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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Bay of the Living Dead: Classic Horror Stars Join Forces

Posted By on Tue, Sep 15, 2015 at 4:00 PM

click to enlarge Blu Ray box cover - KINO LORBER
  • Kino Lorber
  • Blu Ray box cover

Welcome to Bay of the Living Dead, a twice-monthly column about the horror genre. 

Once upon a time we had horror stars — versatile, classically trained actors who built entire careers on their appearances in scary movies. Actors like Boris Karloff (1887-1969), Christopher Lee (1922-2015), and others mesmerized generations with their iconic performances in dozens of films which were often based on, or inspired by, works of classic literature or ancient legends. Legendary creatures like Count Dracula (portrayed by Lee in an impressive nine films), Frankenstein's Monster (played by Karloff three times during the 1930s) , and the works of Edgar Allan Poe were among the many tales which could always be counted upon to fill a cinema.

It was a more innocent time, when slasher films didn't exist and when horror movies were "spooky." This was the era of mad scientists, drafty castles, and mist-shrouded graveyards. Though often relegated to smaller neighborhood theaters or drive-ins, the horror movies of yesteryear were so popular that movie studios like Universal Pictures, American International, Amicus, and Hammer Films became "stars" in their own right for providing their stable of actors a supportive home in which the films could me made.

Always looking to get more bang for their buck, these studios would often look for projects in which their boogeymen could co-star. "Twice the terror!" might be the tagline.

Now, thanks to the classic cinema purveyors at Kino Lorber, four horror-star team-ups have been released on Blu Ray in pristine, restored prints and with generous extras menus. 

"The Master of Horror in His Last and Most Evil Role" announced the posters for The Crimson Cult when it was released in the USA in 1970, about a year after Boris Karloff had passed on. The 1968 chiller, titled The Curse of the Crimson Altar in its native England, was produced in 1968. The film's tag line was a bit of an exaggeration: "Dear Boris," as he was often called, played a kindly historian in the film. But he didn't disappoint his vast fan base. Old and in poor health, the star, an icon ever since he played Frankenstein's Monster in 1931, played his entire role from a wheelchair. As always, he gave his all.

Christopher Lee co-starred as The Crimson Cult's true villain, with Scream Queen Barbara Steele as a centuries-old witch. This story of an antiques dealer (Mark Eden) searching for his missing brother in a desolate English village where witchcraft has flourished for centuries isn't particularly scary. But the horror stars have strong screen presences, often chewing the scenery so that the film becomes a fun and entertaining way to kill 90 minutes. The script does leave a few unanswered questions, the most notable of which is why Steele's skin is green and why her lines are spoken in a near unintelligible whisper.

Steele's lively commentary track recalls not only the film, but her long career appearing in Italian, British and American chillers. A lengthy interview with the recently deceased Lee, shot not long ago for British TV, is also included, as are the film's American and British theatrical trailers.

click to enlarge Blu Ray box cover - KINO LORBER
  • Kino Lorber
  • Blu Ray box cover
Lee is appears again in 1969's The Oblong BoxThis time he co-stars with the great Vincent Price (1911-1994), a character actor in 1940s Hollywood who achieved super-stardom by headlining in a series of 1960s films based on the works of Poe. By the the time The Oblong Box appeared in cinemas the Poe series was fading out, and yet the film was a moneymaker, no doubt due in part to the star power of Price and Lee.

A tale of madness, murder, revenge and African voodoo rituals, The Oblong Box is a delightfully atmospheric chiller which manages to throw in some still topical references to white imperialism and the subjugation of people of color — censors in Texas weren't too happy about that back in 1969.

The extras are a little sparse on this one. Film historian Steve Haberman provides a commentary track, while Price narrates a short film based on Poe's romantically morbid poem Annabel Lee. You also get the film's theatrical trailer. 

Note: The Oblong Box will not be available until October 20.

click to enlarge Blu  Ray box cover - KINO LORBER
  • Kino Lorber
  • Blu Ray box cover
Horror films rarely get campier — or more fun — than 1974's MadhouseThough frequent Christopher Lee co-star Peter Cushing (1913-1994) plays it straight, Price hams it up as a washed up horror film star trying for a comeback on television. The poor guy has been nuttier than a fruitcake since the murder of his fiancé a dozen years earlier. As he begins work on a new TV series based on Dr. Death, his once popular movie character, his co-stars begin dropping like flies.

Who is killing the cast and crew of  Dr. Death?

Horror legends Price and Cushing are joined in Madhouse by Robert Quarry (1925-2009), a talented actor who enjoyed a brief brush with stardom after playing the title role in 1970's hugely popular Count Yorga Vampire and its sequel The Return of Count Yorga the following year. Quarry never quite achieved star status: His career was severely hampered by a 1980s car crash which caused serious facial injuries. The actor deserved better.

Blu Ray release includes a commentary track with film historian David Del Valle and a making-of documentary. There's also the film's trailer.

Blu Ray box cover - KINO LORBER
  • Kino Lorber
  • Blu Ray box cover
By the time House of the Long Shadows was made in 1983, old fashioned Gothic horror was considered a thing of the past. It was nevertheless hoped that teaming Price, Lee, Cushing and 1940s horror star John Carradine (1906-1988) would pull in the crowds. Sadly, the film was barely released, though it has since accrued a sizable cult following.

The film's official star is Desi Arnaz Jr (yes, Lucy's son!) who gives an adequate performance but seems somewhat out-of-place in a deserted mansion on a dark and stormy night. Arnaz plays a mystery writer who accepts a $20,000 bet to write his next book within 24 hours while holed up in the titular House.

He doesn't get too much work done. One by one the horror stars show up, each with a unique reason for visiting the house. As the body count begins to pile up, viewers learn that none of them are who they appear to be. House of the Long Shadows is a delightfully fun spook-fest notable for offering the audience not one but two trick endings. Though Price continued working until his death in 1990, and Lee until his own 2015 demise, House of the Long Shadows  marked the end of the classic horror stars era. It now stands as a wonderful tribute and send-up of the movie genre which preceded it. 

We'll never see anything like those bygone days again.

House of the Long Shadows comes with an on-camera interview as well as a commentary track with Pete Walker, the film's auteur.                      

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