Monday, June 26, 2017

BLACKENSTEIN BLU-RAY REVIEW

“There’s so very much to be done!” exclaims an exuberant Dr. Stein.

In the early ’70s, criminal lawyer and horror fan extraordinaire Frank R. Saletri (1928 – 1982) was looking to venture into film production when, along with first-time director William A. Levey, he pieced-together BLACKENSTEIN (1972), an impoverished and enjoyably awful fusion of Blaxploitation and horror.  As if anybody in their right mind would ever be deceived into thinking that a film like BLACKENSTEIN could be taken even half-seriously, viewers will be absolutely gobsmacked by Severin’s impressive, extras-filled Blu-ray, which not only enriches this lovably thrifty if strangely compelling slice of memorable exploitation, but also delves into producer Saletri’s murder under unusual circumstances, too.

Tucked away in his imposing castle-like home in Los Angeles, Dr. Stein (John Hart) is on the brink of refining his revolutionary new DNA formula, which not only allows him to stall the aging process, but with the help of his (quote) “laser beam fusion” technique, enables him to re-attach severed body parts.  A former pupil of his, Dr. Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone) arrives from New York in the hopes that Dr. Stein can help her fiancé Eddie (Joe DeSue), a Vietnam veteran who lost both his arms and legs when a (quote) “land mine went-off under him.”  Of course, Dr. Stein agrees to help – exactly where they acquire these ‘extra’ limbs is anybody’s guess! – but when Dr. Stein’s butler Malcomb (Roosevelt Jackson) becomes infatuated with Doctress Walker, he mixes-up Eddie’s dose of regenerative DNA formula with an alternate, far-more-volatile concoction that unleashes the patient’s (quote) “prime evil” alter-ego, resulting in a sort of primeval throwback—yep, you guessed it… Blackenstein!

Resembling legendary makeup man Jack P. Pierce’s now-iconic Boris Karloff ‘square-top’ design, Blackenstein (or “The Black Frankenstein”, as per the film’s subtitle), also sports—what else, considering the era in which it was made!—an afro and designer clodhoppers; but, unlike Karloff’s memorably-nuanced performances as the ‘honky’ version, one-time-only performer Joe De Sue’s portrayal as the ill-fated ’Nam vet is as stiff and wooden as his soon-to-be lumbering gait is.  Old hand John Hart (former star of TV’s THE LONE RANGER [1950-1953]) is the only actor in the entire film who actually exhibits any modicum of talent.  Unfortunately, pretty leading lady Ivory Stone is just that—pretty—but other than for that mandatory attribute, she really doesn’t add much to the film, either.  Prolific character actor John Dennis (who also appeared in John Hayes’ zombie convict schlocker GARDEN OF THE DEAD [1972] the same year, and also later in Mel Brooks’ other Frankenstein spoof, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN [1974]) also makes an appearance under a pseudonym (“Bob Brophy”) as one of the absolute angriest and most-resentful hospital orderlies ever; who, naturally enough, receives his comeuppance in the end.  Showing-off her curves in a see-through negligee, former ‘mob moll / stripper’ Liz Renay also puts in an all-too-brief appearance as one of the monster’s victims.

Not unlike AIP’s far-more-slick-and-polished Blaxploitation horrors—such as William Crain’s BLACULA (1972), or even Paul Maslansky’s SUGAR HILL (1974)—BLACKENSTEIN also goes to great lengths to highlight the ‘horror’ aspects of its decidedly meagre, heavily-clichéd scenario, which even takes some unexpected liberties with the Frankenstein mythos, also borrowing elements from H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau.  The gothic, castle-like location complete with candlelit corridors, darkened rooms and colourfully kitschy laboratory – which, as was trumpeted loudly and proudly in the fan publications of the time (Forry Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland included, natch!) even reuses the bulk of Kenneth Strickfaden’s original ‘zapping’ laboratory equipment from James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) – appear daffily and delightfully out-of-place in modern-day Los Angeles, but it’s these anachronistic touches that help make BLACKENSTEIN the special treat it is.  When the uncontrollable Eddie – er, “Blackenstein”, I should say – ventures out into the darkened streets of L.A., the flick unexpectedly begins to resemble a Doris Wishman sleaze epic, showcasing loads of inexplicable shots of ambling feet, along with garish lighting, gratuitous nudity and even some sudden outbursts of gore. 

Rated PG?. Courtesy of The Fentonian Institute.  
Originally issued domestically on Beta/VHS tape in 1978 by MEDA, BLACKENSTEIN was reissued in those formats in 1984 by the newly-formed home videocassette distribution giant Media Home Entertainment (the company which MEDA morphed into).  The film finally appeared on DVD in 2003 from Xenon Pictures, but this was the same 87-minute, full-screen version that was contained in Media’s long out-of-print tape edition.  Officially licensed from Xenon, Severin – in conjunction with Vinegar Syndrome – have definitely come to the rescue of this ‘distinctive’ endeavor with a most impressive transfer of the original theatrical version (77m46s), a version which plays far better from a dramatic standpoint despite the shorter running time.  Shown in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, this new 1080p transfer brings out a great deal of the film’s exuberant colour schemes and nighttime details, which were severely muddled/muddied in all previous versions; the DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio also sounds clean and free of any hiss or distortion, which only accentuates the various instances of post-production looping.  Although, the leaner theatrical version is the way to go, Severin have also included the longer 87-minute ‘Video Release Version’ that incorporates their remastered theatrical version along with footage from a weathered ‘1-inch tape master’ for the additional and/or extended scenes. 

The plentiful extras begin with Monster Kid (19m02s), directed by Severin’s David Gregory, which is an informative, and ultimately quite touching, interview with Frank R. Saletri’s sister, June Kirk.  In it, she fondly remembers seeing (quote) “scary movies” at the local theatre with her brother, and goes on to discuss his early years in the U.S. Marine Corps and his eventual relocation to the Hollywood Hills, where he took up residence in Bela Lugosi’s former home, no less.  They also rummage through a number of his mothballed screenplays that never made it before the cameras, including “The Return of Frankenstein”, “Black the Ripper” and “The Skid Row Slasher”, to name only a few; and of course, she even delves into his mysterious – and still-unsolved – 1982 murder.  In addition, both director Ken Osborne and actor Robert Dix – who are being interviewed for an upcoming documentary on director Al Adamson, another exploitation filmmaker who died as a result of homicide – are also interviewed (6m36s) about their memories of Saletri.  In Bill Munns Created Frankenstein (9m13s), a nicely-illustrated audio interview with the titular makeup artist, Munns goes over his humble beginnings learning (quote) “prosthetics work”, and he even talks about Liz Renay, who was, according to him, “astonishingly uninhibited”.  The disc also includes an “Archive News Broadcast” (6m17s) which details the murder of Saletri, and finally, the featured movie’s theatrical trailer.


Scuzzy yet at the same time charmingly naïve, BLACKENSTEIN is an irresistibly lowbrow assimilation of classic monster movie tropes, which has finally been lovingly preserved for posterity by Severin’s outstanding Blu-ray.  Mr. Saletri would have been proud!  Order it directly from Severin (including an option which includes a T-shirt) or DiabolikDVD.

Monday, June 19, 2017

CASTLE OF THE CREEPING FLESH BLU-RAY REVIEW

Arguably best-known for writing and producing Michael Armstrong’s MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970) and directing its inferior sequel, MARK OF THE DEVIL PART II (1973), Adrian Hoven’s ([1922-1981] sometimes a.k.a. “Percy G. Parker”) earlier directorial effort CASTLE OF THE CREEPING FLESH (IM SCHLOß DER BLUTIGEN BEGIERDE, 1968) has long been unavailable since the early days of VHS; so, at long last, thanks to Germany’s Subkultur Entertainment, Hoven’s pulpy Euro Gothic makes its digital debut in what can easily be described as its most definitive form to date.

At a swanky party thrown by the ever-popular – and seemingly very rich – Baron Brack (Michel Lemoine), the host invites the alluring Vera (Janine Reynaud) to go horseback-riding to his country house, which is supposedly (quote) “very romantic and dreamy’, but all the while has his rakishly roving eye on Elena (Elvira Berndorff), her equally-striking sister.  Tagging along for the ride are Elena and her fiancé Roger (Pier A. Caminnecci), as well as the Baron’s doe-eyed fiancée Marion (Claudia Butenuth) and her brother George (Jan Hendriks).  As the group ride through the surrounding forest, Brack and Elena eventually gallop on ahead, exchanging thinly-veiled erotic innuendos (“You ride harder and much more vigorously!”).  But then, disrupting the playfully flirtatious mood, the baron up and rapes Elena (“You’re disgusting!  You dirty swine!”) before the other riders in their group catch up to them. 

Upon continuing their party, they talk of the elusive Earl of Saxon (Howard Vernon) whose daughter had also been raped and killed just outside his large, foreboding castle, from where, according to legend, the Earl once supposedly released a bear (!) into the woods in an attempt to kill the rapist.  Understandably distraught in the aftermath of her own recent violation, Elena steals a horse and rides off into the woods, with everyone following along close behind her. As expected, they lose their way and wind up at the Earl’s castle, where, much to its owner’s surprise, a number of his unexpected guests possess a (quote) “strange resemblance” to some of his ancestors; a development which sets in motion long-buried family curses, some impromptu surgery at the hands of a mysterious, pale-faced medico, a menacing Igor-type butler (played by prolific Croatian character actor Vladimir Medar, a frequent fixture of ’60s Euro co-productions), and – yes! – even that ferocious if moth-eaten bear makes a surprising appearance!

“There’s a lot of strange things going on here!  Wild bears, furious Earls and a girl who’s been raped!” exclaims the Baron, which just about sums-up this entertaining if exceedingly peculiar ‘horror’ film.  Veering wildly between a somewhat lighthearted, comically playful atmosphere to darker, more taboo subjects such as the aforementioned rapes, Hoven’s film is brimful of sexual tension, with everyone hopping – or hoping to! – in and out of each other’s beds, whereas poor Elena won’t even breathe a word about the sexual abuse she suffered at the Baron’s hands (and [ahem] et cetera).    In one short-but-memorable scene – which is clearly trying to emulate the infamous and oft-imitated ‘sexually-charged eating’ sequence from Tony Richardson’s bawdy Brit melodrama TOM JONES (1963) – Vera and the Baron exchange wanton glances at each other as they messily chomp and slobber on their dinner; but then, in yet another highly-charged if infinitely darker tableau, the film flashes-back in time to reveal the Saxon family curse: involving an extended gang-rape, all shot in a gauzy, otherworldly haze.  While never overtly explicit, there’s still plenty of topless nudity on display amidst such sexual philosophizing/pontification that you almost expect crazed real-life psychoanalyst – accent on “psycho”! – Wilhelm Reich to step into the frame and begin lecturing the audience!

As in most Euro potboilers of its day, COTCF benefits greatly from the genuine locales used, which add priceless production value to what is essentially only a moderate-budget film.  Although it must be said, Nino Borghi’s set decoration does add plentiful colour and eye-candy as well, which is wonderfully enriched by Jerry van Rooyen’s versatile score, whose tuneage liberally alternates between breezy jazz and some languid lounge and Gothic-styled tracks, which at times were clearly influenced by some of Peter Thomas’ scores for the Edgar Wallace krimi series.  However, in what almost seems like an afterthought, the Earl’s laboratory down in the castle crypt is rather simplistic and spartanly-outfitted, consisting of little more than a makeshift operating table and a random scattering of surgical equipment; although, in a rather shocking bit of ‘mondo-style’ exploitation, much of the subsequent open heart surgery shown was in fact taken from an all-too-genuine operation, a grisly inclusion which further adds to the film’s overall schizophrenic ambiance (incidentally, similar gruesome authentic surgical footage was crudely spliced-into US distributor Gerald Intrator’s reedited 1972 American grindhouse/drive-in release print of René Cardona, Sr.’s Mexican monster/wrestling flick NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES [1968], to similar gruesome effect).

Produced by Aquila Film alongside a trio of Jess Franco films (i.e., SUCCUBUS [a.k.a. NECRONOMICON, 1968], KISS ME MONSTER [1969] and SADIST EROTICA [a.k.a. TWO UNDERCOVER ANGELS, 1969]), which are sometimes referred to as the “Aquila Film trilogy”, COTCF arrives on Blu-ray in fantastic shape.  Scanned in 4K from the film’s interpositive, this beautiful 1080p HD transfer retains the film’s modest 1.66:1 framing, also preserving – and even accentuating – much of the image’s rich and robust colours without ever resorting to any digital manipulation, such as noise reduction; it’s all very natural-looking.  The DTS-HD mono audio tracks, which are provided in both English and German also sound very good and, in a nice added gesture, Subkultur have also provided optional English subtitles for the German track. 

Courtesy of The Fentonian Institute.
The Blu-ray comes loaded with extras, all of which are English-friendly. Uwe Huber’s Adrian in the Castle of Bloody Lust (19m55s) is an on-camera interview with Joyce and Percy Hoven, Adrian’s wife and son,  wherein they discuss the genesis of Adrian’s production company, Aquila Film, which he formed with Pier A. Caminnecci to keep from (quote) “other people interfering” in their productions.  According to the Hovens, Caminnecci was the heir to Siemens (one of the largest industrial manufacturing companies in the world) who (quote) “wanted to live in the fast lane”, which is why he got interested in film production… eccentrically, he also kept a live cheetah in his home!  Other topics discussed include the husband-and-wife team of Michel Lemoine and Janine Reynaud; the gentlemanly Howard Vernon and writer Eric Martin Schlitzner, who also wrote for the German weekly magazine STERN and was apparently (quote) “always broke.”  The interview is nicely concluded with both of them looking through, and commenting on, some of Huber’s rare pressbooks and German lobby cards for the film.  Next up, it’s a Q&A session (30m45s) from the Austrian Pulp Film Festival from 15th, October, 2015, where, following a screening of MARK OF THE DEVIL, Joyce and Percy Hoven discuss Adrian’s work, a discussion which thankfully contains very little crossover/repetition from their previous interview.  At first they discuss the transformation of Hoven’s career from (quote) “matinee idol” – his earlier film acting roles include playing the hero of the teasy cheesecake jungle girl adventure NATURE GIRL AND THE SLAVER (LIANE, DIE WEIßE SKLAVIN, 1957) – to running his own film company, and they then proceed to speak about MOTD and how director Armstrong was essentially removed from the director’s chair after just three days.  They also mention their friend of the family, Reggie Nalder – whom they affectionately refer to as “Uncle Reggie” – and how Mr. Arkoff of AIP sent a (quote) “front man” to acquire MOTD cheaply at Cannes and then making a mint off it back in the U.S.  They also chat about how, after suffering a heart attack in his early-forties, Adrian essentially had to retire due to an ever-worsening heart condition, which only allowed him to return to acting – however briefly – in a few of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films, including SATAN’S BREW (1976) and LILI MARLEEN (1981).

In The Return to the Castle of the Bloody Lust (13m20s), a thorough location tour – which is intercut with scenes from COTCF – highlights many of the film’s locations as they currently stand, including the Castle Kreuzenstein, which, as expected, hasn’t changed very much in the last 50 years.  Other extras include numerous title sequences emphasizing the various release titles, including CASTLE OF THE CREEPING FLESH and its original English-language export title, APPOINTMENT WITH LUST; an alternate ending – sourced from the German VHS – is also included.  Various trailers with typical hyperbole (e.g., “The star that thrilled you in NECRONOMICON, Janine Reynaud, in a new, blood-curdling, fascinating adventure!”) are also included.  Concluding the extras is a detailed text essay detailing the various release versions including the slightly shorter German-language version, which, incidentally, is also available on this disc and taken from the “original camera negative (OCN)”, which unfortunately has seen better days due to (quote) “mechanical stress and heavy usage.” 


Available at one time as both a 2-disc Blu-ray / DVD combo pack, which is housed in a nice fold-out package and includes a 24-page booklet, and a standalone Blu-ray, the 2-disc “Edition Deutsche Vita” Combo Pack can still be ordered from DiabolikDVD.  Whichever edition you choose, you’re sure to be pleased with Subkultur’s superb presentation of this largely forgotten film!