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The Criterion Collection presents
Monsters and Madmen (1958-1959)

"What I have imagined as terrible dreams are, in fact, reality."
- Dr. Thomas Bolton (Boris Karloff) in Corridors of Blood

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: January 22, 2007

Stars: Boris Karloff
Other Stars: Jean Kent, Elizabeth Allan, Anthony Dawson, Finlay Currie, Betta St. John, Nigel Green, Marshall Thompson, Bill Nagy, Robert Ayres, Carl Jaffe, Marla Landi, Bill Edwards, Arthur Franz, Dick Foran, Brett Halsey, Paul Dubov, Sid Melton, Joi Lansing
Director: Robert Day, Spencer Gordon Bennet

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 05h:24m:39s
Release Date: January 23, 2007
UPC: 715515021623
Genre: suspense thriller

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-B+B+ A+

DVD Review

Criterion takes a giant step or two away from the highbrow with this wonderful set of four restored 1950s gothic/sci-fi B-movies, all produced in one way or another by brothers Richard and Alex Gordon. There's a couple of Karloff features and a pair of monster flicks, all giving a great taste of the period, in all of its campy richness.

The Haunted Strangler (1958)
Directed by Robert Day

In this twisty costume thriller co-written by producer John Croydon under his "John C. Cooper" alias, Boris Karloff is a Victorian-era novelist investigating the hanging death of the infamous Haymarket Strangler twenty years after the fact. Karloff's James Rankin is continually butting heads with local authorities—including Anthony Dawson as the superintendent—as he tries to find answers, even if it means exhuming a corpse in a graveyard at midnight or visiting the bawdy can-can dance hall Judas Hole.

Robert Day kicks this one off nice and dark, with a grim public hanging in front of a bunch of drunken louts, and he even manages to go the other direction by parading the dance hall girls in a few numbers, giving Jean Kent (who just can't properly lip-synch her big "Cora" number to save her life) and Vera Day ample opportunity to get alluringly campy. But this is a Karloff picture, kicking off his B-movie resurgence that would stretch into the 1960s, and he manages to dress up The Haunted Strangler with a dignified screen presence, at least early on, before things start to go horribly wrong for his character. It's at this point that the actor exhibits his immeasurable talents at being able to completely alter his appearance simply by contorting his face, and during the second half Karloff gets to show that age had not prevented him from being a real movie bad ass.

The bodies start piling up pretty quickly, and despite some blandness and/or hamminess with a few of the supporting players, Day wisely puts Karloff center stage more often than not in this thinly disguised Jekyll-and-Hyde variant. The aforementioned graveyard exhumation is probably the big signature sequence in The Haunted Strangler, and it's the kind of beautifully shot vintage genre moment that demonstrates how boldly Karloff could carry what could have been a very forgettable B picture.

Corridors of Blood (1959)
Directed by Robert Day

Day immediately tapped Karloff for another Victorian-era piece, only this time there aren't any true "horror" elements to be found. Set in 1840 London ("before anesthesia"), Karloff's Dr. John Bolton is determined to make surgery painless, and considering the apparent number of screaming amputations that are performed it does seem like a pretty good idea. The problem is the medical big wigs think Bolton is an overworked nut who is ignoring the oft-repeated mantra of "pain and the knife are inseparable."

There are not-so-subtle thematic fragments from The Haunted Strangler in evidence here, in as much that Karloff gets to go from nice to crazy, there's a raunchy Victorian establishment that serves as the catalyst of change, and both films concern a man with good intentions who goes against the norm to try and prove a point. In Corridors of Blood, Karloff's Bolton goes full bore trying to invent anesthesia, only to become an addict to the stuff as he falls in a bad crowd, led by the bearded evilness of Francis De Wolff's Black Ben and his rail-thin henchman Resurrection Joe, played by a wonderfully dour and murderous Christopher Lee.

All the tacky period advertising come-ons that show up on the original poster art ("his most frightening role") can't really make this a horror film, even with Karloff in the lead. It's really a Victorian drama. The thing is, even gooped up on his nitrous-oxid-y creations, the Bolton character is sadly sympathetic throughout, from his botched surgical demonstration to his pitiful descent into illegal activities. That makes this kind of an uneven followup to The Haunted Strangler, though Karloff does carries himself well as a man trying to do the right thing.

First Man Into Space (1959)
Directed by Robert Day

Robert Day moves on without Karloff for this cautionary tale about what might happen if test pilots push the proverbial envelope too hard, and the lesson here is that a dose of deep space dust can turn a man into a shuffling, knobby, mutated blood-drinker. Well, that's what happens to Lieutenant Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards), the cocky and brash brother who is always butting heads with stern and logical Commander Charles Prescott (Marshall Thompson) as the experimental test flight of the X-13 goes terribly wrong.

While it is fun to watch, this is kind of an ultimately pointless story as these type of mutant features go, with poor Dan Prescott wandering the countryside killing the occasional expendable victim who happens to cross his path, all leading to the well telegraphed brother-to-brother bonding moment that naturally comes just a little too late. There are some weird moments (the mutant driving a car while being chased by police comes to mind), and sexy, tight-sweatered Italian scientist Tia Francesca (Marla Landi) seems content to switch off between Prescott brothers when the mood strikes her.

Not exactly full of hard science, the message here is "space dust bad," and that even the temporary love of a beautiful foreign scientist cannot prevent a man from turning into a blood-drinking mutant. There seems to be an attempt to create another creature audiences should feel compassion toward, but Bill Edwards' doomed Prescott is kind of a jag on all fronts, and his lumbering, lock-kneed gait renders him just another rubber-suited 1950s monster. And I just happen to enjoy rubber-suited 1950s monsters.

The Atomic Submarine (1959)
Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet

The only feature in this set not directed by Robert Day is this variation on the flying saucer genre from the extremely prolific Spencer Gordon Bennet, here moving the setting underwater at "the vast frozen top of the world," aka the Arctic. After seven polar subs mysteriously vanish—as well as the occasional odd freighter—the titular vessel Tiger Fish is sent on a top secret mission to find out what's happening, only to discover a tentacled visitor from deep space.

From the get go The Atomic Submarine is enjoyably campy example of pure 1950s sci-fi B-movie cheese, complete with a stern voiced narrator, a couple of spinning headlines, and a tough-talking crew that also includes a pair of heavily accented scientists for good measure. The sub effects are typically cut rate for a genre flick like this, but Bennet does try to mix in some stock footage here and there, which unfortunately only makes the miniatures look that much more tacky. But in between those questionably bad miniature shots there's plenty of great bickering between gruff commander Reef Holloway (Arthur Franz) and war-hating doctor Carl Neilsen (Brett Halsey) on the merits of war versus peace as events build toward the inevitable confrontation with the inhabitant of the saucer, who bears a comically striking resemblance to The Simpsons' Kang and Kodos.

The Atomic Submarine is the shortest of these four films, and strangely it seems to take the longest to get to the point, spending a lot of time talking about things but doing very little—at least until the final 15 minutes. The sexy promise of Joi Lansing as the bleached-blonde love interest of Arthur Franz's Reef Holloway is just a tease, as she's understandably left on dry land once the mission gets underway. Yet even without Lansing's pure eye-candyness, this one moves and bends like a number of genre titles from the period, trying to imply more with less—if you were raised on films like this there's a real comfort factor at play.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: All four films are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and given their status as 1950s B-movies, they look quite respectable, all things considered. The odd bit of debris or specking is still evident here and there, but overall the transfers carry commendable above bar contrast levels (The Atomic Submarine especially). Detail levels are periodically soft—the worst offender being First Man Into Space—with the two Karloff pictures moving from moments of great clarity to moderate softness.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Original mono is the order of the day on all four films, with voice clarity presentable and clear at all times. No real complaints here, with hiss and crackle largely absent, though the presentations don't really offer much in the way of pomp or circumstance.

Clean, clear 1950s mono.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 54 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
4 Original Trailer(s)
9 TV Spots/Teasers
Production Notes
1 Documentaries
4 Featurette(s)
4 Feature/Episode commentaries by Tom Weaver, Richard Gordon, Alex Gordon
Packaging: Box Set
Picture Disc
4 Discs
4-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: This set has a pair of clear plastic Scanavo cases, each holding two discs (one disc per feature). Inside of each case is a twenty-page booklet, carrying photos, cast/crew listings, articles, and production information. The Haunted Strangler/Corridors Of Blood insert includes an article by TVGuide.com's Maitland McDonough entitled In Praise of Karloff The Uncanny and an excerpt from On The Set With Karloff by screenwriter/producer John Croydon, which originally appeared in a longer form in a 1984 issue of Fangoria magazine. For The Atomic Submarine/First Man Into Space disc there's First Man Into Space Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Began To Seriously Consider Marrying A Monster From Outer Space by Discovery Channel's Michael Lennick and The Atomic Submarine: Saving The World On A Shoestring Budget by Village Voice writer Bruce Eder.

Each disc also features a commentary track from the always effusive and enjoyable Tom Weaver, appearing in various combos with producers Richard and Alex Gordon. Weaver ranks up there as one of my favorite DVD commentators, and his input is always well-researched and very detailed, with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for bigger A-list features. On his own, a Weaver track is required listening, but when paired with the Gordons the wealth of info comes in big waves, and for a B-movie fan this is absolutely great stuff.

There are new interview shorts for each film, mixing clips with assorted remembrances from cast and crew. Haunted Memories (12m:15s) has director Robert Day, screenwriter Jan Read, actresses Jean Kent and Vera Day looking back on The Haunted Strangler, Corridor Gossip (14m:39s) has Day and actor Francis Matthews chatting up Corridors Of Blood, Making Space (09m:20s) alternates between Day and Marla Landi on First Man Into Space, while Atomic Recall (16m:01s) utilizes actor Brett Halsey to talk about his work on Submarine Seahawk, as well as The Atomic Submarine. As an added bonus, Corridors Of Blood also includes a Tom Weaver-moderated audio interview with actress Yvonne Romain and Censor Cuts (03m:16s) showing documents requesting the specific editing required to downplay some of the blood.

Original theatrical trailers are provided for each feature as well (and a few radio spots), along with sets of photo galleries relevant to each title.

Extras Grade: A+


Final Comments

The films themselves are all sorts of throwback fun on their own, but Criterion has legitimized the whole thing with a great set of supplemental materials that give these titles a sense of permanence.

Highly recommended.


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