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Friday, January 22, 2016

Bay of the Living Dead: Classic Horror With a Dash of Olive

Posted By on Fri, Jan 22, 2016 at 5:30 PM

  • Olive Films
Welcome to Bay of the Living Dead, a regular column about the horror genre.

Those of us who've reached a "certain age" might recall those bygone days of attending our local cinemas palaces. Going to the movies back then meant walking to a single screen theater, usually a short distance from our homes, and standing underneath an old fashioned marquee where a smiling older lady, probably one of our neighbors, sold us a ticket — San Francisco's Balboa and Vogue Theaters, both still operating today, are charming cases in point.

Back in the day I often cut classes so I could rush to similar theaters in Brooklyn, New York like the Marboro, Mayfair or the Canarsie, to catch the latest horror film release. Movies often opened on Wednesdays during that era and to my young mind waiting until the weekend to see a new fright flick was a fate worse than death. 

British horror ruled the box office during those glorious years. Olive Films, purveyors of classic, fully remastered and restored films on DVD and Blu-ray, now offers three releases sure to bring back warm memories of your childhood nightmares.

Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965) is a wonderfully atmospheric anthology film from Amicus, a long defunct British studio which specialized in multi-story chillers like this one. Peter Cushing, one of the greatest actors to become an established horror star, is sensational as the mysterious Dr. Schreck, a tarot reader who convinces five gentlemen on board a train to look into their futures. Stories include a man who visits his childhood home only to discover that a werewolf has taken up residence, and a small town doctor (a youthful Donald Sutherland) who discovers that his new bride is a vampire. Horror icon Sir Christopher Lee appears in another segment as a bitchy art critic who drives an artist (Michael Gough) to commit suicide — Sir Chris then faces a terrifying comeuppance.

  • Olive Films
In Tales That Witness Madness (1974) the great character actor Donald Pleasence stars as a psychiatrist who's observing four patients at an insane asylum — each patient's story is told as a separate horror tale in a structure similar to that of Dr. Terror. Hollywood superstar Kim Novak was obviously slumming when she agreed to appear in the fourth story. Novak plays a neurotic, wealthy literary agent who's tricked into eating her daughter's cooked body as part of an ancient voodoo ritual — it's the film's most disturbing tale.

Dynasty diva Dame Joan Collins, then experiencing a lull in her own career, appears in Madness' silliest tale: Collins' husband murders her after he falls in love with a tree — it's the tree who's calling the shots. Though Tales That Witness Madness is the kind of film that Amicus was best known for, it was in fact produced by World Film Services, an indie company.

The Deadly Bees (1966) was indeed an Amicus production, one of the studio's few titles which told a single story in a feature film. It was the first of the killer bee movies that became popular during the 1970s as news of actual killer bee attacks began making headlines. The Deadly Bees is not about the African killer bees. Rather, its the story of a nerdy, sociopathic beekeeper who uses his hives as a murder weapon. The film was written about in an earlier edition of this column, before the Olive Blu Ray release was 
click to enlarge OLIVE FILMS
  • Olive Films

Olive also invites you to journey back to the Hollywood poverty row studios of the 1940s with their release of Voodoo Man (1944) starring that grand old master of the macabre, the legendary Bela Lugosi

Produced on a shoestring by Monogram Pictures, Voodoo Man is a wildly fun spookfest in spite of its cheap origins. Lugosi plays his role, a bereaved doctor trying to revive his dead wife through voodoo, as though he were playing Shakespeare. The actor indeed classically trained—he gave every role his all, no matter what the production was.

click to enlarge OLIVE FILMS
  • Olive Films
Olive Films offers crisp, sharp prints of each film. All titles appear to be brand-new, with the exception of Voodoo Man, which has a slightly shopworn look — those poverty row quickies were never considered worthy of preservation, fun as they may be to watch.

For many years Dr. Terror's House of Horrors and Tales that Witness Madness were only available for viewing in faded, inferior prints which were seen on cable channels, or on VHS.

Olive's Blu Ray releases are a welcome delight for lovers of classic British horror — for the first time in decades these titles look as good as they did when they were first seen in theaters, Unfortunately, none of the titles features extras of any kind. More's the pity — trailers for the three British films exist, while Deadly Bees leading lady Susanna Leigh, along with Collins and Novak, are still with us. Lugosi historian Gary Don Rhodes, also previously featured in this column, continues to write books and magazine articles about his idol. Commentary tracks and those MIA trailers are sorely needed. 

Classic horror buffs might also want to check out the catalog over at Severin Films. The company has recently released a jaw dropping three movie Blu Ray disc starring horror diva Barbara Steele, the only woman to have enjoyed a sustained acting career through starring in fright flicks. Severin's  Barbara Steele: Queen of Horror is a treasure.

click to enlarge SEVERIN FILMS
  • Severin Films
The main feature, Nightmare Castle (1965) is remastered and looks wonderful. Steele plays dual roles. Early on she and her lover are murdered in an extended torture sequence that's pretty strong stuff for 1965. Soon after, the dead woman's mentally unstable sister (also Steele) marries the murderous hubby — he's conducting sinister experiments on youth restoration and life extension and is determined to drive his new bride mad so he can control her fortune.

Castle of Blood (1964) and Terror Creatures From the Grave (1965) are included in the extras menu. The box says that both of these films are offered in new HD transfers, but I have my doubts — both titles are a wee bit scratchy. However, both are relatively decent looking and quite watchable.

Lip readers will note that British born Steele was clearly speaking English on camera, so the distributor's decision to dub her elegant speaking voice in most of her Italian films is curious. The opening credits for Steele's films might amuse American viewers: Stateside distributors literally made up American sounding names for the Italian casts and crews — Steele herself is renamed during Castle of Blood's credits sequence.

Be that as it may, the films are beautifully shot Gothic masterpieces: wonderfully grand and spooky in the old fashioned sense. Scenes in which Steele walks through a dark, dank underground crypt (in Nightmare Castle) or in which the lead actor walks through a mist-shrouded graveyard at midnight (in Castle of Blood) might have audiences looking nervously over their shoulders.       

The generous extras menu includes original theatrical trailers, recently shot (in Italian with subtitles) interviews with surviving cast members, and a thirty minute on camera interview with Steele, who recalls her wonderful career—including her work in Europe outside of the genre. 

Good job!        


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