Tuesday, October 23, 2007


This much-maligned horror flick is famous among B-film aficionados for a few reasons: 1) it was filmed mostly because Boris Karloff owed director Roger Corman a few more days of work after finishing up THE RAVEN; 2) scenes from it are used during the drive-in shoot-up climax of Peter Bogdanovich's TARGETS; 3) it has an incoherent plot. All things considered, however, it isn't bad. It's true that not everything about the narrative adds up, but as in many B-films, the atmosphere helps make up for a lot of other weaknesses. In 1802 (or 1806, depending on which reference you catch), a soldier (Jack Nicholson) who has strayed from his regiment collapses on a rocky beach and is helped by a mysterious woman named Helene (Sandra Knight). They frolic a bit until she vanishes in the raging surf and a large bird attacks Nicholson (at first, I thought she had turned into the bird, but I think I'm wrong about that, even though we learn later that the bird is also named Helene--you see how point #3 above came about). He is tended to by an old woman (Dorothy Neumann), the owner of the bird and something of a witch figure who herself is tended to by the mute servant Gustav (Jonathan Haze)--but he's not really so mute; it turns out he can whisper, which is how some important plot points get communicated. Nicholson runs into the girl again that night and just as she's about to lead him into a quicksand pit, Haze pops up to save him. He whispers gruffly to Nicholson that Knight is possessed, lives in a nearby castle, and needs Nicholson's help.

The next day, Nicholson goes to the castle to ask for lodgings and is greeted by Karloff, who has a portrait on his wall of his late wife Ilsa, who looks just like Knight. Karloff admits that he killed her twenty years ago when he caught her with another man. I'm not sure it's worth recounting the rest of the plot in detail, as all the major elements are in place at this point, and narrative consistency is not this film's strong suit. At any rate, the whole thing resembles something out of Poe, specifically "Fall of the House of Usher," even including a final destruction scene, by flood rather than earthquake. One character is struck by lightning, one is not who he seems to be (or thinks he is), and, in the great final shot, one turns into a bloody, goopy mess. Karloff is fine in his somewhat limited role, disappearing for large chunks of time, which leaves Nicholson to carry the movie; he's OK but he's not the Jack we all know and love. Dick Miller, a Corman regular (see BUCKET OF BLOOD), is present as Karloff's servant. As I noted earlier, the mood is nicely established and the colors, even on the public domain print I saw, are rich, especially the electric blues which saturate many of the scenes. Despite its reputation, this makes an OK choice for Chiller Theater night.

I saw this print on a DVD from Alpha whose main attraction was listed as TALES OF FRANKENSTEIN, a half-hour 1958 British TV pilot which was never picked up as a series. I'd read about this show many years ago in Famous Monsters and was glad to finally see it. Its production values are on a par with Dark Shadows, but the acting and writing are solid. Anton Diffring is Dr. Frankenstein, whom we first see sending his servants out of his castle one rainy night as he attempts to bring his monster (Don McGowan) to electric life. Alas, the monster attacks the doc and has to be subdued. Assuming the problem is that the beast has the brain of a dead killer, Diffring decides to find a normal brain. Enter a dying man (Richard Bull) whose wife (Helen Westcott) has brought him to the village to seek help from the doctor. Instead, the doctor decides to help himself to Bull's brain, putting it in the monster's head, leading to the usual consequences. The narrative appropriates elements from the Universal FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and in the opening, there's a shot of the vampire brides from the original Lugosi DRACULA. Diffring is good, though the gist of the series seems to have been to tell a new story each week of Dr. Frankenstein's experiments, so that might have gotten a bit old. Worth seeing as a novelty. [DVD]

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