June 22, 2013

Faded A List Stars in B Sci-fi and Horror Movies

Today's post is inspired by Andy over at Fandango Groovers and his idea for a "Mixtape Movies" blogathon. In the olden days before digital music and iPods, enterprising young audiophiles would spend hours on dual cassette tape decks dubbing their favorite songs onto a mix tape to share with friends, play at parties, or shove into the tape decks of their Camaros on the way to the drive-in. While not always obvious, there was usually some connecting theme that undulated its way through the various tracks. Andy's simple idea takes the retro concept of the mix tape and applies it to movies.


Mixtape Movies Blogathon


Without further ado, here is my "mix tape" of glamorous A list stars who explored strange new B movie worlds in the twilight of their careers…

Poster - Battle of the Worlds (1961)
Now Playing: Battle of the Worlds (aka Il pianeta degli uomini spenti, 1961)

Pros: Ambitious scope; Unambiguous celebration of science and knowledge; Good model work
Cons: Current prints are mediocre at best

In brief: A stray planetoid dubbed "the Outsider" wanders into our solar system and seems headed on a collision course with earth before changing course and and taking up a moon-like orbit. When humanity attempts to investigate the new "visitor" with its spaceships, a swarm of deadly flying saucers emerges from the planet as if from a colossal beehive. But Earth's intrepid heroes will not be deterred, and the rogue planet has even more secrets to reveal for those who dare explore it.

Veteran character actor Claude Rains was in his early seventies when he made this Italian sci-fi epic for Antonio Margheriti (credited as Anthony Dawson). He had reached the summit of his A-list career barely 20 years prior (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939, Casablanca and Now, Voyager, both 1942), but Battle of the Worlds is seemingly from another universe altogether, far, far away in space and time. Rains plays Prof. Benson, an irascible and arrogant scientist/mathematician whose genius is indispensable in helping the merely bright people of the world deal with the problematic planet.

Battle's ambition and scope belies its meager budget. The effects are about what you'd expect for the time. Where it parts company with many other B sci-fi pics is its depiction of a very strong scientist character, irritated, but not mad, who uses his prodigious mind to solve problems and make discoveries rather than turn monsters loose on humanity.

Key filmmaker: Due to his reputation as model maker (earned for his work on an earthquake documentary), Antonio Margheriti's first films as a director were sci-fi budget epics that required … you guessed it … lots of models. However, this inventive filmmaker refused to be tied down to one or even several genres, making dozens of films in about every category you can imagine. [Louis Paul, Italian Horror Film Directors, McFarland, 2005.]

For more on Margheriti and one of his very best horror films, see my post on Castle of Blood (aka Danza Macabra, 1964).


Where to find it:
Available online

Amazon Instant Video


Poster - The Night Walker (1964)
Now Playing: The Night Walker (1964)

Pros: Great photography and music score; Some surreal, spooky moments
Cons: Not a lot of chemistry between Stanwyck and Taylor

In brief: Irene Trent (Barbara Stanwyck) is unhappily married to a cruel, insanely jealous blind millionaire (Howard, played by Hayden Rorke) who keeps her a virtual prisoner in their old, creaky mansion. When her husband is killed in a mysterious explosion in his second floor laboratory, Irene consults with slick family lawyer Barry Morland (Robert Taylor) about selling the house and returning full time to her beauty parlor business. She wonders about her sanity when at first she hears her dead husband tapping his cane down the dark and gloomy hallways, then sees him, hideously disfigured and steamin' mad, in the burnt-out lab. Next, she has strange dreams about a tall, dark and handsome suitor who sweeps her off her feet and takes her on tours of a surreal, haunted nightworld. Is she losing her mind, or is something else going on?

The Night Walker was B movie impresario William Castle's answer to the highly successful casting of fading A list actresses in such hits as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush… Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). In this case, he scored two former top shelf A listers, Stanwyck and Taylor, who had also been married at one time. While the on screen chemistry in Night Walker was only so-so, the two apparently hit it off reasonably well on the set. Taylor got a chance to exercise his dry humor when asked by reporters how he was getting along with his former wife. "It's as if we were never married," he replied. (For more on the film and a clip of its surreal prologue, see my earlier post "Fading Stars in the Dead of Night.")

Key supporting player: Hayden Rorke, best known for his role as Dr. Bellows on the '60s TV comedy I Dream of Jeannie, is almost unrecognizable as the repulsive, jealous Howard Trent. He makes the most out of the small role, and his scenes are some of the creepiest in the whole movie.


Where to find it:
Available online

Search Google


Poster - The Witches (aka The Devil's Own, 1966)
Now Playing: The Witches (aka The Devil's Own, 1966)

Pros:
Steadily builds up suspense; Good performance by Joan Fontaine

Cons: An unintentionally funny occult ceremony at the climax

In brief: After suffering a nervous breakdown in an encounter with a witch doctor in her missionary work in Africa, well-meaning teacher Gwen Mayfield (Joan Fontaine) secures a new job with a small private school in a remote English village. Her employers, eccentric and moody Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) and formidable author Stephanie (Kay Walsh), are the last siblings of a prominent, but declining family. At first gratified by the friendliness and support of the brother and sister and the local villagers, Gwen comes to find their behavior increasingly baffling and mysterious. As she begins to unravel a fiendish plot involving a local girl that seems to involve witchcraft, she suffers another breakdown…

After the tense Africa prologue scene, The Witches builds its suspense slowly and fitfully (it's somewhat reminiscent of the much better known The Wicker Man, 1973, but of course lacks Wicker's musical numbers). Some have found the sacrificial ceremony at the end to be anticlimactic and somewhat silly. There's enough simmering tension and good performances that I would advise keeping an open mind.

Already into her late '40s, Joan Fontaine apparently acquired the film rights to a fairly obscure novel, The Devil's Own, by Nora Loftus (writing under the pen name Peter Curtis). The project eventually found its way to Tony Hinds and Hammer for the studio's inimitable, but definitely low budget, treatment.

Key writer: While the brilliant Nigel Kneale was waiting for Hammer to gear up production of its adaptation of Quatermass and the Pit, Hinds gave him a job adapting Loftus' book. Although The Witches was certainly no highlight on his resume, Kneale was mostly satisfied with the screenplay and the resulting product in spite of the dubious source material: "The woman who wrote the book I don't think had written very much before. She knew very little about witches or anybody else. It was a very impractical thing. It was a very cheap little thing, which they shot down in Bray. Joan Fontaine had faded a bit as a star. She was good in it. It was a weirdly sinister film. I was perfectly happy with it." [Andy Murray, Into the Unknown: The Fanstastic Life of Nigel Kneale, Headpress, 2006.]


Where to find it:
Available online

Search Google


Poster - The Frozen Dead (1966)
Now Playing: The Frozen Dead (1966)

Pros: Mad doctors, frozen Nazis who won't stay dead, living heads... what's not to like?
Cons: Only if you're in the mood for schlock

In brief: Mad Doctor Norberg (Dana Andrews) has a simple mission: revive hundreds of elite Nazi officers and soldiers who, at the end of the war, volunteered to be frozen in suspended animation and stashed away for a rainy day. There's only one problem. None of the men Norberg has managed to revive have come out of it with their faculties intact -- and his laboratory basement is starting to fill up with pitiful, lumbering zombies. His nasty assistant Karl (Alan Tilvern) is managing to keep the zombie failures in line, but the post-war remnants of the Nazi high command are getting impatient and want a thawed cadre to help them start World War III.

Norberg complains that he doesn't know enough about the brain to succeed with his mission, and needs a living one to experiment on. Conveniently, Norberg's daughter Jean (Anna Palk) shows up with an old school chum, Elsa (Kathleen Breck). The next morning, Jean is told that her friend had to leave suddenly (uh-huh). Jean starts having nightmares that her friend is dead, but somehow still trying to talk to her. Meanwhile, eager (and naive) young brain expert Dr. Roberts (Phillip Gilbert) has shown up to get a load of what the esteemed Dr. Norberg is up to and provide needed assistance. Will Norberg succeed in reviving the Fourth Reich? What do you think?

Although Dana Andrews had leading roles in two of the most acclaimed movies of the 1940s, Laura (1944) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), problems with alcoholism damaged his reputation in later years and the plum roles dried up. Inevitably, a number of horror, sci-fi and TV parts came his way. The results were decidedly mixed: Curse of the Demon (aka Night of the Demon; 1957) is one of the best horror films ever made, Crack in the World (1965) is a middling sci-fi "epic", and The Frozen Dead… well let's just say he didn't do it for the prestige.

Frozen Dead combines a number of B movie ingredients -- mad doctors, nefarious post-war Nazi plots and pitiable living heads -- into a bubbling and somewhat smelly sci-fi/horror stew. But if this sort of thing amuses you, go for it (if you can find it)! An added bonus is hearing All-American, Baptist born and raised Dana Andrews trying out his best mad German doctor accent.

Key supporting player: Debonair Edward Fox of The Day of the Jackal (1973) fame plays Norberg's zombified brother. Even as a zombie, he looks absolutely fabulous in uniform.


Where to find it:
Available online

Search Google


Poster - The Terror (1963)
Bonus Track: The Terror (1963)

Pros: Lush photography and sets belie its ultra-low budget
Cons: Confusing storyline; Don't close your eyes, or poof! ... it'll be gone!

B movies not only can salvage the finances of declining stars, they can also help propel promising young actors and actresses into the cinema stratosphere (or at least keep them working until they get their extra special lucky break). Roger Corman's The Terror is in the latter category, providing work for a very young Jack Nicholson, who was still several years away from his breakout roles in Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970).

In brief: Andre Duvalier (Nicholson), a dashing young officer in Napoleon's army, has been separated from his regiment. He tries to get help from a beautiful, enigmatic young woman (Sandra Knight), but before he can even get her to talk she seems to vanish into the sea. The young soldier loses consciousness, and awakens in the house of an old woman (Dorothy Neumann with a distinctly witch-like appearance), who tells him he was hallucinating. When he regains his senses and leaves, he sees the young woman and nearly kills himself trying to follow her. He ends up at the decrepit castle of the even more decrepit Baron Von Leppe (Boris Karloff), and learns that the mysterious woman bears an uncanny resemblance to Von Leppe's wife, who died 20 years earlier…

The Terror is an especially low-budget knock off of Corman's own earlier Poe-inspired hits for AIP, rushed into production to take advantage of leftover sets (and actors) from The Raven (1963). Corman wanted to "out-Poe Poe himself" and create another Gothic hit from scratch, while, ever frugal, spending next to nothing. The result is rather dull and confusing, and as insubstantial as the mystery woman herself. If The Terror's audience was confused, the cast and crew were even more so when filming the thing.

According to Corman, "We did those two days on the Raven stages with the four principals. This wasn't easy. We had a roughed-out story line, but no one really knew what their characters' motivations were because we didn't exactly know what was supposed to happen to them. But I kept shooting. Pressed for time and with an hour of so left the second day, I told my d.p. (director of photography), 'Don't slate the shots. We'll worry later what to do with this film.'" [Roger Corman with Jim Jerome, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Da Capo Press, 1998.]

Key supporting player: Jonathan Haze, (somewhat) fresh from his role as Seymour in Corman's 2 day, ultra low budget wonder The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), plays the mute castle servant Gustaf (no Brooklyn accent in this one!).


Where to find it:
Available on DVD

Oldies.com


4 comments:

  1. I am reminded of Joan Crawford's "Straitjacket." I think it would fit nicely in this list of minor classics.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Doug! Funny you should mention Strait-Jacket. I'm reviewing it for the William Castle blogathon hosted by my friends at The Last Drive In and Goregirl's Dungeon (see the banner up toward the top of the page).

      And then there was Trog, Joan's last feature film. Ugh! I'll take Strait-Jacket any day! Look for the review late July - early August.

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  2. I'll be looking for your review for sure! This page is awesome! I just stumbled upon it and I instantly followed you. Great stuff here, and awesome post.

    If you wanna chat more horror, come swing by my page.
    http://grimmreviewz.blogspot.com/

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    Replies
    1. Hey, thanks! You've got a great site going yourself! I especially like your inclusion of Bride of Frankenstein in your list of top ten horror films.

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