Don’t panic. Only your life is in danger.
Ever been to a spook alley? You know the ones. They tend to spring up all over the country every year around October. These places are usually located in an old house or barn, decorated to represent a haunted house, mad scientist’s lab, or a graveyard, for example. Here, small groups of paying visitors walk from room to room, where costumed characters jump out from the shadows at appropriately timed moments for a sudden scare or, depending on the mood, a cheap laugh. There’s not really a story to follow in a spook alley, you just make your way from room to room, taking in the bizarre atmosphere as it comes at you. That’s kind of like what watching Fear Chamber is like. There are all kinds of low-rent monster movie thrills to be had, but the action just hops from scene by scene, without really coming together as a complete story.
The film begins inside a “volcanic crater” as a group of scientists, led by Dr. Carl Mandel (Boris Karloff, Frankenstein), are miles beneath the earth in search of a new life form existing deep underground and might be able to lead mankind to new sources of diamonds or oil. After capturing one such creature, the scientists take it back to their lab. In order for it to survive, the rock-like beastie requires a unique chemical produced by the human body only in moments of extreme fear. So, Mandel and company lure pretty young women to their offices by claiming to treat them medically. They then drop the ladies in the middle of an underground fear chamber, complete with cobweb-covered walls, pools of blood, and torture devices galore. Once the women pass out with fear, Mandel extracts the chemical and feeds it to his new pet. As the creature gets hungrier and hungrier, though, it demands more than just fear, and the next thing you know, people start dying.
At least I think that’s what happens. This is one confusing, nonsensical movie. Sure, scenes with a pretty girl in her nightgown being chased by black-robed figures through a gloomy dungeon is the stuff of horror movie dreams, but there’s all kinds of other strangeness going on as well. Like the guy in the turban who sneaks into women’s bedrooms and watches them sleep, or the thuggish orderly with the scar on his head who takes on a monstrous role of his own later in the film, or the dwarf who seems to appear and disappear at various times. After a while, you just have to stop trying to figure it out and go with the flow.
All I can say is thank God for DVD commentaries. In this case, the commentary by writer/producer/director Jack Hill is the reason to watch this DVD. Hill, not afraid of offending anybody, spills all the beans about the movie’s troubled production. Fear Chamber was one of four films starring Karloff produced by a Mexican film company. Karloff’s scenes were filmed in Hollywood, and all other scenes were filmed weeks later in Mexico. Hill describes how the two halves of the production often didn’t match up, which forced him into some quick decision-making in the editing room.
Karloff only appears in the slower, talkier moments in the film, and he disappears for good chunks of time. Hill reveals that the actor was very sick during production, and confined to a wheelchair. This is why Karloff’s character is mostly seen behind a desk or in bed. Sadly, it’s not one of his best performances. Karloff’s usually deep and melodic voice is more flat and dry this time around. Even for his hard core fans, this one might be tough to sit through.
The credits state “Directed by Juan Ibanez,” but in truth the film was written and directed by Hill, in a limited setting. Ibanez only took over filming additional scenes in Mexico, after the fact. Hill alleges that the sexier, sleazier moments in the film were not written by him, but added by his Mexican counterpart. But then, Hill also admits in the commentary that he didn’t flirt with any of the actresses on set because he had both a wife and a girlfriend at the time. No matter who directed the scenes in question, know that lurid sex is a part of the film, with many instances of women in their underwear being chased or tortured.
Hill states that this DVD is the best the movie has ever looked. That being said, there are still numerous scratches all over the image, and darker scenes take on a grainy, hazy look. Both the 5.1 and 2.0 audio tracks fare much better, filling the room with women’s high-pitched terrified screams. There’s also a deleted scene featuring something not seen in movie itself. Actually, two somethings, if you know what I mean.
For a behind-the-scenes look at how low-budget films were made back in the good ol’ days, give this one a spin for the excellent commentary. As for the movie itself, it has some funky-cool scenes, but overall, it’s just too much of a confusing mess.