December 24, 2013

Yes, Virginia...

There really is a movie called Santa Claus Conquers the Martians!

Poster - Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Santa sets up a fantastic automated toy factory on Mars!

Where to find it:
Available online

The Internet Archive

Available on DVD

Here's wishing you a great holiday season, and may you find peace, happiness and good fortune in 2014 and beyond!

December 15, 2013

Precognition Ignition

Poster - The Clairvoyant (aka The Evil Mind; 1935)
Now Playing: The Clairvoyant (aka The Evil Mind; 1935)

Pros: Thoughtful examination of the lure of fame and the curse of being "different"; Strong performance by Fay Wray
Cons: Dull stretches with Jane Baxter mooning over Claude Rains; Pat, unsatisfying ending
"We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future. You are interested in the unknown... the mysterious. The unexplainable. That is why you are here." Criswell, Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
The Amazing Criswell aside, the future isn't what it used to be. Once upon a time in the dim, remote past called the 20th century, the future was big business. Among mystic Edgar Cayce's clients were such luminaries as Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Edison. Nostradamus was a rock star 400 years after he penned his last prophecy. Performers like the Amazing Kreskin routinely popped up on late night television to share their psychic insights. And their predictions dealt with more than just the tiresome minutiae of celebrity life -- they were about war and peace, wealth and poverty, the fortunes of great statesmen and politicians, and even the fate of the earth itself.

The Amazing Criswell from Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Not even the Amazing Criswell could
have predicted the enduring popularity
of Plan 9 from Outer Space
Somewhere along the line we became a little less gullible and a lot more cynical, and as a result lost interest in earth-shattering prophecies. Now, about the only interest we have in the future is wondering what boneheaded thing the Kardashians will do next, or what Jennifer Lawrence will do with her hair for the Oscars.

The Clairvoyant was made a long, long time ago, far away across the pond. The fading British empire was, like the U.S., in the grip of a deep, grinding depression. Of course, people needed distractions from the everyday cares of life, and music halls were all the rage. Many of the stages were occupied by blindfolded mentalists who could still wow the rubes by sending their assistants out into the audience to procure personal items that the performers would identify with their "second sight." It was a far more innocent time than our own.

Maximus, portrayed by the amazing Claude Rains, is a garden-variety mentalist. At the beginning of the film, we see him practicing his routine with his wife and stage assistant Rene (Fay Wray).There's a lot of mental energy involved in the act, but it has nothing to do with psychic abilities. Maximus has a big job to do, memorizing all the various permutations of "Now what am I holding in my hand Maximus?" and all the personal articles they stand for ("Now what am I holding?" might mean a billfold and "Can you tell what I'm holding?" a tie-pin; Criss Angel's Mindfreak this ain't.)

At a routine performance, a party of rich, insouciant trust-funders is watching from the expensive seats. They're on to Maximus' act, and try to get Rene to come over to their box for a unique personal item they know the mentalist and his assistant haven't prepared for. Rene studiously avoids them. The commotion from the spoiled rich kids throws off Rene's and Maximus' timing, and the audience grows restless as they see Maximus struggling. One member of the rich kids' party, Christine (Jane Baxter), isn't interested in revealing the act as a fake. She seems genuinely enthralled by Maximus.

Claude Rains as Maximus the Mentalist, The Clairvoyant (1935)
The fake mentalist has his first real psychic vision.
A short time later, the act calls for Rene to disappear from the stage and reappear in a balcony at the back of the theater. Not having adequately rehearsed, she finds the door to the stairway locked. As she looks for another way to the balcony, Maximus is obviously in trouble all by himself on the stage. The audience starts to fidget, then turns ugly, clapping their hands and hooting while Christine watches the hapless performer from her box. Suddenly, Maximus stares off into space. An older man stands up in the front row, challenging the struggling mentalist. "What have I got here?" he sneers as he holds up a piece of paper. "A letter… about your wife… from the hospital," Maximus intones. "That letter is two days old… you'd better go to your wife…" The man's face falls -- Maximus has nailed it -- and he quickly leaves as the rest of the audience goes quiet. "And you…" he says, staring now at Christine. "I see a railway journey… I see…" He collapses and the act is cut short as the stage hands drop the curtain.

Cut to a train speeding through the countryside at night. Maximus and his entourage -- wife, mother (Mary Clare) and manager Simon (Ben Field) are traveling to their next gig, and discussing what happened at the theater. Mother reveals that her father, Maximus' grandfather, had true psychic abilities. Maximus assures his worried wife that it only happened once, and may never again. Simon hopes it will show itself again-- "we could make our fortunes!" Wise to the psychic world, mother speculates that someone in the audience emanated a kind of psychic energy, like a battery, that jumpstarted Maximus' visions.

The same girl (Christine) from the theater walks past the group in the rail car. "I've seen that girl before," Maximus says as he goes into a near-trance. Suddenly his eyes widen as he recalls his vision of Christine's railway journey at the theater. He jumps up and pulls the emergency cord to stop the train, explaining to the exasperated conductor and everyone within earshot that the train is going to crash. Maximus, his entourage and a small group of excited people including Christine disembark. A little while later when they learn from a station master that the train did indeed crash, Christine immediately gets on the phone to her father, a wealthy newspaper man (Lord Southwell, played by Athole Stewart).

Jane Baxter as Christine (The Clairvoyant)
Moon-eyed Christine (Jane Baxter)
is the "battery" that jump starts
Maximus' psychic powers.
Southwell's paper publishes the scoop of Maximus' disaster prediction, and suddenly the middling mentalist is the talk of London, not to mention the hottest ticket in town. Maximus takes to wearing expensive smoking jackets and self-satisfied smirks. He negotiates an unheard-of deal to appear at the London Palindrome. He has his own column in Southwell's paper. He hobnobs with the cream of English society. His fame only grows when he publicly predicts that a hundred-to-one shot will win the Derby. (When another horse beats his pick across the finish line, it seems for a moment that he's lost his gift -- until the apparent winner is disqualified and the long shot horse picks up the win.)

It's not long before the downside of fame and fortune rears its ugly head. Christine is obviously the psychic battery for Maximus' gift -- he only goes into his trances in her presence. As the newspaper heiress spends more and more time with the swollen-headed psychic, the loyal and long-suffering wife is increasingly pushed to the side. As she packs up to leave, Maximus sees his mother's death before it happens.

Brought together by the tragedy, Rene tries to get her husband to see that this power fueled by Christine is bad, but like an addict, Maximus is reluctant to part with the "gift" that has made him a celebrity. Then, just when it seems things can't get any worse for the man torn by family and fame, he makes a prediction about a major tunnel disaster that will come back to haunt him…

Claude Rains and Fay Wray
Maximus and Rene are apprehensive as a nearby
clock tower seems to toll for the end of their marriage.
I first became aware of this obscure Claude Rains / Fay Wray drama-thriller when I stumbled across it browsing through the Internet Archive. I filed it away in my mind to watch later, and just recently, almost two years later, I finally got around to it. It's both a somewhat dewy-eyed artifact of its time, and a quite sophisticated examination of classic hubris. A young, handsome Claude Rains is at his easygoing best in the early going as he banters with his wife over details of his stage act. Later, we feel for the man, yet want to reach through the screen and shake him, as he struggles with the temptations of fame and fortune even as his beautiful, adoring wife gets ready to bail out.

Fay Wray as Rene and Mary Clare as Maximus' mother are also exceptionally good as each in turn tries to save him from his own hubris and the unwitting psychic clutches of uber-groupie Christine. On the other hand, Jane Baxter as Christine spends most of the film staring at Maximus with moon eyes (or is she just constipated?). In spite of ol' Moon Eyes, Maximus' first encounter with the power within himself is very effective. The turnaround from a blown stage act to a genuine encounter with the unknown is sudden and jarring: Maximus pulls off his blindfold, and with Christine's eyes locked on him, he goes into a trance. His face, just a moment before in shadows, is suddenly suffused with an eerie light. When it's clear that he can somehow see the man's letter about his hospitalized wife, his simple words "you'd better go to your wife" are chilling. By comparison, Maximus' later trances are anticlimactic. (And unfortunately, Rains goes way over the top toward the end when his character is trying to convince the workmen that the tunnel they're working on is going to collapse and flood on them.)

Jane Baxter and Claude Rains (The Clairvoyant)
The desperate psychic implores the workers
to stay away from the tunnel.
The other impressive thing about The Clairvoyant is its sophisticated treatment of the subject of so-called psychic powers. Are they real, or does the very act of predicting the future set in motion forces and emotions that make it self-fulfilling? An angry railroad man tells Maximus that by stopping the train, he caused it to be late, which contributed to the accident. And the managers of the tunnel project claim that Maximus so unnerved their men with his hysterical warnings, they brought about the disaster in their haste to get their jobs done and get out of the tunnel.

In spite of its disappointing wrap-it-up-with-a-pretty-bow ending, this modest old B movie leaves the viewer with a few things to think about. Who could have predicted that?

Where to find it:
Available online

The Internet Archive

Available online

Amazon Instant Video

Available online

Netflix Instant Watch

Bonus Mentalist Act: The Prediction (Episode 10, 1st season of Thriller, the Boris Karloff-hosted TV series,1960-1962)

Title card, The Prediction, episode 10, Thriller, 1960
The Clairvoyant reminded me of one of the better 1st season episodes of the old Thriller series from the early 1960s, so I watched it again, thinking it might have been based on the same source material as the movie. Both share the same premise, about a fake mentalist who suddenly acquires real psychic powers. But while The Clairvoyant was based on a novel, The Prediction seems to have been filmed from an original teleplay. It's a distinct possibility that writer Donald Sanborn saw the movie at some point and was either overtly or subconsciously influenced. The opening mentalist act scenes are very similar to one another. Boris himself plays Mace the Mentalist, decked out in a fancy cape, white gloves, and mystic turban. Like Maximus, when a member of the audience starts heckling him, demanding to know who will win the big boxing match, he falters, then suddenly seems to connect with an authentic psychic plane. "Someone will be killed in the ring!" he says, his voice rising. "The fight must be stopped!" he shouts, running toward the stage exit. In his panic, he tips over a flaming urn and nearly burns the theater down.

Boris Karloff as Mace the Mentalist, The Prediction (Thriller TV series)
Remember, only you can prevent stage fires
caused by freaky psychic visions.
His beautiful assistant Norine (Audrey Dalton), the theater owner and assorted stage hands try to calm him, but he's adamant. Mace insists that Norine's ne'er-do-well father Roscoe (Alan Cailiou) rush over to the boxing arena to talk the organizers into stopping the fight, but instead Roscoe makes a fortune betting against the fighter Mace has predicted will die. When Mace continues to have visions on stage which result in disturbingly accurate predictions (including a brutal end for Norine's gambling, alcoholic father), the stage hands get spooked and start avoiding the weird old codger. Instead of leading to fame and fortune, Mace's newfound gift leads to Cassandra-like misfortune, and his unpredictability gets him fired.

The latter part of the episode involves his prediction of disaster for Norine and her fiance as they head off to get married. He begs them to turn around at once if they see a twisted road sign to Edinburgh. They laugh it off, since they're headed in the opposite direction and couldn't possibly encounter such a sign. Or could they?

This is one of a handful of Thriller episodes (and the only season one episode) that Boris Karloff starred in. It's compelling, suspenseful and well-acted all around -- a showcase episode for a wonderfully eccentric and eclectic show that, like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, featured top-notch acting, writing and production talent. John Brahm, of The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945) fame, directed.

Where to find it:
Available on DVD


"You'd better go to your wife!"

November 26, 2013

The Thrilling Third Anniversary Roger Corman Sci-Fi Triple Feature!

First of all, my apologies for not posting sooner. Normally, I try not to let too much time elapse between my brilliant insights-- the goal is two weeks or less. When it comes up on the 10 day mark, I get antsy and start thumbing through my vast collection of B movies for something to write about. Here it is, almost a month since my last post, and I'm just now sitting down to the computer. Where did the time go?

Of course, you hear this refrain a lot, especially around this time of year. The difference between me and all those other people is that I have thought deeply about it and have come up with a theory. And no, it's not the standard "time flies when you're busy and/or having fun."  I've found two separate phenomena, specific to the season, that combine to literally cause time to contract. (I'll wait a moment or two for that to sink in………..) I'm still calculating how much each contributes to the overall effect, but there is no doubt in my mind about the resultant time distortion.

Calculating the self-correcting, time displacement quotient of the universe
When I'm not blogging, I'm hard at work
solving the mysteries of the universe.
First, the cosmic microwave background (CMB) of the universe vibrates (I prefer the word 'sings') in a kind of harmony that scientists are only beginning to understand (hey, don't take my word for it-- look it up). Crass retailers have disrupted this delicate universal harmony by introducing Christmas displays and music to their stores in mid-to-late October. The universe has a self-correcting mechanism that restores equilibrium and harmony -- and a holiday season that runs as it should from Thanksgiving through January 2nd -- by collapsing time in upon itself along the axis of the space-time continuum. The 24-hour day doesn't just seem shorter-- it is shorter. We don't notice because the time is subtracted when we're asleep.

Secondly, as everyone knows, the earth's orbit around the sun is not a perfect circle, but elliptical. At this time of year, when the earth comes to the hair pin curve in its elliptical orbit, the sun's mass grabs the earth as it rounds the curve and hurls it like a slingshot. As the earth speeds up, time also accelerates according to Einstein's Theory of Relativity and some other stuff that's too hard to explain (don't blame me, it's Science!).  By itself, the effect is imperceptible to humans, but combined with the universal harmonics time contraction, it causes us to wonder every year around this time, "Can it really be so close to Thanksgiving already? Where does the time go? And where am I going to get a tofurkey for my fussy vegan aunt?"

Roger Corman's Cult Classics, Sci-Fi Triple Feature (Shout! Factory)
So there you have it. Never mind that I have a scientifically-validated excuse for letting time get away from me. This blog and its followers deserve at least one post this month. And what better time to do it than on the 3rd anniversary of my first blog post? (Okay, so it's a couple of days late -- the anniversary was the 24th -- but we're going to overlook that particular bit of time distortion for now.)

To make up for lost time (and because it's appropriate for a third anniversary), I thought I'd feature three (count 'em!) of B movie maestro Roger Corman's early sci-fi hits. Just like my advanced brain, these modestly budgeted movies are packed full of strange and intriguing scientific concepts. Fortunately for those wishing to visit the outer reaches of weird science, they've been conveniently packaged by Shout! Factory into a two disc set (Roger Corman's Cult Classics / Sci-Fi Triple Feature), replete with such extras as "A Salute to Roger Corman" documentary, audio commentary by Tom Weaver and the Brunas brothers, and the extensive Roger Corman trailer collection.

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

Poster - Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)
Now Playing: Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)

Pros: Perhaps the iconic B sci-fi movie of the '50s (especially the title); Manages an atmosphere of dread in spite of the dubious premise
Cons: If you watch this with friends or family, make sure there's no food or liquid in your mouth the first time you see the crab monster

In brief: A group of scientists and Navy men travel by seaplane to a remote Pacific island to study the effects of of radiation from nearby H-bomb testing. A previous group from the same institute vanished without a trace on the same island, presumably lost at sea during a violent storm. A Navy officer (Ed Nelson) somberly tells the new expedition members, "When I came here to rescue your first group, I not only knew they were dead -- but that they were gone completely and forever, body and soul." Okay then!

We know something definitely is not right when a sailor accidentally falls into the water not far from shore, and his buddies haul his headless body back into the boat. Then, with all the expedition members watching, the seaplane takes off and promptly explodes. Trying to contact civilization from the island base's shortwave radio, Hank, the engineer/technician (Russell Johnson) discovers that he can pull in commercial broadcasts but can't seem to transmit. (Later, the radio is completely destroyed by a mysterious thing that smashes through a wall to get to it.)

One of the scientists makes the understatement of the century when he says, "Something in the air is wrong!" There doesn't seem to be any life left on the island except for seagulls and land crabs. The only thing the previous group left behind is chief scientist McClain's diary. In it he describes finding a bizarre specimen of worm, over 5 feet in length, with flesh that seems to allow solid objects to pass through it harmlessly (?!). And then there are the constant booming sounds and earthquakes that keep shaking the tiny island. Not far from the base, a huge 50 foot deep pit suddenly appears, apparently a result of the mystery blasts.

Titles screenshot, Attack of the Crab Monsters
Attack's titles feature some wild art.
That night, biologist Martha Hunter (Pamela Duncan) is awakened by the disembodied voice of McClain. She follows it out into the night. Jim Carson the geologist (Richard H. Cutting) also hears the voice and joins her. He wonders how the Navy failed to find any survivors from the last expedition, since McClain is obviously still alive. Jim makes the mistake of trying to rappel down the pit in search of McClain when another quake hits. He falls. Soon, the other members of the expedition are hearing a similar disembodied, spectral voice in the night, but this time it's Jim's. They try to rescue him, but give up for lack of light and the danger of more quakes.

Against the unnerving backdrop of constant blasting and earthquakes, some deadly, mysterious force is picking off the scientists and the sailors one by one. The survivors soon learn that the island is literally disintegrating under their feet, and waiting to catch them when they run out of solid land is a new, radiation-enhanced species of land crab with the bizarre ability to absorb solid objects, including brain tissue, into its body.

Attack of the Crab Monsters is so chock-full of absurdities -- giant crabs with molecularly-disrupted bodies that allow solid matter to pass through or be absorbed, and with the mysterious ability to pulverize an entire island in the space of a few days -- that it's easy to dismiss it as one of the more ridiculous sci-fi Bs of the '50s. But Corman manages such a dark atmosphere of suspense and almost supernatural dread -- especially with the constant booming sounds in the distance and the disembodied voices in the night -- that you're tempted to put your rational faculties on hold and enjoy it anyway.

Corman (and screenwriter Charles Griffith) also add enough grisly elements to the suspenseful mix to keep viewers off-kilter and wondering what will happen next-- there's the sailor who loses his head just offshore, and then later a scientist loses his hand in an avalanche. Unfortunately, all the carefully built atmosphere is pretty much dissipated upon first viewing of the monster. The prop people decided to give the giant crab a couple of huge, very human-looking eyes with lids that look like plastic garbage bags being pulled by a string. I'm tempted to say that more shadows and less close-ups of the monster would have made for a better film, but then, the corny, cheesy effects are a big part of why we love these movies. Right?

A crab monster
"Once they were men, now they are land crabs!"
Key screenwriter: Charles B. Griffith wrote the scripts for Corman's more intriguing early sci-fi and horror. Born into a show business family -- his mother and grandmother starred in a popular radio show, Myrt and Marge -- Griffith was trying to sell TV scripts in California when he met and befriended actor Jonathan Haze. Haze was just getting started as a member of Corman's B movie "repertory" company, and as a favor showed Corman some of Griffith's scripts. Corman liked them, and the rest is history. [IMDb bio].

Griffith also acted and did second unit director work, but it's the screenplays that made him a B movie legend. In addition to Crab Monsters, he wrote Not of This Earth (1957; see below), The Undead (1957), A Bucket of Blood (1959), Beast from Haunted Cave (1959), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), and Death Race 2000 (1975) -- all, as you might expect, for Corman. In Corman's first memoir (which also contains dozens of interviews with associates), Griffith shared Roger's formula for making cheap, memorable thrillers (and how he managed a long and fruitful partnership with the King of the B's):
"When Roger first told me he wanted this crab picture, he said, 'I want suspense or action in every single scene. Audiences must feel something could happen at any time.' So I put suspense and action in every scene. Usually, I'd do a draft in two, three weeks, with very little discussion with Roger. The he'd take my first draft and say, 'Let's tighten it up a little.' So I'd make a few changes and type it over with wider margins. That gave me a lower page count and Roger was happy." [Roger Corman with Jim Jerome, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Da Capo Press, 1998.]

Poster - Not of This Earth (1957)
Now Playing: Not of This Earth (1957)

Pros: A sympathetic, yet creepy alien; Interesting details about the alien's home planet and culture are nicely woven into the story; Don't miss Dick Miller's classic bit part as a vacuum cleaner salesman
Cons: The alien's unwitting human helpers are verrrrry slooowww to realize their employer is not of this earth

In brief: Dour Paul Johnson (Paul Birch) has been sent to Earth by his masters on the planet Devanna to evaluate human blood for its compatibility with Devannan physiology, and to figure out if Earth is ripe for invasion. It seems that due to high radioactivity from near constant nuclear warfare, Devannans have found that their blood is breaking down, turning literally to dust in their veins. The species will die if a new blood supply can't be found. Johnson is the original man in black, wearing a crisp black suit, black fedora, dark glasses, and carrying an aluminum attache case with his blood-sampling equipment. Getting a human blood sample is quick and efficient: Johnson takes off his shades, cooks the donor's brain in his skull just by looking at him with his alien, opaque eyes, and then gets to work draining the blood into one of the vials he carries in his case.

Sparing no expense, he's rented a large house in Beverly Hills and hired a witless petty crook (Jonathan Haze) to drive him around and help him cope with the strange culture. After using mind control on a local doctor to get a drug transfusion, no questions asked, he hires the doctor's attractive nurse, Nadine (Beverly Garland) to live at the house and administer regular transfusions. During a late night communication session with his boss on Devanna (via an interplanetary communicator/transporter hidden in the closet), we learn that the Earth is between a rock and a hard place. Johnson is a guinea pig: if the transfusions work and human blood is compatible with Devannans, Earth will be invaded and humans harvested for their blood; if the blood is no good and Johnson dies, the planet will be destroyed. Meanwhile, the local cops are scratching their heads over a serial killer who cooks his victims' brains in their skulls and drains the blood from their bodies. Will the beautiful Nadine get a clue about her eccentric employer and alert her boyfriend cop before Johnson completes the final phase of his plan?

Beverly Garland and Paul Birch in Not of This Earth
Nurse Storey (Beverly Garland) is not sure what
to make of her enigmatic employer.
As a ten year old kid seeing this for the first time, I was unimpressed. The "monster" was just a doughy-faced middle-aged man in a suit. Yeah, the eyes were kind of creepy, and there was that alien umbrella-shaped flying thing that wrapped itself around its victim's head, but then again, there were no spaceships or giant bugs to really hold a kid's attention. Only after I overcame my prepubescent attention deficit and viewed the film a couple more times did I come to appreciate it's B artistry.

Charles Griffith's and Mark Hanna's screenplay is quite sophisticated for this sort of sci-fi quickie. Like Bram Stoker's classic Dracula, Johnson the alien "vampire" must rely on human helpers in order to cope in a strange environment. While he seems to be "bloodless" in more ways than one -- not the slightest hint of emotion crosses his face as he drains the blood from his victims -- he nonetheless seems curious about his new home, its language and customs. There is the slightest hitch in his monotone voice as he repeats his master's plans for the subjugation of the Earth. Even more interesting is the hint of panic in the master's voice as he describes the urgency of the mission, and how the social fabric of the homeworld is fraying as the native blood supply literally dries up. Later, a renegade female Devannan escapes to Earth through Johnson's transporter at the risk of summary execution, and her description of a world in chaos is pretty potent stuff. What would you do under the circumstances? (The real horror is the seemingly vibrant, intelligent nurse played by Garland, who at the same time can't seem to understand the menace that her eccentric employer represents. You want to reach through the screen and shake her!)

Key player: And then there's Dick Miller (billed here as Richard Miller), who plays a bit role as a pushy vacuum cleaner salesman, Joe Piper, who shows up at Johnson's door. Complete with a thick Brooklyn accent, Piper is a man who refuses to take no for an answer. Unfortunately, his persistence gets him killed for his troubles. After failing to quickly get rid of Piper, Johnson realizes that his blood is probably as good as anyone's for test purposes, and he agrees to have the salesman demonstrate his state-of-the-art vacuum down in the cellar. Miller's/Piper's double-take as he pauses from his pitch and looks up at the alien vampire, sans glasses, is a classic B movie moment. Here's Miller's memory of the role:
"Roger thought Piper would wear a suit and bow tie and have a pocket full of pencils and say politely, 'Good afternoon, sir, may I see the man of the house?' So I show up in a black cashmere jacket and a black shirt and Roger is still unsure of the image. He says, 'You're not dressed.' I say, 'Hey, look, this is the way I dressed when I sold pots and pans in the Bronx for two weeks, let me dress this way. You think a guy goes to college to sell vacuums? If it doesn't work I'll go home on my lunch break and get other clothes.' I did the scene as a real hippie-dippy street kid with lines I ad-libbed as I went. 'Hey man, you wanna purchase, you purchase, you don't wanna purchase, you don't purchase…'" [Ibid.]

Poster - War of the Satellites (1958)
Now Playing: War of the Satellites (1958)

Pros: Eschews bug-eyed monsters for a more cerebral alien menace; Effective shock scene involving a Bunsen burner; Assembly of the spacecraft in orbit anticipates the real-life Apollo space program
Cons: The crackpot space jargon flies so fast and furiously it makes your head spin

In brief: If it weren't for bad luck, the United Nations' manned space program Project Sigma would have no luck at all. It seems that a mysterious space barrier is blowing up every expensive piloted satellite that project director Dr. Van Ponder (Richard Devon) and his associates Dave Boyer (Dick Miller) and Sybil Carrington (Susan Cabot) can throw up at it. Seemingly oblivious to the loss of life, the determined project head wants the UN to finance yet another mission that he himself will captain. Soon, the UN receives a message from the masters of the spiral nebula (?!) Gana that any attempt by primitive, aggressive humanity to expand into outer space will be stopped cold.

Van Ponder's plans to address the United Nations and argue the case for giving the "Masters of the Universe" the proverbial finger and sending up yet another ship are disrupted when a mysterious light in the sky takes control of his car and forces it to crash into a ravine. Without Van Ponder's presence at the council meeting, the delegates are ready to nix any more funds for Sigma. The mood turns even more sour when the council gets word that Van Ponder has been killed in an automobile accident. Dave, representing the project, makes an impassioned plea to soldier on: "It's precisely because they don't want us to travel the skies that we must do so!" When Van Ponder miraculously shows up to the meeting without a scratch, the day is saved and the delegates vote to continue the project.

Alien clones played by Richard Devon (War of the Satellites)
What's a busy rocket scientist to do?
Clone himself of course!
The Project Sigma base hums with activity as the rockets are readied for the latest mission. But strange things are going on as well. Van Ponder seems to be able to clone himself -- one minute he's at a remote corner of the base, and the next he's seen in his office miles away. And then there's the curious incident in which he carelessly sears his hand over the flame of a misplaced Bunsen burner, but minutes later when medical help arrives, his hand is completely healed and normal. Dave begins to suspect something's amiss, then stumbles upon Van Ponder literally duplicating himself when he thinks he's alone in a corridor. Minutes before launch, Dave is reassigned to fly in the second rocket, while the alien posing as Van Ponder invites the unsuspecting Sybil to ride with him in the flagship rocket. Will Dave be able to convince his crewmates that Van Ponder is not really who he seems? Will humanity finally break through the space barrier, or will this mission too end in explosive failure?

Being an artifact of the early space age, War of the Satellites is full of scientific naivete and technobabble that would make Buck Rogers or Rocky Jones, Space Ranger blush. The manned craft of Project Sigma are referred to as satellites rather than spacecraft or capsules (terms that would be in full-blown use just a couple of years after the film's release). Viewers will smile in bemusement at astronauts wandering around the base just minutes before takeoff, and then strapping themselves into leather lounge chairs that are just sitting (not bolted) in the middle of an amazingly spacious rocket compartment.

Bemusement turns to slack-jawed amazement when the faux Van Ponder creates a beating heart in his own chest cavity when the suspicious ship's doctor decides to conduct an impromptu physical (easy enough I suppose for someone who can duplicate his whole body through alien mind over matter). The amazing part is that along with the new human heart, he's suddenly acquired a very human romantic interest in Sybil. Oh brother!

Richard Devon and Susan Cabot get ready for liftoff
This space mission is brought to you by La-Z-Boy (TM).
Still, the alien impostor in the form of long-faced Richard Devon does supply some interest and suspense. The scene with the errant Bunsen burner flame is pretty effective. In the lab prior to the mission, the alien Van Ponder is talking with one of his engineers. Van Ponder accidentally jostles the lit burner, then, with his back turned, rests his hand right in the path of the flame. The alien feels nothing until the horrified engineer catches sight of his charred hand. As the panicked man runs off to find the base doctor, the impostor, making sure no one is looking, rubs his hand back into perfect shape.

Another interesting scene anticipates the real-life docking and assembling maneuvers of the Apollo space program of the '60s and '70s and later space stations. Instead of employing one gigantic needle-nosed spaceship like other sci-fi films of the era, Project Sigma entails launching multiple manned rockets, each with a capsule that detaches from the booster in earth orbit and docks with other capsules to form a larger, spinning craft with artificial gravity -- quite an advanced concept for a rushed B production.

Key filmmaker: In The Movie World of Roger Corman (J. Philip di Franco, ed., Chelsea House, 1979), Corman proudly boasts of his ability to quickly exploit a hot news item:
"This was a quintessential example of shooting from the headlines. The first Russian Sputnik had just been launched when a friend called me with a story idea about satellites. I called Allied Artists and said I would have a script in two weeks and the film could be shot in ten days and cut in three weeks. The film was actually shot in eight days, and within two months of the headline event we had the first movie about the new space age."
(P.S.: Look for Corman himself as a young mission control specialist.)

October 31, 2013

A Preternatural Poster Parade for Halloween

Like a good trailer, sometimes the luridly cheesy (or cheesily lurid) B movie poster promises thrills and chills that are strikingly absent in the movie itself.

Can a great poster redeem a bad movie? Doubtful, but who cares? Enjoy them for what they are -- an art form unto themselves. For this year's Halloween post, I've picked some outstanding (and downright bizarre) examples representing the good, the bad and the ugly of horror and sci-fi cinema.

(Click on the caption to see a high resolution version on the Wrong Side of the Art! website. A word of caution: the site also features some R-rated exploitation content, so browse at your own risk.)

Poster - 13 Ghosts (1960)
You can't tell the ghosts without a scorecard!

Poster - The Astounding She Monster (1957)
Jazz hands!

Poster - Attack of the Puppet People (1958)
Man's best friend, but not a puppet person's.

Poster - The Beast with 1,000,000 Eyes (1955)
Warning! There's no Chinese dragon with a million eyes in this movie!

Poster - Black Sabbath (1963)
The Headless Horseman of... oh wait, that's another movie!

Poster - The Brain Eaters (1958)
This is your brain on B sci-fi movies!

Poster - The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)
Can you believe this man was married to Shirley Temple?

Poster - The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Too much information. It's just a poster, damn it!

Poster - Dead of Night (1945)
Edward Gorey (or someone very much like him) does "Dead of Night."

Poster - Donovan's Brain (1953)
In his eyes was muurrrderrrr!!!!

Poster - Dracula's Daughter (1936)
Don't look her in the eyes! Uh-oh...

Poster - Eyes without a Face (1960)
Oh crap, there are those eyes again!

Poster - The Haunting (1963)
Trapped in the maze of Hill House!

Poster - House of Dracula (1945)
Don't be knocking at this house on Halloween!

Poster - I Vampiri (1956)
Eye, eye, Vampiri!

Poster - It Came from Outer Space (1953)
Some people obviously can't handle 3D.

Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962)
Journey to the Planet of the BEMs (Bug Eyed Monsters)

The Lair of the White Worm (1988)
Even a movie with Hugh Grant in it can't spoil a great poster.

Poster - The Land that Time Forgot (1975)
Okay, so I like dinosaurs. You got a problem with that?

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963)
The Ray (Milland) with the X-ray eyes.

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Don't look too long into this face -- there lies madness!

Poster - Monster on the Campus (1958)
Big monster on campus.

Poster - The Mummy (1959)
It's hard to wreak vengeance on tomb defilers on an empty stomach.

Poster - Not of This Earth (1957)
"What? My coupons have all expired?!"

Poster - Queen of Blood (1966)
Oh what a web we weave, when we practice to deceive (and drink blood)...

Poster - The Reptile (1966)
"Does this snake skin make me look fat?"

Poster - Them! (1954)
Okay, ants don't have eyes like that, not even giant ones...

This Island, Earth (1955)
"That blowed up good... real good!"

Poster - Tomb of Ligeia (1964)
Tomb of the Evil Cat Lady

Poster - Voodoo Woman (1957)
You better wake up before you hit the ground!

Voyage to the End of the Universe (1963)
Don't take a trip on a starship built by the lowest bidder.

Poster - World Without End (1956)
The first B movie poster designed by a Cubist painter (or so it seems)...