Boris Karloff is no doubt one of three greatest horror stars of all time, but you can say that the films on this disc represent the worst that his career had to offer. That said, any Karloff genre work is still highly collectible, and Retromedia brings us two more for our growing DVD collections.
Made in 1953, ISLAND MONSTER (aka THE MONSTER OF THE ISLAND) is an Italian film that didn't reach our shores until 1957--and many believe it should have stayed there longer than that. The plot involves a suave government agent assigned to stop a drug smuggling ring on an Italian island near Naples. His daughter is kidnapped by the smugglers, and they are actually lead by one Don Gaetano (Karloff). The little girl is tied up near some rocks and has a pet dog that is cleverer than Scooby Doo.
ISLAND MONSTER is a middling black and white crime thriller with the rare novelty of seeing Karloff in an Italian-made picture (especially when he's rowing a boat waering a Gilligan cap). There is no "monster" as the title implies, just a mean old man posing as a kindly philanthropist who is more concerned with hiding the hashish. Another novelty here is the atrocious dubbing, some of the worst committed to celluloid. It's bad enough that someone does a awful Karloff impersonation, but the little girl has the all too obvious voice of a grown woman, desperately doing it in a squeaky tone!
The quality on ISLAND MONSTER is surprisingly very good. The image is fairly sharp, blacks are sufficiently deep, and detail is satisfactory. Print damage is very little and the sound is extremely clear for such an older, obscure film. The running time is 69 minutes, and some abrupt edits would lead one to think there is a longer version out there, but 69 minutes is more than enough.
The second movie here is THE FEAR CHAMBER, one of four Mexican horror films featuring Karloff shortly before his death. Retromedia released it on DVD singularly a few years ago, but its faulty playback on many machines prompted them to promise a new edition, here at last on the bottom half of this double bill. 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) takes matters into her own hands, kidnapping more trampy girls 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 in California by drive-in maverick Jack Hill as inserts, but his ample interaction with the other performers easily conceals the fact.
Retromedia's DVD consists of the uncut version (rather than the edited one known as "The Torture Zone"), so we get to see nude girls performing psychedelic dances in front of a piece of granite before perishing as life-drained hags. The letterboxed transfer presents the same source as the previously released version, and even though the colors are very good, the images often bleed and are a bit soft. Some of the darker scenes become indistinct, and the sound is acceptable but has some hiss.
A really cool extra here is the featurette, "Kickin' Back with Robert Vincent O'Neill." O'Neill not only shares his experience as property master on the Karloff Mexican films (where he explains how he bonded with the actor and how professional he was), but talks about working on COUNT YORGA VAMPIRE, BLOOD MANIA and PSYCH-OUT (a great story about when he made fake joints for Jack Nicholson and company), and on to directing films like THE PSYCHO LOVER and ANGEL. (George R. Reis)
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