For classic horror back in the day, there were basically two big studios; America had Universal Pictures and Great Britain had Hammer Film Productions. But, there were also smaller companies that pumped out movies as well, one of which was American International Pictures, headed up by uber-producer Samuel Z. Arkoff. AIP made and distributed B-movies, many of which fit squarely into the fright flick genre, from the mid-fifties right up until the company’s absorption in the early eighties. In 1965, right at the apex of the company’s output, AIP distributed the classic British creepfest Die, Monster, Die!
Die, Monster, Die! is about an American named Stephen Reinhart (Nick Adams from Frankenstein Conquers the World) who travels to England to meet the family of his British fiancée, Susan Whitley (Dracula: Prince of Darkness’ Suzan Farmer). After being forced to walk to the estate because all of the local townspeople seem to be afraid of the Whitleys, Stephen is greeted coldly by Susan’s father, Nahum Whitley (the legendary Boris Karloff from Frankenstein and The Mummy), a wheelchair-bound scientist who insists that Stephen leaves the premises at once. Susan convinces her father to let her fiancé stay, but Stephen soon uncovers a mad experiment that Nahum is performing which involves mutating the local plant life with radioactivity. Unfortunately, it’s not just the plants that are being transformed by Dr. Whitley’s radioactive experiment.
The script for Die, Monster, Die! was loosely adapted from the H.P. Lovecraft short story “The Colour Out of Space” by screenwriter Jerry Sohl, a veteran of television sci-fi/horror writing with a resume that includes stints on each of the Big Three shows of the genre (“Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “The Twilight Zone,” and “The Outer Limits”). The movie is the directorial debut of Daniel Haller, who would go on to helm a second Lovecraft adaptation, The Dunwich Horror, before settling into a pretty lengthy television career of his own working on shows like “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” and “Battlestar Galactica.” In addition to Colour Out of Space, Die, Monster, Die! is also alternately known as The House at the End of the World and Monster of Terror in addition to all of the many different foreign translations of its title. As a filmic experience, Die, Monster, Die! toes the campy American International Pictures line while simultaneously mixing in the perfect amount of pure Hammer horror.
Much of the acting in Die, Monster, Die! is wooden and stiff, so it’s not surprising that the inimitable Boris Karloff steals the show with his brilliant performance. Once Karloff took off the makeup and shed the Universal Monsters stigma that became attached to him after his masterful portrayals of Frankenstein’s monster and The Mummy, he concentrated on roles that showcased his considerable acting abilities. Over the course of his post-Universal career, Karloff effectively played heroes (Isle of the Dead), villains (The Ghoul), and anti-heroes (The Man They Could Not Hang) – not to mention a pair of twins who covered all of the above bases (The Black Room). In Die, Monster, Die!, Karloff is in complete command of the screen, playing the sinister scientist with just a dash of sardonic corniness. Even with his character confined to a wheelchair, Boris Karloff outshines the rest of the cast – and without a speck of makeup on his face, unless you count his awesome tough-guy moustache.
Although there are no ghosts in the movie, Die, Monster, Die! is essentially a haunted house movie, and it’s got all of the trappings of a classic William Castle-esque campfest. The mutant plants are not the only supernatural forces that occupy The Whitley Estate, as the house is home to more than its share of cellar-dwelling bats, closet-creeping skeletons, and swinging slamming doors as well. The chills are not all Halloween hayride level scares, though; the frosted windows of the greenhouse make for some horrific shadowy moments in the film, and the foggy woods surrounding the premises are perfect for hiding whatever doesn’t want to be seen. The spooky mansion in Die, Monster, Die! is as good of a setting for a horror movie as one is bound to find.
The promotional poster for Die, Monster, Die! loudly proclaims that it was shot in “Colorscope,” which is actually a fancy name for the Pathécolor brand of punchy, Technicolor-y hues. Cinematographer Paul Beeson (To Sir, With Love) uses the bright palette of colors to create a unique looking gothic horror film; the dark shadows are juxtaposed nicely with the red of the carpets and the green of the radioactive materials in a way that is visually stunning and aesthetically pleasing; in a word, the colors bite. Although Die, Monster, Die! is presented in Cinemascope anamorphic widescreen, it was actually shot in standard Academy ratio and converted in post-production by a matting process. So, in that regard, “Colorscope” is accurate; a combination of Cinemascope and Pathécolor.
Despite what the title might suggest, there really isn’t a singular monster in Die, Monster, Die!, but rather an awesome array of crazy creatures and malicious mutants. The visual effects, designed and executed by Wally Veevers (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Keep) and Ernie Sullivan (Asylum), include a little of everything. Some of the monsters are the results of skillfully applied makeup prosthetics. Others are practically built puppet contraptions – rubbery beasts who appear to come from, in Stephen’s own words, “a zoo in hell.” All of the creature effects are augmented by camera trickery in some way or another, either through simple lighting and aperture settings or more involved rotoscoping animation techniques. The monster effects in Die, Monster, Die! are a product of their time, yet they still give the impression of being just ahead of it.
By the early eighties, American International Pictures had faded into in the sunset because of a series of mergers and acquisitions, but the company’s spirit lives on in studios like Troma Entertainment, Full Moon Features, and The Asylum. Even though AIP doesn’t actively make movies anymore, their legacy remains intact, thanks in no small part to great movies like Die, Monster, Die!