Directors: Juan Ibanez, Jack Hill
Elite Entertainment

Before moaning, “No, not another DVD of THE FEAR CHAMBER!,” you collectors out there might want to give this surprise release from Elite Entertainment a shot , especially considering its low price tag. The film had been previously available from Retromedia as a single disc, and then it was tossed on the bottom of a double bill with their release of Karloff’s ISLAND MONSTER. Even if you have purchased any of those, this new version is still recommended, as it contains a different transfer of the film, as well as an informative commentary by the film’s partial director and screenwriter.

THE FEAR CHAMBER is one of four Mexican horror films featuring Boris Karloff shortly before his death (although shot in 1968, the titles' copyright states 1971). Here, Karloff plays Dr. Mandel, a seemingly kind scientist who is part of an expedition that discovered a living stone inside the earth. The stone can communicate with people by feeding off the blood of frightened women. Mandel and his sorted assistants set up a "fear chamber," scaring the pants off of scantily clad girls in different grotesque ways (shades of José Mojica Marins' Zé do Caixao), and they are simply fodder for the bulky manifestation.

Elderly and ill, Mandel takes a break from the weird experiments, and it's at this point that Karloff phones in much of his performance, literally from a bed. Now, his rather evil lady assistant (Isela Vega, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA) takes matters into her own hands, kidnapping more trampy babes for further sadistic amusement. Isela's cronies are a feisty bald dwarf, a near-sighted Arab, and a half-witted hunchback with a circular lobotomy scar. Things become pretty scandalous in her hands, but the unstoppable Karloff returns in time to take back control of the situation.

Even in dreck like THE FEAR CHAMBER, Karloff never once makes a fool out of himself and he always delivers his lines with the usual energetic professionalism. Wheelchair-ridden at the time, Karloff is seen mostly sitting down, in bed, or behind some elaborate control panel (at one point he's standing in a hooded robe as part of a "fear chamber" act), and is actually in the film for a generous amount of time. Karloff's footage was shot by drive-in movie master Jack Hill in California, but his ample interaction with the other performers doesn't easily exhibit the fact. In addition, some of the primary Mexican actors were brought to LA to share scenes with him, making the intercutting pretty seamless, unlike previous Jerry Warren efforts which would unconvincingly splice in American thesps, performing in front of cardboard sets, into any foreign cheapie he could get his hands on. Hill had worked for Roger Corman, so he knew how to get things done quickly and efficiently – Boris’ footage four all four films was shot in a matter of weeks.

Elite’s release of THE FEAR CHAMBER is the best the film has ever looked. Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, the title is finally presented with good picture detail, so dark scenes and background information are now very clear to the eyes. Colors are stable, print source damage is minimal, but there’s a good amount of grain throughout the presentation. A remixed 5.1 soundtrack is included, as well as a regular stereo mix that both serve the film well for what it is.

An audio commentary with Jack Hill is included. Hill not only directed all of Karloff’s scenes, but he also concocted the story and is credited as co-screenwriter. Hill gives a very entertaining and thorough talk, discussing working with Karloff and the Mexican actors, his dissatisfaction with the producer’s lack of interest, the many changes made to his script, how he brought on his retired father as a set designer (he had worked for Disney in his prime) and much more. Hill didn’t know what happened to his the four Karloff films after he finished shooting them, only rediscovering them years later on video, but this one seems to be his favorite from what he’s seen of them. A deleted scene is included as an extra: a topless girl performs a psychedelic dance in front of a piece of granite before perishing as a life-drained hag (this sequence is intact on the Retromedia disc).

Elite and associate DVD producer Chip Hess have delivered a nice package here, so hopefully they can look into giving the same treatment to the three other Karloff Mexican efforts. (George R. Reis)