THE DEVIL'S PARTNER
B&W, 1961, 73 mins. 53 secs.
Directed by Charles R. Rondeau
Starring Ed Nelson, Edgar Buchanan, Jean Allison, RIchard Crane
Film Masters (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA
B&W, 1961, 60 mins. 26 secs. / 74 mins. 53 secs.
Starring Antony Carbone, Betsy Jones-Moreland, Robert Towne
Film Masters (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Long a case study in how awful public domain releases can look, the output of Roger and Gene Corman's Filmgroup has been getting some welcome makeovers lately on Blu-ray from Film Masters with double features like The Terror / The Little Shop of Horrors and Beast from Haunted Cave / Ski Troop Attack. An actual theatrical double feature that must have had patrons doubting their sanity back in '61 is now commemorated in HD with the pairing of The Devil's Partner, a regional cheapie shot three years earlier before being picked up by Filmgroup, and the bizarre genre switcheroo Creature from the Haunted Sea whose backstory is more fascinating than what ended up on screen. Both look and sound far better now than they ever have in their numerous VHS and DVD iterations over the years, with fresh scans finally clearing away all of that dupey murk and extras giving some context about how this oddball cinematic coupling came to be.
Before the credits of The Devil's Partner we get an atmospheric teaser in a shack where an old man performs a Satanic ritual involving goat blood on his floor, with the aid of a dark hand from someone off screen. Then our story proper involves the arrival of Nick Richards (Nelson) at a New Mexico town, Furnace Flats, where he claims to the nephew of that old man, Pete. Informed that his uncle is dead, Nick sets up house at the same shack and starts dabbling in occult rituals designed to disrupt the engagement of Nell (Allison) and gas station mechanic David (Crane). However, the black magic rituals have a larger ripple effect throughout the town with various pets, livestock, and reptiles becoming fatally aggressive against the citizenry. Can the dark secret behind Nick's shenanigans be exposed and stopped before it's too late?
Though it's obviously cheaper and less cinematically significant, The Devil's Partner (or simply Devil's Partner to go by the title card) mines the same disquieting juxtaposition of devil worship and quaint domesticity that fueled films like Horror Hotel, Witchcraft, and Burn, Witch, Burn!, and various episodes of anthology shows like The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. We never get anything like the lurid poster artwork of a scantily-clad woman riding a raging centaur, but the animal mayhem is nicely executed with snake, horse, and cow violence keeping you on your toes. With its twist reveal about Nick's identity (which shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone at all), the film is mainly a showcase for the busy Ed Nelson who turned up now and then in big studio films (Judgment at Nuremberg, Airport 1975) but really stood out on TV shows (especially a regular role on Peyton Place) and in drive-in fare like A Bucket of Blood, Attack of the Crab Monsters, and The Brain Eaters. He gets to have a lot of fun here, going through a few makeup changes and cutting a sinister figure as a guy who never breaks a sweat even in the worst summer heat.
The Blu-ray release from Film Masters follows the pattern of its predecessors by giving each film a separate Blu-ray disc, both ones outfitted with audio commentaries, DTS-HD 2.0 and Dolby Digital 2.0 mono tracks, and English subtitles for both the movie and the commentary. The film is presented in a "theatrical" or "TV version" option, which means the former is matted to 1.85:1 and the latter is open matte at 1.33:1. It's the same running time from the identical scan, and while theatrical framing would normally be the preferable way to go, in this case the 1.33:1 is actually more pleasing. The grain is more finely resolved and the extra headroom actually looks fine, but compare both and see what you think. An audio commentary for the film is provided by the lively crew at the Monster Party Podcast -- Larry Strothe, James Gonis, Shawn Sheridan, and Matt Weinhold -- who have a good, often hammy time mixing trivia and observations about the film ranging from the scholarly to the silly. They manage to touch on all the major points of interest including the participants like producer / stunt man Hugh Hooker and director Charles R. Rondeau, who had a long career in TV after this, The Littlest Hobo, and The Girl in Lovers Lane. Picking up right where the previous entry in The Terror left off (and overlapping a little bit), "Hollywood Intruders: The Filmgroup Story: Part 3" (21m4s) features C. Courtney Joyner guiding us through the next phase of the company starting with the ramshackle production of Dementia 13 and including its reworked Russian sci-fi titles, that sojourn to shoot in Puerto Rico, and the overlapping with simultaneous AIP projects that could often make them hard to tell apart. Roger Corman himself pops up on camera for "Remembering Filmgroup" (10m46s), a general overview of the company and his working relationship with his brother as well as their focus on multiple genres including westerns, followed by a newly recreated theatrical trailer.
On the second disc we get one of the most confounding films of Roger Corman's directorial career, Creature from the Haunted Sea, a bizarre heist comedy that got turned into a partial monster movie during production. The whole thing came about during that period in Puerto Rico after the filming of The Last Woman on Earth, with regular Corman screenwriter Charles B. Griffith penning a goofy riff on mobster and espionage movies that feels like a budget version of Beat the Devil. The plot, such as it is, takes place in revolutionary Cuba where American expatriate and habitual criminal Renzo Capetto (Carbone) comes up with a plan to transport the national gold treasury on his boat with some escaping loyalists, only to double cross them and stage their deaths as the handiwork of a mythical ocean monster. Enter clumsy U.S. Agent XK150 (future Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne, credited as "Edward Wain"), who poses under the name Sparks Moran to infiltrate Capetto's operation including his moll, Mary-Belle Monahan (Jones-Moreland). Of course, it eventually transpires that there really is a monster lurking beneath the depths, which might throw a wrench in the robbery plans.
As with several other Corman films around this time, Creature from the Haunted Sea ran very short in theaters (an hour, in this case) and was expanded for television with new scenes shot by Monte Hellman. In this case, that meant adding on three scenes totaling just under 14 minutes, including a new pre-credits sequence and some extra comedy. However, the big addition is a new theme song performed by Jones-Moreland, a highlight that now makes the film feel a bit incomplete when it's gone. The TV version has been the standard one on PD home video for ages on VHS and DVD, while this release marks the first time the theatrical cut has been accessible in a long time. A disclaimer notes that a 35mm print was found and used as the basis here, with a 16mm print used to slug in some damaged missing bit. This is easily the best it's looked on home video, even with the occasional erratic shift in quality, with the theatrical version matted to 1.85:1 and looking fine. The TV cut is presented at 1.33:1, and it's definitely worth a look and might be the better first watch option for newcomers. Again a new commentary is provided, this time with venerable monster movie expert Tom Weaver who does his usual thorough, scholarly job of laying out how the whole project came together with occasional interview excerpts dropped in from Roger Corman, Kinta Zertuche, and Larry Blamire. It's hard to imagine that the world would get an in-depth historical study of this one, and yet here we are -- thankfully. Weaver and Mark McGee also contribute essays about the films to insert booklet, which are good primers before you start watching as they lay out all the production essentials you need to know.
THE DEVIL'S PARTNER: Film Masters Blu-ray (1.85:1)
THE DEVIL'S PARTNER: Film Masters Blu-ray (1.33:1)
Reviewed on January 4, 2024