Blu-Ray Review: The City Of The Dead (1960, AKA Horror Hotel).

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Directed by John Moxey
Screenplay by George Baxt
Story by Milton Subotsky
Director Of Photography: Desmond Dickinson

Cast: Patricia Jessel (Mrs. Newless), Dennis Lotis (Richard Barlow), Christopher Lee (Alan Driscoll), Tom Naylor (Bill), Betta St. John (Patricia), Venetia Stevenson (Nan Barlow)

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John Llewellyn Moxey’s The City Of The Dead (1960), under its American title Horror Hotel, was one of those movies I bumped into a lot on TV as a kid. If I came across it, I’d always watch it through to the end.

The sets, the lighting, the fog — there’s something about this movie that really gets under my skin.

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It’s a really simple story: a college student (Venetia Stevenson) travels to Whitewood, Massachusetts, for some research on 17th-century witches (at the urging of her professor, Christopher Lee). That research ends up being a bit more primary than she had in mind, as she discovers that Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel), who was burned at the stake in 1692, is running the Ravens Inn under the name Newless. Why do witches, vampires, etc. take on a new identity by simply reversing their last names?

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The City Of The Dead is often compared to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), with it assumed that Moxey ripped off Hitch. But while there are similarities — a pretty young woman heads out on her own, checks into a creepy hotel/motel and something bad happens midway through the picture — The City Of The Dead began production before Psycho. As Horror Hotel, however, it hit theaters in the States after Hitchcock’s film debuted.

By the way, this picture is an early effort from the folks who later became Amicus Productions and made horror films throughout the 70s.

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It couldn’t be more obvious that Whitewood is a soundstage, not Massachusetts. Some see that as a sign of its limited budget, others as part of the stylized, atmospheric look. Whether it’s due to aesthetics or economics, to me it’s one of the picture’s greatest strengths. No other movie looks like this. Desmond Dickinson’s camerawork is terrific.

You can see all this plainly on the new Blu-Ray from VCI, which makes use of original material from the British Film Institute. There’s been some criticism of the framing (1.78 vs. the UK version’s 1.66; it probably ran 1.85 in the States), but the film’s never looked better on video. The contrast seems perfect, accommodating both the fog and, say, headlights in the same shot, without either being compromised. Audio is fine, doing justice to Douglas Gamley’s creepy score. And there are a slew of extras, from multiple commentaries to the trailer to the shorter US cut of the film (Horror Hotel).

No matter how shoddy it might look, I’d recommend The City Of The Dead. This Blu-ray makes it absolutely essential for fans of 60s horror.

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Filed under 1960, Amicus Productions, Christopher Lee, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, VCI

Blu-Ray News #81: The TAMI Show (1964)/The Big TNT Show (1966).

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Shout Factory has announced a twin-bill Blu-Ray of two of the greatest concert films ever made: The T.A.M.I. Show (1964) and The Big T.N.T. Show (1966). Both were shot on videotape and transferred to 35mm for theatrical release by American International. In the 50s and 60s, AIP really had the teenager scene locked down, didn’t they?

The T.A.M.I. Show features The Beach Boys (whose performance was edited out for years), Chuck Berry, James Brown, The Rolling Stones, The Supremes and Jan And Dean (who emcee the event). It was directed by Steve Binder, who also gave us Elvis’ ’68 Comeback Special.

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1966’s The Big T.N.T. Show follows the same basic format as The T.A.M.I. Show. Some say the lineup of acts isn’t as good as the first film, but with The Byrds, Roger Miller, Ray Charles and Bo Diddley on hand, I ain’t complaining. Oh, and Frank Zappa can be spotted in the audience!

I’ve always been impressed by how good these look, given they began as 1960s videotape, and am looking forward to the Blu-Ray. Essential stuff.

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Filed under 1964, 1966, 1968, AIP, Elvis Presley

Blu-Ray News #80: Invisible Ghost (1941).

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Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
Starring Bela Lugosi, Polly Ann Young, Clarence Muse

The first of nine films Bela Lugosi made for Sam Katzman and Monogram Pictures, Invisible Ghost (1941) was directed by the great, and greatly underappreciated, Joseph H. Lewis.

You’ll find a strong sense of style throughout Lewis’ work, whether it’s a Randolph Scott picture, the terrific Gun Crazy (1949), an episode of The Rifleman or a cheap horror movie like Invisible Ghost. For that reason alone, Invisible Ghost stands out among the other films Lugosi made on Poverty Row. But it’s got more going for it than that, as we can all see when Kino Lorber releases it on Blu-ray in 2017.

Really looking forward to this one. It’s good to see someone making the effort to bring public domain pictures like this to Blu-Ray.

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Filed under DVD/Blu-ray News, Kino Lorber, Monogram/Allied Artists, Sam Katzman, Bela Lugosi, Joseph H. Lewis

Blu-Ray News #79: Framed (1975).

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Directed by Phil Karlson
Starring Joe Don Baker, Conny Van Dyke, Gabriel Dell, John Marley, Brock Peters, John Larch, Paul Mantee, Walter Brooke

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Kino Lorber has announced that early next year, they’ll release Phil Karlson’s Framed (1975) on Blu-Ray. (Legend Films released it on DVD a few years ago.)

Karlson’s last picture, Framed is a revenge story not unlike his Walking Tall (1973), which also starred Joe Don Baker. That film was a runaway hit — it cost $500,000 and grossed $23 million in the US alone — and Karlson made a fortune off of it. If anything, Framed is even more brutal and violent than Walking Tall, which is really saying something.

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Filed under 1975, DVD/Blu-ray News, Joe Don Baker, Kino Lorber, Paramount, Phil Karlson

Blu-Ray Review: Hammer Films Double Feature Volume 2 — The Revenge Of Frankenstein/The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb.

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Mill Creek’s Hammer Films Double Feature Volume 2 presents a couple more hi-def Hammer horror films — one a classic, one not so much, but both looking great.

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The Revenge Of Frankenstein (1958)
Directed by Terence Fisher
Starring Peter Cushing, Eunice Grayson, Francis Matthews, Michael Gwynn

The Revenge Of Frankenstein (1958) is the second entry in Hammer’s Frankenstein series, coming after The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957). Hammer went a different route than Universal — they follow the Doctor, not the Monster, which lets the stories go in all sorts of different directions. And more important, it established Peter Cushing as a leading horror star through the 70s (then he went and did a little thing called Star Wars).

Revenge picks up where Curse left off. Frankenstein escapes the guillotine, flees to Carlsbruck and builds a successful practice under the name Stein. Of course, he’s conducting his usual experiments on the side — and they go horribly wrong. Frankenstein transplants the brain of a willing assistant into the newly constructed monster, giving the crippled young man a stronger, straighter body. Or that’s the idea anyway.

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This, for my money, is one of Hammer’s finest films. Cushing is terrific as the brilliant doctor completely taken over by arrogance and misguided ambition (making it quite appropriate during this Presidential election). Eunice Grayson and Francis Matthews are good as the nurse and young doctor caught up in Frankenstein’s mayhem. Michael Gwynn is really superb as the monster, perfectly balancing the sympathy and horror the part requires. His performance is what makes the movie work as well as it does. Jimmy Sangster’s script is more disciplined than usual, free of the diversions that can lead his films astray. And Terence Fisher’s direction is as assured as ever.

One thing: why didn’t Hammer put the tattoo on Cushing’s right arm in the later films? What a cool touch that would’ve been throughout the series.

For some reason, The Revenge Of Frankenstein has never looked very good on video. Shot in Technicolor and 1.66:1 by John Asher, it should really pop off the screen, the way The Gorgon (1964) does in Volume 1. But it’s always seemed grainy and a bit blown out, with the color too muted to match the typical late-50s Hammer esthetic. Though not a thing of great beauty, Mill Creek’s Blu-Ray is a huge improvement over the old Columbia DVD. The grain is there to remind you this was once on film, but it’s not a distraction; the color is a lot closer to what it must’ve looked like in theaters back in ’58.

This, folks, is a really good movie.

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The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb (1964)
Directed by Michael Carreras
Starring Terence Morgan, Ronald Howard, Fred Clark, Jeanne Roland

While Hammer knocked Dracula and Frankenstein out of the park, they had a harder time with the Mummy. The Mummy’s an difficult monster on the whole — cool-looking and creepy for sure, but not all that scary. In the Universal Mummy pictures, women have to trip and fall for the Mummy to catch them. Hammer’s The Mummy (1959) was pretty solid, but they seemed to have a hard time figuring out how to work the Mummy into the plots of the later movies. All that said, The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb (1964) still works pretty well.

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A group of Egyptologists bring an exhibit to London, backed by an American showman named Alexander King (Fred Clark). King is determined to exploit the artifacts for maximum profits, which doesn’t sit too well with the revived Mummy. The usual havoc follows.

This is an odd Hammer film. It wasn’t shot at Bray Studios, and there are very few of the regulars among the cast and crew. And while it suffers from the same limitations other Mummy films have (What do you do with this guy?), it has some nice atmospherics here and there. And it’s a thousand times better than the next one, The Mummy’s Shroud (1967).

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It’s easy to sing the praises of how The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb fares on Blu-Ray. It looks fantastic. The Technicolor is nicely presented and the Techniscope framing’s perfect. A big improvement over the DVD. And as with the first volume, you can’t beat the price.

The Revenge Of Frankenstein alone is worth the price of admission — it’s one of Hammer’s best, and it looks far better than previous releases. Think of The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb as a bonus. Recommended. And I hope Volume 3 isn’t too far behind.

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Filed under 1958, 1964, Columbia, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Hammer Films, Mill Creek, Peter Cushing, Terence Fisher

Blu-Ray Review: Hammer Films Double Feature Volume 1 — The Two Faces Of Dr. Jekyll/The Gorgon.

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With a string of terrific Blu-ray releases, this Fall is really turning into a hi-def trip down Memory Lane — so much of the stuff that rotted my brain when I was a kid has been announced for release on Blu-ray. One of the first to make its way to my mailbox and Blu-ray player is Mill Creeks’ Hammer Films Double Feature Volume 1.

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The Two Faces Of Dr. Jekyll (1960; US Titles: House Of Fright)
Directed by Terence Fisher
Starring Paul Massie, Dawn Addams, Christopher, David Kossoff, Oliver Reed

Hammer always put their own spin on the horror standards they tackled, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde is no exception. Their Dr. Jekyll (Paul Massie) is rather boring, but his potion transforms him into the suave, yet lecherous and murderous Mr. Hyde. Minus the murder part, this seems like a precursor to Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor (1963). This framework provides ample opportunity for everything from rape and murder to snake-charming — the kind of stuff censors pounced on, resulting in a cut-up American release from American International. This has never been held up as a prime Hammer picture, but it’s well made and Christopher Lee’s in it.

Shot in MegaScope, The Two Faces Of Dr. Jekyll was released in the UK in Technicolor. No such luck in the States — AIP went with crappy Eastmancolor prints. Lucky for us all, Mill Creek offers up a gorgeous transfer from original, longer British material, with the proper title and the kind of eye-popping color these films are known for.

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The Gorgon (1964)
Directed by Terence Fisher
Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Richard Pasco, Michael Goodliffe, Barbara Shelley, Prudence Hyman

The Gorgon (1964) was the first Hammer film I remember seeing (during one of those local-station all-night Halloween marathons), and it had a huge impact on me. From the Technicolor to the blood to Cushing and Lee to the Gorgon herself, I absolutely loved this thing. And I still have a soft spot for it, even though the studio certainly made better films.

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It still has one of my favorite Hammer moments, as Professor Heltz (Michael Goodliffe) writes the letter while turning to stone. (That’d be a fun poll, wouldn’t it — “What’s your favorite single scene in a Hammer horror movie?”)

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On Blu-Ray, The Gorgon won’t turn anybody to stone. It’s beautiful. The color’s appropriately saturated, the 1.66 is spot-on and James Bernard’s score sounds great (and as eerie as ever). Some folks have been harsh on these Mill Creek Hammers, but I don’t get it. There are no complaints here. I’d love to have every horror movie the studio ever made looking as good as The Gorgon does here.

gorgonmummy-adBy the way, The Gorgon played theaters in a twin bill with The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb (1964), which is is included in Mill Creek’s Hammer Films Double Feature Volume 2, which we’ll get around to soon.

With these Blu-Rays in your collection, you might end up with some duplication from some of your other Hammer sets. But the improved picture quality and terrific price make it worth the double dip. For Hammer fans out there, this set (and Number 2) is highly recommended. Thanks, Mill Creek, and keep ’em coming!

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Filed under 1960, 1964, AIP, Christopher Lee, Columbia, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Hammer Films, Jerry Lewis, Mill Creek, Peter Cushing, Terence Fisher

Blu-Ray News #78: On Dangerous Ground (1952).

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Directed by Nicholas Ray
Starring Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, Ward Bond, Charles Kemper, Frank Ferguson, Olive Carey

Seems like every day, another great movie’s being announced for DVD or Blu-ray. We’re on a real hot streak here, folks.

On Dangerous Ground (1952) is a great Nicholas Ray movie that hasn’t gotten its due. I know that’s kinda like saying that water is wet. Warner Archive has announced it for an upcoming Blu-Ray release.

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In a way, it’s two movies in one. The first half concerns Robert Ryan’s burned-out New York detective at the end of his rope, then it shifts gears as he’s sent to the country to investigate a murder. There, he falls in love with the killer’s blind sister (Ida Lupino). In less capable hands, such a story could’ve been laughable, but Ray and his cast pull it off with ease. Everybody in it’s terrific.

I saw a 35mm print of this a couple years ago, and George E. Diskant’s cinematography really knocked me out. This one’s essential, folks.

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Filed under 1952, Frank Ferguson, Isa Lupino, Nicholas Ray, RKO, Robert Ryan, Warner Archive