The very first “blogathon” in which I participated took place in 2009, when the Frankensteinia blog hosted a seven-day tribute to actor William Henry Pratt—better known to (and beloved by) fans as Boris Karloff. My love of Karloff’s work was an inspirational muse during this event; I posted entries on Thrilling Days of Yesteryear for every day of the ‘thon culminating with a look at Boris’ valedictory film (and my personal favorite), Targets (1968). In that essay (which netted me a CiMBA award the following year for Best Film Review [Drama]…if I may be permitted to toot my own horn), I wrote:
With regards to movies, very few actors manage to make their cinematic swan songs of the same high quality as their best-known work. But it has been done: Humphrey Bogart went out on a high note with The Harder They Fall (1956); John Wayne had a fitting capper to his career with The Shootist (1976); Clark Gable’s send-off was The Misfits (1961); Robert Ryan’s The Iceman Cometh (1973). (These were just off the top of my head; I’m sure you can think of others.) I consider Targets to be a member of that worthy group, even though I’m sure by now that anyone reading this has cried “Foul!” because it technically wasn’t Boris’ swan song—he appeared in four Mexican quickies afterward: Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), El coleccionista de cadáveres (1970; a.k.a. Blind Man’s Bluff), La muerte viviente (1971; a.k.a. Isle of the Snake People) and The Incredible Invasion (1971).
Truth be told…I don’t care. (Denial is not just a river in Egypt.)
It’s time to address the 600-pound gorilla in the room. Boris Karloff appeared in six films after Targets (I misidentified Crimson Altar and Bluff as two of those “quickies”—I should have said Fear Chamber and House of Evil); four of which were made as part of a package deal with producer Luis Enrique Vergara for Azteca Films. Boris netted $100,000 per film with this deal, so you can’t really blame him for signing on the dotted line (once that was done, Vergara got the necessary financing from Columbia Pictures)…but his plans for a vacay in Mexico were scotched due to his emphysema (he was working with just one lung—the other having been removed due to cancer). Karloff’s scenes in all four films had to be shot in L.A. (at the Dored Studios) and he was directed by Jack Hill, the auteur behind Spider Baby (1964), who would later go on to such cult triumphs as The Big Doll House (1971) and Switchblade Sisters (1975). Hill also rewrote the scripts for each film because they initially did not receive Karloff’s approval.
To me, that’s the truly amazing part of this saga. None of the four Mexican Karloff films meet any standard of what a casual moviegoer might call “good,” but I can’t help but chuckle at the thought of Boris poring over each rewrite and nodding in approval, remarking in his British accent: “Much, much better.” (The mind boggles over how bad these scripts were to begin with.) Producer Vergara passed away prematurely in 1970 (at the age of 47), which resulted in the holdup of the release of the Karloff films (due to ownership rights of inheritance under Mexican law); all entries in the cinematic quartet would eventually be released after Boris’ death in 1969.
I had heard from like-minded Karloff fans that the four Mexican films were not much to write home about…so I had avoided them for many, many years until Clint Weiler at MVD sent me a screener for VCI/Sprocket Vault’s release of the 2-disc Boris Karloff Collection (released on September 11). I’m not going to lie to you, cartooners: these movies can only be referred to as “horror” films provided you add the “-ible” suffix. They’re filmed on the cheap, with dimly lit sets, shaky camera work (and when the camera is steady, way too many claustrophobic close-ups), and dubbing by voice actors that sounds like they were phoning it in. (Boris even relied on a stand-in in at least two of the films that I know of.) The net positive about these movies is that although Boris really looks as if he’s been through the wringer, he’s still the consummate professional and without argument their chief asset.
Boris Karloff Collection kicks off with Dance of Death (House of Evil), and stars Mr. K as Matthias Morteval, a wealthy eccentric who invites four relatives to his palatial mansion for the reading of his will (Matthias is not long for this world, me boyo). The quartet is a rather dysfunctional lot save for demure ingenue Lucy Durant (Julissa), who’s asked her fiancé (Andres Garcia) to accompany her during her visit; he, in turn, is informed by family retainer Emery Horvath (José Ángel Espinoza—known to his fans as “Ferrusquilla”) that there’s no room at the inn. Dance of Death is a slog to get through: it’s a bad dinner theatre play that admittedly gets a little lively as it creeps toward its finale when members of Matthias’ clan are killed by some evil toys he has stored around the place. The movie ends with the House of Morteval going up in a blaze of glory, suggesting to me that director Juan Ibáñez was taking a chapter from the Roger Corman playbook of filmmaking. (Well, it’s purportedly based on an Edgar Allan Poe story—my guess is Fall of the House of Usher.)
(The) Torture Zone (Fear Chamber) is the second feature on Disc 1…and I’ll have to be honest; all of the films in this collection are terrible, but Zone was to me the least terrible. For the entirety of its 72-minute running time (I suspect the prints used here have undergone a bit of editing, owing to their frequent choppy nature), Zone unfolds a scenario that might result if a viewer had remarked to themselves: “What harm could result from my eating this Italian-sausage-and-peppers hoagie before bedtime?” The plot doesn’t make much sense (it’s like a literal nightmare, in which memory of a terrifying dream exists only in fragments): Boris is Dr. Carl Mandel, a scientist who—along with his daughter (Julissa again) and her boyfriend (Carlos East)—discovers a volcanic rock formation that possesses a sort of primitive telepathic intelligence. The rock feeds on the adrenaline of frightened young females, so Mandel and Company have built a “fear chamber” in which hired prostitutes are scared sh*tless (one of the scenarios features Mandel as a hooded figure condemning a hooker to a hellish eternity). Mandel eventually deduces that there’s danger in these experiments after the rock creature grows tentacles and starts killing the women to extract their adrenaline all by its lonesome. (No flies on him, to be sure.) Mandel orders a halt to the unorthodox enterprise but loyal assistant Helga (Isela Vega) and her hulking manservant Roland (Yerye Beirute) disobey his orders because science! (Honest to my grandma—this is one seriously demented movie. Do not watch this after using recreational narcotics.)
Alien Terror (The Incredible Invasion) is the third entry in our Bad Boris Moviefest, with Karloff back in the scientist racket. He’s Professor John Mayer, and he’s invented a revolutionary nuclear-powered device (this narrative takes place in the 19th century) that can destroy a boulder with a single ray. The invention naturally attracts the attention of the military (represented by General Nord [Tito Novaro]), which can barely conceal its stiffy at the thought of having such a weapon at its disposal. Trouble is, Mayer’s experiment has also piqued the curiosity of an alien race (represented by Sergio Kleiner) who take over Meyer’s body as well as a local (Yerye Beirute again) who…well, in retrospect, probably wasn’t the best candidate for alien possession because he’s also a sex-crazed serial killer. (Don’t you hate when that happens?) Julissa somehow missed out on the fun in this one; her ingenue role is played by Christa Linder, with Enrique Guzmán as her beau. (I don’t know who dubbed Enrique, but he’s got my vote as the best actor among the four films.) As in Dance and Zone, the film’s climax relies on a display of pyrotechnics; don’t hold me to this but I suspect this is where the expression “Kill it with fire” originated.
Cult of the Dead (Isle of the Snake People) concludes the selections on this 2-disc set; Karloff is Carl van Molder, wealthy plantation owner and—well, it is Boris, after all—amateur scientist. Molder’s spread is located on a remote island where he relies on zombies to work the fields (capitalism!) and those dutiful drones are created in voodoo rites overseen by the priest Damballah, with the help of a hot snake goddess named Kalea (Yolanda Montes, billed as Tongolele). Julissa returns for the third and final time, portraying Molder’s niece Anabella Vanderberg, and Carlos East (billed as Charles) is also game for another go-round as a police lieutenant informed by newly-arrived superior Captain Labesch (Rafael “Ralph” Bertrand) that while it may all be fun-and-games where voodoo is concerned…human sacrifices and cannibalism are right out! Most of the action in this one takes place at night, so it’s difficult to ascertain what’s going on at times…but you have your voodoo rituals, your dances with snakes, your multiple killings, and a little person in sunglasses and top hat who, when he doffs his topper, has a daisy painted on his bald pate. (He’s identified as Santanón; he can also be glimpsed in Torture Zone if you need to know.) This one ends with an explosion during a voodoo ritual—I’m guessing Anabella and her lieutenant escaped but it was awfully dark, you remember. Peter Dendle, author of The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia. had this to say about Dead: “Though sometimes strange to the point of psychedelic, this tame offering consists of interminable scenes of native rites, women trying to look seductively evil, and shots of snakes.”
I can’t think of a better way to describe these four movies than “sometimes strange to the point of psychedelic.” If you’re as big a Karloff fan as I am, you’ll want Boris Karloff Collection on your DVD shelf because you’re a completist. Otherwise, you have been warned that there are hostiles over that hill.