Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Cryptoscatology Halloween Viewing List (Part 1)

In this ongoing roundup of 2017's best Blu-ray/DVD releases in the horror genre, we begin with a pair of blobs:  CALTIKI, THE IMMORTAL MONSTER (1959) and ISLAND OF TERROR (1966).  The first film, co-directed by Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava (only a year before Bava made his impressive debut as a solo director with the now classic BLACK SUNDAY), could very well be described as the first truly Lovecraftian film.  It seems as if the most interesting H.P. Lovecraft films are those that aren't actually based on the work of Lovecraft, Ridley Scott's ALIEN (1979), John Carpenter's IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994), and Francisco Athie's VERA (2003) being prime examples.  There's something about Lovecraft's indefinable style of horror that defies direct adaptation.  And for some reason, movies that are ostensibly based on Lovecraft's work almost always have very little to do with the source material.  Some of these adaptations may result in fascinating films, Stuart Gordon's RE-ANIMATOR (1985) being the best example in this latter category, but few Lovecraft devotees would claim that Gordon's darkly comic film is a faithful adaptation of Lovecraft's somber, doom-laden prose.  

Mario Bava, who directed well over half of CALTIKI after Riccardo Freda abruptly abandoned the project midstream, was a fan of Lovecraft's writing, so it's no surprise that many of Lovecraft's favorite tropes appear in this film.  In a subterranean Mayan city dwells an ancient mass of protoplasm--which presumably arrived from outer space centuries before, a la Lovecraft's Cthulhu, and was mistaken by the Mayan natives as a powerful God they named Caltiki, a fictional word no doubt influenced by the popularity of Thor Heyerdahl's 1948 nonfiction book, KON-TIKI--is awakened from its fitful slumber by the radioactivity emitted by the imminent arrival of a massive comet, and is soon busying itself devouring psychopathic scientists and stable households alike.  

The mere presence of Lovecraft's ideas in a feature length film (a full four years before the release of Roger Corman's THE HAUNTED PALACE, the first official cinematic adaptation of Lovecraft's work) would alone make this an important film from a historical perspective, but Bava's atmospheric direction and pioneering use of special effects propels this odd science fiction/horror hybrid into a much higher--and far more artistically ambitious--category.

Arrow's new Blu-ray release includes two separate audio commentaries, the best of which is provided by Tim Lucas, editor of VIDEO WATCHDOG MAGAZINE and author of the comprehensive book MARIO BAVA:  ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK.

Onto our second feature:  If for some reason you're looking for the perfect film to screen on Cancer Awareness Day, then look no further than Terence Fisher's ISLAND OF TERROR.  According to Tom Weaver's book THE HORROR HITS OF RICHARD GORDON, the last time this movie saw an official release was on VHS tape.  It was never even released on DVD.  This is somewhat surprising, as devoted Hammer horror fans will find much to love in this film, which stars Hammer veteran Peter Cushing and is directed by Terence Fisher (who directed the most important Hammer films, including 1968's THE DEVIL RIDES OUT and 1969's FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, two of my favorite Hammer films of all time).  Though ISLAND OF TERROR is not a Hammer film, Cushing and Fisher's presence certainly lend the production a definite Hammer vibe.  

The plot involves a team of scientists based on a small island off the east coast of Ireland who are attempting to synthesize a cure for cancer and instead end up creating a horde of bone-sucking blobs that kill men and animals in a most disgusting manner.  As always, Cushing handles himself with aplomb, lending much needed moments of humor to his character's personality.  To Fisher's credit, the films manages to be both gory and scary at the same time, a tightrope act that's not at all easy to pull off.  Since this film was produced between two notable Terence Fisher Hammer films (i.e., 1964's THE GORGON and 1966's DRACULA:  PRINCE OF DARKNESS), Hammer completists will want to pick up this newly restored Blu-ray release from Scream Factory, which includes informative audio commentary by the inimitable Dr. Robert Kiss.

And now let's take an abrupt detour into a twilight realm that succeeds in being both crude and sublime at the same time:  Alpha's new DVD release of STRANGE AND UNUSUAL PUPPETS OF THE PAST.  This is not a horror film, but it might as well be.  This DVD is exactly what the titles implies.  This is a collection of ultra-rare puppet films (ostensibly intended for children) made from 1938 to 1955.  Since this is Alpha Video, don't expect excellent picture quality.  On the other hand, where else are you going to find obscure but valuable films like this?  My recommendation:  slip this disc on, imbibe something illegal (or semi-illegal), then trip out on these quasi-surreal puppet dramas from America's weird cinematic past.

Stay tuned for the thrilling PART TWO of this series!!!

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