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First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1978
1969's "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed" became an acknowledged masterpiece for Hammer, Peter Cushing's 5th outing and a favorite of director Terence Fisher, still able to push the buttons concerning faith and tragedy. Leaving behind lesser entries that rehash old Universal cliches ("The Evil of Frankenstein") or a one off attempt to deal with the metaphysical concept of souls ("Frankenstein Created Woman"), the Baron is once again deeply involved in brain transplants, something most audiences would have been assured of with complete confidence, only here in trying to preserve the brain by freezing his research fails while a close colleague learns the secret. His correspondence with Dr. Frederick Brandt (George Pravda) ends badly however, off to the asylum after going completely mad, losing all memory of everyone, including wife Ella (Maxine Audley), who blames Frankenstein. By a curious quirk of fate, the Baron makes the acquaintance of an asylum attendee, Dr. Karl Holst (Simon Ward), whose periodic thefts of drugs to subsidize the medical treatment of his fiancee's mother makes him easy prey for blackmail, his girl Anna Spengler (Veronica Carlson) reduced from independent landlady to coffee maker. Spiriting Brandt out of his cell and into the Baron's lab is made more difficult by his suffering a severe heart attack, so Frankenstein must necessarily improve Dr. Holst's medical knowledge by transplanting the brain into another body to keep it alive, then curing the insanity within. The chosen victim is Dr. Richter (Freddie Jones), his incurable diagnosis of Brandt soon rectified surgically, covered in bandages on the edge of consciousness during a surprise visit from Ella Brandt, whose initial distrust of the Baron is assuaged by her husband's restored memory of her name and hair color. Unfortunately, a return trip yields the rotting corpse of Brandt, the new body on its way back to a previous location in a dilapidated house outside town. Just as the new Brandt is revived to serve the Baron's needs, Anna stabs him (not fatally) and is forced to kill herself by the same blade, Frankenstein pursuing his creation back to the home he shared with Ella, thoroughly disgusted by his new appearance (this was the tragic love story that so enthused Fisher, as in Oliver Reed's "The Curse of the Werewolf"). The Baron willingly enters the fiery trap set for him, adequately put by the reconstituted Brandt: "I fancy that I am the spider and you are the fly." It's surely one of Hammer's most exciting conclusions, and seeing Peter Cushing at center stage without distractions from subplots or superfluous characters makes for a unique return to the glory days of "The Curse of Frankenstein" and "The Revenge of Frankenstein." Some may carp that the series should have ended here, but with Jimmy Sangster's "The Horror of Frankenstein" failing to capture box office imagination Fisher and Cushing reunited one last time for 1973's "Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell," a satisfying coda for both men, concluding in the only possible way, yet another failure and the Baron vowing to continue on a by now useless journey to nowhere.
Fear in the Night (1972)
A waste of Peter Cushing
1972's "Fear in the Night" was the last of three films directed by Jimmy Sangster (following "The Horror of Frankenstein" and "Lust for a Vampire"), all starring Ralph Bates, here joined by Judy Geeson, Joan Collins, and Peter Cushing in another 'mini Hitchcock' from the early 60s that began life as "Brainstorm," earning another equally generic, "The Claw," before settling on this dated new moniker (due to the popularity of Joan Collins' DYNASTY it was issued on VHS as "Dynasty of Fear" and "Honeymoon of Fear"). When any picture goes through a multitude of titles it's usually not a good sign, and with so many previous thrillers from Sangster's pen this reveals itself early on as very familiar stuff indeed, Judy Geeson's Peggy newly wed to school teacher Robert (Ralph Bates), living on the grounds belonging to 'The Headmaster' (Peter Cushing), who goes by the unlikely name of Michael Carmichael. Before leaving London, Peggy is attacked by an assailant with a prosthetic arm, and with her recent recovery from a nervous breakdown the incident is dismissed as a figment of her imagination. The same thing happens in her new home, again the attacker sporting the same phony limb, which occurs after she meets the mysterious Michael, a headmaster for a school with no students, who naturally happens to have a prosthetic arm. There's a definite air of perversity in this Cushing character, as his request to see her beautiful hair unburdened results in her turning her back on him while he spends an inordinate amount of time loosening the knot. Peggy returns home to be attacked exactly as before, and with her unnerving meeting with Michael's sexy wife Molly (Joan Collins), the notion of using a gun for protection isn't so frightful anymore, unless of course the headmaster continues to stalk her after being shot and/or killed. All we really learn about Michael Carmichael is that the school was shut down in 1963 after he received severe burns from an explosion, resulting in the dismissal of all students and the loss of his left arm; now the days pass reminiscing with old recordings of happy times to remind him of how things used to be. Cushing only has two scenes in the entire film, sports the same clipped mustache as the Captain in "Dr. Phibes Rises Again," and the small cast ensures few surprises after an intriguing opening where the camera prowls the deserted grounds inside and out, settling on a pair of feet dangling from a corpse hung from a tree.
The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)
Peter Cushing's weakest outing as Frankenstein
1964's "The Evil of Frankenstein" may have come third in Peter Cushing's Hammer series, with Freddie Francis directing the only one missing Terence Fisher, but it's by far his weakest. Ignoring "The Curse of Frankenstein" and "The Revenge of Frankenstein," both sporting Jimmy Sangster's reimagining of the scientist as a clever, altruistic and occasionally ruthless procurer of body parts, this time Anthony Hinds scripts under his usual pseudonym John Elder, allowed full access to elements of the black and white Universal entries, to no good purpose. An entirely new backstory turns out to be a very tired one indeed, a Creature (Kiwi Kingston) sporting the Karloff look of square shaped head but otherwise lacking personality (the occasional bottle serves as its one weakness). Meanwhile, Cushing's formerly clever and resourceful Baron Frankenstein, easily escaping the gallows and starting up a lucrative practice under an assumed name, is now an inexplicably whining, petulant bore, foolishly calling attention to himself when he sees stolen items in the possession of others, and unable to control the Creature without the aid of an evil hypnotist (Peter Woodthorpe). Freddie Francis believed that the most important aspect to a Frankenstein picture was a decent lab, paying little heed to a witless script that concludes on an all too predictable flaming copout, and no help from the supporting cast. Christopher Lee had less screen time as The Creature in "The Curse of Frankenstein," but managed a multi layered characterization compared to former wrestler Kiwi Kingston, quite ineffective shuffling in his Karloffian boots without expression or motivation. Cushing and Fisher would be happily reunited for "Frankenstein Created Woman," "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed," and "Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell," while Ralph Bates inherited the title role for the 1970 one off "The Horror of Frankenstein."
Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1977
1966's "Frankenstein Created Woman" served as Peter Cushing's 4th outing in the role of the Baron but at least a return to form after the disastrous previous film "The Evil of Frankenstein," a Universal retread far removed from the accomplished Hammer version born in 1957's "The Curse of Frankenstein" and "The Revenge of Frankenstein." This sequel was in fact conceived by screenwriter Anthony Hinds under usual pseudonym John Elder, as "And Frankenstein Created Woman" in 1958, an obvious play on Brigitte Bardot's star making Roger Vadim release of 1956, "And God Created Woman." By this time the studio's penny pinching ways in reducing Christopher Lee's Dracula screen time was about to affect their Frankenstein series, for Cushing's engaging Baron is kept far from the central action, though instigating the final tragedy with his latest discovery, that the soul does not die at the same time as the body but can be housed in a special apparatus until a suitable body can be found, a novel new way to conquer death. Susan Denberg, Playboy's August 1966 Playmate of the Month, became a star in virtually her final acting role, playing Christina Kleve first as a lame, disfigured object of derision for all but her lover Hans (Robert Morris), who is shamefully framed for the murder of her pub landlord father by a trio of drunkards in a position of power and privilege to avoid being held accountable even to paying for their favored wine. Hans is condemned to hang in the same manner as his father, a known thief and murderer, and guillotined in front of a screaming Christina, who responds by throwing herself into a watery grave. Aided by the surgical skills of new assistant Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters), the Baron not only has Hans' soul but also Christina's body, corrected from all its deformity to transform her into a flawless blonde with quite an identity crisis. Before long, all three culprits are dispatched by Frankenstein's latest creation, while the same authorities who falsely condemned the wrong man remain as hapless as ever. The pace is too rapid to develop naturally, with Christina doing the bidding of a vengeful Hans without the Baron even aware of it, dressed up in pigtails by the kindly Hertz, who also has no concept of what the two are up against. Cushing is as expected a commanding screen presence though shuffled aside for much of the film, but for the last two titles he would be back at center stage for "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed" and "Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell."
The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966)
Second Christopher Lee entry finds Douglas Wilmer replacing Nigel Green as Nayland Smith
1966's "The Brides of Fu Manchu" was the second of Christopher Lee's 5 film series, benefiting from the return of director Don Sharp and shooting at Hammer's Bray Studios for a more extravagant look. Rupert Davies and Carole Gray are the kidnapped father and daughter focus in Fu's takeover plot using a lethal death ray, Tsai Chin as wicked daughter Lin Tang here joined by Burt Kwouk as top assistant Feng. The destructive climax set in North Africa is sadly reprised in Jesus Franco's finale "The Castle of Fu Manchu," actually providing the most engaging conclusion to any of the five entries, but the casting of Douglas Wilmer in place of Nigel Green as arch nemesis Nayland Smith is less engaging, though he would return for Jeremy Summers' "The Vengeance of Fu Manchu." The series decline would become more apparent once Don Sharp was occupied elsewhere, for the most expensive Towers picture of all, "Those Fantastic Flying Fools."
The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968)
Jesus Franco brings down a fading series
1968's "The Blood of Fu Manchu" was the 4th of 5 Christopher Lee entries, but with director Jesus Franco at the helm the series had now sunk to a new low, on location shooting in Brazil and Spain showing a lower budget than ever with a nothing cast taking center stage at the expense of Lee and daughter Tsai Chin. Gotz George is supposed to be playing the same character, Carl Janssen, introduced by Joachim Fuchsberger in "The Face of Fu Manchu," but the participation of Richard Greene, replacing Douglas Wilmer for these two, is totally wasted with his Nayland Smith incapacitated by a poisoned kiss administered by a female assassin sent out for his benefit. In what turned out to be her screen swan song, Shirley Eaton ("Goldfinger") actually shot her lone scene for one of her two Sumuru titles for producer Harry Alan Towers ("The Million Eyes of Sumuru" and "The Girl from Rio"), unaware of her presence in this film for many years. Fu's hidden fortress deep in the Brazilian jungle is often referred to as being as busy as Grand Central Station, waiting for the cavalry to arrive while various nondescript characters come and go with dull repetitiveness. Poor Christopher Lee never had it so bad, until of course Franco's incessant zoom lens was accompanied by poorly integrated stock footage for the series finale "The Castle of Fu Manchu."
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1978
1957's "The Curse of Frankenstein" succeeded in earning deserved screen stardom for both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Cushing already the most popular TV star in England, therefore very attractive to Hammer Films with their history of adapting BBC serials for lucrative box office returns. Once he heard about a new color version of Frankenstein, the actor lobbied for the part and was eagerly accepted, finally able to achieve worldwide fame in a role that would have defeated most actors, effortlessly making audiences root for a ruthless sociopath in a relentless search for knowledge that requires body snatching and cold blooded murder. He also displays a randy side as he sneaks around with the maid behind the back of Hazel Court's lovely cousin Elizabeth, his loyal betrothed. The Creature must be built piece by piece, first cutting down a hanged corpse and removing the head, finding the hands of a sculptor, a perfectly preserved set of eyes, and finally the brain of a genius, the Baron's most heinous act sending elderly Prof. Bernstein (Paul Hardtmuth) to his death from the top of the stairs. With the body wrapped in bandages and encased in a container filled with water, he implores his now reluctant assistant Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) to aid him but Mother Nature succeeds with a bolt of life giving energy; upon returning to his lab, Cushing's Frankenstein is confronted by Lee's Creature, taking one look at the Baron and recognizing the face of Bernstein's murderer (Cushing's initial awe soon gives way to a look of revulsion at his own unsightly handiwork). Krempe's timely arrival saves the Baron's life, eager to destroy this monster but to the deaf ears of a forgiving parent too proud of his achievement to damage it. Lee's finest scenes follow, his newborn's inability to reason obviously impaired by a damaged brain, seemingly threatened by an old blind man who pokes at it with a stick, his grandson's unseen fate revealed by his mushroom sack laying on the ground. Catching sight of his creator sets him off again, only to be shot in the eye yet this unexpected demise won't prevent him serving Frankenstein's continuing needs. Lee had competition to play The Creature, but 6'5 Bernard Bresslaw wanted £2 more per day, losing out on long lasting fame over a pittance of a paycheck. The charnel house details made quite an impact in full color, Hammer surpassing themselves after science fiction classics "The Quatermass Xperiment," "Quatermass 2," and "X the Unknown," Cushing repeating his role five more times through 1972. Once it was picked up by Warners in the US the massive box office returns meant that audiences were hungering for horror again, the color Gothic style soon becoming a trademark in British films that previously looked quite tame in black and white.
The Mummy (1959)
First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1979
1959's "The Mummy" was Hammer's 4th pairing of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee under the direction of Terence Fisher, a gift bestowed upon them by a grateful Universal, allowing screenwriter Jimmy Sangster full access to every aspect of their original series dating back to the 1932 Boris Karloff original. The main item retained from Karloff is reincarnation, a hopeless love undimmed by the passage of 4000 years, with Lee's Kharis the embodiment of a passion encased in more than just bandages. By contrast, Cushing's protagonist John Banning is the one suffering from a bad leg and emotional detachment (Universal's mummies all sporting a bad leg and worthless arm), Yvonne Furneaux in the dual roles of Cushing's wife and Lee's beloved Princess Ananka, 'considered the most beautiful woman in the world,' and whose sudden demise proved so unbearable for his high priest that in the blasphemous attempt to use the Scroll of Life to raise her from the dead was sentenced to eternal punishment as the guardian of her tomb. Hammer managed to sign one of their most distinguished casts, from Felix Aylmer as Banning's father, spending 20 years searching for Ananka's tomb but driven hopelessly mad mere moments after achieving it, to Raymond Huntley as John's uncle Joseph Whemple, dismissing talk of a living mummy shortly before being throttled by the unstoppable 'Egyptian relic.' Eddie Byrne ("Island of Terror") has the bulk of Sangster's clunker lines as the ineffectual Inspector Mulrooney, while Michael Ripper's brief turn as a poacher watching the mummy passing by wields the funniest bit: "I've seen the like tonight that mortal eyes shouldn't look at" "you've been round to Molly Grady's again!" The picture's unsung performance comes from George Pastell ("The Stranglers of Bombay") as current Karnak high priest Mehemet Atkil, the human agent who ensures that Kharis fulfill his task of vengeance, actively taking knife in hand to commit murder himself to accomplish their goal. Perhaps the dramatic highlight pits Cushing's rational mind against Pastell's pagan spirituality, increasingly losing his courteous facade as his deity is insulted as nothing more than a 'third rate god' in this battle of wills. London theaters saw this extravagant release outperform even "Horror of Dracula" (theatrically paired by Universal in the US with Michael Pate's "Curse of the Undead"), the kind of success that calls for sequels: "The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb" in 1964, "The Mummy's Shroud" in 1966, "Blood from the Mummy's Tomb" in 1971.
Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
Weakest of the Gothic Hammer Draculas wastes Christopher Lee
1969's "Taste the Blood of Dracula" was intended to introduce Ralph Bates as the vampire's disciple Lord Courtley, with Christopher Lee occupied in Spain finishing Jesus Franco's "Count Dracula." Having come as close as possible to playing the character as conceived by Bram Stoker, he was naturally reluctant to essay his 4th performance in the role for an increasingly penny pinching Hammer Films, only relenting under pressure for American financing from Warner Brothers. The previous Freddie Francis outing, "Dracula Has Risen from the Grave," was the best of all the sequels, allowing plenty of hair raising moments for Lee to assert Dracula's power, in particular the spectacular and controversial act of removing a stake from his own heart because the hero is an atheist without spiritual beliefs. Here, even after a hasty rewrite by usual screenwriter Anthony Hinds (as John Elder), he is reduced to mere cameo status with truly no need to speak any lines at all, quite a comedown so far as his mere presence is concerned. A traveling salesman (Roy Kinnear) happens to see the Count perish on the giant cross from the previous film's gory climax, stealing the vampire's signet ring, cloak, clasp, and a sample of his blood before returning to his London shop, where Lord Courtley has found three suckers eager for more impressive kicks than a drug induced evening at the local brothel. Willingly paying an astronomical price for Dracula's possessions ("may the devil take good care of you"), Courtley sets everything up in a dilapidated church with the intention of all four of them ingesting the blood of Dracula to ensure the master's revival, only for the others to pass up the gruesome sight and Courtley imbibing himself. Instantly falling to the floor in agonizing death throes, he's left for dead and slowly transforms into Dracula (finally arriving at the 41 minute mark), who curiously decides that the trio must die for what happened to his servant, an extremely petty and simple minded motive for the supposed lord of the undead, despite being present in an obviously decadent Victorian London. So wicked are the so called killers that they present themselves to high society as pillars of the community doing charity work on the side, their children becoming the instruments of their own demise. Linda Hayden as Alice makes a strong impression in just her second film role, the daughter of Geoffrey Keen's loathsome Hargood, a knowing smile as she wields a deadly spade against him to lethal effect, followed by Isla Blair as Lucy, daughter of Peter Sallis' Paxton, the first time that Lee actually bites the throat of a victim on screen (Paxton is the one getting staked for a change). John Carson's Secker is stabbed to death by his son, vampirized by Lucy mere moments before, but not before leaving a note for Anthony Corlan's Paul Paxton, informing him how to gain knowledge to destroy Dracula, and finding the discarded corpse of sister Lucy before engaging in final battle for sweetheart Alice's soul. Again, Hinds is able to build a nice preamble but everything falls apart once Dracula sets out to corrupt the children to atone for the sins of the fathers, the weakest motivation yet devised for Lee's character, apparently still good enough to require another ruined church for a similar ritual in "Dracula A.D. 1972." Many critics praise this entry for its excellent production values and fine cast, but without a strong Dracula to propel events Lee is left with top billing and a meager bit part; though most decry the follow up "Scars of Dracula" as the worst of the Gothic sequels at least there the actor enjoys his largest role in any Hammer entry, and recreates some of the passages in Stoker's novel.
Christopher Lee's third in the Hammer series is the best of the sequels
1968's "Dracula Has Risen from the Grave" was the 4th in the Hammer series and third for Christopher Lee, directed at short notice by Freddie Francis, deputizing for an ailing Terence Fisher. This time Anthony Hinds contributed a script (under usual pseudonym John Elder) that delivered the goods but only after another long wait through the first half, Dracula's desecration of the local church (a female victim's blood dripping body stuffed inside the chiming bell) a display of Satanic might that continues after his destruction in the mountain torrent from "Dracula - Prince of Darkness," the shadow of his castle falling upon the now damned church so that the village priest (Ewan Hopper) has no congregation for Sunday mass. Keinenburg Monsignor Ernst Muller (Rupert Davies) cannot believe that fear prevents his entire flock from attending church since the Count's demise a year ago, deciding that the best plan of action is to travel with the priest to the castle with giant crucifix strapped to his back to perform the rite of exorcism and banish the evil once and for all. Due to the fearful and alcoholic nature of the weak willed priest he is forced to finish the job alone, and by incurring the wrath of Mother Nature sends his underling tumbling over the rocks at the precise location of Dracula himself, still encased in the ice. The taste of blood naturally revives him, but the cross barring his castle door is enough for him to take revenge on the Monsignor in Keinenburg. A new set of characters are here introduced, as the Monsignor has been caring for his brother's widow and her daughter Maria (Veronica Carlson), his beloved niece, who is in love with student Paul (Barry Andrews), earning his keep as a pastry chef in a pub owned by jovial proprietor Max (Michael Ripper). Barmaid Zena (Barbara Ewing) offers male patrons a treat with her generous cleavage and flirtatious nature, but finds herself a target once Dracula appears with the priest whose blood restored his undead existence, now his willing servant, soon learning of this beautiful young niece. Vainly hiding the vampire marks with a scarf around her neck, Zena is forced to bring Maria to the master, interrupted from completing his task, then killing Zena as punishment for the priest to dispose of in the bakery furnace. Maria receives a surprise caller in her bedroom the following night, the same man with 'burning eyes' but now a romantic seducer, lightly brushing her lips with his own before going for the throat, an act which causes the girl to finally release her childhood doll. The Monsignor prevents Dracula from a second violation, but is badly wounded by his former acolyte in the process, calling upon Paul for help despite his honest admission to being an atheist. Upon seeing the treacherous priest at Paul's side (to translate the Latin passages in the book that wards off evil), the Monsignor takes his last breath and dies from shock, while Paul too is knocked out as the once holy man of God prepares Maria to become Dracula's undead consort. Paul is able to use the crucifix to force the priest to take him to Dracula's hiding place with stake in hand ready to strike, but lacks the strength in prayer to complete his task, the vampire shockingly using this unexpected advantage to remove the stake and fling it toward his enemy. With Maria completely in his power, Dracula and the priest make the return journey to his castle so that she can remove the hated cross from his doorway, with Paul close behind. The heavy cross drops several feet to stand erect in the valley just as a battle results in Dracula plunging all the way down on to it, landing with the cross protruding from the front of his chest, trapped 'like a fly on a pin.' As blood pours from the open wound, Dracula's hands plead toward the heavens for salvation, only to see his wayward priest summon the strength to conduct a Latin prayer as he dies. Stigmatic tears flow from his eyes with the realization that Christ has overcome, leaving only the Count's blood and cape behind until the next sequel "Taste the Blood of Dracula." Freddie Francis uses a more mobile camera than Terence Fisher and, for his final Hammer assignment, succeeds in making this his best for the studio, much better than 1964's "The Evil of Frankenstein," a listless retread of Universal cliches quite unlike their unique take on Peter Cushing's Baron. A massive success that led the studio to produce an avalanche of vampire films over the next few years, they never could surpass this for sheer shock value, Lee's magnificent performance granted full rein for once with adequate screen time and plenty of opportunities to display his awesome power. From enslaving a man of God to having the will to pull a stake out his own heart, this Dracula is the most ferocious portrayal depicted by Hammer, and yet Lee's eloquence as he writhes helpless upon the sacred cross achieves a level of sympathy for a complete portrait that captures the loneliness of evil.
A Chiller Theater Reunion (1991)
One hour special conceived by Bill Cardille, gathering together his on screen family from Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater
A CHILLER THEATER REUNION was a special hour long broadcast (no movie) reuniting the Chiller Family for the first time in nearly 10 years (last appearance Feb. 1982), kicking off with "The Break-In," as Chilly Billy rifles the safe to discover a trio of singing skulls exulting to the tune of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Castle Keeper Norman still insists that 'Boss Chilly' is cheap, Pizza Man Skeets Skettino isn't as close a friend to demand a tip, Terminal Stare (Donna Rae) zaps herself on set, and Stephen the Castle Prankster arrives in style by limousine. Chilly Billy seats himself for "Dial-a-Gripe" wearing a "Day of the Dead" t-shirt (the 1985 sequel that starred his daughter Lori), advising a female caller who wants to end a long love affair to 'get married!' (current Steelers quarterback Bubby Brister gets a brief mention). Dr. Cyril Wecht turns down his invitation because he can't think of a 'bigger stiff than Bill Cardille, the guy's been dead for 10 years, rigor mortis set in a long time ago, somebody just forgot to tell him!' Phyllis Diller pops up to reminisce about her appearance in "Little Old Monster Maker," adding that Chiller Theater was 'the highlight of all of my trips to Pittsburgh!' "Drac-Net" was a DRAGNET spoof spotlighting old Hollywood footage from Bela Lugosi's "Dracula," Lon Chaney's "Son of Dracula," and Lugosi's "The Ape Man." Professional championship wrestler Bruno Sammartino sums up the secret of the show's success: "in 20 years of Chiller Theater Bill Cardille put more people to sleep than anybody I know!" We see "Captain Bad" one last time (CAPTAIN NICE enjoyed its brief run in 1967), Barbara Feldon's 1966 appearance as Agent 99 from GET SMART, then a presentation of "Double Bill," Chilly Billy trading barbs with himself in front of a replica of the original lab set: "two things are important in life Chilly, sex and laughs, unfortunately I usually get them at the same time!" Original repeats of "The Break-In" (the guy singing in the shower) and "A Chilly Happening" (the Boston Strangler) are sandwiched around new editions of "Strange But True," the "PSS (Pittsburgh Subway System)," "Mr. Magnificent," and "Mess World," plus a clip of news anchor Bill Cardille playing himself in George Romero's original 1968 "Night of the Living Dead." This would be our last visit with the Chiller Family, Norman Elder passing away in 2000, Stephen Luncinski in 2009, Bill Cardille in 2016.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
Third Hammer Dracula was only the second for Christopher Lee
1965's "Dracula - Prince of Darkness" came third in the Hammer series (following "Horror of Dracula" and "The Brides of Dracula") but marked only the second for Christopher Lee, third for top man Terence Fisher, the script first conceived as "The Revenge of Dracula" by Anthony Hinds in 1958, touched up by Jimmy Sangster (both using a pseudonym), offering the star no lines for the only time in any series entry, though Lee himself believed that dialogue had been written, none of which he deemed worth saying. The opening is a reprise of the finale of "Horror of Dracula," Peter Cushing's Van Helsing outmaneuvering the Count into the fatal sunlight with two candlesticks placed together like a crucifix, then a sequence introducing new protagonist Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), the decidedly forceful Abbot of Kleinburg, who suffers no fools with a hunting rifle at his side, thoroughly enjoying life's pleasures such as warming himself before a roaring fire. One Carpathian pub still hangs garlic to ward off evil spirits despite Dracula being destroyed 10 years before, yet his castle near Carlsbad stands as a shrine to his evil, manservant Klove (Philip Latham) present and ready at all times to welcome unwary visitors to aid in the revival of his master. Four travelers, two brothers with their respective wives, are dropped off close enough to board a driverless carriage taking them directly to the castle, where the dining hall is set for exactly four people, unable to leave as the horses bolt once they're inside. Turning in after what they consider a fine meal, all is peaceful until Charles Tingwell's Alan Kent is awakened by his fear stricken wife Helen (Barbara Shelley), curiosity getting the best of him with fatal results, strung up by rope to have his neck sliced open to pour enough crimson over Dracula's ashes to restore him to corporeal form, his cape neatly set aside by faithful Klove. Critics may have been appalled at such ritualistic bloodshed but this was a brilliantly staged, Fisherian reversal of Christ's resurrection, the devil's disciple alive again to take Helen for his new bride. Where before she was prudish and easily frightened, Helen now appears to Suzan Farmer's pretty Diana as a nightgown clad temptress eager to 'kiss' her sister-in-law, only for Dracula to show his displeasure and claim her for himself at the expense of Diana's easily throttled husband Charles (Francis Matthews). Diana's crucifix offers temporary salvation (leaving its burn mark on Helen's arm), eventually making their way to Father Sandor's monastery to learn the truth about vampires and how to destroy them. Lee's best scene comes from the Stoker novel, opening a vein in his chest to force Diana to drink of his blood, interrupted to rush back to his formidable abode with enemies in hot pursuit. For once it's a novel climax set on the icy castle moat, Charles unable to deal with his undead adversary, Father Sandor counting on running water to drown the Count beneath his own mountain stream. With Bernard Robinson's sumptuous sets still making Hammer product look like a million dollars, and the returning James Bernard offering variations on his thunderous 3 note Dracula theme, it's better than it has any right to be if still lacking overall. Lee has his smallest on screen role in the entire series with only 7 silent minutes, but remains unsurpassed as a towering, fang baring presence to be feared. Barbara Shelley also scores as Helen, from repressed to ravenous, once bitten no longer shy about showing some sisterly love to her surviving in laws. Andrew Keir makes for an excellent replacement for Van Helsing, easily the strongest religious figure to oppose Lee (with apologies to Rupert Davies) until Peter Cushing's return in "Dracula A.D. 1972."
The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969)
Last and least of the Christopher Lee series of 5 Fu Manchu features
1968's "The Castle of Fu Manchu" was the last of five in the Harry Alan Towers series based on Sax Rohmer's Chinese super villain introduced in 1913, plans for yet another scuppered by its notoriously poor reception. Spanish director Jesus Franco had made his series debut with the previous entry "The Blood of Fu Manchu," shooting in Brazil and Spain in Jan. 1968, while this was completed six months later in Barcelona and Istanbul, first issued in West Germany in 1969 but not picked up for the US until International Cinema Corp. did the honors in 1972. "The Blood of Fu Manchu" featured the same script limitations imposed upon "The Vengeance of Fu Manchu," less screen time for both Fu and arch nemesis Nayland Smith, played in Franco's films by Richard Greene, and virtually no interaction to play up their mutual animosity. "Blood" renders Smith a nonentity, helpless and blind after being kissed by the poisoned lips of a female assassin, while in "Castle" it takes forever for him to find Fu's Istanbul fortress, no shared screen time together yet again. It begins badly enough with black and white stock footage from 1958's "A Night to Remember," depicting the sinking of the Titanic, merged incongruously with the climax of second entry "The Brides of Fu Manchu" (noted by the presence of Burt Kwouk), as Fu's latest attempt at world domination involves the use of certain crystals that can freeze salt water into solid mass, a ship going down in the Caribbean due to an unforeseen iceberg. As this also results in the unintended destruction of Fu's laboratory he not only must find a new place but a different method of using the crystals, supplied by its ailing creator Dr. Heracles (Gustavo Re). Yet another surgeon (Gunther Stoll) must be kidnapped, here to perform a life saving heart transplant with the aid of girlfriend Marie (Maria Perschy), raising hopes that Heracles can perfect his crystals to ensure a great triumph for Fu Manchu. A later demonstration of power shows a dam breaking up for a ready made flood, using stock footage from the Dirk Bogarde vehicle "Campbell's Kingdom," as if Franco's incessant zoom lens didn't create enough headaches for weary audiences. Nayland Smith eventually concludes that since large quantities of opium are needed to produce these crystals, plus close proximity to water, then Istanbul must be the logical location to put a stop to the nonsense once and for all. Tsai Chin remained as loyal as Christopher Lee and Howard Marion Crawford in sticking with the entire series, but none of the actors are offered a hint of characterization, going through the same old tired tropes until the voice of Fu Manchu is heard one last time: "the world shall hear from me again."
The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967)
Third Christopher Lee entry suffers from unnecessary characters and slack pace
1967's "The Vengeance of Fu Manchu" came third in the Christopher Lee series, allowing for on location shooting in Hong Kong and Kowloon (interiors at Dublin's Ardmore Studios), a picturesque opening in which Fu returns to his birthplace in the northern province of China to set up a truly international criminal organization led by himself, at the same time that nemesis Nayland Smith is forming a coalition of police chiefs (the origins of Interpol). The American ambassador from San Francisco is played by German Horst Frank, resolutely unconvinced until he learns of Fu's ultimate revenge against arch nemesis Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer), forcing a noted surgeon (Wolfgang Kieling) to transform a Chinese underling into the exact visage of Smith, certainly good enough to fool his sidekick Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion Crawford). The switch takes place on a Scottish holiday, the real McCoy shipped off to Shanghai while the uncommunicative double waits until he's alone with Smith's female servant to strangle the life out of her. Just like the on screen characters, the audience waits, and waits, and waits for the journey to end so things can wrap up in satisfactory fashion, whether on horseback from Shanghai, by ship from America (Eddie Byrne a crooked captain), or Smith arriving in Fu's desolate mountain hideaway just as his convicted doppelganger is about to hang. With Lee's dominating presence reduced to about 12 minutes, and Wilmer's dual roles offering him less to than ever before, director Jeremy Summers allows the uninteresting background characters to take precedence, action scenes poorly choreographed as fists fly without landing, stunt doubles fall over without being touched, and only a few token karate kicks by Shanghai's Inspector Ramos (Tony Ferrer) to remind us that Bruce Lee was definitely not available (it's still better than Jesus Franco's final two in the series).
The Face of Fu Manchu (1965)
Excellent beginning to a series that went downhill by the third entry
1965's "The Face of Fu Manchu" truly delivers the perfect role for an intensely dignified Christopher Lee, a fictional villain introduced by Sax Rohmer in 1913, several screen adaptations over the years, including Boris Karloff sharing the spotlight with Myrna Loy in MGM's "The Mask of Fu Manchu" in 1932. A potential series to rival James Bond depended on how this debut turned out, for despite shooting in freezing conditions at Dublin's Ardmore Studios (a barren, almost poverty stricken set design), director Don Sharp managed to maintain a fast pace and great enthusiasm from a game cast. Apart from Lee's impeccable gravitas, this would prove to be the only entry to feature Nigel Green as Fu Manchu's hated nemesis Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard, paired as always in Holmes/Watson fashion with Howard Marion Crawford as Dr. Petrie. Producer Harry Alan Towers, in his pseudonymous screenwriting persona of Peter Welbeck, essentially set the pattern for the entire series right off the bat, the criminal mastermind in possession of some fiendish device but in need of some elderly scientist to make it work, inevitably kidnapping and torturing a beloved daughter to force cooperation. Here, we have Walter Rilla as the father (actual father of Wolf Rilla, director of George Sanders' "Village of the Damned") and beautiful Karin Dor as the daughter, excellent value for West German audiences, since Joachim Fuchsberger makes for a reliable two fisted hero. What Fu Manchu has is intimate knowledge of Tibet's black hill poppy, for when its seeds are distilled below freezing point they can produce mass murder, ably conveyed when the entire population of Fleetwick is shown dead in their morning positions, an elderly lady with dog on a leash, a little boy sprawled over his bicycle. Nayland Smith deduces that all trails to Fu's hideout lead from the River Thames, forcing his adversary to return to Tibet for more of the fatal seeds to allow for an explosive climax. The central character is depicted as a towering man of great wealth and power, whose training in the ways of the mind puts him in position to hypnotize others to do his bidding against their will, while daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) complements her father and occasionally indulges in torture herself. The role of Nayland Smith would be played by two other actors after Nigel Green's lone performance, but neither Douglas Wilmer nor Richard Greene were granted a truly adversarial face off, more screen time for lesser characters increasing the tedium for each inferior sequel. Director Sharp would again deliver a solid product with "The Brides of Fu Manchu" (shot at Hammer's Bray Studios), but with Jeremy Summers and Jesus Franco in his place things went downhill quite rapidly over the final three: "The Vengeance of Fu Manchu" (shot on location in Hong Kong) "The Blood of Fu Manchu" (Brazil), and "The Castle of Fu Manchu" (Istanbul).
There were worse Peter Cushing films to come, but none so repugnant
For Peter Cushing, 1967's "Corruption" was a rare excursion away from Gothics straight into modern day and Swinging London, the final collaboration between screenwriters Donald and Derek Ford and director Robert Hartford-Davis (previously responsible for "The Black Torment"), achieving a real casting coup by signing Cushing but with too many cooks spoiling the brew no one could agree on how to proceed with a familiar story better told in "Eyes Without a Face" or Jesus Franco's "The Awful Dr. Orlof," that of a brilliant doctor forced to obsessively commit bloody murder to restore the beautiful features of a disfigured loved one. Cushing's Sir John Rowan is a revered surgeon engaged to wed self obsessed fashion model Lynn (Sue Lloyd), whose lovely features are damaged by a falling lamp caused by a scuffle with sleazy photographer Mike (Anthony Booth). Poring through volumes on the endocrine system he settles on the pituitary gland as a means to regain her former glory, but one taken from a corpse doesn't achieve lasting effects, forcing this humanitarian doctor to commit the most unpardonable sin of all. One sequence was done for two different markets, the UK/US seeing the fully clothed prostitute quietly expire from the scalpel, while a different actress was cast for the topless Continental version, where the actor was required to wipe his blood smeared hands on her naked breasts before slicing off her head (this version goes by the title "Laser Killer"). 95% of all the characters on screen are self satisfied sloths of supreme stupidity with hilarious dialogue to match ("you're a doctor, how's your kiss of life!"), and Cushing's descent into madness, though believably portrayed, is undone by a script that proves more insane than the ungrateful Lynn (the Fords did come up with one gem in "A Study in Terror"). Toward the end of his life, the actor would accept roles in worse films such as "Son of Hitler" or "Touch of the Sun," truly inept filmmaking to be sure, but none could match the bottom of the barrel repugnance of this dated look at Swinging London going limp.
Curse of the Fly (1965)
Superior sequel that recaptures the human interest of the successful 1958 original
1965's "Curse of the Fly" was a Robert L. Lippert production from the same team responsible for Lon Chaney's 1964 "Witchcraft," a genuinely well crafted script by Harry Spalding directed with real flair by Don Sharp following his Hammer entries "The Kiss of the Vampire" and "The Devil-Ship Pirates," and soon to kick off Christopher Lee's Fu Manchu series. The lack of a similar human creature with fly head may have contributed to its relative failure, at the box office as well as audience interest, but it turns out to be a return to the increased human drama that was such a standout feature of Kurt Neumann's 1958 original, kicking off with a striking opening in slow motion, shattered glass emerging from the broken window of a mental institution and the escape of Carole Gray's Patricia Stanley clad only in her underwear. Running down the dark road in full view of motorists, it's not long before George Baker's Martin Delambre picks her up and takes her to Montreal, a whirlwind romance resulting in a quickie marriage before returning to the country estate owned by his father Henri (top billed Brian Donlevy). Husband and wife also happen to be keeping secrets from each other, she a concert pianist who suffered a nervous breakdown at the sudden death of her demanding mother, he and his London brother Albert (Michael Graham) the offspring of the former Philippe from "Return of the Fly," the renamed Henri now an elderly man more obsessed than ever in continuing the teleportation methods begun by his late father, two lab assistants plus Martin's first wife all failed monstrosities locked away in outdoor cells. Henri's once happy ending in the second sequel was merely temporary, the fly genes making their presence felt by their relatively brief lifespans, Martin suffering from a condition of rapid aging requiring an injection of a special serum to keep him alive, a fate the normal Albert was fortunately spared. Patricia sees her disfigured predecessor playing piano in the middle of the night, wonders if she's losing her sanity all over again, Henri dissuading Martin from revealing the terrible truth to the new arrival until his love for her forces his hand. With the police investigation tightening like a noose around their necks, Henri has his staff set out to destroy every trace of evidence, but after two subjects are reintegrated together into one formless, inhuman blob, Albert takes matters into his own hands to cut off their London destination. Those who dismiss this sequel for its British origins must take into account the Canadian setting for all three titles, a long neglected gem for viewers who had little opportunity to see it. The role of Henri was written for Claude Rains, Brian Donlevy a weak substitute on wobbly alcoholic legs, ten years after his forceful rendition of Nigel Kneale's Quatermass in both "The Quatermass Xperiment" and "Quatermass 2," while returning from "Witchcraft" is the witch herself, Yvette Rees, a Barbara Steele lookalike here made up in stereotypical Asian as Wan, wife of Burt Kwouk's Tai (Tai-Wan?), her mission to terrorize the second wife in defense of the first.
Return of the Fly (1959)
First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1971
1959's "Return of the Fly" was the immediate sequel to "The Fly," a huge success for 20th Century-Fox the year before, this time promoting Vincent Price from supporting player to the top slot despite less screen time. The previous film maintained a sense of mystery balanced with tragic human drama, adding some unforgettable shocks bordering on camp but done commendably straight, David Hedison playing his monster with effective form fitting appliance shot in vivid color. Robert L. Lippert's Regal company initiated the original picture, his new venture Associated Producers taking up the second, still shot in CinemaScope but on a clearly lower budget in black and white, issued on a double bill with Lon Chaney's "The Alligator People." Price wouldn't sign on before reading the script, conceived by director Edward L. Bernds, who actually does a remarkable job delivering a monster without the same human interest that made "The Fly" so compelling, repeating the role of Francois Delambre, whose brother Andre had perished as a tragic result of his work, a matter transmitter that disintegrates solid matter in one place to be reassembled at another location at a different time. Now that nephew Philippe (Brett Halsey) mourns at the funeral of his late mother, haunted by those terrible memories from long ago, he calls upon Uncle Francois to reveal the exact details of his father's mysterious death, having concealed his own research on the same subject with his friend Alan Hinds (David Frankham). Francois reluctantly joins the pair as an equal partner, but it's not long before Hinds reveals his true colors, a wanted criminal who has been tracked by Scotland Yard from England, currently in league with shady mortician Max Barthold (Dan Seymour) to sell the Delambre plans to a foreign power for a steep price. Caught red handed at sabotage by the British detective, he kills the hapless officer and reintegrates his corpse with that of a guinea pig, squashed by the killer in nasty fashion, leaving a spot of blood behind while disposing of the bodies. Philippe finally catches on to this duplicity but cannot prevent being knocked out and scrambled with a fly, emerging to the sound of police bullets with a huge fly head, hand, and claw, making his way to the funeral parlor where the betrayers can be found. Everything plays out in entirely predictable fashion while providing a happy ending, no patch on the original but an entertaining joyride that proved successful enough for another sequel from Lippert, "Curse of the Fly" done five years later by his British firm. One major weakness is the larger, cumbersome fly head worn by stuntman Ed Woolf, looking rather silly in a business suit and allowed nothing more than revenge on his enemies who both expire at the same convenient location.
The Johnny Weissmuller School of Monosyllabic Elocution
1962's "Eegah" was the second release from Arch Hall Sr.'s Fairway-International distribution outfit, to promote a movie career for his son Arch Jr., who sings three forgettable tunes during its 90 minute duration, "Vickie," "Valerie," and "Nobody Lives on the Brownsville Road" (assisting with the soundtrack is Alan O'Day, author of Helen Reddy's #1 "Angie," and his own chart topper "Undercover Angel"). The title character is a caveman played by fledgling actor Richard Kiel, then working as a 7'2 bouncer before Hall decided to make him the star in over the shoulder furs and handy club, simply wandering out of the desert one night to frighten sexy Roxy (Marilyn Manning). She's the bikini clad girlfriend of Arch Jr., Sr. playing Roxy's scientific minded father, whose investigation into a remote canyon succeeds only too well, recovering in Eegah's cave with a broken collarbone (the entrance is once again Bronson Caverns in Griffith Park, interiors done on a soundstage). Soon she too becomes an unwilling resident for the clearly infatuated giant, with a family of deceased relatives lining the walls and a well of sulphur water that may be responsible for his longevity. When both captives manage to escape back to civilization, Eegah goes into bloodhound mode with Roxy's perfumed scarf, amazingly finding her rocking to her boyfriend's band at a little poolside get together that doesn't end well for our lovesick Lothario. Kiel's utterances are callously dubbed by the Johnny Weissmuller School of Monosyllabic Elocution, the entire picture done the same way due to a faulty sound man, still a huge success on a paltry budget of $15,000. His lack of experience isn't as much of a problem as the script's lack of finding something worthwhile for him to do, essentially a drawn out chase picture depicting prehistoric boy in hot pursuit of modern miss, and the filmmakers laughed all the way to the bank after near bankruptcy trying to raise funding. The color photography is a plus that benefitted the box office, but the cave scenes don't supply the answers to questions about Eegah's origins, and his constant pawing at her meager garments must have been difficult for the time period. Camp moments abound throughout, perhaps the silliest being his licking the shaving cream while losing the obviously fake beard, but Kiel acquits himself well enough to engage a measure of sympathy despite the poor results.
The War of the Worlds (1953)
First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1970
1952's "The War of the Worlds" is rightly regarded as producer George Pal's finest masterpiece (among a few others like "Tom Thumb" or "The Time Machine"), a project that had remained dormant since the 1920s, Cecil B. De Mille first taking a crack at the H.G. Wells story even before Orson Welles delivered his infamous 1938 radio broadcast. The first thing to go was the period setting in Britain, still current when published in 1898, updated to 1950s California to save costs for what was going to be a real special effects extravaganza, actually earning an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. Director Byron Haskin worked from a screenplay by Barre Lyndon, the walking Martian machines streamlined as airships shaped like manta rays and maneuvered by wires, the invaders doing everything in threes, such as three different colored lenses for the eyes or three fingers for each hand. Pal wanted De Mille to actually provide the opening and closing narration but he suggested Sir Cedric Hardwicke, a fine choice to move through the galaxy in search of better worlds to conquer, finally settling on the green warm earth as the closest neighbor to Mars. Taking a back seat are the human cast, an early starring role for Gene Barry, later on television's BAT MASTERSON, BURKE'S LAW, and THE NAME OF THE GAME, while radio veteran Les Tremayne as General Mann supplied the intelligence for D.C. as the battle for supremacy begins to grow hopeless. The first Martian craft lands in a hilly area near Santa Linda, scientists wondering if it's a meteorite or something else, while a sinister, cobra-like projector emerges to display its awesome power by disintegrating three unwise men left to guard it. The military is fairly accurately depicted in the film, making it indeed something akin to a war picture rather than science fiction, but all known weapons (including the A-bomb that ended WW2) are unable to penetrate the impregnable magnetic shield protecting the Martian ships. Pal was not fond of the 'boy meets girl' subplot but it does allow vivid sequences of Gene Barry scurrying through a devastated Los Angeles in search of Ann Robinson's Sylvia Van Buren, their reunion in a church offering a perfect climax to the destruction when all of mankind has failed. For once Pal had come up with something unseen in Hollywood, a grand scale invasion the likes of which would only become common in Japanese efforts such as "Warning from Space" or "The Mysterians."
First of three airings on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1979
A true oddity that seems to have completely vanished without a trace, 1970's "Survival" was the brainchild of Michael Campus, in fact his first feature as director despite Oliver Reed's "Z.P.G. (Zero Population Growth) usually being cited as his debut. Best known for Blaxploitation classic "The Mack" starring Richard Pryor, and a gentler follow up "The Education of Sonny Carson," he started out doing documentaries across the globe before this opportunity at a work of fiction, shot in Sedona, AZ in Dec. 1969, going unreleased until 20th Century-Fox finally picked it up for a few playdates in 1976, very few TV screenings before its disappearance. STAR TREK's John D.F. Black fashioned the screenplay from Campus' story (he later scripted both "Shaft" and "Trouble Man," starting out with John Carradine's 1957 "The Unearthly"), using a dozen cast members also recruited from television for a game of death and the meaning of life. AllMovie's review gives the most detailed analysis: "the scene is a lavish dinner party, overseen by a Woollcott-like gameplayer. After dinner, the guests indulge in the usual Charades and Twenty Questions. Then the host proposes that each guest make a statement justifying his or her existence. The catch: all but two of the participants will be rendered nonexistent by the rest of the guests. The yakety "Survival" has an excellent cast (Barry Sullivan, Anne Francis, Chuck McCann, Sheree North, Otis Young), and you'll be able to guess which actors were hired by the day and which by the week as they begin to die off." Such an unloved orphan deserves to turn up someday for at least a little bit of attention, currently praying for its survival.
First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1970
1965's "Run Psycho Run" survives in its original Italian language version, "Piu Tardi Claire, Piu Tardi..." (Later Claire, Later...), but no trace of the English dub has turned up since its few screenings through AIP-TV (it debuted on Sacramento's KCRA-TV on Nov. 2, 1969). It was a troubled production that sat on the shelf for at least three years as it was shot in black and white in Tuscany, Italy, by director and coscripter Brunello Rondi, only seeing the light of day in Italy by July 1968, importing Hollywood veteran Gary Merrill for added marquee value. Very few reviews are available to decipher a plot that proves to be dialogue heavy in its entirety, but there is a murder at the 20 minute mark, Merrill's wife shown with her throat slashed by an unseen assailant, his son a witness to the crime but falling down the steps while trying to escape, sealing his own demise. Merrill chooses a second wife identical to the first, an attempt to ferret out the culprit a year later, but the one twist only comes during the final reel, a hidden skull that resembles that of Mrs. Bates in PSYCHO (so much for references to Hitchcock). The director's intention was not to do a mystery, suspense, or horror film but to show the degradation of the bourgeoisie. The fashions are convincing, the 1912 hillside villa setting well photographed, yet most of the scenes consist of lengthy discussions without any further incident beyond the dual killings, even those who speak the language may not find this to their liking.
The Monolith Monsters (1957)
Universal sci fi on a smaller scale
1957's "The Monolith Monsters" continues the Universal sci fi winning streak, Grant Williams from "The Incredible Shrinking Man" toplined again, from another Jack Arnold story like "Tarantula" set in a desert town menaced by something not of this earth, in this case the fictional community of San Angelo (on location filming in Lone Pine's Alabama Hills, shooting title "Monolith"), where a meteor crashes and breaks into pieces. Geologist Ben Gilbert (Phil Harvey) takes one of these back to his office, shared with Grant Williams' Dave Miller, and during a stormy night discovers his curious stone suddenly activated by spilled liquid; the next morning Dave returns to find his partner literally a stiff, virtually turned to stone in a wrecked lab. The mystery deepens when a little girl brings home another piece of the rock, her home devastated, both parents dead, herself slowly losing the battle with petrification. Miller joins old college professor Flanders (Trevor Bardette) to learn how this unknown element becomes triggered into deadly life to drain everything that comes into contact with it of silicon, which ensures the flexibility of human skin. John Sherwood took over the directorial reins from the unavailable Jack Arnold (this would be his last picture at the helm), turning in a workmanlike job with believable special effects using miniatures to depict towering monoliths as they advance on San Angelo down the valley after a huge rainstorm. The same backlot street set from "It Came from Outer Space" and "Tarantula" gets trotted out again, the characters given small moments to reflect depth, and the studio maintains its high quality on a demonstrably 'B' budget, admirably tight and well cast. Trevor Bardette played many old timers in TV Westerns (mostly bit roles in features), Les Tremayne makes for a superior newshound, lamenting that the biggest story he'll ever print is one that no one would want to believe, and unbilled parts for William Schallert as a bewildered weatherman, young Paul Petersen (THE DONNA REED SHOW) as the paperboy leading a bicycle crusade to speed evacuation, plus future star Troy Donahue as the workman ready to blow up the dam at the finale.
The Strangler (1964)
Seen twice on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1974
1963's "The Strangler" offers screen newcomer Victor Buono rare star billing in a low budget Allied Artists quickie designed to capitalize on the ongoing crimes of the Boston Strangler, who remained at large until after its release. Buono's only other leading roles were also genre efforts ("The Mad Butcher," "Moonchild"), but here he must carry everything on his mountainous shoulders as lab technician Leo Kroll, claiming his 8th victim to open the picture, obviously achieving an orgasmic thrill out of killing young women with their own stockings after first watching them disrobe, leaving each corpse at rest with eyes closed. What drives him is his inescapable fixation on his ailing mother (Ellen Corby), as clinging and demanding as Norman Bates' schizoid mother, alternately assuring her son that she's the only one who ever really loved him, then scolding him for thinking that any woman would go out with a young man who's both ugly and fat (ouch!). Kroll is supremely confident and virtually blase when dealing with the police, and like 1960's "The Hypnotic Eye" the scenes depicting our hard working law enforcement come off as entirely passionless and predictable, while Buono's forcefulness proves to make for a despicable yet fascinating villain. The strangler makes his first mistake when dispatching the nurse who saved his mother's life, using his bare hands in outright anger before throwing a doll against her bedroom wall, repeatedly and silently mouthing its one word message ('Mama') in committing the deed. We know early on about the killer's fixation on dolls as his unerring accuracy tossing rings at a funhouse booth earns him another doll as a prize on each visit (claiming that they go to his many nieces and nephews). He keeps these in a locked desk drawer in his apartment, carefully stripping them nude after each murder, even removing the stockings as he saw his victims do. Reluctantly paying another nightly call on his mother, he cannot resist spilling the beans about the sudden death of her 'vacationing' nurse, delightfully watching her expire from the shock before quietly walking out without a care in the world, convincingly feigning sorrow at the fateful phone call about her passing. Kroll next targets one of the female employees at the booth after she spoke to an inquiring police detective (strangled in the shower), making her coworker next on his short list unless she accepts his sudden proposal of marriage. Ellen Corby became so beloved as Granny Walton during the 70s that few people remembered her lengthy movie career as a nosy busybody, and in just two scenes shows us the depth of the strangler's frustration with her twisting him around her little finger, taking an almost equally perverse satisfaction in watching her die. A cultured gentleman of gargantuan talent, Victor Buono brings more to the table in overcoming the natural pitfalls inherent to a cheap cash-in inspired by real life tragedy, somewhat uncomfortable with the subject matter yet able to deliver a towering performance of genuine depth that even Anthony Perkins might just appreciate.
Village of the Giants (1965)
Instant camp classic from Mr. BIG, first seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1971
1965's "Village of the Giants" marked something of a 60s comeback for Mr. BIG, director Bert I. Gordon, in fact the only real sci fi effort he made between 1958's "Earth vs the Spider" and 1976's "The Food of the Gods," with crime dramas ("The Mad Bomber") and horror films ("Tortured," "Necromancy") in between. From a script by actor Alan Caillou (he later wrote William Shatner's 1977 "Kingdom of the Spiders"), it's a fantasy update of 'Rebel Without a Cause' with simple minded 'Beach Party' vibes, definitely a case where middle aged filmmakers trip themselves up trying to deliver something they think youngsters will like (Jon Hall did the same with "The Beach Girls and the Monster"). Joseph Levine's Embassy Pictures (later to morph into Avco Embassy) foots the bill for this rock and roll comedy, kicking things off with Jack Nitzsche's effective (though uncredited) surf rock instrumental theme "The Last Race," which segues into a smashed up car with 8 teenaged occupants displaying a raucous affinity for dancing and drinking beer, which is intended to be Gordon's idea of rebellion (they are instantly marked as the 'bad teens'). The octet is forced to walk three miles to reach the California town of Hainesville, where 'good teens' like Tommy Kirk ("Mars Needs Women") and Johnny Crawford (THE RIFLEMAN) basically do the same thing at the Whisky a Go Go, Toni Basil as Johnny's girl Red, Charla Doherty ("In the Year 2889") as Tommy's girl Nancy. Nancy's younger brother is pint sized chemist Genius (Ron Howard, taking time off from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW), and it is he who creates a colored foodstuff called 'Goo' that turns the eater into a giant: his cat is the first to ingest, quickly rushing out never to be seen again, before a dog, two ducks, and naturally a tarantula also grow to huge proportions (the spider is all too easily dispatched with a broken water pipe and instant electrocution). After the 'bad teens,' led by Beau Bridges as Fred, drop in for more dancing, they are soon joined by the ducks, who manage to shake a tail feather before winding up the main course. This features the only group hired for the picture, The Beau Brummels from San Francisco, twice belting out "Woman" as well as the slower "When It Comes to Your Love," one of the first bands to respond to the British Invasion by writing their own material. Later on as the villagers feast upon fowl we get Freddy Cannon ("Palisades Park") breaking out with "Little Bitty Corinne," then Mike Clifford ("Close to Cathy") supplying the ballad "Marianne," to dispense with all the musical numbers during the first half. The second half finds the 'bad teens' stealing the Goo for themselves, leaving their theater refuge to wail before a captive audience, Gordon's camera closely ogling the ample assets of both Joy Harmon and Tisha Sterling with undisguised, almost drooling delight, all in slow motion to emphasize their physical enormity (Joy famously comments on her natural endowments: "I was big enough before!"). These rebels despise the adults for lecturing them but just don't get up to anything truly nasty, wisely kidnapping the sheriff's daughter to keep the law at bay, but curiously passive when Tommy and Johnny set their plan in motion to take 'big man' Fred down a notch or two (Kirk even calls him Goliath, himself posing as David with slingshot wildly missing its target). Genius literally rides to the rescue on his trusty bicycle, a solution to restore the giants to normal size again (all but the missing tabby), and one final tasteless gag involving a group of 'little people' anxious to partake of the 'Goo.' Laughingly bad at times yet essentially harmless, this became an instant camp classic, especially with adolescent male viewers who learned of the phrase 'shake your booty' long before it turned into a hit song. 25 year old Joy Harmon's enchanting freckles and bountiful bosom were later immortalized in a silent bit casually washing a car in Paul Newman's "Cool Hand Luke," while 20 year old blonde bombshell Tisha Sterling, daughter of actors Robert Sterling and Ann Sothern, earned her share of kudos for her very first screen role (she proved a fine actress in her own right for four decades, even playing opposite her mother in 1987's "The Whales of August," with the immortal Vincent Price). Bert I. Gordon would return to giant creatures just twice more, "The Food of the Gods" in 1976, followed a year later by "Empire of the Ants," working again with Tisha Sterling on 1980's "Burned at the Stake."