Launching us from a grave past to a space-age future, these two thrilling double features, from producers Richard and Alex Gordon, spin classic tales of hair-raising homicidal mania and intrepid, death-defying exploration. Featuring The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood, The Atomic Submarine, and First Man Into Space.
For sheer entertainment value, Monsters and Madmen is a more-than-welcome addition to the prestigious Criterion Collection. Proving that well-made exploitation films deserve as much scholarly appreciation as classics of world cinema, this four-disc set lives up to its name with four enjoyable features (two horror, two science fiction, all above average) that showcase the consistent quality achieved by British producers Richard and Alex Gordon. Taking their cue from American International Pictures (AIP, which Alex co-founded in the mid-1950s) and Roger Corman's low-budget approach to profitable production, the Gordons were passionate film buffs who moved into filmmaking when Boris Karloff brought them a story property called "Stranglehold," which was eventually produced as The Haunted Strangler (1958), giving 69-year-old Karloff a much-needed respite from the forgettable programmers that plagued his later career. Directed by Robert Day, it's a superbly crafted thriller in which Karloff plays 19th-century English author James Rankin, determined to prove the innocence of a man wrongfully executed 20 years earlier. His quest turns horrifically tragic when Rankin is overtaken by the dead man's spirit, and the killer's strangulation spree continues. As part of a double-feature package, The Haunted Strangler was immediately followed by Corridors of Blood (1959), another fine vehicle for Karloff, who plays a doomed physician in 1840s London obsessed with pioneering experiments in anesthesia. It's a grim graverobber's tale, with an early role for Christopher Lee as a macabre character named "Resurrection Joe."
Gaining momentum, the Gordons also produced First Man into Space and The Atomic Submarine (see previous DVD releases for detailed reviews), a pair of 1959 releases that took timely advantage of Cold War headlines, the space race, and advances in nuclear-sub exploration of the polar ice caps. The former involves a cocky test pilot's ill-fated exposure to a strange alien substance which turns him into a blood-sucking predator; the latter is a sci-fi adventure that culminates in an encounter with an ill-tempered alien beneath the ice of the Arctic Circle. All four films guarantee a welcome trip down memory lane for long-time genre buffs, and DVD collectors of all ages will enjoy the enthusiastic expertise of Tom Weaver, whose delightfully reverent commentaries with Richard and Alex Gordon--along with video interviews with primary cast and crew members from all four films--serve as detailed testament (owing to Richard Gordon's wonderfully vivid recollections) to the lasting appeal of these "B-movie" relics. Theatrical trailers, radio spots, and exploitative print advertising place the films in proper historical context, and accompanying booklets offer appreciative essays by producer John Croydon and critic/historians Maitland McDonagh, Bruce Eder, and Michael Lennick. Anyone with a passion for '50s sci-fi and horror will quickly accept Monsters and Madmen as a crucial addition to their DVD collections, well in keeping with the expansive Criterion legacy. --Jeff Shannon