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:

1 comment:

  1. The Unknown Terror - wow, I haven't seen that in about 50 years. After waiting in vain for it to turn up on TCM or Fox Movie Channel, I figured I'd never get to find out why I liked it so much when I was 6 years old. Now, thanks to you, my chance is here. As bad as the soap suds may be, i feel compelled to see them again. I'm sure you understand.