Film Masters has a Clear Vision for Restoring the Classics
Classic film fans know what it’s like to sit through a movie that’s all scratched up or crackles and pops; that’s too hard to see and too difficult to hear.
Yet we take it in stride because we know it’s the only way to see movies that have suffered from decades of deterioration.
As a fan of 1950s sci-fi and horror movies, I know this well. The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews are two favorites and I’ve watched prints of them that are in such rough shape that I have to squint to make out the images. Not anymore.
That’s the good news I learned after watching the new home video double feature of the two movies from Film Masters. Though I’ve watched both countless times, it was like seeing them for the first time.
Both were noticeably crisp, clean and “seeable” for lack of a better word. No longer was I straining to make out the creatures. I could have counted the leaves on the ground the Gila was slithering through on his way to another victim. And I could sense the sharpness of the oversized (fake) teeth of the shrews. Even background items like stacked pans on a stove were now evident, providing added depth.
But don’t take it from me. Here’s what film scholar Jason A. Ney said in his commentary for The Killer Shrews:
“When I first saw this remastered version, it was like the scales fell from my eyes. I’m confident in saying that because of how good this new release looks and sounds this is now the definitive home video version of this movie. It can now be appreciated for what it is both good and bad because this has to be the best it has looked since it debuted in a Dallas theater in 1959.”
The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews were released together in September in a two-disc Blu-ray/DVD which is fitting since they premiered as a drive-in double feature. They are the first two movies in a new home video series from Film Masters, a film restoration and distribution company launched by Phil Hopkins.
The name of this film historian and industry veteran may be unfamiliar and that’s OK, he said. It’s by design.
“I’m not looking for the spotlight – I’m looking to put the spotlight on movies,” he said recently during a lengthy phone conversation to discuss Film Masters. “We love the old movies and want them to look pretty and newer than they did previously.”
Judging by Gila/Shrews, Film Masters has achieved that goal.
A journey into classics
As a kid, Hopkins’ fascination with movies was fueled by reading William K. Everson’s Classics of the Horror Films.
“You read about them, and you wanted to see them,” he said about the films in the book, which he stills owns. “It’s a primer on everything I grew to love.”
So, he looked for a way to watch the movies, but recalled seeing only “crappy versions” of films such as the ones Bela Lugosi made for “Poverty Row” or small B-movie studios. The realization that there were “orphaned films that weren’t getting a lot of love and attention” gave Hopkins a mission “to track down films and make them better looking.”
That’s what he has done for more than 20 years as the man behind such cinematic home video/restoration endeavors as Film Chest, The Film Detective and now Film Masters.
You also would have seen films he has helped restore at festivals and on Turner Classic Movies including the widely hailed premiere of The Sins of Nora Moran in May 2020. (It was originally on the schedule for the canceled 2020 TCM Film Festival.)
When Hopkins first began doing this work, the home video market was evolving from tape to DVDs which were growing in demand. While they did the best they could with the movies, Hopkins said, “we didn’t have the resolution or quality back then.”
Times have changed.
“With the technology we have now with HD film scanners and restoration tools, we can do things that were impossible 20 years ago. We can take a very damaged film print and make it look brand new. And in the past five years technology has been a game changer,” said Hopkins, a self-professed film geek.
He talked about his excitement when he saw “The Vampire Bat” (1933) for the first time with an audience after it was restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archives. (Film Detective released that film on home video in 2020.)
“People were saying ‘wow it looks amazing.’ They appreciate the film more in a clean presentation.”
Giving movies a clean presentation is the main reason why Hopkins chose Gila/Shrews as the first releases for Film Masters. Though the films were successful on their original release, they have fallen out of favor because of the continued deterioration of the prints.
“I really felt they were in great need of restoration,” Hopkins said. “People never got to appreciate how good these films were. They got a bad rap because they were kicking around on poor-quality film prints,” he said.
Film Masters plans to have a new “special edition” home video release monthly with original bonus material such as booklets, audio commentaries and special features.
“I wanted to present these movie in context with a back story and bring together a combination of people who could bring the background,” he said, referring to authors like Larry Blamire, film historians including Tom Weaver and film collector, producer and historian Sam Sherman.
“You can take out the booklet, watch the special features and the beautiful new restoration,” he said.
While Film Masters has an obvious passion for horror and sci-fi – future “special edition” releases include Roger Corman’s Beast from the Haunted Cave with Ski Troop Attack and The Devil’s Partner with Creature from the Haunted Sea – there’s more beyond those genre films.
“It would be a lot easier to do this financially if we just did horror and sci-fi, but I’m trying very hard to make sure we don’t just do that,” Hopkins said. While silents and non-genre classics don’t sell like horror and sci-fi, “they are important to put out. We have to find the balance because we love all film.”
First up is the 1934 version of The Scarlet Letter. The film was scanned in 4k from the 35mm preservation print made from the original camera negative and restored by Janice Allen at Cinema Arts in conjunction with UCLA Library Film & Television Archives. Hopkins attended the 2023 Cinecon Classic Film Festival to present the restored movie with actress Cora Sue Collins, who played young Pearl. The interview and photos from the event are part of the Film Masters release of The Scarlet Letter available Nov. 21.
And Hopkins wants to do more. “I wish I had 10 of me and I would put out 10 titles a month,” he laughed.
To that end, the company has hundreds of movies ready to go with a plan for a Film Masters Archive Collection, similar to the Warner Archive on-demand service.
Beyond home video, Film Masters has a robust website and YouTube Channel. There are movie trailers and a blog with stories written by a consortium of horror film scholars and enthusiasts such as a piece on Cinema by the Sea by Don Stradley (four films that used the sea as a character) and The Dark Side of Lucy on how the famous comedian also excelled in dramas and noir, by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry. The Film Masters TV YouTube Channel also has full-length films, movies in Spanish and entertaining 5-minute shorts on “Legendary Faces.”
It’s a multifaceted approach that, in the end, is all about the love for these movies by Hopkins and his collaborators.
A quick glance at the movies
The Giant Gila Monsters and The Killer Shrews were two Texas-made films from radio mogul Gordon McLendon and director Ray Kellogg. McLendon was an interesting character who also ran a chain of drive-ins throughout Texas where these films were shown as a double feature. The importance of the men is underscored in the extras on the home video release where you can watch the films in theatrical (1:85:1) and TV (1:33:1) formats.
Giant Gila Monster
As the title implies, a giant Gila is roaming about the backwoods of a small Texas town. Not surprising with McLendon’s radio background, the film has a cool teen soundtrack of instrumental music, but the best music is the creepily seductive “Gila” motif.
Extras: An archival interview between actor Don Sullivan and author Bryan Senn from 2000 is like listening to a podcast. It is 90 minutes long and definitely perks up when they discuss Sullivan’s films. You’ll hear nuggets about Monster of Piedras Blancas (1960) like the creature “looked scarier in person than it did on film,” as well as Sullivan’s wardrobe malfunctions with too-small swimming trunks.
But it was sad hearing how he never made more than SAG minimum and his disappointment in not rising above B-movies. “My movies were so mediocre. I just felt … demoralizing as an actor,” he said.
Also included: the restored 35mm trailer for the film.
Commentary: Members of “The Monster Party Podcast” live up to their name by talking, joking and sharing tidbits about the film, its history and the cast and crew. These guys will make sure you know that Gila is pronounced hee-la. An entertaining bunch, they would be fun at a live event.
The Killer Shrews
Ken Curtis (Festus from Gunsmoke) stars in and produced this film about well-meaning experiments (aren’t they always) on a small island that go wrong when tiny shrews (think rats) are turned into oversized dog-like killers.
Extras: There are original radio spots, plus the documentary Ray Kellogg: An Unsung Master from Ballyhoo Motion Pictures that was written by historian C. Courtney Joyner and narrated by Larry Blamire. Kellogg, who was very good with miniatures and optical effects, quietly had an amazing career from his days as a WWII cameraman with John Ford, to co-directing The Green Berets with John Wayne, doing miniatures for The Day the Earth Stood Still and even photography on Gone with the Wind and The Adventures of Robin Hood. (Kellogg is so important that he’s also discussed in the commentary by Jason A. Ney.)
Commentary by Jason A. Ney: I like that in addition to giving the history about making the movie, Ney references what we’re seeing on the screen to explain how and why things were done in the film.
Ney explains comparisons to Night of the Living Dead and suggests playing a drinking game while watching Shrews, a film where the characters always seem to have a drink in their hands.
Toward the end, Ney says he hopes that people listening to his commentary about the film get a “better understanding of who made it, why it was made and where it fits under the umbrella of a great decade for science-fiction films.”
I was struck by that comment because it’s exactly what Hopkins and his collaborators want to do through Film Masters, too, and they’re doing it well.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter/X at @toniruberto.