Thursday, October 11, 2007

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: Die, Monster, Die

What would Halloween be without Roger Corman's American International Pictures? Well, probably about the same, but Corman was responsible for some of the best and worst horror and sci-fi movies in cinematic history. One of my favorites of the Corman canon is the 1965 film Die, Monster, Die (a title that, in German, means "The monster, the"*). Like most Corman films, it's a mixed bag, and it has many detractors, but I love it because it has everything I want from a Corman horror film: a gothic setting, a corny romance plot, outrageous creatures, women with melting skin, and, most important, Boris Karloff.

Die, Monster, Die is adapted from the H. P. Lovecraft story "The Colour Out of Space," perhaps in an attempt to duplicate the success of AIP's Poe adaptations with Lovecraft (In fact, there is a Midnight Movies set that pairs this film with another Lovecraft adaptation, the trippy and surreal version of The Dunwich Horror with Russ Tamblyn and Sandra Dee--in a very un-Sandra-Dee-like performance).

The film opens with an American named Steven Reinhart (Nick Adams) disembarking from a train in the British village of Arkham (the name taken from the Lovecraft story). He begins to seek out transportation or directions to "the Witley place," yet every time he asks someone for directions, he is met with either fear or ridicule. As he walks through the village, shutters and doors slam and villagers give him the cold shoulder. I have to say that, though I've seen this same opening in dozens of Universal, Hammer, and AIP horror movies, I'm still a sucker for it. Perhaps it's because of my admiration for the novel Dracula, which begins with such scenes where Jonathan Harker is constantly warned not to seek out Dracula's castle, but he does anyway. Such a scene creates the perfect atmosphere of mystery and anticipation for a movie like this, and the always dependable hero invariably and stubbornly chooses to shoulder on despite the warnings.

Steve is forced to walk to the Witley place, and along the way he comes across a deep chasm surrounded by burnt trees. The chasm is clearly a matte painting, but it's a good one, and I find that one of this movie's strengths is its set design and visual effects, which, while not perfect, are superior to most Corman films of the previous decade.

Once Steve arrives, he discovers that the gate to the mansion is locked, and the woods surrounding it contain hidden bear traps. He carefully manages to make his way to the mansion, only to find no answer when he knocks on the giant wooden doors. The door is open, however, and like any good American, he has no problem waltzing right in to someone else's property and making himself at home.

Steve is quickly confronted by angry, wheelchair-bound patriarch Nahum Witley, played by the always-entertaining Boris Karloff. At this time, Karloff was near the end of his life, and he really was wheelchair-bound due to arthritis, but he plays it all to his advantage in this performance, even in scenes where he's required to get out of his chair.

Karloff begins to abuse Steve, demanding an explanation for the unwanted intrusion. Steve explains that he was invited to the home by Karloff's daughter, Susan (Suzan Farmer), whom Steve had met in college back in the States.

"Susan and I were in the same Science class," Steve explains.

"Science!" Karloff scoffs, with the same tone of derision one would expect at a Republican presidential debate.

This brief line sets up a key theme in this film: the dichotomy of science and the supernatural. As Steve recognizes strange occurences at the Witley place, he desperately adheres to empirical, scientific explanations, while Karloff insists that the events are all caused by supernatural forces unleashed by his father, Corbin Witley. The tension between these two epistemologies becomes interesting because neither is based in fact in any way. Steve constantly uses "radiation" as the explanation for everything that happens in the movie with a combination of fear and naivete that was common in Cold War movies, especially Corman's sci-fi films, where radiation could just as easily cause a person to grow to 50-feet tall or melt off a person's skin.

The radiation in this film comes from glowing green extraterrestrial rocks that caused the chasm Steve saw early in the film. Karloff believes that the rocks were summoned by his father through an occult ritual, and the obsession with these rocks has haunted the family for generations. Nahum stores the rocks in a dungeon beneath his ancestral home, in a room with skull-shaped contraptions and statues of creatures that seem right out of Lovecraft. He also uses the rocks to promote plant growth, keeping a greenhouse with giant tomatoes and other plants. As he says to his wife, Letitia (Freda Jackson), who is suffering from some mysterious ailment caused by the rocks, "I see the future, and all I have planned for it will fill it with a richness we have never known"--a line clearly written for Karloff's voice.

As Steve and Susan investigate the strange occurences in the house (occurences that only now seem strange to Susan, though she's experienced them her entire life), they both break in to the greenhouse. In the "potting room," they discover not only more glowing rocks, but also some giant, tentacled, Lovecraftian monsters that Steve describes as "a zoo in hell!" and "a menagerie of horrors." Where's your beloved science now, Steve? Well, he's quick to deploy his all-purpose response to things he can't readily explain: "radiation caused these mutations." Keep on thinking that, Steve.

Once Letitia's face melts in the film's most memorable scene, Nahum finally realizes the extent of his obsession, and he vows to destroy the giant space rock in his basement dungeon. In a scene that must have been grueling for the arthritic Karloff, he lifts himself from his wheelchair, grabs a battleaxe from the wall, and smashes it into the rock. However, Nahum is overcome by the radiation, and his skin begins to take on a glowing green metallic luster. He is finally transformed into a creature resembling a glowing metal version of Karloff's Frankenstein. And, I have to say, the glowing metal Karloff is pretty cool.

One of the biggest criticisms this movie receives involves the acting of the two main protagonists: Nick Adams and Suzan Farmer. I've always thought Adams was a rotten actor, and after making this film, he would only have a few years to live before dying of a drug overdose. In the meantime, he bounced around a lot of TV shows and B-movies, like Godzilla vs. Monster Zero and Hammer Studios' Frankenstein Conquers the World. In Die, Monster, Die, he really overplays his American toughness, which seems suitable most of the time, except when dealing out scientific explanations about the effects of radiation. However, that toughness is not really reflected in his physical performance: he fails to move with any sense of alarm when Susan or others scream for help, and he's completely inept in his battle with the creature at the end. Karloff lumbers around slowly, yet Steve keeps throwing weapons at him that miss by a mile. When Steve has to rescue Susan from her transformed father, Steve's shot with a battleaxe gets closer to hitting Susan than the creature. And Steve has little to do with the creature's demise: Karloff stumbles over a railing while trying to attack Susan, and Steve barely gets himself up off the floor to rescue her. The creature's radioactive glow ultimately causes the house to burn down, and the young couple manage to escape.

For most of the film, Suzan Farmer seems to be in another movie, which is oddly suitable here. Her wardrobe consists almost entirely of pink sweaters and skirts, which contrast the film's gothic setting. And her character seems willfully oblivious and incurious about her home and family.

Does science win in the end? To the film's credit, it suspends such an obvious conclusion, though that may be due more to the film's dangling plot threads than anything willful on the part of the creators. The creatures in the greenhouse and the giant, living attack plants never return, and we're meant to assume they were destroyed in the fire.

Despite its many liabilities, this is still a fun, entertaining gothic horror film that manages to overcome a lot of the detriments of earlier Corman films, like weak special effects and ineffective monsters. Many critics complain that it's mystery isn't very mysterious, but I think such criticism misses the point. We pretty much know all along what Karloff is up to, and the only real shocks come when Letitia's melting face is revealed. Instead, it's best to see this movie in the mad scientist/occultist vein, as Karloff's character tampers with forces he shouldn't.

Bonus Content: Here's part of the introduction to the film by great late-night TV host Sammy Terry, from Indianapolis's WTTV Channel 4. Sammy Terry had a long career in Indianapolis, lasting to the end of the 80s (this clip is from 1987), long after most horror show hosts had disappeared from TV.

I didn't grow up in Indiana, so I didn't get to see Sammy Terry in his heyday, but I remember WTTV doing Halloween specials with him in the 90s, when I was attending Purdue University.

*Yes, I stole that joke from The Simpsons. No, I could not help myself.

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