September 21, 2011

Fantastic Faceless Foes from Fifties Sci-Fi

In the 1950s, the U.S. was on top of the world in almost every sense -- economically, scientifically, militarily. While much of the rest of the world was recovering from the horrendous bloodletting and destruction of World War II, we were thriving and growing, setting the stage for a new American Century. It seemed like we could do just about anything with a healthy application of good ol' American ingenuity and resolve.

But, as in any age, there were uncertainties and anxieties. In spite of catastrophic casualties numbering in the millions, the Soviet Union dug out quickly and forcefully from the ashes of the war, trying to establish its own version of the perfect society. Suddenly, seemingly without warning, they had atom bombs and strategic jet planes and missiles and all manner of technological know-how. It was no certain bet that the next century would be an American-dominated one.

With the world in such a state of flux, B movie monsters moved from dark, Gothic castles and fog-shrouded moors to atomic laboratories and gleaming spaceships. Almost overnight, America was beset by saucermen, giant mutated insects, radioactive behemoths, and miscellaneous things from other worlds. The many faces of America's anxieties were created by science, and they weren't pretty.

And some of them didn't even have what you could call a face. The Blob (1958) is the most famous amorphous, slimy, monstrous thing of 1950's sci-fi cinema, but there were plenty of other faceless foes out there in B movies to scare audiences who were already creeped out by daily news of atomic bombs and science run-amok.

Here is a sampling of some of that good ol' 1950s American ingenuity applied to the craft of B movies. These movie makers weren't content to throw the same old silver-suited aliens or mutated, but still recognizable, creatures into their pictures. They combed news headlines and scientific literature for something really otherworldly and different. These monsters are perhaps all the more terrifying because they are faceless. You be the judge.

In brief: Ivan Tors produced and Curt Siodmak (author of Donovan's Brain and The Wolf Man) directed this documentary-style tale of a mysterious radioactive, magnetic field plaguing the greater Los Angeles area. Members of the "Office of Scientific Investigation" are called in to investigate freakishly strong magnetism in a hardware store that causes, among other effects, a lawnmower to race along the floor by itself. They trace the bizarre phenomenon to a dying renegade scientist who confesses to having bombarded a new element, "serranium," with alpha particles, causing it to become an ever-growing "monster" that turns energy into matter unless it's kept in check by a strong electric charge. The investigators race against time to find an energy source big enough to overwhelm and destroy it.

Key player: Richard Carlson, playing OSI investigator Jeffrey Stewart, appeared in some of the seminal, classic sci-fi films of the early to mid '50s, including It Came From Outer Space (1953) and Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954). He directed and starred in his own sci-fi epic, Riders to the Stars (1954).

Fantastic Factoid #1: The filmmakers very cleverly incorporated old stock footage from an early German thriller, Gold (1934), including an imposing generator with arcing electrical currents. According to classic sci-fi critic Bill Warren, "Some fudging was necessary to make the 1934 German footage match the 1954 American footage. Carlson appears in a dated overcoat and fedora, to match footage of the German actors in the small electric car they ride in." (Keep Watching the Skies: American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, McFarland, 2010)

Fantastic Factoid #2: In Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers (Tom Weaver, McFarland, 1988), Herbert L. Strock, who started out as a film editor, claimed that Tors, unhappy with the dailies that he was seeing from Siodmak, fired Curt and had Strock direct the rest of the picture because of his familiarity with the German stock footage. Years later, when he acquired an old poster from the production, he was unpleasantly surprised to see that Siodmak was given sole credit.

The Magnetic Monster is available to watch online at Veoh.

In brief: A meteor crashes into the desert and unleashes one of the more imaginative threats in all of sci-fi cinema-- space crystals that, when exposed to water, absorb silica out of everything around them (including human skin), and grow to enormous size before toppling over, shattering, and growing all over again. Geologist Dave Miller (Grant Williams) is drawn into the mystery when he finds his colleague inexplicably petrified and his lab wrecked by strange rock shards. Next, a whole family is decimated by the crystals when their daughter brings one home from a school field trip. By the time Dave figures out the secret behind the alien crystals, a desert rainstorm causes them to grow to skyscraper size, threatening to crush the small town of San Angelo.

Key player: Grant Williams also starred in the growth-in-reverse sci-fi classic, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). His other sci-fi credits include The Leech Woman (1960) and TV's One Step Beyond and the original The Outer Limits.

Fantastic Factoid: Monolith Monsters was not the only "petrifying" sci-fi film of 1957. Columbia Pictures released The Man Who Turned to Stone on a double-bill with Zombies of Mora Tau around the same time. This one was about a group of scientists who kept themselves young by stealing the life energy of their victims through an electrical apparatus. If any of them missed a treatment, they turned to stone.

The Monolith Monsters is part of The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection on DVD.

In brief: A returning space probe brings back unexpected cargo in the form of an extraterrestrial fungus that when exposed to human blood, rapidly expands into a deadly, blob-like menace (one of the protagonists nicknames it "Blood Rust"). The ex-wife of a scientist who becomes the Blood Rust's first victim unwittingly picks up fungus spores from her husband's laboratory. Investigators discover she had visited the lab shortly before the space rust broke out, but when she finds out the authorities are looking for her, she goes into hiding, thinking that they blame her for her husband's death. In a documentary style much like The Magnetic Monster, the intrepid investigators try to track down the woman before she unwittingly unleashes creepy-crawly death upon the world.

Key filmmaker: Edward Bernds directed a number of Three Stooges shorts for Columbia in the 1940s (he would also later direct two feature length Stooges films, The Three Stooges in Orbit and The Three Stooges Meet Hercules -- both released in 1962). He gave old friend Moe Howard a small part in Space Master X-7. Bernds' other sci-fi credits include World Without End (1956), the campy Queen of Outer Space (1958), and the underrated Return of the Fly (1959).

Fantastic Factoid: Moe Howard persuaded producer Bernard Glasser to hire his son-in-law, Norman Mauer, a comic book artist, to work on the picture. Mauer developed the special "Blood Rust" effects.  According to Glasser, "[the] effect was composed of a foam rubber rug about a yard square. … These latex "rugs" looked like miniature volcanoes. In the vortex of each, Norman inserted a plastic tube. Compressed air forced a red powder through the tube and out of the vortex. … The entire effect cost us less than $1000." (Tom Weaver, Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes, McFarland, 1991.)

Space Master X-7 is available on DVD-R from Loving the Classics.

In brief: Archaeologists lead an expedition to some Mayan ruins laden with treasure, and find that they're guarded by a giant, grumpy flesh-eating blob. They bring a chunk of it back to civilization with them, and predictably, are pretty careless with the specimen. Legend has it that the vengeful goddess Caltiki will return when a fire is seen in the sky-- and wouldn't you know it, a comet just happens to be passing by earth! Radiation from the comet is all Caltiki needs to grow and grow-- and visit some good ol' fashioned wrath upon unsuspecting civilization. Caltiki features some pretty gut-wrenching effects for a fifties film.

Key filmmaker: Mario Bava of Black Sunday (1960) and Black Sabbath (1963) fame started out as cinematographer for Caltiki, then assumed directorial duties when the original director, Riccardo Freda, left the production. He was already used to filling in for peripatetic directors, having stepped in to direct battle scenes that Jacques Tourneur failed to complete for the sword and sandal epic The Giant of Marathon (1959).

Fantastic Factoid: Bava claims that Caltiki was fashioned from animal intestines purchased from a local butcher (Louis Paul, Italian Horror Film Directors, McFarland, 2005).

Caltiki is available on DVD-R from Sinister Cinema.

Of course, this is by no means a complete list of faceless sci-fi fiends. Stay tuned to this blog for the next installment of imaginative, unusual monsters on celluloid.

From space beyond space comes a force beyond measurement energizing this monstrous mass of man-eating protoplasm!

September 9, 2011

A Mr Movie Fiend Post-Labor Day Special

The Plague of the Zombies (1966)

So, another summer, and another nice, refreshing Labor Day weekend have come and gone. It’s hard to imagine these days, but Labor Day started out as — you guessed it — a celebration of good old fashioned labor. According to the venerable Wikipedia:
Labor Day is a United States federal holiday observed on the first Monday in September (September 5 in 2011) that celebrates the economic and social contributions of workers. The first big Labor Day in the United States was observed on September 5, 1882, by the Central Labor Union of New York. It was first proposed by Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of Labor in May 1882, after witnessing the annual labor festival held in Toronto, Canada. (Of course there’s more to it than that, but you get the drift.)
I don’t know about you, but I don’t often sit around on Labor Day thinking about the economic and social contributions of the virtuous, common worker (or even my own meager workplace contributions). Like most everyone else, I relax– I eat, I drink, I channel surf, and of course, watch a movie or two.
There’s not much to celebrate on the labor front anyway. Lately, the average working stiff’s contributions have been rewarded with shrinking paychecks, dwindling job opportunities, underwater mortgages, deflated 401k plans, steadily rising prices, and sundry other threats to his economic well-being.  Come to think of it, maybe now’s the time to put the celebration of labor (or at least a grudging appreciation) back into Labor Day.

Despite being made way back in 1966, Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies is a cautionary (and morbidly entertaining) tale for our own times. Think you’ve got it bad now? Don’t think social security will be there for you when you retire? Thinking you’ll have to work until you drop? It could be worse. You could be like the villagers in The Plague, where even death doesn’t prevent soulless bosses from giving you maximum overtime for no pay.

See the full post at Mr Movie Fiend.

"No corpse can remain at peace in this village of the undead!"