It's pretty wild to think Boris Karloff had a career in film spanning nearly 60 years, even appearing in films after his demise in 1969, his last four films all being primarily Mexican productions, released in the states in the early 1970s. I haven't had a chance to see them all, but I did get to watch this one, titled The Fear Chamber (1968) aka La Cámara del terror aka The Torture Chamber, last night, and it was actually better than I thought it would be...co-directed by Jack Hill (Spider Baby) and Juan Ibáñez (House of Evil), the film features, as I mentioned, Boris Karloff, along with Julissa (Isle of the Snake People), Carlos East (Tintorera), and Isela Vega (The Mushroom Eater). Also appearing is Yerye Beirute (The Incredible Invasion) and the diminutive (in stature only) Santanón (Isle of the Snake People).
Karloff plays Dr. Carl Mandel, an elderly scientist consumed with the cosmic secrets that may be hidden beneath the Earth, so much so he sends his daughter Corinne (Julissa) and assistant Mark (East) to explore some caves near an active volcano. They find what appears to be a living rock containing `pure crystallized intelligence' (it actually looks like a reject from a Sid and Marty Krofft production), and bring it back to Mandel's laboratory/discothèque (okay, it's not really a disco, but it is groovy), and hook it up to a battery of computers, enabling them to communicate with their subterranean find. Turns out the rock creature has specific feeding requirements in that it needs fluids generated by humans during extreme states of terror, or what I call fear juice, so Mandel and his creepy associates have set up an employment foundation for young women, to where they lure them in, give them a place to stay, and then scare the beejesus out of them through extraordinary means (specifically an underground torture chamber mock up), extract their juices, and then convince them it was all a bad dream before sending them on their way. The system works pretty well, but the rock creature requires greater amounts of fear juice as it develops (at one point it grows a feeding tube/tentacle). Dr. Mandel, his daughter, and Mark become concerned and talk about ending the experiments (the rock monster seems to be holding back information), while Nurse Helga (Vega) and Roland (Beirute), the hulking man child assistant, scheme to keep the operation afloat. After Dr. Mandel takes ill, and Corinne and Mark take a vacation, Helga and Roland (the latter sporting a huge, Planet of the Apes lobotomy scar on the side of his head) continue on with the experiments, streamlining the operation by cutting out the middleman (the fear chamber), and giving the girls directly to the rock creature, who uses it tentacle to suck the juices from the women, leaving them old, decrepit, and dead. As Roland, who's become pals with the rock creature, dreams of great wealth (he thinks the rock creature will tell him how to find diamonds), Helga begins to understand the true nature of the beast, and its evil plans. Mark and Corrine receive some troubling news, and return to the institute, but it may be too late as the creature won't be denied...
This film feature one of the more bizarre stories I've seen in a while, featuring some pretty wicky wacky characters. Karloff, looking fairly old and understandably tired (I think he had emphysema at the time), plays a role he was certainly familiar with, that of the altruistic scientist sucked into doing questionable things in his efforts towards the overall betterment of mankind. Even though I've seen it a number of times in the past, I still never get tired of it, and he gave as good as he probably could, given his failing health. As far as the others, Isela Vega gives a strong turn as the sadistic nurse unwilling to let the reluctance of others stand in the way of her getting what she believes she deserves. And then there's Yerye Beirute, who just about stole the show as the oversized man child with lofty ambitions of becoming `king of the world'. His simplistic and often idiotic statements and demeanor provided quite a bit of unintentional humor, as did the revelation of his ultimate ambition. Throw in a cackling, bald-headed dwarf with a penchant for peeping (actually most of Mandel's assistants participated in this activity), some scantily clad females, and a lumpy, semi-sentient heaving, rocky mass of a monster and you've got yourself a real shindig...the whole faux `fear chamber' element of the story seemed a bit convoluted (Mandel and his associates would dress up as Satanists and perform phony baloney rituals), and quickly discarded after the initial sequence, making me wonder if it was really necessary. Also, there was a guy in a turban and John Lennon glasses running around who seemed to have no real purpose other than to be weird. The film did feature some lurid, sleazy qualities, but really not as much as I was expecting, but in retrospect, I suppose it's for the best out of respect for Mr. Karloff that one of his last features not be a skeevy skin flick. The production values were by no means great, but much better than I would have thought featuring some interesting sets. The jazzy, hep cat score was interesting (interesting meaning odd), but not unusual given the time the movie was made. The actual creature is shown in such a way that we never really get a clear, defined look at it, but rather quick, close up shots of something that looks much like a deformed, sickly, pulsating Mayor McCheese (from the McDonald stable of characters) with an appendage growing out of its head. It wasn't particularly scary, as it just sat in one place, making squonking noises, but whatever...in some respects, the film sort of reminded me of a previous Karloff movie titled Die, Monster, Die! (1965), featuring Nick Adams, particularly in the sense of a monster being present, but hardly ever actually shown it in its totality. All in all this isn't a terrible film, as it has its moments, but if you're looking for classic Karloff, there's a slew of other, little seen films currently available on DVD worth checking out first like The Ghoul (1933), The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936), The Man with Nine Lives (1940), The Devil Commands (1941), and The Body Snatcher (1945).
The picture quality on this Elite Entertainment DVD release, presented in widescreen (1.85:1) anamorphic, looks a little grainy, but otherwise comes across well enough. There are two options in terms of audio, one being Dolby Digital stereo, the other being Dolby Digital 5.1, both coming through fine. In terms of extras, included is a commentary track with writer/producer/director Jack Hill and a nearly six minute deleted sequence I like to call `Death of a Striptease Artist'...this was the only bit of nekkidness in the film, and most likely the reason it was removed. I'd suggest watching the film first, and then watching this scene, as you understand better where exactly it was excised from the film.