“The Mole People” (1956)
It’s a curious phenomenon when a cultural industry ignores a particularly prickly subject which merits serious dramatic representation simply through moral cowardice or, more disgracefully, through financial considerations which take into account certain regional markets which might boycott such historical illumination as a slap in the face to still existent Jim Crow lifestyles. The Hollywood industry, once self-ruled by the complex set of regulations barring all that were deemed transgressive breaches of moral behavior, nevertheless cast a blind eye to those darker corners of human nature which institutionally promoted racism. Thus, in such a corrupted atmosphere of righteousness did flower a fairly consistent portrait of citizens of color depicted as little more than domesticated servants or foolish caricatures and as such the source of undignified humor. If black indignity (not to mention rage) was suspiciously absent from the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, so too were unflinching and unromanticized depictions of American slavery; with existent portraits of suffering usually relegated to the more individual circumstances of indentured servitude (generally a healthily buxom maiden in historical adventures or melodramas) or, especially, as a figure of empirical oppression in biblical epics; whose distant timeframe did much to obscure any inconvenient kinship to more historically adjacent examples of comparative offences. Then there are the most curious instances of allegorical representation…
Beginning with a rather unconvincing lecture espousing the hollow sphere theory by Dr. Frank C. Baxter, the 50’s favored expert on scientific subjects which are outside of his chosen field of expertise (he was a professor of English), Virgil Vogel’s “The Mole People” is granted an air of arch self-importance which may have been thought to grant the particularly preposterous scenario a certain level of intellectual respectability, though the film has as much relevance to the opening academic salvo as a documentary on coal mining. Subterranean considerations aside, “the Mole People” is ponderous even when the story suggests far more incident than is actually occurring. One reason for this may be the sheer abundance of scenes in which characters do little but skulk through unlit tunnels in fruitless exercises in tail-chasing; that is when they are not surrounded by the grandeur of some of the most obvious matte paintings in memory.
Among a party of archaeologists (in “ASIA” as the title card reads, just to specify the location of the story. lest you otherwise suspect it was filmed on a studio backlot) who are seeking artifacts by sitting in tents and studiously contemplating maps, the most studious of the bunch, a Dr. Roger Bentley (John Agar) shows off his leadership skills by immediately translating a recovered portion of an ancient Sumerian text as if he were scanning the Sunday funnies; a neat trick considering the artifact is actually an example of an Egyptian hieroglyph. Upon the fortuitous and timely discovery of yet another artifact which seems to suggest one of those virtual road maps imbuing the heroic scientist with an incautiously destructive prescience that is the bread and butter of the 1950’s SF/horror movie hybrid, the scientists decide to climb a nearby mountain to uncover an ancient temple situated on a plateau which is enjoying surprisingly temperate weather conditions considering the grueling trek to the site was represented by appropriately harrowing stock footage from Dr. Arnold Fanck’s landmark 1929 mountain film “Die weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü”. Upon reaching the plateau, one of the party steps into a bottomless sinkhole which unwisely inspires the entire group of learned scientists to lower themselves into almost guaranteed peril, which materializes in the form of an ancient underground Sumerian city which has, through the means of an earthquake, found itself in a state of subterranean submergence. The city is populated by a race of albinos (though their dark hair color is biologically inconsistent with their condition) and a slave working class comprised of the mutant humanoids of the title.
Naturally, the leaders of the lost city, especially the typically Machiavellian high priest Elinu (Alan Napier), are resistant to the very concept of the surviving trio of scientists- Bentley, Bellamin (Hugh Beaumont) and Lafarge (Nestor Paiva) -remaining alive, though the albino efforts are foiled with Bentley’s simple wielding of a flashlight which the Sumerians mistake for a portable version of the sacred Eye of Ishtar; which turns out to simply be a shaft of sunlight made possible from an open fissure to the plateau which Elinu uses to burn to a crisp those citizens chosen as sacrifice sacrifices in a rather extreme version of population control. (More than anything, it opens speculation as to why the rather dim Sumerians haven’t simply climbed up the hole to escape before millennia long deprivation of sunlight has caused in them an evolutionary depletion of melanin.) Thus temporarily mistaken as agents of Heaven, the scientists develop a sympathy for the enslaved mole people, with Bentley particularly motivated for his less than scientific interest in the lovely Adad (Cynthia Patrick) who has been relegated to servant duty due to her being deemed “marked” as she has normal Caucasian pigmentation. (Which is unlikely to be historically correct in the first place.)
The film fails to develop any of its many allegorical themes, most specifically its stalwart finger-wagging pooh-poohing of a slave class as the mole people being mute (save for guttural growling), they are left unable to contribute any expression of condemnation which are left to Bentley in what emerge as pedantic civics lessons which completely ignore the character’s awareness of the irony of his slavish usage of all of the native laborers fated to do all of the thankless heavy lifting for the archaeologists during the first third of the film. In fact, for all of its enlightened posturing from the more “civilized” members of the cast, the climatic revolt of the slave class occurs only as a convenience to allow the scientists the opportunity to return to the surface, with a last moment twist which is designed to preserve the boundaries of ethnic purity. As is too often the case, presumed enlightenment and the movies often make for strange and incompatible bedfellows.
“The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” (1966)
If “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” were to be completely dismissed as kid’s stuff, a late arrival of the venerable haunted house sub-genre which had already seen countless permutations of dramatic, comedic and campy collisions between frightened mortals and spectral pranksters with varying degrees of attitude, then such an assessment would have to be blind to the presence of one of the screen’s most idiosyncratic comic actors: Don Knotts.
That the slightness of the film fails to be offset by an asterisk in resource volumes of film history, it is through the sometimes cruelly unfair hands of circumstance by which a performer, who under more provident historic placement would have found proper appreciation and nurturing to take a place on the short list of indisputably iconic comic screen stars (what a silent comedian he would have made!), may be relegated to the lesser elevated status of ” screen talent” rather than “artist” by virtue of unfortunate contractual associations with studios (Universal and Disney) who failed, especially with the dissolution of the studio star system, to court and develop materials which might fully elicit the full range of Knotts’ abilities. Substantively, as in all of his feature work, the film feels like a trifle, an aesthetically indeterminate variation of an extended television situation comedy or a product of the shameless surrender of Hollywood in their exhausting decade-plus battle with said idiot box and a concession to the flavorless homogenization of material consistent with much situational comedy. Even the cast exudes small screen déjà vu, comprised as it is of an extensive collection of character actors, many who cut their teeth in the cinema, but whose recurring weekly exposure on television gives associative reinforcement to the cinematic slightness of the work. Outside of Knotts, there is nary an actor, regardless of their innate abilities, who does not concede to the narrow demands that afflict performers when subjected to skill eroding continuous formulaic role playing.
Though the underwhelming creative circumstances that inevitably grant a facile form to “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” frustrate any dedicated critical appreciation, the film is notable as the first significant starring feature afforded this major comedic talent; with his initial starring role in “The Incredible Mr. Limpet” being a frustrating exercise in waste as this actor whose very hyperventilated physicality is his signature persona is relegated to mere animation voice work for the bulk of the movie. (By comparison, his extended cameo turn in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” is a hilariously unhinged harbinger of possible manic delights to come.) Certainly comedies concerning ghosts or haunted houses are nothing new, but Don Knotts’ freewheeling presence breathes a resuscitating flash of comic inspiration into an otherwise fairly routine film that lightly entertains while failing to add any new twists to the haunted house tradition; something of a deficiency since both the horror and comedy genres derive their pleasures from the unexpected.
Luther Heggs (Knotts) is a typesetter for the Helen Courier Express, a local Kansas newspaper for which he aspires to be a regular reporter. Believing to have discovered a murder, he excitedly reports the story to his editor (Dick Sargent) but finds himself the subject of humiliation when the excited claim proves a misunderstanding. However, a chance for exoneration comes to Luther with the opportunity to write a headline article commemorating the twenty year anniversary of a notorious murder-suicide by staying alone overnight in the scene of the crime: the haunted Simmons Mansion. Complicating matters, Luther pines after wholesome local beauty Alma Parker (Joan Staley), the girlfriend of his journalistic rival Ollie Weaver (Skip Homeier), while the nephew of the deceased victims, Nicholas Simmons (Phillip Ober) is desperate to bulldoze the house for reasons of his own that lead to his filing libel charges against the fledgling reporter.
While there are a few isolated moments of comic invention in the script by James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum, the pedestrian direction of Alan Rafkin makes no contribution toward an enhancement of the laughs or thrills. The lone effective sequence, in which every element before and behind the camera jells with the result that the film momentarily achieves a satisfying tone of mystery, occurs when a discredited Luther suddenly hears the Simmons belfry organ booming into the night (The neighborhood has the typical density of homes befitting a backlot setting, which begs the question: why the adjoining neighbors are deaf to the nocturnal keyboards?) and, after a moment of confusion and frustration, he determinately returns to the house to confront and solve the mystery, rising above the anxiety which nearly paralyzes him in normal pressure situations; his body language, usually able to set of seismic counters from three counties away, fixed in a resolve in which the normally twitchy actor suddenly seems to glide through the set, as if all inner turmoil has suddenly resolved itself through a grand force of will (and invaluably abetted by the scoring of the always fizzy Vic Mizzy).
It is a triumphant moment for Knotts whose gift is in giving a physical manifestation to the anxieties of the Everyman continually plagued by the fear of exposing their insecurities and suffering resulting humiliation, and a testament to the heights the actor might have reached with the proper development of material taking full advantage of his talents.
“Invasion of the Saucer Men” (1957)
A flying saucer lands in a deserted field and wreaks havoc in the lives of an alcoholic drifter, a pair of teen lovers and a misanthropic farmer.
It only takes a moment for “Invasion of the Saucer Men” to reveal its intention to be taken as a less than dramatic SF outing, with a merry display of humorous title card drawings and a Ronald Stein score more reminiscent of Spike Jones than the usual ominous orchestral stings for which similar 1950’s B-movie horror/SF scores were noted. This lightness of tone results in a somewhat paradoxical final product in which an adherence to the formula genre tropes of nocturnal menace are presented with a cavalier pie-in-the-eye tone that is amusing to a point.
The film follows the typical generational denial of credibility in getting the thick-headed authorities to notice what is going on right under their very trooper hats (a considerably new but surprisingly predictable trope considering that at the time the prominence of teens within the genre was in it’s relative infancy), and, most importantly, the usual body count of disposable human victims. Oddly, the lighter tone works to nudge the obvious absurdities inherent in the genre, though the lightness of tone is at the mercy of the inventiveness of screenwriter, whose idea of fun is often indecipherable from the strait faced target of his parody. Is this a symptom of a genre which has already sunk to trivial depths and boxed itself into an unapologetic repetition of unchallenging tropes, or is absurdity of the formula resistant to a dramatic presentation bereft of any camp value?
Despite the evident cheapness of the production (the “little green men” are scarcely in evidence through most of the film except for repeated rustling behind obscuring forest brush- a delaying tactic lauded as “genius” when credited to Steven Spielberg in “Jaws” -, and the entire film wrestles for visibility as it is swathed in the sound stage induced gloom of night- a tactic overused in contemporary large budget set pieces [does “Godzilla” ring a bell?] to hide the CGI seams), there is (for the genre) an ambitious narrative structure at play (there are at least four different story lines running at once) which, unfortunately, the banal level of the screenplay by Robert J. Gurney, Jr. and Al Martin simply cannot support. Either through laziness or a lack of imagination, the writers sloppily introduce story elements only to abruptly abbreviate their importance or abandon them completely; the film begins with a narration that is summarily forgotten since someone must have noticed that he could hardly comment on the film’s action as he is removed from the story- he is asleep most of the time -and could not possibly know what has transpired. If the film begins as an ironically sarcastic spin on the Martian genre, it quickly relinquishes the opening level of parody for a straightforward presentation that is indistinguishable the most absurdly stolid of 1950’s SF outings.The direction of Edward L. Cahn might be kindly regarded as noncommittal.
“The Sons of Katie Elder” (1965)
If the challenge for any film is for that movie to deliver an original and memorable experience, then that challenge may become doubly daunting in the case of genre pictures; the available crutch of formula genre tropes, whether conscious or mentally assembled through an almost unavoidable mental osmosis of influences past. It is especially dispiriting when a film unreels revealing little to no reason for the film to exist, despite the participation of many whose earlier work indicates an ability to produce far more interesting work, leading to the unsatisfying conclusion that the participants are displaying a far too callous willingness to coast their way through insubstantial material which doesn’t even make a minimally reasonable effort to justify its own production. (There are, of course, more undeniably celluloid wasteful vehicles to consider in such a discussion, but the sheer scope and creative resource squandered in such a major production should- in all critical fairness -elevate such a vacuous expenditure of said resources to the top of the pyramid of ignominy.) Henry Hathaway’s “The Sons of Katie Elder” takes the aimlessness breezily exalted in Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” to a level of narrative torpor that begs for immediate resuscitation by objective critical defibrillator paddles.
The funeral of Katie Elder creates an occasion for a reunion of her four sons, each seeming to possess a certain level of disreputability if one is to believe the generally negative reaction to their reemergence by the local townspeople who simultaneously, and without exception, hold the memory of the expired Elder in an almost ridiculous elevation of rapturous reverence, regarding her as a veritable melding of Mother Teresa and Mother Courage. The filmmaker’s most canny instinct is to deny the audience any direct physical manifestation of Katie, transforming her into a purely mythic personality rather than risking subverting her image through a more direct representation which could- with injudicious casting -have resulted in a dangerous overdose of treacle (imagine Helen Hayes in the role) which could have easily transformed the texture of the film from sagebrush to syrup. However, such a distancing device- necessitating a constant flow of testimonials concerning Kate’s selflessness -results in the unforeseen consequence of making the adoring community appear more selfishly one-sided on the Good Samaritan scale (how else to explain the saintly woman’s fall into squalor while more prosperous citizens continue taking advantage of her blind altruism?) with the subsequent result of increasing a general sense of public hysteria toward the four Elder “boys” that seems entirely out of synch with the events of the film; a burden which seems more advanced by the need of the screenwriter to create a needlessly convoluted conflict, rather than addressing any organic issues. This central conflict appears to be the legacy of the Elder Ranch, though even a most rudimentary consideration of that riddle could be solved simply by noting just who is living at the ranch, not to mention the lugubrious performance of James Gregory as the same Elder ranch resident Morgan Hastings, the most patently obvious figure of wrongdoing since the lugubrious performance of James Gregory as Sen. Johnny Eislin in “The Manchurian Candidate”.
The four Elder brothers- John (John Wayne), Tom (Dean Martin), Matt (Earl Holliman) and Bud (Michael Anderson, Jr.) -spend the entire film either in a dither over the non-mystery of their father’s death (leading to the loss of the ranch), tiresome brotherly hijinks which manifests itself in lengthy and unnecessary bouts of wrestling, fisticuffs and baptismal horseplay around convenient watering holes; all activities which stimulate equally unneeded acts of paranoiac defensiveness by the eminently guilty Morgan Hastings who, in his zeal for unnecessary retaliatory overkill, hires gunman Curley (George Kennedy, with nostril flaring This dumbbell scenario penned by Allan Weiss, Harry Essex and William H, Wright (from a story by Talbot Jennings) manages to even introduce an actual flesh and blood female character, played uneventfully by Martha Hyer, who pops onto the scene at random occasions but whose invisible contribution to the story remains a greater mystery than the embarrassingly obvious question as to the guilty party in Pop Elder’s death, a nonexistent conundrum which manages to fog the investigative faculties of sole Elder boys advocate and sheriff, Billy Wilson (Paul Fix), whose own stellar reputation with the community is clearly not based upon his vaporous law enforcement capabilities nor his questionable judgment in hiring a deputy (Ben Latta, played with an impassioned commitment by Jeremy Slate that makes him the most interesting character in the film) whose blind hatred of all things Elder makes him the most likely candidate in the territory to organize a lawless lynching party.
The sliding gauge of social responsibility gives the film the briefest illusion of thematic depth, a perception that is quickly dashed by the overwhelming lack of development in any of the film’s multiple narrative threads, also indicating a singular lack of character development in the script. Additionally, the sedate direction of Henry Hathaway does not benefit the proceedings in any way as is demonstrated by the movie’s complete absence of dramatic tension. Naturally. being a John Wayne movie, the Duke is really a softie at heart, an apparent contradiction with his character’s occupation and hard-bitten reputation, and the film never quite reconciles this contrariness of character, especially since John’s reputation is never put into doubt though his onscreen behavior is so typically that of the thoughtful familial head (in his efforts to sanitize his mythic image, Wayne often excluded psychological aspects of the gunfighter which would make the characters far more interesting, a trait suffered by a great majority of the characters he portrayed which makes them far less distinguishable from one another- and therefore memorable -than one might initially realize).
Most of the town is either beaten, bullied or massacred all in the service of preserving the good name of Katie Elder, an unseen character who looms over the film though her true claim to fame- based upon the unlikely age range of actors cast as her progeny -would have to be the miraculously extended period of procreative fertility as her sons range from charitably over-the-hill to wispy adolescent. There is little to recommend the boys outside of a stubborn sense of self-preservation which makes necessary the heightening of James Gregory’s villainy to compensate as an opposing end of some kind of frontier moral barometer, though Hastings’ acquisition of the Elder ranch seems a rather dubious prize since- in typical Western fashion -the land seems impractical for any purpose of economic enterprise other than raising dust clouds with pursuing posses. (Has anyone ever noticed the alarming absence of actual cattle in the average Western, with the few examples of four-legged beefsteak scattered picturesquely across the horizon, a condition which suggest the Old West might have been in a Vegan state after all?)
Elmer Bernstein contributes a noisily bombastic score which intrusively, and somewhat confusingly, insists that there is more transpiring onscreen than apparent with the naked eye.
__________________________________ “TALES OF TERROR” (1962)
Sharing the portmanteau format that would later characterize the more prestigious but less successful “Histoires extraordinaires”, Roger Corman’s “Tales of Terror”- his fourth of what would become his eight film Edgar Allan Poe cycle -announces the depiction of three Poe short stories- Morella, The Black Cat and The Facts in the Case of V. Valdemar -but also injects unmistakeable elements from The Cask of Amontillado. The lack of strict fidelity to the content of the individual stories is common in the Corman/Poe canon, and the second segment of the film, depicting The Black Cat creatively uses the story elements in a surprisingly successful tonal shift to comedy that would predate the subsequent effort in the cycle, “The Raven”, while developing comic elements that would be expanded in the later non-Poe film, Jacques Tourneur underrated black comedy “The Comedy of Terrors”. As is common with the anthology format, there is bound to be a wide variance of results, and this film is no exception. The film is notable for a greater fidelity to the substance of Poe’s stories as true adaptations rather than as the more accurate description of films “suggested” by his stories as could legitimately ascribed to the majority of the Corman series, with the exception of “House of Usher” and the unusual case of “The Haunted Palace”, which except for the title lifted from a poem later interpolated into the story The Fall of the House of Usher, takes its narrative source, not from Poe at all, but from Lovecraft and his The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.
The individual stories are separated with explanatory introductory connective elements (each also features a concluding quotation from Poe’s original text, a common feature of Corman’s series as if assuring the viewer that the filmmaker’s have read the stories); presented as appropriately independent of one another, yet thematically linked by death, though with differing perspectives of death, though every story- unlike the source materials -climaxes with a revengeful action. This tenuous thematic linking structures the film as unfolding as if one were turning the page of a printed story collection, though the introductions are not always harmonious with the segments: with “The Black Cat“, the broader context of the narrator’s hatred for the cat is mentioned (an oversimplification of the complexity of the original’s story progression of alcohol induced mental disintegration), though within the segment, the cat- though present -is only used within the story to provide the ironic coda, hardly the basis for an announced thematic emphasis.
The initial segment, based on Poe’s 1935 story Morella presents problematic issues right from the start, already revisiting situations which have already become commonplace in the series- a visitor to an isolated manor facing dark familial secrets, a monomaniacal patriarch, the creeping hold of the deceased over the living -and there is a discernible staleness to Corman’s presentation; even his performers, including the usually reliable Vincent Price, find little new foundation on which to build their respective characters, as the character of Locke cribs far too liberally from those of Nicholas Medina from “Pit and the Pendulum” and Roderick Usher from “House of Usher”, both scripted by Matheson. The story has been needlessly simplified and turned into a brainless revenge drama which allows Corman to indulge in reuse of conflagration footage from “Usher”, and a reuse of visual imagination: the seams of the limits of his directorial eye finds an associate in the color palette of cinematographer Floyd Crosby who seems devoid of inspiration in this most puzzling of lackluster Poe adaptations; considering the imaginative (if not entirely faithful) feature length versions of the author’s often brief works, one would think the format of the anthology film would be a perfect marriage of film and short story, but the abbreviated nature of the format appears to stymie Corman and Company, causing them to collectively to fall back upon the accomplishments of films past. The oppressively redundant sense of drama in the initial segment is not only tedious but perplexing as the Morella segment merely resembles the climactic sequence of a much longer adaptation left unrealized; the final moments depicting so much transmogrifying shuffling of characters, it is impossible to discern what Matheson or Corman have in mind, except that the phantasmagorical element might induce an element of the macabre unease instead of the resultant spectral traffic jam.
Poe’s Morella is in the consistent motif of his tales of horror where there is (often by the narrator), not a fear of, but a vivid monomaniacal preoccupation with death. The narrator is unnamed (also not uncommon, but significant in this story in which the nature of personal identity becomes central)), whose version of events may not be entirely reliable as there are hints of imbalance, recounts a loveless though devoted marriage which degenerates into a loathing the reincarnation of the spirit of the eponymous character into the body of her daughter-who is the perfect physical incarnation of the mother -who then expires upon the pronouncement of her return.
It is a tale fixed with the notion of a viable afterlife, a concept which Poe continuously seesawed with in his writings (he was never neutral on the subject, though his characters were constantly obsessed with the subject no matter the perspective of the author at the time), but the story also touches upon an important philosophical path within the Germanic school of the time (the referencing of Friedrich Schelling is very significant) and that is the mortality of identity, though the film simplifies both the characters and the narrative (completely omitting the philosophical underpinnings which are the heart of the story), as if both Corman and his writer Richard Matheson whose prior collaborative efforts with “Pit and the Pendulum” and “House of Usher”, deliberately have chosen to form a thematic continuum in death obsession and the haunting of lost love and basing it in simplistic Gothic melodramatics by rejecting the delicate form in which Poe’s tale is constructed- culminating in a haunting spectral release rather than mindless vengeance -reducing the story to a baseless revenge (against whom and for what exactly is never made clearly logical, as the suggestion that Morella dying months removed from childbirth should be sufficient cause for a baseless supernatural conspiracy of delayed familicide) that merely brings the proceedings to a fiery conclusion without attempting to preserve the psychological logic to the source work (one of the strengths of prior Corman/Matheson collaborations). Maggie Pierce is entirely flavorless as Lenora; a generic costumed maiden in unrest. Leona Gage fare little better as Morella, her brief screen time limited to wild pop-eyed masks of bared canines and malevolent grimaces, managing to come across only as a poor man’s Hazel Court.
Fortune finds a happy and unexpected boost with the film’s second offering, a decidedly surprising take on The Black Cat, which manages a seamless interpolation of The Cask of Amontillado (oddly, while the adaptation eliminates certain thematic elements which also mirror The Tell-Tale Heart, the segment includes Heart’s incidents of sensory hallucinations, not even suggested in the text of Cat) in a virtuoso vehicle for Peter Lorre as a perpetually soused Montressor, to Price’s prissy yet amiably lascivious Fortunato, in what emerges as a skillfully buoyant comic pas-des-trois that seems to come from an entirely different film. Were this of European vintage, the violent shift in tone might be attributed to a difference in director from segment to segment, however, in the case of “Tales of Terror”, it appears that Corman’s tonal divergence is a matter of a deliberate detour away from the kind of creative staleness precisely of the type which marked the Morella segment. Whether by such deliberate design, or perhaps more likely through the participation of Lorre whose predilection toward humorous ad-libbing characterizes his roles in not only “Tales of Terror”, but in the subsequent “The Raven” (which was originally conceived as a dramatic vehicle) and Tourneur’s “The Comedy of Terrors”; three films in which Lorre’s comic talents, not so coincidentally, are in full flamboyant evidence.
Montresor Herrringbone (Peter Lorre) is a perpetual, mean-spirited drunk who is in a loveless marriage with his long-suffering wife Annabelle (the underrated, delightful Joyce Jameson) and is perpetually annoyed by her pet black cat, which- to Montresor’s consternation -continuously torments him with expressions of affection. Desperate for new sources of drink, Montresor literally stumbles into a convention of wine merchants and forces his way into a competitive tasting with renowned wine master Fortunato Luchresi (Vincent Price). Despite his coarsely inebriated state, Montresor impresses Fortunato with his comparable depth of knowledge and accompanies the stumbling drunkard home where is immediately charmed by a similarly smitten Annabelle, a situation which inflames the already unbalanced Montresor into taking fatal revengeful action.
The melding of The Black Cat with The Cask of Amontillado is, perhaps, Matheson’s most ingenious contribution to the Poe cycle, seamlessly interpolating Amontillado’s characters, as well as injurious motive (though altered from insult to adultery) into Cat’s tale of murder by way of alcoholism induced psychosis. That both stories fixate on a preoccupation with drink that reinforces the homicidal disassociation leading to a heinous act of immurement, sensibly cements a not so tenuous thematic connection between the tales, but with the segment’s abandonment of both Cat’s torturously alternating love/hate between the narrator and the feline and the subsequent escalation of precognitive imagery (which may or may not be imagined psychopathic associations), the segment relinquishes the original story’s caustic condemnation of the debilitating effects of alcohol and its links with supernatural associations, especially in the symbol of the black cat as both a figure of superstition and the figurative embodiment of necromantical suggestion: though this particular cinematic representation of the eponymous puss is so passive a presence, until the final twist, that it could just have easily been portrayed by ‘Rhubarb’, the humorous tabby from “The Comedy of Terrors”.
That The Black Cat, one of Poe’s bleakest stories, finds a happy union with an unexpected comedic tone (the same script could be played entirely straight without alteration) is entirely within the purview of the trio of happy performances which traverse the magical razor’s edge between the film’s sober backdrop juxtaposed against character translation that borders on, but intelligently does not cross into, caricature, though in this case, the absurdist tone of performance reinforces a tone of satyr comedy within the more macabre foundation of the story. It’s a marvelous balancing act in which the grotesquery of the story’s elements are retained yet gently kidded, and are surprisingly made more credible (and certainly palatable) by an engaging easement of emphasis from horror into black comedy.
Peter Lorre approaches the role of Montresor is a pre-soused condition, sobriety being as foreign to his constitution as air to a fish. His bellowing, abusive, utterly charmless Montresor begins at a fever pitch of misanthropy with no where to go but a cosmic shattering of his last fragments of reason. Lorre’s performance might appear to be an overindulgent, outsized portion of odoriferous spiced ham (and it appears to be going in that direction- at first) were it not for the perfect mating with Vincent Price’s Fortunato. Price (a noted epicurean himself) actually seems to relish the parodistic emasculation of his character, his broadly comic portrait of a wine master finding- a perfect foil in the socially unpolished Montresor -with the pair robustly engaging in a delicious game of boorishness as seen from both ends of the table of social class. With the introduction of this vainglorious dandy, the film takes off as the pair finds not only a surprisingly complimentary fraternal bond in their shared expertise, but also a mutuality of interest in Herringbone’s wife (the adorably funny- an unbeatable combination for true sex appeal -Joyce Jameson who expertly strikes sparks resulting in both men’s sexual desire and paranoiac infantilism; a real movie treasure): with Fortunato seized by romantic ardor, while Montresor is merely stingily possessive. It is this fracturing of the tenuous camaraderie which erupts into the macabre climax effortlessly combining the finales of The Black Cat and The Cask of Amontillado into a harmonious whole.
However, important moments in the story are intruded upon by an annoying directorial affectation that threatens to unravel the entirety of the film, from a visual standpoint and that is Corman’s increased reliance on ill-advised optical effects to enhance the intensity of climactic scenes at the expense of the drama at hand. Corman’s signature color tints and optical distortions worked wonders in enhancing the climax of “Pit and the Pendulum”; the suggestion of a descent into Hell being powerfully articulated with these same visual gambits in concert with Daniel Haller’s stunning Inquisitional murals, but in “Tales of Terror”, these overused devices are used without a corresponding aesthetic design which may signify a directorial insecurity in creating a distinctive visual style to distinguish the Poe series. Whenever there is a scene of mental stress or disassociation, Corman’s cameras are at the ready to obscure the scene with optical italics (the second segment of the film is rife with these intrusions, most complimenting the Tell-Tale Heart reminiscent paranoiac hallucinations) which scream out the intensification of the scene, but merely disrupts the natural progression of mood and atmosphere. (Corman has never met a dream sequence in which he does not shatter the illusion of its artificiality with these same hackneyed devices.)
This aesthetic intrusion sabotages the finale of the otherwise interesting third and final segment, based on The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, a story which returns the tone of the film to sobriety, and is an insightful adaptation (to a point) which raggedly interprets one of Poe’s most absurd but original conceits: the suspension of the conscious mind at the moment of death. The story, which might be regarded as a minor War of the Worlds of its day- the story was mistaken by many as an actual medical case study rather as an example of literary horror -takes its power from the slow, gruesomely description of the deterioration of the human body into an eventually putrified mass of liquid (the finale is still one of Poe’s most powerful), while the mind is still capable of a cognitive consciousness that is doomed within it’s decaying encasement. (A facet of the story which may recall the search for Identity and its existence beyond life, in the story Morella, and the eponymous character’s interest in Schilling) Poe’s text is relentlessly unforgiving of the flesh in its mortality while housing a spirit which may well continue were it not for its encasement in an inevitably rotting shell. This is not one of the author’s more romantically haunted meditations on death and the afterlife.
This coldly clinical but horrific tale has been fleshed out into a rather disappointing, though logically structured, tale of romantic blackmail, with the mesmerist Carmichael (a Basil Rathbone who reeks of ill intentions from the start) placing the grateful and willing Valdemar into a trance state at the time of his death (the story notes Valdemar’s malady as tubercular in nature, though in the film the nature of his illness made so irrelevant, he might be simply expiring out of good sportsmanship), supposedly in the interest of science, though it is never explained exactly in what fruits his research have resulted. Valdemar’s cries of agony from beyond (they seem to emanate from within the body without use of his deadened vocal faculties- a sensible retention of a macabre element from the story which is used to extremely effective effect) torment his wife (an attractive Debra Paget who is underused here) but gain little sympathy from the sternly controlling Carmichael (only he may release Valdemar’s mind from it’s conscious state) who appears to have less interest in his undead patient as a source of scientific curiosity and more as a bargaining chip to force a marriage between himself and Valdemar’s desperate wife. (The fact that this could lead- technically -to the poor woman committing an act of bigamy is a bit of legal entanglement worthy of a Ross Hunter potboiler, a circumstance which Poe had no occasion to puzzle through in his original- and far less melodramatically inclined -story.)
If the dramatic adaptation fudges the core concentration on the condition of Valdemar- the soap opera aspects worked into the story threaten to eclipse the undead man throughout the middle of the segment -it does retain and sensibly adapt the effectively grotesque conclusion of flash disintegration, with Carmichael’s threats to Valdemar’s wife stimulating the living corpse to rise in vengeance against his persecutor. However, this conclusion, which should be horrifying, is subjected to another of Corman’s self-destructive exercises in misplaced aesthetic embellishment (the effect is so distracting but occurring with such regularity it resemble a failed audience stimulus gimmick by William Castle) which literally distorts and befogs the image of Valdemar’s physiological dispossession to the point of obscurity, rendering the consequences of the tale virtually invisible to anyone unfamiliar with the original story.
There comes a time in the evolution of every genre where ideas become genre tropes, which in become familiar redundancy, which in turn become tiresome clichés, eventually mouldering into blanket creative exhaustion. With commercial success comes the irresistible urge to replicate that success in the safest, most risk averse way possible (thus studio execs retaining their country club status with the excuse of commercial loss by way of not asserting their own personal stamp on the failure but having merely followed the natural flow of the market), with an original success followed by an inglorious progeny of clones which not only inevitably diminish in commercial appeal, but also invest the original with a perceived staleness, the original ideas having been diluted in the public mind to the point of attendant torpor. If there is a common complaint about films that “there are no new ideas”, it is simply that Hollywood chooses to follow the same ideas proved successful as a matter of provident enterprise: why take a risk on originality when the public’s taste has given its financial stamp of approval on proven material? (And have shown time and again their willingness to pay to see essentially the same material on revisitation as long as the title ends with II, III, IV…Infinity.) Original material is plentiful, simply ignored by both the studios and (more significantly) the same carping public, whose attention to the global wealth of interesting and unique cinema is transfixed on the latest industry hyped “event film”.
In the cinema of the fantastique, an arena where the imagination is free to roam in limitless directions, there has always been a tendency to fixate on the most mundane of characters, a roster of dullards made interesting primarily through their interaction with entities foreign to normal human experience: extraterrestrial aliens, mutations of nature, revived prehistoric species, though not so foreign as to not be imagined through what is familiar in that same human experience. The extreme challenge is in rendering that which is truly abstract and finding an adequate representation in cinematic terms. The ultimate failure of past attempts to find a resolution to the demands of the need for original theoretical applications in intelligent design (Godly work is never easy) adequately conceptualizing the unknown, is amply demonstrated in the finales of two very different- on the surface -SF vehicles, “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Black Hole”, conceptions which wildly vary in their artistic reach, but nonetheless are rooted in the thematically banal: the imagining of either an ethereal or corporeal alien state entirely foreign to human understanding requires origins entirely devoid of terrestrial concepts which has has so far been an elusive task for filmmakers. The 1956 SF spin on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “Forbidden Planet”, imagines an alien civilization known as the Krell, but wisely averts any specific reference to their physiognomy, instead inferring their physical nature through the design of their surviving instrumentality, which- despite some fleeting differences in scale and architectural designs -seems far too Earth-like for comfort. However, this remains a definite step beyond the usual cinematic SF realizations of extraterrestrial life forms which are almost unfailingly humanoid in appearance but with the additional of often outrageous cosmetic applications to grant the illusion of otherworldly characteristics, though these are generally more reminiscent of Halloween masquerades rather than of convincing xenological origins.
Far more commonplace is fantasy born of juxtapositional aberration, the most popular formula consisting of Man versus a biological alteration of the natural balance: either of the introduction of gigantism or of species from incongruous historic periods. The 1933 version of”King Kong” featured both, upping the ante on the literary invention of Arthur Conan Doyle’s prehistoric plateau dwellers in his 1912 novel “The Lost World” and the subsequent 1925 film where the much abused formula found its dramatic inception (though the film dinosaur appeared earlier in a more whimsical context in Winsor McCay’s 1914 animated short “Gertie the Dinosaur”), whose mating of the transcending of time with the modern adventurers with prehistoric survivors found earlier literary foundations in Jule Verne’s 1864 novel Voyage au centre de la Terre. The nature of King Kong himself, being an overgrown sapien, is given to human characteristics suggesting, in the context of the film, a more anthropomorphized personality that would be natural in a feral animal. If the behavior of the marauding prehistoric reptile is less perceptively “human” in its nature, it certainly follows a pattern convenient to the tedious and predictable inability of the world’s military might to make a single city block secure, making certain the invasive monsters enjoys visiting the fragile landmarks of each specific metropolis. The only variation of this increasingly tired formula is the location, seemingly specific to one of a pair of variations: a large city (generally visited by dinosaurs) or an isolated desert community (a general smorgasbord of unwelcome monsters/aliens/mutations from atomic radiation) located somewhere in the American Southwest.
The talented art director and production designer Eugène Lourié directed a triptych of films featuring gigantic reptilian monsters destroying New York City (1953’s “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms”), London (1959’s “The Giant Behemoth”) and London again- obviously answering for some sort of negative prehistoric karma -in 1961’s “Gorgo”, a film film which assimilates elements from several previous marauding beastie films including “King Kong”, “Gojira” and “The Beast From 20,00 Fathoms” (also a rich source of much of “The Giant Behemoth” storyline), and adds the novel twist of responsible parenthood as an understandable excuse for urban mayhem and killing thousands.
Underwater salvage diver Captain Joe Ryan (Bill Travers) and his partner Sam Slade (William Sylvester) find their ship incapacitated due to a volcanic eruption of the coast of the fictional Irish island of Nara, and finding themselves mysteriously unwelcome by the McCartin the harbormaster (Christopher Rhodes) whose involvement in his own secretive treasure hunting explains his initial dismissal of Ryan’s ship’s need for safe harbor for emergency repairs. McCartin is also the guardian of a conveniently placed orphan lad Sean (Vincent Winter), a character who will provide the thread of precociousness which was probably deemed essential due to the lack of the prerequisite sexy girl in distress, or any female in any capacity for that matter. Ryan and Spade catch wind of McMartin’s illicit treasures and the three agree on a tentative partnership until they are distracted with the untimely arrival of a 65 foot tall dinosaur. (The film continues the filmic tradition of dinosaurs who emanate from the sea, a seemingly inopportune location for creatures unequipped with gills or uncategorized as amphibious.) The creature is initially repelled by the island villagers through the used of thrown torches (which makes later ineffective military efforts a bit puzzling) and a sizable portion of rude Gaelic remarks. Ryan and Spade agree to capture the creature and do so rather easily with the aid of a diving bell and a large net, then ignoring the pleas aimed at the betterment of science by university professors who insist that a more practical application of their prehistoric discovery is to study it rather than to sell tickets. Their advice goes unheeded and the monster is delivered (along with young Sean) to London, where after a festive drive through the colorful streets of the city, it is placed in a highly impractical containment pit at a gaudy circus where crowds are expected to pay top dollar for…what? A few minutes staring at the creature will satisfy even the most jaded sideshow sense of curiosity before expecting it to see a perform a novelty high wire or unicycle act. (Even Joe Young engaged in a tug-of-war.) However, the warnings of science are for naught as the larger reptilian parent emerges from the sea, stomps the good people of Nara, and pursues a scent trail across the sea, straight to London to collect his/her (the gender of the parental creature is never identified, although popular opinion leans toward a female, presuming there’s a deadbeat dad monster swimming around the North Atlantic) offspring.
There is no character development to speak of, the basic plot points of the formula carrying the weight of the film even more than is usual in a movie of this kind. The scientific considerations within the story are surprisingly nonexistent- momentarily surfacing only for those same university scientists to warn of unknown germs the monster might be host to (a direct lift from “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms”) and to point out that the 65 foot tall Gorgo is merely a toddler, and a 200 foot version will imminently arrive; the latter of these killjoy alerts a staggering stretch of the imagination to which no reasonable scientist would have the remotest hint. (Notice that the scientists are always cognizant of every aspect of unknowable information about kaiju-style creatures except, of course, something useful, such as how to stop them.) More importantly, the film fails as drama on even the most fundamental level.
The roles of Ryan and Spade are basically two faces of the same coin, so even the expected motivational tensions engaged in between characters engaged in conflicts of core philosophical differences, traditionally playacted before the picturesque destruction starts, is not in evidence. (Imagine the inertia that would engulf “Creature From the Black Lagoon” without the constant tension between Richard Carlson’s responsible scientist and Richard Denning’s exploitative scientist-financier and you get the idea.) The expected schism, in which mammon is held against the “benefit of Mankind” (a concept callously in attendance in almost all ill-conceived SF films, serving a similar function to those PSAs broadcast by radio and television stations under the demands of the FCC that somewhere amid the daily dross, the stations must make a token expression of community service) is absent, which considering the speed with which the film delivers the monster to the now-doomed city (since there is no dramatic arc in the script), makes it apparent that the film concedes any aspirations save for the inevitable spectacle of catastrophic destruction. Since the introduction of any form of argument against the wisdom of introducing a seven-story dinosaur into a metropolitan region is present (had no one in Great Britain ever read Arthur Conan Doyle?), there is little for the film to do except to bring Gorgo to London and wait for the inevitable. (The placidity of the characters in such an extraordinary situation creates new boundaries in defining the Brits as having “stiff upper lips” to insane proportions.) Neither of the main characters is essential to the plot except as a mechanism to deliver Gorgo to London. Nor is there a good reason for the character of Sean to stick close to Ryan and Slade, for with exception of a few shots of the boy casting looks of sympathy at the imprisoned Gorgo, he serves no genuine function; which is odd considering the eventual twist of the narrative, a plot aspect that might have been doubly explored with both “children”, Sean and Gorgo, in need of protective parental guardianship.
Happily, the film (and audience) is spared any cheap fabrication of sentimentality- the audience is spared the horridly feared trickle of glycerin tears from the boy -yet there is an unmistakeable vacuum at the heart of the film as there also has been no attempt to invest the story with a single believable relationship. There is not one scene where any character expresses a spontaneous emotion: with Ryan and Slade both defined solely by a disquieting and irrational quantity of blind, unhesitant self-assurance which leads to disaster that neither, in the end, even expresses regret over. Through this total abandonment of a normal human behavioral context, the formula of the giant creature reducing a city to rubble seems to have reached its nadir with “Gorgo”, reducing its human victims to a sullen, craven bunch who are useful as undefined pawns under the stale limitations of a predetermined genre formula which functions merely as an extended introduction to the lengthy and climactic monster vs. civilization sequences.
Give screenwriters Robert L. Richards and Daniel Jamescredit for infusing one novel twist into their otherwise bootlegged effort, despite the fact that the film does blatantly cannibalize (plagiarize being too unsavory a word for public use) major plot elements from previous films, the viewer is faced with an intensified version of what could be called “the King Kong Syndrome”, a kaiju version of the “Stockholm Syndrome” in which a relatively innocent creature is captured and brought against its will to a densely populated urban area where its only recourse is either to submit to the jeers and abuse of a gawking human audience, or to escape in during which process an accelerated level of property damage and bodily death/and or severe injury is bound to occur; in this magnified instance of felonious kidnapping, the victim/ monster (the Kong substitute, Gorgo) becomes an object of empathy for the audience, excusing the death and destruction which results from the creature’s escape as the behavior of a feral but frightened creature which though within the context of the film, is labelled as the dangerous entity worthy of destruction; not the colossally irresponsible fellows who somehow sneak these mammoth monsters over the border. (Has anyone tried to get a puppy through Customs, never mind a reptile the size of a small apartment building?) Young Sean provides the running string of empathy for Gorgo, though with the introduction of the later maternal rescue plot line, for the audience to share in this sympathetic requires the abandonment caring about the thousands of innocents who will fail to be protected by the parade of military stock footage sheepishly resisting against total urban annihilation. Whatever else “Gorgo” isn’t, film is a fine bit of commercial propaganda campaigning against the usefulness of the human race, At least “Gojira” had a rather overtly anti-atomic war message attached to the carnage; “Gorgo” merely assumes we deserve what we get.
Bill Travers and William Sylvester, both well cast but wasted, manage to make their underwritten- though despicably irresponsible -stock characters far more nuanced that the typical blindly irresponsible archetype that generally populates these films. The special effects shots are oddly inconsistent (every time the monster is sighted through binoculars, it seems to be rising at night even though the scene is sunny daylight), though there is impressive miniature work visible, but the underwater photography is needlessly murky, though this may be a part of some sort of overall visual design gone awry, especially is the rest of the film is otherwise colorfully photographed by the masterful Freddie Young.
“The Mind of Mr. Soames” (1970)
John Soames is a thirty year old man who has lived in a coma since birth, until a team of doctors, including an eminent surgeon, believe they have the answer to his perpetual stasis and proceed to awaken him mindful of the knowledge they will be dealing with a fully developed adult with the mind of a newborn baby. “The Mind of Mr. Soames” is intriguing more in the implications it suggests rather than in the ideas explored, yet it is a respectable representative of that brief flurry of cinema genre regeneration from the 1960’s through the mid 1970’s that is the modestly scaled science fiction film which, at least, had an ambition toward a pretense of being influenced by ideas.
Once the awakening process is underway and successful, the film then diverges into two distinct but interconnected areas of interest: the progressive development of the infant/man mind into a normally functioning personality where the primary focus in on Soames or Soame’s interaction with the medical staff and, secondly, the calculated motivations of the doctors who disagree on the methods of to be employed in Soames’ “education”, greatly colored by diverse scientific temperaments and often not so altruistic career ambitions. This second consideration has the potential to be more interesting than the first as it is possible to note the resultant manipulations in personality formation in Soames’ “pure” mind with exposure to such contradictory personality types. Unfortunately, for the advancement of an such intriguing conceit the mentors would themselves have to be fully developed characters and this is one of the critical areas where the screenplay by John Hale and Edward Simpson (from the 1961 novel by Charles Eric Maine) fails the film’s subject by relaxing into rather stereotypical postures of good vs. bad scientist (There are times where you expect one to enter the scene wearing a white cowboy hat, the other black.) The divergence of educational methods certainly mirrors the contested theories of appropriate childhood development, vigorously contested to the present day, but the disciplinarian vs. compassion debate is not applied in a persuasive manner when one of the doctors in particular, Doctor Maitland (Nigel Davenport in full no nonsense, emotionally ramrod stiff mode) is portrayed not only as a empathetically vacant martinet, but also an opportunist of almost insane proportions, allowing the entire medical procedure and subsequent “education” of Soames to be callously recorded for television (The documentary “An American Family”, filmed the year after this film’s release and broadcast in 1973 cannot be overlooked as an occasion where art mirrors life mirroring art.) broadcast. The myriad ethical (not to mention legal) ramifications of this action are just another of the many interesting branches of the main story that are left unexplored.
What the film does offer is a contemporary variation of the Frankenstein theme with an adult being, in essence, reborn, only in this case it is not dead tissues which are pieced together and resurrected by the kind of scientific alchemy prevalent in both literature and cinema of the fantastique, but the myriad elements comprising the human psyche. This immediately raises some very intriguing issues. Just what are the psychological perils to someone eventually learning that they have missed the first thirty years of life? Is a healthy maturity possible without formative childhood and adolescent experience on which to build the adult personality? Is it plausible even as a plot device in a fictional setting to assume a lifetime of education is possible in a matter of mere weeks or months? (This concept was equally suspect- actually, ridiculous -in the memorable 1967 “Star Trek” episode “The Changeling”.)
Science fiction, being the most misunderstood and abused genre in the cinema, first and foremost should concern itself with the human condition, while most examples of this specific cinematic form are merely action films or reused western plots disguised with futuristic (or interplanetary) trappings that use production design and special effects to disguise the merest outline of already overexposed story concepts with dazzling visual virtuosity to mask a complete absence of narrative depth. However, in the more thematically dedicated examples of the genre, “The Mind of Mr. Soames” included, there is a commitment to the formularized exploration of human experience as character development usurps gaudy production considerations, though with this commitment to the confluence of speculative theme and vivid character there is a critical need for the evolution of the film’s ideas to be fully delineated. Though the film’s themes are initially well conceptualized, there is a disappointing creative inertia that overtakes the dramatic arc (much of this is culled directly from the novel) favoring the conventional horror/SF tropes of misunderstood “creation” and inevitable escape (again, shades of Frankenstein) with a misdirected suggestion of menace announced to the surrounding community. (The disgraceful, demeaning marketing materials nonsensically represented the film as a killer on the loose vehicle.) By the end of the film, submerged in elements of forced chase melodrama, (Not helped by the fact that among his other limitations, director Alan Cooke displays no flair for action sequences.) there is almost a total abandonment of the fascinating themes the film initially presents.
Still, there is a bracing immediacy to much of the acting, with Robert Vaughn, whose stock in trade seems to be a slick viperous corruption, particularly sympathetic and warmly humane as Dr. Michael Bergen, the surgeon whose stimulative process sets Sloane’s restorative process in motion. However, it is Terence Stamp as Sloane who delivers a metamophic transformation into a living example of abbreviated psychic evolution; a remarkable performance, unsurprising to those who closely followed the astoundingly transformative roster of roles this most gifted of actors created before the almost decade long period of disgraceful indifference from the film community. Despite the film’s many insurmountable problems, Stamp’s work is of the caliber that demands attention from anyone calling themselves a serious film enthusiast.and for that reason alone, one should run not walk to see “The Mind of Mr. Soames”.
“THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD” (1957)
In a decade in which the human race was menaced by gigantic Atomic Age mutants of every variety, from prehistoric monsters (“The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms”, “Gojira”), to ants (“Them!”), a tarantula (“Tarantula”), scorpion (“The Black Scorpion”), praying mantis (“The Deadly Mantis”), lizard (“The Giant Gila Monster”), grasshoppers (“Beginning of the End”), an octopus (“It Came From Beneath the Sea”) and even Man himself (“The Amazing Colossal Man”, “War of the Colossal Beast”), it would perhaps come as no surprise that even something as innocent as the mollusk would somehow make an appearance as a civilization threatening monstrosity, though how threatening you can make an invertebrate that moves- quite literally- at a snail’s pace, is problematic at best, but the 1957 “The Monster That Challenged the World”, fortunately, doesn’t concern itself with such matters as it is far too engaged with such important matters as to whether young widowed hottie Gail MacKenzie (Audrey Dalton) will get her wishing well desire of a longer, more meaningful relationship with pudgy though stalwart Navy Intelligence Lt. Commander John “Twill” Twillinger (Tim Holt). Though her role can be construed as a continuation of the 50’s SF formula of useless but sexy female scientists or assistants to square jawed scientists, this film cleverly alters the clichés of the genre by making Gail the scientist’s receptionist. Her attraction to Twillinger is also removed from the usual romantic/sexual attraction by including a touch of paternal understanding toward her daughter Sandy, (Mimi Gibson in full precocious mode) a typically Eisenhauer era overly cute little darling in frilly dress and ribbons in the hair who you know is just hanging around to (a) accidentally set off the monster in preparation for an exciting climax, (B) be menaced by the monster in an exciting climax, or (c) both of the above.
As it turns out, except for locating most of the action around California’s great saline lake, The Salton Sea, there isn’t anything very new or original about “The Monster That Challenged the World” except for, perhaps, a relaxation of the formula elements inherent in the Atomic Age monster film, not through a sense of invention, but as the evidence on the screen may bear out, from a low budget and an inevitable exhaustion of the genre. The prerequisite scientist battling the mutant meanie is portrayed by Hans Conreid in a uncommon straight dramatic role which he plays with a terse commitment that makes one wish his character had been more developed, though he is required to spout less nonsense science than is painfully usual in these types of films. That is not to say that the science is anything but ludicrous here; the monsters are presumed to be of prehistoric origin- released by an earthquake- but then references are made to radiation tests which seems like an unlikely suspect since the waters are also shared by the civilians of neighboring communities. This is emphasized by a sequence including an attack on an unlucky pair of swimmers, the young girl (Barbara Darrow) being dispensed with in a shot not unlike the opening of “Jaws”, eighteen years later. In fact, the script by Pat Fielder (from a story by David Duncan) contains a number of improbabilities, considering the generic nature of the film, not the least of which is the clunky way in which the film ensures little Sandy will precipitate the release of the creature from an incubation bath there is no logical reason the authorities would have placed into in the first place! Nor is the intrusion of the prominent personal storyline between Gail and Twillinger (who changes from all business officer to mushy “Father Knows Best” at the doubtful blink of an eye) conveyed with anything less than a fumbling awkwardness, not due to the hesitant nature of a budding romance, but because the relationship is only present for the sake of narrative expediency. As it is, there is barely enough incident to fill in the meager 85 minutes running time.
Arnold Laven directs with the sturdy hand of a man filming an industrial short subject, (the destruction of the nest of creatures ends with a shrug as if the crew had lost interest in the scene) though there are several notable shock scenes (for 1950’s audiences anyway) that include the ravaged corpses of the monster’s victims (though the fact that they resemble the ping pong ball orbed aliens from “Killers From Space” doesn’t help), and the climactic lab battle between Holt and the released monster is fairly tense as the actor seems genuinely terrified during the scene (though there is little explanation as to why he’d fight the creature with a fire extinguisher when a perfect formidable fire axe was hanging right next to it). One can only speculate which horror was greater, a giant mollusk puppet or the path this promising actor’s filmography had taken after such stellar participation in both “The Magnificent Ambersons” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”?
“THE BLACK SLEEP” (1956)
Reminiscent of a poverty level variation of H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, “The Black Sleep” is also a distant poor cousin to the clubhouse monster films of the waning days of Universal’s horror films such as “House of Frankenstein” which would assemble the various fading monster attractions for one last gasp at box office hurrahs. In this case, it’s not the monster characters that are resurrected but the roster of performers including Basil Rathbone, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi and John Carradine. Directed by Universal veteran Reginald Le Borg and written by John C. Higgins who penned a number of surprisingly gritty noir features for Anthony Mann, the film enjoys the pedigree for a promising horror film, but the talents all seem asleep at the wheel in what is not only a painfully derivative tale of “mad scientist” syndrome that had been done to death a decade before, but also a horror film without horror, chills, suspense or a genuine reason for any of the featured horror veterans to be appearing onscreen. Neither Chaney nor Lugosi have a word of dialogue to speak-yet still manage to be appallingly unconvincing- while Carradine, in what is basically a glorified cameo, brings enough ham to his role to feed a starving nation.
Dr. Gordon Ramsey (a rather dull Herbert Rudley) is awaiting execution for a murder he claims not to have committed, when he is visited by an old mentor and fellow surgeon, Sir Joel Cadman (a perceptibly slumming Basil Rathbone) who leaves him with a secret powder that when ingested promises to tranquilize the prisoner so he won’t suffer through his hanging. Naturally, the powder is simply a ruse, an exotic Indian drug ‘Nind Andhera’, or “the black sleep” of the title, which suspends all signs of life in the taker, who is then revivable to normalcy as long as they are administered an antidote within twelve hours.
As is traditional with such films, this altruistic act is bound to be linked to motivations that are insidious in their conception, fortunately,in this case, Dr. Cadman’s plans involve the continuous assistance of the unsavory but loquacious Odo; fortunate as he is portrayed by Akim Tamiroff in the only performance that colorfully extends itself beyond the minimal requirements of somnambulism. Higgins seems to have anticipated this situation in his curiously uneventful script, as the main plot line is abandoned midstream to revisit Odo in an extended narrative sequence that ends up having absolutely nothing to do with the resolution of the film. The central conceit of the plot, that Dr. Cadman is researching on unwitting captive’s brains in order to secure a cure for his comatose wife doesn’t make a great deal of sense, especially considering the multitude of misshapen grotesques his failed surgeries have created; most seen wandering about the cardboard castle (Has ever a mansion ever been more pathetically rendered than in the paint-by-numbers matte painting seen here?) thus accounting for the curiously disaffected appearances by Carradine, Lugosi, Chaney Jr. and Ed Wood favorite Tor Johnson, each sporting a dilapidated appearance, the result of either hard living or disgraceful make-up applications. When has a genius surgeon ever been so prominently surrounded by the evidence of his incompetence?
As a roll call of veteran horror stars years beyond their glory days, the film fails even as a curiosity piece, rather choosing to recycle the most tired elements of the horror genre without any requisite attempt at atmosphere, style or even cheap sensation. Ultimately, the film is a self-fulfilling prophesy with the fortunate viewer the one most likely to benefit by falling into the narcoleptic release of a Black Sleep.