It’s inevitable with the amount of material being released and re-released on DVD and Blu-Ray that a plethora of titles would not only fall victim to the dreaded through-the-cracks syndrome, but would very likely glut the crevices in a bottleneck. This has especially been the case in 2012, so, without further adieu, let’s get to it.
Castle in the Dungeon. In 1954, whilst on-location in Europe writer-turned-director Nunnally Johnson, filming exteriors for Night People, ran into fellow Fox employee Henry Hathaway – then shooting a disaster entitled The Racers. “What the @#$% are you doing here?” demanded Hathaway. When Johnson explained, Give-‘Em-Hell Henry shook his head and replied, “You Goddamn miserable SOB! What’s your problem? You’re a great writer. Why screw it up with your lousy direction?” “Thanks, Henry,” responded Johnson dryly. “Look, you wanna know why you’ll never be a great director – or even a good one?” “Please, enlighten me.” “Because you’re too nice a guy! Nice guys can’t make good movies. You gotta be a @#$%&-ing bastard like me!”
While this is often the truth – on rare occasions, it wasn’t. In actuality, Johnson wasn’t an awful director, but, more importantly, and the reason for this parable, neither was the subject of this piece, William Castle. In fact, Castle was a damn good director. Ultimately, his failing within the industry he loved, the industry that screwed him time and time again, was the sad fact that William Castle’s most debilitating attribute was that he was a decent guy. Case in point: when he told pal Orson Welles about his discovery of a story called Lady From Shanghai, Welles abruptly stole it out from under him (the merits of Welles’ version vs. a what-if Castle adaptation is not the issue). Castle, after years of servitude under the auspices of Harry Cohn and Jungle Sam Katzman (both of whom he made millions for) learned plenty and finally saw the light. He went independent, made a series of phenomenally successful gimmicky fright pics and, at last, broke through – becoming a big fish in the indie pond. Scoring a contract with Paramount in the mid-1960s should have been a crowning glory; alas, it was just business as usual. But Castle had become a wiser player, albeit still too nice a one. He got hold of the galleys to Rosemary’s Baby and announced to Robert Evans that he wanted to make it. The book hadn’t come out yet, and Evans didn’t pay much attention. When the modern witchcraft tale was published, all the studios went ape shit to obtain the screen rights. It was a case of Illusion-O for real when they discovered that they had been locked up by the wily Castle. Now Evans and Paramount loved the dude, but there was a dilemma: how to wrench it out of his hands. Wasn’t going to happen. A compromise was reached: Castle could produce, but absolutely not direct. He felt betrayed and wanted to hate Roman Polanski, but admittedly loved the rushes, and the two eventually got on quite well. The movie helped save the studio – rife with bad decision-making that resulted in such over-bloated celluloid lemons as Paint Your Wagon, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and Darling Lili; even a much-admired foreign co-production, Once Upon a Time in the West, failed to generate any heat over here. Paramount’s moronic remedy for all of the above was to simply whack out as much as 45 minutes from each title (because that had worked so well with Thalberg and von Stroheim). You’d think Castle would have been Paramount’s fair-haired boy, but, again, too nice. He was told with Mitt Romney sincerity that because of the recent spate of awful flops, the high overhead, Rosemary’s Baby was actually losing money. With a convenient double-set of books, Bill was, once again, screwed like hooker at a Charlie Sheen retreat. Undaunted, Castle pressed on – producing Riot!, a gutsy prison exploitation flick that pre-figured the blaxploitation craze, and Bug, which usually ended up supporting another Paramount mistake, their 1975 King Kong remake. His directorial efforts were a mixed bag in the most extreme sense of the word. 1975’s surreal gothic fairy tale Shanks, possibly his greatest work, was barely released; fortunately, the same can be said of PROJECT X, which Paramount spit out after Rosemary’s Baby…a movie whose sheer imbecility confounded follow-up-curious critics expecting something at least interesting.
PROJECT X [*] could be William Castle’s worst movie ever. It would look cheap even if it were a TV episode, which it resembles in the worst bottom-of-the-barrel way. Based on a novel by Leslie P. Davies, this spy-fi thriller plays like an installment of Mission: Impossible rejected for being too ludicrous. PROJECT X isn’t merely stupid – it’s stoopid. On the surface, the storyline and devices sound promising: cryogenics, mind-control, telekinesis – plus big wide flatscreen TVs, digital chips, matrix solarization…but, trust me, it’s a trick, not a treat. Very quickly, the brainwash ‘n dry narrative morphs into a monstrous hodgepodge akin to (as an on-screen denizen intones) Hitler on steroids. The goofy costumes and Mork headgear resemble cast-offs from The Mole People, but with less dignity. The cast is pretty good, with a gaggle of respectable debased actors like Christopher George, Monte Markham, Harold Gould and Henry Jones. George’s character’s biggest fear is “going brain dead,” a minority group which apparently was also the picture’s target audience. Segue to Greta Baldwin, a (supposed) Scandinavian import who smacks of SSG affliction (Some Suit’s Girlfriend). I swear we all thought she was supposed to be a fembot until we realized that it wasn’t an obvious plot-twist clue, but rather a clueless twist’s being oblivious to the plot. “And those are takes they used!” underlined a friend sitting on our sofa gawking at Baldwin’s appearance and delivery which is best capsulized as a Euro Nancy Sinatra with lockjaw. Tech credits additionally suggest impressive input with music by Van Cleave, cinematography by Harold Stine and psychedelic animation by Hanna-Barbera, but it’s all like some Clutch Cargo cartoon gone horribly wrong (think The Manchurian Candidate meets The Super Mario Brothers). Even the Olive Films Blu-Ray is lackluster – grainy and muddy. PROJECT X guaranteed that Castle never again secure a vehicle from Paramount’s project-A’s.
In marked contrast, Castle’s supernatural spoof, 1967’s THE SPIRIT IS WILLING [***], part of his two-picture deal with Sid Caesar (the other being the all-star gangster romp The Busy Body), is enjoyably engaging. Based on Nathaniel Benchley’s novel The Visitors, the in-your-face Ben Starr script makes it clear from the fade-in that when William Castle does a haunted house ghost comedy you know it won’t turn out to be gangsters or Nazis hiding in the basement.
A 19th century flashback of millionaire Nestor Paiva offering seaman Robert Donner untold riches if he takes aging horny daughter Cass Daley off his hands immediately telegraphs the point home that the director is preparing a Henry James/Jane Austen scenario for the 3 Stooges crowd. Indeed this is like a violent cartoon with numerous hatchets-in-the-torso, severed heads, drownings, fatal vehicular accidents and other nuisances all played for laughs. Before the 1967 update, we learn that as early as her wedding night, Daley catches hubby with fetching maid/wench Jill Townsend (bewitching in no less than three roles); she slaughters them both, forever binding the raucous sexually-active trio to the cliff-strewn mansion, and thereby showering a doomed Wuthering Heights halo over the proceedings although, arguably this is less Bronte than Bronte-tsouris.
When nervous breakdown-ready Caesar, wife Vera Miles and teenaged Barry Gordon take over the New England house for the summer season, the randy deceased inhabitants swing into action – ‘swing’ being the operative word.
As one might expect, some of the rapid fire non-stop gags fall flat; nevertheless there are visually funny bits and, occasionally, witty dialogue. Of course, this is helped immeasurably by the first-rate cast. Daley is particularly car-wreck memorable as she pulls out all the stops. A brief star in the 1940s (The Fleet’s In; Crazy House), she goes all bull-in-a-china-shop with her every scene. In case you’re unfamiliar with Cass Daley (which is quite likely), imagine Martha Raye infected by the Betty Hutton gene; in short, all attempts at a mere hint of subtlety are forever stomped out by giant clown feet.
John McGiver is terrific as Caesar’s Bernie Madoff-like relative, a scheming wealthy sleazeball lavatory tycoon. Eternally showing off, he proudly announces (as only he can) “You know how many toilets I had to sell to get that…” The townsfolk are aces: Mary Wickes, Byron Foulger, Jay C. Flippen and, best of all, a disreputable salvage crew headed by Jesse White and comprised of Doodles Weaver and Mickey Deems (even Castle manages a cameo). John Astin turns up in the final act as a looney shrink, who ultimately presents some reasonable advice regarding Daley (“A psychopath is a psychopath in or out of the coffin”).
The Technicolor photography (again by Harold Stine) looks better than PROJECT X, but still exhibits some grain – a cinematic malady unlikely to ever be corrected, as it’s highly improbable that THE SPIRIT IS WILLING will ever be slated for any kind of restoration. The great Vic Mizzy provides a wonderful score that will have you humming more than Daley (but in a decidedly clean way).
Refried Beings. Just when you thought it was safe to talk about movies they’d never remake, up pops 1990’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (**), written/updated by George Romero, directed by his SFX gore meister Tom Savini and produced by one half of the Israeli team who accomplished the near-impossible feat of making Charles Bronson more laughable, Menahem Golan, or, more apropos, Golem, the Hebrew mon-ster legend he actually wanted to regurgitate WITH Bronson (I can see a stone Paul Kersey in that pageboy do now!)!
With these folks at the helm, one can sensibly assume that this isn’t exactly a mega-buck upgrade. Of course, any budget above twenty dollars is a noticeable improvement, but bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. The neat thing about Romero’s 1968 original B&W home movie was its unsettling TV news documentary feel. This 90s homage is a contradictory too slick-but-not-slick enough refurbishing.
How so? One would expect a Gen-X flesh-eating zombie (or FEZ) flick, guided by Savini to be a foot-chomping, gut-chewing, Scanners-head-exploding entrails taffy pull. That it’s not is a rude awakening – and one which can only be blamed on budgetary limitations. Sans explicit gore, viewers can only be uplifted by the Noel Coward dialogue and Old Vic calibre performances. Uh-oh!
This isn’t to say that the 1990 NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is unwatchable (except for the physical fact that the crew seems to have forgotten to bring lighting equipment to the shoot). While the flow is deliberately zombie-paced, there are a couple of decent acting turns, most prominently by frantic lead Tony Todd, the new brother du jour and a reasonable replacement for Duane Jones. Patricia Tallman, wrenching the reins from whiny Judith O’Dea’s “They’re coming to get you, Barbara” character (a cult midnight movie line they have the good sense to reprise) is butch stand-in of the Jamie Lee Curtis variety replete with Hilary Swank [Dead] Boys Don’t Cry hair and kick-ass attitude (although, frankly, she looks more like Macauley Culkin in Home Alone). Tom Towles, the outstanding sleaze bucket from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, portrays the ’68’s loudmouth Don Rickles dude (okay, Karl Hardman) with great panache. The teen bucolic couple (William Butler, Katie Finneran), on the other hand, are offensively annoying, seemingly channeling their inspiration from Rick Moranis in Little Shop and Sarah Jessica Parker in L.A. Story.
The cemetery opening immediately causes more giggles than gasps with the appearance of the graveyard zombie # 1, due primarily to the fact that he resembles Foster Brooks, both in looks and demeanor. This takes the embryonic ooze off sub-sequent shriek sequences (which alarmingly include way too much zombie ass). The elongated redneck ree-venge last act had me hoping that the few remaining reasonable humans would have simply given up on the undead oafs and opened up fire on the far more unhygienic living ones.
On the plus side, it’s actually fairly well-edited by Tom Dubensky (my old film school chum from NYU), who had, co-incidentally, also worked on the original. The score by Paul McCollough adequately reflects the era (and the penny-pinching producer) minimizing actual instruments with a barrage of al-ternative electronic flatulent boings, plunks and funks; in the tradition of all Twilight Time titles, it’s accessible as an IST (Isolated Sound Track option), horrific enough to, if nothing else, stir zombie Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman, Hugo Friedhofer and Elmer Bernstein into some nasty WTF revenge (now THAT’S a splatter pic I’d love to see). What is visible is, as one might and should expect, 1080p sharp…likely better than whatever spewed out upon theater screens during the 1990 run.
The overall result is best left by quoting one of the characters; like the zombies themselves, the filmmakers seem to have “…lost their ability to communicate and reason.”
[NOTE: Twilight Time informs me that this title has been sold out of its limited run; copies may be possibly obtained on on-line sites such as eBay]
Bram Flakes. It is often because of a remake that original ver-sions of same are unearthed on home video; thus, we must hold Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and their “campy vampies” re-dux of the hit 1960s series Dark Shadows wholly responsible for Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray release of the two 1970s movie versions, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (**) and NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS (*1/2).
It always stunned friends that I never embraced the horror soap when it debuted in 1966 since I was such a big Hammer and old school Universal fan. Of course it was because these movies are so stylized and beautifully made, which is why I shunned the series which always looked slipshod…live TV at its worst. Remarkably, when a struggling MGM and aspiring Dark Shadows auteur Dan Curtis came up with the idea for a big-screen version, they brought all the ineptitude with them by the coffin load. “How could you hate a vampire TV show?” my addicted easily-pleased buddies demanded. Rather than go into details, I simply replied, “Well, it’s a vampire show called Dark Shadows, and vampires cast no shadows. (cue up the crickets response); besides, it saved me the hell of having to cite the lousy production values and bargain basement thespian histrionics. This was definitely more ham than Ham-mer…in fact, deviled ham, thickly sliced by star Jonathan Frid. Frid, of course, had a cult following; so did Jim Jones. I stayed away from the 1970 feature with a vengeance. Watching it now, I’m convinced more than ever that I was right. Rather than go into the plot, I’ll stick with the specs.
Realizing that this period in the studio’s history was light years removed from Village of the Damned or The Haunting – being the MGM of The Maltese Bippy and Night of the Lepus – it be-comes quickly and shamefully apparent that HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS’ bar need not be raised very high. Even with these low expectations, it still looks like crap; 98% of the blame must go to the infamous Arthur Ornitz – my nomination for the worst d.p. to ever work on a major American motion picture. All of Ornitz’ post-1960s trademark flourishes are here: grainy compositions, pushed dark scenes, out of focus sequences, miserable hand-held zooms, flash-framed head and tail shots – easily the scariest, most frightening aspects of the movie. The Curse of the Ornitz was due largely to his hap-hazard do-it-fast/do-it-cheap technique that was lovingly em-braced by ’70s producers, always looking to cut corners. Astoundingly, Ornitz actually managed to get a favorable high-brow rep during this era (Death Wish, Serpico, Law and Dis-order), hyped at being adept at creating a “stark, documentary approach” – or what we home movie enthusiasts simply re-ferred to as Super 8. More than any other person or factor within the industry, the Ornitz touch “inspired” scores of ASC members to abandon their scruples (and light meters) – a prime reason why so many American 1970s flicks look like they were shot by Ray Charles; it behooves me to note that early on he had co-photographed The World of Henry Orient.
Believe it or not, the movie actually sounds worse than it looks, as if it were recorded in someone’s bathroom. This, in turn, matches the performances since the entire cast’s take on pent-up cringing terror resembles an outbreak of mass constipation. Indeed this plague extends to figurehead Joan Bennett, looking extremely embarrassed, presiding over a cast of usually capable troupers (Thayer David, Dennis Patrick, Grayson Hall, John Karlen, Nancy Barrett, Roger Davis, Kathryn Leigh Scott) who likewise appear lip-biting ashamed…as if they were all valiantly trying to suppress that unstoppable fart.
Frid is way too short to be a foreboding presence (not helped by an ill-fitting wig). As the notorious centuries-old Barnabas Collins, searching for both his reincarnated love and a way to cure his vampirism, Frid resembles character actor Leonard Stone guesting on an episode of The Munsters. His eventual Dorian Gray disintegration into decrepitude (courtesy of Dick Smith) almost plays like a segue into a wild dance routine – an effect that isn’t helped by the fact that he looks way too much like the wacky tuxedo-wearing senile dude in the Six Flags commercials. Grayson Hall as the screwball scientist, whose attempts at treating Frid are botched by her ending up falling in love with him, sports a hairdo that apparently was designed by the Jurassic Park FX crew.
Naturally, a lot of this Ed Wood filmmaking must be blamed on producer-director Curtis, who instinctively selects the wrong shots, angles and what blithely passes for lighting. The pacing isn’t merely deadly – it’s undeadly. Allow me to illustrate: my incredibly observant wife, watching a supposedly creepy at-mospheric monsoon-drenched funeral sequence, took away only this response; nodding to a mourning character, she bril-liantly noted that “…there’s always one muthafucka who doesn’t wear a hat in the rain!” HoDS is so Dracula For Dummies that one reasonably expects Frid to bemoan during the frequent toasts “I never drink…wine coolers.”
HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS was nevertheless successful enough to begat a sequel the following year, NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS. This brings to mind an incident from my youth – when I was around eight years old. A friend of mine and I, enamored of the many product ads in the back of comic books, decided to pool our resources and purchase a high-powered telescope that could see through walls. Price: two bucks (a king’s ransom for us in the early-mid-1960s). We did little chores for weeks and finally accrued the necessary coin.
Knowing better than to tell our parents (who would shoot down such a flagrant waste of money), we sent two one dollar bills in an envelope to the fly-by-night outfit. Three months later, after thinking all was lost, I received a package. I immediately told my cohort in crime, who hastily beat it to my door. We opened the box and discovered a four-inch long hollowed plastic tube approximately one inch in diameter. Wrapped around it was the “instruction sheet.” It brazenly informed us that in order to proceed required the A) drilling of a hole through the desired wall; followed by B) inserting the “telescope” into said puncture.
Now the reason I’m mentioning this lesson in American capi-talism is that it perfectly underlines the deception used by Dan Curtis and MGM with the release of NIGHT OF DARK SHAD-OWS. There is absolutely no connection to the first movie – or the TV series. While some cast members return (Hall, David, Karlen, Barrett), they all portray different characters. There is no Barnabas Collins, and like McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force, no McHale (aka, Joan Bennett). It’s a story of a pos-sessed mansion – the breeding ground of unspeakable acts, none of which can hold a candle to the movie’s unspeakable acting.
A young couple – a grotesquely-creepy pop-eyed David Selby (think Richard Benjamin under the influence of a rather stubborn French tickler) and his bride Kate Jackson (making her dubious screen debut) come under the spell of Selby’s ancestors – specifically an adulterous skank (Lara Parker) who cheated on her husband with his brother. The unfortunate fact that she was a not only a psycho bitch but a psycho witch does not bode well for the newly ensconced inhabitants (technically this should have been called HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS and its predecessor NIGHT, but, I won’t pursue this matter any further as it implies that I give a shit).
While this was all done way better in the aforementioned William Castle spoof, The Spirit is Willing, NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS does have some perks, mostly being the absence of Arthur Ornitz. The photography by Richard Shore is actually in focus and the compositions fairly-well lit. Grayson Hall, going all Mrs. Danvers as the mysterious housekeeper, also dis-plays a much more preferable hairdo – a far cry from the nerve-ending-follicles-on-the-rampage look in the first SHADOWS. She looks a lot like actress Rossella Falk, whom I infinitely wished it was. Truth be told, this all smacks of a Curtis run through for his later more professionally-made flick Burnt Offerings, which costarred Bette Davis, Oliver Reed and Karen Black as tenants in a haunted suburban estate (sidebar: Black’s iconic participation in Curtis’ acclaimed TV-movie Trilogy of Terror proved a mixed blessing, to say the least. After its 1975 broadcast, I personally felt cheated if the actress wasn’t pursued by a foot-high spear-wielding African fang-chomping demon, even in Hitchcock’s Family Plot!).
Hans Holzer, by all accounts a slick charlatan who, during the 1960s and 1970s, rode the ghost circuit into financial riches, is credited as “technical advisor,” thus providing another link to the movie’s magic telescope huckstering (Holzer gained fame for his involvement in the Amityville horror sham). The music in both pics is by Robert Cobert, whose “famous” Dark Shadows theme is comparable to a tea kettle with asthma.
The Blu-Rays on each title (even the Ornitz-stained initial entry) look as good as they can. Not surprisingly, NIGHT benefits most by a 1080p resurrection, although it showcases enough detail to queasily make viewers question a format that allows us to partake of Selby’s dirty fingernails.
“I think this has gone far enough!” announces a participant in the first outing. If only…
PROJECT X: Color. Letterboxed [1.85:1; 1080p High Defini-tion]. Mono audio HD MA. UPC# 887090040808; CAT# OF408. SRP: $29.95.
THE SPIRIT IS WILLING: Color. Letterboxed [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]. Mono audio HD MA. UPC#887090041201; CAT# OF412. SRP: $29.95. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.
BOTH TITLES ALSO AVAILABLE ON DVD: PROJECT: UPC#887090040709; CAT#OF407; SPIRIT: UPC#887090041102; CAT#OF411. SRP: $24.95@
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: Color. Letterboxed [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS HD MA. SOLD OUT (copies may be available on eBay, etc. SRP: $29.95. Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS. Color. Letterboxed [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; Mono audio HD MA. UPC#1000298903; CAT#883929248469. SRP: $19.98
NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS. Color. Letterboxed [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; Mono audio HD MA. UPC#1000298882; CAT#883929248452. SPR: $19.98.
BOTH TITLES ALSO AVAILABLE ON DVD: HOUSE: UPC#1000299888; CAT#883929248926; NIGHT: UPC#1000298875; CAT#883929247042. SRP: $14.96@