Film

The Bad and the Beautiful: B-Horrors Go Blu

Queen of Blood (1966)

Surrounded by faceless men, stone men, and brainless men, the mesmerizing "Queen of Blood" belongs in her own class.

Some people have no time for cheap horror movies. Almost as bad are those smirking audiences who wish only to laugh at what's "so bad, it's good" in order to feel superior to the art and effort that went into them. Those of us who watch such wild and pulpy films may smile at their absurdities, but we also appreciate their sometimes accidental revelation of truth and beauty via the surreal and the shocking. Thanks to Kino Lorber, several examples from the '50s (and one from the '60s) are now available on Blu-ray in thoughtfully packaged editions.

Curse of the Faceless Man (1958)

Curse of the Faceless Man opens with stock footage of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, perhaps lifted from The Last Days of Pompeii, or a similar film with a higher budget, then it flashes forward to the present of the '50s, when an archaeological dig discovers a box of precious jewels, and a stone man, who wiggles his fingers as Gerald Fried's music thunders and shrieks on the soundtrack.

All the Italian academics have sense enough to worry and wonder about this phenomenon as they go about deciphering ancient texts and uncovering historical evidence, while the imported American doctor (Richard Anderson) stands around scoffing and doing nothing of the slightest value throughout the picture as various extras get killed by the stone man. His narrow-minded New World attitude of two-fisted action only gets him knocked out (twice!), in contrast to the open-minded Old World denizens who are ultimately more scientific.

In an astonishing coincidence even harder to swallow than the undead statue, the doctor's girlfriend (Elaine Edwards) becomes the focus of the man's stony lumbers because she's the reincarnation of his Roman love from his life as an Etruscan gladiator-slave, thus linking his mythology to The Mummy. This is why she stands there doing nothing besides unhelpfully fainting when he shambles in her direction, and it's why he haunts her dreams. Something about that hard-shelled man-rock stirs her atavistic impulses.

There's a subplot of which little is made, fortunately, involving the doc's Italian ex-girlfriend (dark exotic Adele Mara): daughter of the lead scientist (Luis Van Rooten), and fixation of a frustrated colleague (Gar Moore), which brings up the implication of the monster as a jealous messenger of the libido. Many sexually slanted horror films can be read this way, from King Kong to It Came from Beneath the Sea and beyond. It's probably no accident on the part of the over-educated screenwriters.

Basically, everyone who watches this film will know it isn't a good movie. Although, within the context of not being good, it isn't bad, and perhaps you must be a fan of these movies to know what that means. The script by science fiction writer Jerome Bixby is talky, expositional, and complete with heavy narration (added in rewrites?), yet it plays with intelligent and unusual ideas, and director Edward L. Cahn stages the perfunctory scenes with attractive compositions and spooky shadow effects for Kenneth Peach's crisp black and white photography.

The photography looks better on this Blu-ray than it has probably ever looked. It's so clearly defined that, as Chris Alexander points out in his rambling commentary, we clearly see that the "stone" man is rubber or cloth. Stuntman Bob Bryant plays the monster in a costume created by the esteemed Charles Gemora, best known for playing gorillas.

Alexander's commentary focuses on Cahn's career, as this film played double-bills with his It! The Terror From Beyond Space. It's one of several films Cahn directed for producer Robert E. Kent, with both of them working for executive producer Edward Small, one of the tireless individuals who defined Hollywood's B films. Their other items include the remarkable and seminal Invisible Invaders, which justifiably frightened the heck out of many a youngster, and The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake. In order to properly evaluate such maligned films, it's crucial to see them in their best presentation, and that counts for this Blu-ray. The only distraction is the soundtrack's oddly hollow ambience that calls attention to Foley effects, like footsteps and doors opening.

The Black Sleep (1956)

A better film all around is the cult-star lollapalooza known as The Black Sleep, set in 1872 England. Basil Rathbone plays Dr. Cadman, a man determined to revive his comatose wife. So far, his ruthless experiments in an abandoned abbey have yielded only a crew of botched patients whom he keeps in the dungeon, except for a mute butler (Bela Lugosi). The wretched rejects are played by Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, and Tor Johnson, while Akim Tamiroff hangs around as a Gypsy body-snatcher.

Into this motley ménage are introduced a plucky heroine (Patricia Blair) and another doctor (Herbert Rudley), whom Cadman rescued from wrongful conviction and execution by administering "the black sleep": a drug that feigns death. Confused? All you really need to know is: dungeons, chains, angry freaks, mad scientist.

It's a thrown-together stew, shot in excellently textured black and white. Gordon Avil's photography looks very good in HD, and you can see the sets and costumes with a clarity as vivid as Cadman's ruthless patrician arrogance, which leads him to aver that in the name of science, "anything -- anything is justified". He clearly anticipates the similarly styled Peter Cushing in Hammer's Frankenstein series.

Writer John C. Higgins was thoroughly professional, having worked on several noirs for Anthony Mann and the ambitious Robinson Crusoe on Mars. His script here has a few more surprises up its sleeve. Having worked with many of these actors before, veteran B director Reginald LeBorg was equally professional, coming up with some dynamic staging and eye-catching moments, such as the scene where Rudley's character revives in his coffin.

The film may ultimately be disposable, yet this modest effort provides pleasures for the B connoisseur. An excellent extra on this disc is commentary by genre specialist Tom Weaver. One couldn't ask for a more knowledgeable and engaging historian. He's joined briefly by David Schecter for an excellent analysis of Lex Baxter's effective gothic score along with a rundown on the controversy surrounding Baxter's career.

Donovan's Brain (1953)

There's little wrong with Donovan's Brain, a neatly executed and seminal entry in the "possessed by a telepathic brain in a tank" sweepstakes. It scores the coup of starring the respected and thoroughly convincing Lew Ayres in the Jekyll/Hyde role of the semi-mad (or at least touchy) scientist taken over by the brain of a malicious millionaire (whose body had died in a plane crash).

The dead Donovan is a fascinating character. Described as "one of those self-made types" whom everybody loathed, including his children, he's a tax dodger with ambitions of being able to take over anybody because disembodied brains find this sort of thing easy. Thus, the jitters being explored here aren't concerned so much with the running amok of pointy-headed, brainy types, though that's here, as it is with the domination of heartless capitalism and its omnivorous ego -- and that's an unusual angle for 1953.

Yes, it's absurd, but it's handled with intelligent, understated credibility by the actors under writer-director Felix Feist, who works from Hugh Brooke's adaptation of Curt Siodmak's novel. Remembering his days on B noirs, Feist stages everything economically yet atmospherically, with plenty of expressive shadows in almost every scene. He chooses interesting angles and often moves the camera smoothly to catch as much as possible in one shot, like the early scene that reveals a drunken doctor (Gene Evans) sleeping on the floor.

The intelligence of the writing is revealed in the opening dialogue inside a moving car, within another single shot, as Dr. Patrick Corey (Ayres) patronizes his wife Janice (Nancy Davis, patient and restrained) over her concern for their dead lab monkeys. He later talks her into admitting she's just being silly, except the audience is already cued to see that her concerns are valid and the supposedly well-meaning doc is subtly manipulating everyone for his obsession.

Janice makes this plain when she gently mocks his earlier speech about helping humanity after he doesn't want to be bothered with news of a plane crash. When we listen closely, Corey is already a latent Donovan (as perhaps we all are), and his psyche is already open to the coming takeover. He will have to learn a valuable lesson, and be redeemed from his arrogance, which the story implies can lead inexorably to what Eisenhower later called the military-industrial complex.

These are reasonably heady ideas, pardon the pun, and they're offered in a brisk movie without much action beyond the shots of the brain expanding and throbbing with light. This sharply shot black and white film, produced by future director Tom Gries, benefits from Boris Leven's attentive production design and photographer Joseph Biroc's expressive lighting. There's one car crash, primarily with stock footage, and then a hectic climax whose oddly edited coda makes us wonder if there might have been reshoots to bring one of the characters back to life.

Historian Richard Harland Smith offers a densely informative commentary that discusses the career of novelist and Hollywood scripter Siodmak. Siodmak had fled Nazi Germany ahead of his brother Robert Siodmak and wrote the material for what turned out to be an influential pulp novel of 1942. It was first filmed by Republic as The Lady and the Monster, and Smith traces and compares its several other incarnations and those films it influenced. He also tells the fascinating story of Feist's wife, who has a brief role under the name Lisa Howard.

Gog (1954)

All of these black and white movies look neat and sharp in their high-definition upgrades, but now let's turn to color films that are equally pleasing to the eye, beginning with the attractively dreamy Gog. In the story, the Biblically named Gog and Magog are two clunky non-humanoid robots surrounded by flailing claws, making them look like a cross between a Dalek and a floor lamp. They run amok in an underground testing facility in the desert, but only after much of the cast have been killed off -- apparently by the N.O.V.A.K. ultracomputer that runs the joint.

At the risk of giving something away, it turns out that there's no sentient pre-HAL 9000, or a Colossus: the Forbin Project / War Games type computer taking over from the flawed humans, but there are signals from an unspecified foreign power that's monitoring everything and hacking its own commands into the system, which is a surprisingly credible idea -- even more so now. Still, this movie feels like a clear precursor to those films and to other desert-laboratory thrillers like The Andromeda Strain.

After The Magnetic Monster and Riders to the Stars, Gog is the third in an “Office of Scientific Intelligence" trilogy produced by Ivan Tors. This time, the nefarious plot is figured out by the typically '50s square-jawed hero (Richard Egan), who comes to investigate the goings-on for the OSI. Giving our hero a little humanity is the fact that he's already got a secret squeeze on the inside: a pert heroine played by Constance Dowling (soon to be Tors' wife), who proves useful and efficient until genre conventions dictate that she must stand back and let the men handle the crazy robots.

Indeed, this is a surprisingly progressive scientific installation in terms of staffing just as many female professionals as male, with almost every department having a mixed team. True, the base is run by a man (Herbert Marshall, who exudes friendly authority), and one woman begins screaming hysterically, but another female character also has the presence of mind to defuse an attempt on her life before she faints. Tors would pursue this idea in his two-season TV series, Science Fiction Theatre, albeit within the context of casual sexist remarks and the understanding that all these women are fair romantic objects for the hero, whether or not it is relevant to the plot.

Many of the same personnel from the OSI movies also worked on that show, including director/editor Herbert L. Strock (also editor and associate producer on Donovan's Brain), writer Tom Taggart, special effects man Harry Redmond Jr., and scientific advisor Maxwell Smith.

Another commonality is that it almost doesn't seem like science fiction. Tors believed in grounding his stories in the scientific achievements of the day, extrapolating only slightly without overly sensational or preposterous elements. This can make his sci-fi a little too dull and talky for its own dramatic good, as this movie basically exists to fetishize the glistening equipment controlled by middle-aged brainiacs. Gog feels as though its real purpose is the gee-whiz demonstrations of solar power, nuclear energy, sonics, centrifugal force, and cryogenics in its lab's various departments, all of which are then used as bizarre and spectacular ways to kill people in the exciting if almost incidental set pieces.

Now we come to the most intriguing detail of this release: it's in 3-D! Released at the tail end of the brief '50s craze, Gog was shown in 3-D at a handful of screenings before going wide as a flat picture, soon showing up on TV in black and white only. A good-looking color edition was released on DVD a few years ago, and this Blu-ray represents a major restoration based on discovering one long-lost "left-side" print that had faded to pink. Restoring it frame by frame and synching it with a restored "right-side" print allowed this miracle to come to pass. The disc detects whether your set-up includes the proper 3-D TV and player, and defaults to the flat version otherwise.

This is another disc graced with an informative commentary by Tom Weaver, again joined by David Schecter for an analysis of Harry Sukman's score. Weaver informs us that the OSI projects originated with Curt Donovan's Brain Siodmak, thus underlining his seminal influence on the genre yet again. He's got no credit, presumably because Tors bought him out after firing him from The Magnetic Monster. Also showing up is 3-D researcher Bob Furmanek, responsible for securing the lost print. There's a restoration demo and interviews with the late Strock and cinematographer Lothrop B. Worth, who was in at the beginning of the "Natural Vision" 3-D process, and later had a profitable career on TV's The Real McCoys and I Dream of Jeannie.

We mustn't leave without a shout-out to the great, sleek, modern, color-coordinated job by art director William Ferrari, whose early work included the strikingly designed Judy Garland pictures: The Clock, and The Harvey Girls; the overlooked Technicolor Mexico fabulism of Fiesta; the wonderfully moody and also overlooked Inner Sanctum; Douglas Sirk's Sleep My Love; and George Cukor's Adam's Rib. Ferrari also later went into such TV series as Public Defender, The Thin Man, One Step Beyond, and The Twilight Zone.

Queen of Blood (1966)

The most beautiful and haunting film among these recent Blu-rays, and the only item from the '60s, is Queen of Blood, which came about when producer Roger Corman asked writer-director Curtis Harrington to shoot new footage to go with snippets from a Russian science fiction film. Who'd love to see that original, idealistic film, Mechte Navstrechu, with a reportedly positive message about cosmonauts discovering an alien woman?

Harrington used the production value of the space scenes for an entirely different, American tale of xenophobia and sexual predation, as the American astronauts (primarily John Saxon and Judi Meredith) find a weird, green-skinned, bee-hived beauty on one of Mars' moons. Soon she begins feeding vampirically on the males around her. She's played with creepy, magnetic excellence by Florence Marly, who, like the Faceless Man and Cadman's butler (and Donovan's brain for that matter), makes an impact while never speaking a word.

Clearly, the story is pulpy and transgressive in its fear of female power and sexuality, and all of this is conveyed with beautiful, if cost-effective, production design and a sense of strange emotional paralysis that turns the film into a kind of tone poem in vivid colors. Harrington was also entrusted with this mission on a similar half-Russian mélange called Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, using the same crew: "name" star Basil Rathbone (as a zealot scientist, again); photographer Vilis Lapenieks (who also shot Harrington's classic indie Night Tide ); art director Albert Locatelli; composer Ronald Stein (here calling himself Leonard Morand); editor Leo Shreve; and painter John Cline, whose eye-popping expressionist work is seen behind the credits.

Also around from Night Tide, another film riffing on fatal inter-species love, is Dennis Hopper as a jolly sidekick/victim. Something about his presence and the story's trajectory implies that this is what the film's libido, and that of scientific patriarchy, secretly desires: an uncanny "queen bee" to hypnotize, command and drain them. As with the sexual undercurrents at the lab in Gog, her fatal, id-laden embrace is welcomed, longed for, and invites an avalanche of techno-accidents.

The men around the alien queen wish to be absorbed as much as Dr. Corey gives himself over to the psychic caresses of Donovan's brain, or as easily as the Faceless Man commands the will of his reincarnated squeeze, or as Dr. Cadman saps the brain power of his poor guinea pigs. The horror in all of these items isn't just the loss of our individual will and identity, but the ease with which we might give them up as we rush willingly to those who would exploit us.

Spoiler: Queen of Blood ends on a note of splendidly wiggy cynicism, as a technician (played by sci-fi fan-icon Forrest J. Ackerman) carries away a plate of throbbing alien eggs. When John Saxon's square-jawed hero expresses concern after all that's happened, what with the body count and all, his girlfriend calmly says, “They're scientists, Allan. They know what they're doing." Tack that one up on the bulletin board next to the Dilbert cartoon. Renata Adler was struck by the same dialogue in her 1966 New York Times review; it's a heck of a punchline.

Queen of Blood may be a mishmash of sources, but it's a lovely and surprisingly seamless one in tune with the erotic-poetic concerns of Harrington's previous and future work. The Russian footage is notably darker and grainier than the new footage, and this contributes to the strange, forbidding, occluded sense of the alien sections, as though they're not quite consonant with our reality -- which they're not! This Blu-ray upgrades a previous on-demand DVD-R edition, and adds interviews with Corman and historian Robert Skotak.

For those who came in late: Curse of the Faceless Man is an inessential work that can safely be left to advanced students in the art of pulp cinema, while The Black Sleep is a fun if familiar workout in Gothic melodrama. Gog, while a bit wooden, now sports its long-lost 3-D gleam. Donovan's Brain is a smartly made expression of basic tropes that's worthwhile in itself and important for its influence. Above all, however, Queen of Blood belongs in its own class and deserves to be tasted by anyone voyaging into that special zone where the cinema exposes our fears and desires.

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