APES ON FILM: Aliens, Vampires, and Italians – Oh, My!

Posted on: Oct 18th, 2022 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.

 

 

PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES – 1965
4 out of 5 Bananas
Starring: Barry Sullivan, Norma Bengell, Ángel Aranda , Evi Marandi
Director: Mario Bava
Rated: Unrated
Studio: Kino Lorber
Region: A (locked)
BRD Release Date: July 26, 2022
Audio Formats: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0
Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Resolution: 1080p HD
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Run Time: 88 minutes
5 Disc Set
CLICK HERE TO ORDER

 

Mario Bava is high in the pantheon of admired and revered film directors among film lovers, with good reason. He never failed to create an eminently watchable film, many of which were then copied incessantly by admirers and detractors alike. Starting his career as a cinematographer, Bava applied his unique vision as a colorist and scenarist to the kind of story material that appealed to him, most of which consisted of horror, science fiction, or fantasy. The list of directors and writers that he inspired is long and varied, but for the sake of this review, let’s confine that list to Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett, and Ridley Scott, the men behind ALIEN (1979).

The trio were heavily influenced by Bava’s PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES in which; a spaceship (or two) responds to a distress signal from an uninhabited planet, descends to the surface to find an abandoned alien craft with giant skeletons (an idea Shusett admitted stealing from Bava) and crew members begin to die one by one. Scott denied ever seeing it at the time of ALIEN’s release, and O’Bannon admitted to only seeing part of it many years before writing his screenplay. Somehow, the film seeped into their collective groundwater, as did Edward L. Cahn‘s IT! THE TERROR BEYOND SPACE (1958), in which a malevolent alien stalks the inhabitants of a rocket in space, and several other sources including Clifford Simak’s story Junkyard,” published in the May 1953 edition of GALAXY Magazine.

Bava’s film is seminal and stylish, truly worth the watch whether you’ve seen it before or not. While Scott’s movie provides more character definition and development, Bava achieved incredible visuals without the use of a single optical process shot. All of the special effects were achieved in-camera, and the planetary landscapes and vast interior shots of the ships were achieved with the Schufftan process. The art direction and production design would go on to influence many movies and television programs, especially as U.S. broadcasting moved into the “…IN COLOR!” era. The film’s costumes, sets, and props show a consistence of style that was only equaled by directors like Hitchcock or John Ford at the time.

Kino Lorber’s presentation of PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES is sourced from an exclusive new 2K master. Color saturation is gratuitous – as it should be here – and picture sharpness is only slightly softer than would be my preference having seen the film on 35mm several times. The single audio track is perfectly adequate and recreates the eerie atmospheric sounds and music of Gino Marinuzzi Jr. (of which I wish there was more) well. Supplemental materials include an exclusive new audio commentary by writers Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw; an archival audio commentary by critic and Bava biographer Tim Lucas; episodes of Trailers From Hell with Joe Dante and Josh Olson; the original trailer for the film and more.

Planet of the Vampires should be an old favorite for just about anyone with an interest in science fiction, horror, or Italian movies. Bava’s resume is filled with fantastic films that should be on every cineaste’s list; this one is near the top of the heap for me, superseded by both earlier and later works. Add this disc to your collection without hesitation.

 

 

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 WatcH*Dog, and many more.

 Ape caricature art by Richard Smith.

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

APES ON FILM: Hold that Tiger!

Posted on: Oct 4th, 2022 By:

By Chris Herzog
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!

 

SAMSON AND THE 7 MIRACLES OF THE WORLD – 1961
3 out of 5 Bananas
Starring
: Gordon Scott, Yoko Tani, Hélène Chanel
Director
: Riccardo Freda
Rated
: No rating
Studio: Kino Lorber
Region
: A
BRD Release Date: 8-16-2022
Audio Formats: English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio
Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Resolution: 1080p
Aspect Ratio:  Widescreen (2.35:1)
Run Time: 98/76 Min.
Click Here to Order

 

For decades, the Italian Sword-and-Sandal film (aka the “peplum”) has been an object of frequent ridicule, even among cult cinema afficionados. This is largely because these ‘60s epics have been primarily seen in edited, panned-and-scanned U.S. television cuts with washed out color, damaged prints, and of course, ridiculous dialogue dubbing choices. Such critical external faults can also make internal issues like phony-looking monsters all the more detrimental. Happily, the digital home video era has provided more opportunity to see such films as they were meant to be viewed, in nice looking prints with proper widescreen aspect ratios and sometimes even in the original Italian. While such upgrades don’t exactly cure all of the ills inherent in low-budget fantasy flicks cranked out by the dozen, they can reduce the giggle factor considerably.

This is the case with SAMSON AND THE 7 MIRACLES OF THE WORLD, a 1961 saga helmed by Riccardo Freda, one of Italy’s most highly regarded genre directors. Freda had already enjoyed a 20-year career as a writer/director when he made SAMSON, and would soon go on to direct such favorite gothic horrors as THE GHOST (1963) and THE HORRIBLE DR. HITCHCOCK (1962) with Barbara Steele. Just a few months prior, he had completed work on GIANTS OF THESSALY (1960), widely considered a top-tier peplum. SAMSON is also one of his better efforts, as Kino Lorber’s nice looking new Blu-Ray makes abundantly clear.

Our hero for this one (called “Maciste” in the original Italian version) is played by stoic-and-shredded Gordon Scott, star of arguably the best cycle of TARZAN films after the Johnny Weismuller MGM run. In fact, Scott looks as if he just walked over from the TARZAN set, loincloth-and-all, playing essentially the same character. The biggest differences, really, are that this picture is set in ancient China and that SAMSON has a degree of super strength, at least enough to do things like pushing trees over, tossing boulders around, and showing teams of horses who’s boss. In fact, Samson’s unnatural strength appears to be just about the only truly fantastic element in the picture, which may disappoint those viewers (like me) who prefer a high monster quotient in their pepla. The more papier-mâché dragons and ragged ape suits, the better, as far as I’m concerned. The closest we get here, however, is a wrestling match with a tiger, played by a stuffed tiger in close-ups and an alarmingly drugged tiger in the long shots. Nevertheless, SAMSON proves to be an entertaining experience on its own terms, as a colorful, action-packed historical epic with a smattering of super heroics.

The plot here is the very familiar mixture of court intrigue, evil despots, and enslaved populations that we find in most examples of the genre. Less familiar is the medieval Chinese setting, although it’s well-mounted and could occasionally pass for something the Shaw Brothers cooked up. Samson comes to town to help get rid of the evil Mongol warlord who has usurped the throne, hopefully restoring the rightful royal family to power in the process. Along the way, he fights the above-mentioned tiger, survives the perils of the warlord’s arena, engages in multiple battles and bar fights, and helps foment a revolution. You know the drill. There’s nothing particularly original or surprising here, but there is plenty of spectacle. This one at least looks like it has a higher budget than the average Hercules/Maciste picture, and that’s all that counts. Freda and his colleagues knew how to put every lira of the production budget on the screen, and this film is a great case in point.

Kino’s transfer looks great, with the often-opulent art direction really popping when it needs to and more realistic imagery like surfaces and skin tones registering naturally for the most part. The film is presented in two versions, the 98-minute original Italian cut and the 76-minute AIP cut which was the version commonly seen in the United States. Note that both cuts feature only English-language soundtracks. The chief extra is a commentary track from film historian Tim Lucas which accompanies the AIP cut. Lucas, of course, is a world-class authority on Italian genre cinema, and the track provides a wealth of production information and analysis. It’s difficult to imagine how this commentary could be any better. A sampling of trailers for other fantasy films available from Kino is also included.

 

 

When he’s not casually shuffling across dry creek beds, Chris Herzog is a writer, researcher, and teacher. His film criticism can also be found in Screem magazine and back issues of the late, lamented Video WatcH*Dog.

 

Ape caricature art by Richard Smith

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

Get Set for a Swinging Time with Vincent Price at THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM! A New Digital Restoration at Atlanta’s Historic Plaza Theatre!

Posted on: Jan 30th, 2013 By:

THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961); Dir. Roger Corman; Starring Vincent Price, Barbara Steele and John Kerr; Premiere Friday, Feb. 1 @ 8:00 p.m. with giveaways; then nightly at 8 p.m. Feb. 2- 7; Plaza Theatre (visit website for times and ticket prices); Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Finally, after years of waiting, it is now possible to see PIT AND THE PENDULUM on the big screen once again in a newly-restored, high-definition digital presentation. For far too long, the movie has been hard to see in optimal condition (even the most recent MGM Midnite Movies DVD of the title isn’t anamorphically enhanced for widescreen presentation). This is something that’s always struck me as odd since it’s one of the best-remembered films of American International PicturesEdgar Allan Poe cycle, was a huge box-office smash at the time and contains some of the most defining scenes in post-1960 horror. Be that as it may, as far as securing prints go, it has been one of the more obscure films of Roger Corman. Thankfully, that’s changing now, and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM can be seen in all of its glory and grandeur at Atlanta’s historic Plaza Theatre from Friday, February 1 through Thursday, February 7. Friday night’s showing will feature a special giveaway of two free tickets to all nine days of the Atlanta Film Festival: a $600 value! It promises to be an event big enough to befit the legendary teaming of Corman, Price and Poe.

Roger Corman. The name means many things to many people. To some, it primarily conjures up images of cheaply-made and quickly-shot horror/sci-fi fare from the 1950s and ‘60s. Flicks like CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA, A BUCKET OF BLOOD and THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. For others, it is chiefly and inextricably linked with the development of the “New Hollywood” of the late 1960s and ‘70s. Movies from American International Pictures and New World Pictures that helped launch the careers of talents like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Robert De Niro, Barbara Hershey, Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda. For a former co-worker of mine, it means “that aloof guy who would stroll into the New Horizons office and ask if Jim Wynorski had called.”

But for a certain set of the man’s fans, the first things that come to mind are two names: Edgar Allan Poe and Vincent Price.

In 1960, American International Pictures was seeing the market for their low-budget, black-and-white output shrink. Roger Corman had been their most prolific filmmaker, churning out low-budget schlock in 10 days or less (mind you, it’s some great schlock, and never without a sense of wit and intelligence behind it all), and convinced studio heads Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson to take a risk on shooting a full-color widescreen film with a larger budget (a full $300,000!) and a longer production schedule (a full 15 days!). The success of this film, HOUSE OF USHER, pushed AIP to demand more of the same: another Poe adaptation, made by the same team and starring the same lead, Vincent Price.

Corman complied and assembled his USHER team: cinematographer (Floyd Crosby), set designer (Daniel Haller), score composer (Les Baxter) and screenwriter, the now-legendary horror author Richard Matheson. Matheson had seen a good deal of success as a writer in the decade previous to his teaming with Corman. He had adapted his novel THE SHRINKING MAN into the smash sci-fi/horror film THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, and his novels and short stories were in high demand. He had just been added to the stable of writers employed by THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and was also selling scripts to western- and war-themed TV shows. In short, Corman (in a typical move for him) had spotted an up-and-coming talent that he could grab for relatively cheap: someone who might be willing to trade some of the money he could get from a higher-paying gig for the relative liberty of a Corman screenwriting job. The pairing worked so well on USHER that Matheson returned for this, and several of the films following this in Corman’s Poe series.

The film is set in 1th Century Spain, and follows Francis Barnard (John Kerr) as he visits the castle of his brother-in-law Nicholas (Vincent Price) to investigate the death of his sister Catherine (Barbara Steele). Nicholas recounts that Catherine had been driven mad by the castle’s history and atmosphere, had committed suicide and now walks the castle halls as a ghost. When it is uncovered that Catherine had been interred alive, Nicholas is sent into paroxysms of fear and plunged into madness as he has visions of the traumatic events of his childhood. It all culminates in Nicholas’ break with sanity as he tortures his household in the dungeon beneath the castle’s floors.

Because of the slightness of narrative material in Poe’s short story, which is set nearly entirely within a prison cell over the course of a few nights, Matheson was encouraged to devise a way to shoehorn Poe’s tale into just the film’s climactic scene. In doing so, he created a psychologically rich screenplay centered on the main character’s neuroses, all of which seem to stem from a terrifying event witnessed in his youth. This psychological approach to gothic horror would prove to be incredibly influential in the years to come, as reverberations of its themes (along with their visual depiction by the team of Corman, Crosby and Haller) would be seen in many of the great Italian gothic horrors of the 1960s and ’70s, as Tim Lucas uncovered in his 1997 interview with screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi in VIDEO WATCHDOG #39. Gastaldi admitted that the film had inspired his screenplays for Mario Bava’s THE WHIP AND THE BODY and Antonio Margheriti’s THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH: “Yes, of course! THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM had a big influence on Italian horror films. Everybody borrowed from it.”

Vincent Price, too, returned to the AIP fold. Price had starred to great effect in HOUSE OF USHER, and brought equal parts menace, dignity and emotional complexity to what could have been a flatly-played character in lesser hands. In THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, he would be given even more to chew on as Nicholas Medina (and, in flashback, his crazed Inquisitor father, Sebastian Medina). Some have argued that perhaps Price sank his teeth a bit too deeply into the role, which required him to shift from a refined-but-fragile gentleman persona to that of a raving madman at a second’s notice. And it’s true that Price seems to be having the time of his life, relishing every utterance and mannerism, and basically being Vincent Price at his Priciest. But in a film that demands a tone that almost tips into the surreal, his nearly over-the-top performance works perfectly as a piece with every other element in the production.

Barbara Steele, fresh from starring in Mario Bava’s international gothic horror success, BLACK SUNDAY, is also incredibly memorable as Catherine, delivering an impressively expressive performance. However, it’s hard to objectively discuss her work in this film beyond the physical aspect of it: thinking that her natural British accent didn’t mesh with the other actors’ performances, AIP had her part dubbed in post-production by another actress.

Visually, Corman and his team work wonders with what little budget and time they were given, using impressive sets borrowed from other studios, violently active camera work and dream/fantasy/flashback sequences warped and twisted optically and displayed using a blue and red color palette. Corman’s direction is—as usual—tight and effective, providing impressive and perfectly-timed jolts while steadily building an atmosphere of oppression and madness. For pure horror, it is the highlight of the entire Corman/Poe series, and artistically tied only with THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (MASQUE may be more thematically and symbolically rich and more daring in its approach, but PIT beats it on pure fright value).

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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