APES ON FILM: Viva Karloff!

Posted on: Aug 16th, 2021 By:

by Anthony Taylor
Contributing Writer

Welcome to Apes on Film! This column exists to scratch your retro-film-in-high-definition itch. We’ll be reviewing new releases of vintage cinema and television on disc of all genres, finding gems and letting you know the skinny on what to avoid. Here at Apes on Film, our aim is to uncover the best in retro film. As we dig for artifacts, we’ll do our best not to bury our reputation. What will we find out here? Our destiny.

Apes on Film also appears on Nerd Alert News. Check them out HERE!

 

 

VIVA – 2007
4 out of 5 Bananas
Starring: Anna Biller, Bridget Brno, Chad England, Jared Sanford
Director: Anna Biller
Rated: R
Studio: Kino Lorber
Region: A
BRD Release Date: August 24th, 2021
Audio Formats: TBA
Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Resolution: 1080p HD
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Run Time: 121 minutes
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Anna Biller’s VIVA is a spot-on parody of early 1970’s porn films without the explicit sex – and you’ll never miss it. Biller the auteur has curated every visual, every performance and every sound to reflect the awkward, amateurish filmmaking of the San Fernando Valley of the decade to bring forth a polished, hilarious spoof of the rite of passage that was the sexual revolution. Biller the actress commits fully to her role of Barbie, a naive housewife on the verge of shedding her inhibitions in favor of awkward sex with a cadre of cringe-inducing men and a lovely female friend played by Robbin Ryan. Actually, what makes the film so watchable is that Biller and company aren’t playing the roles assigned to them in the script; they’re playing a bunch of bad actors attempting to play those roles and failing, which makes for a much more subtle performance. The howlingly amusing dialog (and confused smoldering looks) is delivered just as poorly as if it was lifted wholesale from a Gerard Damiano movie set.

Having enjoyed Biller’s second feature, THE LOVE WITCH (2016), I was eager to see her initial offering and wasn’t disappointed. The whole film is stylized and over the top, but Biller manages to evoke a sincere nostalgia for the 1970s, and the over-saturated cinematography of M. David Mullen  reinforces that. The director/actress not only wrote, directed, and starred in VIVA, she also edited it, created the costumes, sets, music, set decoration and designed the production. With the results she achieved on such a shoestring budget here, I’d love to see her sink her teeth into a larger budget production with some dramatic chops; she’d kill something like BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997).

Kino Lorber’s presentation of the film looks gorgeous and sounds great, naturally. Extras include a new audio commentary by writer/director/star Anna Biller, behind-the-scenes footage narrated by Biller, and the theatrical trailer. I’m surprised to find the film with an R rating instead of NC17 — it’s very, VERY naked throughout.

VIVA is the kind of film I like to see being made and released in this era of tentpole franchise mania among studios. Biller’s signature touches are unmistakably those of someone who loves and reveres the films she’s spoofing. Worth a watch for the fabulous costumes alone, including a Paco Rabanne dress that appeared in the original  CASINO ROYALE (1967).

 

 

KARLOFF AT COLUMBIA – The Black Room / The Man They Could Not Hang / The Man with Nine Lives / Before I Hang / The Devil Commands / The Boogie Man Will Get You
3.5 out of 5 Bananas
Starring: Boris Karloff, Marian Marsh, Lorna Gray , Roger Pryor , Evelyn Keyes , Richard Fiske , Peter Lorre
Directed By: Roy William Neill, Nick Grinde, Edward Dmytryk, Lew Landers
Studio: Eureka! Classics – 2 Disc Limited Set (3000 copies)
BRD Release Date: May 03, 2021
Region: B
Rated: Unrated
Audio Formats: English: LPCM 2.0 Mono (48kHz, 24-bit)
Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC 2K
Resolution: 1080p HD
Aspect Ratio: 1.34:1, 1.33:1
Run Time: 400 Minutes
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Boris Karloff is most closely associated with the Universal Monsters films of the 1930s and 40s, having played Frankenstein’s monster several times as well as essaying memorable roles in films like THE BLACK CAT (1934), THE RAVEN (1935), TOWER OF LONDON (1939) and HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944), to name just a few. While he cranked out horror hits for Universal, Karloff was also a man about town working for other studios as well including Columbia, for which he created a cycle of “Mad Doctor” films and a single period gothic terror called THE BLACK ROOM (1935). His Columbia movies have now been collected into an excellent box set by Eureka! Classics in the UK.

THE BLACK ROOM finds Boris playing a set of twins cursed by fate to murder each other, and allows him to really stretch his acting muscles as he portrays the pair, one benevolent and caring, the other a despicable tyrant. In fact, watching all six films, I was struck by what a good actor he truly was, and what he was able to create in performances beyond the guttural murmurings he was limited to in portraying Frankenstein’s monster. He really is quite watchable in all six films, and elevates even the least of the films into an hour or two well spent.

The other five films comprise his mad doctor series for the studio, and sadly they all seem cut from the same cloth in terms of story, characterization, and performances by other cast members. Clearly, Karloff was a star that Columbia was afraid to take a chance on in a dramatic role unassociated with the genre that spawned him. Don’t think I didn’t enjoy these films, I did; but they are similar in many ways and by the end of the run I felt the concept had been strip-mined and was happy to move on. THE DEVIL COMMANDS (1941) ramped the crazy science factor up in an attempt to keep viewers interested, and THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942) is an outright comedy, most likely because Karloff had co-starred in the smash hit comedy play ARSENIC & OLD LACE on Broadway the same year.

Eureka! Entertainment’s box set is a wonderful presentation of these films. Though unrestored, all the prints are watchable though feature damage in some areas. Film grain is high throughout as well, and there are some audio artifacts present that are occasionally distracting. Truthfully, I’m certain this is still the best all of these films have looked in years. Extras include new audio commentaries on THE BLACK ROOM, BEFORE I HANG and THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU with Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby as well as new audio commentaries on THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG, THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES and THE DEVIL COMMANDS with author Stephen Jones and author/critic Kim Newman, plus a collector’s booklet featuring writing on all six films by Karloff expert Stephen Jacobs (author of Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster); film critic and author Jon Towlson; and film scholar Craig Ian Mann.

If your experience of Boris Karloff is limited to his Universal horrors or some of his later films like THE COMEDY OF TERRORS or THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI, grab this set and enjoy him in a different light. You won’t regret it. Make sure you live in Ireland or the UK or have a region free player, though.

 

 

Anthony Taylor is not only the Minister of Science, but also Defender of the Faith. His reviews and articles have appeared in magazines such as Screem, Fangoria, Famous Monsters of Filmland, SFX, Video*WatcHDog, and more.

 

*Art Credit: Anthony Taylor as Dr. Zaius caricature by Richard Smith

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APES ON FILM: DOCTOR X Builds a Creature while BABYDOLL Gets Scandalous!

Posted on: May 17th, 2021 By:

by Anthony Taylor
Contributing Writer

Welcome to Apes on Film! This column exists to scratch your retro-film-in-high-definition itch. We’ll be reviewing new releases of vintage cinema and television on disc of all genres, finding gems and letting you know the skinny on what to avoid. Here at Apes on Film, our aim is to uncover the best in retro film. As we dig for artifacts, we’ll do our best not to bury our reputation. What will we find out here? Our destiny. Apes on Film also appears on Nerd Alert News. Check them out HERE!

 

 

DOCTOR X – 1932
4 out of 5 Bananas
Starring: Lionel Atwill , Fay Wray, Lee Tracy , Preston Foster
Director: Michael Curtiz
Rated: Unrated
Studio: Warner Archive Collection
Region: A
BRD Release Date: April 20, 2021
Audio Formats: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono (48kHz, 24-bit)
Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC. New 4K HD Transfer Restoration by UCLA Film and Television Archive and The Film Foundation, in association with Warner Bros. Entertainment
Resolution: 1080p HD
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Run Time: 76 minutes
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Director Michael Curtiz is best known for making film classics like CASABLANCA, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, and CAPTAIN BLOOD, but he also directed a trio of significant early horror films as well. DOCTOR X was the first of these, followed by MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933 – reviewed here), and THE WALKING DEAD (1936). The first two films were shot using two-strip Technicolor®, while the third was shot in black and white. Warner Archive Collection has just released a fully restored version of DOCTOR X and the results are breathtaking. Once again, the UCLA Film & Television Archive and The Film Foundation have done an incredible job in reviving an important film from a dull, damaged carcass.

Featuring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray (just as Wax Museum did), DOCTOR X is another pre-code horror title of the type that would be defanged by the censors had it been released just a few years later. The film has much to recommend about it. For example, Ray Rennehan’s cinematography is lush and fluid, art direction by Anton Grot is well ahead of its time, and many of the performances are quite good. It deals in cannibalism and body horror, perhaps the first Hollywood film to do so. However, the film is unfortunately saddled with some far-fetched and frankly ridiculous characters and situations that became overused tropes almost by the time it was released.

Atwill and Wray acquit themselves well, but Lee Tracy is nearly unwatchable as a Leo Gorcey-like newspaper reporter that is the least funny comic relief ever. Full of 1930s mannerisms (ok, I get it – it was the 1930s) and catchphrases, he comes off as pandering to an audience who came fully prepared to see a horrifying thriller. He seems to have been inserted by the WB brass who were afraid that the horror film “craze” started at Universal Studios wouldn’t translate to their gangster and crime-themed format. Also stinking up the joint – a police commissioner who allows Atwill’s Dr. Xavier forty-eight hours to conduct his own investigation to determine which of the professors at his university is a serial killer at large before letting his detectives take over. That kind of malarkey would get you fired even in 1932, folks. This film definitely seems like a precursor to Wax Museum, with many similar (though better presented) themes recurring in that film.

Warner Archive’s disc is presented very well, with only a few jump cuts throughout where the team was unable to spread available imagery far enough to account for missing frames. Audio is also quite good. The disc comes with a black and white version of the film that was shot simultaneously, as well as a slew of special features such as new commentaries by Alan K. Rode and Scott MacQueen, documentary “Madness & Mystery: The Horror Films of Michael Curtiz” (HD, 27:39) by Constantine Nasr, “Doctor X: Before and After Restoration Reel” (HD, 7:40), and the theatrical trailer: black and white version (HD, 2:15).

This is the kind of amazing restoration and packaging that Warner Media chair Jason Kilar is trying to kill; he’s a digital streaming-only zealot. If he has his way WB would release no physical media at all, and the public will be deprived of this kind of release. If you love classic films and physical media, let Warner Brothers know. Buy this or their other discs. Write them letters. Show them that there will always be an audience for great movies from the past that can be owned outright.

 

 

 

BABYDOLL – 1956
4 out of 5 Bananas
Starring: Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach
Directed By: Elia Kazan
Studio: Warner Archive Collection
BRD Release Date: February 16, 2021
Region: A
Rated: Unrated
Audio Formats: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC New 2K Master
Resolution: 1080p HD
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Run Time: 115 Minutes
CLICK HERE TO ORDER

With a director, cast and writer like this, it’s hard to go wrong – and BABYDOLL doesn’t. Steeped in the kind of sultry, southern-gothic atmosphere and seething sexual tension one expects of a Tennessee Williams script, the film is bursting at the seams with tawdry dialog, black comedy, backhanded insults, and character flaw reveals of the highest level.

Baker plays Babydoll, Malden’s virginal wife who is promised to him sexually when she turns twenty, a few days hence. Down on their luck financially, the couple’s furniture is repossessed. Malden blames his cotton ginning competitor Wallach (in his debut screen role) for their fate and burns down his plant. Wallach sets upon Babydoll to confirm his suspicions of arson, and the pair spend a day barely avoiding falling into each other’s arms. The trio burst into open hostility when Malden arrives, with Wallach and Baker using each other to taunt and belittle him into a rage of jealousy.

The film was denounced by the Catholic church’s National League of Decency on release, and pulled from distribution a few weeks later by Warner Brothers. It’s easy to see what it was so controversial; BABYDOLL and a handful of other films railed against the Hays Code, which had banned exactly this sort of film in 1934 and would continue to keep films at “G” to PG” equivalent rating until it was overturned in 1968. Though nothing explicit is shown onscreen, the overt sexual tones and themes are vividly on display. Despite its chilly reception, the film would garner several Academy Award nominations and was a hit with critics. Kazan won a Golden Globe and Wallach a BAFTA Award for BABYDOLL.

Warner’s presentation Blu-ray is once again a pleasure to view. The picture is flawless, and sound is good, though there’s quite a dichotomy of volume for some of the dialog, and a few of the lower volume examples might have been amplified a bit. Special features are sparse. There’s a featurette from 2006 – “See No Evil: Baby Doll” (SD, 13 minutes) which includes interviews with the three principles, and a HD theatrical trailer (3 minutes).

While not the milestone that LOLITA (with which this film has been compared) was, BABYDOLL is an important and entertaining movie with great performances and direction.  Recommended.

 

 

Anthony Taylor is not only the Minister of Science, but also Defender of the Faith. His reviews and articles have appeared in magazines such as Screem, Fangoria, Famous Monsters of Filmland, SFX, Video*WatcHDog, and more.

*Art Credit: Anthony Taylor as Dr. Zaius caricature by Richard Smith

Category: Retro Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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