August 31, 2011

Taking a Bubble Bath in the Cave of Death

The Unknown Terror (1957)

Until recently, I knew The Unknown Terror by reputation only-- a reputation for some of the more lamentable, laughable effects in all of 1950s B movie sci-fi (more on that later). Having misspent my youth, middle age, and now advanced middle age watching just about everything in the horror and sci-fi genres I could lay my eyes on (especially from the 1930s through the 1960s), it's a wonder this one evaded me for so long. Perhaps there were rights issues. Or perhaps it was just too lame even for the packagers of the Creature Feature-type shows of the '60s and '70s. It certainly seems to have been considered too obscure and/or unmarketable for even a halfhearted commercial video release. Fortunately, with all kinds of analog to digital transfer options and an international marketplace for everything in the form of the internet, an aficionado like myself doesn't have to be rich or a super sleuth to catch up on all the esoteric film fun out there.

Bottom line, is The Unknown Terror worth the small amount of extra effort and expense to see? Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that if you're like me, it grates on you that there's this elusive sci-fi or horror title that you've read about from time to time, but never seen. It doesn't matter if the judgment of it over time has been harsh. Someone thought they had an idea good enough to invest some time, money and talent (yes, talent-- even bad movies require some talent to make). It was made for kids like me, growing up in the Midwest in the '50s and '60s. Maybe I was sick the day it popped up on the afternoon Creature Feature or the late show. Regardless, as a boomer with a predilection for vintage sci-fi and horror movies, I am duty bound to seek it out and give it a chance, even to the point of writing about it in this blog.

But enough temporizing. Unknown Terror is not a good film. However, it doesn't miss the "fair to good" category by much. A sprinkling of lackluster performances and some missed plot opportunities might be forgiven, but the special monster effects that induce giggles instead of gasps are the final nail in the coffin. In this regard, Unknown Terror reminds me of The Giant Claw released the same year, which I managed to catch a couple of months ago on TCM. Claw is standard giant-monster-on-the-loose '50s sci-fi, with a competent script, fair to good acting, and some suspenseful moments. But the monster of the title is anything but standard. According to legend (and related by TCM's Robert Osborne), Claw's producer Sam Katzman saved a few bucks by outsourcing the monster effects to a shop in Mexico. The result is an ungainly, moth-eaten giant bird with an uncanny resemblance to Beaky Buzzard of cartoon fame. In the words of classic sci-fi maven Bill Warren (Keep Watching the Skies!, McFarland, 1982), "The sight of this pathetic horror has been known to bring strong men to their knees in laughter." (Lead actor Jeff Morrow, who liked to catch his movies at the local theater where he could visit with friends and neighbors, reportedly had to slink out of the theater when the first appearance of Beaky, aka the Giant Claw, elicited howls of laughter from the audience.)

Warren has similar things to say about The Unknown Terror:
The Unknown Terror is a pretty bad movie in most respects, but it isn't as poor as it might have been; the primary defect is a monster done by a method so foolish that it causes only gales of laughter whenever this picture is shown, which is rarely. Had the monster been done differently, the picture would have been an acceptable programmer." (ibid.)
A fair assessment. But Unknown also misses the mark in other ways. Considering the locales and themes it presents -- a simmering, tense love triangle played out in the jungles and dark caves of an unnamed Caribbean island, with the danger of a mysterious contagion thrown in for good measure -- the film plods along, only managing to generate occasional suspense or interest. The main characters spend most of the movie fighting among themselves or with their own, veiled inner demons for reasons that the viewer can at best only dimly understand. If you're going to squander plot and character opportunities, then at least the effects and/or the monster should be pretty exciting to lift the thing into the realm of the watchable. But the effects, and the monsters, fail… so… spectacularly… (don't worry, I'll get around to the juicy details shortly…)

Unknown reminds me of yet another 1957 sci-fi programmer-- The Cyclops (featured right here in a March 2011 posting). At least on the surface, they have quite a bit in common: the female protagonists, with the aid of a wealthy man, go searching for a lost fiance/brother in the wilds of Central America/the Caribbean and encounter mutations/monsters. (You have to wonder if the writers or producers from each had a long three-martini lunch together, or if someone from production A just happened to glance at a story outline on the desk of someone from production B… but I guess we'll never know.) Both films suffer from some logic lapses, the most obvious being the slim-to-none chance of the missing loved one being alive to justify mounting an expensive, time-consuming rescue expedition. And they both feature some below-average-even-for-a-B-movie effects work (Bert I. Gordon's matte work in Cyclops is patently crude).  Where they part company is in that ultimate payoff for B sci-fi movie fans: a decent monster. For me, The Cyclops redeemed itself with frighteningly memorable monster make-up (check out the video clip at the end of my post and judge for yourself). As for The Unknown Terror -- well, its supposedly monstrous threat might not cause viewers to convulse in laughter like The Giant Claw, but it is good for some pretty hearty chuckles.

Calypso star Sir Lancelot sings a cryptic
ballad about la Cueva de la Muerte.
So what is the extraordinarily lame Unknown Terror that haunts the Cave of Death? It is … soap suds. Or more precisely, soap suds masquerading as mutated, extremely quick-growing fungi. After spending about 60 minutes out of the film's 76 minutes watching the protagonists wondering what might have happened to the lost explorer, flying out to the unnamed Caribbean island, trying to convince the locals to take them to the Cave of Death (Cueva de la Muerte) that he had supposedly discovered, being harassed and intimidated by the natives, and finally stumbling upon the mysterious cave, this is the payoff we get… soap suds. Soap suds that seep from the walls of the cave. Soap suds that cover the faces and arms of unfortunate natives who've been subjected to a mad doctor's experiments with fungi. Soap suds that, according to the deranged doctor Ramsey (Gerald Milton), will grow and grow and take over the world if allowed to escape from the confines of the cave. Uh huh.

Mala Powers, who played Gina Matthews, sister of the missing explorer, explained in an interview how she approached some of the less than stellar work, like Unknown Terror, that came her way:
You may read a script and say to yourself, 'I wonder why this is being made at all.' But if you need the work, if you need to stay in front of the public, if you need the money-- whatever your reason is-- and you say yes, at that point it is incumbent upon you to fall in love with the script and fall in love with your part. At that point you put on blinders that enable you to permit your love for your profession to shine a radiance over everything. This allows you to put all of yourself into it. (Tom Weaver, Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes, McFarland, 1991.)
She was also quite generous when talking about the special effects:
They used a lot of soap suds and some other stuff that was kind of like plastic goo. It was a real conglomeration, and to find out exactly how it was done you'd have to go to Merlin the Magician [laughs]! The prop man was very inventive, and it was quite effective. It's quite different now that they have these special effects laboratories-- it's much more sophisticated today. The effects in The Unknown Terror were just done by very good, inventive prop men. (ibid.)
While I disagree with her assessment of the effects -- this is just bad work for any era -- I certainly appreciate her sense of professional ethics. Very simply, if you agree to do the work, you give it your all. There is nothing worse than an actor, writer, producer or director who feels that he/she is above the material, and takes great pains to let everyone know it. Such cynicism and hack work is almost always painfully obvious to see in the finished work.

Dr. Ramsey, the fungus expert, is cooking up something
in his humble abode. I wouldn't eat that if I were you!
Unknown's redemption is in the professionalism of its actors. The three main leads in particular do their best to transcend the mediocre material. Joining Mala in the sudsy proceedings are John Howard, playing Mala's/Gina's wealthy husband Dan Matthews, and Paul Richards, playing the third wheel (and real love of Gina's life), Pete Morgan. John played supporting roles in a few A pictures like The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Lost Horizon (1937), while also playing leads in programmers like the Bulldog Drummond series. By the 1950s his work was almost exclusively in television. Paul Richards is a familiar face to fans of '60s and '70s TV, guesting on such diverse series as Perry Mason, The Untouchables, Gunsmoke, Hawaii Five-O (where he was the very first villain to hear Steve McGarrett say "Book-em Dano!"), and Rod Serling's Night Gallery. He was only 50 when he died.

The Unknown Terror's obscurity is no mystery. Even with a bigger budget and more care taken with the effects, Unknown would still only be a footnote in anyone's survey of good vintage sci-fi. But if you're a completist like me, you'll want to check out Sci-Fi Station's video catalog. It's there, along with equally obscure but tantalizing titles.

Daring explorers Dan Matthews (John Howard) and Pete Morgan (Paul Richards) encounter chills and water spills in the Cave of Death:

August 21, 2011

Grand Guignol Gimmickry

Chamber of Horrors (1966)

Movies have always been a volatile mix of art, craft, and dog-eat-dog commerce. As in any flourishing industry, clever people put in long hours to achieve just the right mix of innovation and marketing to distinguish their products and attract consumers. And, like most industries, it's often difficult to sort out the real innovation from the same old marketing hype. Sometimes, the synthesis of a new idea and clever marketing achieves great success -- for example, it's hard to imagine trying to capture the epic sweep of the great historical dramas of the '50s and '60s (or any current blockbuster for that matter) without anamorphic widescreen. (The Robe, released in 1953, had already begun pre-production for a standard shoot when Twentieth Century-Fox president Spyros Skouras ordered that it be done in the new CinemaScope process. The rest, as they say, is history, if not particularly compelling Biblical history.)

Sometimes, an innovation debuts to great fanfare, sputters out, then comes roaring back as the technology is refined and the kinks are worked out (yep, I'm talking about 3-D). 3-D caused a brief stir in the early to mid 1950s, with horror and sci-fi often leading the charge with titles like House of Wax (1953), Cat Women of the Moon (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and Revenge of the Creature (1955; Revenge was the last 3-D feature to be released in that era). With inevitable improvements in the process and audience experience, 3-D has come back in a big way. After Avatar's record-breaking box office receipts, it wasn't long before every big effects blockbuster and animated movie was being released in 3-D. However, it remains to be seen if the technology will endure or simply die out the way its '50s ancestor did. (Indications are that audiences are increasingly resisting the higher ticket prices and opting for 2-D versions of their favorite blockbusters.)

And then there are the "innovations" that are somewhat less than earth-shattering or industry-changing, but are nonetheless amusing and quirky. In the movie biz, these lesser light-bulb moments have often emerged out of marketing and promotions. William Castle, the P.T. Barnum of B movies, gained a great deal of notoriety for his highly original and eccentric promotions. Castle got the ball rolling with 1958's Macabre, doling out $1,000 life insurance certificates covering "death by fright" to ticket holders. Other infamous Castle stunts/promotions include "Emergo," where an inflatable, glow-in-the-dark skeleton on a wire would fly out over the audience during showings of House on Haunted Hill (1959); "Percepto," whereby vibrating motors were attached under select theater seats and activated when The Tingler (1959) was set loose on the screen; and the "punishment poll" of 1961's Mr. Sardonicus, whereby audience members with glow-in-the-dark thumbs up or thumbs down cards would decide the fate of the title character at the film's climax.

Even by William Castle standards, Chamber of Horrors' promotional gimmick, the "Fear Flasher and Horror Horn," is cheesy. That's a shame, because without the gimmickry, Chamber is a very effective, well-designed, and well-acted costume horror-thriller. Like the previous year's Dark Intruder (1965; covered in this blog back in December, 2010), Chamber started out as a pilot for a suspense TV series entitled "House of Wax." However, executives deemed it "too intense" for television audiences, and it was expanded and the gimmicks added to recoup production costs as a theatrical release. I remember seeing it at a matinee with some elementary school buddies and feeling that we'd been thoroughly ripped off. After being warned by the somber narrator to cover our eyes and ears at each of the "Four Supreme Fright Points" when the Fear Flasher and Horror Horn went off, we were looking forward to seeing some good, ghastly stuff that we'd never be able to see on TV. Each "fright point" was a big cheat, however, with the gory action taking place off-camera (see the clip below). Bummer!

Madman Jason Cravatte is in a hurry to get married.
Seen with older, wiser, and more appreciative eyes, Chamber of Horrors stands up very well, even with the inane gimmick and a somewhat derivative plot. Chamber is set in late 19th century America, and features an early American serial killer in the form of suave but mad Jason Cravatte, the dreaded "Baltimore Strangler." It starts out in a very intense way with a macabre wedding tableau: Cravatte, his steel-blue eyes glittering, is standing in front of a shaking reverend, holding up what appears to be the fresh corpse of a young blonde. The terrified reverend has just started the ceremony, but protests that he can't possibly continue. Cravatte trains a revolver on the man, who decides he can continue after all. When he gets to the part where the bride-to-be must affirm her consent, we see an extreme close-up of her dead, staring eyes. Cravatte nods his head for her. With the wedding from hell wrapped up, the madman kisses his dead bride, compliments the reverend and tips him. The shaking minister makes a quick exit. Next, Cravatte carries his dead bride up to a second floor "honeymoon suite" where he carefully places her on the bed, tenderly wrapping one of her long blonde tresses around her throat. He celebrates with champagne.

The Fear Flasher/Horror Horn doesn't pop up to warn us about this scene, but perhaps it should have. In some ways it's the best scene in the movie, done to dark, disturbing perfection. (A comparably disquieting opening wedding scene comes from -- you guessed it--  a William Castle film, Homicidal, 1961. Homicidal's gimmick was a "Fright Break" before the climax in which terrified moviegoers could bail on the movie and supposedly get a refund.) Given the opening scene, with the suggestion of necrophilia on top of homicide, it's no wonder the TV execs nixed it as a pilot.

Cravatte must be mad indeed, for in letting the reverend go with a tip instead of a bullet, he's effectively led the police straight to his door. We're quickly introduced to Baltimore police sergeant Jim Albertson (Wayne Rogers of TV M*A*S*H fame), and amateur criminologists and wax museum proprietors Anthony Draco (Cesare Danova) and Harold Blount (Wilfrid Hyde-White). Draco and Blount have a cozy relationship with Sgt. Albertson, who happily turns evidence from solved murder cases over to the amateurs so they can build detailed and accurate displays for their museum (of course, the film is set in a time before 24-hour TV news, when the morbidly curious no doubt supplemented newspaper accounts of sensational murder cases with trips to the wax museum).

By being in the right place at the right time, our enterprising criminologists/museum owners get in on the ground floor of the bizarre Baltimore Strangler case. With some determined footwork, Draco and his cohorts track Cravatte to brothel where he is trying to replicate in great detail his wedding night crime with a spooked prostitute. Confronted by Sgt. Albertson, hands in the air, Cravatte blithely asks the confused woman to excuse him while he surrenders to the authorities. So far so good.

In an expressionistic courtroom scene back lit in deep red, we see frequent close-ups of Cravatte's mad eyes darting to and fro as the case is relentlessly presented against him. The judge sentences Cravatte to death, then praises Draco for his invaluable help in apprehending the murderer. Cut to a train transporting Cravatte and his law enforcement escort to prison. The official handcuffs the condemned man to one of the train's coupling wheels while he attends to some business.  Ever resourceful, Cravatte manages to grab an axe hanging nearby. He frantically tries to chop at the handcuff, to no avail. Finally, in desperation, he unscrews the wheel, and still clutching the axe, jumps from the train just as it's crossing a river. This is the first of the "Supreme Fright Points" -- we get the Fear Flasher and the Horror Horn moments before the drowning Cravatte struggles to sever his hand from the heavy wheel that's dragging him to the bottom of the river. A cloud of blood obscures the details of the gruesome act.

Having dragged the river and found the wheel with a decomposed hand, the authorities are eager to close the books on the Cravatte case, assuming his decomposed body washed out to sea. Cut to Cravatte lighting a cigar in a dark New Orleans alleyway. He's visiting an exotic part of town to be fitted with a special set of "tools" to take the place of his hand. It appears he's going to be doing some chopping and dicing, but he's definitely not auditioning for The Next Food Network Star!  At the same time he runs into a beautiful, working class "artist's model," Marie Champlain (Laura Devon) who evidently reminds him of his dead bride. Waving his hook-for-a-hand in her face, he tells her that she is going to help him with some plans, and that she'll be paid very well: "Now, you'll never be a lady, but only you and I will know the difference… My dear Marie, we have much to do… it takes time for a crawling caterpillar to become a true butterfly…"

The "master-criminal-wreaking-vengeance-on-the-people-who-captured-and-sentenced-him" plot is nothing new, but Cravatte executes his  plans with a delirious panache that is fun and a little chilling to watch. He uses his new beautiful butterfly to lure the imperious judge who sentenced him to death into a trap. "You're dead!" the judge sputters when confronted by the madman. "Yes I am… won't you join me?" Cravatte responds as he prepares to deliver his own demented form of justice (see the clip below).

The proposed TV pilot "House of Wax" became
"Chamber of Horrors" for theatrical release.
Another nice touch is that Draco and Blount feature Cravatte's bloody handiwork (e.g., the judge's dismembered body wrapped in butcher's paper) in their Wax Museum of horrors without at first realizing who is responsible. Of course, Cravatte's ultimate goal is to revenge himself upon Draco, the man primarily responsible for his capture. Good melodrama dictates that the two adversaries have their final showdown in the wax museum itself. Cravatte's fate in the museum climax is especially ironic.

Horror writer Ray Russell teamed up with TV writer Stephen Kandel on the story. Russell is most famous for his neo-gothic horror story Sardonicus, published in Playboy in 1961, and adapted for the screen by Russell himself for William Castle's Mr. Sardonicus (there's that Castle connection again!). Russell also contributed to the screenplays for Roger Corman's X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963) and The Premature Burial (1962). The prolific Kandel, already a TV veteran at this point, would go on to write and produce for such various and sundry shows as Batman, Star Trek, The Wild Wild West, Mission Impossible, Mannix, and MacGyver.

Patrick O'Neal, so smoothly evil in Chamber, alternated between movies and TV through nearly five decades of acting work. He was adaptable and competent, but never caught fire as a leading man. IMDb's mini-biography cites Chamber as "probably" his best known film (it's certainly one of his better performances).

Cesare Danova (Anthony Draco) is perhaps more interesting for his accomplishments outside of acting. There was apparently little he couldn't do: he was a fencing champion and world class rugby player in his teens, studied to be a doctor, spoke five languages, painted, collected antiques and rare books, won a top prize in archery, and piloted his own planes (whew!). In Chamber, he is the perfect "exotic" European foil for the cold, blue-eyed O'Neal.

The ravishing Laura Devon (Marie Champlain) appeared in a handful of films and did a fair amount of television in the 1960s before retiring from acting after her second marriage.

Don't let the cheesy Fear Flasher and Horror Horn deter you-- Chamber of Horrors is a solid horror-thriller with some stylish, inventive touches, great camerawork, and acting to match. It's available on a Warner Home Video double feature DVD along with another thriller from 1966, The Brides of Fu Manchu.

Cover your eyes and ears when Jason Cravette (Patrick O'Neal) goes to work on the unfortunate residents of Baltimore:

August 8, 2011

A Mr Movie Fiend Double Feature

I was recently invited to join Mr Movie Fiend to write about older movies. It was very gracious offer-- no pressure, write when I want about what I want -- so it was next to impossible to turn down. I'm old, I like old movies, I like writing about them, and I can expand my movie blogging horizons without having to develop another site from scratch or change the focus of this one. So, I'll be taking my old movie show on the Mr Movie Fiend road from time to time, visiting other genres like westerns, film noir, action-adventure, and even straight-up drama. I may even take occasional side trips to the wild and wooly '80s and '90s.

Of course, horror being my co-favorite genre (with sci-fi), I couldn't resist going that route in my first two MMF posts. I decided to write about a couple of Universal(-International) B-listers that have earned little respect over the years, but nonetheless have some unique things going for them and are fun to watch. Check-em out!

I live in Arizona. You may recall that a few weeks ago Phoenix was enveloped by a massive, mile-high wall of dust (some pretty impressive photos and videos have been circulating on the internet ever since). The next day I was watching TV coverage in my dust-free house (fortunately, I live well north of Phoenix). One of the local Phoenix stations had prepared a tongue-in-cheek feature comparing footage of the Arizona desert storm with the CGI-enhanced storm-with-a-giant-face in the 1999 version of The Mummy. As the anchors were chuckling over it, I was thinking, “That Brendan Fraser so-called remake was a deplorable piece of dreck, but I haven’t seen a classic Mummy movie in a long time, and I know my Legacy Collection is around here somewhere…” And that’s how this review came to be.

... I picked The Mummy’s Curse because even by low-budget, B movie standards this one’s an underdog. It was the last of Universal’s Mummy series, released toward the tail end of Universal’s second horror cycle as the public taste for horror movies was ebbing. Critics often cite it as the least of the Universal Mummies, a half-hearted, low budget end to a series that started so well with Boris Karloff’s creepy, low-key portrayal of the title character. And yet, and yet…

See the full post at Mr Movie Fiend.

In 1958 a political novel, The Ugly American, became an influential bestseller in the U.S. It’s a fictional account of the failure of American foreign aid workers in an imaginary Asian country to win over the local population or effect any real change due to their arrogance and ignorance of their host country’s culture and customs. The irony of the novel is that the title character, a homely engineer by the name of Atkins, is the only American who really gets it– he lives with the locals, works with them as equals, understands their needs, and makes meaningful, if somewhat small scale, improvements to his adopted village. The book’s title has since become a catch phrase for loud, ignorant American tourists who make fools of themselves in places they can barely understand or appreciate.

Cult of the Cobra is a B-movie forerunner of The Ugly American, featuring a similar sort of arrogance and ignorance, but with immediate, tragic consequences. The film’s titles provide a somewhat cryptic introduction to the melodrama to come:
Slender hangs illusion, fragile the thread to reality.
Always the question: Is it true?
Truth is in the mind and the mind of man varies with time and place.
The time is 1945. The place is Asia...
See the full post at Mr Movie Fiend.