The feverish, dreamlike quality of Darwyn Cooke's stylishly retro artwork for Criterion's "Monsters And Madmen" box set perfectly suits the four pulpy Alex and Richard Gordon-produced B-movies within. None of these genre pluggers—the Boris Karloff vehicles The Haunted Strangler and Corridors Of Blood, the alien beastie pictures First Man Into Space and The Atomic Submarine—qualifies as a classic, except to those who fetishize gothic camp and rubber costumes. But though the Gordon brothers ran separate production companies, they shared a passion for earnest exploitation, and the patina of seriousness surrounding their films makes them more enduring than the usual no-budget '50s/'60s junk. These movies aren't as classy as Hammer Studios', or the higher-toned Fox and Universal fantasy efforts, but they're energetic and easy to watch, even as they creep into the subconscious.
The two Robert Day-directed Karloff films comprise the set's objectively "better" half. In The Haunted Strangler, Karloff plays a writer investigating a serial killer and finding an unexpected personal connection. In Corridors Of Blood, he's a doctor who tests a new anesthetic on himself, with surprisingly violent results. Both are historical pieces set in a grimy 19th-century England, and both are about a man descending into madness to protect his reputation. The shocks are mild, but the overall atmosphere of gloom and human depravity frames Karloff's always-entertaining cultured-gentleman-goes-nutzoid routine.
As for the science-fiction half of the bill, it's weighed down by Day's leaden First Man Into Space; aside from some stock footage of actual atmosphere-busting test flights, it doesn't do much with its story of a pilot who flies too high and comes home a gnarled, vampiric monster. Much better is Spencer Gordon Bennet's The Atomic Submarine, an alternately gripping and stolid submarine-vs.-flying-saucer movie that thrives on its weirdly specific undersea-living detail and flimsy effects. One of the first inside-the-sub shots is a close-up of roast beef being pulled out of a huge galley oven, while from the outside, the sub looks every inch like a plastic model. The contrast between the toy-like miniature exteriors and the vast interiors creates a surreal effect, like something out of a Guy Maddin movie, and Alexander Laszlo's high, whistling soundtrack only heightens the feeling that we've disappeared inside our own heads.
Key features: Chatty commentary tracks with the Gordon brothers and pulp historian Tom Weaver, and short interviews with the directors and stars.