May 23, 2013

The Ronald Reagan Memorial Killer Tree: Tabanga

Poster - From Hell It Came (1957)
Now Playing: From Hell It Came (1957)

Pros: Screwy yet strangely disarming South Sea Islands premise; A crazy rubber-suited monster that earns an A for effort
Cons: Dull patches of exposition; Clunker lines of dialog; The island natives look like a random assortment of extras with tan makeup and ridiculous costumes

You don't see much in the news these days about killer vegetation (at least not since Ronnie Reagan revealed in the 1980 presidential campaign that malicious trees polluted more than automobiles). The green-environmental movement has pretty much covered up the shocking truth that even though most plants and trees are rooted to the ground, many of them bear a grudge toward those of us in the animal kingdom who can move around at will, and a select few would even do us harm given the opportunity. We're all familiar with plants like cacti that have developed spines, or better still, the many varieties of flora that have brewed up internal poisons to discourage animals and humans from eating them.

But plants aren't always on the defensive. What American kid growing up in the 1960s wasn't fascinated by the ads for Venus Fly Traps in the back of all those comic books? Little did we know that the venerable Fly Trap has many cousins in the plant kingdom. According to Wikipedia, there are more than 630 carnivorous plant species that "attract and trap prey, produce digestive enzymes, and absorb the resulting available nutrients." Yum!  Science tells us that reports of actual man-eating trees are mere legends and fabrications, but then, I'm not gonna go looking for the deadly Madagascar Tree or the South American Ya-te-veo just to prove it can't grab and digest something my size.

Comic book ad for a Venus Fly trap
Show of hands-- who all ordered one
of these when they were a kid?
I've had my own encounter with a malevolent cactus, and it was one of the most painful experiences of my life. Some years ago I was hiking in the Grand Canyon. Toward the end of the day, with my feet sore and aching, a low-lying prickly pear leaned out and stabbed me with one of its spines straight through the mesh of my hiking shoe and right under the nail of my big toe. My hiking buddies just chalked it up to me being clumsy, but I swear that thing was gunning for me! (After the hike, the toe became infected and I had to have the nail removed. Yeah, bummer!)

As you might expect, all this malignity on the part of the plant kingdom has attracted Hollywood's attention from time to time. The reigning Queen of B movie carnivorous plants is still Audrey, the beloved flesh-eating creation of Seymour Krelboyne (Jonathan Haze) in Roger Corman's legendary quickie, Little Shop of Horrors (1960). Two years later, a ferocious meteor storm seeded earth with ambulatory killer plants in The Day of the Triffids (1962). Lost worlds and unexplored planets have also featured their share of man-(and woman-)eating plants: for example, the plucky heroine of The Land Unknown (1957) has an encounter with a hungry primordial piece of vegetation (almost the least of her worries in a land brimming with pterodactyls and T-Rexes).

Deadly walking trees are somewhat rarer in vintage B films, but they do exist. Night-walking, acid-secreting trees transplanted from Antarctica give the U.S. military (and Mamie Van Doren) all kinds of trouble in The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966). And then there's the dendrological nightmare from Hell, the Tabanga.

Native islander Kimo is accused of the most heinous crime.
Poor Kimo (Gregg Palmer) is about to know real heartache!
From Hell It Came opens in dramatic fashion with the natives of an unnamed South Seas island gathered around handsome Kimo (Gregg Palmer), who is tied spread-eagled on the ground. The tribal elders, medicine man Tano (Robert Swan) and Chief Maranka (Baynes Barron) have accused Kimo of the most heinous of crimes -- killing his own father, the old chief. Kimo strenuously denies it, accusing Tano of poisoning his father in order to make his ally Maranka the new head honcho. But even Kimo's wife, the duplicitous Korey (Suzanne Ridgeway) feigns ignorance of such a plot. The elders also accuse Kimo of being too friendly with the Americans visiting the island, who they think have brought the plague and "devil dust" (fallout from H-bomb tests) to their once peaceful home. Before the executioner can plunge the ceremonial knife into Kimo's heart, the passionate young man declares "I shall come back from Hell and make you pay for your crimes!"

The Americans are William Arnold (Tod Andrews), a medical doctor, and Prof. Clark (John McNamara), an anthropologist. They're on the island to study the native culture, battle the plague and deal with the effects of the radioactive fallout that's accidentally blown in from an H-bomb test site hundreds of miles away. They realize that the evil, ambitious Maranka and his flunky Tano poisoned Kimo's father before modern medicine could heal him, and that the pair are inciting the rest of the natives against them. With relations between the natives and the visitors worsening, the foundation sponsoring the expedition flies in super-competent and compassionate Dr. Terry Mason (Tina Carver) to help with the health crisis. Arnold and Mason go way back, and Bill is secretly in love with his colleague.

Tina Carver as Dr. Terry Mason and Tod Andrews as Dr. Bill Arnold
Smooth-talking Bill (Tod Andrews) tries to convince Terry
(Tina Carver) to give up science and run away with him.
When she arrives, Bill warns her about the dangerous situation and tries to get her to leave, but she's serious about her mission and won't hear of it. While Arnold clumsily tries to woo the no-nonsense Mason, a strange tree or bush is rapidly sprouting up from the spot where poor Kimo was buried. A couple of islanders still friendly with the Americans alert the team to the thing. At first the professor and the doctors think it's some sort of new, unclassified plant life, but when the thing grows to human size with a face only a weeping willow could love, the team digs it up and takes it back to their makeshift lab. To their amazement, they find it has a "human-like" heartbeat and is radioactive. Stranger still, the ceremonial dagger projects from the "chest" of the mutant tree, right in the area where a human heart would be.

One of the natives calls it the Tabanga, meaning "creature of revenge." He relates the story of a previous murderous rampage by another walking, revenge-minded tree. Terry, monitoring the vitals of the man-tree, detects a weakening heartbeat and fears the thing may be dying. When she tries to enlist Bill's aid, he's not so sure keeping it alive is such a good idea-- "I'm no tree surgeon!" he complains. She administers an experimental stimulant serum that she assures her colleagues will take several hours to work on the creature's circulatory system. When they return to the lab, they find it wrecked and the creature gone. Tabanga has shambled off to take its revenge!

I wooden't say that From Hell It Came is a great film, or even a particularly good one, but if you think that there's nothing to recommend it, you're barking up the wrong tree. Anyone with the cockeyed optimism to think that they could make an effective sci-fi programmer out of the concept of a grumpy, revenge-driven walking tree deserves at least a little credit. The Tabanga is so unique and unlikely that you can't help but root for these impecunious filmmakers and their rubber-suited tree monster.

Much of the credit for the Tabanga goes to legendary creature effects artist Paul Blaisdell, the creator of such iconic '50s monsters as The She-Creature (1956) and the alien invaders from Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957). According to Blaisdell biographer Randy Palmer, Jack and Dan Milner (producer and director, respectively) approached Blaisdell to create the tree creature (they had contacted him previously to design the monster for their 1955 production The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues, but he was busy at the time working for Roger Corman on The Day the World Ended). Having been burned on another low-rent production by people he hardly knew, Blaisdell was reluctant to go all in (and he also had a commitment with Bert Gordon to do The Amazing Colossal Man). Blaisdell did provide some concept drawings, and even went so far as to create some very realistic-looking foam rubber tree bark to guide the eventual maker of the creature suit. [Randy Palmer, Paul Blaisdell, Monster Maker, McFarland, 1997.]

Paul Blaidell's concept art for the Tabanga
Details from Paul Blaisdell's Tabanga concept art.

The eventual product, while not quite as elegant as Paul's original drawings, certainly captures their spirit (not to mention the signature scowl of just about every movie monster Blaisdell created):
"The Milner brothers became concerned about the cost of reproducing Blaisdell's two-dimensional design in three dimensions. Had the Tabanga been constructed using the sketches as exact blueprints, it would have had to be made as a stop-motion model, rod puppet, or marionette. There was clearly no way it would have been able to interact with the cast to the extent required by the script-- at least not in 1957 and not without a more substantial special effects budget-- so the Milners took Blaisdell's illustrations to Hollywood's Don Post Studios and had a standard rubber and latex monster costume made. Since Paul's original design was so thin and spidery, the basic visual concept needed to be altered. The dimensions were enlarged so that a normal actor or stunt specialist could play the part as Paul had played the monsters in his own pictures. The end result was nowhere near as nightmarish as Blaisdell's original concept, but there was no mistaking it for anything that might have wandered over from the Disney studios either." [Ibid.]
I suspect that there are folks out there who, even allowing for the era's less sophisticated effects, will conclude that the Milners went too far out on a limb with this particular monster. All I know is that the Tabanga made a far greater impression on me as a kid than the standard-issue giant rubber spiders, lizards standing in as dinosaurs, and tin-plated robots that were so prevalent in sci-fi of the time. The Milners were wise enough to exploit their creature and give it a lot of screen time while also covering up its more obvious deficiencies. We see several shots of the creature moving through the thick brush, its legs hidden, its mouth moving uncannily, grim determination etched on its hideous wooden face. (There is one ill-considered long shot of the entire creature shuffling along a forest path -- it has the crab-like walk of someone whose pants have been pulled down around his knees; needless to say the spell is somewhat broken at this point.)

The Tabanga grabs Terry (Tina Carver)
Remember: Don't stand under a tree or a
Tabanga during a lightning storm!
Regardless of what you think of the monster suit, there is an obvious problem with the concept of a mobile tree creature. To say the least, this is not one or the quicker or more agile B movie menaces. Like Universal's Mummy, the average viewer must think, "how dangerous could this thing be if a little old lady with a walker could outrun it?" So the script twists and turns in unnatural ways to place the victims within the grasp of the slow-moving but inexorable monster: one trips (of course!) and hits his head on a rock; another misses the thing with a spear at a distance of about 3 feet, and apparently is so chagrined by his poor aim that he forgets to get out of Tabanga's way; yet another mistakes the grumpy tree for one of its more natural, non-ambulatory cousins, and stands right next to it.

It also doesn't help that From Hell's modest budget and production crew (Jack Milner wrote, produced and edited; brother Dan directed) is obvious from the get-go: the ostensible South Sea island setting looks like a rundown city park, and the natives look like random actors pulled from a casting call and given tan makeup and floral print tablecloths to wear around their waists. To add insult to injury, the Milners follow up the promising opening scene with dull exposition of the American scientists complaining about the island, the weather, the natives, what they had for lunch, you name it. Worse yet, they then engage in "sparkling" banter with an egregiously unfunny "comic-relief" character, the self-absorbed trader and professional widow Mrs. Kilgore (actress Linda Watkins employs the worst Australian accent ever and says "bloomin'" every third word in an annoying attempt to make her character colorful and endearing). Last but not least, lead dog doc Bill Arnold embarrasses himself in an extremely feeble, yet chauvinistic attempt to woo the committed heroine Terry Mason (despite the name, she's a B movie doctor, not a TV lawyer).

In one cringe-inducing scene, Arnold whines to Terry, "don't you want a husband and children like other women?" and then quickly digs himself deeper with an exasperated "Will you stop being a doctor first and a woman second?" (Presumably the plague that's decimating the native population will wait while the lady doctor gets her feminine priorities in order; even for the decidedly non-feminist '50s, this is nauseating stuff.)

But don't let this stuff deter you from seeing one of the crazier monsters in all of '50s B sci-fi. You may laugh, you may cry, you may throw your popcorn at the flatscreen (especially when you see how the Americans finally dispatch the monster), but I guarantee the Tabanga will move you in some way (even though he doesn't move so well himself).

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

Warner Archive Collection

"Creature of unholy vengeance, born in the heart of a man unjustly condemned to death!"

May 8, 2013

Less is More Horror: 21st Century Low-budget Fright Films

Note to my readers: After nearly 14 years in the same location, I'm on the move again. After the last move I vowed it would be the final one. With 14 more years worth of accumulated aches, pains and grey hairs, I'm hoping that it will be at least that long before I have to pack up and do it all over again, if ever (I now know enough to never say never). We're not pack-rats, but as I go through all the flotsam, jetsam and detritus of normal (?) middle-class living, I don't think I will ever again look at anything other than a consumable on a store shelf without thinking "do I really need that?" and more importantly, "do I want to box that up and move it when the time comes?" I'm at the point where I'm ready to pass the torch to the next generation to keep the durable goods economy going. Preparing for a move really focuses your mind on the basics, and reminds you of how little is really necessary for a comfortable life: a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and of course, a good collection of DVDs and movie memorabilia. Since I will be busy in the next couple of months making sure my movie stuff, among other things, arrives safe and sound in its new home, I will be posting somewhat less frequently to the blog. But I will try to keep posting regularly to Films From Beyond on Facebook (featuring capsule reviews, B movie trivia, quotes, photos, etc.). If you haven't already, check it out!

I'm going to mix things up a bit for this post, and write about some nifty low-budget horror films that have been released since -- **GASP!!** -- 2000. While these titles are well outside the normal parameters for this blog (under-appreciated genre films from the 1930s through the '70s), they serve to illustrate that the "B" spirit is still alive and well, and that with a little imagination and creativity, you can make a movie that is just as effective in its way as something costing tens of millions more.

In my last post on Castle of Blood (1964), I observed that "[y]ou don't need over-the-top shock effects or a bunch of high-end computers dedicated to CGI to raise goosebumps. You can do it with lighting, make-up, sound, in-camera effects, and some imagination." Unfortunately, much of filmed science fiction and horror these days is caught in a vicious circle: ever more sophisticated and costly effects are used to capture attention and box office bucks; the productions are so expensive that few studios are willing to gamble on unknown or original material, so an endless parade of familiar comic book and TV franchises and sequels are trotted out each year; in spite of the whiz bang effects, the movies begin to blend together and look the same, so even more money is spent on trying to distinguish the product from all the other imitators; and on and on it goes. (On the horror side, filmmakers are caught in an endless circle of "gross out" one-upmanship, to the point where last year's Saw or Hostel sequel looks almost tame compared to current nauseating gore standards. TV is getting especially bad. This is not horror -- it's gore/torture porn.)

Cover of Filmfax, Spring 2013, No. 133
In the latest issue of Filmfax, Miller Drake, a special effects editor who got his start with Jack Rabin and then went on to work for Roger Corman's New World Pictures, talks about how the film itself has almost become secondary in today's market:
"Everybody wants to make sequels, remakes and video games, comic books or graphic novel adaptations. They're all so afraid of doing anything original. Film companies are all owned by big corporations now and all they want to make are these big expensive, what they call 'tentpole' projects, that they think will make a lot of money. They're more concerned with merchandising, like selling toys and video games, than with making good movies. So they're really locked into that kind of thinking." ("From Rocketship X-M and Kronos to Island of the Fishmen and Beyond," Filmfax, Spring 2013, No. 133)
One upside of the digital production revolution is that a whole new generation of artful, imaginative films are being made on a shoestring. These movies, aimed at a select audience, don't need comic book heroes, familiar franchises, or worldwide theatrical releases to be successful. Like the B's of old, the ingenuity and creativity is reserved for the movie itself, not the advertising campaign or merchandising tie-ins. And quite often, they are surprisingly original and effective on budgets that are a fraction of what some blockbuster productions spend on catering alone. Here are four very good examples in the horror genre that have caught my attention since the turn of the millennium. They've all earned the Films From Beyond Honorary B Movie award. And best of all, they're readily accessible on Netflix Instant Watch.

Session 9 (2001) - Poster
Now Playing: Session 9 (2001)

Pros: Great setting; Good, solid cast; Grabs you with its creepy atmosphere from the outset and steadily ratchets up the tension
Cons: Some of the characters' motivations are murky to the point of confusion

In brief: Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullan), owner of a small hazardous materials cleanup company, wins the bid to remove asbestos from the old abandoned Danvers State Mental Hospital, but the job has to be done in an almost impossibly short time frame. Success doesn't seem guaranteed, as most of the crew are dealing with an assortment personal problems: Gordon is having family troubles, Mike (Stephen Gevedon) is a depressed law school dropout, Hank (Josh Lucas) has stolen fellow crew member Phil's (David Caruso) girlfriend, and Gordon's nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) suffers from fear of the dark. The dark, creepy corridors and rooms of the abandoned hospital aren't helping anyone's mood. Mike discovers a box with 9 taped sessions with a patient, Mary, with multiple personalities. Mike's curiosity gets the better of him, and he starts listening to the tapes. Strange things start happening in the old hospital, and by the time Mike gets to session 9, where Mary's malevolent alter ego Simon speaks on the tape, an old evil seems to have been unleashed on the hapless cleanup crew.

Key scenes: Session 9 was a revelation to me way back in '01. I realized that some filmmakers out there were actually willing to make subtle, sophisticated psychological horror films that were about realistic characters and the building of mood and suspense instead of gore effects and high body counts. At the outset, simple shots of the dark, Gothic set -- a real state hospital -- establish a forbidding atmosphere. It builds from there, and by the time you hear "Simon" speaking out of the old reel-to-reel tape recorder, the short hairs on the back of your neck are standing up.

Key player: David Caruso, the most recognizable actor in the film, was between stints on the popular TV series NYPD Blue and CSI: Miami when he appeared in Session 9.

The Ceremony (2008) - Poster
Now Playing: The Ceremony (2008)

Pros: Keeps things in the shadows to stir the viewer's imagination; Great use of sound and masterful editing; Solid performance by Scott Seegmiller
Cons: The manifestation of the demonic force may seem like a cliche to some

In brief: Graduating college student Eric Peterson's (Scott Seegmiller) life seems to be on the upswing-- his professor and mentor has offered him an important research position overseas. As he starts to clean up his apartment and prepare for the big move, he discovers an open book surrounded by candles sitting in the middle of his roommate's bedroom. Intrigued, he takes time off from his moving preparations to investigate the passages in the book, even taking the trouble to consult a professor of ancient languages at the university. Soon, weird poltergeist-like activity starts to take place: lights and appliances turn off and on by themselves; objects move around seemingly by themselves; and just out of the corner of his eye, shadowy things seem to be lurking in the rental house. He comes to realize that he's inadvertently set in motion supernatural forces that have trapped him alone in the house, and are demanding an unspeakable sacrifice.

Key scenes: Like Session 9, the very low budget The Ceremony masterfully builds tension and suspense, starting with a handful of small, weird occurrences that then grow in number and intensity to two climaxes: in the first, Eric meets a surprising physical manifestation of the dark force; the second presents a very unexpected and disturbing surprise ending. There are no CGI effects or blood -- just very clever use of a single set, a single actor (for most of the film), eerie sound effects, fleeting images, and some skilled editing.

Key player and filmmaker: Incredibly, The Ceremony seems to be actor Scott Seegmiller's and director James Palmer's only credit to date.

Pontypool (2008) - Poster
Now Playing: Pontypool (2008)

Pros: Bizarre, haunting premise; Crackerjack dialog (and monologues); Tour-de-force performance by veteran actor Stephen McHattie
Cons: Egregious, gory scene that seems out of place

In brief: They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but in Pontypool, the spoken word can literally kill. The film opens with Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), a talk radio announcer whose career is in decline, driving in the middle of an early morning blizzard to his new job at a small radio station in Pontypool, Ontario. At a stoplight, he's startled when a woman suddenly appears out of the swirling snow at the car window. She seems disoriented and keeps repeating words over and over, then almost as quickly as she appeared, she vanishes back into the blizzard. Grant arrives at the station, rattled and guilt-ridden that he couldn't do more to help the mysterious woman. On top of it all, former shock-jock Mazzy is a rather bad fit for the station in the Canadian boondocks. He has words with station manager Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and technical engineer Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly). Soon, his boring morning of winter storm updates is interrupted by unnerving reports of deadly riots in town, and of people mumbling words over and over again, then joining packs of other "infected" people that act like mindless insect swarms. Then, the station receives emergency government transmissions warning that the use of certain words, especially words of endearment, are somehow causing people to go insane, and to not speak English at all. Somehow, a bleak, snowy, humdrum morning has turned into a fight for survival as Mazzy and the small station crew have to figure out how to avoid succumbing to the language plague and those unfortunate souls who have already been infected.

Key scenes: Although there is one gory scene that's difficult (at least for me) to watch, Pontypool is first and foremost a film of bizarre ideas and psychological suspense. According to the film's Wikipedia entry, author Tony Burgess came up with the script adaptation of his own novel, Pontypool Changes Everything, over the course of a couple of days. Orson Welles' legendary War of the Worlds radio broadcast provided the inspiration (a radio play version of Pontypool was developed simultaneously with the film). One of the movie's most effective scenes is when the station's field reporter describes to Mazzy the bizarre behavior of the rioting crowd, and stumbles upon a person who has just become infected. The mental images that are conjured up by the breathless descriptions are more effective and disturbing than anything the producers might have tried to film (or worse yet, tried to develop with CGI).

Key player: Grizzled Canadian character actor Stephen McHattie has been incredibly busy in films and TV since the early 1970s. McHattie is a one-man tour-de-force in Pontypool, and is a joy to watch just sitting at the microphone at the radio station, reacting to the crazy news reports being handed to him, and in turn trying to warn his listeners about the deadly spoken-word plague. Predictably, Hattie was nominated for best actor by a number of fantasy and horror festivals, and won the prize at the Puchon International Fantasy Film Festival. (Don't get him confused with Lance Henriksen, with whom he shares more than a passing resemblance. Both actors have a list of credits a mile long.)

Ghost from the Machine (2010) - Poster
Now Playing: Ghost from the Machine (aka Phasma Ex Machina; 2010)

Pros: Intelligent script engages the viewer's imagination and keeps him/her off guard and guessing; Touching, poignant scenes alternate with creeping terror; Amazing, natural performance by Matthew Feeney
Cons: Main character Cody is so obsessed with his project (and neglectful of his younger brother) that he loses audience sympathy

In brief: Twenty-something Cody (Sasha Andreev) is wracked with guilt that he is indirectly responsible for his parents' tragic deaths in a automobile accident. An electronics genius, he becomes obsessed with the idea of bringing them back through technological means. In his research, he discovers that many ghost sightings and other paranormal phenomena seem to be associated with weak electromagnetic fields like those generated from power lines. He spends all his time in his garage building a field generator through which the dead can return. Cody attracts the attention of Tom (Matthew Feeney), a used electronic parts dealer, when he buys two rare devices that can be used to tap into commercial power lines. Unbeknownst to Cody, his machine actually works, and suddenly Tom and others in town are being visited by dead people from their past who don't seem to know they're dead. Cody has spent so much time and energy on the machine, he's in danger of losing custody of his younger brother James (Max Hauser), who's been missing school. As Tom tracks the mysterious energy field to Cody's garage, James tries to convince his older brother that there are intruders in the house. It turns out that the noisy intruders are a highly eccentric mother and son, dead for years, who have come back to reclaim their house…

Key scenes: One of the nice touches in Ghost is that the machine conjures up dead people that some of the living characters (and even the film's viewers) don't at first realize are dead (and there's one nicely written scene in which it's not entirely clear if Cody has been talking with someone living or dead). I also appreciated that there's no dramatic Frankenstein-like "It's alive!" moment of triumph for the inventor. Through most of the film, Cody doesn't realize his machine has actually worked, which seems more authentic. There's also a very touching scene involving a long lost little girl and an amazingly stoic mother.

Key player: Matthew Feeney, an actor and stand-up comedian, turns in an amazing, poignant performance as the used parts dealer who at first is curious about the somber young man who wants to buy obscure electronic equipment, and then has a much bigger mystery on his hands when his beloved dead wife shows up at his house, cooking, climbing into bed and acting like nothing has happened. Feeney's everyman character experiences terror, dread, joy and hope, at times all mixed together. It's one of the best performances I've ever seen in a low-budget independent feature.