Judge Paul Corupe wonders whether the Yellow Submarine could take the Atomic Submarine.
More Shock and Fright than You've Ever Seen!
Sandwiched between their prestigious lineup of world cinema classics, art house masterpieces, and groundbreaking auteur undertakings, Criterion have been cultivating a small, but rapidly growing subset of low budget genre films over the past few years. Their most ambitious addition yet, Monsters and Madmen is a long-awaited box set of chills and thrills that highlights the work of sibling producers Alex and Richard Gordon. These London-born movie fanatics worked with everyone from Ed Wood Jr. to Roger Corman over their long, if not particularly influential, careers. While it's true that the four films in the set (The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood, First Man into Space, and The Atomic Submarine) never really rise above the level of entertaining drive-in fare, Criterion's meticulous presentation and wealth of extras have once again made the everyday exceptional.
Facts of the Case
In the Victorian-period shocker The Haunted Strangler, Boris Karloff (Frankenstein) stars as urbane author James Rankin (Boris Karloff, Frankenstein). While researching the 20-year-old case of "Haymarket Strangler" Edward Styles, Rankin becomes convinced that Styles could not have been the guilty party. Despite the stern disapproval of Police Superintendent Burk (Anthony Dawson, The Queen of Spades), the intrepid novelist probes for evidence in back alley brothels and prison graveyards. He uncovers the vague involvement of Dr. Tenant, a coroner who vanished shortly after Styles was put to death. But when Rankin finally stumbles upon Tenant's scalpel-the alleged murder weapon-a strange power overcomes him, twisting his mind and his body in a perverted quest for more victims.
In Corridors of Blood, pioneering anesthesiologist Dr. Thomas Bolton (Karloff) is convinced that there must be a way to perform surgery without causing pain in his patients. His innovative self-experiments with nitrous oxide and opium derivatives initially prove successful, but Bolton quickly becomes addicted to the intoxicating gas fumes he cooks up each day. This craving ultimately leads the good doctor to London's disreputable Seven Dials district, where he comes under the influence of Black Ben (Francis De Wolff, Scrooge) and Resurrection Joe (Christopher Lee, The Wicker Man), unsavory characters that threaten to ruin his reputation and his life's work.
The second half of the set veers sharply into science fiction territory, starting with First Man into Space. Hungry for fame, test pilot Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards, The Naked Truth) keeps pushing his experimental rocket farther into the stratosphere, determined to be the known as the first man to reach outer space. His straight-laced commanding officer (and older brother) Chuck (Marshall Thompson, Fiend Without a Face) can't get his firebrand sibling to obey orders, and is furious when he Dan finally pilots the jet into space. Losing radio contact with ground control in New Mexico, Dan's craft is then showered in a strange cosmic dust and sent plummeting back to Earth. Later, Chuck's recovery team finds the aircraft wreckage covered in a tough and sinewy plastic material. Dan, on the other hand, is nowhere to be found, but a rash of killings by a mysterious monster in the area convinces Chuck that his brother may be alive after all—just not entirely human.
Finally, undersea adventure awaits in The Atomic Submarine, as the crew of the U.S.S. Tiger Shark navigate to the Arctic Circle to investigate the disappearance of several ships in the area. Despite a personal conflict with Dr. Neilson (Brett Halsey, Return of the Fly), the young pacifist scientist aboard, Commander Reef Holloway (Arthur Franz, Invaders from Mars) rallies his crew and arrives at their destination to discover a UFO hiding on the seabed. Ramming his nuclear sub into the saucer's bulkhead, he comes face to face with a Martian and uncovers a sinister alien plot to colonize the Earth.
While all four films in the Monsters and Madmen set were previously issued in bare bones editions from Image, Criterion once again proves that just a little attention can make all the difference in the world. They unleash these notable B-films in a beautifully designed box that's simply bursting with extras.
Amid a general decline in the quality of the projects he was offered in the 1950s, The Haunted Strangler emerges as one of Karloff's best films of the decade, an engaging update of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that gives the actor a real showcase for his many talents. Robert Day, who directed all of the films on this set save The Atomic Submarine, does a fine job with the creepy Victorian locations. He gives viewers just enough mystery and macabre set-pieces to keep them hooked until the last frame. The real revelation here is Karloff's channeled killer. By simply curling one side of his mouth back over his teeth, squinting an eye and pulling a "crippled" arm to his chest, he goes from genial to entirely frightening. It's an outstanding performance achieved entirely through facial contortions, quite reminiscent of his portrayal of evil twins in the Universal gothic shocker The Black Room two decades earlier. Though Hammer had already become the big name in British horror by the time The Haunted Strangler went before cameras in MGM's UK studio, this is in many ways a more accurate throwback to the gothic atmosphere of the Universal monster films. It's an impressive little horror flick that shouldn't be missed.
By The Haunted Strangler's standards, Corridors of Blood is a bit of a bore, more of an ill-fated historical sketch than a true tale of science gone mad. Though it clearly boasts a larger budget than the Gordon brothers' first project with Karloff, there are few shocks here beyond some portrayals of early surgical procedures. Haunted at every turn by his colleague's belief that "pain and the knife are inseparable," Karloff puts in another impressive performance as the drug addicted Dr. Bolton. The script is too dry to really qualify as horror, despite some expressionistic lighting and startlingly realistic Old London sets. Things become interesting once Christopher Lee appears as the despicable killer Resurrection Joe, leading to an exciting and violent climax that pits the two horror icons in a fight to the death that's almost enough to save the picture—almost.
If The Haunted Strangler is an update of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, then the third film on the set, First Man into Space owes its pedigree to Hammer's The Quatermass Xperiment, released just three years prior. A trashy B-monster movie with a surprising amount of intelligence, this amusing science fiction vampire outing is relatively similar to The Fiend Without a Face, with which it shares some cast and crewmembers . Apparently scripted around some old stock footage of test rockets, First Man into Space has a little trouble blasting off in its initial stages, but it's the only film in this entire set that really thrills all the way through, once Dan returns to Earth as a creepy, blood-drinking monster. The acting is just okay and the atmosphere is believable enough thanks to some scientific hogwash offered up as exposition. But the film has it where it counts—a genuinely disturbing make-up job that covers the pilot's entire body with a resilient, latex-like material, save for one despondent eyeball and a badly deformed mouth. Once Chuck realizes his brother is barely able to breathe under all that alien gunk, the film takes a turn for the tragic, as they try to get the monster-fied Dan into a pressure chamber in a last ditch effort to save his life. Sure, First Man into Space is a cheap and exploitive film, but it's still fun, and is highly recommended for shlock fans.
Like First Man into Space, The Atomic Submarine lays on a thick foundation of believable scientific fact before it spirals into total B-movie lunacy. It just takes a little longer to get there. Bolstered by a great cast of older and upcoming genre actors, including Dick Foran, Arthur Franz and a baby-faced Brett Halsey, the emphasis this time is on the squabbling drama of a sub crew headed for the Arctic Circle. Extremely talkative, with implausible soundstage sets and excessive stock footage augmented by some of the most spectacularly unconvincing miniature work ever committed to celluloid, The Atomic Submarine can be a hard slough until the underwater UFO is discovered in the last third of the film. Finally, under the watchful eye of a unique and inventive alien creature, the pace picks up considerably as the Tiger Shark's away team storms the saucer's eerie interior for the exciting finale in which several crewmembers are massacred. The Atomic Submarine is a much slower film than the others, but it still has the most memorable climax, making for undeniably good genre viewing.
As you might expect, all four films in this package feature respectable full frame transfers, with sharp contrast, good detail levels, and crystal-clear mono soundtracks. While Criterion has always led the way in digital restoration, the other studios have since caught up, so these discs look about on par with recent classic horror releases from Warner Brothers and Universal. The Karloff films fare the best, though you'll spot a few artifacts appearing in First Man into Space and The Atomic Submarine (mostly during special-effects shots that couldn't be entirely restored for whatever reason). As noted by some other reviewers, the films on this set may have been matted for theatrical screenings, but the 1.33:1 aspect ratio presentations are not particularly distracting or troublesome, and don't noticeably hamper shot compositions.
Both The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood are adorned with an informative commentary track by genre expert Tom Weaver and a 15-minute talking head "making of" featurette. Weaver teams up with Richard Gordon on the Karloff films, spilling every possible detail on the production of these two British-lensed efforts, as well as the horror genre in general, including the brother's unrealized dream scheme to unite Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney on film. These are must listens for any fan of classic horror, and they're nicely fleshed out by the accompanying interview featurettes, featuring the cast and crews of each film reminiscing about Karloff and the productions in general. In addition to the trailers, radio spots, still galleries and informative liner notes, Corridors of Blood also features a few minutes of rather tame "censored" surgery scenes and a twenty-minute audio piece with Yvonne Romain, as interviewed by Weaver.
More Weaver commentaries are on the menu for First Man into Space, and The Atomic Submarine. Richard joins him once again on First Man into Space for more behind-the-scene particulars, but his recently deceased sibling Alex appears on the other track. Though he strays slightly from the topic at hand, this is a fascinating commentary that goes in quite depth regarding Alex's career as a producer. Once again, there is a pair of interesting interview featurettes-The Atomic Submarine's doc contains lots of info on B-star Brett Halsey-along with the expected trailers, radio spots, still galleries and liner notes.
While not the best B-movies of their kind, The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood, First Man into Space, and The Atomic Submarine are nonetheless competently made, better-than-average sci-fi/horror films that have been given new weight through Criterion's impressive digital restoration work and a host of fascinating extras.Monsters and Madmen is a highly recommended release that will definitely be appreciated by genre collectors.
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Scales of Justice, The Haunted Strangler
Perp Profile, The Haunted Strangler
Distinguishing Marks, The Haunted Strangler
• Audio commentary by Richard Gordon and Tom Weaver
Scales of Justice, The Atomic Submarine
Perp Profile, The Atomic Submarine
Distinguishing Marks, The Atomic Submarine
• Audio commentary by Alex Gordon and Tom Weaver
Scales of Justice, Corridors Of Blood
Perp Profile, Corridors Of Blood
Distinguishing Marks, Corridors Of Blood
• Audio commentary by Richard Gordon and Tom Weaver
Scales of Justice, First Man Into Space
Perp Profile, First Man Into Space
Distinguishing Marks, First Man Into Space
• Audio commentary by Richard Gordon and Tom Weaver
Review content copyright © 2007 Paul Corupe; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.