I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Preston Barta // Features Editor
UNIVERSAL HORROR COLLECTION: VOLUME 4 (1937-1946)
Universal Pictures’ latest spectacular retelling of The Invisible Man (now available to rent through digital platforms) may create an itch for viewers to see more great horror titles from the company’s long history of spooking audiences. There is, of course, the main line of releases like Dracula, The Mummy and (my personal favorite) Bride of Frankenstein.
But if you are wanting to branch off into deeper cuts, ones that run the gamut of conjuring up terror, look at genre distribution company Scream Factory’s Universal Horror Collection. Four volumes are available now, and a fifth batch is currently being cooked up by the mad scientists (available on June 16). We’ve written about the previous releases on Fresh Fiction, but let’s review what’s in the fourth volume.
This latest Scream Factory box set includes four tales of frights from the archives of Universal Pictures and houses such iconic horror stars as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill and Rondo Hatton. This collection brings together 1937’s Night Key, 1942’s Night Monster, 1944’s The Climax and 1946’s House of Horrors.
Night Key might disappoint Boris Karloff fans who are used to seeing him only as the film’s villain or mad scientist, sometimes in the same movie (see 1953’s Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). In Night Key, the renowned actor portrays an elderly inventor named Dave Mallory (done up in convincing makeup) who was cheated out of royalties for a massively successful invention.
Mallory gets swept up in a funny series of unfortunate events when a gang of burglars kidnap him and force him to help them commit robberies. It’s a compelling premise that is supported by a solid Karloff performance, but after the first half-hour, the engagement runs out of steam and becomes a straightforward caper.
Not rated, 68 minutes.
Second, there’s Night Monster. It’s the best of the horror quartet. While it may have the overly dramatic music and performances of the era (very rarely can you outrun that in an older film), the script has a finger-snap pace and a mystery tale that pulls you in and holds you put until all is revealed. Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill lead an excellent ensemble in a plot that involves a wealthy recluse, a desolate mansion and lots of people meeting horrible deaths. It’s a classic campfire story. What’s not to love?
Not rated, 73 minutes.
Next is The Climax, another so-so Karloff entry. However, this time Karloff adjusts back to the kind of material we are used to. Based on Edward Locke’s play (but with very little connection and more Edgar Allen Poe-like), The Climax was originally conceived as a sequel to Universal’s remake of Phantom of the Opera. It was made using the sets of that 1943 film but evolved into another movie entirely.
Karloff portrays a terrifyingly demented physician who murders his prima donna fiancée out of obsession. Ten years later, he hears the voice of another singer (Susanna Foster) who reminds him of his late beloved, and he’s fixed on making her sing only for him.
Not rated, 87 minutes.
Lastly, there’s House of Horrors, the second-best film in the collection. The 1946 title is practically famous for one thing: star Rondo Hatton, a performer not necessarily known for his acting abilities, but his looks, which were exaggerated by a disease that made him a perfect candidate to play all sorts of beastly monsters. (Unfortunately, Hatton died of complications from acromegaly before the film was released.) This kind of thing doesn’t sit as well today, considering we would like more opportunities for an actor with a disfigurement other than being used as an image of terror. But that’s how the history books were written.
In House of Horrors, Hatton plays a killing machine, fittingly named the Creeper. He’s reasonably simplistic as far as villains go, but he remains an exceptional throat grabber. Hatton’s character is the puppet behind a struggling sculptor (Martin Kosleck) who uses him to kill the critics who denigrate his work. (Don’t worry, that is not in the cards for me.) Overall, the film is littered with cliches, but not so much so that it weighs it down from being an enjoyable B horror movie.
Not rated, 66 minutes.
Extras: The Scream Factory four-disc set (available through shoutfactory.com/shop) includes new audio commentaries with various film historians (an option for those who prefer historical insights and maybe fist-shakingly don’t have the patience for black-and-white movies), theatrical trailers and still galleries.
MUNSTER, GO HOME! (1966)
The primary conceit of the classic 1960s sitcom (which debuted a week after the similarly themed Addams Family) is that the titular family doesn’t recognize they are an unusual breed. Despite their monstrous appearances and stature, their lives are rather ordinary.
The Frankenstein-like father of the family, Herman (a wonderful Fred Gwynne), works at a funeral home. His bride, Lily (Yvonne De Carlo), stays at home and cleans (but makes the house dirty instead of clean). The son, wolf boy Eddie (Butch Patrick), goes to elementary school, while the vampiric Grandpa (a scene-stealing Al Lewis) tinkers in the basement with his experiments. (He makes mean alcoholic beverages.) And let’s not forget the family’s “plain-looking” daughter, Marilyn (Debbie Watson), who becomes the butt of many familial jokes akin to Mark Wahlberg being confused by Will Ferrell’s “unusually attractive” wife in The Other Guys.
Following the wildly popular black-and-white series, the cast reunited for a hilarious movie: the colorized Munster, Go Home!
Filmmaker Earl Bellamy — who directed select episodes of the original black-and-white series and other shows like McHale’s Navy and The Andy Griffith Show — reunited the cast for this hilarious movie. In Munster, Go Home!, Herman inherits a mansion full of ghosts in England and learns he’s the new Lord of Munster Hall. Naturally, he and the family travel overseas to move into the estate, and some fun high jinks ensue along the way.
Munsters, Go Home! is a decent cinematic excursion for the characters, as weird as it is to watch them in color. But the film brings the material out of its televised perimeters to give it more flavor. There’s just some turbulence here and there in making the movie a well-ironed-out narrative. Some parts feel a bit baggy, and the humor doesn’t always stick the landing. When it does, however, you feel like a kid laughing at good dad jokes. Anytime Grandpa speaks, with his Jack Lemmon-like delivery and demeanor, you can’t help but smile — especially when he eats a peel rather than the banana or makes a joke about snacking on the bellhop boy.
Not rated, 97 minutes.
Extras: Surprisingly, the Scream Factory release (available through shoutfactory.com/shop) includes a 2K scan of the 1981 TV movie The Munsters’ Revenge. It’s certainly not as watchable as Munster, Go Home!, but it’s nice to catch up with some of the cast. The actors playing the children’s parts don’t quite match the same energy and charm.
Additionally, there’s a still gallery and a new audio commentary. The commentary track is with actor Butch Patrick and — get this — filmmaker-musician Rob Zombie. If you have ever heard Zombie speak about cinema, you’ll know the man is extremely well versed in horror filmmaking. He knows how to talk intelligently about classic cinema and television, even if his films say otherwise.
Not to be confused with the hugely popular TV series under the same name, this 2001 horror flick is a jumbled mess. Bones seems like the accumulation of two filmmakers at different stages in their career, one more experienced than the other.
The more captivating components involve Snoop Dogg’s pimped-out character, Jimmy Bones, in the year 1979, trying to maintain order in a growing neighborhood for which he’s the respected protector. One day, he’s brutally murdered for not wanting to bring drugs and other illegal activities in area to earn good cash.
The more terrible aspects are all in the present-day happenings when the neighborhood evolves into a ghetto. On paper, that transition sounds as absorbing as Candyman’s commentary on changing districts. But any fresh factors are drenched in early 2000s horror stank, one that puts style over substance and uninteresting characters in place of missed opportunities.
Bones is a bad marriage between classic and new horror, and it deserves a divorce. Fortunately, the bonus features pull the slack to give the newly restored release some value.
Rated R, 96 minutes.
Extras: The Scream Factory release (available through shoutfactory.com/shop) includes new interviews with director Ernest Dickerson, screenwriter Adam Simon, cinematographer Flavio Labino and special effects artist Tony Gardner.
What’s humorous about the interview with Dickerson (also the cinematographer of Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X) is how he opens it: talking about how much marijuana Snoop smoked. He said it didn’t interfere with the work, but he did have to tell him to come in clean for a stunt involving fire.
Rounding off the special features are an audio commentary (with Dickerson, Simon and Snoop), behind-the-scenes featurettes, deleted scenes (with optional commentary), a music video, theatrical press kit and a trailer.