May 24, 2014

Fabulous Faceless Foes of Fifties Sci-Fi: Special CMBA ‘50s Blogathon Edition

Note to my readers: This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's (CMBA) Fabulous Films of the Fifties blogathon, running May 22 - 26. Check it out for some truly fabulous films covered by a group of very talented bloggers (there are even a couple more sci-fi entries besides this one).

Here we are at the beginning of summer 2014, and to quote one of the great boys of summer, Yogi Berra, “it’s deja vu all over again!” As temperatures heat up, here comes another Cold War front, blowing from West to East and back again, chilling relations between the world’s singular hyperpower and new-old rivals who are reluctant to take orders from Uncle Sam.

Even as his own house is falling down around his ears, the old red, white and blue coot apparently can think of nothing better to do than to grab a pointy stick and go looking for Russian bears and Chinese dragons to poke in their lairs. It’s not enough for the old man to clench his teeth, shake his fist and yell at the rest of the world to stay off his lawn. He insists on telling the rest of world how to tend their own lawns.

Poster - Invasion U.S.A. (1952)
It’s gotten me thinking about the ‘50s again, and the sense of deja vu is overwhelming. It’s been a long time since I worried about The Bomb, but now visions of shelters and duck-and-cover drills have come flooding back into my sleep-deprived brain. I’ve been eyeing my backyard -- being mostly cement deck and landscaping rock, it doesn’t seem like a good candidate for a homemade bomb shelter (and I think the neighborhood association would look askance at that as well).  Maybe the better course would be to put in a hot tub to give us the option of one last, comforting soak before the ICBMs strike.

I don’t know about you, but today’s Cold War redux makes me doubly nostalgic for the ‘50s, when at least we had reasonably competent adults in government who knew the horrors of war and could respond to crises without constantly barking about military action. Ike, we miss you!

So here we are -- everything old has become new again. The films covered here mirror the public angst occasioned by the burgeoning atomic/space age, when it was hard to avoid visions of mushroom clouds and missiles raining down on defenseless cities. Some ‘50s sci-fi dealt directly with atomic war: Five (1951), World Without End (1956), The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), to name a few. Others, like the films below, presented the challenges of out-of-control science and politics more obliquely, with atomic-age threats that were faceless and amorphous, and all the more terrifying for it.

In today’s neo-Atomic, hair-trigger world, there are more apocalyptic TV series and movies than you can shake a pointy stick at. Lately zombies have been the preponderant pop culture stand-ins for decline and disintegration, but with the success of the recent Godzilla reboot, it seems the time is ripe for bringing back old familiar faces from the first atomic age. So, is the time also ripe for bringing back faceless, radioactive blobs? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Poster - X: The Unknown (1956)
Now Playing: X: the Unknown (1956)

Pros: Dark, imaginative, and well-acted, especially by American Dean Jagger
Cons: Hammer's early black and white sci-fi offerings should be more widely available on video or online

In brief: During an army training exercise in the Scottish hinterlands, a fissure violently opens up in the earth, wounding two soldiers. Dr. Adam Royston (Dean Jagger), a scientist with the nearby Atomic Energy lab is brought in to investigate, and immediately recognizes the soldiers’ wounds as radiation burns.

A short while later, two local boys are hiking through the woods at night. One of them sees something that terrorizes him as his companion flees. He’s brought in to the hospital with severe radiation poisoning and burns, and soon dies. Police inspector McGill (Leo McKern) joins Royston in investigating the mysterious radiation plague.

The mysterious force soon ups the ante. A hospital radiation lab technician is melted by the thing right in front of his girlfriend, and two more army sentries fall prey to it. A brave volunteer rappels down into the fissure and is pulled out just in the nick of time, but not before he catches sight of something utterly unearthly and terrible.

The army’s solution is to bomb the thing and seal up the chasm, but Royston realizes that conventional military action won’t stop something that can change its shape and grow ever bigger and more powerful as it gobbles up every radiation source it can find. Royston sets an elaborate scientific trap for the thing before it can get much farther in its quest for larger atomic installations to eat.

Lobbycard - X: The Unknown
X: The Unknown is dark, atmospheric, and a great example of how, even with a limited budget, you can create mounting suspense by keeping your monster in the shadows and letting your viewer’s imagination do the work. This British version of the blob predated the Steve McQueen classic by a couple of years.

Key Cold War Confrontation:
“American Joseph Losey, [then a] resident in Britain after being labelled a possible Communist sympathizer by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, was hired to direct. (Losey was possibly attracted to the script’s ‘ban the bomb’ ethos, most explicit in the scene where Royston is told: ‘you meddle with things that kill!’) Under the pseudonym Joe Walton, Losey supervised casting and set construction, only to contract pneumonia while location scouting (conveniently, given that his presence riled McCarthyite Dean Jagger and jeopardized American distribution prospects). Days before filming commenced, Anthony Hinds found a last-minute replacement in Leslie Norman…” [Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes, The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films, Titan Books, 2007]

Key screenwriter: Beginning in 1949, Jimmy Sangster worked his way up the ladder at Exclusive/Hammer films from assistant director to production manager to hot-shot screenwriter. X: The Unknown was his first sci-fi/horror script for Hammer, and its success led to the career-changing gig writing Curse of Frankenstein (1957), which made Hammer’s worldwide reputation. He would contribute many more classic scripts to Hammer, including Horror of Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959), The Brides of Dracula (1960) and Paranoiac (1963), among others.

"The menace that can kill, but cannot be killed!"

Poster - Quatermass II: Enemy from Space (1957)
Now Playing: Quatermass II: Enemy from Space (1957)

Pros: Thoughtful, suspenseful adaptation that combines alien infiltration with a creepy, mostly unseen monster
Cons: Ditto: Hard to find on video or online

In brief: Undaunted by the dramatic failure of his first piloted space mission (The Quatermass Xperiment, 1955), the irrepressible Prof. Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) is busy planning to build a colony on the moon. Informed by higher-ups that the project has been canceled, his attention is diverted by reports of meteorites falling in the vicinity of the rural town of Winnerden Flats. Quatermass and his assistant Marsh (Bryan Forbes) drive out to a bluff overlooking the remote area. Below is a newly-built complex that looks suspiciously like Quatermass’ moonbase. Embedded in the ground all around them are mysterious rocks that look like recent arrivals.

March digs one out and it fractures, blowing something into his face as he collapses. Armed soldiers drive up and quickly surround the scientists. As the soldiers carry Marsh away over Quatermass’ strident objections, he notices that both Marsh and one of the soldiers have odd V-shaped marks on their faces.

Quatermass can’t get any help or information about the facility from the close-mouthed locals. Quatermass deduces that the aerodynamic meteorites are containers designed to harbor something living, something that breathes a completely different atmosphere.

Quatermass learns from Scotland Yard that the facility houses a secret government project to produce synthetic food. The rocket scientist persuades a curious MP, Vincent Broadhead (Tom Chatto), to allow him to join a group of government officials for a tour of the project.

Lobbycard - Quatermass II: Enemy from Space
At the facility, Quatermass and Broadhead peel off from the group to look for Marsh. Broadhead manages to get inside a containment dome at the cost of his life-- he comes stumbling out covered in a burning, acidic black slime. Quatermass manages to escape by the skin of his teeth.

Quatermass raises the alarm with Scotland Yard and whoever else will listen. But it quickly becomes evident that an alien intelligence has captured the minds of many police and government officials who are covering up the real purpose of the supposed synthetic food factory. Quatermass himself manages to steal a peek at a gigantic, pulsating protoplasmic thing housed in one of the containment domes.

An angry mob of locals storms the alien-run facility -- a human counter-revolution. But there’s also the original source of the alien contamination to deal with -- an asteroid in close earth orbit. Perhaps Quatermass’ moon rocket can be repurposed to deal with the threat…

Based on Nigel Kneale’s hit six part series for the BBC, Quatermass II is considered by many to be superior to Hammer’s first Quatermass adaptation, The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), and one of the very best films in the Studio’s entire catalog. Like X: The Unknown, it excels at creeping out audiences with the suggested and the unseen, while adding an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-like layer of alien infiltration and conspiracy.

One scene in particular, where alien-controlled humans use their non-infected brethren to stop the flow of deadly oxygen to the alien domiciles, uses the viewer’s imagination, rather than gore, to great effect.

Key Player: Depending upon who you ask, American Brian Donlevy was either the worst thing that ever happened to the Quatermass movies, or he was down-to-earth and a delight to work with. The American distributor insisted on a recognizable American name to help market the films in the States, so Donlevy was brought in to play the lead in the first two adaptations.

Book cover: Val Guest, So You Want to Be in Pictures
Writer Nigel Kneale hated, hated, HATED Donlevy in the role of his cherished Prof. Quatermass: “He really was very drunk indeed. He used to take a liquid lunch up in the village, and when he got back he’d sunken half a bottle of whiskey. They had to tell him the name of the film, the scene he was in and then raise the ‘idiot board’ so he could read off it.” [Quoted in Hearn and Barnes, The Hammer Story]

Director Val Guest, on the other hand, had nothing but kind words for his star: “[W]ho could be more down-to-earth than the Oscar-nominated Brian Donlevy? Brian had been-there-done-that and, he told us proudly, ours would be his 57th motion picture. What’s more he was a delight to work with, being sure enough of his trade to realise, unlike so many other ‘names,’ that he didn’t have to be difficult to hide his insecurity.

In fact, the only trouble I had with Donlevy was trying to keep his toupee on, or as he used call it, his ‘rug.’ … Twice Brian’s ‘rugs’ had taken off into the dust-filled yonder and we were now down to the last one hairdressing had with them on location. ‘Whatever you do,’ I instructed Brian, ‘keep facing the propellers and we’ll be okay.’ He did just what he was told and we got one of the best shots of the day. ‘Great. Cut. Print. We got it!’ Whereupon a jubilant Brian turned to grin at me and away went his last rug!” [So You Want to Be In Pictures: The Autobiography of Val Guest, Reynolds & Hearn, 2001]

"If you ever hear a sound like this, run for your life!"

Poster - The Flame Barrier (1958)
Now Playing: The Flame Barrier (1958)

Pros: B veterans Kathleen Crowley and Arthur Franz generate some sparks
Cons: Confusing mash-up of jungle adventure and sci-fi; Obviously rushed into production to take advantage of Sputnik headlines; Also hard to find a reliable copy

In brief: It’s the dawn of the space age, and America has just launched its latest wonder, the X117 satellite. Even with the most powerful rockets, the X117 proves the old adage that what goes up must come down as it encounters what the film’s grim narrator calls the “flame barrier” -- the fictional boundary where the last of earth’s atmosphere and the vacuum of space meet, supposedly preventing man-made objects from completely escaping the earth. Back in the ‘50s, if it wasn’t jealous aliens, it was flame barriers that were going to kick us in the pants if we tried to reach for the stars.

Cut to beautiful, feisty Carol Dahlmann (Kathleen Crowley), wife of a wealthy industrialist and amateur satellite tracker who has disappeared in the Mexican Yucatan jungle trying to find the downed spacecraft. Carol is determined to find her husband, and has been given the name of American expatriate, entrepreneur and handy jungle guide, Dave Hollister (Arthur Franz) to help her in her quest.

Lobbycard - The Flame Barrier
In a remote Mexican village on the edge of the jungle, Carol first runs into Dave’s younger, free-spirited (and seemingly alcoholic) brother Matt (Robert Brown). Matt takes an immediate shine to the attractive but earnest blonde -- not so older brother Dave, who gruffly spurns Carol’s offer to pay him handsomely for help in searching the jungle for her missing husband.

Dave, a cynic to the core, tells Carol that he thinks she’s more interested in finding hubby dead so she can inherit his fortune. After getting slapped, he coolly negotiates a deal wherein he gets a big cut if they find the industrialist alive, and even more if they can prove he’s dead.

As they set out into the jungle, Dave callously hones in on all of Carol’s pampered ways and naivete. But as she perseveres despite encounters with tarantulas, poisonous snakes, iguanas, creepy skeletons, and panicked Indian guides, he develops a grudging respect for the plucky woman.

An awkward triangle develops between the brothers and Carol, which is quickly set aside when they stumble upon Dahlmann’s abandoned camp. In a nearby cave, they find the X117 satellite and Dahlmann’s corpse enveloped in a mysterious, gelatin-like mass. Bad enough, but the mass seems to be generating a deadly energy field that doubles in size every several hours. If they let it go, it could potentially envelop the world!

Sputnik (image courtesy of
This spherical hunk of metal was directly responsible
for giving us The Flame Barrier!
The Flame Barrier plays like a mundane jungle action-adventure yarn that had space-age/sci-fi elements tacked onto it at the last minute to take advantage of the day’s headlines. (Indeed, it was released just several months after the Soviets launched the first orbital satellite Sputnik, rattling America’s confidence in its technological superiority.)

The few critics who’ve paid attention to Flame Barrier over the years have been hard on it, decrying the lame love triangle that takes up so much of the movie, and the crazy pseudo-scientific premise that generates confusion rather than suspense at the climax. The best thing Flame Barrier has going for it is Kathleen Crowley, who lends a lot of life and determination to her character. In spite of all the humiliations and frights courtesy of Dave and the jungle, she sees her mission through and emerges all the stronger.

Key player: Energetic, attractive Kathleen Crowley started in TV at the beginning of the ‘50s. Her other notable sci-fi/horror credits include Target Earth (1954) and Curse of the Undead (1959; featuring a vampire gun-fighter). By the 1960s she was almost exclusively doing television, including a stint in the Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller series.

Key writer: George Worthing Yates, credited with the story, was the nephew of the legendary founder of Republic Pictures, Herbert J. Yates. George lent his prodigious imagination to some of the iconic sci-fi films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, including Them! (1954), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and Attack of the Puppet People (1958). He also penned another obscure but highly original faceless foe pic, Space Master X-7 (1958). But that wasn’t all. His story “King Kong vs. Prometheus” inspired the Toho super-hit King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962).