THE VELVET VAMPIRE
TIME WALKER GROTESQUE
Color, 1971, 85/97m.
Directed by Mel Welles
Starring Joseph Cotten, Rosalba Neri, Paul Muller, Mickey Hargitay, Paul Whiteman
Color, 1971, 80m.
Directed by Stephanie Rothman
Starring Celeste Yarnall, Michael Blodgett, Sherry Miles, Gene Shane, Jerry Daniels
Color, 1982, 83m.
Directed by Tom Kennedy
Starring Ben Murphy, Nina Axelrod, Shari Belafonte, Kevin Brophy, James Karen, Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston
Color, 1988, 89m.
Directed by Joe Tornatore
Starring Linda Blair, Tab Hunter, Donna Wilkes, Brad Wilson, Guy Stockwell, Nels Van Patten, Robert Z'Dar
Shout Factory (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
THE VELVET VAMPIRE
You won’t find a grab bag of horror movies much more crazy than the quartet of offerings found in Shout Factory’s Vampires, Mummies & Monsters two-disc set, which pairs up a beloved Euro-cult staple, a superior ‘70s vampire film, an idiotic but strangely endearing ‘80s cable favorite, and, uh, Linda Blair and Tab Hunter. First up is Lady Frankenstein, an Italian acquisition by Roger Corman that’s been shuffled around on countless video labels ever since in absolutely miserable-looking editions. A lot of fans will find this set justified by the presentation alone, as this represents the first accurately letterboxed version ever on DVD along with representing two cuts of the film, the familiar American cut as well as the longer European variant containing some extra snippets of footage spliced in from two other sources obviously blown up to faux 16:9 dimensions (an okay-looking satellite broadcast and a lesser European VHS release).
The film itself is a fun piece of gothic horror hokum with ‘70s horror starlet Rosalba Neri (The Devil’s Wedding Night) as Tania, a surgeon who returns home to the castle of her father, Baron Frankenstein (Joseph Cotten). As anyone who’s seen more than one Frankenstein-themed film could already guess, dad has been up to no good doing unholy experiments on the dead with the help of his medical assistant, Charles (Muller). When one fateful experiment trying to revive a dead body with a new brain goes awry, Tania decides to continue her father’s work despite the suspicions of a local police inspector (Hargitay!). However, the misbegotten result of that first experiment is now running loose and threatening to blow the lid off the family’s dark scientific secrets.
Lady Frankenstein belongs to the strange subgenre of monster movies made in countries like Italy and Spain in the wake of Hammer’s successful run in the ‘60s with Dracula and Frankenstein. Paul Naschy was the most prolific practitioner here, of course, with other oddball titles like Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks and Saga of the Draculas offering their own quirky takes on shopworn material. This particular one proved to be more marketable than most thanks to its ingenious central gimmick of focusing on the Baron’s buxom daughter as its main mad scientist, providing a story justification for plenty of ‘70s-style nudity and gore. The film gets off to a bit of a pokey start, but once the mayhem kicks in, it’s pure drive-in bliss for horror buffs with a surprising cast of characters both in front of and behind the camera. For example, would you believe this was directed by Mel Welles, best remembered as Mr. Mushnick in the original The Little Shop of Horrors? On top of that the film is downright kinky at times, including some sequences that predate the even more depraved antics of Flesh of Frankenstein a couple of years later.
As mentioned before, this film has made the rounds in countless DVD editions with terrible image quality including a nearly simultaneous, heavily censored version hosted by Elvira. However, nothing from the actual New World vaults has been used in decades until this release, whose American cut looks much better than before. The extended version uses seamless branching to tie together the longest version released in America; it's obviously a patchwork affair but interesting for completists. The additional material contains a lot of filler (extra pauses coming in and out of rooms in particular), but some of the added plot and character bits are nice to have. It's not the best way to watch this film for the first time, however. Extras include a dupey-looking theatrical trailer, TV spots, and a stills gallery.
Paired up with this one on the first disc is hands down the best American contribution to that beloved '70s subgenre, the lesbian vampire film. While Europe was churning out films like The Vampire Lovers and Daughters of Darkness, Roger Corman decided to offer his own Southwest spin on the formula directed and co-written by the pioneering female drive-in auteur Stephanie Rothman, who went on to direct fare like Terminal Island. The result is one of the most stylish and unpredictable horror films from Corman's early New World days, a crazy, bloody desert romp with enough blood, skin, and sly verbal wit and story twists to satisfy both sleaze fans and artier viewers. In the opening scene, elegant Diane LeFanu (Beast of Blood's Yarnall) turns the tables on a would-be rapist by knifing him in the throat and drinking his blood. Next she moves on to a cosmopolitan art gallery where she engages in a flirtatious conversation with Lee (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls' Blodgett) as his whiny wife, Susan (The Todd Killings' Miles), watches in disapproval. Soon the couple is joining Diane at her desert home for the weekend where they're enjoying dune buggy rides, rattlesnake attacks, sexy shared nightmares, adultery, and murder.
Graced with an atmospheric and haunting music score (a soundtrack would really be welcome someday, Roger), splashy visuals with inventive color designs, and loads of kitschy early '70s decor and fashions, The Velvet Vampire would probably enjoy a much larger cult status if it weren't so difficult to see over the years. Embassy issued it on VHS in a very soft, dreary transfer that sucked out most of the color, while the briefly available laserdisc from Image Entertainment fared only slightly better but also looked sickly and pale compared to the theatrical prints. A much worse bootleg DVD later surfaced from Cheezy Flicks ripped straight off the same ancient video master but with icky low compression thrown into the mix; that version should be avoided at all costs. The Shout Factory presentation here easily blows away any of its competitors right out of the gate, with gorgeous saturated hues and much richer detail than any other video version anywhere in the world. The vibrant reds in particular finally come close to capturing the beautiful intensity of the 35mm version, and the widescreen framing finally balances out the compositions as originally intended. Recorded with yours truly as a moderator, Yarnall appears on the disc for an audio commentary in which she goes into great depth about working with Corman, her previous acting gigs, her amusing mishaps with Blodgett during their love scenes, and her own interpretation of the ambiguous Diane character. Other extras include the theatrical trailer and a gallery of international lobby cards and posters from Yarnall's personal collection.
After that solid pairing, things take a seriously weird turn on disc two. A perpetual offender in HBO's slow afternoon cycle during the early '80s, Time Walker sounds like it should be one of the coolest monster movies of the era. After all, it's about a mummy found in King Tut's tomb and delivered to a college professor (TV actor Murphy) only to break loose (after too many X-rays!) for a killing spree. On top of that, it's also infecting people it touches with a flesh-eating affliction, and anyone who possesses the mysterious crystals from its sarcophagus is next on the chopping list. Sound great? Yeah, you'd think so, but this one slogs along slower than the pokiest Hammer mummy film and dares to crib its ending from the single most frustrating moment of Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings. That said, there are some definite guilty pleasures to be had here: the reteaming of Assault on Precinct 13 leading men Stoker and Joston (albeit in very different roles), an early small part for Return of the Living Dead's James Karen, a modest but effective score by genre favorite Richard Band, a couple of decent stalking sequences, and an unintentionally hilarious one in a hospital involving a flesh-eaten arm. This one felt like a pretty severe burn when it first came out, but at least time has been slightly kind over the years. The new transfer here is quite nice given the moderate demands of the source material, and extras include video interviews with producer Dimitri Villard and actor Kevin Brophy. Both seem aware of the film's shortcomings but show it a lot of affection anyway, with other conversation points including its current shortened running time (seriously, the rough cut was much longer!) and the critical reception of the film including its popular roasting as an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The original trailer is also included.
From there we finally hit the last and most insane film in this set, the straight-to-video train wreck Grotesque. Utterly fascinating and almost completely incoherent, the film is exactly the sort of thing you expect to be directed by "Alan Smithee" but is actually the handiwork of Joe Tornatore, the actor-turned-director who also helmed the bizarre Zebra Force. This certainly feels like two different, incomplete film productions cobbled together into one ramshackle monster of a finished product, and it's a shame it doesn't get any supplements as a commentary explaining how the heck it came into being would be most appreciated. Cheerful young ladies Lisa (Blair) and Kathy (Angel's Wilkes) go to visit the former's parents including her FX artist dad (Santa Sangre's Stockwell), who likes to jump out and scare people in monster outfits. Unfortunately they run afoul of some nasty punks and, apparently having never seen Friday the 13th Part 3-D, don't realize that this can only lead to trouble. From there the plot swerves in some completely bizarre and increasingly incoherent directions involving a home invasion by the punks, a nasty family secret, and Kathy's plastic surgeon uncle (Hunter) who arrives halfway into the story.
No one would ever argue this is a good film, but it's absolutely fascinating as it careens to its jaw-dropping finale with a fierce commitment to its own gibbering madness. The out-of-left-field final twist is especially nuts (and was understandably excised from some versions), though it does sort of fit with the monster movie theme running through the rest of the film in a random, elementary school sort of way. At least it's never boring, and this compromises a worthwhile entry in that unrepeatable period in horror history when films too damaged to make it to wide release in theaters anymore were shuffled off to VHS to lure in astonishing young horror fans. (See also: Troll 2, Scream for Help, The Supernaturals, and about a hundred others.) Appropriately in this case, the DVD version was apparently taken from a full frame video master sitting around on a shelf for a few years; it's open matte and looks less than stellar, but somehow it actually suits the aesthetic of this film. A slicked-up HD version of this one probably wouldn't have the same effect at all. In any case, it's a startling conclusion for this four-disc set which represents an extremely varied cross section of horror over a nearly two-decade period and a real treat for fans who have been waiting for any of these titles to get the much-needed official DVD treatment.