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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Fear Chamber

In 1968, Columbia Pictures partnered with a mexican studio (Azteca) to produce four ultra-cheap films. All four starred the aged Boris Karloff. His health was very poor (he would die of emphysema less than a year later), so his parts were shot in Hollywood, with Karloff mostly seated or lying down. The bulk of each film was shot in Mexico. The two sets edited together into a movie. The Fear Chamber (TFC) is one of those two sci-fi cheapies. They would be released in America in 1971.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A research team is sent by Dr. Karl Mantell (Karloff) to a deep mexican cave to investigate the source of mysterious signals they picked up in Los Angeles. The team finds the source: a rock that is alive! (Fast forward a few months) At a "Beneficent Foundation: Foreign Employment for Young Women", hapless candidates stay overnight. Once asleep, she is transferred to a stereotypic house of horrors, complete with snakes, skeletons, creepy people and druids performing live sacrifice ceremonies. When she faints, she is whisked to an operating room where some of her blood is withdrawn. Mantell and his team extract a rare hormone called Vericulon, produced by the human body when in great fear. This is what they must feed the intelligent rock to keep it alive. Mantell's daughter, Corine, and her boyfriend-scientist Mark, don't like the rock thing. Karl thinks it has valuable secrets about the universe, but if they don't learn some secrets soon, he will call off the experiment. Karl is bed-ridden with an illness. His assistant Helga and the lumbering Roland don't want the experiment to stop. Helga senses some opportunistic power value. The rock has some telepathic connection with Roland, and promises him diamonds. A nosy young woman ( a reporter? private investigator?) sneaks into the rock's chamber is is taken by one of it's tentacles. Her body instantly ages. Rocky is happy now. Helga and Roland conspire to feed the rock more pretty expendable women. Rocky has taken over control of the lab's computer and prints out tantalizing bits of the formula for diamonds. Roland dispatches the other creepy weird minions, then suspects that Helga is trying to cheat him out of his diamonds. He throws her to Rocky. Karl and Corine enter. Rocky grabs Corine, but Karl tells her to have no fear and Rocky will let go. It does. Mark and Karl decide that Rocky must die, so work on the computer to "play back" Rocky's growth. It shrivels to a charcoal briquette. Meanwhile, Roland is in the original cave looking for his diamonds. Other rock-things rise up and get him. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
TFC is just so bizarre that you can't help but watch, mouth agape, wondering what the heck is going on. The film is solidly in the Plan 9 sub-genre of oddities. Karloff manages (despite being weak and bed-ridden) to give the film some dignity.

Cultural Connection
The Return of Decadence -- Movies since the very late 60s would get raunchier and grosser. TFC is a poor man's sampler platter of things to come -- more blood, more gore, more nudity, torture and death. This, because the old self-censorship guidelines of the MPAA were abandoned in 1966. The old "Hays Code" was a list of restrictions the movie industry imposed upon themselves. They eager to dispel the (ticket-buying) public's perception that movies were full of moral corruption. Indeed, during the "Roaring" 1920s, nudity and violence were becoming more common. In 1930, many studios formed the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association. (the MPPDA, later the MPAA) The Code prohibited, among other things: profanity, nudity, illegal drug use, perversion, etc. Gray areas included gore, violence and sex. Too long of a kiss, or too tight of a hug sometimes crossed the line and had to be edited or re-shot. The MPAA "seal" in the opening credits was the public's assurance that the movie's content was family fare.
By the late 60s, with the "Sexual Revolution" and all, the ticket-buying public were already corrupted and clamoring for more raw sex and gory violence. The MPAA abandoned the old Hays Code in favor of the letter rating system, G, PG, R, etc.

Four Bad Brothers -- In 1968, Columbia and Azteca shot four ultra-cheap films back to back in just a few weeks. The four were intended as cheap drive-in fodder. House of Evil and Island of the Snake People were simple (bad) horror films. Incredible Invasion (aka Alien Terror) and. The Fear Chamber (aka The Torture Chamber) were horror/sci-fi hybrids. The four films were co-directed and co-written by Jack Hill (except for Alien Terror) and Juan Ibenez for the mexican footage. The four films shared some actors too. Hill directed the parts with Karloff, in Hollywood. Ibenez directed the rest in Mexico.

Rocky Life -- The notion of a "living" rock creature was not common in '68, but not entirely new either. Star Trek (TOS) had "Horta", a silicon rock creature in the episode "Devil in the Dark" ('67). Also in 1967 was Night of the Big Heat which featured intelligent rock aliens. Before those, however, was Hammer's Jimmy Sangster, who had his living magma thing in 1956 in X: The Uknown. His rock-thing also craved nourishment that humans had (isotopes) and was theorized to be an ancient form of earth life which evolved deep within the earth.

Sad Scientist -- Karloff plays the classic Frankenstein scientist. On the one hand, he is driven to uncover "secrets" which will benefit all of mankind. On the other hand, he is so blinded by his goal that he's able to do terrible things -- like terrorizing young women then stealing some of their blood. Karl shares with many of the other "mad" scientist characters, that moment of sadness when he realizes that his wonderful dream for humanity yielded only a deadly monster.

Strange Sampler -- Hill and Ibenez wrote into TFC's screenplay a bevy of bizarre characters. Their various shades of strange are not explained, or even necessary for the plot. Never mind the question of why a scientist would have such a motley crew. TFC has a voyeur dwarf, a lecherous men in sunglasses and a turban, a closet sadist woman scientist with either vague lesbian or misogynist leanings, a lumbering idiot fascinated with diamonds.

Stripper Anyone? -- The American version (of 1971) is said to have an edited version of the scene in which Helga and Roland bring a stripper down to the rock's chamber. They play some clashy saxophone music and she bumps and grinds down to her black underwear. In the American version, as soon as she gets her bra off, Rocky grabs her with a tentacle before any nudity occurs. The mexican version has some bare chest shots before Rocky makes his move. Apparently Rocky liked other hormones than just fear hormones. The scene itself is a throwaway, doing nothing to advance the plot.

Bottom line? TFC is a very low-budget scattershot movie in the spirit of 50s B movies. Fans of Ed Wood Jr. sorts of movies can enjoy its weird mix of exploitation and stereotypes. Anyone looking for thoughtful sci-fi will go away hungry. Fans of the great Boris Karloff can smile at how he can bring some class to even a low-brow production like this.


Randall Landers said...

Karloff is often criticized for these movies made at the end of his career, but I've always enjoyed them.

Randall Landers said...

I always enjoy movies like these. It shows how Boris Karloff can always add a touch of class to a low-grade horror sf flick.

Nightowl said...

Yes, I've read the criticism. True, they are pretty low-quality movies -- sometimes bordering on trashy. We can't fault Karloff's work ethic though. Even though he was 81, sick with emphysema and could barely stand, he kept on acting. No quiet rocking-chair retirement for Boris.

Darci said...

The business with scared womens' blood having special properties appeared again in Al Adamson's Dracula vs. Frankenstein. That was another of Adamson's patchwork movies, made from pieces filmed between 1969 and 1971. I wonder if he lifted the idea from this film?
J. Carrol Naish portrayed Dr. Durea, who used the substance for his transplant experiments.