I actually watched this for Horrorthon 2005, but despite that recent look I decided to check it out again. Mostly because it was on the other side of the Dunwich Horror dvd, but also to have a more complete H.P. Lovecraft roundup. I read my review from last time and figured it was silly to just hyperlink to it now, so I'm reprinting it here. To offset the perceived cheat, I'm going to add further comments in brackets and provide sumptuous illustration (I only posted the two little pictures below two years ago).
When I was a kid, there was a strange movie I saw three times in the space of three months, but always on TVs with really bad reception. I never forgot it, and wondered what it was. I figure it was at least 25 years before I found out, completely at random. That was last year, and the movie was Die, Monster, Die. This thing in the cage here isn't the Monster in question. There isn't really a single Monster, as such.
This is based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, and while the interpretation is pretty loose, the film sets a perfect tone: murky, brooding, brimming with unseen menace. Our hero is obnoxious American Steve Reinhart, who comes to the English town of Arkham to fetch his college girlfriend Susan from her family's house nearby. Things go south instantly, as nobody will take him to the Witley place, rent him a bicycle, or even tell him where it is.
Eventually, after just missing a bear-claw trap by the Witley's front gate, Steve meets ubercrotchety Pops Witley, played by a bushy-eyebrowed Boris Karloff. Boris wants our boy sent packing immediately, but he's saved when Susan shows up. Susan is such a breath of normalcy I soon decided she was adopted. Then Steve has a one-on-one chat with Moms, who is so sick she's hidden behind a wall of gauzy bed curtains. She dramatically pleads with Steve to take her daughter away from the house forever, yelling "promise meee!". The poor guy hasn't even taken his coat off yet!
The stars of this movie are Boris and his house of mystery, since this is one of those tales in which the good guys are standard-issue cyphers. We're meant to like Steve because he gets things done, but I found him pushy and annoying. Sue is pretty, but she's dangerously ignorant of what is going on in her house, for instance the greenhouse full of GIANT PLANTS, a building that also GLOWS GREEN at night (that's not why they call it that, sweetheart).
[This time around I was even more put off by Steve's attitude. The proper Lovecraftian mood is not, it turns out, helped by the presence of a scowling, nasal "I'm not gonna take this" Yank. And Susan's stupidity is downright appalling.]
But this house of mystery is special. These are lavish rooms with strange decor, shot in big splashy technicolor.
There's a mysterious black-veiled figure stalking the fog-choked grounds.
There's a room in the basement with unearthly pictures on the walls and a glowing, humming malevolence in a pit. There's occult histories, insane ancestors, creepy servants, and mad science. There's also the "zoo from Hell," which I've posted above. It's in the potting shed. I swear, the one reason I held on to the memory of this movie all those years was so I could someday get a good look at what was behind those bars. I was not disappointed. Even when you can tell it's made of rubber, it's still icky.
[More on my history with the Zoo from Hell: For several years we didn't have a TV antenna that could pick up the cool Boston channels: 38 and 56. One weird day the rabbit ears managed to tease me with Die, Monster, Die! Here are the three shots of the Zoo shown in sequence: the first and last shots add to the oddness by dropping the actors in with a prop that was clearly on a different scale.
Imagine how bizarre and murky this image would look handicapped by bad reception; it's a crappy process shot that's already damn murky.
And imagine my surprise when I finally got to see this image with dvd sharpness and it turned out to lift the veil of weirdness not one jot! What the hell is that crazy crap in there?
All in all, a great use of cheapo effects to achieve an impressively dream-like weirdness. It was possibly unintentional.]
As we headed for the climax, I thought things were dragging a little bit in an attempt to maintain the atmosphere. Maybe it's one of those stories that's more fun as a bunch of questions than as a bunch of answers. Or maybe I was really sleepy.
[Okay, 2005 review is over.]
What struck me the most this time around was the heavy contrivance level keeping our heroes in the house for more than a couple of hours. There's nothing to do there, it's unlikely the two of them are spending hours having sex -- I wondered how the heck they were spending their time in between awkward conversations with Pops Karloff. You'd think it would the matter of one day to cover "what the heck is in this crazy greenhouse?" and then "what the bejesus is in the freakin' basement?" and, shortly afterwards, "Holy Ned! It's time to get out of here!"
On a better note, I didn't downgrade the movie's rating at all. Not only is it fun, but within its clumsy framework it also does a decent job at capturing the mood of a Lovecraft tale. You may not get the special chill from the rubbery wonders of Hell Zoo that I do, but you'll have a good time.