February 29, 2012

Mr Movie Fiend: Macabre Monkey Business

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue, ” published in 1841, is considered by many scholars to be the world’s first detective story. Although I haven’t researched it extensively, it’s probably safe to say that “Murders” is also the first instance of a great ape — in this case, an orangutan — being the culprit in a “locked room” murder mystery. Why an orangutan? It’s elementary my dear reader– gorillas weren’t discovered and described by western science until 1847. Of course, once the noble yet fearsome gorilla penetrated western consciousness, there was no stopping its appropriation and exploitation by popular culture. Here was a supposed real-life monster tailor-made to scare children and adults in countless stories and films. Only relatively recently has society at large recognized the gorilla’s high intelligence, its sophisticated social life, and kinship with humankind. It’s hard to look at the world famous Koko cradling a kitten and ever again think of gorillas as lurid monsters.

But there’s no doubt that for many, many years the gorilla’s public image was one of a dangerous, ravening monster. (While I love vintage movies and always get a kick out of seeing men in furry suits trying their best to look like apes, I have to acknowledge the possibility that these very images, by both trivializing gorillas and making them into monsters, may have in some small way contributed to a culture that has nearly driven this great species into extinction.) Universal’s adaptation of Poe’s infamous story certainly exploits the image of the murderous ape, but it (and the original story) is also tempered with pathos and sympathy for the beast. In Poe’s story, the orangutan unwittingly kills by imitating the behavior of his master. In Universal’s version, the ape is cruelly manipulated by a human who is the real monster, and eventually turns on him, refusing to help carry out his evil designs. In contrast, many contemporary movie monsters are relentless, remorseless and unfathomable– crude plot devices to get the bloodletting and gross-out effects going.

Universal’s translation of Poe’s tale into film (some might say exploitation) can be a real eye-opener for those who think adult themes, suggestiveness and even outright depravity didn’t make it into popular movies until sometime in the 1960s. The studio took Poe’s tale of “ratiocination,” dropped most of the ratiocinating, and turned it into an hallucinatory, expressionistic horror thriller complete with a wild-eyed, unkempt mad scientist (Dr. Mirakle played by Bela Lugosi).

See the full post at Mr Movie Fiend.

February 19, 2012

Alien Family Values

Night of the Blood Beast (1958)

Oh boy, it's another presidential election year! Time to rip the scabs off old wounds, pick up the torches and pitch forks, and get worked up over all those great hot button issues like abortion, Planned Parenthood, gay marriage, government support for contraception, illegal immigration -- you name it. There's nothing quite so exhilarating as marching off to a glorious culture war. Unless the war is on an interplanetary scale, and the entire earth, and life (and culture) as we know it is at stake. Then that's just scary.

Which brings me to the subject of this post, Night of the Blood Beast. Although it was made well over 50 years ago, Blood Beast raises a number of timeless and controversial issues that would have contemporary politicians shouting at each other until doomsday:
  • Is manned space flight worth the risks?
  • Should outer space aliens born in this country automatically be granted citizenship?
  • Is it permissible to abort space alien fetuses? What about "aborting" them with Molotov cocktails and a flare gun?
  • If the minds of a monster alien and a human being were to somehow be "married" via a mysterious telepathic-organic link, can states officially recognize that marriage?
  • In addition to a border fence, do we need a shield around the whole planet to keep out illegal aliens from outer space?
Okay, so Blood Beast doesn't address the issues in exactly those contexts, but it is surprisingly thought-provoking for schlocky, low-budget '50s sci-fi. Blood Beast is part of an entertaining (if not particularly distinguished) group of early space age movies that tallied up all the ways man's first attempts to conquer outer space could go horribly wrong. While real rocket scientists were grappling with g forces, weightlessness, radiation, environmental controls and other challenges to human spaceflight, astronauts in the movies were having about as much luck as Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons: after successfully landing on Mars, the crew of the Rocketship X-M (1950) burns up in earth re-entry; one of the astronauts of the ill-fated Quatermass Xperiment (1955) brings an alien organism back to earth, which transmutes him into a horrific hybrid thing; the crew of the first Mars orbital mission tear through the space-time continuum and land on a far future, primitive World Without End (1958); most of the crew of another Mars expedition is killed by a Martian stowaway, It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958); and the First Man Into Space (1959) is encrusted with meteor dust and returns to earth as a hideous monster thirsting for blood.

The X-100 is ready for takeoff.
The astronaut in Blood Beast is similarly unlucky, but in a highly unusual way that distinguishes him from all the other ill-fated sci-fi explorers (more on that later). As the title credits roll, we see America's first piloted spaceship, the X-100, take off into space. The craft and its sole occupant, Major John Corcoran (Mike Emmet) soon run into trouble, and the capsule crashes in a remote wilderness area somewhere in the U.S. The recovery crew is pretty basic, consisting of Dr. Alex Wyman (Tyler McVey), John's fiance Dr. Julie Benson (Angela Greene), photographer Donna Bixby (Georgianna Carter), and generic military tough guy types Steve Dunlap (John Baer) and Dave Randall (Ed Nelson). Much to fiance Julie's dismay, they verify that Maj. Corcoran is dead, although his body looks pretty good after such a rough crash. They transport the body to the remote base in the back of what looks like a dirt farmer's dilapidated pick-up truck (all the money in this fictional space program apparently went into the spacecraft, and there wasn't much left over for "incidentals"). After examining the body, the docs are amazed that after several hours rigor mortis has yet to set in. And even though the astronaut has no pulse or circulation, Doc Wyman exclaims that "his blood is still alive!"

At this point, things quickly get hot, heavy and horrific for the recovery crew. Blood Beast packs a lot into its very short running time (62 minutes): the base is cut off from all communications by a mysterious magnetic field; Doc Wyman is killed by some shadowy thing as big as a bear; Maj. Corcoran miraculously comes back to life with a mystery wound at the base of his neck and an even more mysterious mental connection with the dead Doc Wyman (see the clip below); and most incredibly, the crew discovers that Corcoran has somehow been "impregnated" with alien embryos!! The valiant astronaut has become an unwilling pawn in an alien civilization's plan to impose their own form of "family values" on humankind, and the small band of government employees is the only thing standing in the way of total assimilation.

This expectant "mother" better have good medical insurance!
With its handful of characters, meager special effects, and bargain basement monster suit, Blood Beast can't cover up its low budget. But it does compensate with atmospheric black and white photography; an effective, sudden "jump-out-of-your-seat" introduction of the monster; and best of all, some unusual sci-fi ideas that seem advanced for the period. I think it's safe to say that Maj. Corcoran is the first movie astronaut, and first male, to be impregnated by aliens (twenty years later, an equally unfortunate astronaut "gave birth" in a very graphic way to Ridley Scott's infamous Alien). The mind melding between man and alien also predated Star Trek's Vulcan mind tricks by a good decade. And the alien itself is unusually sympathetic. At the climax, it argues very eloquently for understanding and tolerance. Is it trying to trick the gullible earthlings, or is it sincere? At the movie's end, we're not sure.

The box art for one of Blood Beast's video releases touts it as "Classic Roger Corman." Although Roger is credited as an executive producer, the Blood Beast is really brother Gene Corman's baby (Gene both produced and contributed the story). According to Bill Warren (Keep Watching the Skies! McFarland, 1986), Gene turned over scripting duties to Martin Varno, son of actor Roland Varno, who came up with a script in record time. The Cormans demanded so many changes that Varno asked for more money. When they turned him down, Varno took his grievances to the Writers Guild of America. Cheap to the bitter end, Gene and Roger held off paying Varno until the deadline was up.

Ed Nelson is the most familiar face in Blood Beast. Ed was a fixture on TV for decades, starring in the 1960s series Peyton Place, and guesting on seemingly every crime, western and sci-fi show produced between 1960 and the mid-1990s. The same year as Blood Beast, Ed was involved in producing another bottom-of-the-budget-barrel sci-fi classic, The Brain Eaters (1958).

The Blood Beast grapples with the carrier of his babies.
Night of the Blood Beast shows its parsimonious budget in multiple ways, but it's also eerie and suspenseful and chock full of intriguing sci-fi ideas. In my humble opinion, its user rating on IMDb is way too low. In his lengthy review, B sci-fi movie maven Bill Warren provides a firm but fair assessment:
If it weren't for its talky, derivative script and pathetic monster, Night of the Blood Beast might be widely regarded as one of the better low-budget SF thrillers of the period. It's well-acted by a small cast, tightly edited and efficiently directed by Bernard Kowalski. Though just a little cheapie, there are several good things about it, and one element of the story is unique in films up to 1958. One of the men in the cast essentially becomes pregnant. In one of the great, sick shocks of American International Pictures, we even see the embryos pulsing away in his chest. (Ibid.)
If you're ready for some vintage "sick shocks," Night of the Blood Beast is available on a couple of eminently affordable DVD editions/collections, and Mystery Science Theater 3000's version can be streamed from Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.

After being "dead" for several hours, astronaut John Corcoran (Mike Emmet) wakes up with a huge hangover, and another man's thoughts swirling around in his head:

February 6, 2012

Sci-Fi That's Up Close and Personal

Unearthly Stranger (1964)

What iconic image or scene comes to mind when you think of sci-fi? The jaw-droppingly large imperial battle cruiser slowly taking over the screen at the beginning of Star Wars: Episode IV? The elongated, drooling head of the Alien coming within an inch of a terrified Ripley? Maybe even the big green guy, Godzilla, lumbering through Tokyo, raking the city with his radioactive breath?

Sci-fi, as everybody knows, is supposed to be grand and sweeping and exciting and terrifying and full of gadgets and special effects. Otherwise, what's the point? Sure, the filmmakers might not have enough of a budget to pull off every effect with perfection, and certain elements might not quite gel, but the goal is to show audiences something spectacular they haven't seen before. Bigger is better.

That formulation works for most people, but then, this blog is dedicated to movies -- and their fans --  that like traveling off the beaten path. Unearthly Stranger from the UK is a very small film with practically no special effects that generates its interest and suspense through mood and interactions among a handful of characters. Even though it was picked up by American International Pictures (AIP) for a U.S. release, it features no American stars for wider, trans-Atlantic commercial appeal (unlike the first two and far better known Quatermass films from Hammer, The Quatermass Xperiment, 1955, and Quatermass II: Enemy from Space, 1957, which featured tough-guy American Brian Donlevy badly miscast as the urbane scientist Bernard Quatermass).

Unearthly Stranger is high concept and very low budget. It's a fairly late entry in the aliens-sabotaging-humanity's-attempts-to-conquer-space subgenre that was so popular at the beginning of the space age. Perhaps reflecting the public's worry about intercontinental missiles that could rain down on American cities with no warning, such films as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), War of the Satellites (1958), and the hilariously inept The Cape Canaveral Monsters (1960) featured worried alien civilizations attempting to shut down man's atomic and space programs. Unearthly's distinction is its conception of space travel not powered by primitive chemical or even atomic rockets, but by the power of the mind. Now there's a program that might worry an advanced alien civilization bent on eliminating the competition in its corner of the galaxy!

Unearthly Stranger opens on a dark, foggy night (is there any other kind in England?) with an exhausted man running for his life down rain-soaked streets (compare this title sequence with another UK sci-fi potboiler, The Atomic Man, 1955, reviewed elsewhere in this blog). He runs into a building, The Royal Centre for Space Research, climbs a vertigo-inducing circular staircase, and stumbles into an office. He starts up a tape recorder, picks up the microphone, and breathlessly and matter-of-factly says, "John, in a little while, I expect to die… to be killed by something you and I know is here…"

"In a little while, I expect to die..."
The tale told in flashback features fantastic, speculative ideas, but precious little of the special effects and action that audiences associate with good sci-fi. With just a handful of characters and a couple of sets, it looks like it was faithfully adapted from a play, but the credits only mention that it was based on "an idea" by Jeffrey Stone. Undoubtedly the production's small budget limited what the filmmakers could bring to the screen, making it look like a filmed stage play. For the more open-minded viewer, this is not a fatal flaw. In concentrating on just a few characters and a relatively simple plot, the film draws the viewer more into the emotional "action" of the characters, as if he's a bystander just off camera watching things happen in real time.

In brief, strange things are going on at the Royal Space Research facility. One of its key scientists, Prof. Munroe (Warren Mitchell) has died on site under very mysterious circumstances. Munroe had just solved a formula vital to a special project investigating space/time travel using the harnessed power of thought (no need for any old-fashioned needle-nosed chemical rockets!). The government's lead investigator, Major Clarke (Patrick Newell), confides to facility director John Lancaster (Philip Stone) that, while the official cause of death is a brain hemorrhage, Munroe's brain was literally boiled in his cranium by some mysterious, extremely high-powered force. To add to the mystery, British Intelligence has learned that rocket scientists in both Russia and the U.S. have been killed under eerily similar circumstances.

The investigation quickly turns its attention to another scientist, Mark Davidson (John Neville), who with Munroe's death is in line to become project director. It seems Dr. Davidson has a brand new wife that he met in Switzerland, and whom he married after a whirlwind romance. Some obvious warning bells go off for Clarke as he interviews Davidson about the wife, Julie (Gabriella Licudi), and the circumstances of their meeting. In a nice double entendre bit of foreshadowing, Clarke asks Davidson:
"She's an alien, isn't she?"
Davidson (visibly irritated): "Born in Switzerland."
Julie looks positively unearthly in her sleep.
Clarke's (and others') suspicions of Julie are based on a lot more than her national origin. In a nice bit of eerie business, Davidson himself is shaken when he comes home unexpectedly to find his wife lying dead still on the bed, her eyes wide open, but unseeing. In another well-conceived and chilling scene, Julie stops at a fenced-in playground to watch the school children play, but they quickly sense that she is out of place in a big way, and they silently back away from her en masse (see the clip below). These scenes require no special effects whatsoever, but help to solidify the film's dark, chilling mood.

Unearthly Stranger doesn't just excel in the mood department. At times, the characters' interactions and confrontations seem very plausible. Major Clarke and Dr. Lancaster have a passionate argument about the merits of security vs. open scientific inquiry that is still relevant in these paranoid, security-conscious times. In other scenes, the film and its characters come off as hopelessly naive: Davidson seems to have given little thought to the way his wife suddenly appeared out of nowhere and won his heart; and for a location hosting classified research, the Space Centre inexplicably has no guards, badges, or any other observable security measures (except for the dogged investigator Maj. Clarke, played to skillful perfection by Patrick Newell).

One of the user reviews on IMDb mentions the similarity of Unearthly Stranger's plot with a little-known 1937 science fiction novel, To Walk the Night by William Sloane, and wonders why Sloane wasn't credited. It is indeed uncannily similar to the film, involving the new wife of a former confirmed-bachelor scientist who has appeared out of nowhere, has no traceable history, and seems to leave the bodies of dead scientists in her wake. There are enough differences however, that the similarities can be chalked up to coincidence, or perhaps one of the writers read the novel at some point and subconsciously inserted elements of it into the screenplay. (While I'm on the subject, William Sloane was a master of enigmatic science fiction complete with strong, sympathetic characters in richly described locales. His other classic novel, The Edge of Running Water, 1939, provided the inspiration for the Boris Karloff sci-fi/horror thriller, The Devil Commands, 1941.)

If by chance you're in the mood for a dark, suspenseful and understated sci-fi tale that substitutes strong characters and acting for whizzbang special effects, you might take the trouble to track down Unearthly Stranger. It's available on DVD-R from ShockTherapyCinema.com and Sci-Fi Station.

Julie Davidson (Gabriella Licudi) has an unearthly effect on babies and school children: