May 16, 2016

The Fantastic, Far-Fetched, Frightful Five: Special "5 Movies on an Island Blogathon" Edition

A couple of months ago my friend Rick over at the bustling, always interesting Classic Film and TV Café issued a call to his fellow classic movie bloggers about his upcoming "5 Movies on an Island" blogathon celebrating National Classic Movie Day. After a bit of digging, I realized that I had missed the inaugural blogathon for NCMD last year. Then I looked at my own blog and realized I hadn’t posted anything since last Halloween. I tried to revive the blog in early October after a nearly year-long hiatus, posted 3 times, then went incommunicado again. When I saw Rick’s email, it seemed like a fun excuse to try to jump start Films From Beyond for the second time. We’ll see if it works this go round, or if the battery is completely dead.

A word of caution for those of you visiting for the first time: you’ve probably picked up from the general look and feel that this is not your typical classic movie blog. Indeed, you won’t find reviews of screwball comedies of the ‘30s, or Busby Berkeley musicals, or examinations of the careers or collaborations of the great Golden Age actors, actresses, directors and moguls. I deal in obscure B and genre movies, the more obscure the better, and my tastes (at least for the blog) tend toward the campy, macabre and surreal.

In fact, you won’t find many references to the familiar, timeless standbys of the sci-fi, horror and mystery-thriller genres. I’m lazy, and it’s hard work to try to say something original about a beloved genre pic that’s been dissected, analyzed, euthanized, eulogized and revivified in a thousand different blogs, mags and gin joints. I also don’t like competition, so with Films From Beyond I wanted to carve out a small enough niche for myself where the people who claim expertise could hold a convention in a medium-sized broom closet and still have room for an open bar. This fits me like an old, comfortable shoe.

If you poke around a bit you will find posts dealing with the likes of Joan Crawford, Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, and Joan Fontaine, among others, but they deal with late career genre appearances that most classic movie lovers would rather forget. If you’re thinking at this point, “this is not a proper venue for celebrating classic movies,” I can’t argue with you. Most of the movies that hang around this site are old, eccentric and somewhat disreputable. They are no one’s idea of a classic. But I am not a barbarian. Every title that I write about has something to like about it, and I’m not embarrassed to say so. Every one has its problems (sometimes many problems), and I talk about that too. I have fun with these movies, but I don’t make fun of them.

Just a small portion of my DVD collection
So many movies, so little time...
Speaking of fun, after I volunteered to participate in this year’s blogathon, I went back and forth on just what sort of fun I wanted to have with this post. Should I take the word “classic” at face value, take off the B movie hat just this once, and write about the 5 true blue classics no desert island should be without? (Just in case you’re skeptical that I even know what the phrase “classic movie” means, I present these credentials: My favorite actor of all time is Jimmy Stewart; favorite actress is a tie between Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck; I love Jimmy’s collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann; one of my all-time favorite films is Double Indemnity; favorite historical drama - Spartacus; favorite non-sci-fi/horror guilty pleasure - The Damned Don’t Cry.)

In the end, I decided to stay true to the blog. So then, the dilemma. Of course, the desert island is an old, familiar set-up to get people talking about movies that nourish the mind and soul and that bear repeated watching. I suspect that if the government started mandating mental/spiritual nutrition labels on blogs like this, they would display big fat zeros. But one of my prime missions with FFB is to demonstrate that there is interesting, thought-producing gold hidden among the low budgets, cheesy effects and compromised production values of these B pictures — it may be gold dust instead of nuggets, but nonetheless it’s there. (My apologies if I lost you in a thicket of mixed metaphors.)

Acknowledging that the desert island is a useful metaphor, I nevertheless found myself wondering just how I happened to get stranded with only a handful of classic flicks for company. Being a film buff and a tech nerd, were they already stored on my water-resistant smartphone when the ship went down? Like Tom Hanks, was I a FedEx employee hitching a ride on a cargo plane with a box of remaindered DVDs and compact players bound for ebay customers? None of those scenarios felt right for the B movie island oasis that is Films From Beyond.

Although I risk being left off the invite list next year (or worse yet, being expelled from this year’s list), I decided to work up my own scenario — and it doesn’t involve an island. I think it captures the spirit if not the letter of the blogathon rules, so I throw myself on the mercy of the court of blogger opinion. In this scenario, I’m sitting in the very home office that I am sitting in now, keyboarding away on a post very similar to this one. A few feet behind me is a small bookcase with DVDs and books that I like to have on hand when I’m immersing myself in B movies. Outside in the distance, emergency sirens are wailing — this is it, the Zombie Apocalypse is finally at hand, the beginning of our end.

I check my phone, and see from the ZA alert texts that a battalion of the walking deadheads are a half mile away and shambling right toward my house. Being alert and forward-looking, when I first read of the mysterious South Asiatic virus that turned ordinary people into mindless, brain eating automatons, I didn’t chalk it up to just another flash-in-the-pan health scare that would quickly fade from the news cycle and memory. I read everything I could find, calculating infection rates and the probabilities and timing of dispersion from the region to the wider world.

Being cautious, I excavated an underground shelter in my backyard and stocked it with canned food, bio-fueled generators and an efficient rain collector. In spite of it all, I am still unprepared. From the research, it's clear that these zombies are not the agile, explosively fast ones predicted by such 21st century movies as 28 Days Later or World War Z. No, these are the slower moving variety of such B classics as I Walked with a Zombie, Night of the Living Dead, and The Last Man on Earth. I thought I had more time. Now they are almost here.

Still, Vincent Price, The Last Man on Earth (1964)
"Hey, gimme back those DVDs I loaned you!"
Sweat beads on my brow as I realize that, although the shelter is replete with everything needed to sustain the body, food for the mind and soul is still lacking. I have some books downloaded to my my smartphone, but there are no movies, and I am first and foremost a movie person! Without movies, I might as well be one of those mindless, shambling monsters out there. I whirl around, and my eyes dart over the small bookshelf of DVDs. I was going to get around to downloading a healthy selection of my old movie standbys to a portable drive. I can’t find the drive and I’m running short on time. The internet is down, but the back-up generator has kicked in and I have power to the desktop computer.

Checking the Zombie Tracker on Google maps, I figure I have just enough time to rip 5 DVDs to digital files, stuff them on my phone’s microSD card, grab a few more supplies, and head for the shelter. My phone is buzzing like an angry bee with wave after wave of alert texts. I know that throughout the country, National Guard units and citizen response teams have been undermanned and overwhelmed. It could be a very long haul in my no-zombies-allowed sanctuary.

Back to the bookcase. Everything there is pretty much sci-fi or horror. There’s no time to go looking through the rest of the house for comedies or thought-provoking dramas. What to choose?

Poster, This Island Earth (1955)
Selection #1: This Island Earth (1955)

“[O]ne of the best science fiction films of the 1950s..." - Bill Warren

Ah, I’m in luck, this old friend has been waiting patiently on the shelf for another play. I noticed a few weeks back that Me TV’s Svengoolie hosted this ’50s classic (yes, classic), and I’d been meaning to watch it for the first time in a long time. Over the years it hasn’t gotten quite the same approbation as Forbidden Planet or The Day the Earth Stood Still, but it is solid, serious science fiction with something for everyone and high repeat watchability.

Based on the 1952 novel of the same name by Raymond F. Jones (the novel itself was originally published in Thrilling Wonder Stories as three serialized novelettes), it tells the tale of American nuclear scientist Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) who receives a shipment of mysterious electronic parts, a catalog, and instructions for building something called an “interociter.” Cal and his lab assistant can’t pass up the challenge, and when they finally fire up the machine — a futuristic triangular view screen — they’re greeted with an image of Exeter (Jeff Morrow) who, with his extremely high forehead and snow-white hair, looks distinctly alien.

The scientists learn from Exeter that in successfully assembling the interociter, they’ve passed an IQ test that makes them eligible to join other best-of-the-best colleagues at a secret facility for a still unnamed project. They’re flown by robot plane to the facility (Google’s self-driving car division, take note!), where more sinister aspects of the project — like electronic brainwashing of the scientists — are revealed. Cal and former love interest and colleague Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue) are hijacked aboard Exeter’s spaceship and flown to the planet Metaluna, which is under attack by a rival planet. Cal and Ruth are expected to pitch in to help the Metalunans shore up their fading force shields.

The first part of This Island Earth plays almost like a futuristic international thriller. The second part is all spaceships and monstrous mutants and interplanetary war. ‘50s sci-fi maven Bill Warren calls it “[O]ne of the best science fiction films of the 1950s, and until the explosion that began with 2001 and vastly accelerated by Star Wars, it was one of the best ever made.” [Keep Watching the Skies, Vol. I, McFarland, 1982]

History of science-types may also be intrigued and/or bemused at the naive enthusiasm for nuclear energy. Whereas other sci-fi films of the ’50s were playing up the insidious dangers of the atom and radioactivity (see The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms below), protagonist Cal Meacham is giddy with excitement over the prospect of going nuclear with almost everything: “[To reporters] You boys like to call this the pushbutton age. It isn't, not yet. Not until we can team up atomic energy with electronics. Then we'll have the horses as well as the cart.”

Poster - Five Million Years to Earth (1967)
Selection #2: Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth; 1967)

“[T]he masterful building of atmosphere produces literal chills at certain points in the film."

Another old friend is beckoning to me from the shelf. This one is the brainchild of the great Nigel Kneale, who in the 1950s almost single-handedly saved the stodgy BBC from itself by developing a string of exciting, wildly popular sci-fi TV series centered on the gruff, determined character of Bernard Quatermass, Britain’s foremost rocket scientist. In the ‘50s and ‘60s Hammer Studios adopted the TV material into modestly budgeted, but successful movies: The Quatermass X-periment (1955), Quatermass II (aka Enemy from Space; 1957), and the coup-de-grace, Quatermass and the Pit in 1967.

Hammer hedged its U.S. distribution bets by casting American Brian Donlevy as Quatermass in the first two adaptations. Kneale absolutely hated Donlevy in the role, and in a raft of interviews over the years made no bones about Donlevy often being drunk and unprofessional on the sets of the first two films (on the other hand, director Val Guest was delighted with his American star). By the time Hammer got around to doing Pit, Kneale was much more involved in the production, contributing a screenplay done his way. Kneale put his foot down about giving Donlevy another go at the character, and after André Morell, the original TV Quatermass demurred, Andrew Keir, who many regard as the quintessential Quatermass, was hired.

Quatermass and the Pit tells the chilling tale of a crew working on a section of the London Underground that uncovers what at first they think is an unexploded German bomb left over from World War II. When the military experts discover that the outer shell is impervious to state of the art cutting tools, and the shape of the thing is like nothing ever seen on earth, Quatermass and his colleagues Dr. Mathew Roney (James Donald) and Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) are called in to investigate.

Ever the thorough scientist, Quatermass digs up accounts of strange sightings and poltergeist-type phenomena that have clustered around the site for years. Meanwhile, even as the strange object starts to come alive with a weird energy, the military-types keep their heads stuck in the sand, insisting it’s some sort of secret WWII weapon. Little do they realize that the alien thing holds the key to the emergence of human life on earth, and is awakening primitive forces within humanity that may spell the end of civilization.

I first saw Pit / Five Million Years to Earth at a NY comic convention screening in the early ’70s, and was blown away by it. In the first half it slowly builds suspense like a well-crafted supernatural thriller, then explodes into apocalyptic action at the climax. Quatermass' vociferous disagreements with the thick-headed military officers adds to the tension. Some viewers will scoff at the puppetry used to depict the ancient aliens, but the masterful building of atmosphere produces literal chills at certain points in the film.

Poster - The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Selection #3: The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

“Sic transit gloria mundi" - The Man in Red

Do I dare take this one with me to the shelter? It’s so grim, so depressing, and too close in theme to the Zombie Apocalypse that’s consuming the world. And yet, it’s also lyrical and moving and the cinematography (by Nicolas Roeg) is sumptuous. This is the next to last in Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe-inspired films for American International Pictures, and clearly the best. It not only transcends its B movie roots, it obliterates them and rises to the level of art house film without the smug pretentiousness. It is a masterwork that any producer/director would claim with pride.

It boggles some people’s minds that Corman, the king of cheesy quickies like Attack of the Crab Monsters or Teenage Cave Man could be responsible for something this good. Maybe it was the inspiration of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Maybe it was the shooting location in England, a first for Corman (and in true Corman fashion, he saved money by filming on the sets left over from the costume drama Becket). Maybe it was the lengthier film schedule — five weeks instead of the three typical for the Poe pictures. Maybe it was the brilliant cinematographer Roeg. Maybe it was Charles Beaumont’s near-perfect screenplay combining the titular Poe story with another, “Hop-Frog.” Who knows? All I know is that I never get tired of seeing it.

Of course, don’t discount the great cast. Jane Asher (who was seeing Paul McCartney at the time), plays the innocent peasant girl Francesca, who along with her father Ludovico (Nigel Green) and lover Gino (David Weston), attract the attention of the decadent, Satan worshipping Prince Prospero played by Vincent Price. Price is pure cool, self-satisfied evil as he sweeps the three into his castle, which has become a shelter from the Red Death for his fellow nobles and lords. He has lustful designs on Francesca, and tries to pit Ludovico and Gino against each other in bloodsport for the amusement of the assembled nobility. Patrick Magee also stands out as the cruel, sneering Alfredo, who meets a hideous demise at the hands of the vengeful dwarf-jester Hop-Toad (Skip Martin).

And then there is the ravishing Hazel Court as Juliana, Prospero’s mistress and would-be bride of Satan. Although trying her best to be evil, you almost feel sorry for her because she hasn’t got a prayer (so to speak), being surrounded by true, demented evil. The nightmare sequence in which she serves as the sacrifice in a succession of Satanic rituals lets Hazel test the limits of her screaming abilities.

The decadent goings-on at Prospero’s place are bookended by the quiet, sinister presence of the hooded Red Death. At the beginning, he gives an old peasant woman a white rose, which suddenly turns red with blood — the plague is on! At the end, after Prospero and his cronies have met their fate, Red Death meets other hooded, color-coded emissaries of death, and they tally up the body count. Red Death brings down the figurative curtain by declaring “Sic transit gloria mundi” — “Thus passes the glory of the world.” Something that our own corrupt, greedy, aspiring Prosperos would do well to keep in mind.

Poster - The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
Selection #4: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

“The Beast was the credited debut of master stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen..."

I hear the Beast bellowing from its sliver of space on the shelf. You can’t leave me here, it says, I was your all-time favorite once, the movie you had to see every chance you got! It’s true. The Beast is in that rarefied company of films that I’ve seen at least a dozen times — The Wizard of Oz, The Great Escape, Forbidden Planet, House of Frankenstein, and Them! And why not? Along with The Thing from Another World and The Day the Earth Stood Still (both 1951), the Beast ushered in the wave of dark, paranoid, space/atomic age fantasies that has kept me entertained my whole life.

The Beast was a sort of Freudian expression of deep-seated atomic age anxieties, and was all the more popular for it. He was freed from suspended animation in an icy arctic tomb by American A-bomb tests. Although just a year later, Invasion U.S.A. would depict an actual Soviet nuclear attack on the United States, such movies hit too close to home, and consequently weren’t nearly as popular. Audiences preferred their atomic fantasies to be a little more oblique. We would still pay for our nuclear-fueled hubris, but in this case in the form of a rampaging, irradiated dinosaur.

The popularity of Beast would unleash a whole horde of outsized, mutant creatures and insects, including Japan’s immortal Godzilla. Director Eugène Lourié tried to capture nuclear lightning in a bottle a second time by remaking the beast in 1959 as The Giant Behemoth and changing the setting to London. While Behemoth is a nicely crafted film in its own right, it’s still lumbers in the shadows of the original beast.

The construction of Beast is similar to Quatermass and the Pit mentioned above: there is a highly unusual occurrence (the inadvertent freeing of the dinosaur from its icy tomb); a lone witness to the event who no one believes at first (Prof. Tom Nesbitt, played by Paul Hubschmid); an atmosphere of mystery as the professor teams with another expert, paleontologist Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway) to try to figure out what is going on (finally identified as the fictional “rhedosaur”); and a similar, near-apocalyptic climax as the pissed off, dying beast (radiation is not good for man or beast) decides to take out his frustrations on New York City.

Cecil Kellaway hits just the right light comic-relief mark as the earnest, yet absent-minded dinosaur expert. Paula Raymond appears as Elson’s female assistant Lee Hunter — the female assistant (or scientific colleague, usually an old love interest for the male protagonist), became such a stock character in ‘50s sci-fi that it’s hard to find a film without one.

Another pioneering first for the Beast was the credited debut of master stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, who would go on to define a whole generation of science fiction and fantasy films with his wondrous visual effects, including The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, 20 Million Miles to Earth, Jason and the Argonauts, and finally winding up his career with Clash of the Titans in 1981. Harryhausen’s Rhedosaur is not just a rampaging beast — somehow the master animator manages to tease out a fledgling personality, and audience sympathy, from his puppet, much like his mentor Willis O’Brien did with King Kong years before.

Although we long ago traded in our atom-age anxieties for more mundane xenophobic ones, Tom Nesbitt’s flash of insight is still as pertinent today as it was when The Beast was let loose on an unsuspecting world: “The world's been here for millions of years. Man's been walking upright for a comparatively short time. Mentally we're still crawling.”

How can you leave behind a film with a line like that?

Poster - The Black Cat (1934)
Selection #5: The Black Cat (1934)

“[I]t’s an insane mix of hoary old dark house tropes and hair-raising depictions of moral deviance and sexual perversion."

Two of my nearest, dearest classic B movie friends are trying to get my attention. Pick us!, pick us! they whisper. Separately we made enough movies to last an enthusiast like yourself a lifetime of viewing pleasure. Together, we made 8 films, some of them indifferent, a couple of them minor classics, but this one, the first we made together, stands above them all, a true classic.

Flush with the success of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein and Bela Lugosi’s Dracula (both 1931), Universal Studios was eager to pair the two in a horror film to keep the box office gravy train going. Rising star director Edgar G. Ulmer was brought in to direct, and Edgar Allan Poe’s famous story was added to the mix (the title at least) for additional macabre appeal.

Peter Ruric’s screenplay had nothing to do with the Poe story — it’s an insane mix of hoary old dark house tropes and hair-raising depictions of moral deviance and sexual perversion. A couple honeymooning in Hungary, Joan and Peter Alison (the ubiquitous David Manners and Julie Bishop), meet the somber, brooding Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), a Hungarian psychiatrist who has spent the last fifteen years in a Siberian internment camp. Werdegast is traveling to see his “old friend,” Austrian architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), who lives nearby in an ultra-modern mansion built on the site of an old World War I battleground where they both saw action.

The couple shares a bus with the doctor, and a made-to-order dark and stormy night causes it to crash. Peter and Werdegast carry the injured Joan up to Poelzig’s house, where the doctor tends to her. It turns out that the friendship is on shaky ground, as Werdegast accuses Poelzig, who had been a commander in the war, of causing the deaths of thousands of soldiers and giving up others like Werdegast to the Russians. To add insult to injury, Poelzig stole Werdegast’s wife while the good doctor was wasting away in the camp, and is now keeping her preserved dead body in a glass case like a hunting trophy. To pile it even higher and deeper, he is sleeping with the doctor’s adult daughter, in a weird, necrophilic, incest-by-proxy arrangement.

Of course, Poelzig has an excuse for this bizarre behavior — he’s a batshit crazy Satanist who, among other things, plans to sacrifice Joan in a Black Mass. In the meantime, he enjoys playing a cruel cat and mouse game with Wedergast by exploiting his fear of cats (thus the title and tenuous connection to Poe). If you suspect that things don’t end well for the two “old friends,” you may be right.

Although it was a hit, The Black Cat ended up being unlucky for the up and coming director Ulmer. During the filming, Ulmer had an affair with Shirley Castle, who would eventually become his wife. Unfortunately, Shirley was married to the nephew of Universal Studios boss Carl Laemmle. Ulmer was reportedly blacklisted from all the major studios, and spent the rest of his career doing “poverty row” B pictures. But without that twist of fate, we wouldn’t have had Bluebeard (1944), or Detour (1945), or The Man from Planet X (1951). The big studios’ loss was B movies’ gain.

Clocking in at a mere 65 minutes, The Black Cat is the shortest film on my short list. But like The Beast, it has one of the great lines from B horror movies that adds to its oddball appeal. When the storm takes out the telephone lines at Poelzig’s mansion, the architect can’t help but taunt his former friend: “The phone is dead. Do you hear that, Vitus? Even the phone is dead.”

Epilogue: I'm safe and sound in my underground, zombie-proof bunker. I can hear the faint sounds of the wind blowing above, rattling loose window screens on the house. If I listen intently, I can hear the faintest shuffling of undead feet on the shelter roof. I need to be very quiet. I pop in my earbuds, and turn my attention to the movie playing on my smartphone...