Color, 1963, 79 mins. 14 secs.
Directed by Roger Corman
Starring Boris Karloff, Jack Nicholson, Sandra Knight, Dick Miller, Dorothy Neumann, Jonathan Haze
Film Masters (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD), The Film Detective (BD-R) (US R0 HD), HD Cinema Classics (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS
B&W, 1960, 72 mins. 47 secs.
Directed by Roger Corman
Starring Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, Dick Miller, Jack Nicholson
Film Masters (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD), Legend Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC)
One of the strangest horror films in the career of director Roger Corman, the macabre art horror curio The Terror was famously mounted as a quick three or four-day production (for principal photography anyway) after the completion of The Raven for AIP. Stars Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson were kept from the prior film, while Nicholson’s wife at the time, Sandra Knight, was brought on after appearing in Corman’s Tower of London. The cast is rounded out with Corman lucky charms Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze, with Hollywood actress Dorothy Neumann turning in a hammy (and weirdly dubbed) witchy performance as well. The very loose plot revolves around the eerie misadventures of young French lieutenant Andre Duvalier (Nicholson), who’s trying to get back with his regiment but gets waylaid by the appearance of a mysterious young woman (Knight) whom he follows into the sea. His attempts to find out her identity bring him to the home of the reclusive Baron Von Leppe (Karloff), who owns a painting indicating the mystery woman was in fact the Baron’s wife who died two decades earlier.
There’s nothing really remotely terrifying about this film, but as a patchwork experiment it’s certainly still a fascinating oddity with Karloff and Nicholson offering very different acting styles. Also noteworthy is the astonishing roster of names behind the camera, many of whom were enlisted to do some additional shooting for months after the main Karloff scenes were completed (including Nicholson, who directed some of the climax). Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, and Jack Hill all shot various portions of what ended up on screen, and as usual Corman-Poe veteran Daniel Haller did the striking art direction (which is augmented with stock shots pilfered from Corman’s The Fall of the House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum). You also get a rich score by the great Ronald Stein, who usually gets overlooked in favor of Les Baxter, and some occasionally startling moments of grue for a ’63 Corman film including a gloppy series of closing shots. Also notable is the ambitious flood climax, which was later used to memorable effect in Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (also with Karloff).
The Terror was produced by Roger and Gene Corman’s Filmgroup (along with titles like Dementia 13, T-Bird Gang, and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women), whose entire library was never formally copyrighted and fell into the public domain. AIP released The Terror in theaters (with the negative passing into the hands of MGM), but since then it’s appeared on numerous labels in pretty lousy condition. That also meant it turned up on TV far more regularly than most of its peers, winning fans along like the way like Stephen King (who used it to diss Little Shop of Horrors in his book Danse Macabre). PD company HD Cinema Classics issued it in a Blu-ray/DVD bundle that continued their tradition of slathering as much smeary noise reduction as possible over the image, but that was eclipsed by the BD-R release from 2016 courtesy of The Film Detective. The image is shockingly good given the film's history despite the somewhat uneven nature of the production (those blown-up stock shots from scope Poe films are always going to be a problem, as well as some dupey printing in the prologue and a few other shots). Some great colorful gel lighting finally pops out as dramatically as it should, and the results are surprisingly better than the only other prior HD rendering of the film created for broadcast on MGM MD, which looks much browner and duller (with less image info as well).
After going of circulation fairly quickly, what appears to be the same master from the Film Detective release got its first pressed release in 2023 as a two-disc set from Film Masters. The packaging notes it as a new HD restoration but the film looks the same here, which is fine since there was nothing wrong anyway, and the DTS-HD MA 2.0 English audio sounds perfectly fine (and comes with optional English SDH subtitles and the usual superfluous Dolby Digital 2.0 mono option). Here the film is augmented with a new audio commentary by C. Courtney Joyner and Steve Haberman, who do their usual thorough job of appraising the film's merits, putting it in context with Corman's output and parsing through the tangled production and editorial process that gave us the final result. "Ghosts in the Machine: Art & Artifice in Roger Corman's Celluloid Castle" (44m12), an in-depth video essay by the Flying Maciste Brothers themselves, Howard S. Berger and Kevin Marr, presents a history of Corman's career up to that point, the recurring cinematic fingerprints in his work across multiple genres, his use of iconic horror directors, and of course, the meaning of the climactic dummy death. A new recut HD trailer is also included.
The second Blu-ray in the Film Masters set is devoted to another Filmgroup PD perennial, 1960's The Little Shop of Horrors, another Corman quickie reportedly shot in two days (more or less). Essentially a Borscht Belt variation on his A Bucket of Blood from the previous year, this is the tragicomic story of downtrodden Seymour Krelboind (Haze) who works at a skid row floral shop for the ultra-cheap Gravis Mushnick (Welles). Infatuated with coworker Audrey (Joseph), he finds a chance to have all his dreams come true when he grows a unique plant he calls Audrey Jr., which unfortunately subsists on human blood and can talk. Meanwhile other eccentrics pop in and out including Seymour's hypochondriac mother (Myrtle Vail), foul-tempered dentist Phoebus Farb (John Shaner), and flower-eating customer Burson Fouch (Dick Miller). As Seymour inadvertently keeps coming up with fresh bodies to help Audrey Jr. keep growing, he realizes his popularity may be coming at a very steep price.
Corman isn't exactly famous for his deft comic touch, but his two stabs at horror comedies back to back are among his best-loved films -- with this one in particular benefiting from very heavy TV exposure well into the '80s as well as its releases on countless video labels (in terrible quality) making it an easy impulse buy. It also didn't hurt that this featured a memorable one-scene appearance by Nicholson, here as a masochist dental patient, which was enough to land his face on the cover of the film's widest VHS release from Vestron. Of course, the film went on to inspire the legendary stage musical by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken as well as its own film adaptation by Frank Oz in 1986, both of which omitted elements like Seymour's mom, Miller's character, and some Dragnet parody elements. The first genuinely good scan of the film turned up from Legend Films in 2008 on DVD and on Blu-ray in 2012; they were very gung ho about colorizing and made that version the headliner, but the Blu-ray also featured the same excellent, pristine transfer in its black-and-white version essentially as a bonus feature. Like the previous version on video and TV, it was presented extremely open matte with cavernous dead space at the top and bottom leaving no question that it was intended to be projected at 1.85:1. (A similar fate befell other films like Plan 9 from Outer Space that have yet to be correctly framed on home video.) For some reason there are different edits of this film floating around; many excise the animated Filmgroup logo at the beginning (such as the dupey one shown on The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs), while others like the Legend Films one entirely drop the closing credits. The Film Masters presentation appears to be from the same source as the Legend release with identical color timing and detail, but with two major improvements: it's finally framed correctly at 1.85:1 for the first time (which makes a huge difference), and it's 100% complete with the closing credits restored and sourced from film. Here you get an excellent audio commentary with Haze and Justin Humphreys, who start off with his break into acting while working at a gas station and going through his Corman days with plenty of tales from the sets (including this film). Also included are a new trailer and Hollywood Intruders: The Filmgroup Story: Part Two (17m14s), with Joyner continued his survey of the Corman company (started on Film Masters' Beast from Haunted Cave release) staring with the Puerto Rican-shot Last Woman on Earth and Creature from the Haunted Sea before to this film and contributions of screenwriter Charles B. Griffith. A booklet is also included with two essays, Joyner's "Boris Karloff and the Long Shadow of Poe" and Mark McGee's "Faster! Faster!"
THE TERROR (Film Masters)
THE TERROR (The Film Detective)
Updated review on December 2, 2023