Directors: Robert Day, Spencer Bennet
The Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection commences the New Year on a high note by granting us this long-awaited and very cultish four-disc box set of four genre favorites from ace producers Richard Gordon and one from his brother Alex Gordon (who passed away in 2003). Highlighting atomic age monsters and the king of horror himself, Boris Karloff, this set is loaded with welcomed extras and boasts sparkling transfers, making it a highly recommended purchase for any serious buff of vintage sci-fi and horror.

It's invigorating to think of how consistently Boris Karloff worked in horror films throughout his later years. The decade of the 1950s was a so-so period in terms of quality productions featuring the endearing actor, infested with misfires like MONSTER OF THE ISLAND ('53) and VOODOO ISLAND ('57). Even acceptable fare like THE STRANGE DOOR ('51), THE BLACK CASTLE ('52), and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE ('53) came up short in some ways regarding Karloff's input, as he was utilized solely for marquee value with nothing meaty to sink his teeth into as a proud actor. It's ironic then that one year alone (1958) would produce two of Boris Karloff's finest offerings from the rock 'n roll decade: THE HAUNTED STRANGLER (originally known as GRIP OF THE STRANGLER in England) and CORRIDORS OF BLOOD. Karloff was pleased to make both pictures, as they each gave him strong parts and were well directed despite having light budgets.

THE HAUNTED STRANGLER begins in the London of 1860, where a blood-hungry mob is cheering the execution of Edward Styles, aka the "Haymarket Strangler." Twenty years later, a novelist by the name of James Rankin (Karloff) becomes obsessed with the case of Styles and his own hunch that the hanged man was not guilty. Despite discouragement from his wife to let the past remain buried, Rankin continues to track down any evidence he can find. His ultimate conclusion is that a mysterious coroner called Dr. Tenant might have been involved, but the doctor's history shows that he vanished without a trace. Also curious is the fact that Tenant's surgical knife is missing, and Rankin deduces that the murder weapon must have been stashed inside Styles' coffin with his remains. Gaining entry into a creepy graveyard at midnight, Rankin digs up Styles' coffin and manages to locate the infamous scalpel inside amidst a heap of bones and ashes. Upon grasping the knife, Rankin's body contorts and his brain convulses. He becomes a grimacing, half-paralyzed maniac, prowling the night in search of pretty girls to strangle and stab.

THE HAUNTED STRANGLER highlights Karloff the Consummate Actor at his finest, never missing a beat for a man in his advancing years (he was nearly 70 when he made the film). He's grim and effective as he portrays a blade-wielding murderer simply by mussing his hair, removing his false teeth, biting his lower lip, and distorting his left arm.

Set in London in 1840, CORRIDORS OF BLOOD ingeniously shifts the narrative back and forth from the seedy streets of London's slums to the corridors of an influential hospital. It is there that Dr. Bolton (Karloff) attempts to convince an intimidating hospital superintendent (Finlay Currie) and the rest of his piers of his advancing surgical methods. Bolton is developing an anesthetic gas to use on patients during painful operations. After a botched public demonstration at the hospital, Bolton is dismissed and is denied access to the drugs that he needs to continue his experiments. Bolton uses himself as the guinea pig for his potent gas, and he eventually becomes addicted. His downfall leads him into the hands of the lowlifes at a tavern called "The Seven Dials." They agree to obtain the drugs that the doctor needs in exchange for his signature on phony death certificates (the corpses are sold to local hospitals). Bolton's addiction creates such an obstruction that he ultimately endangers his life, his reputation and his research.

CORRIDORS OF BLOOD is one of the few gothic British horror films lensed in black and white during this period, as most were employing color in the new era of Hammer Films. Like a handful of other British classics of the same time (Baker and Berman's MANIA and JACK THE RIPPER) the film works better in black and white. The eerie cinematography perfectly compliments the film's cast of sorted characters and surroundings. Director Robert Day capably sets a nice mood and pace, and the cast is a horror lover's dream, reading like a who's who of British horror; Francis Matthews (REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN), Betta St. John (HORROR HOTEL), Adrienne Corri (VAMPIRE CIRCUS), Francis De Wolff (HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES), Nigel Green (COUNTESS DRACULA), Yvonne Warren (Romain) (DEVIL DOLL), Charles Lloyd Pack (HORROR OF DRACULA), and Skip Martin (MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH) all appear in various roles. If you look carefully, you'll also spot the late Desmond Llewelen ("Q" of James Bond fame) as a hospital staff member. Donned in black garb and top hat, Christopher Lee (in between his first few Hammer films) is perfectly cast as the frayed and scarred grave robber, Resurrection Joe (love that name). Lee's character is obviously inspired by the persona of Burke and Hare, as he snuffs out helpless victims by suffocating them with a puffy pillow. Karloff and Lee only have a few scenes together, but one of them is unforgettable; in self-defense, Karloff flings a jar of acid at Lee who agonizes in slow motion.

Both THE HAUNTED STRANGLER and CORRIDORS OF BLOOD were released to DVD some years ago by Image Entertainment. While both looked quite nice, THE HAUNTED STRANGLER in particular seemed to suffer from an annoying flicker which, I'm very happy to say, is not present in this new Criterion package. Both STRANGLER and CORRIDORS feature "newly restored digital transfers" and are quite stunning, actually. They're presented in their "original" 1.33:1 aspect ratios, though some purists may wonder whether or not they were matted theatrically. The monaural sound is clean and crisp. Optional English subtitles are included for both titles.

Many generous extras adorn these two Karloff classics. First up are excellent audio commentaries with producer Richard Gordon and film historian Tom Weaver. If there is anything you need to know about the history of these pictures you'll find it all here in abundance, as well as a lot of interesting memories and tidbits on the great horror actors like Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr. and Christopher Lee. Gordon and Weaver have always made a great team on their past DVD commentary tracks, and these are among their very best. As an added bonus, Mr. Gordon's late brother Alex is present too via a taped interview and he offers up tantalizing recollections of a 1950s movie that almost was, featuring three of the classic horror stars one last time. For the true fan, these are not to be missed.

Other bonuses include filmmaker and cast interviews. Director Robert Day and screenwriter Jan Read (STRANGLER) talk about working on the films, and cast members Francis Matthews, Jean Kent and Vera Day are interviewed on camera. Also featured is an audio conversation that Tom Weaver conducted with Yvonne Romain (CORRIDORS). Rounding out the list of added features for the first part of this set is a detailed booklet (including a Fangoria interview with producer John Croydon talking about Karloff) extensively covering both STRANGLER and CORRIDORS, trailers, radio spots, still galleries and a very brief but intriguing set of censored shots advised to be cut for CORRIDORS OF BLOOD.

Moving on to the second two-disc amaray case are FIRST MAN INTO SPACE (1959) and THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE (1959), two modestly budgeted and sometimes sluggishly paced efforts that nonetheless still have plenty to offer to dedicated B movie enthusiasts. In FIRST MAN INTO SPACE, overconfident, stardom-craving Air Force Lieutenant Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards) longs to be “the first man in space.” His older and wiser brother Chuck (Marshall Thompson) commands from headquarters as Dan heedlessly disobeys orders and pilots his rocket too far out into space, causing him to lose all control. The wreckage of the aircraft is later found near a farmhouse, but due to exposure to meteorite particles, Dan is now a crusty, overcooked monster on the loose. He’s also thirsty for blood, so when there aren’t cattle around to slaughter, he’s out preying for human victims! His brother and girlfriend (Marla Landi, from the 1959 Hammer version of HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES) do their best to track down the now hideous and vampiric Dan, but it may already be too late for him.

With plenty of stock footage thrown in to beef up the military and space exploration aspects of the proceedings, FIRST MAN might take a while to really take off (no pun intended), but when it does, you have a very horrifying yet sympathetic monster prancing around in some eerily effective sequences. Thompson was already a sci-fi hero with confident leading roles in IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE and FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (made earlier by the same production team), so his performance here lends credibility to the film, especially in making it appear to be an American-mounted production. FIRST MAN might seem to have been inspired by Hammer Films’ celebrated THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, but it’s even more likely that it influenced the AIP release THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN, made some 20 years later.

The only American-made film in this collection, THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE was produced by AIP vet Alex Gordon and directed by Spencer Bennet, helmsmen of a number of old movie serials including BATMAN AND ROBIN and ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN. When submarine passenger liners are disappearing in the Arctic Circle, the nuclear-charged U.S.S. Tiger Shark is brought in to the rescue. The brave crew of soldiers and scientists (who tend to get on each other’s nerves) come face to face with an earth-invading alien menace—a horrible telepathic cyclops creature with tentacles and the power to scorch men to a crisp—which burrows its chic spinning flying saucer under the sea. The hairy one-eyed creature (actually a puppet-sized creation photographed to look colossal) and its creepy sea-level lair are a memorable highlight for those who caught this on late-night TV as a kid.

Originally released by Allied Artists (who totally underplayed the sci-fi angle in its advertising campaign), THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE makes up for its rather talky and soundstage-bound antics with a sturdy cast of familiar B-movie heroes, including Dick Foran (THE MUMMY’S HAND), Arthur Franz (MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS), Bret Halsey (THE RETURN OF THE FLY), Tom Conway (I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE), Paul Dubov (DAY THE WORLD ENDED), Victor Varconi (THE SEA HAWK) and silent-era cowboy matinee idol Bob Steele. Blonde bombshell Joi Lansing (who was reportedly dating Frank Sinatra at the time) gets to show off her killer gams before making out with Franz on the sofa, and Sid Melton (in a small bit) always looks comical as one is frequently reminded of “Make Room for Daddy.”

Like STRANGLER and CORRIDORS, both FIRST MAN and ATOMIC were previously available on DVD from Image Entertainment. The transfers here are a definite improvement: both black and white films look sharp and have nice detail, with very little in the way of blemishes or grain. Both are presented full frame 1.33:1, which seems pretty acceptable for both, but they were most likely lensed to be matted theatrically (especially in the case of ATOMIC which was obviously composed to be matted at 1.85:1). The Mono audio on both titles is absolutely fine, and optional English subtitles are included for each.

Extras on FIRST MAN INTO SPACE include yet another entertaining commentary with Richard Gordon, moderated by Tom Weaver. Not only is the film discussed, but Weaver throws in some fun facts about space flight, and as an added bonus, there’s a bit from a recorded interview with Alex Gordon regarding him filming some of the exterior shots in the U.S., as well as his association with Marshall Thompson and how he hooked up the actor with his brother. There are also good video interviews with director Day and star Marla Landi (the absence here of actor Bill Edwards is revealed with a rather sad anecdote revealed in the commentary). Rounding out FIRST MAN’s supplements are a theatrical trailer, some wild radio spots, and a still gallery.

For ATOMIC SUBMARINE, Weaver was able to conduct a wonderful commentary with Alex Gordon shortly before his passing. Gordon not only talks about the film in question, but also discusses his days with AIP and what it was like producing independent films in the 1950s and early 1960s. It’s too bad Gordon wasn’t given the opportunity to do commentaries for some of the other projects he was involved in, but his talk here is an invaluable record of one of B fandom’s true legends. An excellent 16-minute video interview with actor Brett Halsey has the still-busy actor talking about his involvement with ATOMIC SUBMARINE, as well as other early films in his career: SUBMARINE SEAHAWK (made earlier by the same team behind ATOMIC), REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (he had a walk-on role) and RETURN OF THE FLY (his breakthrough). Rounding out the extras are the theatrical trailer and a nice still/pressbook gallery. Like with the Karloff titles, a thick booklet is included here containing extensive information on both FIRST MAN and ATOMIC SUBMARINE. (Joe Karlosi and George R. Reis)