Editor’s Notes: Donovan’s Brain, The Black Sleep, Black Mama White Mama, & Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete First Season Special Edition will be released on their respective formats on March 22nd.
Donovan’s Brain (Kino Lorber) is the story of Dr. Patrick Cory (Lew Ayres, All Quiet on the Western Front) and a scientific experiment gone terribly wrong. We first see Dr. Cory experimenting with a monkey’s brain. His wife, Janice (Nancy Davis, later Nancy Reagan) wonders whether they could not surgically remove the brain and keep it alive in a container filled with saline solution and electricity.
Later, the doctor learns of a crashed plane belonging to businessman William Donovan. Donovan, seriously injured, is brought to Cory’s home. The doctor, assessing that Donovan cannot be saved, removes his brain and places it in a similar solution fed with electricity. The brain survives, but soon demonstrates unforeseen telepathic ability. Rather than being intent on world domination or pure evil, Donovan initially uses his power to get Cory to do his bidding to conduct business as usual. It’s established that Donovan, in life, was successful in business but not very empathetic.
The idea of telepathy to control others is a neat plot device but it’s explored so sluggishly here that its full potential is never realized. What begins as a fascinating science-fiction concept turns out to look pretty silly as Cory and Janice try to figure how to put an end to the brain’s dominance. The problem is that too much exposition is presented, which is always the downfall of fantasy films. The more that the screenwriter explains, the more the viewer can see flaws. The image of a disembodied brain causing havoc simply doesn’t compare with a Frankenstein monster, a Dracula, or even a zombie for visual impact.
Bonus features on the newly restored Blu-ray release include audio commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith, “Trailers From Hell” with Joe Dante, and the original theatrical trailer.
The Black Sleep
The Black Sleep (Kino Lorber) is a low-budget horror film notable for an all-star Who’s Who in Horror cast: Lon Chaney, Jr., John Carradine, Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, and Basil Rathbone. Though not the caliber of the Universal horror films of the 1930s and 1940s (The Big Sleep was made in 1956), it contains lots of similarities to those features — the mad doctor, the old dark house, monsters (sort of), and a period setting.
In 1872, Dr. Joel Cadman (Rathbone) frames his scientist student, Dr. Gordon Ramsay (Herbert Rudley), for a murder that is part of a plan to administer the “black sleep,” a mysterious potion that will cause its recipient to appear dead. Cadman is motivated to find a cure for his comatose wife’s tumor and anesthetizes his experimental subjects before performing operations on their brains. Lugosi plays Cadman’s mute servant, Chaney portrays Mungo, a scientist rendered violently insane by Cadman’s unorthodox experiments, and Carradine — dressed in tatters — is a lunatic who fancies himself a prophet. Carradine has his finest moments in the film’s finale.
Tor Johnson was a former professional wrestler who turned to acting as early as 1934, appearing in such films as Shadow of the Thin Man, Road to Rio, Angels in the Outfield and many others. He developed a friendship with Ed Wood and appeared in both Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 From Outer Space. His large size and bald head gave him a frightening on-screen appearance, so he generally played villains and/or monsters. I remember seeing The Black Sleep as a kid and being terrified by Johnson. I couldn’t get the image of his pupil-less eyes out of my mind. He has minimal dialogue in The Black Sleep, conveying terror merely by his imposing screen presence.
With such a collection of horror stars in the cast, it’s a pity the film couldn’t be more than a variation of the mad doctor tale. Despite its meager budget, the movie has some good moments. Though the term is never used, Cadman’s experiments are zombies — a gruesome extension of the traditional Haitian zombie. George A. Romero would give horror aficionados the definitive version of the cannibalistic zombie in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead.
Bonus features on the Blu-ray release include audio commentary by film historian Tom Weaver; “Trailers From Hell” with Joe Dante; and the original theatrical trailer.
Black Mama, White Mama
Black Mama, White Mama (Arrow Video) was made in 1972, the heyday of blaxploitation cinema. It stars Pam Grier, who made a name for herself in a series of such low-budget, action-packed movies. Inspired by The Defiant Ones and every women-in-prison flick made earlier, the film is representative of a genre that put African-Americans in action roles usually taken by white actors.
Prostitute Lee Daniels (Grier) is sentenced for dealing drugs. Prosperous American Karen Brent (Margaret Markov) is convicted of terrorism. During transport to a maximum-security prison, the two women are chained together, constantly bad-mouthing one another. When Karen’s guerrilla friends attack, the women escape, still chained. They’re on the run from corrupt cops and well as Lee’s pimp, who wants her dead because she knows too much. They have different ideas about how to elude their heavily armed pursuers, leading to more conflict. Most of the film shows the women on the run after the prison break, but while in prison, there’s a steamy shower scene and another sequence in which Lee and Karen are topless.
Seen today, the film seems an artifact of a bygone era. Most of the characters in blaxploitation films were stereotypes in flicks hardly short on gun fights, larger-than-life bad guys, nudity, and comic relief. This is not classic cinema, but it just might qualify as classic exploitation. Pam Grier’s persona in these films was the classic tough-as-nails babe unafraid to go toe-to-toe with her male adversaries. In these 70s pictures, her acting left a lot to be desired, but in later films, such as Jackie Brown, she turned in very good performances. Still, she gives it her all and envelops herself in a cartoonish role. Because Lee is a survivor and will not be defeated by pimps, law enforcement, or guns blasting in her direction, she embodies female empowerment even if her choices are questionable.
Bonus material on the Blu-ray release include an interview with Margaret Markov; interview with actor Sid Haig (who provides a lot of the film’s comic relief); “The Mad Doctor of Blood Island,” a previously unseen archive interview with director Eddie Romero; theatrical trailer; commentary by filmmaker Andrew Leavold; and reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork.
Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete First Season Special Edition
Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete First Season Special Edition (Anchor Bay) is a 2-disc Blu-ray release containing all 6 episodes from the AMC series’ freshman season. Though Season One was released previously, this Special Edition is chock full of bonus features that should please aficionados of the series and reveals lots of background details.
The show, like its companion zombie program The Walking Dead, is set during the undead apocalypse but it’s a prequel, taking the viewer through the factors that started the nightmare world of the reanimated dead. In Los Angeles, a mysterious outbreak threatens to disrupt the lives of high school guidance counselor Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) and English teacher Travis Manama (Cliff Curtis) and their family. The everyday pressure of blending two families while dealing with resentful, escapist, and strung-out children is pre-empted by a greater problem — society’s sudden breakdown. A survival-of-the-fittest mentality takes hold, and the family must cope with a far greater threat than family discord.
Fans used to the driving pace of The Walking Dead might be put off by the long, often dull sequences of family squabbling, brooding teenagers, and not terribly bright decisions. Laying the groundwork for major characters is essential to establishing them for viewers, but it is hard to root for folks who have so little inherent appeal. The reason for focusing on a dysfunctional family is to show how they come together in a time of crisis, but shouldn’t the first episode or two draw us in? Instead, they tend to showcase not very pleasant people in soap-opera fashion. The tendency is to root for the zombies — not what the creators intended.
Because the show deals with the onset of the zombie plague, there are opportunities to create suspense by doling out significant information over several episodes, but with such a disappointing opening, it’s tough to sustain interest. Episodes contain considerable padding, indicating there’s probably not enough dramatic potential for two prime-time zombie series.
Bonus features include 5 deleted scenes; 7 making-of featurettes; audio commentaries on every episode; and 3D lenticular packaging. A digital HD copy is included.