Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Undead, The (1957)

... aka: Trance of Diana Love, The

Directed by:
Roger Corman

An ultra low budget 'B' picture supposedly filmed in less than a week, this Corman quickie has a completely undeserved bad reputation, thanks in part to being featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. It's actually a fine example of what can be done with limited resources when you have an efficient crew, a colorful cast and an ambitious and imaginative screenplay (cooked up here by Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna). Quintus (Val Dufour) returns to the "American Institute of Psychical Research" after a seven year absense in Tibet. He's there to prove to his former teacher, Professor Olinger (Maurice Manson), who had flunked him, as well as to the world at large, that he's just made an important scientific breakthrough. Using hypnosis, he believes he can tap into information contained somewhere within all of us about our past lives. For his demonstration, Quintis needs someone weak and impressionable. Someone almost devoid of willpower. Someone like amoral streetwalker Diana Love (Pamela Duncan), who isn't in the doctor's office for five minutes before she picks his pocket. Claiming he'll experiment on Diana with or without his assistance, Olinger feels no other choice but to aid Quintis in his 48-hour experiment in regressive hypnosis.

Once under, Diana reveals she was of French royalty in a past life, but delving even further back than that to the Middle Ages, Quintus uncovers another previous identity, that of Helene. A young innocent being held in The Black Tower after falsely being labeled a witch, Helene will lose her head the following day after the eve of the Witch's Sabbath unless she can break free or prove her innocence. Interestingly, Diana is able to communicate with Helene telepathically at first, who coerces her into seducing a jailer and then hitting him with her shackles. Now on her own, Helene escapes into the forest and manages to hitch a ride in an already-occupied coffin on singing gravedigger Smolkin's (Mel Welles) coach. As it turns out, real witch / temptress named Livia (Allison Hayes) has cast a spell on Smolkin and framed Helene for doing so, in order to get to Helene's sculptor love Pendragon (Richard Garland), whom she has also fallen for. Aside from Pendragon, innkeeper Scroop (Bruno Ve Sota) and (sometimes) Smolkin, who's mad and of little real use, a good witch named Meg Maude (Dorothy Neumann), complete with warts and a pointy chin and nose, helps to combat the evil plot.

Part of the joy of The Undead is its unpredictability. The movie cuts back and forth between the modern day hypnosis session and the past life footage and several unexpected (though some may say ridiculous) events happen along the way to change the entire course of the story. When things start getting out of hand and Diana's life may be at stake, Quintus is able to transport himself back in time to Helene's world with the help of a contraption that synchronizes brain waves. Because Diana had helped Helene escape the executioner's axe by coaching her to break out of her cell and thus altered the course of history in the process, when Quintus arrives on the scene he offers Helene an ultimatum. She can either live her full life now and then cease to exist for the rest of eternity after she passes on or sacrifice her life in order to allow her other reincarnated selves to exist. The plot probably sounds confusing as hell but the film itself moves rather smoothly considering how layered the story is.

Despite what you may have read, the performances found in The Undead are uniformly good. Duncan (who'd also star in Corman's ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS - along with Garland - the following year) and Dufour are just fine in their lead roles, and receive nice support from most of the rest of the cast. One major standout here is the Hayes as the sly, seductive and hard-to-resist Livia. Best known, of course, for her iconic role in ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN (1958), Hayes' role here is actually much better suited to her talents; playing a character with a ruthless side, and a soft one. This is possibly her best-ever role in a genre film. The same can pretty much be said for Welles, who's best known as the grumpy flower shop owner in Corman's LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, but steals most of the scenes he's in here. Neumann - channeling Margaret Hamilton for sure - is great as the other real witch. Richard Devon makes for an over-the-top, somewhat flamboyant (though fittingly so) Satan; a character that bookmarks the film. Billy Barty plays Livia's mischievous, garlic-bulb-eating Imp, who can transform into a lizard (Livia herself transforms into a black cat), Paul Blaisdell (who did the fx) has an uncredited cameo as a corpse and Dick Miller has just one brief scene as a Leper who sells his soul.

With a budget of just 75,000 dollars, Corman couldn't afford elaborate sets (supposedly they constructed these inside a closed-down supermarket!) nor a cast of thousands to make the medieval village really spring to life. Instead we mostly get cardboard sets that sometimes wobble, heavy use of a fog machine and no more than about a dozen people seen on screen at the same time. To further cut costs, Blaisdell's bat-monsters-on-strings from IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956) were reused. Enjoyment requires an certain acceptance of these budgetary limitations. If you're a stickler for realism, someone who likes to pick apart small detail or someone who demands elaborate period detail, this may not be for you. However, if you can just go with the flow and accept this on its own terms, it's quirky, imaginative, playful, witty and ultimately even somewhat moving. It's also still completely unique after 55+ years, which says a lot in and of itself.

Filmed as The Trance of Diana Love, this was made in response to the best-selling book "The Search for Bridey Murphy" by Morey Bernstein, which sparked a lot of interest in reincarnation at the time. It played on a double-bill with VOODOO WOMAN (1957).


Science Crazed (1991) [copyright 1989]

... aka: Fiend, The

Directed by:
Ron Switzer

Dr. Wilbur Frank's experiments have gone too far so the medical board asks for his resignation. He then ties up a woman and injects her with some kind of formula that will make her pregnant in three hours and give birth in less than a day. She goes to sleep and dies giving birth to the baby. The baby is a fully-grown, growling mutant-man (played by Tony Della Ventura) shortly thereafter. He ends up strangling the doctor and escaping. The doctor's assistants Joan (Robin Hartsell) and Terry (Cameron Klein) - students at the Shelley Institute of Higher Learning - become concerned and decide to check in on him, finding him dead. They then phone a video store (?) where Detective McCoy (Michael Sommers) is slowwwwwly reading a Rambo VHS box to report the murder. Meanwhile, the "Fiend," as the credits call him, shambles along in the hallways looking for someone to kill. An aerobics instructor / personal trainer and a fat woman are then shown exercising... for over eight minutes (!!) with the only breaks being shots of the "monster" dragging his feet through a hallway and "music" that's about as pleasant to listen to as an alarm clock going off at 6am. So how are we rewarded for suffering through this? About 50 shots of a hallway, some grumbling and two off-screen, bloodless murders. One of the girls refuses to even look scared when faced with a man in bloody bandages in the girl's locker room.

We then go to a painfully long scene where everyone is shot in noir-ish half-lighting and there are long... awkard... and... frequent... pauses... between.... every... line... of... dialogue... A woman - no clue who this is even supposed to be - says "Frank was a genius. He may have succeeded in creating a complete man using a synthetic compound which controlled the biochemical structure of an embryo's chromosomes and genes." Uhhh, yeah, ok. Because it's the weekend and all of the police are off duty (?) McCoy forces Joan and Terry at gunpoint (??) to help him hunt down The Fiend. The monster then shows up at the home of that female defender of Dr. Frank's. The monster walks in. The woman gets off the couch and walks toward him. Then the two stand there facing each other. She finally offers her body to him and he picks her up and breaks her back. This whole segment also lasts nearly ten minutes, most of which consists of the monster and the victim standing there staring at each other. Dear Lord, make it stop! Make it stop! Nope, first he needs to shuffle through the hallways some more and strangle a woman after we get about ten prolonged shots of each.

Next up, The Fiend decides to crash a pool party in another painfully drawn-out scene where people sit around reading and saying things to each other we can barely hear for about ten minutes before the monster jumps into the pool, drowns a girl and then picks up a guy and throws him. It goes on to strangle a few more chicks before finally showing its real face (a rubber mask) and getting put down in a parking garage with a machete. The end.

Absolutely one of the worst pieces of shit I've ever had the misfortune of sitting through, this grueling home movie should have never, ever been released upon the unsuspecting public. You'd be hard pressed to find a more drawn-out, padded-out film with such boring, seemingly never-ending scenes as this one. It has, bar none, one of the absolute worst sound recordings ever. When one character talks there's suddenly a lot of fuzz and diffusion, which miraculously clears up whenever the next person talks. Sometimes lips move and nothing comes out. Sometimes lips move and something audible but unintelligible comes out... then suddenly the volume is cranked up loud for the next person. I constantly had to fiddle with my volume throughout, which was irritating to put it mildly. All of the dialogue was dubbed in later and the people who did it - at times - seem to be making a joke of the whole thing. Unfortunately, none of this is even the slightest bit amusing or entertaining.

Usually listed as being from either 1990 or 1991, but posters for Creepshow 2, Evil Dead 2 and Pretty Kill (all 1987 releases) and a 1987 edition of the Toronto phone book tell a different story. This appears to be the only thing the director ever made. The VHS box tries to sell it as an intentionally bad cult film. Sorry, not buying it.

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