“Hand of Death” (1962)
In “Hand of Death” poor John Agar stars as his latest incarnation of an actor impersonating a career scientist whose altruism is perverted with exponentially monstrous results as he operates with an alarmingly elevated level of negligence. After all what are the odds if a movie scientist casually waves off warnings that his experiments are dangerous that he will shortly succumb to the very horrific side effects which are the predictable result of incautious laboratory protocols?
“Hand of Death” relies exclusively on the innate reliability of intellectual hubris to be sufficient catalyst for an otherwise apparently rational man to carelessly pour a container of a newly discovered toxic solution (a nerve agent of all things!) all over their extremities and then compound this offense of logic by mopping up the excess as if he were suddenly the subject in a paper towel absorbency commercial. The purpose of this total surrender of safety etiquette lies exclusively in the need to justify yet another example of Hollywood’s dim understanding of the purpose of the scientific community outside of providing a means to transform the quietest mixing of chemicals into a homicidal Hellzapoppin. But as Agar mutates from congenial lab hermit into a charcoal briquette stylishly accessorized in a fedora and trench coat worthy of a sun-crisped Tor Johnson wandering in from a film noir set, it becomes apparent that his curious transformation, entirely avoidable or not, is predicated not on the demands of the story, but rather to account for the only audience hook to this otherwise tepid SF/horror afterthought.
The film marks the directorial debut of actor Gene Nelson who proves that enough experience in front of the lens may afford one with the sufficient technical intelligence to aim the camera in the proper director to achieve the most rudimentary of set-ups. However, though such a limitation of expression may have been sufficient for the Lumieres in capturing incidentals, recent developments in narrative cinema often demand a more accomplished and refined visual vocabulary. In this regard, neither the director nor the actors are ably assisted by the elemental stringing of leftover story conference discards which form the outline proffered by scenarist Eugene Ling, whose every scene, however reminiscent of hundreds of other films, is so weighed with a surfeit of lumbering explanation as to give the impression of a stalled queue of leaky Macy’s balloons refusing to stay afloat. Ling’s undernourished contributions afford little recourse but for the characters to act in predictable yet strangely incongruous ways which only satisfy the most meager demands of genre tropes: common sense or rational human behavior be damned. His is the most insulting form of screenwriting, lazily journeying the narrative route from A to Z, while entirely disregarding any of the connective alphabet in between.
Is it possible to elevate the experience of watching “Hand of Death” (and by extension granting a form of critical reprieve to the film itself) by employing that time-honored method of excuse making: the reevaluation of the film’s status with its conferment as a signpost of camp cultism? Possibly, but only if one wished to lower the cinema experience as a source of caustic wise-cracking rather than one of elevation or, at the very least, honestly intentioned (and earned) entertainment merit points. Yet there’s nothing in the way of the comical in suffering along with capable performers trapped on such an obvious and precipitous career slide; only a sadness born of cynicism.
“Devils of Darkness” (1965)
Lance Comfort’s “Devils of Darkness” is a strange amalgam of vampirism and Satanic cult worshipping, both staples of post-Hammer British horror films, though here combined in an awkward brew which appears to regard the combining of disparate genre elements as an evolutionary step rather than an attempt to disguise tropes which have become fatigued through overuse.
This colorful production has all of the earmarks of Hammer productions which have done much to advance the odd suggestion that contemporary citizens of England are perpetually engaged in a constant struggle against the pernicious influence of continental European nations who have somehow become locked in the traditions of sixteenth century ritual barbarism.
Gypsy dancer Tania (Carole Grey) is fatally stricken during her wedding ceremony by a mysterious seizure, though as she is being buried she reawakens in her coffin under the influence of the mythic Count Sinistre (Hubert Noël) who has chosen her to assume the duties commensurate with those of a vampire bride. Sweeping ahead to contemporary days (one supposes, as the delineations of period are never clarified being that the depiction of backwoods primitivism- here located as France -are perpetually enshrouded in a peculiarly Bavarian flavored murk of Gothic superstition), tragedy besets a small group of tourists staying at a rural inn when two of the men are killed in a freak spelunking accident and Anne (Rona Anderson), the distraught sister of one of the victims, mysteriously disappears and is later casually reported drowned by suicide by the local constabulary. The lack of concern over the mounting fatalities concerns Paul Baxter (William Sylvester), an American writer also staying at the inn, who has recovered a golden talisman dropped by Count Sinistre while he was abducting Anne. Upon leaving for England with his friend Madeleine (Diana Decker), Baxter is followed by Tania, Count Sinistre and what appears to be half of the population of rural France garbed in scarlet cowls that could not help but be noticeable from passing passenger jets. Sinistre’s goal to retrieve his talisman- the power of which is never explained since neither Sinistre or Tania appear impeded from indulging the usual phantasmagorical transmutations and other exceptional parlor tricks for which vampires are renowned – extends to the unexplained usefulness of several killings, including one scientist (enjoyably played by the always effective Eddie Byrne) whose contributions to Baxter’s investigation are no more insightful than a primer pamphlet on the occult, and the kidnapping and attempted transformation of a young model, Karen Steele (Tracy Reed), who Count Sinistre plans to substitute as his bride. This last development is not well received by Tania whose percolating jealousy redirects this rather unfocused vampire tale into a new and provocative realm which the script by Lyn Fairhurst fails to capitalize on in its haste to wrap up the ragged threads of the story by settling for a denouement of a similarly unconvincing nature as that imposed upon “The Bad Seed”; a cheat of an ending which exposes Baxter as entirely inessential to the story while providing an abrupt and apocalyptic demise for the film’s innumerable antagonists.
Contrary to the behavioral practices of indifferent domesticity traditionally on display between the vampire and his “brides”, “Devils of Darkness” suggests that normal monogamous relationships between a bloodsucker and his conquest are not out of the realm of possibility by offering a symbiotic attachment between Count Sinistre and Tania that finds expression beyond the convenience of a shared status of not having a pulse and actually indicative of love. When this dynamic is breached with the emergence of Karen, Tania reacts with incautious thoughtlessness as sufficient traces of her fragile mortal emotional core seem to have survived despite centuries of cohabitation with a supernatural madman. This unusual romantic dynamic is reemphasized in Hubert Noël’s portrayal of vampire as a vacuous Eurotrash playboy, anticipating the revisionist romantic interpretation Frank Langella would bring to stage and screen over a decade later. However, this proclivity toward silky seductiveness somewhat undercuts Tania’s lack of awareness of her soulless mate’s wandering eye, even if Noël’s Sinistre somewhat oily Lothario exudes his indiscriminate power over women, not to add to his ranks of fervent acolytes, but to merely sadistically purge the film of those unfortunate female converts who fail to fit into the Hammer-fueled image of exploitable buxom shapeliness. However, without a more pronounced intent with which to exert his asserted (though, significantly, never demonstrated) unstoppable administration of evil, Sinistre never seems a worthy agent of malevolent forces, especially when his plans can be so easily thwarted by the recriminatory actions of an emotional wounded submissive partner. Conversely, while William Sylvester brings a steadfast, sensible presence to a film top-heavy with undeveloped genre elements, as the film’s primary adversarial figure, Baxter’s relegation to the role of mere observer leads to an absence of direct conflict between protagonist and antagonist, resulting in- despite the occasional insertions of inconsequential but decorative acts of violence -a dramatic dead end.
“Die, Monster, Die” (1965)
The literary reputation of H.P. Lovecraft receives a glancing body blow with “Die, Monster, Die!”, an extremely casual adaptation of his celebrated short story The Colour Out of Space; a film which seems to have far more in common with the with the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations (themselves only mere suggestive shells of the original tales) of Roger Corman in which an outsider’s presence becomes an unwitting catalyst in the unraveling of dangerous familial dynamics attributable to illness, tragedy and a particularly alarming genetic disposition toward madness. This is, perhaps, a foreseeable source of influence since the first-time director Daniel Haller had recently worked on no less than five of the Poe/Corman films (including “The Haunted Palace” which, although attributed to Poe, actually had its basis in another Lovecraft story, The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward) in the capacity of art director or production designer.
But in the indulgent use of such well traveled narrative tropes which have little to do with the source material, director Haller and screenwriter Jerry Sohl mistakenly embrace a staid familiarity; a decision which comes at the expense of ultimately abandoning one of the most notable achievements of Lovecraft’s tale: the conception of an entirely unorthodox alien presence, which here is abandoned for a far more conventional source of menace. In fact, there are attempts to obscure such conventionality late in the film with a out of left field suggestion that much of what is occurring is nonsensically connected to a grandfather’s occult attempts to contact mysterious beings, which is in itself suggestive Lovecraft’s entirely unrelated Cthulhu Mythos. However, this is merely evidence of a desperate attempt to obscure the fact that the filmmakers, despite their labored attempts to create an air of unspeakable horror, are merely distracting from the fact that the film is trading in that hoariest of post-1950 genre tropes: radiation mutation.
Arriving in the quiet English town of Arkham, abrasive young American scientist Stephen Reinhart (Nick Adams) answers an invitation to visit his sweetheart Susan Witley (Suzan Farmer) but meets with stony silence from the villagers when asking for directions to Witley Manor; in that aggressively uncooperative style that is intended only to stall for time. since what is the point of concealing a mystery which is already known by everyone? Upon arriving at the grounds of the Witley estate, Reinhart encounters a particularly eerie landscape characterized by a large crater surrounded by desiccated vegetation. Compounding the discomforting circumstances is the open and unexplained hostility with which Reinhart is met by Susan’s father, Nahum Witley (Boris Karloff), and the semi-presence of Susan’s bedridden mother Letitia (Freda Jackson), who spends the bulk of the film conversing in lengthy, obtuse dialogues while being obscured with canopy netting, which places an irreconcilable burden on the director to be able to dramatically cross-cut the conversations without eliciting giggles. Jerry Sohl’s screenplay is an irritating example of stuttering progression. Every time a character walks through a door, the action has to be endlessly discussed as if the characters were planning Operation Overlord. And there are a lot of doors in the movie. (Though why they all seem constructed of flimsy balsa wood is an unintended mystery.)
For his part, Adams’ Reinhart is one of the most ineffectual antagonists in film (his wooden performance doesn’t help); continually blustering his way into circumstances he is either too impatient or stupid to understand (the result is the same) and then proving ineffective in handling either strategic planning or with his surprisingly inept attempts at physical heroics in which the only result is to cause more destruction to the set furnishings than experienced in the collected Three Stooges filmography. Boris Karloff is relegated to the unfortunate task of merely being Boris Karloff, as if his presence alone would grant the film stature. Suzan Farmer makes for a flavorless woman in distress, while only Patrick Magee invests the small role of the town physician with a sufficiency of intensity to give the illusion of drama.
“The Vampire” (1957)
A traditionally supernatural creature meets modern science in “The Vampire”, a by-the-numbers monster movie which can more comfortably (though it doesn’t elevate the quality of the production) viewed as a drug addiction cautionary tale, than an effective spook show, though even as a social parable, one might find “Bigger Than Life” preferable to this not quite mad doctor movie which is only slightly less silly than (though not as much fun as) “Reefer Madness”.
Dr. Paul Beecher (John Beal, in an admirably committed, sweaty performance which is foiled at every turn by the insipid dialogue of Pat Fiedler) attempts to reconcile a quiet life in a country town as the local doc- complete with cute as a button daughter Betsy (Lydia Reed) and a pretty as a peach nurse Carol (Coleen Gray) -after he has mistakenly swallowed a mind altering experimental drug for a migraine headache; a bit of medical sloppiness which might explain the complaints from his patients, though ignores the irony that these same possible malpractice filers also encompass the victim list resulting from his murderous nocturnal prowls. A virtual companion piece to Columbia’s 1956 “The Werewolf, itself a melding of Universal horror models with 1950’s SF, “The Vampire” expands the focus of the usual altruistic scientific researchers “playing God” and crippled with astonishingly unreliable foresight genre, by giving an almost unbearable attention to the victim of misapplied experimentation, resulting in characters vying with Lon Chaney. Jr.’s Lawrence Talbot for the title of the most relentlessly whiny homicidal stalker in the movies.
What solely distinguishes “The Vampire” from other run-of-the-mill horror films is in the portrait of the victim/maniac as acting powerlessly under the influence of drug dependency; the scenes of the altering pill’s merciless psychological hold and those dramatizing the tortures of even momentary withdrawal draw uncomfortable associations with heroin addiction. That the “monster” of the piece is an unwilling victim of circumstance is nothing new; virtually all of the classic movie monsters- be they vampires, lycanthropes, reanimated stitched cadavers, mummies, opera phantoms or lagoon creatures -began their antisocial careers under circumstances less than nefarious- often as the unhappy recipients of curses or extreme persecution -with nary a murderous initial intention. However, in using an addiction angle as a novelty focal point, the film wobbles on the issue of just what the effects of the experimental drug are; it is referenced several times as the result of research into primal regression, though the film seems to confuse one of the major points of the metamorphic premise: that irresistible increased dosages of the drug are not only responsible for the mutative transformations, but are also necessary to prevent death from “capillary disintegration”. Later, the drug is shown to have no part in either the vampiric switcheroo or in the potentiality of premature expiration. The film adheres to every tic and shudder experienced by Dr. Beecher while shortchanging any suspense in the coverage of the investigation into the mysterious deaths. One might think that a sudden string of nightly small town murders would, at least, raise a hint of concern in the community… or even notice. Even police sheriff Buck Donnelly, played with a glimmer of self-deprication by veteran of movie authority Kenneth Tobey- which makes you appreciate that he is quite aware of how silly the whole thing is -seems generally oblivious to the crimes until late in the game (where practicality dictates he exhume a body in the dark), saving his energies for more imperative police work such as flirting with nurse Carol. The lone note in which the film momentarily rouses itself in the briefest flirtation with entertaining eccentricity is in the character of oddball scientist Henry Winston (James Griffith), who is dispatched almost as abruptly as he is introduced; a fair indication of a film shrinking from a person of interest in order not to overshadow the blandness of others.
“The Tingler” (1959)
WARNING: The following review contains plot spoilers.
If Vincent Price eventually became labelled with the unwelcome moniker of “The Master of Horror”, it might be confidentially stated that he is also the Duke of Domestic Discontent, a somewhat overlooked facet within his filmography, that is put to the test in William Castle’s 1959 bizarre horror film “The Tingler”, Price’s second collaboration in as many years with the notorious director and shameless promoter of theatrical gimmickery, after “House on Haunted Hill”; yet another example of cinema chills generated in an atmosphere of homicidally fractured matrimony, which would extend as a characterizing constant through much of Price’s 60’s horror output, especially his Poe collaborations with Roger Corman.
In “The Tingler”, Price plays another of his preoccupied husbands ill-matched with a wife to whom there is never the whisper of a clue as to what might have explained a mutual attraction in the first place, except to provide the film with the convenient marital schism which will either encompass the entire conception of the film (as with “House on Haunted Hill”), or act as a handy motivating catalyst (as in “Pit and the Pendulum”). In the case of “The Tingler”, there would appear to be no relevant context of narrative immediacy fueled by the combative Chapins, though there is a curious cumulative effect to the method screenwriter Robb White (who also penned “House on Haunted Hill”) employs by telling the entire story within the intimate circle of three different pairings: the Chapins, the Higgins’- who, though secondary in prominence, will be the eventual catalysts to every important action in the film -and the unattached though romantically involved couple, David (Darryl Hickman), Warren’s lab assistant, and Lucy (Pamela Lincoln), Isabel’s younger sister. With its rather absurd abundance of the murderously inclined pas de deux on display, the script presents a bleakly cynical view of spousal devotion; a perspective made manifest in the script’s narrow but consistent relationship blueprint depicting all of the men as parasitically indebted to their women for financial support, which, in the film’s view, leads to anxieties of emasculation with an inevitable escalation into murderous impulses.
The film’s caustically perverse view of marital bliss is actually at the center ring of the film’s concerns, circumventing the eponymous monster, the discovery of which is initially treated by Dr, Chapin as a landmark in biological research (though to what end is an unexplained mystery, as the nonsensical nature of the beast is clearly useful only to cheap horror films) though this status rapidly degenerates into one of dismissive inconvenience once the grinding mechanics of the script which deal with spousal acrimony take over the actions of the film. This spectacle of marriage as a source of extreme domestic fractiousness within the context of the cinefantastique is hardly unique to this film with the notable prior examples of Castle’s own “House on Haunted Hill”, but even more explicitly exhibited in Nathan Juran’s 1958 “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman”, though all three films demonstrate the difficulty of unimaginative directors attempting the bridging of such disparate elements at Sirkian soapy melodramatics and low-grade horror/SF. With “The Tingler”, Castle often seems at conflict with the prominent thematic undercurrents present in Robb White’s scenario; his almost complete lack of interest bespeaks of a director whose priorities are completely consumed by the exploitative elements of his chosen materials rather than exercising an interest in expending creative energies on of Whether this is by design (demonstrating an unfortunate paucity of taste and judgement) or merely deliberate inaction by way of intellectual laziness, the result is a film which jerks clumsily from one sequence to the next as if blindly groping for a narrative foundation that will cement the directions of the plot onto a cohesive course.
Dr. Philip Chapin (Price) is a pathologist on a mission: to uncover what she believes is a physical manifestation of (with apologies to Franklin Roosevelt) fear itself. Chapin seems to spend every moment away from his researches engaged in lower case Noel Coward by- way-of Frank Nitti banter with his sinuously unfaithful wife Isabel (Patricia Cutts); with each acidic bon mot registering all of the romantic devotion of a battlefield salvo of flaming arrows. Meanwhile, Chapin makes the acquaintance of Ollie Higgins (Philip Coolidge)- Ollie is attending the prison execution of his brother-in-law at which Chapin is the attending doctor -who conveniently runs a silent movie house owned by his wife Martha (Judith Evelyn) who suffers from deafness and mutism, conditions which will later conveniently fit into the narrowest of necessary traits to test his scientific theorem in the first place. The incidence of absurdly convenient coincidence is the consistent motivating force in the film, the fuel which feeds an otherwise haphazardly constructed narrative. Out of necessity (at least to pad the film to a reasonably releasable length) the film builds and trades on the volatile relationship between the Chapins, yet there is no payoff to excuse the outlay of such an excess of attention which does little (nothing really) to contribute to the central thread concerning the Tingler. Alternately, a last minute explanation concerning the death of Martha feels like a cheat since there is no preceeding exposition to which later events are given a validating foothold. Indeed, there is no visible indication that later claims of a dangerous spousal discord motivating homicidal actions actually exist since the film ignores an exploration of Martha’s character except as a tormentable victim, made sadistic sport of in the most cynical fashion possible.
A curiously casual attitude toward murderous impulses is in abundant exhibition throughout “The Tingler”- from Warren and Ollie’s initial meeting at a murderer’s execution, to Warren’s faux act of uxoricide and Isabel’s subsequent attempt at mariticide, to Ollie’s eventual unconvincingly sophisticated (just where he suddenly acquires the specialized expertise to enact such a nightmarish undertaking is never explained) -yet the film’s characters never seriously acknowledge these impulses (except in a ludicrous concession to the “comeuppance of evil” demanded by the Production Code, where Warren issues a rather tepid “tsk tsking” toward Ollie’s activities [ignoring the moral hypocrisy that this weak lament comes from a man who attempted to frighten his own wife to death] and it is left to the Tingler itself to right the scales of justice, though in doing so, contradicting Chapin’s claims as to the mortal nature of the beast) and instead are preoccupied with matters of money. This is a central issue motivating the direction of all events in the film; it is central to defining the relationships of all three couples, and acts as a standard of power, to which all hostilities are cultivated. Even Isobel’s transparent adultery seems as if it were more tolerable to Warren- outside of the aforementioned verbal jousting which both seem to perversely enjoy -if he were convinced the gravy train would continue uninterrupted. Sans the eponymous monster (a cross between centipede and a silverfish), which only becomes a menace due to grave incaution by Chapin- who feels such an important and dangerous discovery is best contained in a flimsy cat carrier – within the film’s heart and soul beats a tawdry little domestic melodrama (think Poverty Row Bette Davis) with a larcenous noir candy coating.
The film does take advantage of a certain expectation of Vincent Price’s professional demeanor which was generally one of courtly gentility intelligently expressed, which explains- with a few extreme exceptions -the more patiently restrained nature of the great majority of his villainous roles, which are characterized by a civilized calm ultimately pushed beyond a brink of sane tolerance. This explains the extended fuse his characters endure before they explode into either homicidal rages or an unbalanced madness; the result of a mental fragility which initially makes him more audience sympathetic and certainly more susceptible to the overtly destructive manipulations perpetrated by those to whom he is emotionally vulnerable: especially a paramour or spouse. In “The Tingler” this persona appears in all of it’s expected dimensions, and it is only Price’s class which extends any genuine value to this half-heartedly conceived and tepidly executed little feature.
“The Brain From Planet Arous” (1957)
It’s a sub grade-B 1950’s science fiction movie. It takes place in a remote desert location. It features a ludicrous monster, ludicrous science and alien concepts that might embarrass all but the hardiest of actor’s constitutions, resistant to easy career humiliation. It must be a John Agar film!
“The Brain From Planet Arous” is brought to you by that same directorial talent which unleashed the similarly difficult to describe SF “thriller”, the domestic divorce melodrama/giant semi-transparent (due to terrible optical effects work) space alien/giant floppy rubber hand (due to terrible physical effects work) epic “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman”, Nathan Hertz, the professional alias of director Nathan Juran, used to masquerade his participation in film projects lacking the art house stature of his “The Deadly Mantis”, “Hellcats of the Navy” and “The Boy Who Cried Werewolf”.
While waiting for his lunch, scientist Steve (John Agar, naturally) uncovers an irregular pulse of Gamma radiation emanating from the nearby Mystery Mountain which is “the most godforsaken spot on the desert” and “hasn’t seen a human being since 1900 when the prospectors gave it up”; the typical introduction of the necessary “mysterious” locale (thus the extremely creative labeling of this movie’s point of interstellar mayhem) where an unhappy meeting of Earth men and alien will occur, but only after an almost fetishistic preoccupation with hamburgers which understandably distracts Steve and his goofball science partner Dan (Robert Fuller) who is introduced reading SF pulp which automatically makes him the endearing one in the lab and therefore doomed before the first reel is over. Steve’s fiance Sally (Joyce Meadows), the chef of the burgers of variable quality (depending on which scientist you consult) is also the film’s main dispenser of pith helmets as if she were mistaking her appearance for one in a Jungle Jim feature. The source of the radiation anomaly is an advanced alien appearing as a large hovering balloon in the shape of a brain, complete with a decorous pair of luminescent eyes, who will be the chief antagonist of the film as “it” is named Gor and is a criminal fugitive from the distant planet Arous, none of which indicates probable congenial tidings; especially when Gor’s initial social interaction is to irradiate Dan to death and possess the conscious mind and body of Steve, who now walks about the film with a Jack O’ Lantern death’s head leer and occasional flaring of silver eyes which seem capable of emitting a powerful blast of rays, though neither feature is appreciably noticed by anyone but Sally (the male of the species is amusingly regarded as a league of blind stumblebums in this film), who is initially intrigued and later disturbed by the fact that he seems more affectionate, perhaps the world’s only occasion in filmed science fiction where a sudden wave of prim, chaste propriety becomes the key to identifying and thwarting a galactic threat to a low-budget casting call. To complicate matters, another alien named Vol appears, who reveals the criminal background of his cerebral predecessor and proceeds to unveil a plan destroy the evil mastermind (so to speak) by taking over the brain of Sally’s dog which as time will reveal adds nothing to the story nor enhances anyone’s ability to thwart the increasingly horny Gor.
The film is an example of domination by mental possession- the science fiction version of Trilby and Svengali -popularized by Curt Siodmak in his 1942 novel Donovan’s Brain, itself the basis of two films preceding “The Brain From Planet Arous”: George Sherman’s 1944 “The Lady and the Monster” and Felix E. Feist’s 1952 “Donovan’s Brain”, though neither displayed the leap of surrealist imagination to include the canine intellect as a plot point, this cinema first being the brainchild (so to speak) of scenarist Ray Buffum who often doesn’t seem to be able to reconcile whether he wishes the film to be a typical 1950’s menace from space movie or a romantic relationship drama (coincidentally, there is a similar schizophrenic division of thematic priorities present involving elements of SF and domestic disharmony in the subsequent year’s Nathan Hertz film “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman”) which would seem to bog the film down in nonsensical dialogue exchanges concerning their upcoming nuptials while the entire planet is on the precipice of imminent takeover, but amid all of the surface nonsense (and that is mountainous, easily dwarfing the ridiculous rock pile of Mystery Mountain) there emerges something truly new in an American SF film of the 1950’s: a female character who is actually the hero (or more accurately, heroine) of the film, managing to juggle the usual genre function of catering (literally) to the men’s gastronomic needs while also becoming a model of grace under fire, for it is Sally to whom the unenviable task falls to act as the intrepid foil for the smitten alien, to distract and lure him into a state of vulnerability, all the while maintaining a poise that puts the rest of the cast to shame. (The Pentagon conference is truly embarrassing, with America’s top brass immediately conceding- without any evidence -that the world is being invaded and we’ll all doomed; as unhappy a conglomeration of panicked infantilism as ever has been portrayed on the screen.). it is also Sally who puts herself at risk to plant the information which might lead to Gor’s defeat; all this while the menfolk are sitting around the patio sipping iced tea or frantically mopping their brows with barely contained panic. Most interesting of all is how this portrait of woman as savior is completely forgotten at the end of the film, with an immediate reversion to secondary and menial gender roles once the crisis is averted, an abrupt ending which also leaves a mysterious mountain worth of explaining to do: just how Steve will convince the same people he was previously bullying into submission that he is innocent of all wrongdoing at that is was all the work of a giant floating brain (Perhaps the dog could testify in his defense?) is a colossal problem left unconsidered by Steve and Sally as the movie fades out over the duo in a slobbering passionate embrace, clearly suggesting that for all of his pesky habits- like killing hundreds of people -that Gor has actually left a beneficial legacy behind by instructing otherwise ramrod stiff scientists to surrender to unbridled pawing and saliva swapping that might mark the would-be invader’s mental influence as SF’s first recorded interstellar aphrodisiac. (Arous has, after all, homonymic suggestions of Eros.)
It is unlikely that many will view “The Brain From Planet Arous” in anticipation of witnessing memorable heights of the performance arts, yet the appealing Joyce Meadows gives her all in the thankless role of Sally, who save the world from destruction and then is immediately subordinated to a last minute demotion toward complacent domesticity. (Shades of Rosie the Riveter!) The dedicated complexity with which Meadows invests in this role is impressive but also has the unintended result of nullifying whatever suspense might be intended over the larger picture of tyrannical planetary subservience, as the viewer is drawn to the subject of her well being rather than that of a planet which seems to be asking for it. John Agar is more problematic, an actor of substantial abilities whose resume reads like a nightmarish progression down the path of can-you-top this badness (“Zontar, the Thing From Venus” anyone?), his ability to plunge forward in these often unwatchable productions with a resigned dignity is both admirable and more than a little sad, though here he seems to truly immerse himself in those moments where the manically destructive side of Gor is leveling all manner of Man’s achievements (though the special effects work here is anything but, relying primarily of stock footage of A-bomb tests, model plane debris visibly stuck on wires and elementary double exposures), perhaps envisioning himself turning such destructive energies on the producers of this film. It’s a sentiment all the people of Earth might rally around.
“I Was a Teenage Werewolf” (1957)
To listen to the hysterical moralists of the day, American teens in the 1950’s were living in a whirling vortex of insatiable savage impulses marked by juvenile delinquency, alcoholism (or at least the fatal sip of the same refreshment the adults were freely pouring like a waterfall in the same households), smoking, and degenerate Rock and Roll which served to unleashed the primitive sexual beast within leading to moral rot and community shame and disgrace (Duck and cover those legs right now, Missy!). And these are what are now regarded, aided with the soothing balm of distancing historical perspective, as the dull Eisenhower years. To be fair, every generation has its sliding barometer of generational panic (the parents of these hysterical parents were nonplussed over the emergence of the sexually kinetic jitterbug supplanting the divine pleasures of The Whiffenpoof Song), yet with the emergence of television (and the continued growing appeal of that most American of entertainment venues, the drive-in movie), Hollywood studios were amassing with heretofore unseen interest in the youth audience to boost the lagging ticket sales of the adult demographic, and with the emergence of the exploitation minded, youth savvy American International Pictures, which rather than shying away from parental anxieties, used them as an attraction to box-office lucre, the seeds were planted which has led to the eventual infantilization of the American cinema at it is enjoyed (by a few) today.
Subtly hidden within this hybrid of mad scientist and monster with folklore origins- though not the first to attempt the deliberate introduction of lycanthropy by way of a gene altering serum as previously explored in the 1956 “The Werewolf” -is a cautionary tale on the dangers of nonconformity, though in an effort to be more appealing to the youth audience to whom the film is intended, the severest infractions, resulting in violence and death, are directly the result of respected adult authority imposing its own blind ambitions on a helpless teenager. Seldom has a film built on such simple-minded formulaic elements managed to create a confused point-of-view as convoluted as what the screenwriters Herman Cohen and Aben Kandel have devised in which an overly familiar mad scientist horror scenario is given the illusion of an application of freshness by converting the primary characters from the usual careless adults into a troubled teen and then spend the entire film promoting the values of good fellowship while those same characters are ensuring the destruction of the lead character. Talk about having your cake and biting it too.
Michael Landon plays Tony Rivers, a troubled teen whose short temper seems to be set of by noise, off-handed comments or the general proximity of anyone (friend or foe, it doesn’t matter) else in the room. Though shown concern by his father and girlfriend Arlene (Yvonne Lime), it is not until a Halloween party in which he savagely attacks his friend Vic (Ken Miller) that he follows sympathetic police Detective Donovan’s (Barney Phillips) advice to seek help from a Dr. Brandon (Whit Bissell), a practitioner of hypnotherapy but who has secretly devised a serum which he announces repeatedly to his unconvinced but loyal assistant as a “scientific triumph” which will save mankind as it will regress Tony (who has been chosen by the good doctor as a subject since the youth has the “proper disturbed emotional background I need”) to the “primitive past that lurks within him” and will “unleash the savage instincts that lie within him.” If this sounds as if Brandon will be disappointed by future Nobel Prize committees, or that his idea doesn’t sound like a particularly good one is obvious to everyone but Brandon himself, who is a model of mad scientist hubris, effectively empowered by the entire adult community surrounding Tony who incessantly preach proper behavior through creepy, rather subversive speeches about conformity and uniformly cooperative behavior that actually becomes so extreme, it almost seems as if these adult/teen confrontations are meant as failed parody.
With the unleashing of Tony’s “savage instincts” the film engages in some rather obvious examples of Tony’s regression acting as a metaphor for the adolescent hormonal shifts often used as an excuse for an increase in “erratic” teen behavior, thus when the werewolf in him is released, a violent sexual hunger emerges (prior to this, though there is a great deal of partying and socialization going on, the film is almost primly chaste) in which such hormonal urges now manifest themselves with the murder of a student gymnist. There is a direct link to Tony’s earlier temperamental behavior and his werewolf transformation as both are equally characterized by violent outbursts (especially when provoked by blaring trumpets, telephone rings or school bells) that are only more deadly in his regressed guise as he is equipped with stalagtite fangs and claws, but it is obvious that the film deliberately excuses Tony’s original proclivities to violence as a result of having no mother and living in an atmosphere in which he is constantly berated to behave himself, even though he himself causes the necessity for such consistent lecturing (the film is rife with such elliptical logic as it clear that the film makers are continuously playing both ends of the generational struggle), but that his eventual ruin comes from his finally heeding the calls to a more responsible future by putting his life in the hands of supposedly responsible adult authority, an authority that in turn operates through its own impossibly deluded motives to save the world by seemingly destroying it. In other words, the film makers have created a world in which the teenager is ultimately powerless; a rather grim view of the world which is not relieved by the fact that all of the adults are either incredibly inept (the police) or characterized by that particular mad scientist evil of which B-movies are beholden. To stack the deck against Tony even further, the other teens in the film are portrayed as an eerily conservative bunch even for clean-cut 1950’s cinema: you expect them to raid a barn and put on a show, with the only sign of contemporary “50’s teen” behavior being the awkward dialogue insertions of what is supposed to pass as hipster talk but would probably be more at home in a 1940’s soda shop. The passivity of the rest of the teens- to emphasize Tony’s emotional difficulties? -makes them so blandly conceived as to generate suspicion that the film’s town of Rockdale hasn’t been visited by Don Siegel’s space pods?
For a horror film there are no thrills and no attempt at suspense even though the final third of the film seems to be taken with the extended search for the werewolf/Tony through the town’s forests, in what must be the most lethargic fugitive pursuit in the history of film, with the search parties led by a police force which seems to spend all of it’s time standing in the station rubbing their chins in wonderment as to how to find the killer (going outside and looking might be a good start), and the entire investigative intelligence seeming to be reliant on the station’s janitor (Vladimir Sokoloff) who spends more time recounting myths from the Carpathian Mountains than in emptying trash cans. The remedial level of the police search is truly staggering, with the parties armed with torches as if they were villagers storming the castle in a 1930’s Frankenstein movie, though even arc lamps wouldn’t improve their tracking skills as in one scene Tony actually runs behind them undetected simply because it wouldn’t occur to the searchers to turn around. Nor is there any eventual tension between Tony and his tormentor Dr. Brandon, as the film merely wraps up everyone’s fate out of convenience (or creative exhaustion) without a more satisfying direct confrontation between the two characters. Even Detective Donovan’s final line in the film- “it’s not up for Man to interfere in the ways of God” -is the exhaustively overused cliché attendant in every mad doctor movie ever made, but fails to resonate as it presumes that Donovan has knowledge of what Dr. Brandon has been up to all along, for which there has been no evidence and no discernible reason for him to utter the words except for the screenwriters to throw in the last desperate genre trope into the mix to masquerade the fact that they have had no idea in which direction their story should develop beyond the novelty of a teenaged based monster movie.
“K R O N O S” (1 9 5 7)
The proliferation of Sf films in the 1950’s saw a redundancy of Mankind menaced by atom bomb generated gigantism, though there was also a hefty amount of dangerous invaders from space whose intent also was to destroy Mankind (Was it something we said?), obviously not having availed themselves of the opportunity to see all of the films made about marauding radiation mutants or disgruntled Martians, notating that such plans of conquest and annihilation were fairly fruitless and not worth the gas to get here. However, with the Kurt Neumann film “Kronos”, world domination- if not outright extinction of the human race -was precipitated not by a species or living organism directly, but in the form of a mechanical emissary sent by that same interstellar species, not to contact the human race, but to, in effect, shove a very sophisticated hose into our fuel tanks and suck us dry of energy; thus making it clear that we are worth the gas, just not the personal attention: with the conquering aliens laying waste to Earth civilization with the galactic version of a roach trap. This effectively eliminates the need of wasting time in discussing a negotiated peace (while simultaneously placing our armored weaponry in strategically useless formations) and leaping forward directly to the inevitable military bombardments and destructive special effects set pieces.
“Kronos” concerns the abrupt arrival of an immense extraterrestrial accumulator which collects the energy in any power plant within walking distance of the device’s rather odd piledriver momentum, which seems practical for well digging but hardly useful in forward propulsion.. Naturally, a few select scientists and the military join forces to annihilate this complete foreign technology which no one can possibly understand, initially stupidly using an atomic bomb to stop the monolithic giant; a rather brainless stratagem since Kronos merely sucks up all of the resultant energy and grows stronger, and although it affords the film makers to the opportunity to make use of some fairly standard but inexpensive bomb test stock footage, the easy absorption of atomic energy begs the question as to why a galactic civilization would waste its time sucking the life out of meager power plants when there are equally approachable stars with incalculable amounts of energy to be lifted? (And no where in the film is the suggestion made to incapacitate the device by diverting the machine to Washington D.C., where the widespread lack of energy surely would have irreversibly weakened the device. Now that would be a movie!) The film also traverses the familiar route of 1950’s menaces more often than not erupting in the Southwest: in this case, Mexico and Southern California, a geographic region which the majority of alien civilizations seem to find an enticing region for invasionary vandalism, probably due to the summery climate.
The film opens with the descent of a pulsating penny candy flying saucer, discharging a glowing speck of light which resembles Tinker Bell in the Mary Martin version of “Peter Pan”, but armed with far more malevolent intent, as it takes possession of a passing motorist who obviously hasn’t heeded the alarm of the previous two dozen desert motorists who have been consumed or possessed by aliens throughout 1950’s cinema. Eventually, this possession will be transferred to the head honcho of LABCENTRAL, Dr. Hubbell Eliot (John Emery) as if transient extraterrestrial entities were as easy to transmit as syphilis in a Parisian bawdy-house. The alien possession subplot of the film is entirely a feint (except to cause Dr. Eliot to lurk about the empty hallways, flamboyantly arching his eyebrows to no one in particular), present only to stretch out an already threadbare storyline, and to afford an opportunity for a character to indulge in the traditional “movie bad guy confessional” in which a villain will spill their entire plans for conquest to the nearest set of patient ears, in this case Dr. Albert Stern played with brusque efficiency by efficiently brusque staple of 1950’s SF Morris Ankrum; but more importantly, to give the audience a general synopsis of what’s to take place, since the behavior of the lead scientists doesn’t make a lick of sense.
However, in introducing Dr. Eliot, the opportunity presents itself to introduce those who will be the central characters of the film- square jawed Dr. Leslie Gaskell (Jeff Morrow), buxom tagalong/would-be love interest Vera Hunter (Barbara Lawrence) and sidekick scientist, Dr. Arnold Culver (played by George O’ Hanlon, who may or may not gain points as an expert in scientific concepts when one recognizes his voice as that of futuristic man-of-the-world George Jetson), who has the most human relationship in the film- with a supercomputer acronymically named S.U.S.I.E. (for Synchro Unifying Sinometric Integrating Equitensor) who automatically, if not the smartest character in the film is certainly the wisest by not speaking a word of the creaky, overly familiar plot prompters passing for dialogue written by Lawrence L. Goldman (from the story by producer/special effects contributor Irving Block,, who, on the basis of his initial conception, was far too familiar with the competing roster of 1950’s SF films for comfort). In his role as world savior, Jeff Morrow appears suspiciously weary, as if the repetition of formula in his genre work inhibited a commitment for seeking out any nugget of spontaneous inspiration that might brighten another in a long line of traditionally colorless roles in American science fiction. Is there another film genre which might claim an equal, alarmingly fractional number of human characters which could legitimately be regarded as memorable? This may explain the unnatural attention, within the genre, given to robots and other synthetic life forms, which are brimming with novelty when compared to the shockingly pallid conceptions of their human counterparts with whom they cohabitate the SF universe. How is it possible in a genre in which, truly, anything is possible (regardless of scientific laws and principles which are generally ignored anyway), that there can be so little variety in the invented individuals comprising its worlds? Cinema SF offers the greatest opportunity for iconoclasm, yet continually falls back on the most banal of personality types, a fact which places an unnatural strain on the scientific concepts of the story to carry the weight of credibility, a burden which is, more often than not, mired in nonsensical alterations of physical laws and a heavy reliance on familiar, but successful genre tropes of the past, not necessarily limited to SF. (For instance, the western genre has been more than adequately mined for adaptive inspirations.) The scientists of “Kronos” follow the general pattern of American filmed SF in which (a) they ignore events right in front of their eyes (such as a laughably visible violent shift in direction of a presumed meteor), and (b) are suddenly, conveniently prescient as to the nature of the alien menace, enabling them to devise an eleventh-hour rescue of civilization. Both of these characteristics broadly define the role of the scientist in the American SF film and since both have more to do with narrative advancement than character development, are subject to the diminishing effects of the banality of the story itself. If the script is a general rehashing of an increasingly tired formula and the characters exist only to serve the purposes of the story (not the other way around), it is inevitable that the roles given the actors will be increasingly thin and underdeveloped.
It is no wonder that Morrow, a not incapable actor, seems mentally removed from much of the film: he has simply tread the same ground once too often, though he is not aided in any meaningful way by the lackadaisical performance of Barbara Lawrence who is entirely unmemorable, save for her ability to endure all manner of chaos without marring her sculpted lipstick. Her role as standardized sexual foil is even more unnecessary than normal, contributing nothing- not even the expected damsel in distress moments -and generating zero chemistry with Morrow. (This last is truly a missed opportunity to play with the conventions of the genre, as there are a running series of romantic interruptions that could have been played for both laughs and a witty commentary on the absurdity of the sexy female assistant’s role in the genre, had anyone recognized what they had accidentally unearthed.)
However, if anyone is to be ultimately blamed for the sluggishness of the production, it is director Kurt Neumann who, ironically, fails by aiming high. Neumann develops a genuine sense of mystery in the early establishing scenes, and infuses much of a story comprised of scientific sterility, with the shadowy pulse of film noir (abetted enormously by Karl Struss’ atmospheric photography), but eventually the director’s purposeful aims are undone by the sheer conventionality of genre formula: it is impossible to sustain a sense of foreboding mystery when we know from the first minute where the film is going. If anything, the carefully crafted sense of place is lacking the zip needed to sustain interest in such familiar materials. For once, it would have benefited a director to step down beneath his capability and get trashy. It’s what his script deserves.
“THE BLOB” (1958)
Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.’s The Blob” is a film with an impressive cult legacy, but one that yields few actual rewards upon viewing. This small-town teen versus space monster picture does distinguish itself from many of the grade-B (or lower) SF films of the Fifties in that, despite its shoestring production cost, it is rendered with an attractively colorful palette by Director of Photography Thomas Spalding, though it fails to disguise the stage bound origins of most of its necessarily miserly production values; a creative hazard which might be compensated for employing an advanced aesthetic eye- as demonstrated in the minimal but haunting 1953 film “Invaders From Mars” -but instead contributes to a rather unsettling sense of claustrophobic artificiality that permeates the entire film.
There is a maddening disconnection to the real world in this film; as if each moment is posed and staged with stilted sense of composition negatively enhanced by a general acting style of by-rote recitation; stiff dramatization as if in the service of imparting a civics lesson; not surprising as much of the filmmaking team’s prior experience had been in the production of educational and religious short films. During several critical points in what is promoted as a SF “thriller” narrative, what little action there is comes to a screeching halt in order to seemingly reproduce the amateurish exposition of lecturing instructional classroom shorts.
The eponymous creature of the film is an amorphous mass which has traveled through the vastness of the universe, encased in a small meteorite shell which makes it resemble either a large cosmic peanut M&M or an egg, the possibilities of which are never explored (never mentioned, actually) in a film that finds an initial contact with an extraterrestrial life form to be so uninteresting that the characters choose to divert themselves with hot rod hijinks in lieu of pursuing a deadly flesh eating menace. Once released, the gelatinous ooze actually does begin a campaign of absorbing every human in its path, though seems to have no effect on the surrounding objects or life forms, thus making its arrival on Earth fortuitous when one considers the astronomical odds of floating in space and just happening to land on a planet and be picked up by the one type of organic life you are capable of eating. Not being a sentient being, the nature of the Blob is bound to be mysterious, yet this must be the only SF film in history in which there is never a moment of scientific curiosity expressed about a featured alien life form. Nor is law enforcement depicted in a particularly flattering light, with most of the police more interested in lecturing the teenagers on matters of public courtesy than in dealing with an epic mass of Silly Putty which is consuming half the town’s population.
In fact, the only characters depicted as being remotely responsible are the town’s teenagers- which probably accounted for much of the film’s initial success with the youth market, more than the inclusion of Steve(n) McQueen in the lead as the twenty-eight year old actor (and looking every minute of it) was relatively unknown at the time -as every adult is seen as mulishly thick headed and unable to take any action without engaging in a cranky debate session. (If the poverty row minimalism isn’t reminiscent enough of Ed Wood films, the oddly simultaneous underwriting/overwriting of the screenplay by Theodore Simonson and Kay Phillips (the writing pseudonym of actress Kay Linaker) in which the volume of unnecessary, momentum paralyzing dialogue transforms each scene into an overbearing discussion on respect for authority and other social etiquette. Never before, in any SF film, has there been such a diligent concession to inertia of action in favor of standing frozen and pondering: the apotheosis of this inexplicable behavioral pattern occurs during a raid of the town’s high school for weapons in the form of fire extinguishers, in which the mob is stopped by the locked doors and sheepishly hesitate at simply breaking the glass to enter in order to merely stop the marauding space monster from consuming the rest of Pennsylvania.
In his first lead film role, Steve McQueen reveals little of his later screen authority in his performance as the town’s most vocal teenager Steve Andrews; assuming the mantle of authority if for no other reason than seniority, though the film is populated with the most wizened collection of “actors” at least ten years too old to play teenagers (No doubt necessary to keep McQueen from standing out like a pruned thumb.) seen outside of “Grease”. Aneta Sorsaut (Helen Crump on television’s “The Andy Griffith Show”) makes her first film appearance as Steve’s girlfriend Jane, who has no real function (the romantic angle is perfunctory and so chaste- even by 1950’s standards -that the relationship could be spliced into an instructional film entitled “How to Enter a Convent” without alteration. However, her presence gives the excuse to yank out that hoariest of clichés: the “child in distress” in the form of her kid brother Danny. Unfortunately, as obnoxiously played by Keith Almoney– in a performance so heinous in its absence of skill, it may be of sufficient cause to launch a Congressional investigation in the banning of kids with cowlicks from American motion pictures -his very presence is sufficiently irritating as to make one momentarily switch allegiances in favor of the Blob. Only veteran character actor Olin Howard, in his final film role, emerges with a solid performance, as the old hermit who initially discovers and falls prey to the Blob; the bulk of his screen time is spent screaming in pain and thus his efforts remain unmolested by subjugation to the wincing awkwardness of the film’s dialogue.
Also unburdened by the script is the Blob itself, an amusing creation (Though hardly an original conception as an amorphous creature was also featured in Leslie Norman’s effective 1956 thriller “X the Unknown”, with a similar creature emerging again in 1959 for Italy in Riccardo Freda’s “Caltiki- il monstro immortale”.) that is effectively, though again minimally, brought to life with a creative use of silicon and miniatures. Interestingly, the more the Blob kills, the redder tint it assumes; a completely unspoken reference to the blood of the victims it has consumed, which cleverly manages to include an otherwise censorable gore level without bringing undue attention to itself. Had the rest of the feature displayed this creative brand of understated shorthand, the film might have begun to warrant the extremely generous reputation it now enjoys.
“Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster” (1965)
With “Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster” the Gothic trappings of Mary Shelley’s seminal work of horror literature are abandoned in the service of timely expediency in capitalizing on the then-current frenzied Space Race, with the concept of the eponymous artificially created man/monster evolving from a sutured amalgam of cadaver trimmings to a transistor-based man/robot with malfunction issues. In fact, except for the robot’s name being Frank, there is little (none actually) resemblance to the classic tale, though there are intrinsic narrative elements that would later form the basis of Larry Buchanan’s equally accomplished “Mars Needs Women”.
The robot Frank is intended to substitute for a human astronaut on a perilous deep space mission, but there is little scientific exposition (again, none) concerning the nature of such a mission that would require such a drastic substitution, (with the filmmakers apparently unaware of either the Mercury or Gemini programs of the day) though there is an abundance of funky stock travelogue footage of Cocoa Beach circa early 60’s, maddeningly cross-cut with inappropriately timed shots of the Earthly cast endlessly driving in a car (Insane Thought #1: Could this film have been an influence on Andrei Tarkovsky for his later “Solaris”?) while evidently having difficulty remembering their lines.
Preparations for the space flight, including an awkward scene where during a press conference the passing-for-human Frank malfunctions and freezes, (The filmmakers accomplishing this miracle illusion with the state-of-the-art use of a freeze frame.) are intercut with the intrusion of an aluminum foil spaceship populated by Martians- outfitted with children’s Halloween costumes and skull caps with visibly ragged edges -including uncredited future James Bond baddie (from “Diamonds are Forever”) Bruce Glover. The NASA space mission goes well (well, it launches anyway) until it is almost immediately shot down by the aliens who mistake the rocket for an Earthly nose-thumbing, and begin implementation of their own diabolical plan- and where director Robert Gaffney’s film most resembles that other SF epic of the 60’s (Remember…”Mars Needs Women”) -to kidnap poolside bikini babes who will be used as breeding stock for their home planet; as evidently females who are more modestly attired are deemed not as fertile.
Meanwhile, after crash landing in Puerto Rico (mainly due to low production costs), robot Frank finds half of his face melted away, and thus becomes the Frankenstein of the title, though he doesn’t demonstrate any antisocial behavior (betraying the filmmakers’ bias against those afflicted with unsightly epidermal rashes) outside of a case of slight confusion and a serious need for a soothing ointment. In the end, an inevitable confrontation between hapless Frank and the “Space Monster”- which seems to be a large growling piece of shag carpeting the Martians have stashed in a large steel cage -makes an anemic stab at resembling the film’s climax, but it’s just incredibly silly though mercifully brief nonsense; though in all fairness to screenwriter George Garrett, it’s probably the best quality Robot Frankenstein Vs. Bikini Girl Kidnappers From Mars film written by an actual Poet Laureate on record. The fine character actor James Karen (excellent in “Return of the Living Dead”) portrays Dr. Adam Steele, the woeful creator of the wandering Frank, spending most of the picture zipping about the island on a scooter (with hilariously inappropriate beach blanket elevator/rock tunes playing on the soundtrack) in what is his first appearance on film; though surely the Statute of Limitations on such a felonious choice of projects has long since expired.
“The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” (1962)
With “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die”, no discussion would be complete without a concession to the fertile soil that is exploitation cinema, to which this film is a classical example, especially as filtered through the then popular (but still emerging) sub-genre of the cheaply made Grade Z drive-in horror film of which such radical “minor” distributors such as American International Pictures and Allied Artists acted as low-culture contributors with releases such as “I Was a Teenage Werewolf”” and “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman”; typical examples of seemingly cloddish productions that contained surprisingly diverse subtexts. Films of this discernibly low pedigree often dealt frankly with the subjects of sex and gender dynamics- less openly explored at the time due to Production Code restrictiveness -though more often than not the rather blatant subtexts were either overlooked or dismissed by their encasement within films that were both dubiously considered as genre trash or for the fact that though the films may have contained interesting thematic elements, aesthetically they were of zero interest using any legitimate critical rationale. Such is the case with “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die”, whose narrative follows the standard mad scientist genre formula while spiking the mix with generous portions of seriously gratuitous bloodshed (prior to Herschell Gordon Lewis’ perverse output and rather shocking even in its black and white depiction) that called for extreme censorial cuts, as well as healthy portions of salacious cheesecake sexuality that offers no genuine contribution to the surface storyline except to distract from the primary horror film tropes while substituting rather sleazy though pathetically rendered views of hoochie coochie dancers and men’s “photography clubs”. Ironically, it is these salacious distractions which contribute to the film’s more interesting non-horror themes concerning modern sexual politics.
Despite its poverty level production values, anemic acting, ludicrous scientific concepts and insufficiency in both story and character development,”The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” manages memorability while debasing every legitimate standard of critical evaluation; in fact, the most interesting aspect of the film is it’s narrative conventionality (within the established Hollywood horror traditions) while administering an unrelenting application of casual extremity with those same overused genre conventions. It can rightly be observed that almost every variation of the shopworn mad doctor ingredients used are stretched to exaggerated depictions of outrageousness clearly designed to shock and the average filmgoer at the time. The elements of more explicit violence are curiously intertwined with the seedier sexual content of the film, and yet the connections do not advance- as if often the case in both film and literature -the exploration of the sadomasochistic, but instead, and (surprisingly) far more interestingly, considers the boundaries of the male machismo and the resultant militancy of the feminist mind in response, though in the skewered context of the film, the feminine mind when divorced of all sexual impulses (and these are shamelessly controlled and exploited by men in the film) devolves into a primitive state in which the controlling instincts are those of violent intent. Thus when Jan, the accident victim who becomes the eponymous title creature, recovers consciousness, divorced of her physical being, her humanity and romantic nature, as exhibited in the opening scenes, are supplanted by a singular hostility. Is it a stretch to suggest that the film is hinting that when a woman’s sexual drive encounters drastic alteration it is the undoing of her rational personality; a great feature length PMS joke? Such a subtext might seem beyond the ambitions of such a minor effort, yet if one examines the actions of both Jan and the protagonist surgeon Cortner, it is undeniable there is a definite line of thought running through the film that embraces the male view of women as solely sexual creatures existent for male gratification and when devoid of these sexual resources, women serve no purpose and actually become a source of irritation and endangerment to the male of the species. If taken literally, the film’s message could be construed as singularly misogynistic, though in the greater context of it’s horror movie/mad scientist trappings this may also be regarded as a more extreme extension of themes and attitudes foundational to both American horror and science fiction genres; genres in which sex and the threat of violence (especially toward women) are intertwined on an uncomfortably regular basis.
Besides being a logical precursor to the later popular Midnight Movie rosters featuring quirky visions by the likes of Frank Henenlotter, David Lynch and Stuart Gordon, the film could rightly be regarded as a venal skid row sibling (it was produced in 1959 though unreleased until 1962) of George Franju’s “Les yeux sans visage”, though the only comparative content present in both films is that the casts seem to approach the proceedings with dedicated gravity. This is not to say that the actors appearing in “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” distinguish themselves with performances that scream resume highlights, but the maintaining of a straight face while either appearing as or conversing with a severed head with an attitude is nothing to sneeze at. (Bogart himself felt uneasy with his brief divergence toward horror in “The Return of Doctor X” and it showed.)
While the film is often cited as a SF/horror hybrid, it is more properly categorized as straight horror, as the science elements are so shabbily approached (and this in comparison to the woeful standards of 1950’s American SF cinema!) they take an unavoidable backseat to the horror and sexploitation elements of the story: in essence, it is a film that appears undecided as to what it genuinely wishes to be, though that the second half spiral into uninterrupted sex and violence betrays a depressing creative surrender to the most extreme (and unnecessary) foundational undercurrents of horror cinema but without any substantial mythic underpinnings. Though the film finds its thematic hooks from the experimental stages of organ transplantation, the extremity of the narrative’s details and the interpolation of consciously gratuitous levels of sex and violence, which have always been interrelated in Hollywood horror films were never before presented with such an unabashed absence of subtlety or gleefully perverse carnival level exhibitionism. (Even compared with the oft condemned lurid color productions of both Hammer and many Anglo Amalgamated Film Distributors releases.)
The film wastes no time in clarifying the simplistic boundaries of its character’s personalities with the most temperamentally unsuitable for either altruistic medical practice or romantic entanglement being that of lead man Herb (Jason) Evers as the obnoxiously smarty pants surgeon Dr. Bill Cortner, whose ascendancy toward self-righteousness haughty posturing is made all the more intolerably sleazy by both his casually murderous inclinations tinted with a drooling chauvinism but also his blindly manic ambition toward medical innovation that discounts not only the law and professional ethics, but also the living parade of monstrous failures that his experimentation has left behind. The conception of this character is in keeping within the base parameters of the standard “mad scientist” formula, though there are interesting differences (not divergences) in the degree in which the subject character is explicitly depicted within the typically muted aberrant sexual predilections of this role type. His baser motivations are fortified by an almost morbid immaturity toward authority exemplified not only in a blatant attempt in showing up his father (and, significantly, rival surgeon) during the course of the film’s opening operation sequence (in which medical ethics are conveniently thrown away by all concerned) but in his breezy willingness to commit murder, not to save the life of his own beloved, nor even to achieve success with his own scientific obsession, but to satisfy his seemingly insatiable carnal desires by constructing a virtual sexual Frankenstein through the sacrifice of an unsuspecting woman of centerfold dimensions whose pneumatic form he plans to fuse with the severed head of his fiance Jan (Virginia Leith), effectively permanently separating her intellect from her physical (sexual) attributes; an action which exposes his fixation with sexual stimulation and gratification in lieu of his supposedly altruistic initial impulses. Almost immediately upon the preservation of Jan’s brain, Cortner completely ignores her as an individual (not to mention the supposed object of his now invisible romantic affections) and as an object with which to “improve” upon her sexual usability. (A fixation which would wait until Mel Welles’ 1971 “La Figlia di Frankenstein” and Paul Morrissey’s 1973 “Flesh for Frankenstein” for further cinematic expression.)
This imprudent project is the direct result of incautious driving by Cortner whose blind arrogance leads to one of cinema’s most ludicrously cheap depictions of action with the car accident represented through the use of a few quick close-ups, an obviously dubbed library sound effect and the rather unconvincing image (to say the least) of Cortner rolling down a newly trimmed lawn until the next shot where he staggers amid unkept woodland brush to approach the remains of his shattered car and decapitated sweetie. Clearly concern over reliably detailed verisimilitude is not at issue here (as demonstrated by the ludicrous opening surgery sequence where Cortner’s father- a supposedly eminent surgeon -approaches a simple incision with the cartoonish gesturing of a three year old diving into a box of Cracker Jacks for the hidden prize) yet a film which supposes even a modicum of credence within the exaggerated parameters of science fiction tomfoolery must, at least, concede to the burden of depicting it’s more realistically based occurrences with the merest modicum of visual believability.
However, “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” never recognizes any such aesthetic burdens, instead rushing fervently away from any semblance of operating within a rational sphere of scientific and social existence and into it’s own limited realm of the perversely lurid, where every action and motivation seems founded in the most base of motivations. Though purporting to be a traditional “mad scientist” cheapie (with appropriately exploitative heightening of traditional interrelated violent and sexual propensities), the film is actually an interesting and in many ways more honest exploration of sexual hunger and the male image of female as both sexual object and emasculator. It is this last element which merits awarding the film, despite it’s artistic deficiencies which are legion, a begrudging acknowledgement as a significant influence as a turning point in frank depictions of sexual obsessiveness, in comparison to more mainstream Hollywood films which were still timidly dipping their toes into the pool.
Once the initial premise in underway, Cortner is defined entirely in terms of his sexual obsessiveness; this personality trait transcending ethical deviation into full blown sociopathic behavior. The aftermath of the hideous accident which victimizes Jan quickly evolves from an attempt at selfless (if scientifically irrational) rescue to the leering use of scientific miracles utilized to satisfy the doctor’s taste for pneumatically enhanced sex partners. The professed romantic love for Jan is summarily forgotten as if grafting her head onto a voluptuous anatomy might compensate for any scarring psychological trauma suffered by the woman by turning her into a desirable redesigned sexpot. That Jan’s mental state might not be welcoming to assume this new role of purely carnal playmate is a consideration never explored by either Cortner nor the film; a lost opportunity that might have given a more sensible basis to her sudden and unexplained attitudinal pivoting.
Instead, the film abandons any exploration of character impact in pursuit of a tawdry tour of Cortner’s search for an ideal sexual physique; the key to attractiveness also demeaningly consistent with the exploitation of those women exhibiting the weakest (thus most vulnerable) of self-preservation instincts. It is obvious that the brazen misogyny of the film is its most astonishing feature, depicted not only through the cravenly disreputable attitudes of Cortner, but in the film’s attitude toward Jan. Remarkably, despite Cortner’s appalling behavior toward everyone else, it is Jan who is inexplicably promoted from victim to monstrous villain at the drop of a hat. Once divorced from her body and therefore her physiological gender identity, the film identifies Jan’s feminine ego as divorced of all characteristics save for an uncharacteristic penchant toward gleeful homicidal rants. This is made explicit through a clunky series of polemics between the disembodied Jan and Cortner’s hapless assistant Kurt (Leslie Daniels)- a former subject of experimentation gone wrong -in awkwardly inserted (between scenes of Cortner’s noctural prowls) expositional scenes; arguing the finer points of scientific responsibility as if they were engaged in a high school debate session. Clearly, where the film’s primary action is absent the presence of the film’s most interesting character (Jan), these scenes are uncomfortably desperate attempts to introduce the internal musings of that central character without the use of endless and inert voiceovers, but its a poor substitute for drama with forward momentum.
Worse yet, are the one-sided monologues by Jan to the dangerous mutation (The product of another failed Cortner experiment, which makes one wonder why he is so certain his restoration of Jan might be remotely successful; another question conveniently ignored by the film.) in which it is revealed that she (for reasons never explained) shares a controlling psychic bond (a narrative element seemingly included only to show that someone had seen the earlier- and infinitely superior -“Donovan’s Brain”) with the same creature, who is imprisoned in a closet (Another sexual subtext, or merely a source for poor puns?) but will eventually escape to enact Jan’s homicidal whims. The creature is entirely sexless, without a definitive identifiable gender and therefore is a thematically consistent ideal compatriot for the temporarily sexless Jan.
In Joseph Green’s sleazy little horror show, the writer/director manages to degrade both genders while simultaneously creating a piece of drama certain to satisfy specialized members of both sexes: men who hate women and women who hate men.
“THE GREEN SLIME” (1968)
Has there ever been as humorless a cheesy SF film as “The Green Slime”? One of the first things evident is the dedicated seriousness with which the cast approaches the completely dreadful script by Tom Rowe, William Finger and Charles Sinclair, (based on a story by co-producer Ivan Reiner- whose contribution cannot unfairly escape scrutiny for this offense) a dedication that is usually admirable, but after about an hour of petrifying earnestness one longs for a smirk, or a droll line reading or a wistful, knowing glimmer in the eye; anything to indicate the cast was in on the joke and not genuinely approaching the material as if it were a tragedy by the Bard. However, the yawning abyss formed by an attitudinal contrariness between the stolid solemnity of the acting and the campy dialogue everyone is forced to recite creates a disharmonious rending of tone that makes the performances seem even worse than they already are. The general premise is hardly original, with the notions of life forms entrapping a space crew and the idea that they feed off of energy already explored in “It! The Terror From Beyond Space” and “Kronos” respectively, but neither previous film was saddled with the ludicrous collection of cliches strung together that passes for dialogue, forcing leads Robert Horton and Richard Jaeckel to postpone action on possible doomsday perils while bickering like two housewives in a floor wax commercial.
A giant asteroid named Flora (apparently all of the good names for celestial bodies having already been taken on “Star Trek” episodes) is detected, about to strike the earth in ten hours (what Earth’s observational resources were distracted by that they didn’t notice this sooner goes unexplained) and naturally there is only one man who can save the day by blowing up the pesky space rock and that is Commander Jack Rankin (Horton, equipped with a commanding impressive tidal wave of hair) who naturally used to be best friends with the head of the space station Gamma 3, Commander Vince Elliott, (Jaeckel, in less impressively authoritarian crew cut mode) but who had a falling out over questionable command decisions, not the least of which seems to be that Jack’s ex-flame, Dr. Lisa Benson (Luciana Paluzzi) is now Vince’s fiancée, a romantic tension that threatens to strain the relatively unimportant mission to destroy the hurtling asteroid before it vaporizes the Earth, especially when Dr. Benson goes out of her way to throw Jack several pointedly hostile glances. Space soap opera on a less-than-grand scale, ably assisted by some of the worst miniature effects work (even by Japanese standards) ever seen in a major motion picture. (Isn’t the gantry tower during an initial rocket launch actually a pillar of Lego blocks?)
The gravity of the situation increases (as it does inexplicably on the asteroid) when a strange glowing, pulsating green slime (hence the title) is found amid the many crystalline ponds that strangely dot the asteroid’s surface despite the fact that there is no sustaining atmosphere. The identifiably useless medical officer incautiously begins playing with the material and excitedly contains a sample which, prior to liftoff Commander Jack brusquely throws aside, splattering a crew member’s leg- though no one seems to notice. Naturally, returning to Gamma 3, the slime begins to grow and multiply (their blood drops each grow into a new creature) equally inexplicably into- not bigger slime -but giant rubber monsters with legs, patently phoney painted red eyes and tentacles that kill by electric touch. It’s now astronaut ingenuity, which seems to be limited to continuously running suicidally into the creatures shooting plastic laser rifles (Just why are the crew of a space station armed with all manner of lethal weaponry anyway: in case a horde of marching slime monsters happens to drop by?) and net guns (Really? Net guns?) versus outer space TASER monsters. (Now, one might ask why no one dons a pair of insulated gloves to grab at the creatures with, as the station is filled with electrical equipment one might conclude there might be a pair stored away somewhere since there seems to be a surfeit supply of equally useful materials like party dresses, high heeled shoes and champagne goblets available at a moment’s notice.)
This might all be entertaining for a juvenile Saturday matinee (not one of the drive-in’s largest ticket buying audiences) were it not for basic ineptitude on the film maker’s part. First, the effects work is inexcusably shoddy, (consider that this was released the same year as the stellar visual achievements of “2001: A Space Odyssey”) with zero detailing in the model work and some embarrassing opticals worthy of the cheapest Bert I. Gordon feature. The film somehow manages to combine the artificiality of both the cheapest Japanese SF with the cheapest Antonio Margheriti Italian SF, and further distances the audience from engaging with the characters by creating the illusion that, despite the actors being English speaker all, the characters appear to have all been re-dubbed causing their voices to sound tinny and disembodied; giving entirely new meaning to the term “phoning it in”. Despite the cosmic doomsday scenario, there is little to no suspense nor are there shock effects to unnerve the audience (it is a monster movie after all) as every supposed “thrill” seems punctuated by violent zooms and overzealous orchestral stings that rather than generating chills are merely headache inducing.
Director Kinji Fukasaku shows intelligence in putting the camera where the most impact should come from the scene, and keeps the events moving at a quick but unhurried pace, but there is no accounting for the pervasive lack of immediacy, as if everyone in the production crew were wearing mittens to prevent direct contact. This may be accountable due to the fact that despite the American cast, this is a Japanese production and the difficulties inherent in such a linguistically confused production process is bound to magnify even miniscule creative difficulties. But language barrier or not, there is little excuse for Jaeckel’s whiny, infantile tantrums masquerading as a performance, perhaps the nadir of this skilled character actor’s career, nor does this explain the truly unimaginable: how the impossibly sensuous Luciana Paluzzi managed to be stripped entirely of sex appeal? (The only possible explanation for this is that it may have been Japan’s revenge for the Bomb.)
The entirely inappropriate”Green Slime” title song (written by Charles Fox who performed the same anti-melodic function on Vadim’s dismal “Barbarella” that same year) promises, at least, a psychedelic 1960’s camp fest, but sadly the film makers imagined higher ambitions for their film without the necessary resources to get their opus off the ground in any respect. It’s a colorful ride for unsophisticated audiences under the age of six, but for the rest of the audience, the movie’s best effort was all in the poster. However, sharp eyed drive-in mavens may spot “King Kong Escapes” star Linda Miller as a nurse in the Gamma 3 medical ward.
WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970)
Once hitting pay dirt with the Raquel Welch vehicle “One Million Years B.C.”, Hammer Films would leave no cave unexplored in producing their next monosyllabic prehistoric epic, “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth”.
Forgoing the iconic presence of Ms. Welch, the producers opted for the less comely Playboy Playmate Victoria Vetri(aka: Angela Dorian), who seems quite pleasant but also appears stupified by the mechanics of a process called “acting”- generally limiting her performance to either smiling prettily or sucking in her stomach. Naturally, since this is a late period Hammer production, it is a typical B & B vehicle: Beasts and Breasts, of which there is an ample supply of both on display, though not so explicitly as to endanger the lenient G rating. (Though in the overseas version there is far more ample female nudity [see left] on display which demonstrates which B concedes to Continental tastes.) The dinosaurs on display are courtesy of the talented Jim Danforth, yet even these are also-rans to the more potently realized creatures of Ray Harryhausen from the previous picture.
The film concerns the adventures of the golden-haired Sanna (Vetri), a member of the Rock People who is, as the film begins, being put to sacrifice to the Sun in an unfathomable pagan ritual due to the aberrant color of her blonde tresses. (The bulk of the tribe is dark-haired and far more cosmetically challenged.) Conveniently, in mid-ritual, a large chunk of the Sun breaks away to form the Moon and all Hell breaks loose allowing Sanna to escape by plunging into the sea. However, fortune smiles upon her as she is, again conveniently, rescued by a passing raft manned by hunters from the more socially reasonable Sand People, including most importantly a fellow named Tara (played with confused but consistent stolidity by Robin Hawdon). Tara is immediately drawn to Sanna, possibly linked by their mutual lack of dramatic technique. The rest of the picture chronicles Sanna’s continued pursuit by the Rock People (who, as depicted, might be the worst trackers in unrecorded history) so they might smash her head with a stone and restore the skies to normalcy.
Based upon a treatment by novelist J.G. Ballard (credited here as J.B. Ballard), the film is merry kid matinee hokum until the repetition of events becomes tiresome and uninvolving; especially several sequences horribly mixing real ocean footage with cheesy, obviously faked studio tank shots. Though amiably directed by veteran Val Guest (no doubt remembering his glory days with the more prestigious “The Day the Earth Caught Fire”), without a formidable screen presence in the foreground such as Raquel Welch, John Richardson or a Ray Harryhausen beastie, the film fails to sustain interest for the whole of it’s running time.
Given his penchant for mythmaking, the historical facts depicted in director/screenwriter John Milius’ “Dillinger” are dubious at best, but who cares? This is a rattling good tale of gangsterism in the golden Warner Bros. tradition with the additional trappings of widescreen, color and the complete expulsion of The Production Code.
Warren Oates, that most underrated of actors, is a dead-ringer for Public Enemy #1 John Dillinger, though the film is a dual story, spending almost an equal amount of time following the exploits of super G-Man Melvin Purvis in his relentless pursuit of Dillinger’s gang as well as several other notorious criminal miscreants throughout the Depression era Midwest; with each episode of capture or kill enacted with wit, style, impressive irony (not a small achievement, that) and more than a small dram of visceral excitement. Ben Johnson is winning as the invincible, incorruptible Purvis and his cat-and-mouse tightening of the screws while in eventual pursuit of Dillinger’s gang is played with a calm civility unique in gangster films. Purvis knows he’s going to get his man, but until he does why not tweak and scold him as would a disciplining parent with a bratty child?
Meanwhile, Dillinger’s crime spree is depicted with relish, each robbery sequence a mini-masterpiece of staging coherent, exciting action. The sequences are shot and edited with an admirable mixture of kinetic energy and elegant compositional framing. These sequences are a whiplash counterpoint to the scenes of Dillinger’s gang engaged in revealing fraternal camaraderie.
Milius’ script is packed with incident and characters but is so concisely constructed as to afford each member of the gang enough room to develop far beyond mere thumbnail portraiture. Performances in the film are sharp and appealing with Harry Dean Stanton as Homer Van Meter, Geoffrey Lewis as Harry Pierpont and Steve Kanaly as Pretty Boy Floyd faring best. Only two performers disappoint: Michelle Phillips is a colorless Billie Frechette (Dillinger’s love interest) and Richard Dreyfuss mercilessly chews up the screen as a Ritalin-needy Baby Face Nelson.
But it is Warren Oates who ultimately supplies the film it’s center, providing a fine balance against the formidable Ben Johnson. Oates charms even while waving a pistol in the face of a bank teller, and while it would be easy to root for this gang of colorful outlaws, the intense violence characterizing their criminal pursuits combined with the authoritative presence of Purvis never lets you forget that while momentarily engaging, these are vicious killers unworthy of our empathy.
Milius’ exceptionally well crafted film provides a rare experience at the movies: enabling the viewer to enjoy a graphically violent gangster picture while simultaneously allowing the viewer to enjoy a high moral ground.
“Candy”, based on the “provocative” novel by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg, is a witless, impenetrable exercise in pseudo-psychodelic nonsense, grabbing at the newly relaxed sexual standards of the day yet only managing to emerge as an extended version of that most anemic of long running television smut fests, “Love American-Style”.
This smirking would-be comedy follows the misadventures, a la “Candide”, of young Candy Christian, an innocent who wishes to explore the world in a quest for free and pure love. Naturally, she is relentlessly set upon by all manner of loathsome characters whose libidinous designs upon her nubile frame are motivated by thoughts somewhat less pure than her own. Candy is an archetype innocent whose unfortunate encounters are meant to provide a comic counterpoint to her more naive motivations; a wanderer whose moral fortitude in the face of a parade of perversion is meant to provide a satiric comic suspense in that we are waiting for the breach in, if not her chastity, then her moral innocence. Unfortunately, as portrayed by the terminally doltish Ewa Aulin, we are merely left with an untalented actress who expresses every thought with a retarded phonetic squeal.
Clumsily directed by actor Christian Marquand without regard to pacing, framing nor narrative coherence, the film is doubly sabotaged by an appallingly witless adaptation by the overrated Buck Henry whose approach to the episodic material seems to be- if that scene didn’t work, maybe you’ll like the next one- with no sequence emerging triumphant.
The episodic nature of the film allows for the casting of a roster of “major” stars- including Richard Burton, Ringo Starr, Walter Matthau, James Coburn and Marlon Brando– to enhance box-office in lieu of tickling the funny bone. Each is hammily engaged with the dithering Miss Aulin in a dull, shapeless and comedy challenged sketch; each without point, without focus, without entertainment value. The sole saving grace of this woeful enterprise is the welcome presence of the great John Astin, who portrays dual roles as “Daddy” Christian and the lecherous Uncle Jack; in each part perfectly capturing the subversive comic tone of Southern’s literary canon- a proverbial diamond in a cesspool.
Jean-Claude Forest’s comic book adventuress is given the Mid-Sixties psychodelic Dino de Laurentiis treatment in “Barbarella”, a vapid, would-be sexploitation vehicle directed without a successful snooze alarm by that most odious of dirty minded Euro-sexual imps, Roger Vadim.
Loosely based on the first volume of adventures (as serialized in V-magazine), the film features the then-Mrs. Vadim Jane Fonda (she passed on “Rosemary’s Baby” for this role) in constant states of undress while searching the galaxy for the missing scientist Durand-Durand (played by an eye-popping Milo O’Shea light years away from Strick’s “Ulysses”), all the while encountering killer dolls, a blind angel (played by John Philip Law in full depressed mode, having probably viewed the rushes), a bumbling revolutionary (Is there any other kind in a film like this?) and her first encounter with missionary sex. (The position, not the profession.)
It cannot go unnoticed that the large budget must have been channeled toward the endless supply of body stockings Ms. Fonda is semi-garbed in (she must have a closet the size of Neptune) as the production design and special effects are of an uncanny cheapness; one wonders where in deep space they found such an ample supply of cardboard and plywood? The “script” is credited to at least six different writers, (never a good sign- when has a screenplay ever profited by construction through committee?) the most disturbing name mentioned being that of Terry Southern whose particular brand of satiric bite is nowhere in evidence here.
Fonda, adorned with fetching blonde tresses, applies herself gamely, but is never able to find the requisite comic rhythm for her performance, no doubt unassisted by director Vadim whose own efforts emerge as merely gamey. You know a film is in desperate trouble when the highlight is a witty, teasing zero gravity striptease behind the main credits; an indication of deliciously naughty fun to come. Unfortunately, for the remainder of the picture there is neither wit nor eroticism in view- a terminal diagnosis for a sex comedy.
Ugo Tognazzi, Claude Dauphin, Marcel Marceau (horribly dubbed- how’s that for cosmic irony?- betraying the simultaneous English and French shootings) and David Hemmings are all wasted. Still the most egregious indignation is suffered by Anita Pallenberg in her role of The Black Queen where she is portrayed as being neither sexy nor appealing. Furthermore, her voice was deemed insufficient (by whose standard of excellence here?) and was re-dubbed by the great Joan Greenwood, whose contributions go unrecognized, thus making her the luckiest member of the cast.
DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972)
“Dr. Phibes Rises Again” the sequel to the popular and imaginative “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” is a surprising disappointment; more so in that it was created by many of the same talents as the original film; most importantly director Robert Fuest and star Vincent Price. In this film, Phibes (Price), the murderous musicologist who had spent the previous picture dispatching the medical team he felt responsible for the death of his wife, has risen from from his self-induced suspended animation and is off to Egypt in search of a resurrecting solution for his beloved. Of course, in true Phibes fashion this will involve a great deal of intricately wrought mayhem and murder.
There are several things wrong with the picture. The script is unfocused and important characters underdeveloped to the point where we are not certain as to why they merit status as important roadblocks to Phibes’ plans, and thus targets of exotic assassination. This is a fundamental betrayal of the rules set forth in the original. In the first picture, the killings were specific to the manifestations of his mad obsessions: using the Biblical Plagues of Egypt as a model for destruction (this basis of his actions leaves no doubt the grandeur of the self- deluded nature of his victim’s “offenses”), his targets of death were strictly limited to those he felt had done him personal harm, whereas even innocent bystanders were spared his wrath, or even attention. In this film, the methodology of his actions succumb to a startling reversal: he seems willing to kill anyone randomly without regard to the consequences in concluding his own obsessive goals. It’s as if the film makers were uncertain in their second visitation with the character and that timidity is reflected in their decision that a new murder was required every few minutes, not out of narrative necessity, but to keep the audience interested in the material.
Important problems also appear on the casting level. In the original, the lead “victim” was portrayed by Joseph Cotten as intelligent, arrogant but sympathetic and probably innocent of Phibes’ preposterous suspicions. Here, we have the villainous presence of a completely unlikeable Robert Quarry (film’s Count Yorga) who denies the audience a proper emotional empathy, thus nullifying suspense. Not only is Fuest’s usually flawless sense of style seem absent here, but also missing is his original Vulnavia, the captivating Virginia North, who is replaced by the inert and dull Valli Kemp. Terry-Thomas and Hugh Griffith reappear from the original cast but in different and far less memorable capacities.
******* Jimmy Hunt sees the landing of a flying saucer from his bedroom window.******
Not to be confused with the atrocious Tobe Hooper retread, William Cameron Menzies’ “Invaders From Mars” is a small gem of a film; the kind of movie that is fondly remembered as a troubling twilight half-dream that buries deeply in the back of your mind and sends involuntary shivers down your spine. It is also a heartening example of the truly creative creative instinct which was able to flourish in Hollywood despite the restrictions of the Production Code, and a extremely fine example of that same creativity triumphing over a paucity of budget.
A deceptively simple tale of alien invasion as seen through the eyes of a twelve year old boy (Jimmy Hunt) who one night is awakened by what he thinks is a lightning flash, but soon realizes is actually a descending flying saucer which buries itself in a mysterious sandpit just beyond a slight hill next to his house. Naturally, being a child no one believes him and he begins to doubt himself until…
The film resembles a prescient children’s version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, although Jimmy’s anxiety is less about global takeover than fear of a permanent fracturing of his own familial structure. With the escalation of events as the aliens begin their takeover, the film becomes a fascinating study of childhood angst concerning fears of, first, parental abandonment and then a creeping distrust of adult authority.
Menzies, a legendary Hollywood designer, uses his considerable skills in making the most of an obviously tiny budget. Emotional unease is manifested through an unnerving minimalist production design with which Menzies is able to convey a disturbingly off-kilter alteration in what would be a normal, even mundane setting; imbuing each with a subversive, nightmarish quality. Though the setting for the film is the archetype “Any Small Town U.S.A.” the design of the film says different. There is an attack on our subconscious fears in Menzies’ method; every setting we would find familiar is missing important but indefinable details that would make them truly “human”. This is especially true of the scenes at the town’s police station, the design of which injects a dreamlike but sinister aura to what would otherwise be an oasis of comfort to the boy. Special effects are cut-rate but generally effective and, again, disturbingly minimalist; the best of these being a series of increasingly creepy sandpit disappearances made all the more otherworldly by the accompanying haunting celestial choral compositions of Raoul Kraushaar.
“THE DEVIL’S HAND” (1962)
This Satanic cheapie moves the mystery of voodoo cultism from the usual Caribbean climes to a pasteboard backdrop of urban America. Robert Alda plays Rick Turner, a completely charmless man who for some inexplicable reason is desired by almost every woman he encounters despite the fact he spends the entire film either grimacing or smoking enough cigarettes to give an entire West Virginia town black lung. Though engaged to a hapless Ariadne Welter, he is sleeplessly possessed of nocturnal visions of Linda Christian doing a very poor imitation of Isadora Duncan supposedly suspended in clouds but actually on a barely invisible Formica floor. She, of course, is inextricably woven into the supernatural cult led by TV’s Commissioner Gordon, Neil Hamilton, who is immediately identifiable as the chief meanie as he, by far, has the most sinister hairline.
The cultists worship the devil God Camba (an altered reference to Ganga Bois?) who apparently brings riches to followers asking only they show their loyalty by being unempathetic with the world around them. (Sounds like an average crowd in any movie house lately.) Members of the cult sit around a rather tacky basement watching pseudo Alvin Ailey dances accompanied by the most lethargic bongo player in the history of cinema, while a suspended Wheel of Fortune armed with obviously rubber daggers hovers over seemingly randomly chosen members who are “tested” for loyalty by spinning the wheel in a game of Swiss Army Knife Roulette and then dropping it on them to see whether they are skewered by an actual blade. None of it makes a great deal of sense and a great deal of the film depicts Hamilton as the cult leader Francis Lamont officiating the satantic rituals behind a podium that is clearly a hostess desk from a Chinese restaurant and gleefully dispatching his membership roster with the use of voodoo dolls.
Hamilton is actually the only reason to see the picture. His is a welcome portrait of civilized villainy, played with a rich sense of irony betrayed only by the most imperceptible glimmers of the eye. Horror films are entirely dependent on the credibility of their villains, and Hamilton’s Lamont is on of the most appealingly intelligent featured in a low-budget quickie, at least until that intelligence is betrayed by eleventh hour stupidity of the script. On the other hand, Robert Alda’s performance is so oily, his mere presence might be regarded as an environmental hazard. So graceless a performer, his last minute heroics are neither convincing as narrative nor plausible as coming from such an odious figure. He simply provides no character for the audience to relate to. Linda Christian spends the entire film quite pleased with herself; that, at least, makes one in the room.
“CRACK IN THE WORLD” (1965)
Film makers seem to love destroying things; whether out of a sense of misplaced professional frustration (After all, it is the director who is the God-like authority on the set, are they not?) or the thought that since they are creating a world, they are entitled to play malevolent God and destroy it, directors have often taken any opportunity to wreak havoc upon not only Mankind but the planet itself. And, of course, it’s considered big box office. In the fevered imagination of the studios, catastrophe sells. Since the popular advent of American science fiction films in the 1950’s, an inglorious imagination has been at work to bring civilization to it’s mortal knees; and perhaps not coincidentally, the frequency of the science fiction doomsday scenario reached the screen at the same times as the rise in Biblical epics. In any case, it seems Hollywood was determined to threaten visitation of the wrath of the heavens upon a viewing populace, whether through ecclesiastical or scientific means.
“Crack in the World” continues with the typical Hollywood formula of God-playing scientists who bring the world to the brink of destruction and then are turned to to solve the destructive force they’ve worked diligently to wreak on civilization In this case, the central culprit is a Dr. Stephen Sorenson, played by Dana Andrews who spends the entire film is an unconscionable state of increasingly depressive torpor, hardly the most compelling characteristic for a lead character. Which is fortunate, that in this film there is an equally central role, Dr. Ted Rampion, played by Kieron Moore, as a subordinate geological expert who raises the sole objection, but more importantly fits the physical role of the humorless square jawed hero straight from the pages of a comic book, and just as animated.
Sorenson’s plan involves shooting a nuclear missile into the Earth’s interior crust to release the core magma for unlimited geothermal energy, though it is never explained why they simply couldn’t tap into the same magma readily available inside the same volcano to be visited later in the film. One drawback to the plan, is that it may destroy the Earth. It is briefly suggested that this plan to provide cheap energy for the toaster ovens of the world may cause an unstoppable fracturing of the earth’s crust that will break the planet into pieces, destroying all life as we know it. So naturally, an internationally diverse committee gives it’s unanimous approval of the scheme, obviously seduced by the fact that when Dr. Sorenson outlines his intentions, he knits his brow with commanding authority.
Rampion returns from babysitting a volcano, as if preventing the possible destruction of the world wasn’t a fulfilling enough task for a scientist, and also to reignite an anemic romantic rivalry between Sorenson and Rampion over Sorenson’s wife Maggie, played with mannequin-like efficiency by the generic Janette Scott. Her role, naturally, is to fulfill the prerequisite sexy female scientists role, here more dubiously conceived than ever with Scott relegated to either looks of yearning ( unfortunately her emotional range is a circus of inertia) or darning socks. (Honestly!) The scenario oddly focuses far too much time on this domestic disquiet as apocalyptic events are rampaging off screen, notated by a mere few glimpses of tepid real-life news footage or shots suffused with orange filters to give the illusion of a fiery surroundings. The nadir of this ineffective production cheapness reveals itself at the end of an extended sequence involving the manually assisted lowering of a nuclear device into an active volcano (inexplicably it never occurs to anyone that instead of lowering men into the volcano to scrape the bomb along the jagged rock shelves, to instead get a larger crane to drop it straight down the center- such is the illogical nature of the film) and the subsequent detonation of said device with obvious (and overly familiar) actual bomb testing footage substituting for special effects shots, with subsequent shots in the scene revealing a perfectly clear sky, betraying the fact that no atomic device was actually used in the making of this motion picture.
Perhaps in no other science fiction film in history is it shown more overtly that the romantic bonding of two characters far outweighs the immediacy of mass death or of the planet’s destruction. Even after a hunk of the Earth jettisons into space forming a new moon (in a shockingly primitive optical effect resembling Tinker Bell in the Mary Martin “Peter Pan” television production) and a cautionary mention of a fatal change in the Earth’s orbit might be imminent, the audience might are meant to find comfort in the fact that Moore and Scott are together to walk safely away hand in hand.
Andrew Marton’s direction is by the numbers, allowing the heavy lifting to be the burden of the hyperactive scoring of Johnny Douglas, which places equal dramatic importance on a jeep simply driving down a dirt road and the catastrophic destruction of a visibly artificial model train.
“THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS” (1953)__
The first in director Eugene Lourié’s “giant beast wreaks havoc on a major city” trilogy (followed in 1959 by the rather redundantly titled “The Giant Behemoth” and in 1961 with “Gorgo”), this 1953 thriller was a certain inspiration for Toho’s 1955 “Gojira”, especially with it’s concept of a prehistoric monster emerging from hibernation through radiation.
The product of a rather impractical atomic bomb test on the North Pole ice pack that seems to have an unnatural resistance to superheated atomic fireballs that doesn’t allow for the vaporization of the ice, but does reactivate prehistoric beasties. The fictional rhedosaurus, a reptilian creation which looks more apropos to a tale of St. George and the Dragon rather than a genuine dinosaur would appear amphibious as it skulks about the ocean floor, emerging at opportune moments to capsize passing ships equipped with colorful salty characters who will be conveniently used as objects of foolish derision to supposedly up the suspense ante as the body count increases as the creature makes it’s way down to New York City via the North Atlantic Current.
The film is “suggested” by a Saturday Evening Post story by Ray Bradbury, actually his 1951 classic “The Fog Horn”, a brief vignette about a lonely dinosaur who mistakes the fog horn of a lighthouse to be the call of a companion creature. The incident is memorably recalled in the film and is one of the most impressively rendered as it is shot almost entirely in an eerie yet poetically tranquil nocturnal silhouette; affording the beast with an enhanced otherworldliness, an almost spectral dimension. Films of this type are wholly dependent on the success of their various set pieces, and in this there is a constant level of invention that is quite invigorating, propelling the narrative from one exciting encounter to another with the performers only intermittently intruding on the action. (Though an inexplicable scene with Paul Christian and Paula Raymond attending a sparsely staged ballet is difficult to fathom. It’s as if the filmmakers were trying to apologize for the enjoyable gee whiz nature of the film by inserting a subliminal bit of “high culture”.)
Playing the titular hero of the piece, Paul Christian is a rather dull fellow as the prerequisite scientist who uncovers the existence of the creature and spends the bulk of the film attempting to convince anyone else of it’s existence, despite the evidentiary piling up of catastrophes left in the wake of the monster. He, however, is earnest in a most substantive way and manages his role convincingly in that he has that gift uncommon among many similarly cast actors in having the ability to effortlessly convey the high intelligence of a scientist. The unfortunate Paula Raymond is not as fortunate, her performance all sharp angles and stiffness, she conveys zero chemistry with the expected undercurrent of romantic attraction with the hero; horrendously unassisted by a bizarre series of wardrobe oddities that have her clothed in what appear to be haute couture prototypes for Jane Jetson. Her character- the prototypical sexy female assistant to a scientist- is especially underdeveloped, even for a film of this nature, and appears to exist merely to serve the limited functions of dispensing goodbye kisses and serving sandwiches. Cecil Kellaway’s role as the world’s foremost authority in paleontology finds the character actor in full pixie mode, more appropriate for a leprechaun than a leading scientific authority. SF stalwart Kenneth Tobey is happily on hand in another of his seemingly endless roster of military personnel, yet he is wasted in a role so underwritten, he surfaces as a mere shadow to the other characters in the room.
Still, for all of the shortcomings of character conception or performance, the film lives and breathes on the monster, and this film finds special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, in his first solo feature effort, in immensely creative form. His rhedosaurus is both a primal killing machine and a formidable adversary: at moments, it seems to think. Particularly effective, and adding to the realism of the effects sequences, is the masterful use of lighting; in the aforementioned lighthouse sequence, a particularly chilling encounter at a high voltage fence, and a climactic sequence involving a mountainous flaming roller coaster.
Despite a general paucity of character development, and a quantity of stilted dialogue (the tired psychobabble forced upon King Donovan’s psychiatrist- spoken with tucked chin and affected deepened voice as if falsely manufactured gravitas would lend credence to the nonsense being administered- is particularly cringe inducing), the script by Lou Morheim and Fred Freiberger is structurally solid in the building of anticipation for the extended NYC climax, which itself pays of in unusually clever directions as a hint of H.G. Wells is introduced in the midst of battle, that cleverly brings into play the scientific resources of the hero in a situation that is not only patently unforced, but logical as well. Eugene Lourié, the celebrated French production designer handles the disparate elements of the narrative with an impressive ease, rapidly moving the action from the underwater submarine canyons to the canyons of metropolitan boulevards with equal felicity of expressive yet understated visual shorthand. It is, in fact, so impressively realized a physical production (and when considering the meager financial resources available, positively miraculous) that Hollywood at it’s visionary best saw fit to limit two of the three other films Lourié would direct to redundant clones of his fine freshman effort.
Richard Connell’s classic short story “The Most Dangerous Game” has seen many cinematic manifestations over the years, the most prominent being the first, the RKO Ernest B. Schoedsack/Irving Pichel production (which used many of the same sets and resources for the next year’s “King Kong”), the bulk of which have borrowed the central narrative set piece of the story (the jungle hunt of man not beast) without a similar attention to the thematic complexities of the original tale. [See Posts and Recent Thinkings: The Days of Living Dangerously, Dec 24, 2011]. “Bloodlust!”, an independent cheapie filmed in 1959 but not released until 1961 is one of the few imitators to retain a portion of the important philosophical subtext of the original story, and even conceding it’s occasionally lurid concessions to the more exploitative elements suggested by the story, is all more interesting for it.
Two bored couples on a pleasure cruise, leave the boat to explore a nearby island, ignorant of the shouted warnings of drunken Captain Tony (Troy Patterson) who regains consciousness long enough to warn the audience something is amiss. On the island, which they presume is deserted, the self-appointed leader Johnny (“The Brady Bunch” patriarch Robert Reed) demonstrates his leadership skills by falling into a pit, from which he is rescued by a mysterious figure named Balleau (Wilton Graff) and his companion henchmen.
Returning to Balleau’s mansion (no one ever explains what contractor builds these “hidden” lairs in movies), the now-stranded quartet meet another pair who are the “guests” of their sinister host: Sondra (Lilyan Chauvin), Balleau’s wife and Dean (Walter Brooke from TV’s “The Green Hornet”), Balleau’s friend and attorney who for no apparent reason spends most of his screen time pretending to be drunk (possibly to exercise his acting skills in a dramatically underwritten role). They both warn the foursome of Balleau’s evil intentions which are probably obvious since his staff all dress in wardrobes similar to those worn by The Penguin’s thugs on TV’s “Batman”.
The purpose of this extended set-up is to launch the man vs. man hunt with Balleau substituting for Connell’s General Zaroff, and Johnny, Pete (Gene Persson) and Captain Tony (Was there ever any doubt that an actor so capable of such hysterical overacting would not reappear later in the film?) collectively playing the target originally assumed by Sanger Rainsford. The hunt is preceded by a lengthy discussion in which Balleau explains the method behind his madness to the trapped quartet, (the women are to remain behind the hunt and live with Balleau, without the overt hints of sexual deviance which marred the 1932 version) surprisingly keeping in tone with a similar scene in Connell’s story.
If there is any great disparity between this film and the general tone of the original story, it is in the more explicitly casual depiction of what happens to the bodies of the victims of the hunt (both in preparation and in the displaying) which by the exploitation standards of the day are fairly grisly, but these scenes importantly contribute to enhancing the immediacy of the menace in the story; a welcome addition since several of the dialogue scenes tend to fall a bit flat dramatically, especially when centered around the stiff and annoying know-it-all performance of Robert Reed. Graff, however, is rather splendid as the wily and deliciously self-absorbed Balleau, who in this version has no aversion to blatantly cheating in the hunt, and whose best moments are those in which he turns the rules about on his prey simply to enjoy their last moments of terror. His is a superior rendition of a classic character from an equally classic short story, in a film that despite (or perhaps because of) the obvious limitation of it’s economic resources, cleverly manages to distill the primal essence of the story onto the screen without the unnecessary distractions of exotic and expensively decorous production values.