Roger Corman’s Cult Classics: All Night Marathon - Vampires, Mummies, and Monsters
Directors - Mel Welles, Stephanie Rothman, Tom Kennedy, Joe Tornatore
Cast - Joseph Cotten, Celeste Yarnell, Linda Blair, Ben Murphy
Country of Origin - USA
Discs - 2
MSRP - 24.97
Distributor - Shout Factory
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
The Film: 3/5
Shout! Factory has unleashed another quadruple feature DVD set of sleazy Z-grade exploitation from Roger Corman’s schlock assembly line. To my knowledge only one of these features, Lady Frankenstein, has previously been available on DVD. Time to turn off your brains, load up on pepperoni pizza and Mr. Pibb, and settle in for a grimy drive-in extravaganza.
Lady Frankenstein (1971)
Baron Frankenstein (Joseph Cotten) is on the verge of accomplishing his scientific aim of creating a living man using the heart and brain of a killer condemned to the gallows when his comely daughter Tania (Rosalba Neri, credited as Sara Bey), a budding young surgeon, arrives to stay at the family castle. Not long after her homecoming Tania reveals that she’s known all along what the Baron has been up to but wants to use her medical expertise to aid him in reaching his ultimate goal. The experiment is a success but the monster that results (Paul Whiteman) kills the Baron in a bear hug of death before escaping the castle to go on a relentless killing spree. With the village up in arms and wily police captain Harris (Mickey Hargitay) closely investigating the illegal and immoral activities of the Frankenstein clan Tania decides against all logic to retry the experiment. This time she places the brain of her father’s assistant Charles (Paul Muller), who has always been in love with her, into the body of the handsome but dull-witted manservant Thomas (Marino Mase) to create a perfect lover for Tania as well as a being powerful enough to slaughter the creature to avenge the death of the Baron and stop it before other innocent villagers fall prey to its bottomless rage.
An Italian production that was shorn of 12 minutes of footage before being released to American theaters courtesy of New World Pictures, Lady Frankenstein is an interesting and occasionally fun take on the classic Mary Shelley tale with all the blood and naked female flesh one would expect from a New World release. The movie was directed by Mel Welles, the former clinical psychologist who went into the film and television industry in the early 1950’s and who is best known to cult and horror film fans as Mr. Mushnik in the original Roger Corman-directed Little Shop of Horrors, and could at times pass for one of Hammer Films’ classic Technicolor terrors. The monster effects are cheesy when seen in close-up and the creature itself is little more than an engine for non-stop graphic killings, lacking the tortured humanity that Boris Karloff brought to the part in James Whale’s beloved 1931 film Frankenstein. In fact Welles’ film has several little nods to the Universal Pictures classic: the Baron’s lab looks to have been imported wholesale from the set of Whale’s Frankenstein, and in one of the movie’s few notable scenes the monster picks up a naked screaming woman and throws her in a river to drown, which immediately reminded of the controversial scene in the 1931 film where the monster innocently threw a sweet little girl fully-clothed into a lake where she died. Most of the people killed by the Baron’s horrible creation are naked couples in the midst of making the beast with two backs. This monster kills more copulating horndogs than Jason Voorhees, and it also has the head of the Metaluna Mutant.
At this point in his celebrated career Joseph Cotten has clearly fallen from grace and that bitterness and regret seeps through his utterly bored and disinterested performance. The former star of the Mercury Theater (and my fellow Virginia native) who once stood on the shoulders of giants in timeless classics like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, and Carol Reed’s The Third Man can barely muster enough energy to play a convincing scientist here. Cotten’s Baron Frankenstein isn’t driven by the all-consuming madness and obsession that fueled previous portrayers of the character like Colin Clive and Peter Cushing. To the Baron holding the power of life and death in his hands is about as exciting as working for Citibank. By his own admission he wants to create a human being just so he can show up those jerk colleagues of his who said he couldn’t do it. Not exactly the greatest motivation for breaking the laws of man and God and pushing mankind into a new era of scientific research and development, but it pales in comparison with his sex-starved daughter’s reasoning for giving Thomas the brain of the intellectually superior Charles. Thankfully Rosalba Neri is sexy enough and committed to her part that we can forgive her shortcomings as an actress. Did I mention she gets naked several times? James Whale’s film didn’t have anything like that.
The first two acts of Lady Frankenstein are methodically paced despite the many cuts imposed on the movie before its American release. Plus the editing is noticeably jumpy in spots. For completists’ sake Shout! has included both cuts of the movie; the additional footage in the extended international cut sticks out like a sore thumb due to the decrease in picture quality. When you selected the longer version you’ll see a disclaimer card explaining that this is the most complete edit of Lady Frankenstein the DVD producers were able to locate and it was remastered from the best available elements. Having not viewed the extended cut I couldn’t tell you if the added footage made Lady Frankenstein a better film, but knowing Roger Corman’s talent for cutting everything unnecessary out of a movie I’m sure the restored footage is mostly superfluous.
The Velvet Vampire (1971)
One evening at a Los Angeles art gallery attractive yet unhappy couple Lee (Michael Blodgett) and Susan Ritter (Sherry Miles) meet the alluring Diane LeFanu (Celeste Yarnell) and are immediately taken with her beauty and charms. Diane invites the young lovers to her desert getaway for a relaxing weekend during which their car breaks and are stranded indefinitely. Things seem to go well at first although Susan doesn’t exactly trust Diane and her creepy houseboy Juan (Jerry Daniels), and on top of that she’s having a recurring dream where Lee leaves her for their host. Soon Diane’s true nature comes to light: she’s a centuries-old vampire who needs fresh, young blood to extend her lifespan. As events start to take an odd turn both Lee and Susan find themselves seduced by the ageless vamp, but are they willing to give in to sensual pleasures at the cost of their lives?
Vampires have always made excellent characters in sexually-charged novels, television shows, and feature films. From the dark elegance of Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation of Dracula to the erotic British masterpiece Vampyres and reaching a sad peak with the chaste Twilight blockbusters razor sharp fangs and streams of blood running down bare skin have more of a sexual charge for most modern audiences than all the exposed flesh and hardcore pumping and moaning found in your typical XXX erotica. In the midst of that spectrum dwells The Velvet Vampire, a rather tepid affair directed by exploitation vet Stephanie Rothman for Corman’s New World Pictures during the studio’s early years. Prior to that she had made the profitable T&A fare The Student Nurses, so suffice to say The Velvet Vampire is somewhat of a step forward in her directing career. That’s not saying much though. For the majority of its 80 minutes we’re subjected to endless scenes of pretty but vapid people wandering around dazed, having odd dreams, and getting into whiny arguments. Occasionally someone will die and a few breasts and butts will get bared, but it’s not enough to break the ennui. The film’s plodding pace, aided by a droning low-key folk rock music score that must have composed through a haze of bong smoke, almost made drift off a few times; that’s not a good thing for a movie that aspires to be a drive-in sex and horror show, which it would fail at anyway because the sex is puritanical and at times nonexistent while the amount of blood shed on screen wouldn’t fill a child’s juice glass to the halfway mark. Even the monumentally goofy ending lacks enough plasma to make a wealthy old dowager get the vapors. It’s sad to watch.
The lovely Yarnall gets the highest marks I can allow for this movie with a performance that is more ethereal and sad than frightening. She makes Diane warm and loving but horrified that she is doomed to spend her eternal life alone. You could almost feel sorry for her if she wasn’t a very uninteresting character. The same goes for the characters of Lee and Susan. You never get the sense that they were once in love and had anything in common outside of being tanned and pretty. When Susan discovers Lee in the throes of passion with Diane one night she doesn’t let it bother her much. The couple seems pretty open about their infidelities. When they can’t be bothered to care about the sorry status of their relationship why the hell should we? Best known for playing the conniving Lance Rocke in Russ Meyer’s cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls before bowing out of acting to spend the last decades of his life writing novels and screenplays (his credits include the Tom Hanks comedy Turner & Hooch as well as the novel on which the Chuck Norris thriller Hero & the Terror is based), Hodgett gives the second best performance in the movie because at least he seems to express concern over his multiple dilemmas at times even though he ultimately does little about it. But Miles comes off as a complete airhead with the emotional range of a department store mannequin. The only positive contribution she makes to the movie is baring her rocking body several times, but the prudish sensibilities of the Corman exploitation factory won’t allow for the lovely ladies of The Velvet Vampire to show us everything they’ve got. It makes me glad that Vampyres is still available on DVD. Now that’s an erotic vampire tale that delivers on its promises and then some.
Time Walker (1982)
During an expedition through the tomb of Tutankhamen California Institute of the Sciences professor Douglas McFadden (Ben Murphy) unearths a sarcophagus containing the mummified remains of the mysterious Ankh-Vanharis. At first the name leads McFadden and his students to believe that he was a foreign dignitary, but can’t figure out why he would be buried in the tomb of a pharaoh. The remains are brought to the Institute for further study. Upon its arrival the mummy is revealed to have a strange green dust on its wrappings. A technician (Kevin Brophy) taking x-rays of the remains steals five diamond-like jewels mounted on the sarcophagus and attempts to pawn them off around town to pay off his debts. When the stones are removed Ankh-Vanharis rises from his 3000-year sleep and stalks the campus looking to retrieve the jewels. Meanwhile the green dust on his wrapping is examined and revealed to be a deadly fungus that dissolves human flesh and is believed to be what killed Tutankhamen and his followers. It’s up to the professor, along with his trusted colleagues and the police, to stop Ankh-Vanharis’ reign of terror and the spread of the fungus, but their search for answers soon leads them to wonder if this particular mummy was even a member of the human race.
Once roasted during Mystery Science Theater 3000’s fourth season under the name Being from Another Planet, Time Walker is a interesting low-key trifle from a decade that wallowed in colorful excess and sleaze. It could almost pass for a 1950’s B-cheapie that would play the lower half of a drive-in double bill if you drained the color from the picture. Outside of a little PG-rated breast nudity provided by Melissa Prophet (Invasion U.S.A.) and occasionally gruesome make-up effects there’s hardly anything particularly frightening or offensive for younger viewers to see. This would explain why Time Walker could always be found playing during sleepy early afternoons on HBO back when I was a kid. The movie takes its basic plotline from the Universal Pictures horror classic The Mummy but adds a few contemporary touches and a sci-fi twist that helps it stand out from the onslaught of disposable mummy flicks made since the 1930’s. Every character dresses very conservatively (except for a second act Egyptian-themed frat party), sex is very chaste, and the violence is kept to a bare minimum. The mummy itself is kept in the shadows or shown in brief glimpses until the third act and its presence is mostly represented by green-tinted POV shots that wouldn’t be out of place in a slasher flick.
Thankfully the movie doesn’t wear out its 85-minute running time and for the most is paced well with unobtrusive cinematography by Robbie Greenburg (Free Willy) and fine art direction by the late Robert Burns, best known for his work on the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. Richard Band’s music score is unexceptional on its own but ideally suited for the action and fright scenes. If nothing else Time Walker certainly wins the award for having the mostly eclectic supporting cast of any movie in this collection: Nina Axelrod (Motel Hell) plays the professor’s love interest, James Karen (Return of the Living Dead) is a hoot as the publicity-obsessed university president, Shari Belafonte has a few fleeting scenes as a campus photographer and disc jockey, Alan Rachins (Showgirls) in a brief scene as a jeweler, and Warrington Gillette - a.k.a. Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th Part II - acquits himself well in his brief moments on screen as a frat boy with a soft spot in his heart for Axelrod’s character. Fans of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 - myself included - will get a mighty kick out of seeing Darwin Joston (in his final role) and Austin Stoker show up playing a police lieutenant and a scientist colleague of McFadden’s, respectively. The two actors are even given a quick moment on camera together, something I couldn’t help but smile at.
The only real complaint I have with Time Walker is its abrupt ending. Without spoiling the conclusion I will say that the movie ends before the crucial final confrontation occurs. Once Ankh-Vanharis’ true nature is revealed we get a final scare and then a shock cut to a title card reading TO BE CONTINUED. Apparently the makers of this movie were hoping that it would be successful enough to warrant a sequel that ultimately was never made. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, but it still robs a better-than-decent slice of early 1980’s schlock of the conclusion it deserved…and sorely needed.
Lisa (Linda Blair) is taking her friend Kathy (Donna Wilkes) on a little trip to stay with her parents, including her special effects legend father Orville (Guy Stockwell), at their cozy vacation home in the mountains. En route to their destination the women run afoul of a group of crazed punks led by the overly intense Scratch (Brad Wilson) but manage to escape their clutches. Unbeknownst to them however Scratch and his gang of hooligans are headed for the same place as Lisa and Kathy because they believe that Orville has great riches stashed in that house from all his years as a Hollywood big shot. The punks invade the house and kill nearly everyone there, leaving Lisa to flee for her life. Meanwhile as they search the house for Orville’s mysterious bounty Scratch’s band of ruffians discover that there is someone, or something, in there with them - a deformed creature that is none too happy to have its home invaded. Pretty soon things get even more violent, Lisa’s plastic surgeon uncle Rod (Tab Hunter) gets involved, and if such a occurrence is possible Grotesque begins to live up to its name.
Joe Tornatore was once a working character actor who appeared in numerous film and television projects and worked with esteemed directors like George Roy Hill, Mike Nichols, Jack Starrett, Melvin Van Peebles, Franco Zeffirelli, and Norman Jewison. Being around such high-class filmmaking talent naturally rubbed off on ol’ Joey T. and soon he was making his own low-budget directorial efforts, but they were mostly unmemorable exploitations flicks like The Zebra Force and Curse of the Crystal Eye. His most frequent collaborator was another grindhouse mainstay turned behind-the-camera, Mikel Angel. In 1988 Tornatore and Angel teamed up for what would become their greatest creative endeavor, the monumentally whacked-out-of-its-skull Grotesque. If ever there was a movie that was perfectly described by its title it would hands down be this one. From its wildly veering change in tones to its dearth of pointless filler scenes to the over-the-top villains Grotesque has great fun reveling in its sheer, unapologetic awfulness. It starts out as a straight-up home invasion yarn before preceding to a freak-on-the-loose monster movie and then ending as a goofy tale of revenge. Tornatore and Angel seem determined to confound our every expectation by going left when we the humble viewers think they’re going right, but that tends to undermine whatever tension and character development they had built up in the meantime. Blair and Wilkes are established as the heroines in the beginning but once Scratch and the psycho punks invade the mountain home and “Patrick” is introduced they’re pushed to the side and virtually forgotten. Hunter’s character is mentioned during the first act but he isn’t brought on until the beginning of the third and suddenly he becomes the lead, setting in motion a weird chain of events that has a priceless pay-off (and reminded me of Tales from the Crypt in a way) but makes very little sense in context.
But in the end such inconsistently matters little in the grand scheme of things because the cast and crew of Grotesque clearly don’t give a shit. Linda Blair and Donna Wilkes, both veterans of big and low-budget schlock, acquit themselves well with their limited roles and are thankfully game for whatever Tornatore throws at them, as is Guy Stockwell as the prankish father. I was surprised there was any scenery left at the end between all the chewing being done by Brad Taylor and Tab Hunter. Taylor, wearing eyeliner that makes him look like a young Ozzy Osbourne at times, goes so far over the top in his performance that he ultimately gets lost and stays there. The entire punk gang looks like a head-on collision between one of those generic all-white 1980’s movie gangs you would see throwing down with Charles Bronson or chasing down a pack of precocious kids for a treasure map and the biker gang from The Ninth Configuration. Blink and you’ll miss future Maniac Cop Robert Z’Dar as one of Scratch’s deranged acolytes. Former 1950’s teen idol Hunter’s performance nearly matches Taylor’s in terms of pure theatrical intensity and at times threatens to go the full “Shatner” on us, but much like every successful element in Grotesque it only adds to the movie’s go-for-broke plummet into the annals of dimestore Z-grade cinema. Joe Tornatore’s sordid flick gleefully lives up to the old maxim that if you’re gonna fail then fail big, and it has a lot of dumb fun doing it.
The Velvet Vampire, Lady Frankenstein, and Time Walker are all presented in brand new 1.78: 1 anamorphic widescreen transfers. Picture and sound quality on each feature varies, with only Time Walker both looking and sounding the best. Time Walker’s widescreen picture is actually compressed from its original aspect ratio of 1.85: 1 but the loss is barely noticeable. Lady Frankenstein’s English-dubbed track is glaringly out of sync at times and its picture quality is just a shade better than the public domain copies that have been floating around for years.
Two-channel Dolby mono soundtracks have been provided for each film. The Velvet Vampire’s 2.0 track is serviceable but packed with distracting pops and crackles, so it doesn’t surprise me that the audio lacks snap. Grotesque gets the lousiest treatment of the set with a passable video transfer that looks like it was ripped from someone’s personal VHS copy (which adds to its oddball charm) and tinny Dolby 2.0 mono sound. The dialogue and music are listenable but hardly anything close to a noteworthy effort on Shout!’s part.
Other than the aforementioned longer international cut the supplements for Lady Frankenstein are confined to a minute-long TV spot, a 3-minute theatrical trailer, and a slim poster gallery that’s listed on the back of the DVD case as a photo gallery.
The Velvet Vampire gets a spotty but enjoyable audio commentary with star Yarnall moderated by Nathaniel Thompson of Mondo Digital. The track falls along the lines of a casual chat as the actress tells a few interesting stories about the production and shares her thoughts on the film four decades after its release. A scratchy theatrical trailer and a slim photo gallery are all we get besides the commentary.
Time Walker gets a pair of video interviews with producer Dimitri Villard (9 minutes) and third-billed actor Kevin Brophy (10 minutes) and a theatrical trailer (2 minutes). Each interview subject goes into detail about how their involvement with the film came about and their feelings about its eventual reception. They’re both brief and a bit more info would have been nice but each interview is worth a single watch.
There are no extra features for Grotesque.
Shout!’s latest set of Corman cast-offs is certainly a mixed bag but there is still much fun to be had watching these endearingly silly movies from an era where exploitation flicks swung for the fences and everyone involved had a blast. The scant extra features add to the overall enjoyable experience. Only the most devoted fans of Z-grade quality crapola will get a kick out of this set.