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View From The Couch

Tarantula, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Count Dracula

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THE CLASSIC SCI-FI ULTIMATE COLLECTION (1955-1958). During the 1930s and 1940s, Universal Studios owned the horror genre with its classic spate of titles including Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man. When that well ran dry, the resourceful studio adapted to the times by creating a slew of creature features that added a sci-fi slant to the fantastic proceedings. Five of these titles are collected in this no-frills package.

With the exception of 1954's giant-ant flick Them!, Tarantula (1955) stands out as perhaps the finest of the countless 50s films involving massive, mutant critters on the march. Here, Leo G. Carroll plays the scientist whose experiments lead to the creation of the oversized (and constantly growing) arachnid, which then proceeds to hike across the rocky Western terrain devouring both cattle and humans alike. That's an uncredited Clint Eastwood (in his first year in movies) as the jet squadron leader assigned to bomb the spider in the climactic scene; nice to know that even back then, he was already making our day.

The Mole People (1956) is the weakest picture in the set, though it's not without its merits. John Agar, the stalwart hero of Tarantula, here plays one member of an archaeological expedition that stumbles across two races living below the earth's surface: the brutish creatures of the title and the intelligent yet cruel albinos who treat them as slaves. The monster makeup is inventive, but the plot grows exponentially sillier -- I particularly love how one of the members of the albino civilization, a blonde and blue-eyed beauty (Cynthia Patrick), is considered a freak by the others but serves as the perfect (read: obligatory) love interest for Agar!

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) ranks as one of the best science fiction films of the 1950s -- on the same plateau as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers -- and it's a shame that it's been relegated to this collection rather than afforded its own lavish, extras-laden DVD release. Scripted by the renowned Richard Matheson (adapting his own novel), this expertly combines matinee thrills with more heady ruminations, as a normal man (Grant Williams) passes through a radioactive fog and soon thereafter finds himself growing smaller by the day. Discussions with doctors, dwarves and his own wife soon give way to terrifying battles with the household cat and a spider lurking in the basement. Excellent special effects, a philosophical screenplay and an uncompromising conclusion are integral ingredients in this one-of-a-kind gem.

What makes many of these 50s sci-fi flicks work is their total conviction to the theme at hand, a far cry from many of the campy and condescending fantasy flicks released today. The Monolith Monsters (1957) is a prime example, taking what on paper sounds like an absolutely ludicrous concept and making it work. On the outskirts of a small Western town, a meteor crash has resulted in shards of black rock peppering the landscape; it's soon revealed that water causes these fragments to grow to monstrous proportions, with the hazardous side effect of turning unsuspecting citizens to stone. A killer rock may not sound as enticing or intriguing as a giant spider, but this cleverly devised film serves as an effective slab of sci-fi cinema.

Jack Arnold was one of the unheralded masters of 50s fantasy flicks; among the movies in this set alone, he co-wrote Tarantula and The Monolith Monsters and directed Tarantula, The Incredible Shrinking Man and Monster On the Campus (1958). Here, he and writer David Duncan team up to produce a rousing horror yarn that's occasionally sabotaged by the screenplay's lapses in common sense. Arthur Franz stars as a kindly college professor whose acquisition of a prehistoric fish coincides with the emergence of a murderous Neanderthal man on the university grounds. Wooden Troy Donahue appears in one of his earliest films as a concerned student, and even the dead fish delivers a livelier performance.

The only extras on the DVDs are the films' theatrical trailers.

Tarantula: ***

The Mole People: **

The Incredible Shrinking Man: ***1/2

The Monolith Monsters: ***

Monster On the Campus: **1/2

Extras: *

COUNT DRACULA (1970). In some respects one of the more faithful screen adaptations of Bram Stoker's Dracula, this English-language co-production of Spain, Italy and West Germany finds the prolific Jess Franco (with nearly 200 directing credits to his name) toning down his commonplace sex 'n' gore to present a stately version of the vampire classic. It's a good effort by all, even if it does fall short of complete success. Christopher Lee, who spent many years playing Dracula in Hammer Studios' successful franchise, here forsakes the animal magnetism and portrays the Count as a stuffy aristocrat who becomes visibly younger the more he drinks the blood of innocents. Franco provides an appropriately somber atmosphere for the proceedings, but an obvious low budget (the pack of wolves patrolling the terrain outside Dracula's castle is played by a pack of German shepherds) and wretched performances by the no-name actors in the supporting ranks seriously damage the picture's pedigree. Herbert Lom, best known as the twitching Chief Inspector Dreyfus in The Pink Panther series, was an interesting choice to play Professor Van Helsing (Franco originally tried to snag Vincent Price), while it's amusing to see Klaus Kinski as the insect-munching Renfield, nine years before he graduated to the role of bloodsucker in Werner Herzog's Nosferatu remake. DVD extras include a featurette with Franco discussing the making of the movie, Lee reading from Stoker's novel, and an essay on co-star Soledad Miranda, a rising actress whose death in a car crash (at the age of 27) only enhanced her cult standing.

Movie: **1/2

Extras: **1/2

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