Category Archives: Christopher Lee

Blu-Ray Review: From Hell It Came (1957).

Directed by Dan Milner
Cinematography: Brydon Baker
Film Editor: Jack Milner
Original Music: Darrell Calker
Written by Richard Bernstein and Dan Milner
Produced by Jack Milner

Cast: Tod Andrews (Dr. William Arnold), Tina Carver (Dr. Terry Mason), John McNamara (Professor Clark), Linda Watkins (Mae Kilgore), Gregg Palmer (Kimo), Grace Mathews (Orchid), Chester Haynes (Tabonga)

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When it comes to 50s sci-fi movies, I find that Quality and Entertainment have an often inverse correlation. (I’m tossing the concept of inverse correlation in here to prove I actually paid attention in those economics classes decades ago.) In other words, the more production values you pack in there, the bigger the budget, the less fun they seem to be. With that in mind, I’m happy to report that the super-cheap From Hell It Came (1957) is largely quality-free.

On some South Seas island, a prince is (unjustly) convicted of murder, and he’s executed with a knife in the heart — all orchestrated by the witch doctor. They bury the prince upright in an old tree trunk. Turns out the place is lousy with nuclear fallout, which reanimates the prince as a walking tree with the ceremonial dagger still sticking out of its chest. Called Tabonga, it quickly sprouts and starts killing people.

Some American scientists are on the island studying radiation levels or something. They get to the bottom of it all after spouting page after page of B-movie scientific nonsense — and putting away an awful lot of booze. And if all that isn’t enough, there’s some quicksand in the Big Finish.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, this thing is great. It’s a whacked-out mix of the usual 50s science fiction monster trappings, the goofy pseudo-Polynesian aesthetic of the period, and concern about the perils of the Atom Age.

If it all sounds ridiculous, and it does, imagine seeing it on screen — somebody shuffling around in a cheap rubber tree costume. The Tabonga is the work of the great Paul Blaisdell, AIP’s favorite (cheap) monster maker, but constructed by Don Post Studios: “I designed the Tabonga the way I thought it should look in terms of the script, and the people that built it did a damn good job of reproducing a prop that was a nice concept and certainly an original one, but one that was very awkward. My hat goes off to the guy who had to act the part of the walking tree (Chester Haynes). I think he did a helluva good job under the circumstances.”

What’s interesting about From Hell It Came is that in some ways, it looks and plays like a fairly-decent movie. The acting is passable, most of the time. The cinematography, from Brydon Baker, certainly seems professional. The editing’s not bad. It’s the premise itself — a revengeful, walking tree — and the godawful dialogue that sink this one, and make it the hoot that it is.

Back in ’57, From Hell It Came played twin bills with The Disembodied. It’s not any good, either, but it features the always-wonderful Allison Hayes as a “killer-witch of the jungle.”

Quicksand is a terrific cheesy movie thing, and I love it. (Do you know someone who perished by sinking into quicksand? Or someone who’s even seen quicksand?) As a kid, I was always on the lookout for it — after all, South Georgia isn’t all that far from Louisiana, where Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) had reposed in quicksand in The Mummy’s Curse (1944). Later, Christopher Lee’s Hammer The Mummy (1959) took the Scroll Of Life with him into the quicksand. Movies with a quicksand scene get extra credit from me.

Speaking of extra credit, Warner Archive gets high marks from bringing something like From Hell It Came to Blu-Ray period. Then factor in that it’s a stellar presentation, with its incredible clarity and perfect contrast giving us a chance to really study the rubbery goodness of that Tabonga outfit. You also get a trailer. Highly recommended.

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Filed under 1957, Allison Hayes, Christopher Lee, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Hammer Films, Lon Chaney Jr., Monogram/Allied Artists, Paul Blaisdell, Warner Archive

Blu-Ray News #107: The Blood Of Fu Manchu (1968) And The Castle Of Fu Manchu (1969).

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Directed by Jess Franco
Starring Christopher Lee, Richard Greene

The Blood Of Fu Manchu (1968, AKA Kiss And Kill) and The Castle Of Fu Manchu (1969) — the last two pictures in producer Harry Alan Towers’ series based on Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, star Christopher Lee, Richard Greene and the Law Of Diminishing Returns.

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Directed by the Spanish cult director Jess Franco, they have their fans — and they’ll be happy to know that Blue Underground is bringing them to Blu-Ray some time this year. The previous DVD release had a lot of extras, which will make their way to the Blu-Ray set.

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The first and third Lee/Fu Manchu pictures, The Face Of Fu Manchu (1965, directed by Don Sharp) and The Vengeance Of Fu Manchu (1967) are available from Warner Archive. (I really like Face.) The second, The Brides Of Fu Manchu (1966), was released several years ago from Warners, paired with Chamber Of Horrors (also 1966). How deep you want to go in this series is a personal thing, but Lee makes a terrific Fu Manchu — and let’s not forget him as Chung King in Hammer’s Terror Of The Tongs (1961).

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Filed under 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, Blue Underground, Christopher Lee, DVD/Blu-ray News, Hammer Films, Warner Archive

Blu-Ray News #105: The Creeping Flesh (1973).

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Directed by Freddie Francis
Starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Lorna Heilbron, Michael Ripper

Mill Creek Entertainment has announced a three-picture Blu-Ray set for April called Psycho Circus. It consists of three features: Torture Garden (1967), The Creeping Flesh (1973) and Brotherhood Of Satan (1971).

For me, The Creeping Flesh is the cream of the crop. It’s a Tigon picture with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, directed by Freddie Francis. What’s not to like? A scientist comes back from Papua New Guinea with some bones. They get wet and flesh forms around them again — with slimy, murderous results.

Torture Garden (1967) is an Amicus anthology film from Freddie Francis again. It stars Jack Palance, Burgess Meredith and Peter Cushing, based on stories by Robert Bloch.  Then there’s Brotherhood Of Satan which I’ve never seen, but am eager to see — it stars Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones, just a couple years after they played Coffer and T.C. in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969). The recent Mill Creek Hammer Blu-Ray twin bills were terrific, so I’m really looking forward to this set.

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Filed under 1967, 1971, 1973, Christopher Lee, DVD/Blu-ray News, Freddie Francis, Mill Creek, Peter Cushing, Sam Peckinpah

Blu-Ray Review: The Return Of Dracula (1958).

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Directed by Paul Landres
Story and Screenplay by Pat Fielder
Music by Gerald Fried
Director Of Photography: Jack MacKenzie, ASC
Film Editor: Sherman A. Rose, ACE

Cast: Francis Lederer (Count Dracula/Bellac Gordal), Norma Eberhardt (Rachel Mayberry), Greta Granstedt (Cora Mayberry), Gage Clark (Doctor/Reverend Whitfield), Ray Stricklyn (Tim Hansen), John Wengraf (Merriman), Virginia Vincent (Jenny Blake), Jimmie Baird (Mickey Mayberry), John McNamara (Sheriff Bicknell)

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The late 50s were a good time for movie vampires, thanks largely to the first of Hammer’s Dracula films, Horror Of Dracula (US title, 1958). But there was also The Vampire and Blood Of Dracula in 1957 and Blood Of The Vampire and The Return Of Dracula in 1958. Oh, and let’s not forget the vampire Western, Curse Of The Undead (1959).

What’s interesting about all these blood-guzzling movies is how each took a different approach to the traditional vampire lore. Hammer, with Christopher Lee in Dracula (1958), dialed up the sex and blood — all of it in alluring Technicolor. The Vampire made vampirism a medical condition. Blood Of Dracula fits right in with AIP’s I Was A Teenage Werewolf (1957), with a teenage vampire created by hypnotism, not a bite on the neck. The Return Of Dracula, which Olive Films has just released on DVD and Blu-Ray, goes in a different direction entirely — following in the steps of many of the Dracula movies that came before it, while moving the Lugosi-ish proceedings to modern-day California.

The Return Of Dracula comes from director Paul Landres and writer Pat Fielder. So did The Vampire. Landres worked mostly in TV, but his low-budget features from the 50s (Westerns and monster movies) are well worth seeking out. Pat Fielder also wrote the excellent The Monster That Challenged The World (1957) — and a number of episodes of The Rifleman.

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Fleeing Transylvania, Count Dracula (Francis Lederer) kills an artist and assumes his identity. Arriving in California, he moves in with the victim’s family, who only know him from letters. They eventually notice that their guest sleeps all day, goes out at night and doesn’t like mirrors or the local priest. Teenage Rachel (Norma Eberhardt) also becomes concerned when her friend Jenny (Virginia Vincent) starts wasting away.

Lederer makes a pretty good Dracula, aided by his Hungarian accent. Norma Eberhardt tries hard to convince us she’s a teenager, and almost pulls it off. And Jenny Blake has a great part as Rachel’s friend turned Dracula’s minion.

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But it’s the assured, creative direction of Paul Landres that keeps things interesting, and the cinematography of Jack MacKenzie that adds the atmosphere these movies rely on — both to create the right mood and conceal how cheap the sets are. MacKenzie shot Isle Of The Dead (1945) for producer Val Lewton, which should tell you something.

Olive Films has The Return Of Dracula polished up and shining like a brand new chrome-covered 1958 Impala. It’s a beautiful Blu-Ray, with contrast levels and aspect ratio (1.85) right where they need to be — and a cool color effect toward the end. Revisiting films like this, in this kind of quality, has been a real joy the last few years, and a number of them have come from Olive.

For fans of these things, or of the people who made them (I’m a big admirer of Landres’ work from this period), The Return Of Dracula comes highly recommended. And I’m hoping Olive gives The Vampire the same treatment.

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Filed under 1957, 1958, AIP, Christopher Lee, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Hammer Films, Olive Films, Paul Landres, United Artists

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

City Of The Dead UK quad

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 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 #57: Airport, The Complete Collection (1970-1979).

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Universal has always been big on “franchises,” from the Universal Monsters and Ma And Pa Kettle to Back To The Future and Tremors.

Certainly one of their biggest would have to be the Airport pictures. And while they’re a cases study in the Law Of Diminishing Returns, there’s still something about them, something we can all own on Blu-ray in June.

Airport (1970)
Directed by George Seaton
Starring Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jean Seberg, Jacqueline Bisset, George Kennedy, Helen Hayes, Van Heflin, Maureen Stapleton, Barry Nelson

Van Heflin (in his last movie) blows a hole in Dean Martin’s plane. Shot in 70mm Todd-AO by Ernest Laszlo, it was a massive success — and kick-started the disaster movie craze of the 70s. Note the Easter ad for Radio City Music Hall.

Airport ’75 (1974)
Directed by Jack Smight
Starring Charlton Heston, Karen Black, George Kennedy, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Helen Reddy, Gloria Swanson, Linda Blair

A small plane runs into the cockpit of a 747, leaving no one to fly the plane. It seems to be the movie most parodied in Airplane! (1980).

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Airport ’77 (1977)
Directed by Jarry Jameson
Starring Jack Lemmon, Lee Grant, James Stewart, George Kennedy, Brenda Vaccaro, Christopher Lee, Joseph Cotton

A hijacked 747 crashes and sinks in the Bermuda Triangle.

The Concorde: Airport ’79 (1979)
Directed by David Lowell Rich
Starring Alain Delon, Susan Blakely, Robert Wagner, Sylvia Kristal, George Kennedy, Eddie Albert, Charo, John Davidson

Where the previous pictures had the likes of Helen Hayes, James Stewart, Gloria Swanson and Joseph Cotton in supporting roles, here we have Charo and Sybil Danning. It plays like a TV movie, and a bad one at that.

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Filed under 1970, 1974, 1977, 1979, Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee, Dean Martin, DVD/Blu-ray News, Jack Lemmon, Universal (-International)