September 26, 2012

Shrunken Heads and Dummies

Poster - Nightmare in Wax (1969)
Now Playing: Nightmare in Wax (1969)

Pros: A couple of brief but genuinely chilling sequences; A surprisingly solid "method" performance by Cameron Mitchell
Cons: Rock-bottom production values; Irritating, amateurish music score; Unfunny comic relief; A bizarre WTF? ending
Extra special bonus: After reading this entertaining and compelling post, get yourself over to She Blogged by Night for more entries in the Camp and Cult Blogathon!

I have a problem. (Okay, I have more than one problem, but for your sake, dear reader, I'm only going to admit to one today.) I am an inveterate collector (i.e.,  a spineless consumer who can't help but buy all kinds of stuff that ends up collecting dust on a shelf somewhere… or is that "invertebrate collector"? Whatever.) In this age of instant-play-streaming-recordable-downloadable everything, I still like (heaven help me) admiring the garish cover art as I pop open a DVD case for the first time and struggle to free the shiny disc from its plastic imprisonment. (Similarly, swiping e-book pages on a iPad is just not the same as blowing the dust off that old hardcover and licking your fingers as you page through it.)

I suppose it boils down to this: if it's too easy to acquire and use, then you don't appreciate it as much. Plus, there's that urge to own that I just can't shake. Even if I decide to buy instead of rent that Amazon Instant Play title, they store it for me in a network cloud somewhere. My confidence is not exactly boosted by some digital scheme that takes as its metaphor a puffy, ephemeral thing in the sky that is here one minute and gone the next. And then there's wretched Netflix, which can't seem to negotiate any sort of stable, reliable access with its content providers for more than a few months at a time.

And then there's the whole issue of bandwidth and those inevitable [expletive deleted] moments when you're trying to watch something over the danged internet. Like 47% of my fellow Americans (source: the Romney campaign), I live in a moderately dinky town out in the sticks where "fiber optics" means putting on your reading glasses to check out the Metamucil dosage directions, and where the most up-to-date transmission lines were laid about the same time that the Pony Express made its last stop in town.  I just cannot get those danged Netflix instant titles to stop flickering no matter how many times I upgrade my danged internet service and HDMI cable. [Expletive deleted!!!]

In such a spotty network environment, it's still easy (at least for me) to be old school. There are a few upsides to the inevitable march of technology. As the venerable DVD player goes the way of the VCR and the Dodo, there are lots of great deals to be made on those shiny, fragile discs. A couple of months ago I was at the last store in town that rents DVDs, reflexively burrowing through the discount bin (for those of you not familiar with this sublime experience, it's a cross between panning for gold and trying to dig for some trinket using one of those crane things that you stick a bunch of quarters in).

DVD cover - Mill Creek's Gore House Greats Collection
This woman is exhausted after watching 17
straight hours of gory entertainment!
Even though I couldn't see it buried underneath all the Pauly Shore and NASCAR's Greatest Races DVDs, I felt a case that was a little bit thicker and more substantial than the others. When I dug it up from the bottom of the bin, I was pleasantly surprised to see that I was clutching Mill Creek's Gore House Greats Collection -- 12 extra-guilty cult pleasures stuffed into one extra-sized package. Better yet, the price was a measly $3. Sold!

Let me say at this point that I am not by nature a sneaky person. But then, neither am I a complete fool. So I generally don't come home with these bargain bin treasures and wave them in my long-suffering wife's face, saying, "Hey, look what I found!" Every so often, they stay safe and secure under a coat or umbrella in the back seat of the car, and then leisurely wander into the house later in the evening. Still, my wife is very intelligent, has a steel-trap memory, and incredibly sharp eyes. Far and away the most frequently spoken sentence in my house is "Where did that come from?" I'm sure she has visions of those houses where you can just barely get from room to room using narrow passages carved out of towering stacks of old newspapers, books, magazines, and DVD cases. But that can never happen-- I have a steady state collection. As I bring new DVDs in, I make a list of old stuff that I need to trade-in or donate to Goodwill. And one of these days I'll get around to it.

Anyway, back to the Gore House Greats (gotta love that title!). Perusing the list of titles on the back of the case, several jumped out at me, their fangs bared and their hideous claws scratching at the very large portion of my brain allocated to cheesy B horror and sci-fi movies. There's The Madmen of Mandoras (aka They Saved Hitler's Brain; 1963), which I haven't seen, but which is supposed to give Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) a run for its money as one of the worst films of all time; Al Adamson's Blood of Dracula's Castle (1969), one of the several thousand B horrors John Carradine appeared in (I'm not exaggerating by much); The Devil's Hand (1962), a decent occult thriller starring Alan's dad Robert Alda; and then there's Nightmare in Wax.

I had just read some interesting accounts of the making of Nightmare by a couple of cast and crew members in Tom Weaver's A Sci-Fi Swarm and Horror Horde, (McFarland, 2010), so I revved up the old DVD player to check it out. As I was watching it, I experienced a mild feeling of deja vu-- somewhere in the dim dark past, I probably caught this thing on the late show or through a moment-of-weakness videotape rental. My second reaction was, this is probably not the gem of the collection-- even something that calls itself "Gore House Greats" and features such titles as Blood of Dracula's Castle and Satan's Slave.

Nightmare in Wax isn't even a gem in the rough. It features story elements that were getting a bit long-in-the-tooth in the 1950s (not to mention the late 1960s), lines of dialog that are head-slappingly inane, rock-bottom production values, and acting that ranges from high-school amateur to pretty good. However, it does have its moments, which I will get to later.

The story will seem familiar to anyone who's seen Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) or House of Wax (1953). Vincent Renard (Cameron Mitchell) is Paragon Studios' greatest makeup artist. He's so supremely self-confident that he is dating the studio's biggest female star, Marie Morgan (Anne Helm). When they announce their engagement at a swank Hollywood cocktail party, the jealous, piggish studio head Max Black (Berry Kroeger) tosses a drink into Vincent's face just as he's lighting a cigar. The alcohol turns the lighter into a impromptu flame thrower, setting fire to poor Vincent's head. He crashes through a plate-glass window and dives into the backyard pool.

Nightmare in Wax - Vincent and Marie
After the "accident," Vincent (Cameron Mitchell) refuses
to be consoled by his ex-fiance (Anne Helm).
With an eye missing and his head swathed in bandages, Vincent broods in his hospital room, rejecting all of Marie's attempts to lift his spirits. The engagement of course is off. After what we presume is a lengthy recovery, Vincent lands a job with the Hollywood Wax Museum. One side of his face is badly scarred, and he wears an eye patch. (While his injuries are bad, they're not nearly what you'd expect of someone whose face had been lit on fire then propelled through plate glass.) Instead of dating glamorous movie stars, he is now reduced to talking to his wax creations in his dimly-lit workshop. His new family consists of, in his words, "shrunken heads and dummies."

Following Vincent's "accident," Paragon Studios seems to have fallen under a curse. Several of its big name actors (and one actress) have turned up missing. Hollywood detectives Haskell (Scott Brady) and Carver (John "Bud" Cardos) are assigned to investigate, and leaving no stone unturned, pay the disgruntled makeup man turned eccentric wax sculptor a visit. The museum has exploited the notorious disappearances by featuring an impressive wax figure tableau of the missing Paragon stars. Of course, the police detectives are not exactly Holmes and Watson, and leave the museum figuratively scratching their heads.

While paying homage to its cinematic wax museum predecessors (especially with the horribly wronged, disfigured mad artist main character), Nightmare updates the familiar story with a pseudo-sci-fi plot device-- a nerve agent that can put human beings into a very rigid state of suspended animation. As if that weren't enough, we learn in Bill-Nye-science-guy fashion that any kind of electrical discharge -- like a lightning storm -- can interfere with the nerve agent's effects. Uh-huh. It's so Saturday-morning-cartoonish, that killing someone and using the corpse as the basis for a wax figure sounds very plausible by comparison. As you might expect, a standard-issue horror film electrical storm figures into the film's climax (as well as a cringe-inducing comic relief sequence in which a museum guide thinks he sees one of the wax figures blinking at him and swears to lay off the booze… oh boy!)

At the root of Nightmare's faults is the obvious cheapness of the production. Characters who are supposed to be fabulously wealthy studio executives, actors and actresses lounge around in very modest LA homes. Wax heads are obviously actors with their heads sticking out of tables, trying very hard to be still. And the music score sounds like it was put together using tracks from a couple of Halloween sound effects CDs.

Vincent prepares one of the "wax" exhibits
Whatever you do, don't let this guy give you a seasonal flu shot!
In spite of all this, Nightmare manages some very effective, eerie sequences thanks in large part to Cameron Mitchell. While the other performers are either irritating or forgettable, you can't take your eyes off of Vincent Renard. He's undeniably hammy, yet at the same time chilling. Even in his "quiet" scenes -- talking to the police detectives or having a one-sided conversation with one of his wax heads -- he seethes with barely controlled rage. When he finally explodes and terrorizes an exotic dancer that he's brought back to the museum, the scene seems unscripted and uncontrolled-- and is quite frightening. In another chilling scene, one of Renard's automatons, his half-frozen head bathed in blue light, monotonously says the name of his lover over and over again until Renard injects him with serum.

However, at least one of Nightmare's crew members didn't appreciate Cameron Mitchell's style, acting or otherwise. Real makeup man Martin Varno had nothing but bad things to say about Mitchell in his interview with Tom Weaver:
He was a complete jerk. I'm sure you've heard that before. He was probably real pissed-off that he wasn't doing big pictures at Fox any more. … There was a scene where Cameron, who was supposed to be this great makeup man turned wax sculptor, was sitting at a table making up what was supposed to be a wax head. [Producer Rex] Carlton said to me, "Hey, Can we use your makeup case in the scene?" My makeup case was a wooden fishing kit that I had bought and fixed up… I said "Look, this is how I'm making my living now. Be careful with it, don't let him throw Technicolor blood all over it or something." So they started shooting the scene and there on the table was my makeup case, as if it were his, and on another part of the table were my different bottles of stuff and my brushes and sponges and things. When they started shooting, he began being "dramatic," he began being The Actor, and within the scene he got angry about something-- and he decided to extemporize a little bit and surprise us all, and he slapped all the bottles off the table and also pushed my whole makeup case off the table onto the floor. Smashed God knows how much. Because he was "act-ing"…  (Ibid.)
Well, makeup cases come and go, but great film acting is forever. (Anyway, Varno was compensated for the damage.) By 1969, Mitchell's A-list film days were indeed behind him. Mitchell soared to fame playing Happy Loman in the stage and film versions of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Through the '50s and '60s, he appeared in dozens of westerns, war dramas, and costume epics. The high point of his TV career came in the late '60s on the western The High Chapparal, where he played the very popular character Buck Cannon. Other sci-fi/horror roles include Flight to Mars (1951) and Mario Bava's gruesome Blood and Black Lace (1964).

Writer-Producer Rex Carlton (the guy who reimbursed Martin Varno for his damaged makeup case) was also responsible for a couple of low-budget sci-fi classics discussed in this blog: Unearthly Stranger (1964; writer) and The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962; producer). An IMDb trivia blurb states bluntly that "He killed himself after being unable to reimburse the mob for money he borrowed to finance another picture." (?!) This happened before Nightmare in Wax was released.

One last warning. Be careful what you have in your hands as you watch the final scene, because you might just throw it at the screen. But don't let that deter you from experiencing one of the more bizarre, "immerse yourself in the character" method-style performances in the history of low-budget horror movies.

Makeup artist turned wax sculptor Vincent Renard (Cameron Mitchell) has an interesting conversation with one his creations:

September 17, 2012

King Kitsch

Konga (1961) - Poster
Now Playing: Konga (1961)

Pros: An ultra-hammy, ultra-mad scientist; Ripe, unintentionally (?) hilarious dialog; A smorgasbord of sci-fi cliches; Cheap effects, including a laughable gorilla suit
Cons: All of the above if you're not in the right frame of mind
Added Bonus: See She Blogged by Night for other entries in the Camp & Cult Blogathon!

I doubt that Merian C. Cooper fully appreciated what he was starting when he created King Kong.  In the decades following the big ape's appearance, the movie-going public's taste for all things colossal grew, slowly at first, then in the 1950s soared to the box office skies fueled by atom age fears. Atomic testing unleashed The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and Godzilla (1954) on an unsuspecting world. Then the always inventive Japanese squared the circle by pitting the old against the new in King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962). The rest, as they say, is movie history writ LARGE.

And then there's Konga. Now mind you, Konga was not the first Anglo-American co-production featuring a giant beast loose in the streets -- The Giant Behemoth rampaged through London in 1959, thanks in part to Eugene Lourie, the man who introduced us to The Beast from all those watery fathoms. (Coincidentally, Lourie added yet another giant beast, Gorgo, to UK film lore the same year that Konga debuted.)

But where the Beast, the original Godzilla, the Behemoth and Gorgo played the giant monster subgenre pretty straight, Konga charted its own wild and wacky course. In fact, Konga is damned difficult to classify. Yes, it features a gigantic ape menacing panicked city dwellers, but it also features a floridly mad scientist; wacky scientific theories; bizarre, man-eating plants; groovin', hip college kids; a busty blonde damsel in distress; and even finds a couple minutes to show us a travelogue of central Africa. Konga plays like the result of a bet made over a bunch of drinks in a Hollywood or London bar: "-- I'll betcha you can't stuff all these B movie cliches in there and still make a watchable movie!  --Oh yeah, well, I'll see you at the premiere!"

Michael Gough as Prof. Charles Decker
If you ever encounter passionate intensity like this,
run for your life!
Konga starts out innocently enough with the return to London of botanist Charles Decker (Michael Gough), who had spent a year in a remote Ugandan village after his plane crashed. He's brought back a cute young chimpanzee whom he's named Konga, and knowledge of the unique properties of certain species of insectivorous plants courtesy of the village witchdoctor. At the airport, he tells a group of reporters that he's discovered a new, revolutionary link between plants and animals that could cause "a lot of textbooks to be torn up." The next thing we see, he's tearing up plants from his own greenhouse/laboratory to make room for the new African carnivorous plants, much to the consternation of his long-suffering housekeeper and assistant Margaret (Margo Johns).

Her consternation turns to horror when Decker calmly fetches a gun and shoots the house cat after it laps up some spilled serum extracted from the exotic plants.
"You fool! You think I want the biggest experiment of my life menaced by a cat? Even those few drops might have made Tabby swell up to huge proportions! We're not ready for a cat the size of a leopard running through the streets!"
Okay, it looks like the good professor has become a tad unhinged… but you ain't seen nothing' yet!  He proves to the wide-eyed Margaret that his plant serum can alter the shape and size of animals by injecting little Konga, who immediately transforms into a large, mature chimpanzee. Oh, and it just so happens that he added some seeds to the serum which, as he learned from the witchdoctor, affect the will and make the subject susceptible to outside commands. (Take notes, as that will be important later.)

After he gets a dressing down from the college Dean (Austin Trevor) for mentioning his wacky theories to the press, Charles decides to take his experiments on Konga to the next level. The next injection turns the chimp into a large (but not yet gigantic) gorilla. (Attentive viewers will have noted that earlier on, Charles had claimed that the serum could alter the size and shape of animals, so the screenplay covers itself on this supposed discrepancy.) The demented scientist decides to also test the serum's hypnotic properties by commanding the formerly meek chimp to kill Dean Foster in the dead of night. All in the name of science of course!

Konga and his mentor
Professor Decker has a captive audience.
At this point the movie morphs from a sort of African travelogue to an updated Murders in the Rue Morgue, as the police inspectors puzzle over a neck snapped by impossibly strong hands and black animal hairs found at the scene. Next in line for Decker's "experiments" is a rival Indian botanist, Prof. Tagore, who tells Decker a little too much about his work in -- you guessed it -- the use of exotic plant serum to genetically alter animal cells. What a coincidence! (Tagore is played by George Pastell, a Cypriot character actor who popped up frequently in British movies and TV whenever vaguely menacing Indians or Middle Easterners were called for. He worked quite a bit for Hammer, appearing in The Mummy, 1959; The Stranglers of Bombay, 1959; Maniac, 1963; The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb, 1965; and She, 1965; among others.)

Margaret quickly catches onto what Decker is doing, but instead of turning him into the police, she tries to blackmail him into marrying her. Margaret's character is another in a long line of B movie female assistants secretly pining for the obsessed scientist who barely notices her. But Margaret takes the cliche even further by being so coldly calculating and selfish. She's more than willing to sacrifice a life or two to snatch her man and become a respectable professor's wife. But even she has her limits. As she reads about Decker's/Konga's latest murder in the morning paper, she finally explodes in exasperation at her husband-to-be with one of the film's most surreal, unintentionally hilarious lines:  "What are you having with your poached egg? Murder?"

Doubly unfortunate for Margaret, Decker is not only a murderer, but an unapologetic lech as well. He spends much of the movie trying to entice one of his more shapely students (Sandra, played by Claire Gordon) into helping him out with some "extracurricular" work. When Decker makes an extracurricular pass at Sandra in the greenhouse, Margaret finally decides she's had enough and injects Konga yet again with the serum so that he can help her deal with the incorrigible professor. Big, bad things happen as a result, and the movie morphs again into the giant-monster-loose-on-the-city-streets subgenre that we all know and love.

Konga rampages through the streets of London
"Hey, do you have a permit to shoot that giant gorilla?"
As big as Konga gets in the latter part of the movie (big enough for the army to have to deal with him), he seems puny in comparison to the colossally over-the-top acting of Michael Gough. Konga is unusually talky for a giant monster flick. At every opportunity, the smug, arrogant Decker is expounding on his bizarre theories and explaining his genius to the press, to Margaret, to the Dean, to Dr. Tagore, to his students, and to you, the poor, long-suffering viewer. No one, including Konga, can get a word in edgewise. Konga finally snaps and rampages through London in the movie's closing minutes. Wiser filmmakers might have reserved at least a little more screen time for the major payoff, i.e., the giant monster, but then, Gough/Decker is a giant ego monster in his own right, and commands every bit as much attention as the giant ape. Like Konga, you can't help but be mesmerized by lines like this:
"The poor layman doesn't know what he's missing. The feeling of losing yourself, not only in work, but in discovery -- a wonderful feeling of peeling off layer after layer, like petals from some rare flower… and finally achieving the ultimate secret! I mean, taking a form of life in one stage and changing it into a higher one in a matter of minutes, where nature itself would take millions of years. … You know what I mean, not only change, but the Godlike power of creation!"
Gough is perhaps best known for his relatively small part of Alfred the butler in the Tim Burton Batman movies, which unfortunately obscures a very rich, very lengthy career in theater, movies and television spanning seven (count 'em!) decades (and with a 1979 Tony award thrown in for good measure). In all those decades of work, Gough was perhaps never more hammy or fun to watch than in the string of B movies he made with writer-producer Herman Cohen (the man who created such immortal titles as I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein).

In the late '50s, Cohen was making film deals with the UK's Anglo Amalgamated Films for American International Pictures. In an interview with Tom Weaver (Attack of the Monster Movie Makers: Interviews with 20 Genre Giants, McFarland, 1994), Cohen relates that he first became aware of Gough through his role in Hammer's wildly popular Horror of Dracula (1958); Cohen's London office just happened to be in the same building as Hammer Studios. Cohen convinced Anglo Amalgamated to put up some money for a nasty little picture, Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), featuring a mad crime writer who hypnotizes a young man into committing unspeakable crimes in order to aid him in his research (sound vaguely familiar?).  Horrors is notorious for a gut-wrenching opening scene in which a woman's eyes are gouged out by a pair of binoculars booby-trapped with steel spikes -- supposedly based on a real Scotland Yard case! Gough continued to ham it up outrageously for Cohen's Konga and another cult favorite, Black Zoo (1963). His last two roles for Cohen, in Berserk (1967) and Trog (1970) were tame in comparison (no doubt due to Joan Crawford's starring role in both -- no one, but no one, upstaged Joan!)

In the same interview, Cohen tells an amusing story of almost getting thrown out of England because of Konga. The producer wouldn't take no for an answer when told that there was no way he could get permission to shoot the battle royale with the giant ape in London's Embankment area. He schmoozed with the chief inspector for the neighborhood, and when told that the inspector didn't have a color TV at home, went out and bought him one. Voila, he had his permit:
"The thing that I didn't mention to him was that, at the finale, all hell was going to break loose-- that we were going to shoot sub-machine guns, bazookas, etc., etc. I purposely didn't tell him this! … Well, the [emergency number] got something like three hundred phone calls-- people thought London was being invaded! This was only fifteen years or so after World War II, and they were still worried. I had a lot of apologies to make -- a lot!" [Ibid.]
Well, Herman Cohen may have had to make apologies for Konga, but I won't. It's talky and cheesy and a bizarre mix of B sci-fi cliches, but it's also very entertaining thanks to Michael Gough's generous portion of ham. It's also available on a nice MGM DVD release that makes its lurid colors and cheesy effects pop on your flat screen.

"Not since 'King Kong'...has the screen exploded with such mighty fury and spectacle!"

September 9, 2012

Raiders of the Lost Art

Poster: Journey to the Lost City (1960)
Now Playing: Journey to the Lost City (1960)

Pros: Lavish costumes and sets; old-school spectacle
Cons: Cliched plot recycled from the silent era; A.I.P.'s dubbed, condensed version offers little pathos and even less suspense

Art is a fickle mistress. She laughs at our pretensions of greatness, and chuckles at our struggles to be simply competent. She favors the young, and often showers them with great gifts, but before you can blink she's packing her bags and moving on to the next upstart. Although movies aren't her all-time favorite medium, she has paid regular visits to their creators over the decades.

Although the great Fritz Lang never thought of himself as an artist, he had more than his share of flirtations with the muse. In his first go-round in Germany between the World Wars, Lang helped establish the film grammar that we know today, invented big-budget, effects-laden cinematic sci-fi, laid the expressionist groundwork for later film noir, and… oh yeah, made a couple of the greatest films of all-time, Metropolis (1927) and M (1931).

Then along came the Nazis, and Lang's famous flight from Germany in the dead of night after an ominous meeting with propaganda minister Goebbels. After a couple of years in Paris, Lang ended up in Hollywood. In this strange new culture, with its much different way of making movies, it appeared that the muse had deserted Lang for good. Even though he kept very busy, making over 20 movies in the next couple of decades, critics of the time generally agreed that he had lost it.

While he certainly made some mediocre films during his Hollywood period, time has been a lot kinder to Lang than his contemporary critics, who seemed to be itching to dismiss everything that the eccentric German emigre did in his adopted country. Lang's resume from this period reads like a "Best of Film Noir" list: Ministry of Fear (1944), The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), Clash by Night (1952), The Blue Gardenia (1953), The Big Heat (1953), Human Desire (1954), While the City Sleeps (1956), and his last film made in America, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956).

Deprived of the near endless resources he was accustomed to in Germany and struggling against a strange culture, Lang nonetheless made a string of great movies that would come to define the film noir genre. We can admire Metropolis for its epic sweep and its groundbreaking technological achievements, but the smaller, more personal films like Scarlet Street and The Big Heat are so much more gut-wrenching and emotionally-involving, and are as great in their own way. Along with the young, it seems that Art often comforts the afflicted.

Paperback cover: Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast by Patrick McGilligan
By the mid-1950s, Lang had had it with the meager trickle of low-budget film offers and Hollywood's crude philosophy that you're only as good as your last box-office success. He started traveling, first to India, which had held a unique fascination for him, and then to Germany (the first visit since his escape from the Nazis before WWII). He talked to the German press about possibly making one last film in his former home country, but initially nothing came of it. Then, Producer Artur Brauner, a Polish Jew who also had managed to escape the Nazis, but who had returned to postwar Berlin to set up a studio, convinced Lang to take one more stab at cinematic glory. 

Lang had more than a passing fancy for the proposed project, a remake of Das Indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb; 1921). Based on a novel by actress/writer Thea von Harbou (whom he married), Lang helped von Harbou develop the script under the auspices of one of the legendary founders of German cinema, Joe May. Lang was in high hopes of directing, but when May took over the directing reigns, he was devastated. According to Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan, Lang saw Brauner's offer as a sort of "closing of a mystical circle" and a chance to remake his fate 40+ years after his first great disappointment. (Patrick McGilligan, Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, St. Martin's Press, 1997)

As in 1921, the epic story was divided up into two parts, Der Tiger von Eshnapur (The Tiger of Eshnapur) and Das Inische Grabmal. Millions of German marks were committed by a studio that had up until then specialized in low budget projects. The normally uncompromising Lang compromised with his producer on the choice of cameraman (Richard Angst over Lang's favorite, Fritz Wagner), and on the female lead of Seetha. Lang wanted a native Indian, but grudgingly accepted the beautiful, but thoroughly American, Debra Paget because of her greater box office potential.

The films were mercilessly panned by German critics upon their release in 1959. One Austrian went so far as to call them "an orgy of trash and kitsch." (Ibid.) But apparently there was still an audience for kitsch recycled from the silent era, as they made quite a bit of money in other parts of Europe. American International Pictures acquired the U.S. rights, combined the two films into one drastically edited version, dubbed it in English, and released it in the states as Journey to the Lost City in late 1960. In effect, A.I.P. took a grand, two part costume epic and turned it into a 94 minute B movie suitable for a drive-in double-bill (albeit with better production values and fancier sets).

Debra Paget as Seetha and Paul Hubschmid/Christian as Harald Berger
The star-crossed lovers tempt fate by meeting
in the jealous Prince Chandra's palace.
The story involves a European architect, Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid; credited in the American version as Paul Christian), and a beautiful Indian dancer, Seetha (Debra Paget), who have both been summoned to the remote Indian city-kingdom of Eshnapur by the Maharajah, Prince Chandra (Walter Reyer). Harald's mission is to help the Prince build new schools and hospitals for his long-suffering people. Seetha is a renowned beauty and dancer, and her purpose is to, well, dance. The two travel to the city together for added security, and en route, the virile and quick-thinking architect saves Seetha from a legendary man-eating tiger after her own bodyguards run away. Naturally, a romance blossoms between the two, complicated by the Prince's obvious infatuation with Seetha when he finally lays eyes on her. The Prince, a widower, intends to make Seetha his wife, while his power-hungry brother Ramigani (Rene Deltgen) schemes to stir up a revolt by Chandra's ex-brother-in-law Padhu (Jochen Brockmann), who is none too happy at the prospect of a common dancer replacing his dead sister on the throne.

When Chandra learns that Harald is seeing his bride-to-be behind his back, he changes from a beneficent, kindly ruler to an angry, vengeful autocrat. The Prince condemns Harald to the palace tiger pit, but throws him a spear in a gesture of grudging respect. The architect and man's man kills yet another tiger, and later he and Seetha manage to escape into the desert. Chandra commands his double-dealing brother to bring them back. In the meantime, Harald's kindly Indian assistant has traveled to New Delhi to warn Harald's sister and brother-in-law (Sabine Bethmann and Claus Holm) that Berger is in grave danger from the spurned and vengeful Prince. They hightail it to Eshnapur to find out what's going on. Little do they know that they're rushing headlong into a deadly palace coup.

A mummified guard
A mummified soldier guards the catacombs
deep below the Prince's palace.
Journey to the Lost City is filled with extravagant sets and costumes, wild animals, colossal statuary, mummified bodies, menacing lepers and other exotic imagery. Yet, even at a lean 94 minute running time, A.I.P.'s version seems flat and ponderous. It's essentially a creaky, old-fashioned gothic romance dressed up in Oriental garb. Certainly, the German critics at the time thought it was hopelessly artificial and antiquated. I haven't seen the original films from which Journey was made. I wonder if my reaction would be different if I had watched decent sub-titled prints of the originals. As it is, this review is based on a poor DVD copy of a dubbed version that was drastically edited for time and American tastes. I suspect poor Fritz is rolling in his grave.

Still, it is a film by the great director, the second to last one he directed (the underrated The 1,0000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, 1960, was his swan song), and for that alone, it's inherently interesting. Also interesting, at least to me, is the presence of Debra Paget and Paul Hubschmid/Christian. In my humble opinion, Debra is one of the most beautiful women ever to appear in movies. Even miscast as an Indian dancer, she is a striking, alluring presence-- check out the clip below and see if you don't agree. Debra started out playing exotic roles in a variety of westerns and costume dramas -- Broken Arrow (1950), Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), The Ten Commandments (1956) -- but equally interesting (and a lot more fun) were a string of horror and sci-fi roles as her career wound down: Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), and one of my all-time favorites, The Haunted Palace (1963).

The Swiss-born Paul Hubschmid had a brief Hollywood stint as Paul Christian in the late 1940s - early '50s. He starred in another one of my all-time sci-fi favorites, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), before returning to Europe for good.

The two films from which Journey was derived were to be Lang's capstone achievements, and a vindication for him. By most accounts, they were significantly less than that-- further proof that you can't go home again. Still, Journey is a interesting footnote in the varied and fascinating career of a great artist and craftsman. In the words of screenwriter Werner Luddecke, Lang was "[A] perfect worker, a perfect architect, a perfect tyrant, a perfect listener, critic, and furthermore, a man who could withstand criticism." [McGilligan].

An imperfect copy of Journey to the Lost City is available on DVD-R from Sinister Cinema, and on Amazon Instant Play. You might want to check it out anyway.

All eyes are on Seetha as she dances in the temple: