Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Elvira and the Manglers of Heedra

I've often said that what this world needs is a really good video representation of Mel Welles' LA ISLA DE LA MUERTE. Theatrically released by Allied Artists in 1967 as ISLAND OF THE DOOMED, the Spanish-Italian co-production is one of those all-too-common stories about a tourist bus that breaks down, forcing its varied and sometimes bickering passengers to knock on the door of an isolated villa -- isolated because the locals have all been frightened away by a "vampire legend." In this case, the villa is owned by the Baron von Weser (Cameron Mitchell), a crazed experimental botanist who -- in the course of breeding vegetables that taste like meat -- develops a carnivorous strain of Venus flytrap that requires a steady diet of human blood. Some viewers, remembering Welles' acting stint as Gravis Mushnik in Roger Corman's THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1959), find the plant angle of interest; I, on the other hand, see this film as a little gem of the European co-production period of the 1960s, and one of the few titles that hasn't been available for viewing in its correct aspect ratio in 40 years.

The film first came to my attention circa 1970, when it was presented by Cincinnati's The Cool Ghoul on WXIX-TV's SCREAM-IN under the TV syndication title MANEATER OF HYDRA. Even then, I was impressed by its creepy atmosphere, its effective set pieces, its cast -- Mitchell, Kai Fischer (a striking redhead whom I'd seen in UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE), pretty Elisa Montés (providing a Mary Anne to Fischer's Ginger), and Riccardo Valle (Morpho in THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF) -- and a dubbing crew that prominently featured the recognizable voice of Anne Meara for the character of Myrtle. (The IMDb lists no screen credits for Meara between 1964 and 1970, making her a likely candidate for voice work.) I can also now recognize the voice of Rodd Dana issuing from the mouth of heroic lead Jorge Martín, if it's true -- as Welles told me himself -- that Dana provided the voice for Stephen Forsyth in HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, a dubtrack that Welles directed in 1969. More impressive than the cast to my younger self was the movie's impressively gloopy special effects, which now look like a cheapish but plausible forerunner of some of the gloopy things Rob Bottin created for John Carpenter's THE THING (1982). The enticing music score, some of which sounds warbly here, if not faintly waterlogged, is by Antón García Abril, best-remembered today for scoring TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD.
This quickly disappearing year marks the 40th anniversary of ISLAND OF THE DOOMED. We should be enjoying a DVD presentation that gives us the Techniscope picture in its true 2.35:1 framing, with crisp clarity and eye-popping color (in case anyone at Warner Bros., the film's most probable true owner, is listening). Alas, the only offer on the table is Shout Factory's "Elvira's Movie Macabre Double Feature" release (one of several), pairing the Mistress of the Dark's respective presentations of MANEATER OF HYDRA and Narciso Ibanez Serrador's THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED [LA RESIDENCIA, 1971] -- on separate discs. Because I first saw MANEATER under the bat-like wing of a TV horror host, I like the option of being able to watch the movie without interruption or with the breaks featuring Elvira (Cassandra Peterson), every mention of whose name on the packaging is accompanied by a registered trademark (R). She must have great lawyers. If only the cinematic legacy of the late Mel Welles had fared so well in this Shout Factory venture.
Because the film is called MANEATER OF HYDRA, we know in advance that it's going to be pan&scanned, and it is... but that doesn't begin to prepare us for the truly wretched quality of the source element, which appears to be a dupey VHS tape of a complete 87m 48s rendering of the film, possibly chained from a 16mm print. Whites blush loudly, and heavy intermittent grain in the lower third of the screen reminds us of the tracking problems that bedevilled us in the videotape era. Objectively speaking, it looks a couple of generations south of the tape I obtained from European Trash Cinema about 20 years ago. Here are some frame grabs I took to prove my point (presented without any cropping, to better expose the videotape artifacting at the bottom of the screen):
The Elvira (pardon the expression) bumpers extend the overall running time to 99m 57s and are retained from a 1983 MOVIE MACABRE broadcast from KHJ-TV, when the "B-movie queen's" disposition was more that of a sour Valley Girl than the bubbly double entendriste we know and love today. What's most infuriating about the presentation is that, if one watches the Elvira (R) footage, we see shots from the movie -- incorporated for comic purposes -- that are of markedly superior quality! Still cropped, of course, but crisper and more colorful. Clearly, this was the version shown in tandem with the Elvira (R) footage, so why wasn't THAT source used?
I haven't as yet watched THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED -- a better picture than MANEATER OF HYDRA, frankly -- because I know I'm bound to be disappointed by the quality. The presentation of MANEATER OF HYDRA (which our "hostess with the mostest" repeatedly calls "Maneater of Heedra") is so crummy, in fact, it's the first time I've ever watched this film and wondered what I ever saw in it. Obviously, a quality that this presentation has literally reduced to nothing.

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