Universal Horror Collection: Vol. 5

JUNE 23, 2020


As Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc (and very stupid/selfish people continue to spread it by being stupid and selfish), it's looking more and more likely that the fall will be spent not at my usual film festivals and repertory screenings, but in my own home 24 hours a day except for the rare trips to the grocery store (and the drivein, bless it). The thinnest silver lining to this grim future is the fact that being forced to stay home means I'll have more time to watch old horror movies during the season, something I love doing but rarely have the time to. There's nothing that gives me that life-affirming jolt of nostalgia like staying up late watching a selection of Universal, Hammer, and AIP horror movies with a cup of (oft spiked) hot cocoa, but I'm often pulled away for a 35mm screening of something more recent, or a Screamfest/Beyond Fest premiere. Probably won't be the case this year!

With that in mind, I hope Scream Factory keeps these Universal Horror sets coming, because they're a perfect fit for that kind of late night, "Maybe I'll fall asleep but it's OK" comfort viewing. With Universal releasing deluxe editions of their big guns (i.e. Frankenstein, Dracula, etc) themselves, Scream Factory has been cranking out four-film sets of the studio's B-movies from the same era; the sort of films that probably wouldn't get picked up individually but when packaged together (with historian commentaries on each one to sweeten the deal) become quite attractive additions to the collection. This fifth volume focuses on "Jungle" horror from the early '40s, with The Monster and The Girl along with the "Cheela" trilogy that began with Captive Wild Woman and was followed by Jungle Woman and The Jungle Captive.

Now, the 1940s are generally considered to be the weakest decade for horror (thanks a lot, WWII!), but Universal was of course the company to get around that thanks to The Wolf Man and the entertaining "Monster Rally" films that followed. But alas, despite the two sequels, Cheela never quite found herself joining the likes of Larry Talbot and his frenemies. One could argue that the timeline wouldn't match up, since these three films seem to be taking place in the time they were produced instead of some vague yesteryear, but it's not like the continuity made any goddamn sense across the "Monsterverse" anyway, so they could have thrown her into the mix if they wanted to despite the anachronism.

Then again they couldn't even keep much consistency within the series itself, so perhaps it's better they didn't muck it up further by having her interact with Dracula. In Captive Wild Woman (the best of the lot), a circus trainer finds a female ape named "Cheela" (played by a guy in a suit) in the jungle and brings her back to the States in order to train her along with all the other animals he captured (mostly lions and tigers - real ones in this case). John Carradine shows up as a mad scientist type who wants to turn this intelligent ape into a human, and using his own assistant's brain and the body of a patient he turns Cheela into "Paula", a lovely woman played by Acquanetta. But Paula shares Cheela's devotion/attraction to the trainer guy, and gets jealous about his traditionally human fiance, which turns her back into her animal form - very Cat People, admittedly. However she only scares the fiance - as a "monster", she's quite heroic, going after only Carradine and then, during the climax, some animals that have broken free of their cages and attack the trainer.

All of this is summed up at the top of Jungle Woman (complete with recycled footage - in a movie that only runs 60 minutes! Charles Band must have seen this as a lad), but despite the attempt to present it as a direct sequel, the film then goes off in a different, largely disconnected direction as "Paula" is revived and finds herself committed at a sanatorium, where she sets her sights on her doctor's would-be son-in-law (the trainer and his fiance from Captive Wild Woman pop up early on but then disappear with little explanation). But this time she never turns back into Cheela as we saw her in the first film, and since there's no wild animals to cause a threat, she goes after innocent people (including a dimwitted fellow patient who has a crush on her, poor bastard). A few dialogue snips and it could very well just be a movie about an insane woman. It's enjoyable enough, but even with Acquanetta returning it feels like a very different character.

The actress sat out the third film, The Jungle Captive, with Vicky Lane taking over in a film with an even flimsier connection. None of the other characters return, newspaper headlines suffice to briefly explain the connection before Rondo Hatton (!) steals her corpse from a morgue, bringing it to yet another mad scientist who is trying to make human/animal hybrids. This time around, instead of her becoming obsessed with a handsome (and taken) young fella, Hatton becomes kind of infatuated with Ann, the scientist's assistant who is being held there (they need her blood for the experiment). Of the three films it's got the most traditional horror elements and action (there's even a car wreck!), but it's a good thing I accidentally watched it first (didn't realize it was a sequel) because anyone showing up for "Captive Wild Woman 3" would be disappointed or even confused, since it's so far removed from the series' origins. Even if you ignore the recasting of Paula, her role in the film is almost unnecessary, as the focus stays mainly on Hatton's growing conscience and the cops who are trying to find the assistant/solve the murder Hatton caused at the morgue. But on its own, it's a decent little mad scientist tale, and Hatton's character is more interesting than his usual "Creeper" appearances.

That leaves The Monster and the Girl, a true outlier on the set as not only is it unrelated to the others, but it's not even a true Universal movie (it was produced by Paramount and bought by Uni later). It's also needlessly confusing, with a flashback-heavy opening half hour devoted to a mob plot where a guy is framed for a murder while trying to save his sister from a prostitution ring (!). At the halfway point, the guy is killed and his brain is put into a gorilla, allowing him to avenge his own murder as an all powerful beast, which must feel kind of awesome for him since he was a clumsy square kinda guy as a human and probably would have gotten instantly killed all over again if he had to use his own body. The gorilla scenes are pretty great, but you'd be forgiven if you checked out by the time they finally arrive when the movie is essentially almost over since it too is only an hour long. Watchable, but of the four movies on the set it's probably the last I'd ever revisit.

The accompanying commentaries are a mixed bag; the most interesting is fittingly for the best movie - Tom Weaver on Captive Wild Woman. He's got the usual biographical info for the actors, but he also tracked down a lot of the production history for this film as well as The Big Cage, the earlier film from which most of Captive's circus footage was obtained. I also enjoyed Greg Mank's discussion on Jungle Woman, especially since he rightfully notes how horror-lite the movie is, and both Mank and Weaver also discuss the unfortunate racial issues with the two films (Acquanetta was a black woman, but claimed to be Venezuelan to keep her career afloat). The other two are less interesting; in fact Scott Gallinghouse doesn't even make it all the way to the end of Jungle Captive before running out of things to say. Ideally they'd just have all of these guys sit together and do all of the movies since there's definitely a "more is merrier" law to these historian tracks, but as far as solo ones go, they're certainly better than average.

Scream Factory has been putting these volumes out every three months almost like clockwork, and hopefully they continue the trend as that would put the next one out in September, when my "old horror movies" itch really starts to go off. I haven't watched every film on the 3rd and 4th volumes (and missed the 2nd one entirely somehow), so if Volume 6 isn't out in time I still have a few to tide me over. But as the Blu-ray format continues to be "last-gen" (even Scream's parent Shout Factory is starting to release 4K UHD discs) it seems the time to get these "filler" kind of movies the proper presentations they deserve is inching closer to being done with, I truly hope they are already working on it in some capacity. It's become a nice thing to look forward to every couple of months; enjoyable movies plus bonus history about the legendary horror studio's golden era to soak in thanks to the omnipresent commentaries!

What say you?


Blood of Ghastly Horror (1965-1972)

JUNE 14, 2020


When I got Severin's Al Adamson set, I was stoked to discover new favorites and get a better sense of the guy, as I had only seen one of his films before (that would be Blood of Dracula's Castle, an ancient HMAD entry). But after only a few hours with the massive set I discovered that the movies themselves were sometimes less interesting than their production histories, and there's no better example than Blood of Ghastly Horror, aka Fiend with the Electronic Brain, aka Psycho A Go Go, aka Echo of Terror. And no, those aren't mere alternate titles - they are all different versions of the same movie about a jewelry heist gone wrong.

The basic plot is present in all four movies: a trio of men rob a jeweler, but a triggered alarm on their way out sends them into a panic, prompting one of them to toss the jewels over a railing, where it lands in a guy's truck. The guy drives off unaware, and the robbers track him down, only to discover the jewels are missing. So they kidnap the guy's family as ransom to get him to give up the location of the jewels, while the robbers start turning on each other. Echo of Terror was the first version of this story, and it was deemed "fine" by potential distributors but they all passed because there weren't any stars or exploitative elements for them to market. So Adamson and partner Sam Sherman decided, since it was popular at the time, to add some go-go dancing sequences in the film by expanding the role of the truck-owner's wife, seen performing a few times before being taken by the kidnappers. Hence the new title: Psycho A Go Go.

But that one didn't get picked up either, so Adamson and Sherman decided to give it some horror/sci-fi flair by adding in a few scenes with John Carradine as a standard movie mad scientist (test tubes filled with colored liquids, Jacob's ladder, the whole shebang), with new backstory establishing that the reason the most violent of the robbers, a guy named Joe (Roy Morton), was so crazy was because Carradine experimented on his brain. These scenes are noticeably detached from the rest of the movie, and for some reason Adamson didn't opt to cut much (if anything) of the Psycho A Go Go version out, making it basically an extended cut thanks to the Carradine scenes. This one was the version known as Fiend with the Electronic Brain, and can basically be skipped entirely since Blood of Ghastly Horror kept all that stuff but excised some of the earlier version's flab.

The Ghastly Horror version came along a couple years later, during Adamson's very prolific 1971. As I mentioned, this time he did overhaul the original footage to make room for his new material, which frames everything as flashbacks to a story about the daughter of Carradine's character, who is now a target of the father of the Joe character as he wishes to exact revenge for what Carradine did to his son (you follow that?). Since this story is more complicated and has many new characters, lots of the post-robbery stuff fell by the wayside, as did the go-go scenes, keeping the runtime more or less the same with Psycho A Go Go (and 15 minutes shorter than Fiend). So it's probably the most action packed version of the movie, for sure, but it's also the most jumbled and patched together, as even a child could probably detect the difference between the two productions (I don't think any characters appear in both timelines).

(Fun side note, there's actually a fifth version titled The Man With The Synthetic Brain, but it was basically just a TV edit that excised one violent scene. No new footage for that one.)

Oddly - considering my personal tastes, that is - the Psycho A Go Go version is probably the best (I should note that the Echo of Terror version does not appear on the set), even though it's horror-free. I mean it makes sense that it'd be the easiest to digest, since it was mostly designed as one movie from the beginning, with the go-go scenes coming off more as padding than something shoehorned in much later (also, since it just gives the wife character more development, it's easier to get more invested in her predicament in the film's second half). Apart from some clunky edits and performances (what I came to learn was an Adamson "staple"), it really is a pretty solid little B thriller, with some excellent photography by Vilmos Zsigmond - particularly in the snowbound climax, where the psychotic Joe chases the family around as the father and his brother (a cop) close in on him.

However that chase does go on too long, and it's baffling Adamson didn't think to fix it or any of the other pacing issues for the Synthetic Brain version, as it seems like it would have been an excellent excuse to do so. Again, the Ghastly Horror footage added too much plot for him to keep everything from the older cut (whereas Electronic only added the Carradine scenes, which amount to about 10 minutes or so), but it feels more like he was forced to finally cut some stuff to keep the runtime manageable, as opposed to thinking "Hey, the reason we have to keep fixing this movie is because it's not exciting enough, shouldn't we make some trims?" I had to laugh that a particularly awkward and unnecessary insert of the three robbers on an elevator during the jewelry robbery is present in all three versions; when I saw it in Psycho A Go Go I assumed it'd be the first thing to go when he recut the movie, but nope. It survived both of its future incarnations, somehow.

Luckily, no version of the movie is exactly long, and watching them in rapid succession proved to be an interesting viewing experience, seeing how the movie kept getting further and further away from its original form while using a majority of the same footage. The closest modern equivalent would be the two versions of the final Exorcist sequel (Dominion and The Beginning), but since Adamson himself kept reshaping his own movie, even that doesn't really fit the bill (also, Renny Harlin only kept like ten minutes of Paul Schrader's footage, if memory serves). Adamson certainly made better movies, but in terms of curiosity, it's been the highlight of the set for me thus far.

What say you?


JAWS, The Movie? Masterpiece! JAWS, The Book? Well...

(NOTE - This was written for this week's Collins' Crypt prior to the site going dark due to unsettling news about the site's (new!) owner, Cinestate. I present it here so that it doesn't go to waste, and encourage you fine folks to make a donation to RAINN if you can.)

In this era of certain sites championing every birthday for every movie ("Happy 17th birthday to DARKNESS FALLS!" is a phrase no one should utter, even ironically), I occasionally worry about legit milestone birthdays being lost in the noise. At a certain point, our eyes are going to be trained to just glaze over tweets like "On this day in 19whatever, (MOVIE) was released!", because half the time it's a film no one even needs to remember at all, let alone celebrate. For me, I try to stick to multiples of five for movies that - thanks to the relatively long time since their release - have stood the test of time and continue to hold their power. In other words, we do not need anyone writing up a piece for this week's 25th anniversary of CONGO, thank you.

And then there are movies like JAWS, which are worthy of any and all celebration people deem fit to bestow upon it. This year marks the 45th anniversary of its release, and Universal wasn't about to let Twitter mark the occasion with a few GIFs and people misquoting its most famous line. In addition to releasing the film on 4K UHD Blu-ray*, they put together a massive package that would make any fan of the film drool: it's got the 4K set, the board game from Ravensburger, another game from Funko, and a complete wardrobe: t-shirt, swim trunks, hat, and socks. In addition to all of that, there's an "Amity Island Summer of 75" boxed collection that has even more goodies, including a beach towel and Quint's wooden keyring.

In fact, it's pretty much everything you could ever want about JAWS (the movie, not the franchise) except for the novel that started it all. The film rights to Peter Benchley's debut were purchased by producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown before it was even published, so it was still riding high on the bestseller list when the film was released, which is rare. In turn, the novel's fans made up a sizable chunk of the film's record-breaking audience, which makes it a good thing we didn't have social media in 1975 because anyone who loved every word of the book was probably disappointed at the considerable changes Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Carl Gottlieb (who took over after Benchley himself wrote a few drafts) made for their adaptation.

I myself read the book when I was 12 or 13, but apart from Hooper dying at the end (and sleeping with Brody's wife), I couldn't really remember much about it or how it differed from the film. So when all this stuff arrived and gave me an excuse to watch the movie again, I realized "Hey, I have a lot of extra free time these days due to *gestures at everything*, maybe I should read the book again while I'm at it." And so I dug it out of the ever-growing pile of books I own because movies I love are based on them (but will probably never get around to reading) and flipped it open, laughing at it was pretty different starting with the very first page. Instead of college kids who just met at a beach party, we meet an established couple who leave the house they're staying in and have sex on the beach before the woman goes off skinny dipping while the man passes out.

So sure, the end result is the same (a girl gets killed and her date doesn't notice), but the circumstances have all changed, something that's common throughout its 309 pages. The basic plot remains the same: a week after that (presumed isolated incident) a little boy is killed, which mounts pressure to close the beaches, something the mayor is opposed to, but after another attack the chief hires a man named Quint to take him and an ichthyologist named Matt Hooper to head out on Quint's boat to track and kill the shark. Spielberg and co. knew that this basic outline was perfect - it's just that Benchley's version of these events and people needed some overhaul. His book is a decent enough timekiller, no doubt, but if filmed word for word it wouldn't have been a particularly great movie, and certainly not one of the most beloved of all time (or, for what it's worth, the inventor of the summer blockbuster).

The biggest problem is that Benchley's characters are largely unlikable, including Brody himself. He's basically a beta male with a temper as opposed to a guy who is faced with his first real challenge as the chief in a sleepy little beach town; even when he stands up to Vaughan and the other town elders he comes off as a man who doesn't like being bossed around and protecting his pride as opposed to one that's doing it because it's the right thing to do. And his personal investment isn't even shark related - instead of one of his kids nearly being a shark victim himself, a mobster kills the family cat in front of one of them, as a warning for him not to close the beaches.

Wait, what? A mobster? Yes. In Benchley's novel, Vaughan is partly against the drastic measure because he owes a lot of money to the local mob, who have interests on some properties in town, so the whole "don't close the beaches" element takes on a different meaning here. For what it's worth, Benchley offers a few slice of life scenes about the ramifications of a closed beach season on Amity (people are already losing their jobs due to slower business, even Vaughan isn't exactly well off and eventually has to leave town), something the movie only offers lip service to, but the mob nonsense is extraneous at best - the movie's simple "We need summer dollars" works perfectly, whereas Benchley practically makes it sound like even a few more deaths would be preferable.

Matt Hooper comes off even worse. Not only do him and the chief not get along (upon their first meeting, Brody instantly decides he doesn't like him and also that he could probably kick his ass if he had to), but he also quickly hops in bed with Brody's wife, and even almost taunts the chief with it when they're out on the Orca. Quint is more or less the same (albeit without the songs and Indianapolis speech that made him as memorable as he was), though he also only appears in one quick scene in the first 215 of the book's 309 pages before reentering the story, as opposed to the halfway point as he does in the film (and no, that one scene isn't the same as his film introduction - it's closer to his wordless turn watching the crowd after they catch the tiger shark). I truly believe Harry Meadows (the newsman played by Gottlieb himself) has more of a role in the novel than Quint.

But honestly? The thing that really makes the movie so much better than the book is the latter's total lack of warmth or humor. Think about your favorite moments in JAWS, and things like the younger son mimicking his father, Hooper's "So... how was your day?", and of course the scar comparison scene will come to mind... and those were all the total invention of the film. Brody's kids are total non-entities in the novel (even the aforementioned cat killing part is just told to Brody later), the three guys on the boat barely speak civilly at all, let alone bond, and I honestly think the closest Benchley gets to humor is the chief making fun of his wife's cooking (I can write a separate article entirely on how badly Mrs. Brody comes off here). The mob stuff and weird lack of suspense (the affair sequence goes on so long that the shark isn't even mentioned for about 30 pages straight, and the guys on the Orca return home every night - even after Hooper's death!) are one thing, but Benchley's seeming commitment to having us root for the shark just kept the book at arm's length for me, regardless of how it paled in comparison to the film.

Long story short, there's a reason there's 45th anniversary branded swim trunks for the film, but little celebration for the book it was based on. It isn't the first film to improve on its source (Puzo's THE GODFATHER comes to mind), but it's strange that there literally isn't one part of the book that was dropped that I thought "I wish this was in the movie" (not counting ironic desires; it'd be kind of funny to see Roy Scheider and his "man's man" tan get cuckolded by the goofy Richard Dreyfuss), which has to be a first for an adaptation. In 30 years of knowing what JAWS is and that it was based on a book, I can truly say I have never once talked to someone who thinks the movie did the novel a disservice, which is both testament to the latter's shortcomings (again, it was a bestseller - people obviously liked it, then) and the former's status as an inarguable masterpiece. And so without irony I say, Happy anniversary, JAWS.

*No new extras, so unless you're a 4K champion - or lenticular cover junkie - there's no reason to upgrade from the definitive 2012 release that it otherwise matches exactly. It looks spectacular though! You can see the fibers on Larry Vaughan's anchor suit!


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