June 30, 2019

They Did the Bash, They Did the Monster Bash...

For a relatively serious sci-fi/horror fan, I’ve attended a meager handful of conventions over the years. My very first was a comics convention in New York City in the early ‘70s. I was in high school, still not driving, and a good friend and I took a Greyhound bus (?!) on our own to the Big Apple. (I still can’t believe my parents let that happen. On second thought, I wasn’t the most pleasant teenager -- perhaps they were hoping I wouldn’t return...)

The comic artist “gods” Bernie Wrightson (Swamp Thing) and Jim Steranko (Nick Fury) were guests of honor. I was heavily into comics and science fiction at the time (even editing a short-lived fanzine), but I was most impressed with the movies they screened at the con. I remember being blown away by Hammer’s Five Million Years to Earth (aka Quatermass and the Pit, 1967) and Karel Zeman’s wonderful, visually striking fantasy film The Outrageous Baron Munchausen (1962; sadly, almost completely forgotten today).

This was a watershed moment for me, as I would gradually wander away from comics and literary science fiction to renew a deep and abiding love of movies. I was the prototypical monster kid of the 1960s, watching every creature feature I could possibly dial in on the old black and white TV, and worshipping at the Church of the Universal Monster.

Poster - House of the Gorgon (2019)
The ‘70s was a time for discovering Hammer’s glorious reenvisionings of the classic monsters, and of course, falling in love (as only a nerdy young fan can) with the likes of Caroline Munro, Veronica Carlson, and Martine Beswick.

Speaking of Hammer’s scream queens, I was intrigued by this year’s program at Creepy Classics’ Monster Bash (Mars, PA, June 21 - 23, 2019). I had seen ads for the conference in Filmfax over the years, and its focus on classic horror and sci-fi, along with fascinating guests of honor (e.g., Julie Adams of Creature from the Black Lagoon fame, who passed away last year), had me itching to attend. But geography and life’s usual busyness prevented me from making plans -- until now.

This year’s Bash brought together two famous Hammer actresses, Veronica Carlson (Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed) and Martine Beswick (One Million Years B.C., Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde), along with Dracula A.D. 1972 alum Christopher Neame to the U.S. premier of low-budget auteur Joshua Kennedy’s Hammer homage House of the Gorgon (2019).

Kennedy, who started making feature-length films in his teens, has been friends with all three and managed with luck and pluck to get them (along with Caroline Munro, who unfortunately was unable to attend) to appear in the film.

Veronica Carlson at Monster Bash 2019
The still glamorous Veronica Carlson at her Q&A.
The screening room was jam-packed for the premier on Saturday night. The organizers wisely arranged for a second showing the same night for late comers who weren’t able to squeeze in. Shot in a little over a week, House of the Gorgon is a deeply affectionate tribute to the inimitable Hammer style, with special emphasis on Hammer’s classic The Gorgon (1964) with Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Barbara Shelley.

House features not one but two Gorgon sisters, played with zest and sly humor by Munro and Beswick. Carlson, looking years younger than her age, plays the mother of a young woman (Georgina Dugdale) engaged to be married to the eccentric master of the house (Kennedy). Christopher Neame is also very effective as the glum, frightened village priest -- a character type that appeared numerous times in Hammer films.

While the digital photography and the variable acting among the less experienced cast members somewhat betray the film’s very low budget, it’s hard not to like such a meticulously and lovingly crafted tribute.

Martine Beswick at Monster Bash 2019
Martine Beswick receives flowers and applause.
The Gothic setting, the costumes, the formal, language, the ubiquitous tavern with baleful, superstitious locals, and of course the presence of the four Hammer veterans, had me smiling from the first frame.

Other horror film references, some subtle and some not-so-subtle, range from the paintings of past nefarious movie characters lining the mansion’s staircase, to the bust of veteran Hammer character actor Michael Ripper that turns up in the local tavern.

Aside from being a great tribute, the story holds up pretty well on its own. Kennedy also has a definite talent for setting up and lighting a very effective, atmospheric scene. One in particular, where the victim, taking a bath, sees her attacker upside down from her perspective and imbued with an otherworldly light, delivers an authentic shudder.

House of the Gorgon received a thunderous ovation from the appreciative audience, and I was rooted to the spot, almost as if I had been turned to stone, at the sight of the three Hammer legends on stage with their 20-something director.

Other Monster Bash Highlights:

In her Q&A, Beverly Washburn, veteran of innumerable films and TV shows (Star Trek OS, Boris Karloff’s Thriller, and cult favorite Spider Baby among them), talked about her experiences on the set of Spider Baby. She described Lon Chaney Jr. as a darling. It was well known by that time that he was an alcoholic, but his drinking never affected the production. She confirmed that his tears during the famous soliloquy were real and heart-felt.

Beverly Washburn at Monster Bash 2019
Beverly Washburn with conference organizer Ron Adams.

Author Frank Dello Stritto gave a very funny and engaging talk on the history of Universal’s last great monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Frank is the author of a new novel, Carl Denham’s Giant Monsters, which picks up on the monster hunter’s life after the events of King Kong. Riffing on that theme and with tongue firmly in cheek, he expounded on what happened to various characters from the Creature movies after their encounters with the Gillman, using stills from the actors’ subsequent films.

Still - Whit Bissell in I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957)
According to Dello Stritto, Dr. Thompson, the character played by
Whit Bissell in Creature from the Black Lagoon, never completely
recovered from the wounds he received from the Gillman. Here he's
seen with his twin brother (driving).

Film historian Greg Mank, author of the new biography Laird Cregar: A Hollywood Tragedy, gave a very moving talk on the hugely talented and haunted actor
who almost literally was killed by type-casting and mistreatment by his studio. A respected veteran of mostly costume dramas, in 1944 Cregar became notorious for his effective and menacing role as Jack the Ripper in The Lodger. Unfortunately, it immediately became evident that the studio would henceforth typecast him in Gothic monster roles. Cregar was a very large man, and in his desperation to slim down to a more “matinee idol” appearance, he went on a crash diet that eventually led to a heart attack and death at a very young age. Mank also told a fascinating story of he and his wife years ago trying to find Cregar’s grave at Hollywood’s Forest Lawn cemetery, with a series of misadventures leading them to half-believe Cregar’s spirit was playing tricks on them.

At 89 years of age, Ricou Browning is the last living classic Universal monster, having portrayed the Gillman in the underwater scenes in all three Creature movies. In his Q&A he addressed the recent controversy over a new book, The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick, which asserts that Patrick was instrumental in creating the Creature costume, but was shunted aside and not given credit by Hollywood’s male patriarchy. Ricou asserted that during production of the first Creature film, he only saw Patrick twice, and only briefly each time. She appeared and watched for a short time while he was being fitted for the suit in Hollywood. Then on location, she put some finishing touches on the suit before Browning got in the water. Jack Kevan and Chris Mueller have been traditionally cited as the designers of the Creature suit.

Ricou Browning at Monster Bash 2019
Ricou Browning at the Q&A with his daughter (left) and
author Tom Weaver (far right).

For more information on future Monster Bashes and related events
, see the conference news page.

June 10, 2019

The Rad, Mad Art of the B-movie Poster

Movie posters have a lot of hard work to do: they have to catch the wandering eye, instantly convey something intriguing about the film to the potential movie goer, and accomplish all this with static 2D images and text in fixed dimensions.

Occasionally in the pursuit of mundane commerce, movie posters accomplish something else -- they become art. Sometimes, very valuable art. In 2017, a rare version of a poster for Bela Lugosi’s 1931 Dracula fetched a record $525,800 at auction. Interestingly, 2 out of the 3 previous record holders were horror movie posters, including Lon Chaney’s lost film London After Midnight (1927; $478,000) and Boris Karloff’s The Mummy (1932; $453,000).

Which makes sense, as the best horror movies, springing as the do from enduring fables and folklore, stand the test of time much better than conventional dramas that reflect ever-changing social mores and fads. Like the movies themselves, the posters are still in high demand decades after they were issued.

I’m not a collector of physical posters (thankfully, or I might not have been able to retire when I did), but I look up poster images all the time for the blog. The ones below are some of my very favorite finds, posters (actually, half sheets) that, for me, approach the ideal intersection of commerce and art. (Or, if you think calling these posters art is too much of a stretch, think of it as design and technique that grabs your eyeballs and won’t let go…)

Without further ado, here is the first installment, in alphabetical order, of the Films From Beyond B-movie half-sheet Hall of Fame. (Click on an image to enlarge.)

Poster - 13 Ghosts (1960)
In William Castle's 13 Ghosts (1960), it's hard to keep track of all
the specters without a scorecard. I like the "Ghost-viewer" inset,
which advertises the special "Illusion-O" viewer that theater
audiences received. Looking through the red filter enhanced
the ghostly images, while the blue filter faded them out.

Poster - Attack of the Puppet People (1958)
This striking poster is distinguished by the heightened realism of the
ferocious dog and the counter-action of the puppet people. (1958)

Poster - The Brain Eaters (1958)
I haven't seen this movie in many years, but my guess is that nothing
like this appeared in it. Is the unfortunate woman a victim,
a monster, or both? Pretty grisly stuff for the '50s. (1958)

Poster - Donovan's Brain (1953)
This is brutal in its simplicity. Look away, lest you too
be driven to madness... and muuurrrrderrr! (1953)

Poster - It Came From Outer Space (1953)
I like this for a couple of things: the mix of light and shadow makes the
characters in the main part of the poster "pop" like a 3D image; and the
insets at the bottom depicting movie highlights are themselves mini 3D
screens with the action spilling out into the audience. (1953)

Poster - The Lair of the White Worm (1988)
The archaic mosaic snake overlaid on the photo-realistic monster
woman nicely captures the film's theme of modern characters
menaced by ancient evil. (1988)

Poster - The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Prince Prospero's face made up of writhing figures straight out
of Dante's Inferno is enough to make your skin crawl! (1964)

Monster on the Campus (1958)
The hideous hairy horror looms over a pair of terrified college students as
sensational headlines splash against a blood-red sky. Great stuff! (1958)

Poster - The Mummy (1959)
I love how the constable's flashlight beam pierces right through
the shambling mummy's bandages. Plus, it features cartoon
film highlights on the right edge. (1959)

Poster - Not of This Earth (1957)
The photo-realistic depiction of abject fear juxtaposed with a
cartoonish alien creature makes for a very arresting and
memorable image. (1957)

Poster - World Without End (1956)
This is one of the craziest posters from the '50s, with its combination
of abstract imagery and traditional art depicting film highlights.
What is that colossal cubist figure doing shoving a clock the size
of the earth at a needle-nosed spaceship? Who knows? (1956)

May 28, 2019

She Blinded Me with Science: Women Scientists and Doctors in ‘50s Sci-fi Films

We don’t normally think of the 1950s as a time of women’s empowerment. After World War II, Rosie the Riveter was given her pink slip and told to go home and have babies. Popular magazines were full of advice to single women on catching a man -- a 1958 McCall’s article, “129 Ways to Get a Husband,” suggested, among other things, reading obituaries to find eligible widowers or having your car break down in “strategic places.” (!!)

Rosie the Riveter
"Thanks for all your help Rosie. Go ahead and
clock out -- your last check is in the mail."
On TV, it was a time of Father Knows Best and the saintly stay-at-home mom exemplified by June in Leave It to Beaver. In the movies, working women were often depicted as lost souls to be pitied rather than strong role models to be emulated. Across the popular culture landscape, motherhood was extolled as a woman’s greatest fulfillment.

An interesting exception to the rule was the B sci-fi movie. Capable, courageous female scientists and doctors popped up time and again to help battle giant radioactive monsters or menaces from outer space.

Undoubtedly, the presence of women in lead roles added a romantic angle that had potential appeal for adult audiences. The women spent almost as much time fending off the awkward advances of their male colleagues as battling monsters (more on that below).

Perhaps too, their presence was a subtle acknowledgement that while men got us into this atom age radioactive mess, women were needed to help get us out of it. Whatever the motives, conscious or unconscious, these unassuming films went against the cultural grain and set the stage for the normalization of women’s achievement outside of home and family.

The following list of profiles in B movie courage only scratches the surface of strong female characters in ‘50s sci-fi. This time around I’ve limited it to women scientists and doctors with key roles -- even at that, it’s a selective list. Not included are the pioneering female astronauts, or, for that matter, the “ordinary” single women, wives and mothers who faced extraordinary sci-fi threats. I’ll take those up in future posts.

Along with each character’s resume and screen accomplishments, I’ve included a “cringe moment.” This was the ‘50s after all, and being subjected to chauvinistic acts and comments was the price women paid for inclusion in the monster fighters’ club. These vignettes serve to illustrate how far we’ve come, at least as far as the depiction of “normal” male-female relations in popular culture is concerned.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
Name: Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond)

Paul Hubschmid and Paula Raymond in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
"Hey mister, I've got a bone to pick with you!"
Resume: Hunter is an assistant to Prof. Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway), world-renowned paleontologist, and an accomplished scientist in her own right.

Biggest screen moment: Nuclear scientist Tom Nesbitt (Paul Hubschmid) approaches Elson and Hunter with a wild story of seeing a huge prehistoric creature unleashed by a polar atomic test. Elson is completely dismissive, but Lee keeps an open mind, showing Nesbitt illustrations of dinosaurs to try to identify what he saw. After a fishing trawler is capsized by what witnesses insist was a sea serpent, Lee suggests they show the set of pictures to one of the survivors in a sort of creature line-up. When the sailor picks the same dinosaur as Nesbitt, Elson becomes convinced, and they arrange an expedition to track down the monster.

Biggest cringe moment: When Nesbitt and Hunter are alone discussing what he might have seen, he awkwardly tries to flirt with her:
  “Funny, a girl like you, a paleontologist…”
  “What’s wrong with paleontology?”
  “Classifying old bones…”
  “Old bones? If we didn’t study the past, you wouldn’t know anything about the atom. Dr. Elson says the future is a reflection of the past…”

Additional notes: After her role in Beast, Paula dived into TV, guesting on dozens of shows, including One Step Beyond, Perry Mason and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  She also appeared in two of the more obscure B sci-fi films of the ‘60s, The Flight that Disappeared (1961), and Hand of Death (1962; with John Agar).

Them! (1954)
Name: Dr. Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon)

Resume: Along with her father, Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn), Pat is part of a scientific team sent by the Dept. of Agriculture to help the authorities in New Mexico investigate a series of mysterious deaths in the desert near the White Sands atomic test area.

Joan Weldon in Them! (1954)
"I told them it was a bad idea to have a picnic
out here in the middle of nowhere!"
Biggest screen moment: When they find the underground nest of giant ants, special agent Robert Graham (James Arness) and State Trooper Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) launch phosphorus grenades at the nest to drive them underground, and then lob poison gas canisters after them. To make sure all the ants are dead, someone has to rappel down into the nest to check. Pat insists on going with them. When Graham states emphatically that “it’s no place for you or any other woman,” she is equally emphatic:
  “Look Bob, there’s no time to give you a fast course on insect pathology, so let’s stop all the talk and get on with it!”
  Her presence is indeed crucial, as she discovers that two young queen ants hatched and flew away before the nest was bombed. If they're not found and dealt with, it could be the beginning of the end for humanity.

Biggest cringe moment: Arriving in New Mexico on a military transport plane, Pat’s dress gets caught as she climbs down the ladder from the cockpit, revealing some leg. Standing on the tarmac, Graham and Peterson are ogling her.
  Peterson: “She’s some doctor, huh?”
  Graham: “Yeah, if she’s the kind that takes care of sick people, I think I’ll get a fever real quick.”

Additional notes: After Them!, Joan (who is still alive as of this post), acted in only a relative handful of movies and TV shows before retiring in the late ‘50s.

It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)
Name: Prof. Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue)

Faith Domergue and Kenneth Tobey in It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)
Prof. Joyce inspects the lab equipment as Pete makes his move.
Resume: Joyce is the head of the marine biology dept. at The Southeastern Institute of Oceanography, and in the words of her screen colleague, Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis), the “outstanding authority on marine biology” in the country.

Biggest screen moment: Joyce and Carter are brought in by the Navy to examine a huge piece of irradiated tissue that was caught on the fins of an atomic sub during a mysterious encounter in the middle of the Pacific ocean. After extensive examination, the team concludes that it came from an octopus, but one so huge as to be beyond belief. Their theory is borne out as ships begin disappearing and a man on a beach is crushed by some enigmatic thing. After there is no doubt about the threat from the colossal octopus, Joyce, Carter and Cmdr. Pete Matthews (Kenneth Tobey) head up a task force to deal with the threat. When depth charges fail to kill the beast, it emerges from the depths to wrap its tentacles around the Golden Gate Bridge. In the situation room, Joyce calmly and authoritatively tells a Navy Captain to go to red alert.

Biggest cringe moment: Earlier, when the scientists are still trying to determine the source of the tissue, Matthews corners Joyce in the lab. She responds by egging him on:
  “When you’re driving that atomic submarine of yours, do you have much time for romance?”
  “Even if I did have the time, where would I find the opportunity? You know, women aren’t allowed aboard a submarine.”
  “Poor boy, I thought the Navy was equipped for every contingency…”

Additional notes: In addition to It Came from Beneath the Sea, Faith starred in 3 other sci-fi movies released in 1955: Cult of the Cobra, The Atomic Man, and most memorably, This Island Earth (in which she also played a scientist).

From Hell It Came (1957)
Name: Dr. Terry Mason (Tina Carver)

John McNamara and Tina Carver in From Hell It Came (1957)
"Hmmm, I can't tell for sure, but I think part of the
problem is that knife sticking out of its chest."
Resume: Mason (no relation to Perry) is a member of a medical team sent by the “International Foundation” to a group of South Seas islands to investigate health hazards caused by atomic testing, and to treat the sick natives.

Biggest screen moment: With the help of colleagues Dr. William Arnold (Tod Andrews) and Prof. Clark (John McNamara), Mason digs up an unearthly, weirdly human-looking tree that has suddenly sprouted near their encampment. The natives warn them that it is the dreaded Tabanga, which has grown from the body of a young native man unjustly accused of murdering his own father, and executed by authority of the local witch doctor. A ceremonial knife is buried in the monster where its heart should be.
  Back at the lab, Terry finds the monster has a pulse, but it’s weakening. Disregarding Arnold’s suggestion to let it die, she makes an executive decision to stimulate its heart (?) with an experimental serum of her own making -- a decision she will soon regret.

Biggest cringe moment: Arnold is mad about the good doctor Mason, and wants to make her his wife and take her back to civilization. He pleads with her:
  “Terry, will you stop being a doctor first and a woman second? Let your emotions rule you, not your intellect.”
  “Bill, I live by my intellect and my reason. If I let my emotions run away, I wouldn’t be any good in my work.”
  Undeterred, Bill embraces her and they kiss. He asks her if she loves him.
  “I don’t love you.”
  “Then why did you kiss me back?”
  “I don’t know, my metabolism… it’s unconscious, involuntary…”

Additional notes: The same year as From Hell It Came was released, Tina also appeared in The Man Who Turned to Stone, about a group of scientists who stay young by draining the life out of unsuspecting women.

The Giant Claw (1957)
Name: Dr. Sally Caldwell (Mara Corday)

Mara Corday and Jeff Morrow in The Giant Claw (1957)
Sally and Mitch go alien bird hunting.
Resume: Caldwell is a mathematician and systems analyst who, at the beginning of the movie, is working with electronics engineer and test pilot Mitch MacAfee (Jeff Morrow) to calibrate new polar-based military radar systems and detect blind spots.

Biggest screen moment: When Mitch sees a UFO “as big as a battleship” shoot past his plane, no one believes him because the thing didn’t show up on radar. However, as more planes start crashing and reports come flooding in, it’s apparent that something big and dangerous is cruising the skies over North America.
  Sally comes up with an idea to check photographs from weather balloons, and sure enough, a huge, buzzard-like bird shows up in a batch. After analyzing one of the monster's feathers found in the wreckage of a plane, physicist Karol Noymann (Edgar Barrier) concludes that the creature is from another galaxy, and has an anti-matter shield around it that makes it impervious to all weapons. (!!)
  Caldwell uses her math expertise to help figure out a way to negate the shield. But her biggest “bad ass” moment comes when she and MacAfee discover the alien bird’s nest in a remote part of French Canada. There’s an egg in the nest, and they have to destroy it before another space buzzard hatches to terrorize the world. She picks up a rifle and aims. When MacAfee gives her a quizzical side-glance, she says matter-of-factly, “I’m from Montana…”

Biggest cringe moment: After they both survive a mid-air collision with the Giant Claw, MacAfee and Caldwell are called back to Washington. On the red-eye flight back east, MacAfee suddenly leans over and kisses her as she’s trying to get some shuteye. Caldwell is unusually composed:
  Caldwell: “Where did that come from?”
  MacAfee: “Left field maybe.”
  Caldwell: “I like baseball… Speaking of baseball and left field, somebody warned me you made up your own rules.”
  MacAfee: “Whoever said that is no friend of mine.”
  Caldwell: “But he’s a friend of mine.”

Additional notes: Mara Corday’s other sci-fi role in 1957 was in The Black Scorpion. She teamed up with Richard Denning, playing an American geologist, to battle giant scorpions freed from their underground lair by a series of earthquakes.