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Home Video Reviews

Looking for something to spice up your annual Halloween horror movie viewing? Then bypass the predictable season offerings like Jason X (2001) or Halloween: Resurrection (2002) and go for something a little more unpredictable and quirky like - Oasis of the Zombies (1983) or The Playgirls and the Vampire (1962). If you're a true horror film connoisseur, then you already know that some of the more outlandish and bizarre entries in the genre come from Europe. And thanks to Image Entertainment, a wide cross section of DVD offerings under the banner heading of The Euroshock Collection are now available for purchase with more titles to come. The current crop is a wild and eclectic assortment that ranges from the baroque stylishness of The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962, a perverse mad doctor thriller from Jesus Franco) to the studied sadism of House of Whipcord (1974, by English director Pete Walker) to the hilarious shockfest, Crimson (1973) starring Spain's most popular horror actor, Paul Naschy.

Easily one of the creepiest entries in the series is The Flesh and the Fiends (1959), a period melodrama based on the famous Burke and Hare case which Robert Louis Stevenson used as the basis for his chiller, The Body Snatcher. Val Lewton produced a memorably atmospheric film version of the latter for RKO in 1945 with Boris Karloff, Henry Daniell and Bela Lugosi but The Flesh and the Fiends is a more sordid affair that perfectly captures Edinburgh circa 1820 and the desperate circumstances that permitted a respected surgeon (Peter Cushing) to turn a blind eye to the methods used by Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Donald Pleasence) to procure bodies for his medical research. Burke and Hare, of course, were not merely providers of fresh corpses for the good doctor but outright murderers who preyed on the weak, the dim-witted and other unfortunates within the slums of the city and eventually brought about their own downfall through greed and sheer carelessness. As played by Rose and Pleasence, the body-snatching duo are quite an odd couple. Sometimes they appear to be nothing more than a pair of harmless, drunken buffoons but there's another side to these sociopaths that is quite deadly. Of the two, Burke is the more mentally challenged while Hare is calculating and predatory, oozing homicidal intent out of every pore in his body. Pleasence is truly chilling in the latter role and is guaranteed to make your skin crawl, particularly in the scene where he leads a despondent, drunken prostitute (Billie Whitelaw) into his lair. The film, directed by John Gilling, is surprisingly grim and presents the murders in an unflinching manner, effectively establishing the cold-blooded nature of the killers. Among the many titles offered in The Euroshock Collection, it probably doesn't rank as the most FUN but it's certainly absorbing and a superior treatment of this oft-filmed story. Two other less effective versions include Burke and Hare (1971) and The Doctor and the Devils (1985), a lavish but uninspired rendition based on a screenplay by Dylan Thomas. The Flesh and the Fiends DVD offers two versions of the film: the original U.K. cut and the infamous continental version which contains nudity.

And speaking of nudity, if you enjoy a little titillation with your horror, you could do worse than The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus (1962), a handsomely mounted Gothic thriller filmed in beautiful black and white by Jesus Franco that is more famous for its still-shocking dungeon torture sequence than its whodunit plot. Surprisingly frank for its era in its depictions of sex and violence, the film seems like an "art film" today and a model of restraint when placed beside contemporary horrors like feardotcom. The story is set in the remote village of Holfen which has been plagued by a series of murders; all the victims have been young women, stabbed to death with an ancient dagger. The villagers all believe the deaths are the result of an ancestral curse involving the Baron Von Klaus, a notorious sadist who perished in the swamp surrounding his castle. The police, however, suspect that Max (Howard Vernon), the current resident of the Baron's castle and a direct descendant of Von Klaus is the culprit. But wouldn't that be a little too obvious? The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus is presented in its 2:35:1 theatrical aspect and looks terrific. This is the French language version of the film with optional English subtitles and the disk also includes two minutes of alternate footage and the original French theatrical trailer.

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, we have Crimson (1973), a queasy mixture of heist drama, mad scientist thriller and erotic horror film. The film begins with a botched jewel robbery in which Jack (Paul Naschy), the criminal leader of the gang, is shot in the head. He's rushed to the country home of a gifted surgeon who is blackmailed (the thugs hold his daughter hostage) into performing a brain transplant on Jack. But first the doc needs a replacement brain and Jack's thugs decide the ideal donor would be Jack's worst enemy - a rival gangster known as 'the Sadist.' (Don't look for logic in this one, just go with it.) So Numbskull and Moron simply kill 'the Sadist,' then transport his body to some remote railroad tracks and wait for a train to come by, effectively decapitating the body so they can rush the head back to the doctor. Crimson alternately rushes and plods into unforeseen and ill-advised directions, constantly threatening to topple over into complete farce but never quite succeeding on any level except pure ineptitude. One crucial flaw in the film is Naschy who is rarely frightening or "out of control" once he receives the brain of 'the Sadist' - he's merely a lumbering dolt in a big head bandage who bears a striking resemblance to John Belushi. Seen in that light, Crimson can be an amusing experience and if you select the English dialogue track, there's the additional oddity of seeing English subtitles accompany dialogue that often contradicts what you're reading. For example, in one scene where a character is shown running across the field, the subtitle offers the expletive "Sh#t" though the character says nothing at the time! One moment of inspired lunacy occurs when Willy, an employee of 'the Sadist,' questions a disco dancer about his boss's disappearance. Gyrating around the mobster, the go-go dancer gives him an absurd line of patter, delivered rapid fire like some fast-talking character out of a Preston Sturges comedy. Yes sir, it's screwball comedy at its finest! The Crimson DVD comes with additional erotic scenes that didn't appear in the theatrical version plus a French trailer and cast and crew filmographies.

Probably the most obscure entry in the series is Graveyard of Horror (1971) and there's a reason for that - it's an extremely slow-moving horror tale about a scientist conducting strange experiments on human cells. It turns out that Dr. Sherrington created a giant lizard-man who's been subsisting on corpses (the local cemetery has been serving as the grocery store) but needs fresh blood for his continued survival. Complications occur when Sherrington's brother Michael appears on the scene, anxious to find out why his wife died in childbirth while he was away. When he digs up her body in the cemetery to perform an autopsy, he finds her grave empty. Though it's supposed to be set in Scotland, Graveyard of Horror was actually filmed in Spain by Miguel Madrid (who is credited here as Michael Skaife) and won the first prize at the 1971 Cine de Terror film festival at Sitges though it's hard to see how in its current form. Taken from a splicey and faded color print, the film looks like it's been on the drive-in circuit for years and it was obviously doctored for its American release - check out that crude title card insert! But there are some truly nutty moments to savor in the film like the scene where Michael's sister-in-law tries to lure him into the bathroom for a seduction but is rebuked and has a tantrum on his bed, stabbing the sheets repeatedly with a letter opener. And there's that strange encounter on the train where Michael soothes himself by playing the harmonica while his co-passenger, a large peasant woman, reveals what she's carrying in her suitcase - a plastic sack of gutted fish - or is it bloody animal entrails? Mostly, the attempts at horror don't work at all. There are too many lame scenes with people in monks' robes and Halloween masks skulking around tombstones or endlessly dull dialogue exchanges that bring the action to a dead stop. The extra feature is really the most appealing aspect of the Graveyard of Horror DVD - a collection of trailers that includes Beast of Blood, The Blood Drinkers and other low budget thrillers distributed by Independent International.

Other titles in the The Euroshock Collection include The Playgirls and the Vampire, a racy little Italian exploitation number that used to air on American television in an edited version as Curse of the Vampire, Aenigma (1987) and Voices From Beyond (1991) - two Lucio Fulci horrors, Crypt of the Living Dead (1973) , British shockers like Doomwatch (1972) and Frightmare (1974), and Tomb of Terror. For more information on the above titles in The Euroshock Collection, visit Image Entertainment.To purchase copies, visit Movies Unlimited.

By Jeff Stafford