Monsters and Madmen Part 1: First Man Into Space and The Atomic Submarine Studio: The Criterion Collection #365 (First Man Into Space); #366 (The Atomic Submarine) Rated: No rating noted Aspect Ratios: 1.33:1 Audio: English DD 1.0 Subtitles: English Time: First Man Into Space:77 minutes; The Atomic Submarine: 72 minutes Disc Formats: 1 DVD-9 each Case Style: Keepcases in cardboard slipcase Theatrical Release Dates: First Man Into Space: 1959; The Atomic Submarine: 1959 DVD Release Date: January 23, 2007 Criterion has released four films by B-movie producers Richard and Alex Gordon in the new, four disc box set, Monsters and Madmen. The first two I’m reviewing, First Man Into Space and The Atomic Submarine share a similar sci-fi/ monster theme, so I thought I’d split the reviews accordingly between the more monster based pictures that make up the other half of the set. The whole box set carries the Criterion Library number 364, and then each two disc set has the dual numbers noted above. Keep your eyes peeled for the next review which will contain The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood. The promo material for these pictures warns you up front: “How much SHOCK can you stand?” so I will warn you prior to viewing these pictures: you must have nerves of steel to make it all the way through both stories as they are not for the faint of heart or easily frightened! First Man Into Space introduces us to hot shot, Chuck Yeager-esque test pilot Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards), a man who has been chosen to man a plane that will head up, up and away to reach the outer atmosphere of Earth. His kill joy of a commander, and also his brother, Charles Prescott (Marshall Thompson), has assigned Dan to the next test flight that will go higher and farther than any man has gone before. Dan, being the daredevil he is, wants to be the first man into space, so he ignores his good sense as well his brother’s warnings and pilots the test plane farther than anyone else. He apparently does so at the cost of his own life. Soon, however, bizarre killings are happening around the base, and Charles, Dan’s former girlfriend and the rest of the supporting cast must sift through the clues to find out what Dan has to do with the strange rampaging creature that is being held responsible. In the cold waters of the Artic, numerous freight and military vessels are being destroyed or are going missing. The military is concerned, so they arm a submarine with nukes to head north to see what is causing these disappearances and put a stop to it. The Atomic Submarine’s cast is filled with tough talking military types who soon find the Artic is host to a flying saucer that has evil and destructive plans for us poor earthlings. When they find there nukes aren’t able to stop the UFO, they do the next best thing and ram the saucer only to find themselves stuck in its hull. Our intrepid (and kind of dumb) crew enters this strange saucer, the alien’s plan is revealed and it is up to these tough guys to stop the tentacled ET and save us all! Both of these B-movie classics were done by producers Richard and Alex Gordon on shoestring budgets and limited shooting times. They reflect a world still inspired by the prospect of what lies beyond that has not yet been humbled to the tragedies it may bring with it. We are presented with almost unintentional cautionary tales to forewarn us of pushing the limits of human endurance too far and our intolerance of those who are different than us. The Gordon’s wasted little time in the stories as both pictures come in at under 77 minutes; we are swiftly thrust into the action and leave such unnecessary things as character development or romance far behind. The pictures are best watched on Saturday afternoons in dark theaters with popcorn and candy and a cute girl who can latch on to you when she gets too scared (unless you have latched on to her first)! Video: Both pictures are framed at 133:1. Criterion is good enough to provide us with more information about the transfers themselves, so I will pass this along: “This new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from the 35mm fine-grain prints. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, and scratches were removed using the MTI Digital Restoration System.” The black and white pictures exhibit excellent contrast and very good shadow detail. Grey scale was accurate as well. Both foreground and background detail is good and sharp. Edge enhancement was very minimal and there were no compression artifacts. First Man Into Space suffers from much more grain and video noise in its picture than its companion. Both pictures use real military footage of test planes and artic exploration to accompany the staged action. When these scenes pop up, it is quite noticeable as there is significant print damage and dirt. The staged scenes, however, look quite good for their age. Since the pictures were shot cheap, the special effects now become more apparent and the effects tricks of the past don’t hold up too well in this hi-def age. Still, from a historical context, it’s great to see what was done prior to CG and how effective some smoke, some goop, and a smudged camera lens can create an effect. Audio: I watched the discs with the Dolby Digital 1.0 track engaged. The tracks are free of any damage and they are very smooth and natural. Bass effects were not noticed. I’m glad we have these mono tracks as I couldn’t imagine any type of upgrading: this would tend to distract from the creepiness of the sound effects and music. As with the video, Criterion notes the following about both soundtracks: “The soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from the 35mm optical soundtrack negatives, and audio restoration tools were used to reduce clicks, pops, hiss, and crackle.” Bonus Material: Audio commentary on both discs with Richard and Alex Gordon and writer Tom Weaver: The commentaries provide more of a history of sci-fi and monster pictures of the time and a historical perspective of the space race and submarine business than specific commentary on the pictures themselves. Weaver does a good job of keeping the Gordon’s on topic while interjecting information about the pictures from various magazines of the past, such as Fangoria. He also does a good job of telling us historical facts that inspired the movies. First Man Into Space’s extras are under the heading Into the Great Unknown. There is a mini-documentary, Making Space (9:20) with director Robert Day and actress Marla Landi, the trailer, and some radio spots. There is also a section called Exploitation! that features still photos and publicity material. The Atomic Submarine’s extras are under the heading War Under the Artic Ice!. The mini doc, Atomic Recall (16:01) has an interview with actor Brett Halsey as he recalls his film career that led him to work on this picture. Halsey is a boring interview, and the piece really doesn’t add much to the history of the picture. This disc also contains the trailer and similar Exploitation! items found on the other disc. There is also booklet featuring essays from writer-director Michael Lennick and critic Bruce Eder. The art on the box and the individual discs is by comic and animation artist Darwyn Cooke, a real favorite of mine, so I’ll plug his new book at DC, The Spirit and the collection of his incredible The New Frontier. Conclusions: The first half of this new box set give us some B-movie sci-fi fun that really doesn’t make us think too much, which is just fine in this context. Criterion’s extras are fairly light compared to their other releases, but the commentaries are quite enjoyable at times giving us a great historical perspective of movies in general and the topics of the time.