though it’s always reminded me of (at least from the publicity stills in various monster movie books) a crusty, moldering Frank Gorshin.
Unlike Peter Cushing or Anton Diffring, youngish Irish actor Moore (later in the sci-fi/disaster opus CRACK IN THE WORLD) plays an atypical mad scientist with a perfect community cover-up and an unsuspecting mug (the face of the story’s evil perpetrator is concealed during most of the beginning, but any educated filmgoer will instantly guess that it’s the disgraced “Blood” in the bad guy’s shoes). Moore’s Dr. Blood might come off as dull, but the fact that he fancies himself a “Robin Hood” type of operator (unconsciously offing locals he deems “useless” for the good of science) and uses the South American poison curare to give them the appearance of death while he performs vivisection, still makes the character at least somewhat original. By the way, Blood keeps the concoction in a container made out of a cut-off bamboo stick.
It’s always great to see the lovely red-headed Hazel Court, and here she proves why she was one of the prime scream queens of the late 1950s and early 1960s. She had just done several films for Hammer, and was about to collaborate with Roger Corman over at AIP in the States, so this is probably one of her lesser-known genre performances. DR. BLOOD’S COFFIN also contains support by familiar Hammer stock actors, including Paul Hardmuth (THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN), Gerald C. Lawson (THE MUMMY) and Fred Johnson (SCREAM OF FEAR) as well as a number of Hammer’s behind-the-scenes talent (art director Scott MacGregor, special effects artist Les Bowie and musical supervisor Philip Martell). Kenneth J. Warren plays the obligatory concerned police chief, but he’s well known to early 1970s British horror fans for his shaven-headed turns in I MONSTER, THE CREEPING FLESH and DEMONS OF THE MIND, all made shortly before his untimely death in 1973.
Previously available with mediocre transfers through a number of budget VHS and DVD companies (including Alpha Video), the only time DR. BLOOD’S COFFIN was released legitimately on home video in the U.S. was on a laserdisc box set of United Artists horror classics from MGM/UA and Image Entertainment. One would have thought that MGM might have slapped the same full screen transfer onto DVD, but that’s not the case with this Limited Edition Collection made-to-order release. The film has been newly remastered in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement and looks far, far better than the old laserdisc rendering. The image is far more crisp and clean than that incarnation, grain is minimal and the Eastman colors here look terrific, comparable to a Technicolor process. The mono English audio is also very clear, with no apparent scratchiness or other defects. No theatrical trailer is included, which is a shame as it was tagged onto the aforementioned laserdisc collection. No chapter stops are included, but the viewer can move ahead though at ten minute intervals throughout the presentation. (George R. Reis)
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