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The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
A new type of British scifi in the style of horror
"Stolen Face," "Spaceways," and "Four Sided Triangle" were typical Hammer examples of staid science fiction done prior to 1955's "The Quatermass Xperiment," the stunning adaptation of a six part BBC serial that the company sought to exploit for a more far reaching audience than their usual quota quickies, ensuring American distribution by importing Hollywood actor Brian Donlevy to star as Prof. Bernard Quatermass, not a name familiar in the US, prompting a title change to "The Creeping Unknown." Its success became so vast that United Artists became the first major US distributor to pick up a Hammer film for stateside release, just as Warner Brothers would later snap up "The Curse of Frankenstein" and reap the rewards. Donlevy's Quatermass is a steely eyed visionary who successfully sends a rocket into space, which returns to earth minus two of its three astronauts, lone survivor Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) a trembling mass of nerves as he undergoes a mysterious transformation, becoming less human day after day. A film depicting the astronauts victimized by some unseen force baffles Quatermass, while Carroon's unthinking wife kidnaps her husband from his hospital bed, resulting in several deaths as he is now able to absorb the life essence of those he kills, finally becoming a shapeless creeping thing after devouring several terrified zoo animals. A small piece of the larger organism dies of starvation in the Quatermass lab, but the growing menace is ready to reproduce, threatening the entire planet unless it can be stopped in Westminster Abbey. Without speaking a single syllable, Wordsworth conveys uncomprehending agony and a knowing apprehension, particularly in the scene where a little girl (Jane Asher) seems destined to become his latest victim. British filmmakers usually played their genre films with a solemnity and dedication that proved more believable than their American counterparts, yet much of what they made was geared toward the US market. Brian Donlevy received much criticism for his bullish, unsentimental performance, but he's far more able than the typical scientists found in Hollywood examples, repeating the role in the even better "Quatermass 2" ("Enemy from Space" in the US), and a similar part in "Curse of the Fly." Hammer would follow up with the equally successful "X the Unknown" before deciding to shoot the aforementioned Gothic title in color that made stars out of homegrown actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (no further need to import washed up Hollywood actors to headline future productions, though there were of course exceptions).
Queen of Outer Space (1958)
Little palace intrigue to intrigue the viewer
1958's "Queen of Outer Space" featured comedy veteran Edward L. Bernds at the helm (a year before "Return of the Fly"), a rare color feature for Poverty Row's Allied Artists, sets previously utilized for the studio's Bernds epic "World Without End," while the costumes came from MGM's "Forbidden Planet." Incredibly, the story is credited to Ben Hecht (1932's "Scarface") and the satirical script to Charles Beaumont, one of THE TWILIGHT ZONE's most prolific writers, but supposedly the director never caught on that it was intended as a joke. The 50s featured a number of science fiction efforts where horny astronauts encounter beautiful women ruling other planets: "Flight to Mars," "Abbott and Costello Go to Mars," "Fire Maidens of Outer Space," "Cat Women of the Moon" and its remake "Missile to the Moon," all of which come off funnier than this half hearted dud. We blast off almost immediately in the year 1985 (poor Joi Lansing again says goodbye to a paramour, as she later would in "The Atomic Submarine"), a small crew of four led by Eric Fleming's commander and Paul Birch's veteran scientist, who has made hundreds of voyages in the same vein from Earth to its nearest space station, only this time it's blown up before they reach it while the ship is diverted to the planet Venus. Where are Bud and Lou when you really need them, as Venus just happens to be inhabited by young buxom maidens in need of male companionship, in particular the 'Wicked Queen' (Laurie Mitchell, not Zsa Zsa Gabor), masking her hideous visage naturally caused by atomic radiation. It truly does look like the Abbott and Costello film minus the (intended) laughs, though camp value is still high, along with much leering and sexism from our quartet of male chauvinists. Eric Fleming was by all accounts a block of ice, not even convincing as the preacher opposed by Michael Pate's vampire gunslinger in Universal's "Curse of the Undead," and Zsa Zsa Gabor was understandably jealous of the younger pulchritude surrounding her. Paul Birch would be familiar as a member of Roger Corman's stock company (the invader in "Not of This Earth"), Laurie Mitchell later trapped in the same type of palace intrigue as consort to another queen in "Missile to the Moon."
Justly deserves a higher rating
"The Monster That Challenged the World" was an unwieldy title for this compact little 1957 shocker featuring a terrific looking menace, a life size hydraulic model (it weighed over 1500 lbs.) built by August Lohman for $20,000 that surely would have made the matinee tots choke on their Chiclets. Set around Southern California's Salton Sea, even more salty than Utah's Salt Lake, the naval base investigator (Tim Holt) on the case when corpses turn up desiccated and leathery, each body drained of blood and all fluids. One influential sequence in particular features a pair of star crossed lovers taking a moonlight swim, which turns out to be their last (Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" kicks off in this fashion). The resident research scientist (Hans Conreid) concludes that a recent earthquake has unearthed eggs of a gigantic form of prehistoric sea mollusk, hatched by way of radiation, and now increasing in number in search of prey. The creatures make their way into the local canal system, where one unfortunate gatekeeper becomes a monster meal. Meanwhile, one egg remains in the laboratory, dormant but alive, ready to hatch if the water tank temperature rises above 38 degrees. All these elements, plus a fine cast essaying well conceived characterizations, make for a truly unsung 50s effort, deserving of all the accolades that greeted "Them!" or "The Incredible Shrinking Man" (it really did challenge the world, had it escaped into the Gulf of California!). David Duncan conceived the story, later scripting entries such as "The Black Scorpion," "The Thing That Couldn't Die," "Monster on the Campus," "The Leech Woman," "The Time Machine," and "Fantastic Voyage." The production team of Jules V. Levy and Arthur Gardner did a few other noteworthy films like "The Vampire," "The Flame Barrier," and "The Return of Dracula," the shooting schedule lasting a mere 16 days. The most inspired bit of casting (apart from Western veteran Tim Holt, son of actor Jack Holt, who promptly went back into retirement) was the quirky Hans Conreid as the no nonsense scientist who knows all the answers; he was delighted to play a serious role for a change, so adept at comic roles and voiceovers, and a close friend of Vincent Price.
The Man from Planet X (1951)
Seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1963
Edgar G. Ulmer's "The Man from Planet X" was the brainchild of the production team of Jack Pollexfen and Aubrey Wisberg, later responsible for "The Neanderthal Man," "Indestructible Man" and "Daughter of Dr. Jekyll" (this last also directed by Ulmer). Ulmer was above all else a designer, whose track record in German silents paved his way to Hollywood, where his best known movie behind the camera came to fruition at Universal in 1934, the Karloff/Lugosi/Poe extravaganza "The Black Cat." An affair with a Laemmle-wed script girl (their subsequent marriage endured until his 1972 death) ended a major career, but Poverty Row allowed him free reign to do as he pleased so long as he remained under budget, resulting in well known efforts like "Isle of Forgotten Sins," "Bluebeard," "Detour," "Beyond the Time Barrier," and "The Amazing Transparent Man." A six day wonder shot in December 1950, PLANET X may also have been the very first feature film (as opposed to the serials) to present an alien invader from another world, his newly discovered planet named 'X' approaching the earth at rapid speed, sending our reporter hero Robert Clarke as John Lawrence to a remote Scottish location for the anticipated arrival. The castle situated on the moor belongs to elderly scientist Elliot (Raymond Bond) and his pretty daughter Enid (Margaret Field), plus former student Dr. Mears (William Schallert, playing only his third credited screen role), whose shady past involved a little jail time. Our first peek at the mysterious invader comes when the girl notices flashing lights coming from the foggy marsh, spotting a ship that is accurately described as looking like a diving bell, its lone occupant peering back at her through a window. When Lawrence and her father investigate the alien emerges from his ship with gun drawn, only to suddenly collapse from a lack of breathable air in its helmet. They save the diminutive creature's life and return to the castle with their welcome guest, but Dr. Mears has better ideas about what to do once he communicates with the visitor. It is this ambiguity about the alien that makes this film stand out from so many that followed, where the invaders were clearly hostile and often many, here there is only one and he only responds with force after he himself is attacked by the unscrupulous Mears. He also uses an obedience ray that forces those who are targeted by its beam to blindly perform any desired request. Brilliance on a budget was never more in evidence, as Ulmer films quickly on soundstage sets built for the 1948 Ingrid Bergman vehicle "Joan of Arc," keeping events shrouded in fog to hide any deficiencies as well as ramp up the atmosphere. This also results in this early sci-fi effort playing out as more of a horror film, with virtually no special effects needed, just a few well designed props. Robert Clarke was a former RKO contract player who went on to star in other similar films for the remainder of the decade, "The Astounding She-Monster," "The Incredible Petrified World," "Beyond the Time Barrier," and his sole directorial outing "The Hideous Sun Demon." William Schallert enjoyed a long and distinguished career, especially busy on the small screen, gracing such well known genre titles as "Invasion USA," "Them!," "Gog," "Tobor the Great," "The Incredible Shrinking Man," and "The Monolith Monsters.'
The Atomic Submarine (1959)
This came before Irwin Allen's Voyage
This 1959 example of budget conscious filmmaking from producer Alex Gordon bears comparison with those of the far more prolific Roger Corman (issued by the same companies, AIP and Allied Artists), while his love for old Hollywood meant employment for many forgotten performers such as Luana Walters, El Brendel or Jack Mulhall. "The Atomic Submarine" starts out looking like a regular WW2 undersea adventure, tracking a deadly adversary responsible for the destruction of other subs beneath the icy waters of the North Pole, until we learn that the vessel is not of this earth but a living spacecraft that thrives in the ocean, piloted by a one eyed creature looking for another world to conquer. It betrays its meager budget over the final reels, a barren soundstage serving as the alien vessel's interior proving fatal in unexpected ways. The veteran cast literally keeps things afloat through the dull stretches, familiar faces like Dick Foran, Tom Conway, Bob Steele, and Corman veteran Paul Dubov. Top billed commander Arthur Franz was concluding a busy starring decade before confining himself to mostly television roles thereafter - "Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man" (as the Invisible Man), "Flight to Mars," "Invaders from Mars," "Back from the Dead," "The Flame Barrier," and Universal's "Monster on the Campus" (typically cast in no nonsense military parts, he actually combines both in this case). Irwin Allen had a bigger budget. superb cast and robust box office (enough to launch a TV series) but 1961's "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" looks overblown next to this model of efficiency.
The Cosmic Man (1959)
Even John Carradine can't save it
Steering clear of the horror genre for much of the 50s, financial necessity finally beckoned John Carradine in 1956 with "The Black Sleep," "The Incredible Petrified World," and "The Unearthly." His tremendous output combining both movies and television nearly reached 500 credits, but his identification as a horror star didn't truly take hold until the mid-60s, after which he received fewer parts in straight films. As a starring vehicle 1958's "The Cosmic Man"" hardly taxes his considerable abilities, little screen time as a micro budget Klaatu, his rather small spherical spaceship sitting in Bronson Canyon as his mostly invisible presence is occasionally seen in dark silhouette peeking through windows or solving complex scientific equations for the benefit of Bruce Bennett's insufferable scientist. Finally appearing in corporeal form he takes a room at a small inn, befriends the crippled son of the widowed owner, and in doing so somehow cures the boy of his terminal illness. This sadly does not exempt him from being a target for the unthinking military, yet he and his ship disappear into the ether even as Bennett assures us he'll be back some day. Viewers familiar with 1951's "The Day the Earth Stood Still" would find this a rather difficult sit, the central character off screen most of the running time, so Carradine wasn't granted the opportunities that made Michael Rennie's visitor such an engaging, sympathetic figure. And boy does this cloying kid make one miss Billy Gray! This was the first screenplay cranked out by Arthur C. Pierce, who followed on with more low budget efforts like "Beyond the Time Barrier," "Women of the Prehistoric Planet," "Dimension 5," Michael Rennie's "Cyborg 2087," and even Carradine's Jerry Warren fiasco "Invasion of the Animal People."
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)
Seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1963
It's certainly not the special effects that made "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman" a monster hit in 1958, as they are numerous and sadly lacking, with one giant hand barely able to maneuver, and both giants (male and female) appearing deliberately transparent as they wander off to conduct their minor mischief. Top billed for the only time in her all too brief heyday is Allison Hayes, as sultry a dish as Hollywood ever found, already with quite a proven track record behind her - "The Undead," "Zombies of Mora Tau," "The Disembodied," and "The Unearthly," "The Hypnotic Eye and "The Crawling Hand" still to come. Not to be outdone in scintillation is future Playboy Playmate (July 1959, one of the few over age 30) Yvette Vickers, her next appearance in "Attack of the Giant Leeches" cementing her reputation as a one year wonder. So sad that both came to a bad end, Allison from botched medication that claimed her life at 46, while the corpse of 81 year old Yvette had been decomposing for a year before being discovered by a neighbor. Allison gets to play the title role, neurotic wife Nancy Archer whose drinking is well known all over town, while her philandering husband, nicknamed 'Handsome Harry' (William Hudson), holds up at the local bar and grill with impossibly sexy Honey Parker (Vickers). On a night when she has remained notably sober Nancy encounters a spaceship in the desert (everyone calls it a satellite), its lone occupant a bald giant with a need for diamonds to pilot his craft, and the famous Star of India beckoning around Nancy's soft neck. She manages to run back to town but finds no one to believe her, not the sheriff (George Douglas, Melvyn's younger brother) or even Harry, who sees this as a golden opportunity to put her back in the sanitarium from which she was recently released. A second attack by the giant has the no longer disbelieving hubby leaving his wife behind to an uncertain fate while he tries to make a run for it with Honey, before the comic deputy (Frank Chase) decides to ignore the usual bribe and take the pair to the sheriff's office for questioning. Lo and behold, Nancy turns up unharmed on her own bath house roof, though the scratches on her neck indicate that the alien was none too gentle in removing her necklace. Allison is sadly off screen for a half hour before the final reel rampage, all too mild as a handful of townspeople have little trouble avoiding her while she seeks vengeance on Harry and Honey. This was the one major role for little known William Hudson, whose twin brother John enjoyed his own starring vehicle that same year in "The Screaming Skull," also as a scheming husband. No doubt a large number of teenage boys received quite an education on its double bill with Roger Corman's "War of the Satellites," getting two satellites and three gorgeous ladies for one ticket (Susan Cabot's leading man was Dick Miller!). Even Bert I. Gordon provided better effects in "The Cyclops," "The Amazing Colossal Man," and the soon to be released "War of the Colossal Beast," but with its suggestive poster one of the best remembered from the 50s this meager ATTACK had nowhere to go but up (later featured as a drive in feature in Curtis Harrington's 1977 "Ruby").
Seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1963
1955's "The Atomic Man" was a very early example of British science fiction, before the landscape was changed by the release of "The Quatermass Xperiment" from Hammer Films ("The Creeping Unknown" in the US). Its American title somewhat gives the game away, as the original "Timeslip" more accurately depicts the slight sci/fi elements in the script by Charles Eric Maine (he also wrote "Spaceways" and "The Electronic Monster," plus the novel "The Mind of Mr. Soames," later adapted by Amicus for a 1969 feature). Essentially an espionage thriller with the incongruous presence of a 30s-type wisecracking journalist (Gene Nelson), complete with his very own Girl Friday in breathtaking Faith Domergue, capping off a banner year with "Cult of the Cobra," "This Island Earth," and "It Came from Beneath the Sea" preceding this. A critically wounded man (Peter Arne) is rescued from certain drowning, the bullet removed just as the patient expires on the operating table. Incredibly, the corpse opens his eyes shortly after being pronounced clinically dead, with no memory of who shot him or why. The newshound recognizes the patient as renowned physicist Stephen Rayner, nicknamed 'The Isotope Man' for his expertise working in radiation, his recollection of a name (Vasquo) and the initials UTC helping to uncover a plot to destroy the research laboratory where Rayner works. The actors and direction from Ken Hughes are better than the script so its no classic but more enjoyable than the usual quota quickie has any right to be, typical of the period wherein a Hollywood star was toplined to ensure distribution in the US (interestingly, like QUATERMASS this too was adapted from a BBC serial, initially telecast in 1953). Gene Nelson would soon alternate acting with directing, his debut behind the camera the infamous "Hand of Death," starring stalwart John Agar.
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1963
A 1956 MGM release in CinemaScope, and one of the relatively few 50s classics that has never seen a remake (its reported budget a whopping $1.9 million), "Forbidden Planet" boasts a fine cast of newcomers behind veteran Walter Pidgeon, in particular dimpled darling Anne Francis as the ultimate in femininity, unsullied by mankind living alone with her father on the planet Altair IV (a definite inspiration on Gene Roddenberry). The alien saucer is manned by a crew of earthmen led by Commander J.J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen, forging a dramatic screen presence thoroughly undone by 1980's "Airplane!"), sent out beyond their own galaxy to learn the fate of the previous expedition to Altair. Dr. Edward Morbius (Pidgeon) is the lone survivor, his wife dying of natural causes after giving birth to their daughter Altaira, the other surviving members destroyed in an explosion trying to leave. Morbius has spent the decades learning about the planet's previous inhabitants the Krell, whose machines continue to function thousands of centuries since their demise. He and his daughter are tendered by a man sized robot named Robby, voiced by Marvin Miller (Frankie Darro the actor inside), capable of replicating just about anything upon further analysis. What Commander Adams needs to know is what became of the rest of Morbius' party, victims of a creature invisible to the naked eye but most formidable in size and strength. The sense of wonder to 'boldly go where no man has gone before' is perfectly encapsulated in the visual design, and Robby quickly became the screen's first robot to earn his own star vehicle the following year, "The Invisible Boy," before finding a home on TV shows like THE TWILIGHT ZONE and LOST IN SPACE. The Earth's spacecraft travels faster than the speed of light, another nod to STAR TREK, and there's a fascinating sequence early on depicting something similar to the Transporter, though not used for the same purpose (this ship actually lands on the planet's surface). It's common knowledge that Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST was a definite inspiration for the storyline, and actor Warren Stevens actually carries the Bard forward in a 1968 episode of TREK, "By Any Other Name."
Seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1963
1957's "The Cosmic Monster" (singular on screen, plural on all posters), was a particularly impoverished example of British sci-fi, one of the handful adapted from a television serial, titled "The Strange World of Planet X" in England. Hollywood import Forrest Tucker ("The Abominable Snowman," "The Crawling Eye") adds little to this dreary gabfest, set mostly in a stuffy lab where experiments on magnetic fields prove so powerful that the surge rips a hole in the ionosphere, allowing cosmic rays to wreak havoc on Earth, causing one man to become a disfigured killer, and insect life to mutate into giant monsters. Necessary exposition is supplied by Martin Benson ("Gorgo," "Night Creatures," "Goldfinger," "The Omen") as the mysterious Smith, the one alien visitor who knows what to do to halt the horror. The film is remembered, if at all, for its final two reels, depicting the invasion of outsized locusts, beetles, centipedes, even a spider or two (One shocking scene showing a soldier's half eaten face was usually trimmed for television). The special effects may be laughably ineffective, on par with Bert I. Gordon in fact, but the gruesome imagery left its mark on viewers at the time (author Bill Warren believes this was Britain's only entry in the 'Big Bug' genre). "The Crawling Eye" served as its natural co-feature (also adapted from a BBC serial and starring Forrest Tucker), by far the more lively and popular one as this film sank into obscurity for decades.
Frankenstein 1970 (1958)
A struggle for even the great Karloff
The production team of Aubrey Schenck and Howard W. Koch did relatively few genre efforts ("The Black Sleep," "Pharaoh's Curse," and Boris Karloff's own "Voodoo Island"), this January 1958 production inspired by the huge popularity of the Universal classics included in the Shock Theater television package. Since the studio bade farewell to their monsters with 1948's "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," no Hollywood Frankenstein reared its head until Herman Cohen's 1957 "I Was a Teenage Frankenstein," starring Whit Bissell as the mad doctor, Gary Conway his creation. "Frankenstein-1970," though set 12 years into the future, looks exactly like a picture done in the black and white 50s, shot in Cinema Scope on the same sets just used for Warner Brothers' "Too Much Too Soon," though Jack L. Warner balked at releasing this eight day wonder (doing the honors was Allied Artists). Karloff finally gets to play Baron Victor Von Frankenstein himself, great grandson of the original monster maker, whose experiments were established as being conducted in 1740. His face disfigured by the Nazi regime, leaving only his surgeon's hands untouched to perform their miracles, the bitter Baron allows a movie company to use his German castle for a film about his infamous ancestor, so that he can afford his very own atomic reactor. His creation lies on a slab in the laboratory, its face to be crafted onto the skull in the Baron's own image, brought to life with the brain of Frankenstein's prying but obedient servant (Norbert Schiller). The Monster (Mike Lane, who doubles as German servant Hans sans makeup) emerges bandaged from head to toe, its head resembling a waste paper basket, still waiting for a new pair of eyes (the intended set were carelessly dropped). When more disappearances raise suspicion from the local authorities, it's not long before the Monster turns on his creator. Even free from The Monster Boris was not happy with the film, enduring daily chores in the makeup chair, his florid speeches not enough to convince viewers that there's anything scary going on. Add a fairly nothing cast and it's obvious he's the whole show.
Flight to Mars (1951)
Seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1965
Following on from George Pal's "Destination Moon" (from Eagle-Lion) and Robert L. Lippert's "Rocketship X-M," Poverty Row outfit Monogram threw their hat in the ring with "Flight to Mars," offering Bomba the Jungle Boy producer Walter Mirisch a chance to branch out into greater endeavors, leading to Allied Artists efforts like "The Maze," "World Without End" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," graduating to majors such as ''The Magnificent Seven," "West Side Story" and "In the Heat of the Night" (one of his last films was the Frank Langella "Dracula" of 1979). Shot in a mere five days in May 1951 using the cheap Cinecolor process, producing an unrealistic but acceptable orange hue for the Red Planet, Mirisch saved on props by using the same spacesuits from "Destination Moon" and the ship's interior from "Rocketship X-M," so even at this early stage of space travel movie audiences that year must have felt a collective sense of deja vu watching this one, every established cliché touched upon from the no nonsense scientists to the reporter hero, and the one female egghead who drifts away from her intended into the arms of a 'real man' (takeoff at 12 minutes, finally landing on Mars at 31 of the film's 71 minute running time). Director Lesley Selander was a purveyor of fast shooting on low budgets, mostly Westerns at both Republic and Monogram/Allied Artists, but he does manage good performances from a fine cast, though top billed Marguerite Chapman ("Charlie Chan in the Wax Museum," "The Amazing Transparent Man") doesn't make her appearance until the picture is more than half over. Most disappointing are the Martians themselves, led by the always reliable Morris Ankrum, as human as the new arrivals and just as duplicitous, for they need the Earth ship to leave their dying world to have a go at conquering ours (this underground civilization looks similar to the one depicted for Earth's future in "World Without End," and some sets were recycled for Allied Artists' "Queen of Outer Space"). Coming so soon after his best remembered screen role in "Death of a Salesman," Cameron Mitchell's reporter makes an early impression, fading into the background once they reach Mars.
Phantom from Space (1953)
As exciting as watching paint dry
W. Lee Wilder's science fiction debut was 1953's "Phantom from Space," elder brother of comedy specialist Billy Wilder ("Some Like It Hot"), 'Willie' was described by his younger sibling as 'dull,' and truth be told it sadly comes across on the screen. Though he helmed two decent vehicles for Lon Chaney (1950's "Once a Thief" and 1955's "Manfish") his genre outings can only boast of a general lethargy encapsulated in this early sci-fi entry. With a title like "Phantom from Space" the audience is treated to 72 minutes of dimwitted on screen stereotypes trying to catch on to what we already know, that there is an alien human on the loose, his two (unintended) murders and one explosion discussed rather than shown, depicted by a no name cast that at least boasts some faces familiar to seasoned viewers. When they're not seated in Wilder's own cramped office or chasing around Griffith Observatory, they venture only so far as Griffith Park again (but not Bronson Caverns). To avoid costly special effects the invader is conveniently invisible without his spacesuit and diving helmet, in fact nothing is learned about who he is or where he came from, and the poor sap expires without even an acknowledgement of his purpose on Earth. Boredom kicks off early with stock footage and lazy narration, though there is a female lead of sorts, at least Noreen Nash's pretty scientist possesses more aptitude than the military morons on display. Among the cast members can be spotted Michael Mark (Ludwig, father of Little Maria in "Frankenstein"), who saw bigger parts this decade in items like "Attack of the Puppet People" and "The Wasp Woman," James Seay from Wilder's upcoming "Killers from Space," and Peter Lorre's underworld nemesis in "The Face Behind Mask," Rudolph Anders going on to play Boris Karloff's closest confidante in "Frankenstein-1970." W. Lee Wilder did several more titles for his newly formed Planet Filmways company, many of which were scripted by his son Myles - "Killers from Space," "The Snow Creature," "Fright," "The Man Without a Body," "Spy in the Sky!" and "Bluebeards Ten Honeymoons."
Seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1963
1957's "Kronos" was a late entry for director Kurt Neumann ("Secret of the Blue Room," "Rocketship X-M," "She Devil"), released one year before his final horror film "The Fly." 20th Century-Fox farmed the project out to 'B' subsidiary Regal Films and their chief executive Robert L. Lippert (his Lippert Pictures company had just ended its seven year run), who also made "She Devil," "The Unknown Terror," "Back from the Dead," and "Ghost Diver," this policy continuing the following decade when Lippert relocated to Britain for efforts such as Lon Chaney's "Witchcraft" and Brian Donlevy's "Curse of the Fly." More ambitious than the budget would allow, "Kronos" opened with a spacecraft dispensing a glowing essence that takes control of a top research scientist (John Emery), as the ship itself is directed to land in the ocean off the Mexican coast. From this emerges on the beach a gigantic cube-like structure dubbed Kronos by lead scientist Jeff Morrow ("This Island Earth," "The Creature Walks Among Us," "The Giant Claw"), capable of devouring any force of energy used against it (the aliens seek another world of energy because theirs has died out). When a hydrogen bomb proves ineffective, Morrow hits upon the idea to use the power of Kronos to destroy itself by reversing polarity. Little is made of the possession theme, though it does feature sci-fi veteran Morris Ankrum trying to make sense of his crazed patient, before his untimely electrocution. STAR TREK would feature a similarly indestructible menace in "The Doomsday Machine," while this film ran continuously until reaching American Movie Classics in the 90s.
Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)
Roger Corman at Allied Artists
Judging by the title alone, "Attack of the Crab Monsters" sounds like the usual cheapjack meller, yet with Corman at the helm and a script from Charles B. Griffith there's a greater dose of horror than humor, though the prop creature is unwieldy to say the least. Among the faces familiar from better known Corman films we have Mel Welles (from "The Undead," "Rock All Night" and "The Little Shop of Horrors"), using a less effective accent than his Gravis Mushnik, and Ed Nelson, whose able Lieutenant is killed off in a plane crash early on, enabling the actor to maneuver the crab model as best he could (Nelson did over a dozen Corman titles, the last "A Bucket of Blood"). The nominal stars, Richard Garland (former husband of Beverly) and Pamela Duncan, had previously headlined "The Undead," but here are overshadowed by a solid performance from Russell Johnson, not as a professor of biology but a master mechanic with tubes, wires and dynamite (previously seen in Universal's "It Came from Outer Space"). A tiny South Pacific island is the location where an expedition disappeared without a trace, so a second is dispatched to find out what happened. There is no animal life apart from a plethora of land crabs, two of which have grown to giant size due to atomic testing. The fate of the previous expedition is kept in the dark for the film's first half, kicking off with one sailor going under for but a moment, coming back up missing his head. This grisly touch is later touched upon when Mel Welles' French scientist loses his hand (in Bronson Caverns at Griffith Park). The monsters are not just oversized crabs out to devour the cast, but two creatures capable of assimilating their victims, allowing their memories to become part of the crab and luring the unsuspecting to their doom. At a spry 67 minutes it's almost too much for a low budget picture to handle, but that's the genius of Roger Corman, for as cheap as his work may be there's always more beneath the surface, but never too much to avoid making a profit to pay for the next one.
Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)
The Corman brothers on location in South Dakota
1959's "Beast from Haunted Cave" was shot, like its companion feature "Ski Troop Attack," in snowy Deadwood, South Dakota, during the February winter, an attempt by the state to encourage other filmmakers to come there (Roger and brother Gene had grown tired of using Griffith Park so often). At the helm was newcomer Monte Hellman, who met the Cormans through his wife, actress Barboura Morris, directing his first feature for a princely sum of $1000. Once again Charles B. Griffith doctors the script, rewriting his own from two years before for "Naked Paradise," a film that relatively few people have even seen, shifting the locale from Hawaii to the Black Hills, the focus on a small time hood and his two cohorts in crime setting up a heist to steal six bars of gold from the local bank but needing a diversion to pull it off. This is where the monster comes in, an eerie spider-like creation (nicknamed Humphrass) made by Chris Robinson (later the star of Crown's 1971 "Stanley") based on the wingless hanging fly. With long arms that can grab from a distance, ensnaring its victims in its own spun webs, it's understandable why some viewers think it's a spider when it's simply an ingenious design for a beast on a budget, delivering the goods even if it doesn't really do its thing until the final reel. A bomb is set to explode in a nearby mine that houses the beast, and what appears to be an egg-like offspring (it's unclear), the getaway on foot to the remote cabin of ski instructor Gil (Michael Forest), where a plane will then transport the guilty party to Canada. Marty (Richard Sinatra, Frank's cousin) is the one who left the bomb in the mine, the one who feels the lurking yet unseen presence of some thing following their every move, while Gypsy (Sheila Carol) makes a halfhearted attempt to break from her disreputable past to make a go of things with the willing Gil, assuming she doesn't get bored too quickly. It's a character driven story, a good thing when Charles B. Griffith is available to bring them to life, with one final go round for the combination of gangsters and monsters in a spoof shot in Puerto Rico in late summer 1959, "Creature from the Haunted Sea."
Tunnel Vision (1976)
70s television given a futuristic twist
1976's "Tunnel Vision" suffers from following the groundbreaking success of "The Groove Tube," but still preceding better known efforts like "The Kentucky Fried Movie," "Americathon," "IMPS (The Immoral Minority Picture Show)" and "Amazon Women on the Moon." A Congressional hearing to decide the fate of 'The No Bullsh-t Network,' which has captivated audiences of 1985 to such a degree that people have given up work to stay home and watch, is examined by a day's worth of programming lasting little more than an hour. Like others of its ilk it's a hit and miss affair, much loved in its day but has not aged well. Many familiar faces pop up all too briefly, almost all of them yet to achieve comic fame, with Chevy Chase (as himself) returning from "The Groove Tube," along with future TV stars Laraine Newman, Al Franken, Tom Davis, and John Candy. Fans of Kurt Russell's "Used Cars" will get a kick out of seeing Gerrit Graham as the boyfriend of sitcom star 'Marie' (Lynne Marie Stewart), his obstinate pleading successfully earning a bit of 'deep throat' on the couch; there's also Joe Flaherty (the attorney) and Betty Thomas (a literal car stripper) appearing together in a flat game show spoof where she wears a G-string and pasties while he dons a dress, willfully earning prizes for revealing their most disgusting acts. Laraine Newman plays the mother in a Gypsy flavored ALL IN THE FAMILY satire, she as close to the wayward gay son as the father is to the prostitute daughter. Cleveland's legendary Ernie Anderson, who gave up local fame as Ghoulardi for a lucrative gig as ABC's chief announcer, gets to do his usual thing as a newscaster, earning chuckles by playing it completely straight (always wanting to do a small part in a movie, he gets his wish). Yes it's dated but definitely worth a look to see what would shock audiences of the freewheeling 70s.
The Utah Kid (1930)
Dorothy Debastian and Boris Karloff
1930's "The Utah Kid" was a Poverty Row Western from Tiffany Pictures, a small outfit that did over 100 features between 1921 and 1932 (one of their last was Bela Lugosi's "The Death Kiss"). The star was Rex Lease, a veteran of oaters on screen and television for five decades, but whose starring career would already peter out before the 30s were over. Here he's in his prime as wanted outlaw Cal Reynolds, managing to escape the sheriff's posse to make his way back to ringleader Butch (Tom Santschi) and the gang at the aptly named 'Robber's Roost.' No sooner does he walk through the door than henchman Baxter (Boris Karloff) enters with a rare treasure in these here parts, a pretty (and pretty desperate) maiden named Jennie Lee (Dorothy Sebastian), eyed lasciviously by every desperado in sight (the funniest bit in the picture). Naturally, Cal decides to challenge the status quo and proclaim the young beauty to be his fiancée, which would normally be enough except that the Roost happens to have its own parson (Lafe McKee), forced to perform the wedding ceremony on the spot. Jennie's dignity remains intact after a chaste honeymoon, galloping off with her husband's horse to her destination as schoolteacher. What she hasn't told Cal is that she's engaged to the sheriff on his trail, who wants not only him but the entire outlaw gang as well, rightly figuring that the horse knows its way back to the hidden Roost. Seems like a lot to occupy a mere 45 minutes (it's possible that 12 minutes could be missing but all you truly need is present), but it's a breezy and easy affair, despite the primitive outdoor techniques for fisticuffs. Dorothy Sebastian is hardly taxed by this standard 'girl in peril' who finds love in the strangest places, a career that deserved to be so much more than what she got. For today's audiences, the main interest is clearly seeing Boris Karloff in his sole talkie Western, often cast as villains during the silent era, later playing Native Americans in Cecil B. De Mille's "Unconquered" (set in the Ohio Valley of 1763) and Universal's "Tap Roots" (set in Mississippi during the Civil War). His voice sounds the same and he rides his horse with some confidence, plus it's one of his more sizable roles before "Frankenstein" with over five minutes on screen. This would have been a happy reunion between Dorothy and Boris, after recently costarring in Lionel Barrymore's creaky "The Unholy Night" aka "The Green Ghost," she the hysterical heroine, he sadly unbilled as her lovelorn solicitor.
Tonight or Never (1931)
Melvyn Douglas in his screen debut
1931's "Tonight or Never" is a typical romantic comedy adapted from a Broadway hit that starred Melvyn Douglas, here recreating that role in his film debut. The top billed star is silent screen siren Gloria Swanson (only three more talkies before her comeback in Billy Wilder's "Sunset Blvd."), as singing sensation Nella Vago, a hit in Venice and Budapest but not yet ready for the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Her music teacher (Ferdinand Gottschalk) ascribes her reticence to put body and soul into each performance as due to a lifestyle without love, only a nowhere relationship with a titled fiancée (Warburton Gamble) who has no qualms about spending time with other women. The near constant presence of a handsome stranger (Douglas) incessantly smoking below her window arouses Nella's curiosity, but rumors abound that he's a cad subsidized by a wealthy marquesa (Alison Skipworth). When she can stand being alone no longer, Nella imposes on a savvy waiter (Boris Karloff) to make certain that her intended is alone for the evening, and it's the longest and most controversial scene for the censors, as he plays along with her excuses and alternately woos and manhandles her, it's a tossup as to what she truly wants. Once the clock strikes 10 there's no backing out for an indulgent Nella, who spends the entire night in his bed, returns to her hotel room to sleep until her evening performance, taking 17 curtain calls for her finest performance ever, straight from the heart. Accepting a contract from American impresario Fletcher to sing at the Met, she tries to break things off with her lover, only he has other ideas. It takes half the picture to get the two stars together, and though gorgeous Gloria looks quite ravishing she's not quite at ease with the material, unlike Melvyn Douglas, so suave and likable (even playing a supposed rogue) that one would think that he was the old pro rather than her. The plot was reminiscent of Jeanette MacDonald's 1930 musical "Oh, for a Man!" in which Bela Lugosi appeared pre-Dracula as a music teacher. In his first role since playing The Monster in "Frankenstein," Boris Karloff is a twinkling hoot as the knowing waiter, sadly only present for one sequence at the 38 minute mark, while J. Carrol Naish appears unbilled in the opening reel as a heavily accented Venice radio announcer with a hilarious line from the Italian sponsor: "my spaghetti is longer than my name!" In just a few months Karloff would find himself top billed over Douglas in James Whale's "The Old Dark House," while Douglas would be seen further down the Hollywood ladder in the Poverty Row Majestic feature "The Vampire Bat."
8th A.C. Lyles Western one of the better ones
1966's "Waco" opens with the powerful voice of BONANZA's Lorne Greene intoning the lyrics to the title song, an excellent choice to set things up for Waco, not the setting but the gunman played by Howard Keel, the new sheriff of Emporia, a lawless town in Wyoming. The folks have grown tired of violence playing out in front of the saloon of Joe Gore (John Smith), resulting in the death of previous lawman Billy Kelly (Richard Arlen), so the Mayor (Robert Lowery) has reluctantly agreed with leading citizen George Gates (John Agar) to allow the governor to pardon outlaw Waco to replace Kelly, having spent five lonely years behind bars. Gore knows how much the Jenner clan want to kill Waco (he killed one of the brothers years ago), but their attempted ambush is easily foiled, and saloon bouncer Bill Rile (DeForest Kelley) isn't a good enough shot to take him out. The one person who might be able to figure out Waco is his former sweetheart (Jane Russell), now the bride of a preacher (Wendell Corey), who himself used to ride with Quantrill but believes that a man can change. It's Waco's unpredictable behavior that maintains a high interest level, and better character touches than most Lyles oaters, with the best performance from Gene Evans as the ineffectual deputy reformed from his drunken state by Waco. John Smith, on the side of good on CIMARRON CITY and LARAMIE, is cast as the main villain, simply lacking the kind of menace the part calls for. DeForest Kelley, in the last of four Lyles Westerns, had been paying his dues in roles like this for over a decade, soon to achieve a legendary status as Dr. McCoy on STAR TREK. Among the baddies are Jeff Richards, in his final film (Howard Keel's costar in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS), Willard Parker, and Anne Seymour, pretty Terry Moore a delight as saloon girl Dolly, Brian Donlevy in a 'blink and you'll miss him' cameo for his third billing.
Fort Utah (1967)
A.C. Lyles Western number ten
1967's "Fort Utah" was the tenth of 13 B Westerns courtesy Paramount producer A.C. Lyles, populated by a large number of familiar faces who had seen better days. John Ireland takes the top slot as infamous gunfighter Tom Horn, finding himself in the middle of an insurrection by Indians and unable to find help at the nearby fort because it's deserted. Meanwhile, John Russell's wagon master suffers a number of casualties from a redskin attack, leading what's left of his settlers to that same fort, where they learn that villainous Scott Brady's marauders butchered every soldier in a fruitless search for gold bullion that had been secretly moved elsewhere months earlier; Brady is the real target after his evil band led a massacre on a helpless Indian village, making haste for the safety of the fort before vengeance catches up with them. The cast is smaller this time around, with Richard Arlen, James Craig, Jim Davis, and Donald Barry, plus Virginia Mayo a very fetching heroine. The only true spark is provided by Robert Strauss, a very witty government agent who makes a good team with Ireland's Tom Horn.
Hostile Guns (1967)
A.C. Lyles Western number eleven
1967's HOSTILE GUNS was the 10th entry in producer A.C. Lyles's series of 13 Paramount B Westerns from 1963 to 1967 designed to meet the huge demand in Europe but quick playoff in the US. Director R.G. Springsteen is at the helm for the sixth and last time, from another Steve Fisher script, one of the 9 he eventually did. The main attraction of these 'geezer' oaters are the plethora of longtime veteran players in need of a good paycheck, led by Richard Arlen, the all time champ who did 11 (including this one) and Lon Chaney (sadly absent here). The top slot was typically reserved for a select few (Barry Sullivan, Rory Calhoun, Dana Andrews or Howard Keel), which makes this an anomaly with the lone appearance of George Montgomery, whose solid credentials in a cliched part are crucial in making this as watchable as it is (he starred in the TV series CIMARRON CITY). As Sheriff Gid McCool it's his job to transport a quartet of convicted felons on a four day journey to a Texas prison in Huntsville, hiring young hothead Tab Hunter to ride shotgun as deputy because he knew the boy's father to be a good man. The captives are not really an interesting lot, Leo Gordon cast to type as a vicious child murderer, Yvonne De Carlo the woman with a past who claims self defense in killing her abusive partner, Robert Emhardt the corrupt railroad baron who, ahem, insists he was 'railroaded' for political reasons, and Pedro Gonzales Gonzales as (what else?) an amiable Mexican thief who hopes to learn a useful trade behind bars. Following close behind is John Russell as Gordon's brother and James Craig as his cousin, determined to bushwhack the sheriff and spring their kin. Smaller roles are essayed by Brian Donlevy as the town marshal, Donald Barry, Roy Jenson, and Fuzzy Knight, all of whom had worked for Lyles before. Characterization is weak and action scenes poorly staged, theatergoers would do better with an episode of THE HIGH CHAPARRAL at home on the boob tube. Yvonne De Carlo is at least still an eyeful but no player can stand out with this hoary scenario, its nondescript and generic title most fitting.
Matinee Theatre: Dracula (1956)
A long lost color performance for John Carradine's Dracula
NBC's MATINEE THEATRE was an hour long live broadcast airing five times a week at 3:00PM, designed to advertise color programming and provide stage plays for housewives during the afternoons. John Carradine appeared in five different episodes over a two year period, by far the most famous being Robert Esson's adaptation of "Dracula," directed by Lamont Johnson on Nov 23 1956, three months after the passing of Bela Lugosi. Not only has this entry not survived, not even a single photograph has ever surfaced to show what Carradine looked like in reprising the vampire count he last portrayed in 1945's HOUSE OF DRACULA. Even sadder is the fact that it was definitely shot in color, the only other known cast member being Lisa Daniels as Lucy Weston. Hosted by John Conte, the series lasted an amazing three years despite its expensive color production, but of the surviving episodes none feature John Carradine, whose next performance as the vampire count would be 1965's BILLY THE KID VERSUS DRACULA.
The Silver Star (1955)
Lon Chaney and Edgar Buchanan
November 1954 saw the swift completion of "The Silver Star," the last of Lon Chaney's three releases from Lippert Pictures, this one from a short-lived outfit formed by producer Earle Lyon and director Richard H. Bartlett. A pedestrian ripoff of the superior "High Noon," partially conceived by actor/co-producer Ian MacDonald (main villain Frank Miller from "High Noon"), producer Lyon taking the lead as newly elected sheriff Gregg Leech, while director Bartlett opposed him as top henchman King Daniel, riding into town with two comrades, challenging Leech to face them at 8PM or get out fast (obviously, HIGH 8PM doesn't have the same ring!). Where its inspiration featured a plethora of interesting characters in support, such as Katy Jurado and Lloyd Bridges, this ultra low budgeter falls flat with non descript characters, only top billed Edgar Buchanan, in the retired sheriff role essayed by Chaney before, getting much of a chance to sink his teeth in (there's even a similar theme song, done by Jimmy Wakely rather than Tex Ritter). The cowardly Leech was recommended to replace Buchanan because both his father and grandfather were lawmen, but he simply wanders from one end of town to the other, unable to make up his mind until a certain amount of running time is used up, while the three hired gunmen take over the saloon, a steady supply of whiskey evidently ruining their shootin' eyes for the predictable outcome. Lon Chaney plays crooked attorney John W. Harmon, on the losing end in the election for sheriff, whose smiling demeanor fools absolutely no one, all convinced that he is the one responsible for those hired guns, entering at the 25 minute mark, almost 5 1/2 minutes screen time but a weak villain that hardly taxes his abilities. In cahoots with Chaney is fellow veteran Barton MacLane, again joining together the following decade for the A.C. Lyles Paramount Westerns. Producer Earle Lyon and director Richard H. Bartlett probably did the leads as a budget saving device, but their nonacting isn't helped by the sketchy characters they portray, robbing this modest effort of any possible tension. Lyon continued after their partnership dissolved, while Bartlett moved into television, after directing Chaney once more in a Universal oater starring Jock Mahoney, 1958's "Money, Women and Guns."
Final teaming of Tyrone Power and John Carradine
The full blooded, lusty historical adventure "Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake" was the last of six films that John Carradine teamed with good friend and sailing buddy Tyrone Power. The recent publication of Edison Marshall's best selling BENJAMIN BLAKE proved a natural vehicle for Power, able to play characters in any historical period, here specifically 1810, as dictated by Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck (his choice of the new title cements its echoes of many elements of the 1939 Carradine film "Captain Fury," right down to the large sympathetic role the actor plays as the hero's best friend). The story opens some years earlier, with 'Master Roddy McDowall' playing the young orphaned Ben, quietly living with gunsmith Amos Kidder (Harry Davenport), his maternal grandfather, until the unwelcome arrival of his uncle, Sir Arthur Blake (George Sanders), who has carefully tracked down his nephew because Ben is the rightful heir to the estate of Breetholm Manor, following the death of his father, Arthur's brother Sir Godfrey. Ben's uncle shows himself (in typical Sanders fashion) to be a cad of the highest order, forcing the lad to earn his keep as a stable boy and mistreating him at every turn. Growing up into the robust Tyrone Power, Ben is not yet able to put down his rugged and powerful uncle, who witnesses the attraction between his daughter Isabel (Frances Farmer) and her handsome cousin, who must flee England to avoid the wrath of the law which favors Sir Arthur. Journeying to the South Seas to earn the fortune he needs to claim his rightful heritage, Ben finds a companion in Caleb Green (John Carradine), another debtor embittered by lack of wealth, willing to kill anyone who reveals his secret about a certain island where the Spaniards boasted about vast riches in pearls. Jumping ship at the earliest opportunity, both men are greeted warmly by the initially wary natives, before long their activities observed by a beautiful, dusky island girl (Gene Tierney, with apologies to Elton John), given the name Eve by the instantly smitten Ben, who can't help but accept the informal marriage after she abruptly moves into his quarters, sending Caleb elsewhere ("where are you going?" "you expect me to stay?"). In time a Dutch vessel happens to drop anchor, Ben learning that Caleb has chosen to remain behind, offering his share of pearls to his astonished friend: "aye, I've always wanted a fortune, now I've found it...you thought I was mad when I told you about the island, you were right, I was then...mad for riches, for I didn't know what they were...now I've found them and wisdom too." Upon returning to England, Ben hires the most renowned barrister available (Dudley Digges), for only the rich and powerful dare to take on the arrogant lord of Breetholm Manor. Sanders makes for a formidable foe, showing off his boxing physique right from the opening scene, a dangerous opponent for the young Ben. In her last role before the first of her well publicized breakdowns, Frances Farmer is among an impressive array of actresses lovingly photographed by Arthur C. Miller, with the ever attractive Elsa Lanchester, the Bride of Frankenstein herself, in particular shining form, her eyes literally glowing as she makes the acquaintance of Power's gentleman, her unsolicited aid enabling him to escape Britain. But once Gene Tierney makes her entrance at the 50 minute mark, her breathtaking beauty never more alluring or appealing, one honestly questions how any man could leave paradise behind (a great pity this wasn't shot in color). Carradine is in superb form, 'mad for riches' when introduced at 39 minutes, a fellow sailor whose financial difficulties mirror Ben's, his tenure on the island rewarded by a peaceful serenity, bidding goodbye to Ben with the knowledge that he doesn't envy him going back to civilization (the normally seafaring actor was perfectly at home in this part). Billed 6th out of 21, an impressive 14 minutes screen time providing that rare opportunity to portray the kind of sympathetic depth rarely seen since "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Brigham Young." So many future films found him in more typical villainous mode, one might be forgiven for neglecting just how effective he could be when cast against type, and this provided one of his very best.