American, Stephen Reinhart (Nick Adams) sets out to pay a visit to an English girlfriend, Susan (Susan Farmer), who he met while she was studying in the US. After disembarking the train at a local station in the picturesque village of Arkham -- where Susan is now living with her parents at their family estate -- the peaceful summer stillness soon reveals not only the village's tranquil beauty, but also a thoroughly inhospitable welcome from the sullen inhabitants! Shopkeepers, some ale drinkers outside a local pub, and the owner of a small bicycle rental firm alike, all turn their backs or sneer in apparent disgust whenever he asks for directions to the Witley House! (In other words, a typical English welcome!) Reinhart eventually realises he is not going to get directions, let alone be offered a lift to his sweetheart's residence, so he sets out on a long walk which takes him through a mysteriously desiccated and parched landscape - a far cry from the vibrant summer colour of the quiet village he's just left behind. As gloom descends, he finally reaches the Witley estate; outlined against the mottled grey sky and wreathed in a dead and decaying vegitation, the old manor is hardly a welcoming prospect; and neither are the KEEP OUT signs or the bear-trap someone has thoughtfully placed behind a hole in a rotting hedge at the side of the rusty locked gates!
Reinhart avoids the trap and makes it to the front door of the sepulchral manor house unaware that he is being observed by a shadowy figure skulking amid the flora! His hollow tapping at the door reveals that it is already open, and, when nobody replies to his calls, he slips inside. After looking around for a while, Reinhart eventually notices the old man in the wheelchair who has silently wheeled up behind him! The man presents himself as Nahum Witley (Boris Karloff), Susan's father! Unfortunately, he is no more welcoming than the villagers, even though Reinhart informs him that Susan wrote asking him to visit! Eventually, relief comes in the form of a much chirpier Susan who has been upstairs all this time, attending to her sick mother, Letitia (Freda Jackson). It seems Letitia wants to see Reinhart as well, and when alone with the sick woman -- who is veiled behind heavy gauze drapes and only barely glimpsed in the half-light of the musty room -- she demands that he take Susan away from the house as soon as possible! It seems all is not well on the neglected estate: a maid has disappeared under mysterious circumstances and death and decay has been steadily encroaching on the inhabitants of the village ever since the death of Nahum's eccentric father. Evidence of this is presented to Reinhart later that evening when the elderly servant Merwyn (Terence de Marney) drops dead in the middle of serving dinner!
So begins American International Pictures' second attempt at adapting the work of H.P. Lovecraft for the silver screen. A few years earlier, Roger Corman's "The Haunted Palace" had been quite successful in revitalising Corman's costumed, Gothic melodrama vehicles for Vincent Price. Their creaky plots had previously mined the work of Edgar Allan Poe for inspiration and because these films never had that much to do with their source material in the first place (beyond sharing their titles and featuring stories built around Poe's general themes and motifs), it didn't prove too much of a stretch to appropriate Lovecraft's story 'The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward' and graft Poe's name onto the work! Thus,"The Haunted Palace" was sold as "Edgar Allan Poe's The Haunted Palace" and followed a similar template to previous Corman/Poe adaptations, with a little Lovecraftian flavour added here and there to freshen up the formula. Despite the obviousness of this strategy, the film is a quite magnificent visual feast which was only topped by Corman's next film, the stunning "Masque Of The Red Death".
"Masque Of The Red Death" was the first of Corman's Poe films to be shot in England. A break in filming afforded his long-time art director and production designer Daniel Haller a chance to helm AIP's adaptation of the 1927 Lovecraft tale "The Colour Out Of Space". Shot under the title "The House At The End Of The World", the film ended up saddled with "Monster Of Terror" as its moniker in the UK, and the truly atrocious "Die, Monster, Die!" in the US. Hardly titles that conjure up the preternatural dread of Lovecraft's unique tales! Haller had been instrumental in creating the low budget lushness of the Price/Corman/Poe films in his previous roles as art and production designer, and his directorial debut feels very much like one of these productions in both its look and structure. Despite being filmed in Britain with a predominantly British cast, and utilising Oakely Court for the house exteriors, the spirit of Corman's AIP drive-in Gothic features is evident from the Les Bowie created psychedelic swirls of the title sequence, right up to the generic house-bursting-into-flames finale. In-between, just about every major scene from "The Fall Of The House Of Usher" is reworked leaving little room during the rest of the film's slender seventy-nine minute running time for anything that truly resembles Lovecraft's original story: the grotesque family portraits lining the walls behind a winding staircase; a malign family "curse" expressed through obscure, debilitating illness; protracted walks through dusty rooms at night by candlelight -- the screenplay simply ticks each of them off one by one! The lazy, derivative scripting really debilitates the first half of the movie and instead we have to fall back on the gorgeous eye candy of the 2.35:1 framed ColourScope cinematography and a deliciously crusty performance from a (by now) visibly crumbling Karloff for our pleasures.
Karloff is a reliable standby of course, and that's a good job in this case, because there are times when -- without his performance -- there would be little on-screen entertainment to be had aside from watching the paint dry on the Sheperton studio sets! By 1965, the horror icon's health was on the slide and had been ever since he contracted pneumonia while filming Mario Bava's "Black Sabbath" in Rome several years earlier. Consequently, he spends the whole of "Die, Monster, Die" in a wheelchair, although this doesn't seem to hinder his character's ability to get up and down the old mansion's huge staircase or down to his secret cellar sanctuary despite the conspicuous absence of ramps and lifts in the mansion! Karloff's dolefully sombre intonation and the craggy frostiness of his imperviousness countenance helps make every piece of doggerel the actor is required to impart sound like it actually has some kind of depth to it (Karloff's co-star Freda Jackson is said - at one point - to have complained on set, "I can't speak these lines, they're unspeakable!") something which can't be claimed for the un-engaging American lead, Nick Adams who sleepwalks through his thinly written role. Freda Jackson spends the whole film hidden behind a veil in a darkened room but still manages to convey some degree of emotion with great authority, while Susan Farmer is believable as the "English Rose" love interest -- just waiting for the climax of the film for her chance to scream and be saved from danger by the boringly rugged hero.
Thankfully, the film iself is saved from fading away into total obscurity by a bonkers final third which sees it suddenly transformed into a weird, B-movie crossbreed: part science-fiction, part crazed Gothic melodrama -- the producers throw in every successful drive-in movie ingredient there's ever been, regardless of genre, and mix them all up into one incoherent but enormously satisfying stew! The dark family secrets that concern Nahum and Letitia's clandestine murmurings seem to hint that Nahum's eccentric father, Corbin, was on a quest to contact the dark denizens of another dimension in the house's dank, foreboding cellar (which is decked out in baroque skulls designs); it eventually transpires that Nahum is now keeping an alien meteorite in that cellar, and it is its florescent-green, radiation glow that is causing the sickness that's spreading through the house and the rest of the village. When the meteorite crash-landed in a nearby forest, Nahum's father brought it into the cellar and Nahum now uses lumps of it to grow giant mutant vegetables in his green house! He also keeps a menagerie of mutant monsters in a back room, also victims of the meteorite's radiation! It is in these scenes that Haller's art design background really comes into play. Like Corman's Poe pictures, every corner of the Scope frame is utilised and the monster and mutant vegetable effects are crazy, colourful and effectively rendered. The film's most memorable sequence comes when a radiation-crazed Letitia finally goes mad and attempts to kill everybody (suddenly gaining superhuman strength that allows her to punch through doors in the process) before her face finally disintegrates altogether in an unusually graphic riot of seething, bloody puss! There is a somewhat unconvincing finale that involves Karloff getting zapped with a lethal dose of radiation and then chasing his daughter and her American boyfriend around the house -- but this losses much of its impact because it is obviously not Karloff we are watching here, but a stunt man wrapped in bacofoil!
Scream Factory brings Die Monster Die to Blu-ray in an attractive 2.34:1 1080p transfer that looks quite clean and vibrant considering both the age of the source material and the lesser quality DVD releases it's seen over the years. It's not quite the revelation we're used to with Scream Factory's releases, but it's certainly the best the film has looked on any home medium, and, for that reason alone, makes for an easy recommendation for fans of this divisive film. The DTS HD Master Audio Mono track is equally clean and crisp, and quite servicable. As for extra materials, sadly (but, perhaps, expectedly) there's merely an HD version of the film's original trailer.
A trivial, Americanised piece of work then, but the Oakley Court and Sheperton back lot exteriors (recognisable from many Hammer and Amicus films), as well as the presence of Karloff, make it an interesting footnote in British horror, and a nice addition to Scream Factory's ever-growing collection of oddities and forgotten gems.