Retromedia brings us a Blu-ray double feature of two oldies that re-define the word "schlock". Produced in the late 1950s for Roger Corman’s distribution company, The Filmgroup, THE WASP WOMAN and BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE have fallen into the public domain and have been the subject of numerous budget DVD releases. But this is actually the first time this duo has shown up on the Blu-ray format, presenting an actual recreation of the theatrical double feature.
First up is THE WASP WOMAN, a Corman-directed/Leo Gordon-scripted effort presumably inspired by the-then success of THE FLY. Susan Cabot (WAR OF THE SATELLITES) stars as Janice Starlin, the 40-something owner of a glamorous New York cosmetic firm. She learns that her fading beauty is not only harming her personal life but also causing her business to dip. She gets wrapped up with nutty, aging scientist Eric Zinthrop (Michael Mark, familiar to monster movie fans for his appearances in FRANKENSTEIN and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN) who has developed a new serum from the enzymes of wasps (or is it bees?), transforming aging skin back to youthful beauty. Janice takes the treatments and she starts to appear much younger, but the formula changes her personality. Slowly, the lecherous nature of the queen wasp asserts itself inside her. She now turns into a black bug-eyed creature with pipe cleaners sticking out of her head and oven mitts on her hands.
In typical Corman cheapie fashion, Cabot's make-up doesn't conceal her neck, making the monster all the more notorious and laughable for the few times you actually see it. Are these scenes memorable? You bet they are! Originally released by AIP on a double bill with BEAST FROM THE HAUNTED CAVE, THE WASP WOMAN was actually the very first film produced for Corman's Filmgroup company, and it features some of his regulars including lovely Barboura Morris (THE TRIP) as Janice's secretary and fatboy Bruno Ve Sota (THE GIANT LEECHES) as a night watchman. DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN star Anthony Eisley (here billed as "Fred" Eisley) is the hero, William Roerick (NOT OF THIS EARTH) is an employee who goes “missing” and Corman himself has an ubilled cameo as a doctor. BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE star Frank Wolf appears briefly as a flirting furniture delivery man, and Frank Gerstle (star of MONSTROSITY aka THE ATOMIC BRAIN) is a private detective.
In Monte Hellman’s BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE, which was scripted by Charles Griffith, Alex (Frank Wolff, THE GREAT SILENCE), a small-time gangster, his girlfriend, Gypsy (Sheila Carol, THE INCREDIBLE PETRIFIED WORLD), and his two henchmen — Byron (Wally Campo, TALES OF TERROR) and Marty (Richard Sinatra, Frank's unfamous cousin) — visit snowy South Dakota, planning to pull a heist from a bank. They exploit the friendly cooperation of hunky local ski instructor, Gil (Michael Forest, unforgettably annoying in the "Who Mourns for Adonais?" episode of "Star Trek") and a hunter for their own purposes. The crooks stage a mine explosion to divert the town's attention while they cleverly swipe some gold bars from the bank's vault. Meanwhile, one of the gangsters visits the "haunted cave" and his female companion is devoured by what is believed to be a legendary monster. Alex convinces Gil to take the group across the snow covered mountains to the hunter's cabin. His real intention is holding hostages as he and his gang smuggle their gold across the Canadian border. After a lot of brawling, flirting and pacing about in the snow, the film concludes in the cave where the beast of the title captures most of the cast and feeds off their blood.
Cult director Hellman's directorial debut is loaded with talk and hammy acting, but the film's monster—a huge, hairy spider-like creature with a bulb-shaped head and long floppy arms—is highly memorable and the scenes of victims being webbed up to the cavern walls and gradually drained of blood are disturbing even by today's standards, and undeniably inspired similar images found in the first two "Alien" movies some 20 years later. The creature was actually created and operated/played by future STANLEY and soap opera star Chris Robinson (who also appears as a bartender in the film). Produced by Roger Corman's brother Gene, Hellman economically shot the film back to back with SKI TROOP ATTACK, which was co-directed by Roger and featured the same exact cast!
So what about the quality on these two classics? They actually don’t look too bad at all, at least far better than any of the budget DVD counterparts. Both films have been mastered in 1080p HD from new progressive scans in 1.66:1 aspect ratios from decent print sources that don’t show any extreme wear (some staining and a few other blemishes here and there). The best asset about both film transfers is the impressively deep black levels, and while both have adequate grayscale and white levels, slightly brighter contrasts are a welcomed trade-off for the darkness usually witnessed in previous DVD transfers. Neither film is overly grainy or overly waxy, but the clarity and detail are satisfactory and BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE’s outdoor scenes impress the most. These may not be the best looking Blu-ray representations of 1950s horror movies out there, but we certainly found them enjoyable enough. Dolby Digital 2.0 English tracks are offered for both films, with no detectable problems (such as scratchiness); dialogue is pretty clear throughout, and music never sounds distorted. No subtitle options are included.
As both features run just over an hour, when they were quickly released to television in a package of films distributed by Allied Artists, Corman hired Jack Hill and Hellman to direct added scenes for both these titles to extend the running times, and these scenes have been included here as an extra. The extra TV footage for THE WASP WOMAN (10:29) includes the honey bee ranch sequence (which was then edited on to the beginning of TV prints) and features Michael Mark reprising his role as the scientist as well as AIP regular Aron Kincaid (THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI) and Karl Schanzer (SPIDER BABY). Further TV-shot footage featuring Jack Hill himself playing a detective agency worker (seen on the phone and driving around in a car) are in the feature film as presented here. The extra BEAST FROM THE HAUNTED CAVE footage (6:42) brings back Campo, Sinatra and Forest reprising and stretching their characters for some scenes shot in around the sky slopes.
Retromedia’s Fred Olen Ray and fellow B filmmaker David DeCoteau are on hand for an audio commentary for THE WASP WOMAN, and Ray says from the start that he’s loved this film since he was a little kid, later hiring Eisley for DEEP SPACE and screenwriter Gordon to appear in ALIENATOR. Also discussed are Cabot’s death, the TV version (and about these films being sold to Allied Artists for television and how they fell into the public domain), the supporting cast, the 1995 remake (which Ray had a cameo in) and that the film was shot in six days (surprisingly, both fail to identify Jack Hill, but then again he’s not facing the camera for most his brief screen time and they have trouble identifying Barboura Morris). It’s actually fun when the conversation strays from the film in question, because it’s always centered on classic monster movies and low budget filmmaking. Ray is back with star Michael Forest for the BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE commentary, as the veteran actor states that this and SKI TROOP ATTACK were shot over a period of five weeks. Forest not only tells anecdotes about this film and its snowy location, but he also talks about his dubbing work (including a number of Italian giallo films and police/crime films), his numerous television appearances (he had GREAT fun playing a native on “Gilligan’s Island”) and acting in other films for Corman including ATLAS and VIKING WOMEN AND THE SEA SERPENT. Great stuff! The original trailers for both movies round out the supplements. (George R. Reis)
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