Director(s): Juan Ibáñez, Jack Hill, and José Luis González de León
VCI Home Video

VCI's BORIS KARLOFF COLLECTION two-DVD set highlights a quartet of his final features, although not in anywhere near pristine or even complete form.

Boris Karloff's cinematic swan song was a quartet of Mexican-American horror productions by Luis Enrique Vergara (THE EMPIRE OF DRACULA) released between 1968 and 1971 with Karloff's scenes shot in Los Angeles and directed by Jack Hill (THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS) and the bulk of the production shot south of the border by Juan Ibáñez. Karloff's screen time was limited, and the producers even resorted to adding voiceover by an artist whose voice did not come close to matching that of the great actor. While the stories varied in quality, each had something more than Karloff to savor (including some surprising nudity in two of the films). The films went direct to television in the late 1960s and early 1970s courtesy of Columbia Pictures. They would become available in both English and Spanish-language versions on videotape in the early 1980s by Unicorn Video until a company named The Parasol Group bought the rights in 1987 and marketed them worldwide as "The Boris Karloff Collection" with new titles and trimmed of expository footage so that each ran roughly fifteen to twenty minutes shorter than the originals. These versions were released to tape stateside by Sony Video Software and then reissued by MPI Home Video. It is unfortunately these versions that VCI has brought to DVD.

DANCE OF DEATH: A series of murders of young women whose eyes have been torn out baffles the police; however, they are even more worrying to wealthy Matthias Morteval (Karloff) who fears that the killings mark the resurgence in his family tree of a congenital madness that took the life of his brother Hugo who developed a mania about eyes and committed a number of similar murders before blinding himself. With concern that someone may eventually make the connection between the current crimes and his brother, Matthias plots with his doctor friend Emeric Horvath (Quintín Bulnes, I ESCAPED DEVIL'S ISLAND) to invite the remaining members of his family to his estate under the guise of assessing who will be his beneficiaries in order to root out the evil once and for all. The heirs are: greedy banker Morgenstern (Manuel Alvarado, SANTO AND BLUE DEMON VERSUS THE MONSTERS), comely widow Cordelia (Beatriz Baz), card sharp Ivor (José Ángel Espinosa, TO KILL A STRANGER), and young Lucy (telenovela diva Julissa). Lucy has arrived with her detective fiancé Charles (Andres Garcia, TINTORERA) who reluctantly agrees to take a room in the village when Matthias insists that the reunion is for family only. When Matthias' faithful coachman returns from escorting Charles to the village dead, Matthias suffers a heart attack and dies. Between the funeral and the reading of the will, the heirs amuse themselves with the clockwork "toys" of Matthias' mad brother that have the power to entertain but also to kill on command. As the toys start stalking the heirs one by one, the survivors try to ascertain who is behind the deaths and who will be bestowed Matthias' fortune.

The most traditionally gothic of the films was SERENATA MACABRE – released in the United States as HOUSE OF EVIL, with the "Macabre Serenade" translation not appearing until home video before the Parasol version DANCE OF DEATH. There is nothing new for old dark house fans; rather, the plot is a grab bag of elements from family curses and wills to killer toys (one sequence might have inspired director Stuart Gordon or screenwriter Ed Naha when they made DOLLS). Dubbed performances are uneven with only Karloff coming off well, and the plot in this shorter version suffers from a number of deletions that make hash of the backstory with the removal of an early scene featuring Charles discussing his the murders with his superior and a conversation between Charles and the coachman robbing later revelations of resonance. On the other hand, the settings and photography – the Mexican studio and location stuff shot by Raúl Domínguez (A WOMAN POSSESSED) while the Karloff scenes were shot by Austin McKinney (GALLERY OF HORROR) – suitably atmospheric when accompanied by the organ-heavy score of Enrico Cabiati (VAGABOND IN THE RAIN). The obligatory conflagration climax is hampered by the addition of the Karloff-replacement voiceover as well as the Parasol version deleting the final shot.

THE TORTURE ZONE: Following a signal into the bowels of the Earth under the direction of Dr. Karl Mantell (Karloff), his daughter Corinne (Julissa) and her boyfriend Mark (Carlos East, THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE) discover a living rock Mantell believes is composed of a prehistoric plasma. Upon discovering that it must feed upon the blood of women in extreme terror, Mantell uses the Beneficent Institute which provides foreign employment for young women to put unsuspecting victims through his "fear chamber" to sufficiently frighten them with the help of his nurse Helga (Isela Vega, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA), a dwarf (Santanón, LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD's Stinky the Skunk), sex criminal Syed (Alfredo Rosas), and Mantell's devoted orderly but simple-minded Roland (Yerye Beirute, FACE OF THE SCREAMING WEREWOLF). He only draws enough blood to sustain the monster from the women who are then set free, but calculations suggest that the creature needs feeding every thirty-six hours. Unwilling to unduly harm or possibly kill anyone for the sake of the creature – which Corrine and Helga believe has a consciousness while Mark believes it is nothing more than a "radio" – Mantell agrees to one more subject from which to draw data. When their latest prospect turns out to be a burglar (Fuensanta Zertuche, FANDO AND LIS) who breaks into the lab, the creature demonstrates how much it has evolved in a short time and generates a tentacle to feed off of the woman by itself. Believing himself responsible for the murder, Mantell attempts to destroy the creature but suffers a heart attack in the attempt. While he is recuperating and Mark and Corinne have gone on vacation, Helga seduces Roland into helping her continue the experiments with more unsuspecting victims. By the time Mantell, his daughter, and Mark have realized something is wrong, Helga has helped the creature evolve to the point where it has formed its own connection to the lab computers and may be sending word to others like it how they must feed to survive above ground.

The second best of the series, THE TORTURE ZONE, better known as THE FEAR CHAMBER, has a fairly interesting premise that allows for some spooks show weirdness in the "fear chamber" which may be recycled set dressing from the previous film, along with a sexual edge with Helga's sadism and scantily-clad victims (along with a stripper who goes topless in some versions of the film) getting groped by the creature's tentacles making up for Karloff's limited screentime. Julissa has less to do here as the heroine, but her character surprises in even shocking her father by agreeing with Helga that some sacrifices might be necessary for scientific advancement before being threatened by the creature in the climax. The trimming of this version by roughly fifteen minutes does not really harm the film's plotting so much as just take longer to make sense as watch and wait for more expository dialogue.

CULT OF THE DEAD: Captain Labiche (Rafael Bertrand, THE FEARMAKER) arrives on an island in the West Indies to reestablish law and order, finding the commanding police lieutenant Wilhelm (Carlos East again) a little too lax in his responsibilities, while his drinking draws the disapproval of temperance activist Anabella Vandenberg (Julissa) who has also arrived to spend time with her plantation owner uncle Carl von Molder (Karloff). Von Molder warns Labiche against upsetting the local customs and native law, even offering up proof of voodoo powers with a demonstration by his housekeeper Kalea (Tongolele, THE PANTHER WOMAN). When Labiche leads the local police in a raid on a voodoo ceremony, however, the force is hunted down and killed one-by-one by the island's zombies and cannibal women, and Labiche tries to deny indications that a curse has been put on him by Damballah. When Kalea prevents plantation overseer Klinsor (Quintín Bulnes) from molesting one of the comelier female zombies, he offers to help Labiche and Wilhelm infiltrate the next voodoo ceremony where the cult will invoke the Baron Samedi with a human sacrifice in Anabella.

While it would be easy to suggest that the film was inspired less by WHITE ZOMBIE than I EAT YOUR SKIN (although that film sat on the shelf for six years before its 1971 release), CULT OF THE DEAD – released to American television as THE SNAKE PEOPLE – is reasonably atmospheric with exotic dancer Tongolele quite a presence and the island setting reasonably convincing; however, the film seriously drags even in this version which runs roughly twenty minutes shorter than the original. While the editing has been done to improve the pacing while keeping the plot coherent, the various attacks by the cannibal women and zombies seem more random than targeted with some scenes featuring the main characters kept in between more to space the deaths apart than develop character. Julissa's heroine goes from stuffiness to keeping Wilhelm's company abruptly while Labiche bellows his way through every scene in a laughable dubbed French accent of the "zee zis and zat" variety. Karloff has so little to do that it is quite obvious where he figures into the voodoo plot, and the replacement dubber makes an appearance while Karloff's mouth is obscured. The film does offer some hallucinatory visuals but it's a slog in either cut.

ALIEN TERROR: In a nineteenth century European village, Dr. John Mayer (Karloff) and radiation-scarred Dr. Isabel Reed (Maura Monti) have been experimenting with a laser utilizing radium as a power source. An accident during one of the tests magnifies the strength of the ray into space where its presence is noted by aliens who send one of their own (FANDO AND LIS' Sergio Kleiner) to Earth to eliminate them and destroy the laser before it can prove harmful to their world. The alien possesses sex criminal Thomas (Yerye Beirute) who has a compulsion to slash up prostitutes with a razor blade. After a demonstration of the laser's power to the government for funding, Mayer balks when a general wants to develop it into a weapon. One of the government's scientific envoys Dr. Paul Ralston (Enrique Guzman), an old flame of Mayer's niece Laura (Christa Linder, NIGHT OF A THOUSAND CATS), is invited to collaborate on Mayer's experiments. Disguised as a local, Thomas delivers a bodiless alien intelligence to Mayer that possesses him and turns him to the mission of destroying the laser in such a manner catastrophic to the surrounding area as to discourage others from continuing Mayer's work. Paul, Isabel, and Laura become suspicious of Mayer's sudden secretive project and his new assistant Thomas. The aliens have difficulty maintaining control over their bodies, which causes pangs of conscience in the alien possessing Mayer about the man's intellect while the one possessing Thomas finds it hard to resist the compulsion to rape and kill. When Thomas strays from the alien's supply of hypnotized victims and draws unwanted attention, the aliens must step up their operation as torch-wielding villagers close in.

Originally known as THE SINISTER INVASION and co-scripted by Hill actor Karl Schanzer (SPIDER BABY), ALIEN TERROR is threadbare as a sci-fi epic, with Kleiner's alien distinguished by nothing more than his bleach blond hair and silver suit while his ship is constructed from the set flats utilized for the mausoleum of DANCE OF DEATH. The possession scenario plays like an episode of DOCTOR WHO with an added angle of sexual sadism, especially with the character of Charlotte, a beautiful but crippled woman who begs Thomas to enact his impulses upon her, as well as the insecurities of Isabel (who actually seems like more of a contender for a relationship with Paul) pushing her towards Thomas who she believes cares more about his animal impulses than her disfigurement. The mob also have one among them who warns against reckless action lest innocent people get hurt, but the film's anti-nuclear power message seems naïve in that the aliens actually seem to believe an event of mass destruction would put others off weaponizing such a force. Linder makes an okay replacement for Julissa, but she has little more to do as a heroine, overshadowed by Monti as Julissa was in the other three films by other female characters either morally ambiguous or downright villainous. Besides Hill and Ibanez, José Luis González de León – who served as assistant director on THE FEAR CHAMBER and later on EL TOPO – the film is the runt of the litter, but that is really not saying much. Although they were the last films Karloff made, the earlier CAULDRON OF BLOOD may have been the last released in 1971.

The DVD era did not really improve things for the films. The DANCE OF DEATH cut of the first film turned up on tape-mastered Rhino Home Video while a VHS-sourced transfer matted to 1.66:1 was released as HOUSE OF EVIL by Retromedia separately and on a BLOOD FLOOD triple feature with GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE and GURU THE MAD MONK. THE FEAR CHAMBER was given a matted, tape-sourced release by Retromedia in a double bill with Karloff's ISLAND MONSTER. While that version featured the nude striptease, Elite's anamorphic widescreen DVD sported superior quality (despite overmatting the image to 1.85:1) but the source featured a covered take of the striptease (which was included in inferior quality as an extra). The disc was worth picking up for a commentary by Hill discussing the film and the series. THE SNAKE PEOPLE has been available on DVD in its uncut version from a number of sources including Brentwood's KILLER SNAKES set, some of the Mill Creek multi-film sets, as well as a bonus feature on the Image Entertainment/Something Weird Video DVD of RATTLERS, all the transfers of which were of fair quality and probably dating back to the Unicorn tape. Neither ALIEN TERROR nor THE SINISTER INVASION have been available on the DVD format.

The VCI set is hardly an optimal way to see these films, either in terms of completeness or picture quality. Sourced from tape masters, it hardly matters that the two films each are compressed to a pair of single-layer DVDs, but what once looked crisper and more colorful on videotape looks murky and noisy here, and a few generations removed from the original tape masters. Tape damage is rare but very noticeable in one instance during DANCE OF DEATH. The English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono tracks are fair in quality but dialogue is always understandable. There are absolutely no extras. One wonders whether this is really a VCI disc or distributor MVD Visual using that label since it appears on the cover and disc art while The Sprocket Vault logo appears before the menu on the discs themselves. For viewers still interested, the discs provided by MVD were pressed while VCI's site lists them as DVD-R, so buyers may want to check with retailers if they want one or the other. (Eric Cotenas)