The Fall of the House of Witley…
The 1965 horror film Die, Monster, Die! resembles, more than a little bit, the Edgar Allan Poe Cycle of horror films produced by Roger Corman. Like the Edgar Allan Poe films, Die, Monster, Die! was produced by American International Pictures, features lavish sets and colors and stars a bona fide Horror Icon (Boris Karloff instead of Vincent Price).
However, Die, Monster, Die!, ostensibly based on H.P. Lovecraft’s short story The Colour Out of Space, is much more than just a similar film from the same studio. This film also closely matches elements of two of the Poe Cycle films, Fall of the House of Usher (1960) and The Haunted Palace (1963). In that the latter film only borrows its name from a Poe poem and derives its plot from another H.P. Lovecraft story (“The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”), this might bring us full-circle, however the similarities to Fall of the House of Usher are much more pronounced.
In Die, Monster, Die!, tough American scientist Stephen Reinhart (Nick Adams) arrives in English town of Arkham (as opposed to Lovecraft’s Arkham, Massachusetts) to meet with his fiancée Susan Witley (Suzan Farmer), much like their counterparts from House of Usher unite. Reinhart is daunted from his task when he discovers that all of the townspeople mistrust and abhor “The Witley House” and consider it to be dangerous or even supernatural, much like the townspeople in The Haunted Palace mistrust and abhor “The Curwen House” and believe that it must house a warlock.
Once Reinhart arrives (on foot) at the Witley house, he is barred from seeing his fiancée by her overbearing father, as played by Karloff (their counterparts in House of Usher are initially prevented from meeting each other by the young lady’s overbearing older brother). In an oddball combination of House and Palace, the family’s nervousness regarding strangers is said to relate to a multigenerational madness that threatens to keep coming back, as the overhanging portraits of the scary Witley ancestors can attest to.
Clearly writer Jerry Sohl and director Daniel Haller had watched the sister films or, at least, had the Cliff’s Notes of the original stories handy for this film’s creation.
Fortunately, although the similarities are undeniable to the power of Xerox, Die, Monster, Die! does follow Lovecraft’s story The Colour Out of Space in at least its central conceit which is every bit as weird as anything in the Poe Cycle. As the title of the short story may hint, there is a bit of a science fiction bend here, but only a bit, as Die, Monster, Die! is pure (and often quite disturbing) horror that goes several steps beyond the standard Haunted House that the audience might be expecting.
The problem here is that just when the film becomes truly unique and starts to capture the Lovecraftian weirdness promised by such an adaptation, Sohl and Haller quickly shift gears back into the derivative and begin to ape the other films again.
However, where Die, Monster, Die! succeeds is in these undeniably Lovecraftian scenes. With strange, other-worldly monstrosities glanced at but never dwelled upon there is a constant uneasiness permeating the second half of the film. By no means are these background sights considered “normal”, but to the players onscreen they may just be among the least abnormal thing surrounding them. Once the title “Monster” rears its creepy head, the audience is prepared for just about anything to happen. And just about anything can and does happen.
Further, the acting in this film is another highlight of an otherwise (mostly) derivative film. Karloff (who, of course, got his big break playing some decidedly famous monsters of filmland) is excellent in the role of Nahum Witley, a role that proves alternately dramatic and terrifying. Adams proves to be a capable and tough leading man, if just a bit flat when it comes to his emotional range. This matches Farmer whose character is often quite oblivious to the madness around her. Speaking of which, Freda Jackson is noteworthy as Susan’s mother Letitia, who is slowly but surely being driven crazy by whatever is behind the weirdness of the House of Witley.
For all of the movie connections this film has (from the Poe Cycle on the whole to, specifically, House of Usher and The Haunted Palace), Die, Monster, Die! is decidedly bare bones in the extras category, with only the theatrical trailer standing as a “special feature”. Shout! Factory has done wonderful things with Blu-Rays in the past. See their recent release The Vincent Price Collection (which includes many films from the Poe Cycle) for a prime example of their ability to make commemorative products with treasure troves of DVD extras.
That said, they have yet to match (or, have rarely matched) the collection sleuthing that former B-Horror purveyors Blue Underground and Anchor Bay used to deliver. Of all of the distributors currently licensing and delivering horror classics of this kind, Shout! Factory is the most capable of creating and collecting the best of the Special Features. This, of course, makes the minimalist inclusions on this Blu-ray that much more of an inexplicable sad note. The picture and sound are both very fine, but unless Die, Monster, Die! has been somehow deemed culturally insignificant, one must wonder why such a short straw was drawn in the extras department.
For all it’s good points, Die, Monster, Die! is sure to instill a certain sense of déjà vu in its horror buff audience. Those unfamiliar with The Fall of the House of Usher might find the film to be beautiful and terrifying, but Poe Cycle aficionados are likely to cry either “rip-off” or “remake” during most of the film. When Die, Monster, Die! does come into its own, however, the film really delivers and the effects and creature feature sights are something to see, especially for the era. If only most of the film had not been done before, this might have become an unassailable classic… perhaps worth a Blu-ray with more special features.