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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

A Few Hallowe'en Reviews

Just in time for Hallowe'en, I've been able to cast my eyes over four of MGM's recent Midnite Movies double bills. The discs are as follows: The Haunted Palace (1963)/Tower of London (1962), The Comedy of Terrors (1964)/The Raven (1963), The Tomb of Ligeia (1965)/An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe (1970), and Countess Dracula (1970)/The Vampire Lovers (1970). Four of the films were directed by Roger Corman, including the two of the best ones of the eight - The Haunted Palace and The Tomb of Ligeia. The two other Corman efforts - Tower of London and The Raven - bear titles previously made to better effect. Two of the films are comedy-chillers - the aforementioned The Raven works fairly well in this respect; The Comedy of Terrors doesn't. There are a couple of Hammer vampire tales - Countess Dracula and The Vampire Lovers - the latter of which works quite well, while the former is rather tedious. Vincent Price is the star of six of these films including all the Corman ones as well as An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe, which comprises a rewarding quartet of shorts.


The Haunted Place/Tower of London

The Haunted Place/Tower of London

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Tower of London was a 1962 remake of the 1939 film of the same title that starred Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff. Both films purport to tell the story of Richard III's bloody rise to power, but neither completely satisfies. The 1962 version is much more of a misfire than the original, however, with the story muddled by ghostly visions and the cheap-looking production not helped by almost uniformly uninspired acting. Even Vincent Price, here taking the lead role of Richard III (interestingly he also had a supporting role in the 1939 version), seems much less animated than usual. The film was shot in black and white and released theatrically at 1:66:1. That's the way MGM presents it (not anamorphically enhanced) and the results are very nice. The image is quite crisp with very good shadow detail. The mono sound is clear and a new 13-minute featurette Producing Tower of London (mainly an interview with producer Gene Corman) tells you all you need to know. The film, as with all eight considered here, is closed captioned and has English, French, and Spanish language subtitles.

The Haunted Palace arrived in 1963 in the middle of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe cycle, although the film owed more to H.P. Lovecraft (upon one of whose stories it was based) than it did to Poe's poem. Not that that was a bad thing, for the results were most entertaining. Vincent Price starred as the descendant of a man burnt to death by the townspeople of Arkham because they believed him to be a warlock. When Price comes to Arkham to claim his ancestor's castle, he finds himself increasingly under the influence of a curse that his great-great-grandfather placed on Arkham's people and their descendants. Price and indeed all the cast play this one straight and although fairly predictable, the story holds interest throughout. Price is particularly effective in conveying the facial transformations that occur as his character's mind is taken over by that of his ancestor. The film is handsomely mounted and well shot by Corman who makes effective use of the Panavision image. It also benefits from a very atmospheric score (reminiscent of the old Universal horror films) by Ronald Stein and the decision to use a great supporting cast of Hollywood veterans such as Lon Chaney Jr., Elisha Cook Jr., Leo Gordon, Guy Wilkerson, John Dierkes, and Stanford Jolley. MGM's 2.35:1 anamorphic presentation is in very good shape. Colours appear accurate and are somewhat subdued, which apparently reflects the intentions of the director. The mono sound does the job effectively and a new 11-minute interview with Roger Corman entitled A Change of Poe covers the making-of background quite well. The original theatrical trailer is included.


Comedy of Terrors/The Raven

After the success of 1962's Tales of Terror which starred Basil Rathbone, Vincent Price, and Peter Lorre in three short tales inspired by Poe stories, American International Pictures signed that film's writer Richard Matheson to write further horror scripts for films that would feature the same players. Known for his off-beat writings, Matheson came up with the comedy-horror scripts for The Raven and The Comedy of Terrors.

Comedy of Terrors/The Raven

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The Raven (1963) has little to do with Poe and nothing in common (other than the appearance of Boris Karloff) with the 1935 classic of the same title. Vincent Price plays sorceror Dr. Erasmus Craven whose help is sought by Dr. Bedlo, a sorceror who has been turned into a raven by Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff) during a duel of magic. After returning Bedlo to his human form (played by Peter Lorre), Craven learns that Lenore, the love of his life, may not be dead but instead living with Scarabus. As a result, Craven and Bedlo set off to confront Scarabus. Despite misgivings one might have about combining comedy with horror when one is doing a film with straight horror specialists such as Price and Karloff, The Raven works fairly well. All the principals enter into the spirit of the film and appear to be enjoying themselves quite a bit, although reportedly Karloff found the going a bit more difficult than the others. (By the way, look for Jack Nicholson in a modest supporting role.) Director Corman had more resources at his disposal than previously, and the resulting production values are high with large realistic sets and some good effects work during the climactic sorcerors' duel.

Reflecting the comedic angle to the script, Corman chose to employ brighter lighting and it is well rendered on MGM's 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. The transfer has some difficulties with smearing in the reds of the opening credits, but thereafter it is limited only by minor defects in the source material such as speckles and the odd scratch. The mono sound is once again quite satisfactory. Supplements consist of two new short but interesting featurettes totaling 15 minutes in length (Richard Matheson Storyteller: The Raven and Corman's Comedy of Poe), a promotional piece dealing with a record from the film, and the original theatrical trailer.

Matheson's second comedy-horror script - The Comedy of Terrors - is much less successful. The plot is trivial - lazy undertaker Waldo Trumbull creates work for himself whenever he needs money by arranging a murder. When one particular such effort designed to raise money to pay his rent doesn't work out, Trumbull decides his next effort will be to murder his landlord. Trumbull will thus benefit from the burial fee as well as doing away with the person to whom he's in debt. But of course, things don't quite work out as planned. The problem with this film is that the principals (Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone) have apparently been emboldened by the success of The Raven to such an extent that they all badly overplay their roles. Seeing them hamming it up in this film will simply make anyone who knows what these actors are capable of sad to see how far they have fallen. Fortunately, Karloff and Price were able to overcome this image with later superior work, but Lorre and Rathbone never recovered. Roger Corman again directed, but with only a 15-day shooting schedule, he was unable to avoid completely a low-budget look this time. If The Comedy of Terrors suffers in comparison with The Raven as a film, however, it certainly doesn't in terms of its DVD transfer. For a low-budget film, MGM has managed a first-rate 2.35:1 anamorphic presentation. Colours are bright and accurate and the image is sharp throughout. Source material imperfections are almost non-existent. The mono sound is satisfactory and supplements include a companion piece to the Richard Matheson featurette accompanying The Raven and the original theatrical trailer.


The Tomb of Ligeia/An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe

The Tomb of Ligeia (1965) is another class act in this collection. The film is a combination of gothic horror and romance in which one Verden Fell buries his dead wife Ligeia and then stays on in their decaying abbey. There he is discovered by Rowena, a young woman out fox hunting, who falls in love with him. The two are married, but Rowena soon finds that Fell disappears every night. Fell apparently has fallen under a spell cast by Ligeia as she died, and he must care for her body in a room in the top of the abbey. Eventually, Rowena manages to confront him and a mysterious black cat there in a desperate attempt to free Fell from the spell.

The Tomb of Ligeia/An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe

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The Tomb of Ligeia offered Vincent Price another fine opportunity and he delivers a subtle performance of a man who seems doomed from the start. Elizabeth Shepherd is very effective in the duel role of Ligeia/Rowena. Again directed by Roger Corman, he this time was able to make good use of location work in England to add an extra dimension to the film's atmospheric feel. The film's final conflagration also allowed him to insert his trademark shot of burning rafters. This was the eighth and final Poe-inspired film by Corman; the others were The House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Premature Burial (1962), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963), The Haunted Palace (1963), and The Masque of the Red Death (1964). MGM's 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is another winner. The image is crisp and clear with accurate colours in general. The outdoor scenes are a little pale compared to the rest, but still nicely detailed. The mono sound is quite good with even some pronounced bass evident at times. The supplements comprise two audio commentaries (the first by Corman [one of his typically interesting discussions] and the other by Elizabeth Shepherd) and the original theatrical trailer.


An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe (1970) presents recitations/dramatizations by Vincent Price of four Poe tales: The Tell Tale Heart, The Sphinx, The Cask of Amontillado, and The Pit and the Pendulum. Each lasts about 12 to 15 minutes and demonstrates Price's fine voice as well as his impressive acting range. Unfortunately they only whet one's appetite for more. The program was apparently made for television and the source material used by MGM has not translated into a particularly good transfer. It's workable enough, but suffers from fuzziness, some smearing, and video noise in the darker scenes. The sound is mono, but luckily in pretty decent shape. There are no supplements.


Countess Dracula/The Vampire Lovers

By the late 1960s, the horror film had begun to replace atmosphere with excessive gore and sometimes pointless nudity in an effort to retain fans. Countess Dracula and The Vampire Lovers (both 1970) are two examples of this trend.

Countess Dracula/The Vampire Lovers

Despite the excesses, The Vampire Lovers proves to be quite an entertaining entry in the horror genre. Although predictable overall with its tale of a beautiful young woman/vampire (perhaps the last surviving member of the Karnstein family) who contrives to live with families with attractive young daughters that will eventually become her victims, its plot has a few twists (including a Lesbian angle that would inspire future such horror films) and is well enough acted to keep one watching. Ingrid Pitt is quite appealing (both in and out of costume) as the vampire and there is able support from the likes of Peter Cushing (rather underutilized), George Cole, Douglas Wilmer, Harvey Hall, Kate O'Mara, and Madeline Smith. Director Roy Ward Baker maintains tension throughout and orchestrates some very eerie scenes in the ruins of the Karnstein castle. Two follow-ups - Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971), neither benefiting from the presence of Ingrid Pitt - comprise the so-called Karnstein trilogy.


Whether one cares for the film or not, however, there's no denying that MGM has certainly done its best on the DVD transfer. The best available source material including previously cut footage has been used and the resulting 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is splendid. The image is consistently crisp and clear with bright, accurate colour and good shadow detail. The mono sound is adequate. The supplements are highlighted by a thoroughly entertaining and enlightening audio commentary from Ingrid Pitt, Roy Ward Baker, and screenwriter Tudor Gates. Also included are Ingrid Pitt reading excerpts from "Carmilla" (the story upon which the film was based) and the original theatrical trailer.

Countess Dracula is definitely a lesser entry in the horror genre. The story is a fictionalization of events concerning the real Hungarian countess Elizabeth Bathory who bathed in the blood of virgins, believing it would maintain her youthful beauty. Ingrid Pitt, as usual, is an asset in the title role and the reliable Nigel Green provides good support. The film moves slowly, however, and despite fairly impressive attention to period detail, it never really develops enough tension to grab one's interest. Nor is MGM's transfer quite up to the standard of The Vampire Lovers. It's a 1:66:1 non-anamorphic effort that's quite reasonable, but not quite as sharp or as clean (there's a degree of graininess in some of the darker scenes). Blacks are quite deep and colours appear accurate, if a little muted. The mono sound is once again quite adequate. Supplements include another audio commentary featuring Ingrid Pitt, this time with director Peter Sasdy and screenwriter Jeremy Paul, and the original theatrical trailer.

To summarize, MGM's recent Midnite Movies double-bill releases all have something worthwhile to offer. There's at least one fine film on each and virtually all the image transfers show that MGM cares about these films. Given the double-bill status of the discs and a very affordable price, MGM's efforts in also adding worthwhile supplements are most commendable. Each of the four discs is recommended.


A Few New Classic Announcements

Finally, for those of you who have made the effort to read this far, here are a few new-release announcements of classic titles that have come to light over the past week. As always, the Classic Release Database has been updated accordingly.

A good chunk of the latest news concerns Criterion's forthcoming plans. Set for a January 2004 release are Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939) and Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952). The latter will feature: a new high-definition digital transfer with restored image and sound, audio commentary by Stephen Prince - author of The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, a 90-minute documentary (A Message from Akira Kurosawa [2000]) produced by Kurosawa productions and featuring interviews with the director on the set of his later films, a 41-minute documentary on Ikiru from the series, Akira Kurosawa: To Create Is Beautiful which including interviews with Akira Kurosawa, writer Hideo Oguni, actor Takashi Shimura, and many others, the original theatrical trailer, and a new and improved English subtitle translation. The Rules of the Game will include: a new high-definition digital transfer with restored image and sound, an introduction to the film by Jean Renoir, audio commentary written by film scholar Alexander Sesonske and read by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, selected scene audio commentary by Renoir historian Christopher Faulkner, Jean Renoir le Patron: La Règle et L'Exception (1966): a French television program about The Rules of the Game featuring interviews with Renoir and actor Marcel Dalio, a new video essay about the film's production, release, and later reconstruction, Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand discussing their reconstruction and re-release of the film in 1965, a new interview with Renoir's son, Alain, an assistant cameraman on the film, a new interview with set designer Max Douy, written tributes to the film and Renoir by François Truffaut, Paul Schrader, Bertrand Tavernier, Wim Wenders, and others, and a new and improved English subtitle translation.

Also coming from Criterion in January is a re-release of its previous versions of Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (1953) and Mon Oncle (1958). Out-of-print not long after they were first released by Criterion, the company has now regained the rights to these Tati films. News on two other Tati films - Playtime (1967) and Jour de Fête (1949) - will be forthcoming later. Playtime, for example, was previously released by Criterion and will likely have a new transfer. Also coming later in 2004 will be Laurence Olivier's Richard III (1955), Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (1950), and Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street (1953). On the down side, Four Criterion titles will go out-of-print at the end of this year. Included are three Alfred Hitchcock films - Rebecca, Notorious, and Spellbound - and Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs.

In one further bit of Criterion news, it appears that the company will be collaborating with the British Film Institute and 20th Century-Fox to bring out as fine a version as possible of Luchino Visconti's The Leopard (1963, with Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale). Supplements are likely to include a full feature commentary by David Forgacs, Professor of Italian at University College London, extracts from an interview with Claudia Cardinale, and the original trailer.

Columbia has revealed its January release slate, and among the classic releases not already mentioned in last week's edition of this column, we find It Should Happen to You (1954, with Judy Holliday) and Three Stooges: Stooges at Work on January 13th, and a Superbit edition of Dr. Strangelove on January 27th.

Home Vision Entertainment has several new announcements of Japanese film releases for January: Blackmail Is My Life (1968) and If You Were Young: Rage (1970) on January 6th, and Underworld Beauty (1958), Tattooed Life (1965), and Kanto Wanderer (1963) on January 20th.

In Warner Bros. news, it appears that the company may be planning an Academy Award tie-in with a slate of releases that is believed to include: Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939, with Robert Donat), Gaslight (1944, with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton), William Wyler's Mrs. Miniver (1942, with Greer Garson), The Great Ziegfeld (1936, with William Powell), Around the World in 80 Days (1956, with David Niven), Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup (1966, with Vanessa Redgrave), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969, with Maggie Smith), and The Sunshine Boys (1975, with Walter Matthau and George Burns). Other titles that appear fairly certain for 2004 are The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975, with Jack Lemmon) and Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938, with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland).

In Region 2 news, Universal (who appear to own the rights to RKO films there) will be releasing several box sets on November 10th. Of primary interest to Region 1 classic enthusiasts is a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers box set that will include: Top Hat, Follow the Fleet, Shall We Dance, and Carefree. Extras will include introductions to each film from Fred Astaire's daughter Ava, newly restored prints, postcards of the original theatrical posters, and extensive notes from film historian Ken Barnes. A Cary Grant box set of newly restored prints will comprise Bringing Up Baby, My Favorite Wife, Indiscreet, and Operation Petticoat. A Marx Brothers box set will include newly restored prints of Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, Horse Feathers, and Monkey Business. The Cary Grant and Marx Brothers boxes will include postcards of the original posters, with the Grant box also having notes by Ken Barnes.

Eureka Video's region 2 two-disc SE of Sunrise (1927), coming on January 26, 2004, will include a documentary by film historian R. Dixon Smith, the original English intertitle cards, audio commentary by ASC Cinematographer John Bailey, outtakes with optional commentary, the original scenario by Carl Mayer with Murnau's handwritten annotations, the original Sunrise screenplay, 4 Devils reconstruction, treatment and screenplay, a stills gallery, the original theatrical trailer, and restoration notes.

Argent Films' Region 2 release of The Battle of Algiers will now arrive two weeks later on November 17th. The disc will feature an anamorphic presentation.

And with that, we come to the end of another edition of the Classic Coming Attractions column. I'll return again soon.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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