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.)

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