It’s here again, the time of year associated with carving smelly over-sized pumpkins, hanging up gaudy decorations that you’ll be tearing down in a few weeks and greeting costumed kiddies looking for goodies that will help keep their dentists busy. It’s also the season when various studios usually release horror movies on DVD, with the classics getting the most attention in the eyes of diehard collectors. This year, most of the major studios (including the Fox and the Lion, who have been in hibernation for almost two years) have frowned upon the idea of unleashing transfers of readily available library titles of vintage scare-fests on the digital format, but Warner has once again pulled through with their “Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics” collection. Whether these kings of Hollywood horror are starring in one of their prime vehicles, still landing leading roles during their twilight years, or playing second fiddle to second-rate comedy teams and bandleaders, there’s always room for more Karloff and Lugosi in your ever-growing collection, and this two-disc set doesn't disappoint.
Disc 1 (“Quintessential Karloff!”) in this set commences with 1936’s THE WALKING DEAD. Karloff plays John Ellman, a music-appreciating humble ex-con looking for work. Desperate, he becomes involved with a group of racketeers who hire him to privately investigate the everyday whereabouts of the judge who sent him to prison some years ago. When the judge is found murdered, Ellman is framed, trialed and sent to prison awaiting the electric chair. A young couple (Marguerite Churchill and Warren Hull) are witnesses to Ellman’s innocence, but are afraid to speak up until it’s too late. The innovative doctor (Edmund Gwenn) whom the couple works for is at least able to save Ellman’s body from an autopsy, bringing him back to life through a miracle medical process (including all the Frankensteinian bells and whistles). Newly born, Wellman doesn’t remember much except his piano skills, but he soon recognizes the mobsters who set him up, including the corrupt lawyer (Riccardo Cortez) who did very little to defend him in court. Wellman’s key motivation now is getting his revenge.
Directed by Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz (who helmed such titles as DOCTOR X, MYSTERY IN THE WAX MUSEUM and the Oscar-winning CASABLANCA) and clocking in at a brisk 66 minutes, THE WALKING DEAD is an entertaining product of Warner Bros. Studios, gelling the popular horror and gangster genres to good effect. Eerily photographed with shadowy imagery beckoning the cinema of German Expressionism, the film gives Karloff one of his finest “monster” parts of the 1930s, as it was obviously capitalizing on his recent household name status for masterfully portraying Frankenstein’s creation. With a white streak through his hair, subdued goulish face make-up and a slight crippling of his body, the dark and menacing character is made totally sympathetic in the hands of Karloff. THE WALKING DEAD’s supporting cast is also top notch, especially the always distinguished Gwenn and Cortez who has “shyster” written all over his face in every shot he’s in.
The second film on Disc 2, FRANKENSTEIN 1970 (1958), was directed by Howard W. Koch for producer Aubrey Schenk and released by Allied Artists. As the last descendant of his infamous family, Baron Victor von Frankenstein (Karloff) is a bitter man living in a castle in Germany, his face disfigured due to Nazi persecution. In the modern year of 1970, an American film crew headed by a womanizing director (Don 'Red' Barry) rent and stay at the castle to shoot an anniversary TV special centered on the Frankenstein legend. The Baron is less than thrilled with his overseas houseguests (though he agrees to make an on-camera appearance), and coincidentally he's making a monster in his atomic age laboratory, hidden underneath a secret passageway in the family crypt. Using a clay bust and an 8x10 glossy headshot of actor Boris Karloff as his model, the Baron’s succeeds in bringing his creation to life, using the brain of his meek little servant Shuter (Norbert Schiller, THE RETURN OF DRACULA). The awaking creature is an eyeless giant wrapped in bandages and sporting a gauze-covered waste paper basket over his head. With plenty of potential victims (including Jana Lund, Tom Duggan, Charlotte Austin and John Dennis) roaming around the castle, the Baron has the bulky monster hunt for the perfect pair of eyeballs, even if he has to kill each and every one of them.
FRANKENSTEIN 1970 was made at a time when a slew of new Frankenstein pictures were being released, as well as the old Universal series (many which starred Karloff) being aired on TV as part of the “Shock Theater” package. Luckily for horror fans, Karloff was still being typecast in these types of films, as the idea of having the actor who made the monster his own play Dr. Frankenstein was inevitable. A quickly shot B movie rather mechanically directed by Koch (who produced THE BLACK SLEEP, VOODOO ISLAND, PHARAOH’S CURSE, etc.) which is often denounced by even the most forgivable fans, FRANKENSTEIN 1970 is still a lot of fun on the “guilty pleasure” level, and it gives us one of Karloff’s hammiest performances ever, exactly what this sort of film calls for. It features an amusing supporting cast, some great gothic castle sets (mostly leftover from a Warner Bros. production, TOO MUCH, TOO SOON), some gratuitous shots of a heart being massaged and severed eyeballs being dropped, and a peculiar, lumbering fully covered monster played by 6’5” Mike Lane. Lane (who also doubles in the film as Hans the butler) revised the role of the Frankenstein monster (as “Frank N. Stein”) on the 1976 Saturday morning kiddie show “Monster Squad”, which was just released on DVD by Virgil Films.
Disc 2 (“The Hungarian Horrormeister!”) centers on Bela, but 1940’s YOU’LL FIND OUT also features Karloff as well as Peter Lorre for good measure. Mixing musical and mystery themes, the film was produced as a vehicle for bandleader and radio personality Kay Kyser and his Kollege of Musical Knowledge. Kyser lightheartedly plays himself as he and his band are hired to play a mansion where the 21st birthday party of heiress Janis Bellacrest (Helen Parrish) is being held. Being that heiresses have lots of dough, she informs her beau (Dennis O’Keefe) that attempts have made on her life, culminating in peculiar events that occur at the party. Kay Kyser and his bandmates show up, as do a bunch of debutantes, but their boyfriends don’t: when the bridge connecting the mansion with the main land collapses during a violent storm (a great miniature effect), that ends the notion of the girls having proper dates. The remaining partygoers are treated to music by Kay and company, followed by a séance conducted by phony medium Prince Saliano (Lugosi in a turban) where Ms. Bellacrest is almost crushed by a falling chandelier. With the suspicion that there’s a murderer about, Kay plays amateur detective, and his main suspects are Prince Saliano and a stuffy judge (Karloff) as he irrationally confides in a beady-eyed, heavy-accented psychologist (Lorre).
Directed by David Butler for RKO Radio Pictures, YOU’LL FIND OUT is an enjoyable enough mix of comedy, swing numbers and haunted house antics that sustains its 97-minute running time. If you can live with a handful of musical interludes (five to be exact) and the fact that the three horror stars’ screen-time is limited (though still generous enough for what it’s worth), you’ll get a kick out of this slice of war-time nostalgia. Karloff (who gets special guest billing), Lugosi and Lorre are here for the sole purpose of exploiting their familiar villainous personas, as they are uncovered as the bad guys almost from their introductory scenes and they get to share some on-screen moments together, which is a good thing (this was the only time the trio appeared together in the same film). The mansion is well decorated with the usual gothic trappings and exotic trinkets, and some of the film’s best bits have Kyser and O’Keefe searching the place in the middle of the night, only to encounter a number of trap doors and secret passageways. There are numerous props on display as set decorations, and look for some of the original miniature monster models from KING KONG seen on a shelf in the mansion’s basement. Legendary character actor Jeff Corey is in the opening scene, and this was his film debut (Kyser addresses him as “Mr. Corey”).
Another RKO picture, made in 1945, is ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY, directed by Gordon Douglas. Two idiot press agents, Mike (Alan Carney) and Jerry (Wally Brown), are in a tough spot. Their mobster-like boss (the one and only Sheldon Leonard) wants them to find a real-life zombie as a publicity stunt for the opening of a new Manhattan nightclub, and they’ll most likely be wearing cement shoes if they don’t come up with one. After consulting a museum professor (Ian Wolfe) they come to the conclusion that the only way they’re going to come across an authentic zombie is the island of San Sebastian. The island turns out to be full of superstition and seedy types, as Mike and Jerry team up with a beautiful singer (Anne Jeffreys) who promises to help them find a zombie if they promise to take her home with them. After escaping some overzealous natives, the trio winds up at the house of Dr. Renault (Lugosi), another mad scientist bent on creating the perfect zombie. Mike is then transformed into a zombie who resembles Marty Allen with his hair combed back.
ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY is one of a number of features the much-maligned comedy team of “Carney and Brown” made between 1943-1946, and it’s the most recognized of their resume due to the title and having Bela Lugosi as the co-star (Lugosi also made an appearance in another one of their films, 1946’s GENIUS AT WORK, though in a much smaller role). Although Leonard Maltin refers to the duo as a “cut-rate version of Abbott and Costello”, the film is really not that bad, especially if you have a penchant for that old cinematic standby of comedy teams meeting horror movie icons. Admittedly, Brown and Carney are no Abbott and Costello, not even close, but there are a few laughs within even if the film depends on nearly every classic comedy team cliché in the book (Carney even puts on “blackface” at one point to blend in with the hostile natives). Lugosi is no stranger to this kind of cinema, first encountering the Ritz Brothers in 1939’s THE GORILLA and having to contend with Sammy Petrillo and Duke Mitchell in BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA towards the end of his career. In between, Lugosi was paired with the East Side Kids, Abbott and Costello and solo funny men such as Jack Haley and Britisher Arthur Lucan (Old Mother Riley). Here, he pretty much plays it straight in a rather limited role, even when he’s confronted with a cunningly cute monkey outwitting him with a dresser’s drawers. Apparently, RKO intended this as a sort of follow-up to Jacques Tourneur’s highly acclaimed I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943), with lofty character actor Darby Jones reprising his bug-eyed zombie role quite effectively.
Warner Bros. has done an excellent job bringing these Karloff/Lugosi classics to DVD, presenting all four black & white films in their original aspect ratio (all full frame except FRANKENSTEIN 1970). THE WALKING DEAD (which was only previously available as a long out-of-print laserdisc) is the only title on the set which shows its age, as there are some noticeable blemishes and picture softness, but overall it doesn’t look too bad. FRANKENSTEIN 1970 (only previously available as a pan and scan VHS tape) looks impressive as ever, with a picture that preserves its 2.35:1 Scope ratio with anamorphic enhancement, and this will be a big revelation for anyone who’s only viewed the film cropped for television broadcasts and for home video. The film elements are also in impeccable shape, resulting in a clean and crisp widescreen picture for the duration. The two RKO titles, YOU’LL FIND OUT and ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY both look great, with clean transfers that boast sharp picture detail and strong black levels. All four films have satisfactory mono audio tracks (no detectable defects) with optional English subtitles (for the hearing impaired) and optional French subtitles.
Extras on the set include two well-done commentary tracks for THE WALKING DEAD and FRANKENSTEIN 1970. Film historian/author Greg Mank handles the choirs on THE WALKING DEAD and does a fine job of filling up the hour plus running time with tons of factoids about the cast and behind-the-camera talent, Warner Bros. Studios at the time, and of course Karloff (whom Mank wrote a fan letter to as a kid, responded with an autographed photo of the actor). Film historian/author Tom Weaver and actor/film historian/monster prop collector Bob Burns join actress Charlotte Austin for a delightfully good commentary to accompany FRANKENSTEIN 1970. There’s a lot of well-spirited fun here, as the three recall the film, share anecdotes about the cast and filmmakers, and it really gets interesting when Weaver reads passages from the original shooting script (written as “Frankenstein’s Castle”) of bits which didn’t make it into the film. Austin relays how she recently showed the film to her grandchildren, who didn’t seem all that impressed. Rounding out the extras for this highly recommended set are the original trailers for YOU’LL FIND OUT and FRANKENSTEIN 1970, though the latter appears to be a TV spot. (George R. Reis)
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