Earlier this year, the folks at Film Chest and Virgil Films & Entertainment unleashed a Blu-ray/DVD Combo pack of Al Adamson’s nearly-lost “kiddie” flick, Carnival Magic, upon the world — prompting many a High-Definition aficionado to wonder if the men and women behind the release were, in fact, just a bunch of escaped mental patients. Well, now those diligent lunatics have gone the extra mile, and released three more exploitation classicks as Blu-ray and DVD combinations under the HD Cinema Classics and CULTRA labels.
The journey into drive-in curiosities begins with Dementia 13 (1963), which was produced by the legendary “King of the Bs” himself, Roger Corman. It also marked the first time Francis Ford Coppola was able to strut his stuff in the cinematic sense. Coppola had previously worked (usually uncredited) on a number of imported films that Corman had picked up for next to nothing; writing new dialogue to match the lip movements of the foreign actors and writing/directing new scenes with American actors to give the projects that “No, it’s not a foreign flick!” feel.
Essentially, Dementia 13 is Coppola’s b-movie answer to Hitchcock’s Psycho, but I’ve always felt that it stood quite well on its own. We begin with an introduction to a very cunning and conniving femme fatale named Louise (the wonderful Luana Anders). Louise is married to one of the three male heirs to the Haloran estate, and it’s clear that she’s only in it for the money. A tense midnight row out on the lake one night, however, ends with her husband keeling over from a heart attack — and the clever moneygrubber promptly dumps her beloved into the water and informs his family he’s gone away on business.
As soon we start to accept that Louise is our main character, she meets an untimely (but just) demise at the hands of an unknown axe-wielding maniac. From there on in, the movie brings in and subsequently focuses more on Kane (Mary Mitchel), the younger and naïve bride-to-be of the elder (surviving) Haloran brother, Richard (William Campbell, who passed away earlier this year). Sensing something isn’t quite right amongst the whole Irish clan of Halorans, Kane develops a friendly relationship with the tortured younger sibling, Billy (the epically-named Bart Patton), who reveals many of the family’s dark secrets to her.
Coppola tosses in a few more murders to whet our appetites for blood, and also chucks the one and only Patrick Magee (a few years away from achieving immortality in A Clockwork Orange) into the story as the local nosy doctor who tries to piece together the ever-unraveling puzzle of why some people are disappearing — and who’s behind the whole ordeal. Several creepy compositions by Les Baxter add to the eerie black-and-white photography by Charles Hannawalt; Spider Baby and Switchblade Sisters auteur Jack Hill worked as Second Unit writer/director.
While some scholars may attest that it is nothing more than one of the many psychological thrillers that followed in the wake of Psycho (which itself was inspired by William Castle’s House On Haunted Hill), there’s no denying that Coppola’s cult classic only aided to the evolution of ensuing genres such as the Italian giallo and the American slasher film. Dementia 13 has a charm all its own; it’s cast and crew do their best, despite the many limitations the Corman-budgeted movie obviously had to contend with.
It’s also infinitely better than the next title up on our roster here, which is actually another Roger Corman flick from 1963. Widely regarded to be one of Corman’s worst movies, The Terror is noteworthy in that is pairs an aging Boris Karloff with a then-unknown actor named Jack Nicholson — but lacks any other attraction from most audiences apart from that. In fact, Nicholson himself is stated to have described the film as the only project he ever worked on that didn’t have a plot. Of course, not all of the credit can go to Corman here; especially since Jack Nicholson himself also stood behind the camera to direct a few scenes.
Like Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Terror basically came to be in existence on account of some rough footage of an declining horror star. Corman’s often-comical takes on several Edgar Allan Poe stories (such as The Raven and The Haunted Palace) had all been completed, and the filmmaker felt it would be a pity to tear down those lusciously-impressive sets without squeezing at least one more movie out of ‘em. And so, Karloff and company shot their set scenes in a matter of four days; while the remainder of the movie’s footage was conceived and filmed over the next nine months — making it the longest production in Corman’s entire career.
It’s also one of the most contrived productions his name has ever been attached to. Many of the latter scenes were written and filmed very off the cuff-like by the aforementioned Nicholson, crewman Dennis Jakob, and up-and-coming filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Hill and Monte Hellman. Judging by the finished product we all know and shudder over the very mention of today, those five second-unit lads didn’t have the ability to communicate with each other; as the result is nothing short of a mess that constantly contradicts and questions its own non-existent plot. Thus, I won’t attempt to tell you what the movie’s about…since I can’t.
But what I can tell you is that the movie takes place in the early 19th Century. Karloff stars as a baron in a big-ass castle and an even bigger-ass secret. In walks Jack Nicholson as a lost French soldier (complete with a Californian accent) who meets up with a mysterious young lady (Frankenstein’s Daughter star, Sandra Knight — who was married to Nicholson at the time) and discovers she has a striking resemblance to Karloff’s long-dead wife. Corman regulars Dorothy Neumann and Jonathan Haze are on-hand as a witch and a mute feller; while the great Dick Miller gets to show how well he can keep a straight face in his role as Karloff’s servant.
In addition to showing up on the drive-in circuit quite a bit here and there (probably under a few different titles), the film was also sold to television as The Haunting. Five years later, stock footage from the cinematic disaster turned up in Peter Bogdanovich’s epic Targets (which Corman produced and Karloff starred in as an aging horror star). The recycling of The Terror didn’t stop there, though: according to some sources, Dick Miller was hired in the ‘90s to film new footage (which I have yet to see, personally) in order to convince confused foreigners that the movie did have a plot after all.
Despite the fact that the film is sheer bewilderment on film, the moral of the story here is that Roger Corman can manage to make the most of any movie — even if he does have to recycle, reuse, re-edit and re-release it several times (hell, it’s one of his many trademarks, you know). And, speaking of recycling, reusing, re-editing and re-releasing a film, that’s a good as cue as any to switch this article over to the moving picture marvel that we commonly refer to as Poor Pretty Eddie.
Boasting more aliases than the average cast and crew of an adult flick, Poor Pretty Eddie actually has some deep roots (pardon the unintentional pun) in the porn industry itself. Made by pornographers reportedly trying to go legit, the movie was re-cut, re-titled and re-issued several times during its extended decade-long occupancy in drive-in theaters and grindhouses, each time assuming a new names. Among the alternate titles are such artsy-sounding monikers as The Girl in The Web and The Victim; the more lurid Black Vengeance and Redneck County; and the oh-so-exploitive Redneck County Rape!
With all those pseudonyms, it’s easy to get the impression that Poor Pretty Eddie could be some sort of bizarre rape/revenge blacksploitation hicksploitation drama mystery thingy. Quite frankly, it’s all those things and more: including an very loose (uncredited) adaptation of Jean Genet’s play, The Balcony and even a comedy (!).
The film stars actress/vocalist Leslie Uggams as American jazz singer Liz Wetherly, whose simple two-week vacation ends abruptly when her car breaks down in an outlandish backwoods section of Georgia. Her “host,” titular fellow Eddie Collins (Michael Christian, who co-produced) is a true underachiever in every sense; a lad that’s well on his way to becoming a huge rockabilly sensation. Well, that’s the way Eddie see it: in actuality, poor pretty Eddie’s just an insecure, beer-swiggin’ redneck — one that’s shacked up with portly former actress Bertha (Shelley Winters, who essentially plays herself here), who bends over backwards for Eddie in order to keep him around.
From the get-go, it’s clear that Eddie’s desire to get to know Liz is an unhealthy one. And, to make his affirmation of love known to all, the Elvis wannabe sabotages Liz’s car, rapes her, and alerts the yokel locals that they’re going to be married. Seriously. He even makes her take glamour shots of him with his gee-tar; which could be the worst offense this clown commits through the whole of the film — apart from the previously-referred to violating of a woman’s body and a slight case or two of homicide that the crooning lovesick psycho carries out at one point in the film in order to prevent his beloved Liz from leaving the area.
Naturally, the sheriff (Slim Pickens) refuses to do anything for our unfortunate heroine: she’s a black girl, after all — one whom he’d gladly ravage himself, given the opportunity. The Justice of the Peace (portrayed to the hilt by Dub Taylor) is no better, and also lusts after the soft touch of her Nubian skin; disgracing the shrieking lass in front of a bar full of rednecks. Ted Cassidy (who played Lurch in The Addams Family television series) co-stars as the story’s one truly likable character: a gentle giant who is constantly on the receiving end of Eddie’s sadistic bullying
Surprisingly, in spite of the film’s unpleasant nature, the movie works. It’s just as schizophrenic as some of its characters, though: changing from a taut domestic drama to a surrealistic art flick, and then onto a black comedy before becoming a backwoods tale of horror — and back again. The movie even showed up in another, entirely “peaceful” form once under the title Heartbreak Motel, which inserted some deleted footage, removed all of the sex (forced or otherwise) and violence, and even tagged on an alternate happy (?) ending.
But, it’s the raw, gritty and unusual saga of Poor Pretty Eddie that prevails the most with audiences — and that’s the version we get with Film Chest/Virgil Films & Entertainment’s new Blu-ray/DVD Combo. Actually, all three of these Public Domain class-icks are presented in their original theatrical incarnations, transferred from 35mm prints.
The MPEG-4/AVC 1080p transfers present the films in 1.78:1 aspect ratios. Dementia 13 and The Terror look infinitely better here than they ever did in any of their previous incarnations, with most of the grain and debris we were assaulted by in the past having been cleaned up considerably. Poor Pretty Eddie still has a bit of grain goin’ on for it, but that’s more than understandable since the film stock used for that low-budget ‘70s wonder was of considerably lesser quality that what was used in the Corman productions.
For those of you who hate the three-letter phrase “DNR” (no, that’s not “Do Not Resuscitate”), this assortment of oddball cinema has received a significant amount of Digital Noise Reduction. Nevertheless, I was still impressed with the final outcome here. Dementia 13’s contrast does eradicate any of the creepy B&W photography and lighting the film has always enthralled me with — though the movie looks a bit too soft at times. The Terror’s color schematic looks incredible, as does the contrast. Poor Pretty Eddie’s presentation still has a few green scratches roamin’ around, and the color scheme isn’t the brightest and most beautiful of the bunch (again, this is mostly attributable to that good ol’ ‘70s film stock).
The weirdest part that I noticed with Poor Pretty Eddie was that the flying flag at the beginning of the movie (in the stadium scene), which is now shown in a series of strangely blacked-out stills. Why? Hell if I know.
The Corman titles contain new 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound soundtracks, in addition to Dolby Digital 2.0 audio options, while Poor Pretty Eddie only boasts a 2.0 soundtrack (the packaging advertises a 5.1 mix, but it’s nowhere to be seen). The 5.1 mixes are pretty lackluster, really; they amount to being little more than trumped-up versions of the 2.0 audio tracks. Most (if not all) of the original soundtracks were produced in glorious mono sound, long before subwoofers became part of cinema stereo setups, so you shouldn’t expect these soundtracks to be perfection.
Apart from Spanish-language subtitles for the main features and collectible postcards housed inside the cases of these Region A Blu-ray/Region 0 DVD Combos, these titles don’t offer much in the way of Special Features. All three releases contain restoration demos and newly-produced “recreations” of the original theatrical trailers, all of which have been assembled from the restored versions of these films (as to why they didn’t use the beat up, grainy, scratchy and otherwise classic old trailers that are available us beyond me) complete with video-generated credits.
The best bonus item is an audio commentary on Poor Pretty Eddie with film historian Joe Rubins and filmmaker David Worth. The latter movie also contains a text-only essay about the film (which could’ve used some more proofreading), and a still gallery.
All in all, these HD releases don’t go above and beyond the call of duty when compared to what we see on a regular basis from the big studio releases. That said, though: the boys and gals that assembled this trio of terror have done more than just about any other indie label could have done. And, with price tags under $20 each, these titles are definitely worth a look if you’re a fan of cult classics.