May 16, 2020

When Genre Worlds Collide: Crooks vs. Creatures, Part Two

Poster - The Astounding She-Monster (1957)
Now Playing: The Astounding She-Monster (1957)

Pros: The whole crazy concept of the She-Monster (if you’re a fan of bad movies); there’s some fun banter between the kidnappers.
Cons: The whole crazy concept (if you’re not a fan); the action scenes are repetitive and dull.

Remote places in the countryside have been such a staple of horror movies over the years that urban settings seem almost as rare and out-of-place as RuPaul at an Amish barn-raising. More specifically, the venerable Cabin in the Woods has appeared so often that it inevitably became both the setting and the star of its own meta-horror film that hilariously lampooned several decades worth of the subgenre.

While ostensibly representing rugged self-sufficiency and a sanctuary from the rat race, the remote cabin is the perfect place for the movie monster to ply his or her trade. Potential victims are cut-off from easy communication with or access to the outside world, including police and medical care. And once the monster gets them trapped inside, the cramped quarters combined with high anxiety can get the victims fighting among themselves and make them even easier to pick off.

In The Astounding She-Monster, the titular creature has her victims nicely trapped in a remote mountain cabin, but this being a late-50s B movie, instead of being a psycho or an in-bred mutant hillbilly, she is a sci-fi menace from outer space. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on your affinity for bad movies), the She-Monster is an astoundingly odd duck.

The creature (portrayed by Shirley Kilpatrick) is like an antimatter version of Vampira with thick, pointed eyebrows that make a dramatic V on her face, but instead of a black Gothic outfit, she wears a shimmery bodysuit that hugs her like a second skin. She’s almost as slow as Universal’s mummy, carefully putting one foot in front of the other as if she’s making her way through broken glass. She’s also mute like the mummy, and has about as much personality.

Composite stills - Maila Nurmi as Vampire and Shirley Kilpatrick as the She-Monster
Separated at birth, one chose the path of darkness, the other, the path of spandex bodysuits.

To add to the strangeness, the movie employs a double-exposure process in the She-Monster’s scenes to simulate a sort of radioactive glow, but the wavering, undulating effect reminds me more of trying to look at someone through the haze of an all-night drinking binge (not that I know about such things first hand, but I’ve heard stories).

Lastly, her touch means instant death, but owing to the production’s cheapness and its amateurish direction, this “feature” isn’t nearly as dramatic or suspenseful as it could be. Several characters (and unfortunately two animals) get the She-Monster’s fatal touch, but their deaths have all the impact of a joy-buzzer handshake: the touch, a short, muffled scream, and bam, they’re done.

The She-Monster rambles around in a plot made super-simple by the exigencies of producer-director Ronald V. Ashcroft’s super-low budget and super-fast shooting schedule. A trio of kidnappers led by gruff, hard-boiled Nat (Kenne Duncan) nab wealthy socialite Margaret Chaffee (Marilyn Harvey) in broad daylight. On their way to a hideout in the San Gabriel mountains, the driver Brad (Ewing Brown) swerves to avoid a bizarre, shimmering figure in the road and wrecks the car.

In the meantime, lonesome geologist Dick Cutler (Robert Clarke) is talking to his dog Egan (played by Egan, Clarke’s stepsons’ dog) about the apparent meteor he saw crashing nearby, and what an opportunity it would be to find pieces of it. He gets a nasty surprise when Nat barges into the mountain cabin, demanding the keys to Dick’s decrepit jeep to make their getaway.

Unfortunately for the crooks, night has fallen, and the jeep’s headlights are broken. Dick warns Nat that the road back to the highway is treacherous, and they’ll never make it without lights. Of course, we know that the meteor was no meteor, the weird lady on the road was no lady, and before the night is over, they’re going to get an unwanted visitor, and it won’t be Avon calling.

Still - Close-up of Shirley Kilpatrick as The She-Monster (1957)
"Hello, are you the lady of the house? I'm wondering, have you had a
chance to sample our fine line of beauty products?"

Actually, the kidnappers barging into Dick’s humble abode is the liveliest part of the movie (that’s not saying a lot), with the crooks barking sarcastic zingers at one another and at the hapless geologist. Nat is especially fond of hard-boiled one-liners. When he first pushes his way in and Dick demands to know what he wants, Nat sneers contemptuously, “Well pardon me, I’ll write you for an invitation next time.” Moments later, when he learns that the jeep’s lights don’t work, he tells Dick, “Don’t worry my partner will fix ‘em, he did post-graduate work at San Quentin.”

Nat’s alcoholic girlfriend Esther (Jeanne Tatum) is also along for the ride, and together with her caustic boyfriend and nervous Brad, they bicker and jab at each other like they're auditioning for a boozy, noir version of I Love Lucy. Later, when the She-Monster shows up outside the cabin and Brad and Nat leave one after the other to investigate, Esther gets her turn in the spotlight.

Esther, alone in the cabin and with a gun trained on the captives, drains the last bottle of booze and then asks Dick if there’s any more. Realizing they have a slim opportunity, Dick and Margaret start playing mind games with the soused moll. First Dick offers to fetch a bottle from the bedroom, then Margaret, then the two suggest that Esther get it herself. When the phone rings, Dick tells her that it’s probably his friend the fire warden, and if he doesn’t pick up, the warden will think something’s wrong. The flummoxed Esther mutters to herself, “If I had a drink I could think better…”

Still - Robert Clarke, Jeanne Tatum and Kenne Duncan in The Astounding She-Monster
Esther examines the bottom of her bottle as Dick and Nat discuss options.

At least Esther’s scene has a little pathos going for it. By contrast, there’s no pathos and little suspense in the action scenes with the She-Monster. Characters dutifully tromp out into the woods at night, shoot their guns, try to avoid the death-touch, get spooked and retreat to the cabin -- and do this more than once. Viewer patience is mightily tested, as the scenes are flat and amateurishly directed. The biggest problem is the She-Monster, who is mute and expressionless throughout, and about as scary as a mime-in-training.

The scenes featuring the kidnappers and the captives without the She-Monster are interesting enough, and the dialog snappy enough, that one wonders if producer/director Ronald Ashcroft and writer Frank Hall would’ve been better off doing a straight crime flick.

But this being 1957, with distributors crying out for more atomic mutants and assorted space-age threats to feed into the voracious maw of the teen market, straight crime would not have been nearly as easy a sell. So, in addition to a deadly, radioactive space-babe, Ashcroft and Hall dressed up their bargain basement crime thriller with a pre-titles tour of outer space complete with a portentous narrator to get the ball rolling, and a “Day the Earth Stood Still”-type message to wrap things up.

Still - Marilyn Harvey and Robert Clarke in The Astounding She-Monster (1957)
"Hurry Margaret, we're going to miss The Andy Griffith Show!"

In Robert Clarke’s memoir To “B” or Not to “B”: A Film Actor’s Odyssey (with Tom Weaver, Midnight Marquee Press, 1996), the actor related a couple of amusing examples of how the cheap production prompted some “creative” improvisation:
“To give [the She-Monster Shirley Kilpatrick] an unearthly appearance Ronnie [Ashcroft] also gave her pointed eyebrows and he focused a bright light on her in the outdoor scenes so that she would look like she was glowing with radioactivity. … Mostly it was the tight, shiny suit that gave her the look of a weird yet appealing kind of alien -- but the first time she moved in the doggone thing, it split right up the back. The outfit was so skin-tight that there was no way to properly repair it, and so what they did was use safety pins to hold it together in the back. That’s why, in the movie, she never leaves a scene in any way other than backing away from the camera -- it added to the weirdness of the character, but the real reason she did that, if she turned around, she’d be showing the camera her backside!

  One of the big ‘scare’ scenes in the picture was going to be a shot of the She-Monster unexpectedly crashing through a window and into the geologist’s cabin. A candy-glass window and frame were made at a cost of one or two hundred dollars, which is a big outlay for a single prop when you’re working on the sort of budget Ronnie was. But as some of the guys were trying to get the thing into position, they dropped and broke it. … Ronnie very resourcefully had them put some of the bigger fragments back into the frame of the window and then had Shirley jump through. Later, when he edited the film, he cut that shot in such a way that it actually worked pretty well.” [pp. 174-5]
Still - The Astounding She-Monster confronts the earthlings (1957)
"Dagnabbit! Somebody's paying for that window!"

In spite of a bottom-of-the-barrel monster held together with safety pins, there seems to have been little doubt that Ashcroft would sell the thing for distribution. Clarke again:
“Ronnie decided to offer the picture to AIP [American International Pictures} for distribution, and he showed it to Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff at Nicholson’s house. After the movie was over, the three of them were in the projection room and Nicholson was rewinding the film. Arkoff, puffing on his trademark cigar, made the offer.

  ‘Well Ron, I’d like to buy it,' Arkoff told Ronnie through a cloud of blue smoke. ‘You know, you’re going to tell me that you’ve got $50,000 into this, but I know you’ve only got 40 so we’ll give you 60.’

  Ronnie grinned and told him, ‘You’ve just bought a picture.’

  … What Arkoff didn’t know was that the cost of Astounding She-Monster -- which Ronnie had originally projected at around $50,000 -- had come to just $18,000.” [p. 176]
Clarke was sufficiently impressed with the financial return on Ashcroft’s shabby She-Monster that he decided he would produce his own, higher quality independent creature feature, and The Hideous Sun Demon (1958) was born (see my review here).

Still - Shirley Kilpatrick at the climax of The Astounding She-Monster (1957)
"Oh crap, I split the seat of my bodysuit again!"

I doubt that Ronnie Ashcroft could ever have guessed, even in his wildest dreams, that the picture would be remembered beyond a single drive-in season, much less be touted over 60 years later as a “schlock classic,” with a long list of TV broadcasts and home video releases on its resume.

Even though it exudes cheapness from every pore, She-Monster at least tries to do something different by pitting wisecracking gangsters against one of the more oddball alien menaces of the era. If you haven’t seen it, it might be worth a look if only for curiosity’s sake (and it’s only a little over an hour long.)

Where to find it: The She-Monster is streaming on demand right here.

May 1, 2020

When Genre Worlds Collide: Crooks vs. Creatures, Part One

Poster - Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)
Now Playing: Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)

Pros: The mash-up of crime-thriller, sci-fi and horror genres works surprisingly well; A couple of the actors shine with the snappy, noirish dialog; The creature concept is unique and eerie.
Cons: The crooks’ “brilliant” heist seems particularly looney; Makes you wonder what might have been if the budget had been a tad bigger.

When I first saw From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), I remember thinking how clever it was of the filmmakers to get things all revved up with what looked like a hard-charging crime-action-thriller, then, like a crazy cab ride in Hell, take a hard turn down a dark and bloody horror detour. If you don’t like getting whiplash from colliding genres, then you probably don’t seek out movies like that in the first place. However, enough people were intrigued rather than annoyed by the bait-and-switch that the film did decent box office and went on to become a legitimate cult favorite. And of course, director Robert Rodriquez and screenwriter (and actor) Quentin Tarantino would become kings of genre filmmaking.

Kings usually owe their positions to their forebears, and Rodriquez and Tarantino are no different. Tarantino in particular is an unashamed B/exploitation flick nerd-geek, and has made a wildly successful living mining vintage sleaze for films that, love ‘em or not, are like nothing else coming out of Hollywood. As he famously said in a 1994 interview, “I steal from every movie ever made… Great artists steal, they don’t do homages.” Ironically, Tarantino’s stealing from earlier film eras makes his films seem wildly original compared to the endless stream of remakes, reboots and CGI-infused comic book movies the industry spews out. 

Still - George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino, From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
"It's okay George, your career is going to be fine after this.
Just take the money and buy something nice for yourself."
I doubt that Beast from Haunted Cave (1959) was a direct influence on Tarantino, but who knows? Beast certainly shares a good bit of celluloid DNA with From Dusk Till Dawn: a criminal gang escapes into the remote countryside after a big heist, only to jump from the frying pan into the fire as they encounter a horrific, bloodthirsty creature that wreaks the ultimate Karmic justice.

I know I sound like a broken record, but Beast from Haunted Cave is yet another creature feature that had a big impact on me when I was a kid. I first encountered Beast at the bowling alley, of all places, when I was about 10 years old. My parents bowled in a Friday night league, and instead of getting a babysitter they often took me along.

That was okay by me, because the bowling alley had a lounge with a TV. The lounge was usually empty, so it became my TV den away from home. Better yet, there was a creature feature show that aired on Friday nights, so I was in heaven with the movie and a soda and candy from the machine.

The Friday night show specialized in ‘50s and ‘60s sci-fi like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Killers from Space, and the early Roger Corman cheapies. I remember being excited on one of those bowling league nights about seeing Beast from Haunted Cave for the first time. But the excitement dissipated when it started out looking like some boring crime caper, with jaded adults snarling and shouting and roughing each other up.

CAUTION: SPOILERS HIDING IN THE SHADOWS AHEAD, WAITING TO JUMP OUT AT YOU!

Photo - rental bowling shoes
Even more frightening than the Beast from Haunted Cave:
shoes you share with hundreds of other people!
I managed to stick with it long enough to get a jolt. It was a scene in which a character investigates weird cries in the night, and shines his flashlight on a gaunt, spectral-looking woman, half-conscious, who is wrapped in a huge web and suspended in a tree.

That got my attention. I remember checking in a lot with my parents the rest of the evening, which was not my usual practice, and I slept pretty fitfully that night. Like any resilient Monster Kid, the next time Beast aired I made sure to catch it, determined to see it all the way through. I enjoyed it well enough, making allowances for the boring crime caper parts, but I also remember ultimately being disappointed with the monster, which seemed spindly and slow and not very scary.

But man, it was the monster’s work that was the scary part. I’d not seen anything quite like it up to that point: humans pinned against trees or cave walls by giant webs, weakly crying for help as the thing lumbers toward them.

I didn’t have a word for it back then, but having recently watched Beast again, “uncanny” fits nicely. It’s the kind of feeling that some phobic people get when they just think about big, fat spiders (not to mention human-sized ones). It’s also on par with the dread generated by the shock ending of the original The Fly (but done with a fraction of that film’s budget).

Still - Beast from Haunted Case (1959) claims another victim
It suddenly dawned on Natalie that she had forgotten to get bug spray at the store.

Experiencing it again with adult sensibilities, I have a better appreciation for the “boring” heist sequences. Like Rodriquez’s and Tarantino’s hybrid horror-thriller, the juxtaposition of gangsters with a whole ‘nother level of otherworldly evil serves to sharpen the suspense, keeps the viewer guessing, and even draws a little extra humanity out of criminal characters that might otherwise be all-too-familiar cardboard cutouts.

Beast’s odd coupling of genres was apparently born more out of economical improvisation than artistic inspiration. Always looking to shoot pictures as quickly and cheaply as possible and tired of their usual locations in southern California, producers Roger Corman and brother Gene arranged with the town of Deadwood, South Dakota, for some picturesque winter location shooting. To get the most for their travel money, they planned to shoot two pictures there back-to-back using the same cast and crew: Beast, a horror quickie, and Ski Troop Attack, a lower-than-low-budget war picture.

Even the story was recycled. Roger’s go-to screenwriter Charles B. Griffith dusted off an old script from an earlier gangster/heist potboiler (Naked Paradise, 1957), added a monster, and bam, they were good to go. (Griffith scripted the best known of Roger Corman’s early cult favorites, including Not of This Earth, Attack of the Crab Monsters, A Bucket of Blood, and The Little Shop of Horrors.)

At the core of Griffith’s recycled plot is a tension-filled love triangle that develops when a gang pulls off a heist and enlists an innocent, unsuspecting third party to help them make their escape. In Naked Paradise (with its tropical island setting), the dupe is a for-hire boat captain (played by Richard Denning). In Beast, the gang hires lodge owner and outdoorsman Gil Jackson (Michael Forest) to lead them in a cross-country ski trek to a cabin where, unbeknownst to Gil, they plan to be picked up by a bush plane.

Naturally, complications ensue for the gang. First, when they set off an explosion in a nearby mine to divert attention while they clean out the mining company's stash of gold bars, the blast awakens a prehistoric monster that is royally pissed that its lair has been blown up. The creature proceeds to stalk the gang as they take off for the remote cabin. (To add insult to injury, the criminal geniuses don’t seem to have considered how hard it is to lug heavy gold bars cross-country on skis, or how quickly the weather can change in South Dakota hill country.)

Still - Heist scene in Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)
"So Marty, how many bars have you got? No, not on your phone you idiot!"

Second, the gang leader’s moll, Gypsy (Sheila Noonan), becomes mightily disillusioned with her vicious, self-absorbed boyfriend (Frank Wolff) as she falls for the hunky, free-spirited Gil. Both complications eventually converge to create the perfect storm at the film’s conclusion.

It’s tempting to say there’s something for everyone in Beast -- snappy, noirish dialog and a tense love triangle for the adults, and a blood-sucking humanoid spider-fly creature for the kids. Conversely, there’s plenty for either audience segment to be bored with. The latter seems to have been the prevailing reaction, as, in spite of its wide release on DVD and streaming platforms, Beast has never been a nostalgic favorite like Attack of the Crab Monsters or Little Shop of Horrors.

Re-visiting Beast after a couple of decades or more, it occurred to me that, absent the monster, this could have been a decent little low-budget noir. Certainly screenwriter Griffith had an ear for Chandleresque dialog. Take for example this exchange between Gypsy and Alexander at the lodge’s tavern:
Gypsy (commenting on the other bar patrons): "Look at all the happy little people enjoying their freedom. Dosey doe and round we go."
Alexander (looking peeved): "What kind of freedom is that? They’re all tied down to their petty futures."
Gypsy: "It might be nice to have a future, even a petty little one."
When he’s not being vicious and controlling, we see flashes of what attracted Gypsy to Alexander. He knows what he wants, wears cool shades indoors, and his cynicism could easily be confused with sophistication by naive young women.

Still - Frank Wolff and Sheila Noonan in Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)
Alexander smokes, drinks and wears his sunglasses at night.

But once Gypsy has gotten a taste of Gil’s life of the great outdoors, fresh air, and true freedom to do as you please, Alexander’s constricted, bitter life of never being satisfied, endlessly moving around and endlessly planning the next big job, looks a lot less attractive.

Rather than undercutting Gypsy’s poignant story, the addition of the beast punctuates it. Gil’s great outdoors contains more things than are dreamt of in a gangster’s philosophy, including weird bloodsucking monsters that get coughed up from the bowels of the earth by ill-considered explosive charges. Next to such ancient evil, Alexander looks petty and small. It’s fitting that, while the local authorities are apparently powerless to apprehend the crooks, Nature is there to step in and deliver ultimate justice.

If you’re willing to keep an open mind and not judge it by contemporary special effects standards (and if you’re reading this, you’re no doubt very open minded), then the beast does have some effectively eerie moments delivering Nature’s justice (and admittedly, a few that don’t work so well). It certainly is unlike anything else in sci-fi/horror before or since.

In his epic survey of American sci-fi films of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Keep Watching the Skies! (McFarland, 1986), Bill Warren recounts how the Beast was born:
“[T]he beast, which he [actor and special effects artist Chris Robinson] called ‘Humphrass,’ … was seven feet tall with eleven-foot arms. He based the design on that of an insect he discovered in a book on unusual animals, the wingless hanging fly. ‘To one plywood base, I added a thin aluminum stripping to create the skeletal form. I then covered the skeleton over with chicken wire. After that I wrapped it in sheets and muslin, sort of like I was making a mummy. … The head was fashioned out of quarter-inch aluminum wire, with steel wrapped around that and then once again in muslin, forming a sort of shroud…’ Robinson completed Humphrass by adding spun glass to give it an appropriately cobwebby appearance.” [Warren, p. 233]
While Warren acknowledges that the beast is “not realistic,” he does call it “eerie and unusual” and singles out the scene that had such an impact on me as a kid:
“The film, in fact, has one great shudder scene, the shot of Natalie, encased in webbing, opening her eyes. Our first glimpse of her has a peculiar impact; it’s so unexpected that you have a hard time adjusting to what you are seeing. And the image is beautiful. About the time you recognize it as a corpse caught in the branches, the ‘corpse’ opens her eyes. It’s an imaginative, almost poetic moment, at once both conventional and unusual, like the film itself.” [Ibid., p. 234]
Still - Linné Ahlstrand as the Beast from Haunted Cave's first victim (1959)
This beautiful, poetic moment scared the crap out of me when I was a kid.

Getting back to the human characters, Sheila Noonan (credited in the film as Sheila Carol), is especially good as Gypsy, whose character, fittingly for her name, has been wandering around for too long in the criminal underworld, clinging to a sociopath incapable of love. Surprisingly, Noonan only appeared in a handful of films -- Beast, Ski Troop AttackA Bucket of Blood (with the inimitable Dick Miller), The Incredible Petrified World (a stinker with John Carradine) -- and a single episode of Gunsmoke; all between 1957 and 1960.

Michael Forest as Gil is as wooden as a tree (pun intended), but then, as a buff icon representing clean living and the complete antithesis of Alexander’s urban decadence, nothing more is really required of him. In contrast to Noonan’s brief career, Forest, born in 1929, is still acting today (!!), with literally hundreds of credits and a new film slated for this year. Fans of vintage sci-fi TV may remember his stints on the original Outer Limits, Twilight Zone, and Star Trek series.

The third member of the triangle, Frank Wolff as Alexander the gang leader, brings just enough cynical humanity to the role to make it conceivable that Gypsy might have once had a thing for him, regardless of the character’s disregard for human life. Wolff got his start in films doing the two South Dakota shoots (Beast and Ski Troop Attack) and Atlas (Corman’s mediocre attempt at sword and sandal), but in the early ‘60s he moved to Europe and racked up a considerable number of credits in low-budget potboilers, especially spaghetti westerns. Tragically, he committed suicide in 1971.

Still - Sheila Noonan and Michael Forest in Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)
"Hey Gypsy, I'll bet you didn't know that many parts of a pine tree are edible!"

Beast was Monte Hellman’s first directing job (Gene Corman is credited as Producer and Roger as Executive Producer). Unlike other directors who got their starts with Roger Corman (e.g., Joe Dante, Francis Ford Coppola, and Ron Howard), Hellman never managed to break into the big time, but he does have the distinction of having directed Jack Nicholson (pre-superstardom) in five films; two westerns (The Shooting, Ride in the Whirlwind), a war picture (Back Door to Hell), a crime-thriller (Flight to Fury), and a horror picture (The Terror; he was one of seven credited directors to take part in that chaotic production).

Beast deserves more of a cult reputation than it’s gotten over the years. To echo Bill Warren, it is one of the more unusual “conventional” sci-fi/horror pics of the 1950s, and includes one eerie scene that is almost “beautiful” in its frightfulness. Add Charles B. Griffith’s stylishly noir dialog and an unconventional love triangle, and you’ve got a B picture that is much more than the sum of its economical parts.

Where to find it: Thankfully, you can throw a stone in any direction and likely hit a DVD copy or a stream.

Coming Soon: More crooks vs. creatures mayhem as a gang of kidnappers do battle with a beautiful but deadly alien in The Astounding She-Monster (1957)!

April 17, 2020

Edgar Allan Poe meets Jules Verne meets Vincent Price

Poster - War-Gods of the Deep (aka City in the Sea, 1965)
Now Playing: War-Gods of the Deep (aka City in the Sea) (1965)

Pros: Great production design, sets and costumes; Excellent cinematography.
Cons: The romantic leads are badly miscast; Comic relief featuring Herbert the rooster misfires; Underwater action scenes are overlong and plodding.

Special note: This post is part of the Vincent Price blogathon intrepidly hosted by Gill and Barry at the Realweegiemidget Reviews and Cinematic Catharsis blogs. Check it out for more priceless Price reviews and tributes than you can shake an Edgar Allan Poe tome at!

Allow me to make a bold statement. If in Vincent Price's lengthy film career, his only appearances in the horror genre had been the handful of Edgar Allan Poe-inspired films for American International Pictures (AIP), he would still be regarded as one of the great horror stars.

But fortunately, horror fans can choose from a treasure trove of memorably chilling and sometimes campy (in a good way) performances, from the early Universal days of The Invisible Man Returns (1940), to his horror break-out role as Prof. Jarrod in House of Wax (1952), to the sci-fi horrors of The Fly (1958) and The Return of the Fly (1959), to the high camp of the Willam Castle films (House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, 1959), and the even higher camp of his roles as Dr. Phibes (The Abominable Dr. Phibes, 1971; Dr. Phibes Rises Again, 1972) and Edward Lionheart, the hammy and deadly Shakespearean Actor in Theater of Blood (1973).

The Vincent Price Blogathon, April 17-19, 2020
Even in the lesser known, less successful horror films (The Mad Magician, 1955; Diary of a Madman, 1963; Twice-Told Tales, 1963; Cry of the Banshee, 1970, etc.), Price’s presence lent them a modicum of dignity and distinctiveness. Price had his work cut out for him in War-Gods of the Deep (aka City in the Sea), a film that came towards the tail end of AIP’s fixation on Poe as a marketing ploy, and one that really didn’t do the brand any favors.

With some of the AIP Poe films, the connection with the author’s works is tenuous at best. Previously, the company had slapped the title of a short poem, The Haunted Palace (1963), on an adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft novella, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. And The Raven (1963) was a campy fantasy-comedy that was completely antithetical to the somber tone of the famous poem.

In the case of War-Gods/City in the Sea, the producers decided to establish the film’s Poe credentials and set the mood by having Price recite select lines from the poem after the titles sequence (and at a couple of other points in the film). At the outset, things look promisingly spooky and atmospheric: it’s a dark and windy night, and a body has washed up on a rugged stretch of the Cornish seacoast.

Establishing shot of the seaside hotel in War-Gods of the Deep (1965)
"I'm just going out for a bit of fresh air, I'll be - Whoops! WHHAAAAAAA-A-a-a-a-a-h-h-h..."
KER-PLUNK!

A visiting American mining engineer, Ben Harris (Tab Hunter), helps the locals retrieve the body. When they identify it as Penrose, a lawyer staying at the nearby hotel (a converted mansion perched precariously atop a cliff), Ben elects to hike up to the place to let the proprietors know.

He meets the beautiful daughter of the hotel’s owner, Jill Tregillis (Susan Hart), and in turn is introduced to an eccentric artist staying at the mansion, Harold Tufnell-Jones (David Tomlinson). Harold’s constant companion is Herbert the rooster.

When Ben and Jill go to take a look at Penrose’s room, they hear noises inside. Ben surprises an otherworldly intruder who hurls some bric-a-brac at him and then escapes out a window.

Between the superstitious locals and Tufnell-Jones, Ben learns that the hotel and nearby village are the epicenter of strange happenings: weird lights seen in sea, the soundings of eerie ghost bells, mysterious disappearances, and bodies periodically washing up on shore.

Later that night, the strangeness escalates as Jill is grabbed by the intruder and the two disappear through a hidden door off of the study. Ben hears the commotion and in the darkness and confusion, mistakes Harold for the intruder.

Ben discovers seaweed on the floor and immediately concludes that Jill has been taken. With the help of Herbert the rooster, they discover the secret passageway and take off in pursuit (with Herbert along for the ride in a basket).

They descend into a large cavern, at the end of which is a whirlpool. Ben steps out onto a rock ledge to get a better look and promptly loses his footing. When Harold reaches out to help, all three are sucked into the swirling water.

Ben (Tab Hunter) examines the whirlpool in War-Gods of the Deep (1965)
"When the innkeeper said they had a hot tub, I wasn't expecting this!"

The whirlpool delivers them to the underwater lair of an imperious mystery man known as the Captain (Vincent Price), where they are taken prisoner. Gradually, the Captain’s story is revealed: He and his band of not-so-merry men were notorious smugglers who, while fleeing from the authorities, stumbled upon an immense, ancient underwater city and made it their new home.

Like Atlantis, the city was built by an ancient civilization and eventually overtaken by the sea. The last remnants of that civilization have devolved into primitive gill-men who are most at home in the water, but who can also maneuver on land.

The Captain and his crew have been there for longer than they can remember. Air, heat and energy are delivered by immense pumps powered by a nearby underwater volcano. The Captain has convinced himself and his crew that the peculiar mix of atmosphere in their lair has suspended the aging process -- but if they were to expose themselves to the UV light on the surface, they would die of old age in seconds.

However, the volcano has become much more active, causing violent tremors, and the pumps are failing. The Captain has been sending gill-men to the surface to scavenge for scientific books, equipment, even people -- anything that might help in figuring out how to stop the volcano from erupting. When, after a recent raid of the hotel, the Captain discovered a sketch of Jill that Harold had made, he became convinced she was his long-lost wife, and had a gill-man kidnap her.

Vincent Price as the Captain contemplates his city's bleak future in War-Gods of the Deep (1965)
"Ah, the volcano's really boiling over now -- anybody wanna make s'mores?"

The Captain learns that Ben is an engineer, and gives him an absurdly short period of time -- a matter of hours -- to figure out how to save the city, or be drowned like the others who have outlived their usefulness. The landlubbers have their work cut out for them: find a way back to the surface before the volcano blows or the Captain decides they’re expendable. A rebellious member of the Captain’s gang and a doddering old clergyman who had been kidnapped decades before may hold the keys to their freedom.

Thanks to the early 1900s setting, the period costumes, and the gorgeous “Colorscope” widescreen cinematography, War-Gods, especially at the beginning, looks like a worthy successor to AIP’s Roger Corman-directed Poe pictures. There’s a tongue-in-cheek homage to House of Usher, as a decrepit man-servant at the old hotel escorts Ben by candlelight to see Julia. As thunder sounds in the background and they pause at the door to the study, the servant ominously warns Ben about the weird artist guest who has brought “the beast” with him. The beast turns out to be Herbert the rooster. Yikes!

From there, the film immediately doubles down on the “comic” relief. After introductions, Harold proudly shows Ben a full-length self portrait he’s done. Ben takes note of the acronym next to the artist’s signature:
Ben: “Harold Tuffnel-Jones, FRA. Oh, Fellow of the Royal Academy?”
Harold: “Not actually. Founder of the Roosters Association, very selective.”
And that's one of the high points of the alleged comedy. Louis M. Heyward, then head of AIP’s London-based division, was responsible for the questionable comic relief. In an interview with film historian Tom Weaver (Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes: Interviews with Actors, Directors, Producers and Writers of the 1940s through 1960s, McFarland, 1991), Heyward remembered getting a call from War-God's English producer (George Willoughby), saying that the script was “impossible” and they couldn’t possibly shoot it.

Heyward’s boss Sam Arkoff told him to fix the situation, and he ended up traveling to AIP’s studios in England to referee between feuding co-producers Dan Haller and Willoughby. His ultimate solution was to rework the screenplay and add Herbert the rooster:
“The one thing I felt was missing was humor, and that’s where the chicken appeared. There was no chicken in the script, so I wrote it along with the David Tomlinson character. Tomlinson was enjoying great vogue at the time because he had just done Mary Poppins (1964) for Disney. At the point when the English producer saw that I had written in a chicken, and knew that whatever I wrote was going in, he quit -- he said, ‘I don’t do chicken pictures!’ And Dan Haller took over the reins.” [Weaver, p. 160]
Harold (David Tomlinson) and Herbert the chicken take an underwater stroll in War-Gods of the Deep (1965)
Herbert the rooster hitches a ride with Harold inside the Jules-Vernesque diving suit.

One can certainly sympathize with Willoughby. While Tomlinson was a talented actor, his character’s relationship with Herbert is a tiresome distraction from the action, and a direct steal of Hans’ Gertrude the duck in 20th Century Fox’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959).

While Poe’s poem may have furnished the title, the film’s real tribute is to Jules Verne. When Ben and Harold race through the secret passageway and find themselves in a huge underground cavern with stalactites, stalagmites, treacherously narrow stone bridges and a dizzying whirlpool, it feels like a scaled-down version of Journey to the Center of the Earth. Then, when they end up in the Captain’s underwater lair, with its 19th century costumes and steampunk paraphernalia, there’s a definite Captain Nemo vibe going on.

It’s in the sets and production design that War-Gods really excels. Heyward credited producer Dan Haller with coming up with some “awfully good” sets. [Ibid.] They provide an impressive otherworldly backdrop and make the film seem far more expensive than it was. Colossal statuary of ancient man-beast hybrids and hieroglyphics running the length of the walls create a phantasmagorical mix of ancient Egypt, Babylonia and some Lovecraftian temple of the Elder Gods.

Stephen Dade’s excellent widescreen cinematography also contributes to the sumptuous, decadent feel. Splashes of color from costumes, sets and the Captain’s steampunk equipment punctuate the deep shadows of the underwater realm. The photography is on par with the very best of the Roger Corman-directed Poe pictures.

Ben (Tab Hunter) and Harold (David Tomlinson) spy on the Captain's men in War-Gods of the Deep (1965)
"Dang it! I told you we were going to be late for the new Survior auditions!"

Unfortunately, the top-notch production values can’t compensate for the mediocre script or miscast actors. Vincent Price is of course the anchor for this ostensible Poe picture, but his character lacks the tragic depth of some of his other Poe roles, and he’s reduced to looking alternately imperious and pensive and barking orders at his men and the captives.

Tab Hunter and Susan Hart look fine in their roles, but at various points Hunter looks like he’s about to burst out laughing, and Hart comes off like a high school thespian reading her lines for the first time. Tab and Susan had previously appeared in Ride the Wild Surf (1964), a “teen” beach comedy from Columbia Pictures. One wonders what combination of chance circumstances and wheeling-dealing ended up scooping up two insouciant, all-American heartthrobs from the beaches of Hawaii and dumping them into the middle of an atmospheric, Gothic horror-fantasy.

David Tomlinson was still basking in the glow of a signature role in Mary Poppins when he was tapped for War-Gods. Despite his comedic talents, he flounders like a fish out of water in a role that was grafted, like a parasitical suckerfish, onto the production at the last minute.

Vincent Price and Susan Hart in War-Gods of the Deep (1965)
"Will she be all right? I told her this wasn't a surf picture, but noooo, she had to try out her new board!"

The guiding hand of legendary director Jacques Tourneur should have been a big plus for War-Gods. There are flashes of the old Tourneur touch, such as Ben’s first encounter with the intruder at the hotel, in which the gill-man sticks to the shadows and we see only enough to get an impression of a bizarre, otherworldly creature. However, when the story switches to the underwater city, the action and suspense largely grind to a halt and are replaced by static shots of the Captain telling his backstory and the landlubber captives furtively conspiring with disgruntled underlings to escape.

AHOY MATEY, SPOILERS AHEAD! (SORT OF)

The climactic action that does take place is all underwater. The chase and fight with the gill-men is certainly ambitious, a sort of Creature from the Black Lagoon meets Thunderball. But the sequence is ponderous and poorly edited. The frequent intercutting of the action with close-ups of actors’ faces inside their Jules-Vernesqe diving helmets serves more to slow things down than to clarify who’s doing what to whom.

Worst of all, in the one sequence in which the gill-men finally get some healthy screen time (“Alright Mr. Tourneur, I’m ready for my close-up…”), the compromise between an effective-looking creature suit and one giving the stunt-men sufficient underwater maneuverability is starkly obvious. These are pretty poor cousins of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and a disappointing payoff for viewers wanting thrilling action and scary monsters after sitting through dull stretches of exposition.

Gil-man vs. diver, War-Gods of the Deep (1965)
"The Krusty Krab? Go straight past the volcano for about a half a league, then turn
right at Poseidon's Palace. You can't miss it!"

This was Jacques Tourneur’s last film. While only in his early ‘60s, the industry had moved on, and according the Heyward, he was more than happy to get one more opportunity to practice his craft:
“Jacques was, again, at the nadir of his career, but he wanted to direct another picture or two. He was overly agreeable, and there was a sadness to that. At AIP, it was the same with directors as with actors. If you were a young director, AIP was giving you a chance; if you were an old director, your career was on its way down and we inherited you. You were usually afraid to fight because it would influence the next picture. But face Jacques with a technical problem and he would come up with answers. He knew his craft and his media.” [Weaver, p. 161]
On the other hand, Vincent Price was not done by a long shot. According to Price’s daughter Victoria, this film and an even greater stinker, House of 1000 Dolls (shot in Madrid in 1967), soured him on AIP. But Vincent had too many interests and too many irons in the fire to let a few cheesy B pictures get him down:
“Although my father was in despair about the sorry run of films he was being forced to make, at the same time he was in the most visible and popular era of his career. As an actor in his mid-fifties, he did not take his growing appeal for granted, and from judging the Miss American Pageant to appearing as Grand Marshall of the Santa Claus Parade in Hollywood, he brought grace and charm to every event with which he was associated.” [Victoria Price, Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography, St. Martin’s, 1999, p. 260]
War-Gods doesn’t come close to scraping the bottom of the barrel the way House of 1000 Dolls did. It’s an ambitious sci-fi-horror-fantasy that at least looks more expensive than its budget. But it’s done in by a weak script made even weaker by forced comic relief, and a couple of egregiously miscast romantic leads.

It appeals more for its curiosity factor: as Jacques Tourneur’s last feature film, and as that AIP Poe film that everyone forgets. But hey, if you really like chickens, this one might be right up your alley!

Underwater volcano and city miniatures from War-Gods of the Deep (1965)
Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.
-- Edgar Allan Poe, The City in the Sea

Where to find it: try here for the DVD; or stream it (for now) on Youtube.