• The Eurocrypt Of Christopher Lee Collection (Severin Films) Blu-ray Review Part 1 of 2

    The Eurocrypt Of Christopher Lee Collection (Severin Films) Blu-ray Review Part 1 of 2
    Released by: Severin Films
    Released on: May 25th, 2021.
    Director: Warren Kiefer, Luciano Ricci, Guiseppe Vegezzi, George Ardisson, Camillo Mastrocinque, Terence Fisher, Harald Reinl
    Cast: Christopher Lee, Gaia Germani, Philippe Leroy, Adriana Ambesi, Lx Baker, Karin Dor, Dieter Eppler
    Year: 1964/1963/1964/1962/1971-72/1967
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    The Eurocrypt Of Christopher Lee Collection – Movie Review:

    Severin Films brings together a fantastic selection of content relating to the late, great Sir Christopher Lee, ranging from well-known films to obscure television shows to all manner of extra features, releasing it as The The Eurocrypt Of Christopher Lee Collection. Here’s a look at the feature films included in this set, before we go on to the extra content.

    Disc One - The Castle Of The Living Dead:

    First up is 1964’s The Castle Of The Living Dead, which was rated X by the British Board Of Film Censors upon its original theatrical release. The film opens with a genuinely cool opening credits sequence before introducing us to a troupe of theatrical performers who are staging a hanging for a rather large audience. After their event, the group – made up of Dart (Luciano Pigozzi), Bruno (Jacques Stany), his sister Laura (Gaia Germani), a deaf-mute named Johnny (Luigi Bonos) and a mischievous dwarf named Nick (Anthony Martin) – are offered three gold pieces each should they agree to come to the castle belonging to Lord Drago (Christopher Lee) and perform for him.

    They agree and are chauffeured to the castle, accompanied by a soldier named Eric (Philippe Leroy) and Drago's servant, Sandro (Mirko Valentin). Along the way they encounter an aged female hunchback (Donald Sutherland) who warns them to stay away from the film's titular location. Of course, they pay her no mind. Upon their arrival they meet Drago and are more than a little taken aback by the fact that his place is filled with stuffed animal carcasses – Drago is a fan of taxidermy, it seems. But money is money, especially to Bruno. They all dine together and then the truth about Drago's intentions start to reveal themselves, but not before Sergeant Paul (Sutherland again) and his men start poking about the weird old castle.

    A wonderfully atmospheric slice of gothic horror shot in Italy with an international cost, The Castle Of The Walking Dead works really well. Featuring second unit work from none other than Michael Reeves, the film makes great use of some really effective locations (that castle setting is great and the truly odd ‘Park Of The Monsters’ where some of the exteriors were shot is perfect!), the film’s ninety-minute running time moves along quite briskly while still doing a nice job of establishing the main characters and setting up all of the eerie events that take place in the second half of the picture.

    As to the cast, Lee steals the show here. He’s perfect for the role of Count Drago, some unusual makeup work doing a great job of accentuating the intensity of his eyes and making his character almost look a bit like a corpse himself. Pigozzi and Stany are pretty entertaining in their roles while the beautiful Gaia Germani (who some will instantly recognize from Hercules In the Haunted World) plays her part very well. It’s also interesting to see Donald Sutherland pop up here in a dual role. You might not recognize him as the old hunchback woman, the makeup job on that character is quite strong, but he definitely lends his quirky screen presence to that part and especially to the part of Sergeant Paul.

    Disc Two - Challenge The Devil aka Katarsis:

    Written and directed by Giuseppe Vegezzi and released in 1963, Challenge The Devil (originally meant to be released as Katarsis), is an odd entry in Lee’s filmography. The story? After an opening scene, we witness the attempted murder of a criminal named Carlo who hides out from his would-be assassin in a church. Here he meets a friend of his named Padre Peo Remigio (Pierro Vida). Carlo's whole deal was a blackmail scheme but the evidence he needed to pull it off got stolen by a beautiful exotic dancer named Alma Del Rio. In an odd twist Remigio tracks her down at the club she works at and figure if he tells her how and why he became a priest she'll hand over the goods. Some night club performances pad the film a bit here, and then we get a gander at Ms. Del Rio as she struts her stuff.

    From here, Remigio talks to Del Rio for quite a while and he does, in fact, talk about how he became a priest. We also meet a group of thrill seekers led by Gianni (Mario Zakarti) and a poet named Gugo (George Ardisson) who, along with Remigio and three lady friends, eventually wind up heading into a weird old castle where they meet an old man dubbed Mephistoles (Lee, of course). He offers them money to find the body of his deceased wife so that she can be given the burial she rightly deserves. The group seems game and so they set about to explore the old castle where fairly random creepy things occur - they even have a weird bongo party!

    Vegezzi likely had good intentions but his production turned out to be a bit of a mess (check out the extras for some truly fascinating details on the film’s history). It starts off as a crime movie of sorts, spends enough time in a nightclub to almost qualify as a Jess Franco movie, offers up extended bouts of fairly standard gothic horror and then includes some weird beatnik style substance abuse-inspired freak out sequences. Tonally, it’s all over the place, but it’s pretty entertaining even if it can be tough to make sense of it all.

    Those intrigued by Lee’s top billing may be disappointed to learn that he’s only in the movie for ten or fifteen minutes, but he makes an impression here even if he is slathered in some old age makeup that isn’t always entirely convincing. It’s a shame that his voice was dubbed in this production, but his screen presence is still a big part of what makes this movie as interesting to watch as it is. The rest of the cast do fine with the material, but the script never seems fully realized here and so a lot of character development and specific motivations are never properly fleshed out and you’ll find yourself scratching your head a few times trying to make sense of it all.

    The scenes that take place inside the castle are quite nicely shot. These sequences are pretty atmospheric and there are a few neat ideas at play here, including liberal doses of very fake but no less awesome cobwebs and a neat scene in a room full of mirrors that is actually pretty tense.

    Disc Three - Crypt Of The Vampire:

    An Italian-Spanish co-production, The Crypt Of The Vampire (also known as Terror In The Crypt) is yet another solid slice of gothic horror with Lee in a good role. When the film begins, Count Von Karnstein (Christopher Lee) is starting to believe that his family is cursed when his daughter, Laura (Adriana Ambesi), becomes plagued by horrible dreams wherein she discovers various relatives with all of the blood sucked out of their bodies. The Count figures that since one of his distant relatives, Sira Von Karnstein, was executed for practicing witchcraft years ago, that they are prime candidates for supernatural hijinks.

    To try and sort out the 'why' and 'how' of the curse that he presumes is upon them, the Count brings in a family history specialist (Jose Campos) to try and figure out what his late witchy relative may have looked like but unbeknownst to either one of them or to Laura – at least initially - the housekeeper is also into witchcraft and she manages to summon Sira's spirit back from the dead. When a woman roughly the same age as Laura named Lyuba (Ursula Davis) is dropped off at the castle by her mother for a while, Laura quickly beings to show a rather unhealthy obsession for the new guest. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Laura's dreams seem to be fast becoming a reality as one by one various people living in and around the castle start showing up dead with the blood drained out of their bodies by way of two fang sized holes in their necks. Could Laura really be possessed by the spirit of Sira all these years after her execution or something else at work here?

    Stylishly directed by Camillo Mastrocinque (under the alias of Thomas Miller), Crypt Of The Vampire has got atmosphere to spare – this is a fantastic looking movie, almost as macabre looking as Caste Of Blood with the old castle making for a great location on which to base a horror film. The black and white cinematography makes excellent use of the eerie locations and really does a great job of capturing some of the emptiness and loneliness of the tombs and catacombs that make up much of the area where the movie takes place. Even if the story doesn't work for you, it's hard not to be impressed by some of the visuals and much of the imagery that has been conjured up for this film.

    In terms of the story itself, it's not bad, but it's not all that original either. What it does do, however, is throw a few interesting twists into the family curse plot by way of some fairly suggestive sexual overtones involving Laura and one of the other characters and some kinky, trippy hallucination scenes that add a welcome dash of weirdness to the proceedings. The movie is far from graphic and it leaves much more to the imagination than it actually shows but it does definitely drop a few hints here and there that are fun to pick up on if you like paying attention and reading into things. The violence is also quite subdued here, with really only a few slightly bloody bite marks and a strange scene involving a hanging hunchback making up the entire body count of the film. It's obvious that the filmmakers wanted this one to succeed more on atmosphere than on exploitation.

    The performances in the film are quite good with Lee cast against type as the hero in this film which makes for a nice change of pace. He's got charm and charisma aplenty and he does a fine job making the most out of his commanding screen presence. Adriana Ambesi makes for a sympathetic character and she does fine with the material here in addition to really looking the part.

    The Eurocrypt Of Christopher Lee Collection – Blu-ray Review:

    The Castle Of The Living Dead is framed at 1.661 widescreen and presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition taken from a new 4k scan of the Italian negative (which is odd as it opens with a BBFC X-rating certificate) and taking up 26.5GBs of space on a 50GB disc. Overall this looks very nice, showing virtually no print damage at all while retaining the expected amount of film grain. Contrast can look a little hot here and there but generally it looks fine. Detail is quite strong here, and not just in close up shots either, and that really adds to the atmosphere. There aren’t any noticeable issues with compression, noise reduction or edge enhancement and all in all, this looks great.

    Challenge The Devil is also framed at 1.66.1 widescreen and taken from a new 2k scan of the Italian negative. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer takes up 23GBs of space on the 50GB disc. This transfer also looks very good and is comparable to the quality of the first feature. The black and white image shows strong contrast and very good detail with nice, inky black levels. The picture quality is also very clean, showing very little print damage at all while still retaining the expected amount of natural film grain. It looks excellent in motion.

    Crypt Of The Vampire is framed at 1.85.1 widescreen and the AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer on this disc is taken from a new 2k scan of a fine-grain 35mm master print. Taking up 23GBS of space on a 25GB disc, this looks a little shakier than the first couple of movies in the set but is still a pretty massive improvement over how the film has looked on home video in the past. There’s a bit of flicker noticeable in some spots and maybe just a tiny bit of crush in a couple of the film’s darkest moments but overall, this looks very good. Detail is quite strong, contrast looks nice, black levels are solid and there aren’t any noticeable issues with compression or noise reduction. Any print damage that shows up here is minor.

    The only audio option on The Castle Of The Living Dead is a 24-bit English language DTS-HD Mono track. Optional SDH subtitles are provided in English only. The track is properly balanced and free of any audible hiss or distortion. Range is understandably limited but the score has some nice depth to it.

    Challenge Of The Devil gets an Italian language 24-bit DTS-HD Mono track with optional English and subtitles. Audio quality here is fine, the track has a little bit of silence in a couple of spots but is otherwise perfectly clean and clear. The levels are balanced and there no real problems here to note.

    Crypt Of The Vampire gets 24-bit DTS-HD Mono options in both English and Italian audio tracks with English SDH subtitles provided that appear to translate the English track, no the Italian one. No problems here, both tracks sound quite good, though the English track features Lee’s real voice and is therefore the better of the two options. Either way, they sound fine, quite clean and free of any hiss or distortion.

    Extras are spread across the set as follows:

    Disc One - The Castle Of The Living Dead:

    Extras on the first disc start off with an audio commentary with Mondo Digital‘s Nathaniel Thompson and film writer Troy Howarth. They start by talking about how the debate surrounding Warren Kiefer's involvement in the film, how the film never got a proper legitimate release on disc in North America and how hard it was to get ahold of a good copy for a very long time. They talk about the difference between the Italian and English credits and how the Italian cut credits Herbert Wise (who was Luciano Ricci). They note how the film is Donald Sutherland's debut in a duel role, how the film is a great example of the Italian Gothic film, similarities between this film and Castle Of Blood, why black and white works better than color for this film, the use of violence in the film, details on the other cast and crew members involved in the picture, where Lee's career was at this point and how he came to make a few pictures in Italy, details on Warren Kiefer's mysterious career, Sutherland's abilities to steal scenes in the picture, Lee's occasional penchant to take lesser roles for the paycheck (Howling II is rightly used as an example here!), Lee's tendency to push away from his status as a horror actor and quite a bit more.

    A second audio commentary features film writer Kat Ellinger, who has also worked on Michael Reeves documentary. She notes right from the start about the mythic proportions of the film and the way that the film's history has been rewritten a few times and how the details were more than a little dicey for years. She starts off by noting the Reeves connection, which can't be discounted, and then goes on to talk about the film's allure and why it's enjoyed more longevity than other films made around the same time thanks to the speculation surrounding the truth of its genesis. She then talks about the film's distribution, how these different non-Italian people involved in filmmaking wound up in Italy making this film, similarities to the Dracula story in the first twenty-minutes or so, the quality of Lee's production as well as the effectiveness of his makeup, the portrayal of the 'woman in peril' in this film compared to other gothic films and plenty more, tying it back to Reeves' career quite frequently throughout.

    From the Castle to the Academy is a massive fifty-two-minute interview with master producer Paul Maslansky who talks about how he played in a Dixieland Band in college and got drafted when he was out of school only to then, after driving tanks, get assigned to the Drum & Bugle Corp at For Benning. After his service, he followed his family to Kansas City where he got involved in the local jazz scene, made some connections and then wound up in Paris and sort of fell into producing a movie called Letter From Paris. One thing led to another and he got a job in Copphenhagen teaching, but still kept connections to the film industry and eventually wound up in Rome. This led to producing The Castle Of The Living Dead. Along the way, he goes into quite a bit of detail about, covering some of the dangers of working with real torches in a cave, working on the story with Warren Keifer, casting the film and bringing Christopher Lee on board to give the film some name recognition, scouting locations for the film, how Michael Reeves came to be involved in the film and more. He then goes on to talk about a lot of the things he was involved with after the film, including covering the war in Israel, working on Sudden Terror and finding locations for that film, working on Hard Times with Charles Bronson and plenty of other films like Damnation Alley, King, Love Child and the Police Academy movies.

    The Castle Of The Mystery Man is a thirteen-minute featurette with Roberto Curti, the Author of Mavericks Of Italian Cinema, on the life and work of writer/director Warren Kiefer. He starts by explaining the confusion around Kiefer's work and aliases, Kiefer's early days in New Jersey, how he got into writing and meeting Edward Abbey, the success of his first novel Pax and how he soon wound up in Rome, the Middle East and then Africa. He then covers how he came to meet Maslansky, their work together on the Long Ships and then their collaboration on The Castle Of The Living Dead (aka House Of Blood), which was originally meant to be a horror comedy. Curti then goes over the details of the film, where scenes were added during production, what Kiefer did and didn't shoot, how Luciano Ricci and Lorenzo Sabotini (who didn't actually exist!) wound up being credited on the movie after an Italian newspaper published an article noting their work, locations used for the film and what happened to Kiefer after finishing The Castle Of The Living Dead - he directed two more films, wrote a few novels - and then moved to Argentina where he passed away from a heart attack in 1995.

    Tucked away inside the keepcase for the The Castle Of The Living Dead Blu-ray you’ll also find a CD containing the entire twenty-track soundtrack for the film. A cardboard insert featuring some nice poster art on one side and the complete track listing on the reverse is also included inside the case.

    Disc Two - Challenge The Devil aka Katarsis:

    Extras on the second disc start off with Dance With The Devil, an interview with Roberto Curti, the author of Mavericks Of Italian Cinema, that runs for almost thirty-six-minutes in length. He provides some background information on Giuseppe Veggezzi's life and times, detailing his education, how he got into the Italian film industry, setbacks that he faced throughout his career, and how he came to make Challenge The Devil. He covers where some of the story elements came from, the influence of Hammer's Dracula films, how Veggezzi set up his own production company, the importance of casting Lee in the film, some of the themes and ideas that the film explores and exploits, how the budget effects the finished version of the movie versus the scripted version, how the film was originally intended to be released as Katarsis, how Veggezzi's injuries affected his career, the film's distribution history, what happened to the film when it was purchased internationally, where new footage was added that Veggezzi didn't shoot and quite a bit more. There’s some interesting vintage interview footage worked into this featurette as well. It’s as interesting as it is frequently strange.

    The Importance of Being Giorgio is a sixteen-minute interview with Giorgio Ardisson, who passed away in 2014, taken from two different sessions recorded at different times. This material isn't necessarily specific to Challenge The Devil but it's still quite interesting. Ardisson is quite a character, joking around right from the start. He talks about how he never used a stage name but his real name, how he's always been a little bit crazy, thoughts on his careers ups and downs and how he wished he'd done more artistic films. He also talks about working with the different crew members and how he always got along with them, how he almost wound up appearing in a certain Sergio Leone movie, the popularity of the Zorro movies that he starred in, discussing animals and reincarnation with a 'still very fit' Brigitte Bardot, his thoughts on method acting, the importance of over six-decades of marriage to his happiness, moments of great sadness from throughout his life, health problems that he's had as he's gotten older and his battles with cancer and more.

    An Italian language trailer for the feature is also found on the disc, with English subtitles included.

    Disc Three - Crypt Of The Vampire:

    The only extra on this third disc is a trailer for the feature, though menus and chapter selection are also provided.

    The Eurocrypt Of Christopher Lee Collection – The Final Word:

    The first half of Severin’s release of The Eurocrypt Of Christopher Lee Collection is a winner. Offering up a great selection of the storied actor’s work in Europe, each film in an impressive presentation, along with an excellent assortment of extra features. The movies vary in quality a bit, of course, but everything included on these discs is definitely worthwhile if you’re a fan of Lee’s and the picture quality here leaves past editions in the dust. Highly recommended!

    Click on the images below for full sized The Eurocrypt Of Christopher Lee Collection Blu-ray screen caps!