March 23, 2011

Giant Ambitions and Small Budgets

The Cyclops (1957)

I doubt that the critics who came up with the auteur theory of film had Bert I. Gordon in mind, but Bert is the very definition of an auteur. The Cyclops credits say it all: Written, produced, directed, and special effects by Bert I. Gordon. Movies rarely get more personal than this.

Bert earned the nickname Mr. B.I.G. for the string of giant monster movies he churned out like sausages starting in the 1950s. His list of writer-producer-director credits is somewhere between humongous and ginormous:
Note the 6 B.I.G. creature features released in the space of a couple of years!  While perhaps only Bert's psychoanalyst truly understands his fixation on gigantism, a simple explanation is that a very canny B movie entrepreneur made some quick bucks off the public's fascination with (and fear of) science run amok. Bert's giants are stand-ins for the enormous problems that a naive 1950s American populace read about in the newspapers: nuclear bombs and radiation, Communist infiltration, the Cold war, etc.

The Cyclops is not Bert's best work. The plot construction is amateurish, the acting spotty, and the technical effects are weak (more on that later). But Gordon valiantly tries to make the most of limited resources, making L.A.'s Bronson Caves and County Arboretum stand-in for the wilds of Mexico. He sprinkles in a little mythology to add some class to the proceedings. And it doesn't hurt that the movie features a cool, hideous monster that scared the heck out of me when I was a kid.

Cyclops starts out in a small Mexican town, where Susan Winters (Gloria Talbott) is trying to convince the governor to approve her trip into a remote area to look for her fiance, whose plane crashed there 3 years before. (You have to wonder why it took her so long to get the search party organized!) The governor not only tells her that there is no chance her fiance could still be alive, but the area is off-limits to everyone, and he will supply a security guard to fly back to the states with Susan and her party "just to make sure they don't go in the wrong direction." Susan, however, is undeterred, and she and her companions hatch a plan to ditch the security man and take off in their Cessna.

Susan's purpose is clear and simple: to find her fiance, Bruce Barton, who she is certain is still alive. The motivations of her companions are varied: Russ Bradford (James Craig) is a microbiologist and friend of the fiance (and, we find out later, in love with Susan); Marty Melville (Lon Chaney Jr.) is a wealthy financier who's convinced that the wild country they plan to search is full of uranium; and the pilot Lee Brand (Tom Drake) is a devil-may-care type who recently lost a bundle of money and needs the job. The tension in the first part of the movie, such as it is, grows out of the incompatible goals and motivations of the group. What makes Cyclops stand out from the typical fifties B movie fare is that from beginning to end Susan is by far the strongest member of the group, and enforces her will on the reluctant, distracted men. She WILL find her fiance, come hell or high water! She is Ulysses in this poor-man's Odyssey.

On the flight into the Mexican interior, Melville panics after a little turbulence and thrashes around the small cockpit, knocking the pilot out! Susan, sitting in the back seat, manages to revive him just in time to land the plane safely on a large, grassy field. Inexplicably, the other members of the expedition don't even seem to be perturbed that the unstable man has almost gotten them killed! Perhaps they're in shock, or they're just grateful to be alive (and Melville is supposed to be rich after all; maybe they think he'll compensate them). 

The scene and its predecessors illustrate Gordon's weaknesses in story construction. A substantial chunk of the movie is drab exposition: Susan talking to the Mexican official; the group telling their sad life stories over drinks at a cantina; Bradford spending an interminable amount of time trying to buy an American magazine from a young woman who speaks little English; and so on. I got to wondering if Bert took some money from Mexican backers in return for playing up the local color and culture. Melville's tantrum and the near crash seems like a lame, contrived way to generate a little suspense after the tedium of the first 20 minutes of so of the movie. Forget the travelogue, forget Melville -- let's get to the monsters already!

Melville has brought along a spiffy scintillator counter, and he excitedly reports that the whole area is lousy with uranium. As Susan and Russ go off to look for Bruce, he unsuccessfully tries to convince the pilot to fly him back to civilization to stake his uranium claim. In the meantime, Susan and Russ witness a twelve foot tall hawk devour a mouse the size of a large dog. Pretty soon, the group is being menaced by giant spiders, lizards, and other assorted creepy-crawlies that are scary enough normal-sized.

Russ and Susan play fetch with a giant lizard
Writing, producing, and directing on the same film is onerous enough for one person, but add technical effects on top of it all, and you can bet somewhere along the line something's going to suffer. And yes, the technical effects, especially the matte work, are subpar even for the 1950s. The monsters are washed out and differently lit than the backgrounds and the human figures. I can imagine kids at a '50s matinee getting really impatient with the pale, sleepy-looking "giant" lizards to the point of throwing popcorn at the screen and at each other (not that I did any of that).

Approximately 40 minutes into this short 66 minute feature, Gordon finally comes through with the goods, and we (and the expedition) get to meet the titular character. So, is all the clumsy build-up worth the pay-off? At my first viewing (around the age of 10), I jumped at the first appearance of the Cyclops, and was alternately fascinated and repulsed. Jack Young's make-up is startling, imaginative, and just plain gross. A huge fold of skin covers the right eye, as if the creature's forehead had melted. The remaining eye is lidless and bloodshot, and pops out of the skull like a watery ping-pong ball. The right side of the mouth and jaw have been ripped away, displaying enormous teeth. Voice artist Paul Frees provided the monster's caveman-like grunts, groans, and screams.  Frees contributed to countless movies, cartoons and TV shows, including scads of 50s sci-fi movies where he was often featured as a portentous narrator: The Thing From Another World (1951), When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), The Deadly Mantis (1956), Beginning of the End (1957), etc. His talents are wasted here, as almost anyone (perhaps including Bert himself) could have grunted to similar effect.

A lot of action is packed into the movie's last 25 minutes. Amazingly, the expedition finds the wreckage of Bruce's plane (either Susan is incredibly lucky or she's psychic). A nifty p.o.v. shot has the monster staring down at Susan as she examines the wreckage (complete with a watery-looking film over the camera lens). As she becomes aware of the thing looking down on her, she slowly looks up, and screams. The monster takes her to a cave, where the rest of the group find her. Gordon cleverly makes us feel sympathy for the hideous thing. This is no unthinking, homicidal beast, but rather a bewildered, injured man stumbling about, his brain turned to mush and his body horribly mutated. In a purely physical role, Duncan "Dean" Parkin does a good job of conveying the Cyclops' confusion and frustration with gestures and facial tics, while still chilling the viewer to the bone.

The radiation, or whatever it is that's mutating all the wildlife in the area, must work very quickly on the brain as well as the body, as the expedition members seem almost as confused as the Cyclops. It takes science-wiz Russ a… very … long … time… to put two and two together: the radiation readings, and the huge animals, and the plane wreckage, and the 25 foot tall, disfigured man hanging around the wreckage... hmmmmm.... Russ doesn't seem to be the whippiest Ph.d on the block. Stoic Susan doesn't seem to get it at all -- or maybe the point is she doesn't want to get it.  At any rate, the characters are so dimwitted that the viewer is tempted to yell at the screen and/or throw popcorn.

Gloria Talbott appeared in countless TV shows in the 50s and 60s, taking time out to make a few B sci-fi and horror movies here and there:  Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957; which played on a double-bill with The Cyclops); I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958; great fun and a near-classic), and The Leech Woman (1960; a nothing role as a scientist's assistant). While certainly not a great actress, her jet-black hair and strong, attractive features make quite an impression.

By the time of Cyclops, Lon Chaney Jr. was tipping the bottle quite a bit, demonstrated by his bloated features and stumbling delivery. He is wildly miscast as a wealthy financier lusting for uranium. Rough, alcoholic cowhand I could believe -- financier… I don't think so. Adding insult to injury, his character is just plain unbelievable, doing incredibly stupid things seemingly just to get some action going.

Tom Drake as the alcoholic pilot Lee Brand lends a little comic relief to the film, joking at one point that once his bottle of hooch is done, it's time to go home. Trapped in the cave by the Cyclops, he reaches for his bottle only to find it empty. "Time to go home," he says bitterly.

So, if The Cyclops is so weak, why include it in a blog dedicated to obscure but worthwhile B movies? Let's let Gloria Talbott have the last say. In Tom Weaver's Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers (McFarland, 2006) she talks in some detail about the making of The Cyclops and the audience reception at its premiere. Her judgment:
Were you happy with the results on The Cyclops?
   I was amazed. There are parts that are corny, but considering the time involved; the amount of locations we went on; how quickly we did it; some of the not-too-reliable actors; and Bert I. Gordon's personality-- considering all that, I think it's not bad. I'm not ashamed of the film; and I'm not ashamed of Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, either.
Indeed! There's a lot to love about little movies that attempt big things on minuscule budgets that would drive mainstream filmmakers into rehab or retirement. If you're interested, a DVD-R copy is available from

"Unknown terror stalks a forbidden land!"

March 15, 2011

Hardboiled Horror

The Walking Dead (1936)

In a laboratory complete with bubbling test tubes and arcing electricity, a body strapped to an operating table takes its first breath. Once a lifeless corpse, a shambling, heavy-lidded thing finds itself back among the living. Frankenstein? Nope. Bride of or Son of Frankenstein? Nope.  Once again, Boris Karloff is a walking dead man, resurrected by an obsessed scientist playing God. But this time he shuffles around for Warner Brothers in a very unusual mix of Universal-inspired horror and boilerplate Warner's crime drama.

Karloff plays John Ellman, a hapless pianist recently released from prison. After an incorruptible judge sentences one of the local crime syndicate's men to prison, they hatch a plot to assassinate the judge and pin the murder on Ellman, who had been sentenced by the same judge. Their hit man "Trigger" (Joe Sawyer) glibly talks Ellman into watching the judge's house and taking notes on his activities. Ellman, without a lot of resources (and common sense) reluctantly agrees.

As the syndicate's hit men race to assassinate the judge, by chance they sideswipe the car of a medical research assistant, Jimmy (Warren Hull) and his fiance Nancy (Marguerite Churchill). An angry Jimmy takes after the gangsters and arrives just in time to witness the judge's murder, with a clueless Ellman standing nearby.  In their rush to clear out and let Ellman take the rap, the hit men leave Jimmy and Nancy behind with only a warning to "keep quiet."

As Ellman's trial nears its end, syndicate-hired lawyer Nolan (Ricardo Cortez) is clearly botching the defense on purpose. Jimmy agonizes over not going to the authorities, but an anxious Nancy pleads that they'll be killed if they talk. Thanks to his double-crossing attorney, Ellman is convicted and sentenced to the electric chair. As the execution date nears (remember, the wheels of justice worked much faster back in the "good old days"), Jimmy and Nancy decide that whatever the consequences, they can't let an innocent man go to the chair. At nearly the last minute they call on scientist-mentor Evan Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn) to help intercede with the authorities. Beaumont innocently turns to the corrupt defense attorney for help in getting the governor to issue a stay of execution. Nolan pretends to help, but drags his feet just enough to ensure Ellman's execution.

A devoted musician to the end, Ellman's last wish is for a violinist or cellist to play his favorite piece of music as he takes his last walk. One of the most moving sequences in the film is a bird's eye shot of the lonely cellist playing the melancholy piece as the long shadows of prison bars cross the floor, and the blades of an overhead fan slowly turn, as if counting down Ellman's last minutes.

The Governor's call comes literally seconds too late to save the poor man. Distraught, but thinking quickly, Dr. Beaumont instructs the prison authorities to forget the autopsy and deliver Ellman's body to his lab. It seems Beaumont's work might just help right a tremendous wrong-- he's had some success bringing small animals back to life. This being a more innocent time (and a B movie), the authorities comply, no questions asked.

Here we go again: Dr. Evan Beaumont plays Frankenstein
Ellman's resurrection in Beaumont's laboratory looks like it was lifted straight out of a Universal Frankenstein picture, with assorted test tubes, arcing electricity, an operating table moving up and down like a seesaw, and even a nifty pulsing light display of Ellman's newly beating heart. I don't know how much of the film's estimated $214,000 budget went into the lab, but the sequence looks great.

Beaumont's success in bringing Ellman back from the dead makes worldwide headlines. Beaumont becomes obsessed with getting Ellman to reveal what he experienced on the other side, causing Jimmy to churlishly complain that his mentor has little time for anything else. (Well, duh!) Ellman just can't seem to catch a break-- framed for murder and sent to the electric chair, upon his miraculous return to life he finds himself under the control of a neurotic scientist who would do almost anything for a glimpse of the afterlife.

Both Beaumont and the the DA who prosecuted Ellman now have everything figured out, and in an extremely cynical and dangerous ploy, invite the racketeers who set Ellman up to the poor man's post-resurrection debut and piano recital-- just to see what will happen. Ellman turns his dead gaze from one nervous racketeer to the other as he plays with increasing intensity. The scene is as dark and creepy as anything in 1930s horror films (see the clip below). Since Ellman went to the electric chair knowing nothing of the men who set him up (except perhaps for the hit man "Trigger"), Beaumont and the viewer are left to wonder-- how does he know?

He just knows, and with his knowledge, Ellman tracks down each conspirator in turn. Post-resurrection Ellman is a gruesome shadow of the trusting, gentle pianist. With his shock of white hair, half-closed eyes, stiff left arm, and zombified look, Ellman's mere presence in the same room is enough to send the superstitious gangsters into fits of guilt and fear. Ellman has only to turn his dead eyes on them, and in their panic they do themselves in. After each incident, Ellman seems to wake up from a trance.

The "thing" that is not quite Ellman has another, tragic mission. He keeps visiting the local cemetery, confiding to the sympathetic Nancy that "It's quiet, I belong here" (a kinder, gentler version of the monster's utterance at the end of Bride of Frankenstein: "We belong dead!").  Tragically, Ellman gets his wish  from the muzzle of a surviving gangster's gun. Fate deals with the last surviving gangsters, and dispatches them in a very fitting way considering their roles in sending an innocent man to the chair.

Walking Dead suffers from the inevitable plot holes and logic gaps: Nancy transforms in no time flat from a frightened coward willing to let an innocent man die, to Ellman's most ardent and sympathetic supporter; the DA seems clued into the gangsters' conspiracy so early that the one wonders why he didn't intervene himself to stop Ellman's execution; the revivified Ellman holds his left arm as if it were paralyzed, yet still plays the piano superbly.  But overall, Walking Dead is lifted well above the run-of-the-mill B horror or gangster movie with its inventive direction by Michael Curtiz and exemplary acting by Gwenn, Cortez, and of course, Karloff.

Curtiz shows an equal flair for Universal-style laboratory scenes, hardboiled crime drama, and dark, elegiac set pieces. The master craftsman in Warner's stable, Curtiz would be nominated for the best director Oscar five times between 1936 and 1944, finally winning for Casablanca.

Edmund Gwenn is best known for his role as lovable Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Sci-fi lovers know him for his stellar work as absent-minded professor (and savior of humanity) Harold Medford in the classic Them! (1954). In Walking Dead, Gwenn is not so much a mad scientist as an obsessed one. The viewer can almost sympathize with his desperate efforts to get to the bottom of life after death, while deploring his selfish treatment of the man he brought back to life.

New Yorker Jacob Kranz was transformed by Hollywood into "Latin" Ricardo Cortez during the Valentino craze of the 1920s. He played such varied roles as Sam Spade in the original The Maltese Falcon (1931), and Perry Mason in The Curse of the Black Cat (1936). Cortez with his famous smirk is perfect as the oily, double-dealing mob lawyer in Walking Dead.

What can you say about Boris Karloff? His silent, dead gaze in Walking Dead is almost as chilling as his famous first scene in Frankenstein (1931). Over the years, he would get ample opportunity to return from the dead, or help others to: The Ghoul (1933), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Man Who Lived Again (1936), Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Man They Could Not Hang (1939), The Man With Nine Lives (1939), The Devil Commands (1941), House of Frankenstein (1944), and Frankenstein 1970 (1958). You just can't keep a good dead man down!

If you can't stomach the gore of the latest hit TV series The Walking Dead, check out the near-forgotten 1936 film of the same title -- it's available on the Karloff & Lugosi Classics DVD set.

Dr. Beaumont (Gwenn) introduces his greatest scientific achievement to the public (and the men who framed him into the electric chair):

March 7, 2011

All Creatures Great and Tall

The Abominable Snowman (1957)

Ever since seeing the creepy docudrama The Legend of Boggy Creek in the mid-70s, I've been intrigued with the idea of Bigfoot and other crypto-zoological mysteries. Considering that no "civilized" westerner set eyes on a live gorilla until the mid-nineteenth century, I'd like to think that there's at least a small chance that some bipedal remnant of an unknown evolutionary path still survives in the ever-dwindling, unexplored wild places of the globe.

I'm not alone, since interest in Bigfoot, Sasquatch, the Yeti, and other legendary variations seems to be at an all-time high in spite of (or perhaps because of) the continuing lack of any credible evidence. It's hard to channel-surf these days without coming across some Bigfoot pseudo-documentary with fringe academics speculating about the distribution, diet, and habits of the elusive creatures, and men outfitted in camouflage, night-vision goggles, and other tech-toys tramping around the woods of the Pacific northwest desperately trying to record a sighting.

And then there's the hilarious Jack Link's Beef Jerky "Messin' With Sasquatch" series, where a poor, trusting reject from Harry and the Hendersons is the perpetual butt of 20-something hipsters' practical jokes (although the beast always gets the last "word" in various and hilarious ways). We might look at such humor as society's ultimate acceptance of a myth like Sasquatch. (Similarly, we might make a case that Frankenstein didn't truly become a household name and the prototypical poster child for the consequences of scientific arrogance until he met Abbott and Costello in 1948.)

Whatever the status of the Bigfoot myth in the 21st century, there's no denying the enduring popularity of shaggy, elusive, often homicidal hominids in popular film. The first wave of such films in the 1950s focused on the Yeti and his exotic locale of the Himalayas. Some credit W. Lee Wilder's Snow Creature (1954) as the first feature-length fictional account of the Yeti. Toho and Ishiro Honda (of Godzilla/Gojira fame) followed quickly with Jû jin yuki otoko in 1955. (It would be released in the U.S. a couple years later as Half Human, cut down to 63 minutes, with American scenes added. Sadly, the original highly-rated Japanese version was never released in the U.S., and Toho withdrew it from their catalog for legal reasons.) Schlockmeister Jerry Warren did his take, Man Beast in 1956. 1977's Snowbeast with Yvette Mimieux would transplant the Yeti to a Colorado ski resort.

Over the years, with the impact of unexpected low-budget hits like Boggy Creek, the film industry's interest in hairy hominids shifted to North America and Bigfoot/Sasquatch. One oddball measure of the enduring popularity of backwoods beasts is the presence of character actor-extraordinaire Lance Henriksen in three (count 'em!) Bigfoot flicks in the space of five years: The Untold (aka Sasquatch; 2002), Abominable (2006), and Sasquatch Mountain (2006). (The perfectly mediocre Sasquatch Mountain, a Sci-Fi channel original, started out life as Devil on the Mountain, and was slated for location shooting around my hometown, Flagstaff, Arizona. Regrettably, local red-tape pushed the production 40 miles to the west, to the small town of Williams. I would have loved to run into Lance in downtown Flagstaff!)

Predictably, recent Bigfoot film appearances have featured slavering, unthinking, homicidal beasts, instead of the shy, elusive, canny creatures that more thoughtful Bigfoot fans prefer to believe in. No gory special effects have been spared--  Bigfoot in 21st century film is Mother Nature's hit man, punishing city folk in all kinds of bloody ways for trespassing on her territory.

Thoughtful fictional treatments of Bigfoot and  the Yeti are as rare as sightings of the creatures themselves. The most thoughtful, intelligent treatment of all is Hammer's The Abominable Snowman (1957). This elegant black-and-white production was released around the same time as Hammer's wildly popular color hits Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, and was promptly lost in the gothic horror wave.  While not perfect -- Snowman is talky and set bound -- it's worth a look for its unusually intelligent use of science fiction to comment on the human condition.

Botanist John Rollason (Peter Cushing), and his wife Helen (Maureen Connell) are staying at a remote monastery in the Himalayas to study native plants. A brash, ambitious American explorer, Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker) arrives with a group and seduces Rollason into accompanying him on his quest to track down the elusive Yeti. Rollason had been on an earlier ill-fated expedition looking for the snowman, but his scientific curiosity gets the better of him and he sets aside his reservations. Helen and the monastery's High Lama try to talk him out of joining Friend's expedition, to no avail. Another member of Friend's group, Andrew McNee (Michael Brill), is haunted by his previous experience of having actually seen the creature. As the expedition makes its way up the Himalayas, the high-strung McNee struggles with the ascent, but at the same time seems to almost sense the presence of the Yeti. At one point, he becomes convinced that he sees something among the rocks and crags. Chasing after it, he falls to his death.

In the midst of the chaos and tension, Rollason discovers that Friend's motives are less than pure or scientific-- he wants to be the first to bring back a Yeti, dead or alive, for exhibition. As luck would have it, the expedition stumbles upon one of the creatures and shoots it dead. As the group tries to take its prize back to civilization, they soon discover that the creature was not alone, and its companions want it back. With the exception of Rollason, the remaining expedition members fall prey to the cunning of the otherworldly creatures, and ultimately to their own fears.
Monster, or member of an ancient, wise race?

The screenplay by the brilliant Nigel Kneale (based on his teleplay "The Creature") inverts the typical Yeti story and makes Man into the unreasoning, monstrous brute. As the surviving expedition members hole up in a cave with the creature's body, Rollason remarks on the gentle, anciently-wise features of the snowman. He wonders aloud to the uncomprehending Tom Friend if perhaps the Yeti aren't the wiser, superior race waiting in the remote regions of the Himalayas for brutish mankind to die out.

Snowman marked the third (and last) Hammer film pairing of Kneale's thoughtful ideas with Val Guest's talented direction. The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) was a lean, effective adaptation of Kneale's BBC mini-series The Quatermass Experiment. It's success led quickly to Quatermass II: Enemy from Space in 1957. Kneale adapted the screenplay from his own teleplay. Much to the chagrin of Kneale, both featured American tough guy Brian Donlevy as Prof. Bernard Quatermass (Donlevy's participation was strictly to grease the wheels for American distribution). Years later, Kneale would be much happier with Scotsman Andrew Keir's portrayal of Quatermass in Five Million Years to Earth (aka Quatermass and the Pit; 1967).  Kneale's Hammer thrillers all share a theme: man as his own worst enemy in the face of forces he only dimly understands.

While the pairing of urbane Peter Cushing with rough Forrest Tucker of F-Troop fame might seem like casting decision made after a 4 martini lunch, the two very neatly represent Kneale's dichotomies of scientific curiosity vs. greed and empathy vs. fear. Tucker, like Donlevy, lent his modest talents and somewhat bankable name to a couple of other UK sci-fi thrillers: The Crawling Eye (aka The Trollenberg Terror; 1958), and The Strange World of Planet X (aka the Cosmic Monsters; 1958).

Nigel Kneale's thoughtful science fiction deserves a revival. America's leaders, committed to endless war and endless foreign quests in search of monsters to destroy, might do well to heed Kneale's admonition, voiced by the empathetic, rational Rollason:
It isn't what's out there that's dangerous, as much as what's in us.

"The world's most shocking monster! No one's ever lived who's seen him!"