*This is the first part of “Karloff’s Bizarre and Final Six Pack,” a series examining Karloff’s final films.
A lot of people have expressed the wish that horror icon Boris Karloff could have ended his career with Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968). But Karloff, on his last leg, pushed himself through six more movies, four of which were the Mexican films for producer Jack Hill and director Juan Ibinez. This last six pack of films is, by consensus, godawful. Why did Karloff do it? According to his biographers, the actor said that he wanted to “die with his boots on.” And he nearly did just that.
This series is not going to be a revisionist look at those six films. They are awful within the accepted meaning of the word. Several of them, however, are downright bizarre products of their time, which now might be looked at as examples of naive surrealism. The films are: House of Evil (1968), Fear Chamber (1968), Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), Cauldron of Blood (1970), Isle of the Snake People (1971), and Alien Terror (1971).
Fear Chamber ranks as one of the weirdest of the lot, and that is saying much. It begins with pseudo-torture of scantily clad women. The scene is soaked in garish sixties colors and a “bleepy” soundtrack. The various female victims are tormented by a goateed chap, wearing turban, sunglasses (in an underground cavern), white gloves, and black turtleneck. With “all the macabre horror of Edgar Allan Poe” these poor sixties chicks are subjected to hot coals and boiling cauldrons.
The scene shifts to the crevice of a volcano where two scientists are “worried about strange frequencies!” Psychotronic narration abounds. “I can’t believe that there exists an underground form of life. If we find it we can electronically understand their messages!” one scientist tells the other (Julissa), who happens to be the daughter of Dr. Mantell (Karloff).
Karloff performs a subdued variation of his mad scientist archetype. His scenes were shot in L.A., by Hill (who also scripted—sort of), while Ibanez shot the remaining scenes (and actors) in Mexico. Karloff was wheelchair-bound at the time, so most of his scenes are staged behind an office desk or lying in bed. Dr. Mantell heads the expedition which discovers the mysterious life form at the center of the earth! “It’s alive!” It’s a rubbery rock of pure crystallized intelligence which, for the good of humanity, needs blood—but not just any blood! When Baron Boris von Frankenstein hooks the rock up to his giant office computer, he discovers that the alien desires the “pure” blood of frightened young women, which will enable it to impart priceless information, mathematical formulae, and secrets of the universe!
So, naturally, Dr. Mantell’s assistants, a dwarf (Santanon) and the scarred hunchback brute Roland ( Yerye Beirute) go after buxom girls, clad only in their bras and panties. Their job is to put the babes in a state of fright. It’s pretty easy to do when you have a created Fear Chamber of tarantulas, pools of bubbling blood, snakes, lizards, watery tentacles, hawks, skeletons, convenient cages, and shifting secret chambers at your disposal. The sets are beautifully cheesy, with a sixties computer room adorned with reel-to-reel tape machines (providing lots of cool noises), seemingly bathed in Christmas tree color wheel lights.
Karloff and his henchman put on a mock black mass act and scare the beejeez out of a girl. Once she passes out, Boris and gang trade their robes for hospital scrubs and do a quickie blood transfusion to the rock, who is now “happy to see them.” The rock makes little dog whimpering noises as its being fed the red substance!
The only problem is the rock only makes empty promises, giving no real secrets. As Karloff’s assistant says so poetically, “I don’t trust that thing.” Roland bonds with the rock. The rock bonds with the reel-to-reel computers. The Fear Chamber employees are a tad over zealous in procuring girls. The weird guy in the turban and gloves sneaks into girls’ bed chambers, the dwarf laughs and vanishes, and Helga the S & M assistant (Isla Vega) has equal cravings for Roland and girls, girls, girls! All this adds up to disaster, in the form of the rock manufacturing a tentacle in order to grab girls and feed itself! Helga could care less. Those girls are just thieves and tramps! Poor Boris discovers a conscience, and practically keels over.
Roland and Helga join forces and keep the supply of bikini babes a comin’. Roland wants his rock friend to tell about the secrets of diamonds so he can be king of the world! But, Helga warns, “you big fat idiot, it’s been lyin’ to us! There are no diamonds. Its just been sending messages, messages, messages to more of its kind, more rocks below who want to take over the world!”
The flaming finale, incorporating stock footage of volcanoes, isn’t exactly Dr. No or even Edgar G.Ulmer, but it’s keeping in spirit with the rest of this mess of a film. The lack of linear narrative in Fear Chamber is actually a plus. One never walked into a 1970s chamber of horrors expecting a coherent experience. Of course, the acting, apart from the ever-professional (but hoarse) Karloff, is, needless to say, atrocious. Additionally, much of it is a lame excuse for late 60’s softcore vignettes, and there’s even a psychedelic rock and roll dance number with a Nancy Sinatra-esque “these boots are made for walkin'” babe in mini-skirt doing a strip tease. On that level, this flick is a hoot, and best enjoyed as part of a baffling drive-in double feature experience. I watched it with Mad Monster Party (1967) which, to me, made perfect sense given that both are essentially cartoons with Boris Karloff and cleavage.
Would this film retain an iota of interest without Boris’ presence? Nah, but I’ll take this “pure” Karloffian trash over the mediocre bourgeoisie trash that Hollywood spews out weekly. And I’ll certainly take it over the indie horror scene trash, which is rendered irredeemable without the benefit of nostalgia for a genre icon.
Surprisingly, the film has been remastered on the Elite label and it looks and sounds quite good. It’s available on Amazon and, even on a decent label, it’s still cheaper than the snacks you just gotta have with it.