July 31, 2013

"Mommie Dearest, please put down that axe!"

Poster - Strait-Jacket (1964)
Now Playing: Strait-Jacket (1964)

Pros: Joan Crawford breathes wonderful, flamboyant life into the character of Lucy Harbin; Diane Baker is the perfect foil to Joan's histrionics.
Cons: Derivative of earlier films, even screenwriter Robert Bloch's own previous work.

Note:This is my contribution to the William Castle Blogathon, hosted by Joey at The Last Drive-in and Goregirl at her Dungeon. They've lined up an all-star cast of movie bloggers to storm the Castle for your entertainment and edification. Don't miss a single post!!

We're a fickle and petty lot, we commoners. When a new royal is born, we hang on every word of the talking, babbling heads of the 24 hour news outlets, and gorge on every image we can lay our bug eyes on:
  • "Wow, doesn't she look absolutely fabulous even with that baby bump thing going!" 
  • "She is just so brilliant for delivering a boy on the first go round!" 
  • "Now remind me, where is this kid in the royal line of succession?"
And when these poor, overprivileged, overexposed creatures reveal themselves to be human just like the rest of us, we consume every sordid detail of every scandal large and small, and can't get enough of the humiliation and degradation.
  • "Can you believe he went clubbing with that Russian ex-porn actress the other night?" 
  • "Who in the world let him show up in that Charlie Chan costume for the Chinese ambassador's reception? Where are his handlers?" 
  • "Did you see those beach photos of him with those rolls of fat? Why would show yourself in public if you were gonna let yourself go like that?"
The William Castle Blogathon, July 29 - August 2, 2013
But I suppose this is the price you pay for being the wealthiest, most glamorous public welfare recipients in the world. With apologies to all my readers in the UK, here in the good ol' U.S. of A. we have a much better system for anointing our royalty. At least until recently, qualifying for American nobility meant more than just being born into a certain family. You actually had to accomplish things, like building large profitable businesses, or playing a sport with consummate skill, or developing a screen persona that sold tickets by the millions. Better still, American nobles were crowned by the good, common people with their hard-earned money.

There was arguably no greater queen reigning over the country's Golden Age of movies than Joan Crawford -- and she "reigned" not once, but twice. In a prototypical rags to riches story, Lucille LeSeur, who had once worked with her mother in a laundry, parlayed her song and dance talents into a contract with MGM in the mid-'20s. (Joan Crawford, a name she disliked her entire career, was given to her early through a contest in Photoplay magazine.) Dissatisfied with the early roles the studio gave her, she tirelessly lobbied for bigger and better ones, to the point where, in 1932, she starred with such screen immortals as Greta Garbo and John Barrymore in MGM's lush, all-star picture Grand Hotel (1932).

The same year she was cited by the Motion Picture Herald as one of Hollywood's Top Ten Moneymaking Stars, and in 1937 Life magazine crowned her the "Queen of the Movies." But her first go round on the throne was to be short-lived. Even as Life was celebrating her screen royalty, her not-so-loyal subjects, the movie going public, were staying away from her pictures in droves. 1937's The Bride Wore Red was a huge flop for MGM, and she fell precipitously out of the money makers' top ten list, making instead the Independent Film Journal's list of actors and actresses labeled "box office poison."

Glamour shot of Joan Crawford
Joan Crawford, circa 1934. "Bow before
the Queen you peasants!"
(Courtesy of Dr. Macro's High Quality Movie Scans)
Although she made something of a comeback in pictures like The Women (1939) and Strange Cargo (1940; with Clark Gable), her fate with MGM was sealed, and she left the studio in 1943 to sign with Warner Brothers. The move turned out to be the start of her new reign as Hollywood royalty. Against all odds, she secured the lead role in Mildred Pierce (1945) -- Bette Davis was the studio's first choice, but turned it down, and director Michael Curtiz wanted just about anybody but Joan. After collecting the Oscar for best actress, she appeared in a string of hits opposite some of the very best leading men of the era, including John Garfield in Humoresque (1946), Van Heflin in Possessed (1947), and Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda in Daisy Kenyon (1947).

Nothing lasts forever, and by the time she turned 50 in the '50s, the former screen queen had long been deposed, and was serving with the commoners in the antechambers of B movie melodramas. Of course, A-types like Joan don't just stop working, and like many aging actors and actresses of the time, her determination to keep making movies led her down some strange and interesting genre paths.

Years before the "Summer of Love," the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention, and Woodstock, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) ushered in America's most subversive decade. The brutality with which Hitch quickly dispatched starlet Janet Leigh in that film prefigured the passionate overturning of tradition and convention that would come to characterize the decade. The common folk had taken up their pitchforks, determined to storm the Hollywood palace and skewer any last vestige of the old glamor.

The skewering of the old icons was truly a sight to behold (and a lot of fun if you were in the right frame of mind). A few years after Psycho, director Robert Aldrich managed to get bitter real-life rivals Joan and Bette Davis into the same eccentric, neo-Gothic production, and somehow lived to tell the tale. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1964) was a very dark epitaph for the old Hollywood system, turning the two former glamor queens into repulsive hags who just happened to be … you guessed it … faded actresses. Its success at the box office spawned a wave of neo-Gothics featuring aging glamor queens in unflattering and sometimes grotesque roles: Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964, with Bette Davis and Olivia DeHavilland), The Night Walker (1964, with Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor), What's the Matter with Helen? (1971, with Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters), and many more.

Joan herself made more then her share of these things. She almost teamed up again with nemesis Bette in Hush…Hush, but when she took ill (some say after being unmercifully harassed by Davis), she was unceremoniously dumped from the production in favor of Olivia DeHavilland. No matter, she managed to appear in several more memorable (and not-so-memorable) horror-thrillers through the end of the decade, unfortunately culminating with the execrable Trog (1970), her last feature film role.

Still - Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket (1964)
Joan suddenly realizes that her career has taken a turn
for the worse, and she's now starring in B horror movies.
Of these, Strait-Jacket is by far the best and most fun. Written by Psycho author Robert Bloch and produced and directed by the circus ringmaster of B horror movies, William Castle, Strait-Jacket features a dual role of sorts for Joan. In the movie's prologue, we're introduced to lusty, working class gal Lucy Harbin in a flashback sequence narrated by her daughter Carol (Diane Baker). Lucy makes her grand entrance to the sound of a train whistle and a bleating saxophone: "Lucy Harbin, born and raised on a farm, parents poor, education meager, very much a woman, and very much aware of the fact."

This Lucy, wearing too much makeup, a hideous print dress, cheap, jangling bracelets, and high-heeled shoes, confidently struts her stuff -- until she catches her no-good second husband (Lee Majors in an early uncredited role), seven years her junior, in bed with a former girlfriend. With young Carol watching, she cuts off this liaison for good with several well-aimed axe strokes. Cut to Lucy twenty years later (okay, okay, enough with the cheap puns!), after she's been released from the asylum to the care of her farmer brother and sister-in-law. She's now haggard, grey-haired, meek, and depressed, wearing a dress that looks like it was made out of an old sack. Both Lucys are a far cry from the sleek, chic glamor roles of Crawford's heyday. Moviegoers of the '60s, especially the drive-in crowd, did their best imitation of French revolutionary peasants, spurning the high class glamor crap and screaming "off with their heads!"

Jolly, cigar-chomping William Castle was always happy to feed the riffraff their red meat in the form of B movie horrors. He combined an innate instinct for mass taste with P.T. Barnum-like promotions, starting with an insurance policy against death by fright for his first breakout hit Macabre (1958), and following up with such gimmicks as floating skeletons and theater seat buzzers that were employed during the high points of his 1959 films House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler.

By 1964 and Strait-Jacket, Castle had dispensed with the gimmicks, and was content to follow the successful Baby Jane formula of featuring former A-list leading actors and actresses in B thrillers. The formula was indeed successful, enough so that for his next project, Castle secured not one but two fading A-listers, Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor (see my earlier post on The Night Walker). In spite of the difficulties in working with the imperious Joan (more on that later), Castle, under pressure to have a big name in the credits, enlisted her yet again for I Saw What You Did (1965) with John Ireland. Although the role was a small one and she's killed off pretty quickly (a bit of director's revenge?), she reportedly got as much for it, $50K, as she did for the far meatier role in Strait-Jacket. [John W. Law, Scare Tactic: The Life and Films of William Castle, Writers Club Press, 2000.]

Still - Diane Baker and Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket (1964)
Estranged mother and daughter bond over a cool, refreshing bottle of Pepsi.
(Joan was on the board of PepsiCo at the time, thus the product placement.)
Strait-Jacket, while not innovative or particularly surprising, sets itself apart from the run-of-the-mill B thriller by exploiting the deep-seated fears we all (or at least most of us) have about our place in society. It's a horror story about social class as much as it is about mental illness. Both incarnations of Lucy -- the brash, lusty broad from the wrong side of the tracks, and the quietly grim ex-mental patient -- are awkward and stick out like a sore thumb in polite society. By contrast, her daughter Carol, in spite of having witnessed her mother's gruesome killings 20 years earlier, is seemingly happy and well-adjusted, not to mention gorgeous.

Carol lives contentedly on a small farm with her aunt and uncle (Emily and Bill Cutler, played by Rochelle Hudson and Leif Erickson), has converted one of the farm sheds into a sculpture studio, and is on the verge of getting engaged to the handsome son of one of the richest men in the county (Michael Fields, played by John Anthony Hayes). At the point where it seems life couldn't get any better for Carol, Mommie Dearest shows up, fresh from the sanitarium and wearing a sack-cloth dress and a frown.

At first, Carol reacts coldly to this veritable stranger, but then, taking pity on her haggard mom, decides to turn the frown upside down. She takes Lucy into town to go shopping and get a makeover. The result is almost an exact copy of the old five and dime sultry dame, right down to the noisy, jangling costume jewelry and the dreadful print dress. But Lucy's newfound joy and vigor don't last for long. She has nightmares, waking up next to the headless bodies of her victims from 20 years ago. She imagines that children playing in the street are chanting the Lizzie Bordon nursery rhyme, updated specifically for her. The doctor from the asylum who pays a surprise visit to check up on her suddenly, mysteriously turns up missing. She completely blows her first meeting with Carol's prospective fiance, drinking too much, playing music too loud, and coming on to the young man in spite of herself. And most terrifyingly, she learns that she will be meeting Michael's rich, snooty parents at their house for cocktails and dinner.

The Columbia Pictures icon loses her head at the end of Strait-Jacket
Somehow, Castle got permission from the bigwigs at distributor Columbia Pictures
to cut their icon's head off at the end of the film.

Yep, we've all been there, playing the role of the awkward outsider at a gathering of chic, self-confident people who are much, much better than we are. Short of having your head lopped off with an axe, few things are more uncomfortable. And though there are a number of bloody murders throughout the film, none are as cringe-inducing as the scene in which a flat-out drunk Lucy slobbers over Carol's weirded-out fiance. Thankfully, Joan goes right up to the edge of overplaying the part but never quite oversteps, and Lucy keeps our sympathy throughout the film. (Diane Baker also plays her role to near perfection. Underneath the pretty, smiling, forgiving daughter act lurks something not so pretty or forgiving. At first, the bright white headband that she wears throughout much of the film seems like a symbolic halo. By the end of the film, we're thinking it's a device for keeping her head from exploding…)

Apparently the former glamor queen had the normally ebullient Bill Castle cringing (and perhaps bowing and scraping) throughout the production. IMDb's trivia section for the film is filled with her demands and conditions:
  • She had script and cast approval. 
  • She had a fellow Pepsi board member and vice-president of the company, Mitchell Cox, play the asylum doctor. 
  • She had a carton of Pepsi displayed prominently in an early kitchen scene (an early product placement!). 
  • She had the actress originally slated to play daughter Carol fired. Diane Baker stepped in front of the cameras only a day after she accepted the role.
And according to John Law, she forced Castle to adopt the A-list way of making movies:
"'Joan asked me when you plan to start rehearsals," asked [Associate Producer] Holloway to Castle. 'Rehearsals?' hollered Castle. 'Who said anything about rehearsals? I just want to start shooting…. No goddamn rehearsals. I never have rehearsals before I shoot!' But this time he would. On an empty stage with only folding chairs, the cast began rehearsals for the film." [Ibid.]
Still - Leif Erickson and Joan in Straight-Jacket (1964)
Joan admires her beautiful, glamorous former self in
the tacked-on ending of Strait-Jacket.
More momentous still, she had the ending of the film changed. The film was originally supposed to end with a very effective close-up of Carol/Diane Baker. Her Highness had a scene tacked on in which Lucy desultorily sums up the nefarious goings-on in a discussion with her brother. In a Joan Crawford picture, no younger, prettier actress was going to steal the final scene! (Interestingly in this scene, Joan's character, once more dressed primly and clearly showing her age, poses with a glamorous bust of herself. For the storyline, the sculpture was fashioned by Carol, but in real life, it was done by Yugoslav artist Yucca Salamunich, and presented to Joan on the set of A Woman's Face, 1941. For a moment, Crawford seems to be lost in reverie, dreaming of the days when she ruled the silver screen.)

The axe murders in Strait-Jacket are almost incidental. The real fun is in watching Joan and Diane Baker go toe-to-toe, Mommie Dearest-style. I suspect Producer/Director/Showman Bill Castle scarcely knew what he was getting into when he signed Joan, but the results are a very worthy addition to his cinematic B ring circus.

Where to find it:
Available online

Amazon Instant Video

Available on DVD

Amazon (The William Castle Collection)

"So shocking, it slashes through the limits of suspense!"

July 24, 2013

Fabulous, Fantastic TV Shows of the Fifties: Special "DIRECTV is watching you!" Edition

My apologies for the infrequent posts on the blog -- I'm still in the middle of what has turned out to be a marathon move, hunkering down in a short-term lease apartment while going through all the paper work (and work work) of securing a more permanent abode. The tiny light I see at the end of this tunnel may be the shining light of future happiness or the great express train of life, but either way I'd be grateful for a quick resolution.

Personal DVD collection
"Hmmm... do I really want to pack up all that stuff and move it?"
As I mentioned in an earlier post, packing up and moving all your Stuff (with a capital S) tends to focus the mind on priorities and what's really important in life. Lots and lots of stuff weighs down your body, your freedom, and your soul. After packing the umpteenth box with books and dvds, I've developed a much better appreciation for the great digital "anywhere, anytime, any device" revolution. Is it really the package -- the book, the disc -- that's important, or the content? Now, if only the content providers and the distributors could all just get along in a great, happy circle of cooperation and profit, while at the same time providing us needy consumers with reliable, stable, high speed access… what a wonderful world that would be! (On the other hand, as long as companies like Apple conspire with publishers to keep e-book prices high, and owners keep threatening to pull content from distributors like Netflix to wring that last penny out of their "intellectual" property, physical media will still be with us… and we'll continue to box it up and move it out.)

Another benefit of moving is that it motivates you to re-examine all those pesky entertainment/media subscriptions that seemed so necessary at the time, but like guests who've overstayed their welcome, are no longer charming and keep raiding your fridge and wallet for every last nickel and crumb.  We started out subscribing to basic cable with the local monopoly, got tired of the constant price increases, then went with DIRECTV, and quickly got tired of the vast content wasteland that that service delivered for a premium price.  I had long since given up on the shouting, blathering, talking heads of the so-called "news" outlets, and found myself only watching baseball and the occasional TCM flick for DIRECTV's hefty price. Canceling hundreds of channels of nothing seemed like a no brainer.

The re-education of Alex, A Clockwork Orange (1971)
"You will subscribe to DIRECTV, you will watch it,
and you will enjoy it!"
The only catch is, DIRECTV is harder to get rid of than a surly, 800 pound freeloading house guest. When I called to cancel, the customer (dis)service rep wanted to grill me about why I was taking such a drastic step. He was incredulous that anyone would willingly cancel their obviously superior service. But that was not the end. Since that fateful call, I've gotten numerous call backs from similarly incredulous customer reps wanting me to rethink and/or explain this clearly suspicious, un-American behavior. When I finally told one of them off and demanded that they stop harassing me (and to take my phone number out of their data banks), the vaguely threatening "We're sorry to lose you!" emails started up.

As if that weren't enough, they sent me a puzzle box in the form of a DVR recovery package with a pre-printed address label. The instructions clearly directed me to include the remote and the power supply along with the unit or face severe penalties, but of course, there was no room for them in the box, so I had to use an x-acto knife and my ingenuity to get them all in there. Now, I'm waiting for the "destruction of and/or misuse of DIRECTV shipping materials" charge to show up on my final bill.

Patrick McGoohan and Leo McKern in The Prisoner (TV series; 1967-68)
"I'm sorry sir, cancelling your subscription is not an option."
No doubt, this year or next will see the introduction of the "Early cancellation consumer terrorism" act in Congress, written by corporate lawyers and dutifully passed and signed into law by the chuckleheads and lackeys of Washington, D.C. I expect to be hauled off to a re-education camp (if I'm lucky!) to have my brain re-wired so that I can better appreciate the cornucopia of infotainment options that America's captains of mass communications have so laboriously developed. (When they come for me, I hope I'll be able to summon the same courage as Number 6: "I am not a DIRECTV account number. I am a person. I will not make any deals with you. I've resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own. I resign.")

Until then, I will peruse some of the more interesting and esoteric selections from Netflix instant watch, one subscription that I've kept. I know many people, especially those who want to see the latest blockbusters the moment they come out on video, have excoriated Netflix for its woeful instant watch catalog, but for someone of my eccentric and discriminating taste in film and television, instant watch is like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates. From Spanish language comedies to obscure British mysteries to classic TV from the '40s, '50s and '60s, Netflix rewards the open-minded viewer with an eclectic and vintage smorgasbord of entertainment and information, and all for a few measly bucks a month.

One Step Beyond (TV series, main title)
Recently, I discovered that season one of One Step Beyond from 1959 is available on Netflix instant. From an early age I gobbled up every book I could get my grubby little hands on that dealt with ghosts, flying saucers, ESP, and assorted other paranormal phenomena (no doubt stimulated by all the creature features I watched on the fuzzy black and white television). I read everything of Brad Steiger's that I could find, and then voraciously consumed ghost hunter Hans Holzer's books. Later, I got deep into UFO lore, with authors like physicist Stanton Friedman and Kevin Randle convincing me that where there was smoke there was probably fire with regard to alien visitation. These authors described a world, supposedly a real one, that was infinitely more varied, exciting and intriguing than the sleepy little midwestern college towns that constituted my world as a kid.

So, years later when I discovered episodes of One Step Beyond on videotape, I was immediately hooked. The series, which debuted in January, 1959, featured dramatized stories of true-life paranormal events. The series' host, suave, cultured John Newland, was almost the antithesis of gravelly-voiced, chain-smoking Rod Serling, whose Twilight Zone debuted that same year. Newland was smooth and confident and almost insouciant at times, telling viewers,
"What you're about to see is a matter of human record. Explain it? We cannot. Disprove it? We cannot. We simply invite you to explore with us the amazing world of the unknown, to take that … One Step Beyond …"
John Newland, host of the TV series One Step Beyond (1959 - 1961)
"We invite you to explore with us the amazing
world of the unknown..."
One Step Beyond ventured into nearly every aspect of paranormal phenomena with its 30 minute dramatizations: ghosts, out-of-body experiences, telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, doppelgangers, possession, transcendent visions, you name it. And like The Twilight Zone, it featured up and coming actors and actresses who would soon become household names, as well as some of the very best character actors around: Cloris Leachman, Charles Bronson, Christopher Lee, Louise Fletcher, Robert Blake, Warren Beatty, Mike Connors, Elizabeth Montgomery, Donald Pleasence, etc.

The series lasted three seasons, from 1959 - 1961. The show was a little before my time -- I don't remember watching it when it was first broadcast, and I doubt my parents would have let me watch it at that young age. It was much later, in the '90s, when I discovered some of the series' "classic" episodes on tape. A few years ago I bought Mill Creek's The Very Best of One Step Beyond with 50 of the series' 97 episodes, but was disappointed like many others to find that some of the discs were unplayable. So kudos to Netflix for securing the first season for instant watch (and I'm hopeful they'll soon add the other seasons).

The show was long on atmosphere, featuring tales of ordinary people reacting to bizarre events. As in any series, there are some snoozers and clunkers in the mix, but the best episodes are poignant psychological studies that evoke a sense of wonder (and some chills) at the incredible variety and mystery of life. They also provided an opportunity for some very capable actors and actresses to really show their stuff.

Alfred Ryder as the condemned prisoner John Marriott
Condemned prisoner John Marriott (Alfred Ryder) gets one
last shot of brandy before the execution.
Case in point is episode 11, The Devil's Laughter. This is one of the very best episodes of the entire series, partly because of the incredibly strange nature of the "true" story, but mostly due to character actor Alfred Ryder's tour-de-force performance. Ryder plays John Marriott, sentenced to hang for the passion murder of his girlfriend. In the hours leading up to the hanging, Ryder/Marriott is all tics and bug eyes and breathless moaning. As he's offered a last brandy by the warden in a tin cup, he gulps it down, then grabs the bottle from the warden's hand and downs that too, grinning maniacally with this little act of defiance. On the steps of the gallows, he bucks and sways in panic and desperation. Unlike so many stoic condemned men in Hollywood movies, this is exactly how you would expect a real person to react in such a situation.

When the noose breaks, and he wakes up in his cell a new man, the contrast to the old panicky Marriott couldn't be greater. He boasts that when the executioner fixed the hood over his head, something whispered in his ear and showed him exactly how he was going to die -- at the feet of a lion -- and nothing and no one will be able to change that fate, or kill him in any other way, no matter how hard they try. When the second hanging fails because the platform won't fall despite numerous attempts, the cackling, ebullient Marriott is released from prison by order of Parliament -- two execution attempts is suffering enough. With the Devil on his side, he figures he's beaten the world. After all, how likely is he to die at the feet of a lion in the middle of Victorian London? Indeed, another attempt to kill him, this time with a gun, fails as spectacularly as the hangings. But the supercilious small-timer will still keep his date with death…

Alfred Ryder in the classic One Step Beyond episode, The Devil's Laughter
Murderer John Marriott proves to be a hard man to kill.
Although Ryder was also a veteran of radio and the stage, if you're a boomer who watched any TV in the '50s, '60s and '70s, you will probably recognize his distinctive features. He seemed to be all over the dial, constantly popping up in the TV shows that I loved as a kid: The Outer Limits, Star Trek, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Wild, Wild West, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Invaders and many more.

Note: I've decided to expand the repertoire of this blog to include anthology TV shows like One Step Beyond, especially now that many of these cathode ray tube classics are available online (and these episodes are, after all, nicely crafted short films). Look for more "Fabulous, Fantastic TV Shows of the '40s, '50s, and '60s" right here on this blog. (Like Fantastic Faceless Foes, it will be an "irregular" feature, i.e., as I get the time and inclination. But stay tuned … there's more to come.)

Where to find it:
Available online

Netflix Instant Watch

Available on DVD


Some things never change...

July 7, 2013

Fantastic Faceless Foes From Fifties Sci-fi: Extra Special Outdoor Movie Party Edition

A year or so ago I posted a "love letter" to the vanishing American drive-in, and wrote about how easy and fun (and relatively economical) it can be to recreate a little of the outdoor movie experience in your backyard ("Backyard Movies on a Budget").  I'm in the homestretch of a marathon move, but before I got out of Dodge for good, I wanted to have my friends over for one last outdoor movie party. (Ironically, I'm moving to a much larger city that has -- you guessed it -- one of the last drive-ins left in the country. *Fist pump*!)

Two fans at a recent outdoor movie party
These two outdoor movie fans seem to have
forgotten their popcorn!
If you're going to go to the trouble of setting up a screen and projector in your back yard and pretend you're at the drive-in, then you might as well go all the way and pretend that you're at the drive-in in its heyday, the 1950s. And while you're at it, you might just go for a double-bill featuring two of the more unusual sci-fi movie menaces of the '50s, Kronos (1957) and Fiend Without a Face (1958). Speaking of faceless, way back in September of 2011, I wrote about the first group of Fantastic Faceless Foes from '50s Sci-fi, and promised another installment. And here it is, almost two years later -- now that's what I call an irregular blog feature!

In the first installment, I talked a little about how '50s sci-fi movies tried to address, in an entertaining and ultimately reassuring way, the inchoate fears of an American public that had recently been hit with a number of shocks to the All-American system of comfortable middle class security: first the A bomb and radioactivity, then the H bomb, then Sputnik (which meant that the Russians could lob bombs at us with intercontinental missiles just as easily as putting up harmless satellites).

Book by Don and Susan Sanders,
Crestline, 2013 (reprint ed.)
There were plenty of conventional sci-fi threats in the Eisenhower years: lumbering dinosaurs awakened by atomic testing; saucer men threatening teenagers in their hot rods, and even the venerable Frankenstein monster and the Wolf Man were turned into especially bummed out teenagers. But then, the free-floating anxieties of the atomic age called for other, more nebulous threats as well. Ironically, the low cost of these productions, the profit potential, and the insatiable demand for product on the part of drive-in owners resulted in a number of crazy projects getting green lighted that would never have stood a chance in any other era. (In contrast, today's American movie industry is extremely reluctant to take chances on original content or characters. The vast majority of releases are based on known quantities: popular video games, comic books, graphic novels and TV series. The few blockbusters that try original material almost invariably sink quickly at the box office. The result, for all the state-of-the-art CGI effects, is a depressing sameness.)

So, this unique set of circumstances in the '50s resulted in an explosion of far-out ideas from low-budget filmmakers with nothing to lose (they almost couldn't lose -- if you could deliver the product, it was almost certain to make a profit). Drive-in movie heroes and heroines were threatened by omnivorous blobs; 50-foot tall men and women; all manner of giant insects and animals (including ants, grasshoppers, preying mantises and, *gulp*, a giant buzzard); an assortment of disembodied heads and brains; quick-growing, towering crystals; and even a virulent fungus.

The Faceless Foes featured here fit very nicely into this drive-in theater of the absurd. The first is a giant, faceless energy-sucking robot from space. The second is an army (or maybe a battalion) of "thought" creatures in the form of disembodied brains with antennae and spinal cord "tails." Awesome!

Poster - Kronos (1957)
Now Playing: Kronos (1957)

Pros: Great, non-anthropomorphic giant robot concept and design; Ingenious ending
Cons: Alien mind-control subplot is superfluous and mildly distracting

In brief: A pulsating flying saucer, hovering against a backdrop of stars, releases a ball of light that head towards earth. A truck driver on a lonely desert road gets out to figure out why his vehicle stalled. The eerie light overwhelms him, then, zombified, he gets backs in his truck and drives to the nearest secret research base, where he confronts Dr. Hubbell Eliot (John Emery). The light shoots out of the driver's eyes and into the scientist's, whereupon the "messenger" collapses, dead. Meanwhile, another team of scientists, led by Dr. Leslie Gaskell (Jeff Morrow) are alarmed to find that a giant asteroid is headed straight for earth (actually, it looks just like the flying saucer seen right after the credits!). When missiles are fired to intercept it, the asteroid changes course, as if it were piloted (duh!), and splashes harmlessly (?) into the ocean just off of Mexico.

A team headed by Gaskell, including his fiancee Vera (Barbara Lawrence) and fellow scientist Arnold Culver (George O'Hanlon), travel down to Mexico to investigate the asteroid splashdown. Their suspicions about the odd behavior of the asteroid are confirmed when a colossal dome rises out of the ocean where the asteroid went down, and a giant robot suddenly appears on the beach nearby. The giant thing is weirdly alien-looking, it's "body" consisting of two huge cubes joined by a pylon, and its "head" a dome with antennae sticking out on either side. The robot moves around using four massive pistons at its base that rapidly fire in sequence.

Still - Helicopter scene - Kronos (1957)
The scientific team checks out Kronos from the air.
Gaskell's team lands a helicopter on the top of the temporarily motionless robot to investigate, but they're forced to take off when machinery starts stirring and whirring on the thing. Back at the lab, Eliot, inhabited by an alien intelligence, seems to be directing the robot. It moves inland, stomping on farmers as it goes, to a Mexican power plant, whereupon it sucks up all the plant's electric power. Conventional arms are of no use, as the robot uses its power stores to destroy the jet planes attacking it. As it starts heading toward the U.S., the military brass decide to blow it up with a hydrogen bomb. Gaskell, whose Mama didn't raise a dummy, realizes it's a very bad idea to use nuclear power against a thing that sucks up power like a sponge. Seconds before the plane is to drop its payload, Gaskell gets the military to call it off, but the robot captures the plane in a tractor field and the bomb explodes anyway, making the colossal metal power-robber bigger than ever. There seems to be nothing that can stop it from sucking up all of Los Angeles' power, and then the entire world's. But the crackerjack scientist has an ingenious plan…

Kronos is definitely not a cute, anthropomorphic bucket of bolts in the tradition of a Robby or 3CP0. It's a gargantuan, cubic thing seemingly designed by an intelligence so alien, it's all but incomprehensible. (Thankfully, the filmmakers refrain from introducing us in any significant way to its makers, thereby preserving the mystery and wonder.) As it goes about its energy-absorbing mission, the robot is as oblivious to human beings as a monster truck tire is to ants on a dirt road. The "birth" of Kronos in the sea off of the Mexican coast is about as awe-inspiring and uncanny as it gets it '50s sci-fi. And it also helps that Kronos has an unusually intelligent script featuring a scientist solving an almost hopeless problem with a plausible application of scientific theory (plausible at least for a giant-robot-ravages-the-earth-for-its-energy movie.) On the downside, the takeover of Dr. Eliot's mind by the alien force doesn't make all that much sense and adds little to the film. (Why do the aliens need to take over the primitive humans? Can't they just program the robot to do its stuff?)

Still - Robot on the move! - Kronos (1957)
One of the most beautiful robots ever designed
for film? You be the judge!
Key filmmaker: Director Kurt Neumann started out in the early '30s directing shorts for Universal, and was considered for Bride of Frankenstein until being bumped for James Whale (who was fresh off another hit, The Invisible Man). Neumann directed B programmers for Universal throughout the '30s and '40s, including the memorable Secret of the Blue Room (1933) and two of the better Weissmuller Tarzans, Tarzan and the Amazons (1945) and Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946). Towards the end of his career, he directed some of the more memorable B sci-fi pictures of the '50s, including the first "realistic" story of humanity's attempt to conquer space to hit American theaters, Rocketship X-M (1950), Kronos, and The Fly (1958) with Vincent Price.

Key effects artist: Bill Warren, the titanic chronicler of '50s sci-fi, reports that effects designer Irving Block was very proud of his creation, Kronos. The robot was named after one of the Greek Titans, who notoriously ate his rivals. In this sci-fi version, Kronos is eating the earth up (or at least all its energy). Says Block, "I remember it distinctly and I know exactly why I did it, how I did it… I wanted it to be anthropomorphic, to look like a robot, but at the same time I wanted it to look like a piece of machinery. I spent a lot of time on it… At one point it looked more like a construction by Picasso, but I reduced it down by a whole series of steps until it ultimately became just a black box." In Warren's estimation, "It is one of the most beautiful robots ever designed for film." [Bill Warren, Keep Watching the Skies! Vol. I: 1950 - 1957, McFarland, 1982.]

Where to find it:
Available online

Amazon Instant Video

Available on DVD


"An awesome monster such as human eyes have never seen!"

Poster - Fiend Without a Face (1958)
Now Playing: Fiend Without a Face (1958)

Pros: Creepy horror elements add just the right amount of fear and dread; Expert build-up of suspense
Cons: The materialized creatures are more ludicrous than scary; The effects at the climax look like bad claymation

In brief: At an American air base in a remote corner of Canada, the military is experimenting with atomic power-enhanced radar to better track the rascally Russians. When several locals near the base turn up dead, their brains and spinal cords sucked out of their bodies by some sort of "mental vampire," the base commander, fearing the Americans will be blamed, tasks his right hand man, Major Jeff Cummings (Marshall Thompson), with investigating the mysterious deaths. In typical American fashion, Cummings blunders in on the daughter of one of the victims (Barbara, played by Kim Parker) as she's taking a shower and gets into a fistfight with her boyfriend.

Meanwhile, the town mayor is killed by the invisible "vampire" in the comfort of his own home. Jeff finds out from Barbara that Prof. Wingate (Kynaston Reeves), an eminent scientist in the fields of cybernetics and thought control, happens to live nearby (hmmmm….). When Jeff stops by to pick the old man's brain (pun intended) about what might be going on, the scientist gets very nervous (hmmmm…..). Things really come to a head (minus a brain of course), when the town constable, who had been hunting for the fiend, breaks into an emergency town council meeting moaning and gibbering -- he's apparently had an encounter with the vampire, and it's sucked out a good portion of his brain!

Still - Prof. Wingate's flashback on his thought control experiments - Fiend Without a Face (1958)
Poorly designed thought control experiment + lightning
= mental vampires preying on innocent townspeople
As the body count mounts, Prof. Wingate finally comes clean about his unusual experiments. He had struggled to move objects and materialize his thoughts until lightning surged through his equipment, and he realized his thoughts had finally been "freed" and he had the power of telekinesis. To continue his experiments, he devised a way to tap into the base's atomic power. The result: independent, sentient creatures with the form of living brains, but invisible to the eye… and deadly. And, they're intelligent enough to muck around with the base's atomic lab, drawing on its power to create even more fiends to prey on humanity. Soon, the fiends have Jeff, Wingate, Barbara and several other military and town officials trapped in Wingate's house…

Bill Warren describes Fiend as "one of the most ghoulish, gory pictures of the '50s." [Ibid.] This one is as much horror as it is sci-fi, with its scenes of lonely, creepy woods at night, people being attacked by invisible creatures that make eerie slurping sounds, and others being turned into walking, moaning zombies from a half-baked brain-sucking job. The scene of the zombified constable breaking up the council meeting is particularly effective. As Jeff argues with the town officials over who is to blame for the mysterious deaths, an unearthly moan sounds from the adjoining corridor. The disheveled thing that was once Gibbons appears at the doorway, his blistered face half in shadow, and then he stumbles into the room, his mind clearly (and literally) gone. When I saw this scene for the first time as a kid, I almost stopped watching the movie right then. I suspect many people even today would be creeped out by it.

At the climax the creatures "materialize" into ambulatory brains with antennae and whip-like spinal cords that they use to move around like worms and strangle their victims. Many fans have found these scenes to be thrilling and inventive, and the special effects to be superior for the time. I'm perhaps in the minority, thinking that the materialized creatures and their movements look almost comical (especially when the creatures are shot -- the effect looks like bad claymation and the "slurpy" sound effects are completely over-the-top). I'm not sure what I would have done with the ending, but when the creatures become visible, all the carefully built suspense and horror goes out the window. It almost becomes a western, with the heroes trapped in a cabin by marauding raiders…

Still - Brain fiend creeping through the woods - Fiend Without a Face (1958)
"Who invited the brain creature to the picnic?"
Key effects artists: In an extensive interview with Tom Weaver, executive producer Richard Gordon related how he hired the German effects team of Flo Nordhoff and Karl-Ludwig Ruppel:
"One day early on, [producer] John Croydon and I were having lunch with them at Walton Studios, discussing the project -- this was before we had made a commitment. John was describing the story of Fiend, and all the time he was talking, Nordhoff was sitting there doodling away on little pieces of paper. We thought he was just being slightly distracted and not paying too much attention, but at the end of John's recounting of the story, Nordhoff suddenly turned over these pieces of paper and asked us to look at them. As he was listening to the story, he had been creating the Fiends in his mind and then putting them down on paper, and they were very much like the Fiends as they appear in the original picture! That of course was the clincher, and we immediately signed them." [Weaver, The Horror Hits of Richard Gordon, BearManor Media, 2011]
Key moment in free publicity: Gordon also was amused by the extreme reaction the picture got in his native England:
"What I wasn't prepared for was that, when the film was released in England and it opened by itself at the Ritz Theatre in Leicester Square, the newspapers would be so offended by what they considered the excessive gruesomeness of the picture, that they made a major issue of it in the reviews, and it got to the point where somebody brought up in Parliament the fact that the British Board of Film Censors did not seem to be fulfilling its obligations in preventing the showing of a film like Fiend, which as a 'disgrace' to the British film industry… What went through my mind was that I could never have afforded to buy that publicity, if it hadn't come my way free, and that it was the best possible thing that could happen to the picture." [Ibid. For more on the sci-fi/horror hits of Richard Gordon, see my recent post on First Man Into Space.]

Where to find it:
Available online

Amazon Instant Video

Available on DVD


"Spawning Madness! Breeding Monsters!"