May 13, 2019

The X-Man meets the Puppetoons

Poster - The Power (1968)
Now Playing: The Power (1968)

Pros: Features an interesting cast of veteran character actors and B movie regulars; Ambitiously tries to marry the sci-fi and suspense-thriller genres.
Cons: Slow stretches and plot holes dissipate the suspense somewhat.
“Do we humans harbor within us vast mental powers beyond our imagination? Are some of us gifted with psychic abilities far beyond the norm, and if so what does that mean for us as a society? Whether one believes in extra sensory perception, mental powers, or any of the phenomena that go with them, some governments of the world have certainly at some point or another taken notice to entertain the idea. After all, wouldn’t such amazing abilities be useful for warfare or intelligence gathering? Governments around the world have long sought to try and harness the untapped powers of the human mind to mixed results…” (Brent Swancer, “Bizarre Government Experiments and Strange Psychic Powers,” Mysteriousuniverse.org, Nov. 17, 2017)
In his fascinating article for the Mysterious Universe website, Brent Swancer details a kind of international arms race that few Americans are aware of -- the race to harness psychic abilities for national security purposes. In the 1970s, U.S. authorities became concerned about Soviet research into these areas, and thus was born the Stargate Project, which recruited psychics to, among other things, surveil human targets and facilities through “remote viewing.”

Before the unit was shut down in the mid-90s, it also experimented with less benign applications of psychic powers, including the possibility of slowing or even stopping a heartbeat with the mind alone. The project was profiled in a 2004 book by Jon Ronson, The Men Who Stare at Goats, which was adapted into a movie starring George Clooney in 2009.

Stopping a person’s vital bodily functions through telekinesis is at the heart (pun intended) of producer George Pal’s The Power. Based on the 1959 science fiction novel by Frank M. Robinson, the film opens at a research facility specializing in space medicine (in this case, a government sponsored institute, not the military).

Arthur Nordlund (Michael Rennie) has been sent from Washington to liaise with a group of scientists conducting research into the limits of human endurance. Their research is crucial to ensuring the health and safety astronauts on long space missions. The head of the committee, Prof. Jim Tanner (George Hamilton) takes Nordlund on a tour of the facility, where he sees one volunteer in scuba gear lying at the bottom of a water tank, and another being subjected to intense heat.

Michael Rennie and George Hamilton in The Power (1968)
Prof. Tanner shows Nordlund his patented body tanning method.
Nordlund attends a meeting of the full committee, which is comprised of experts in all disciplines related to human performance: Dr. Margery Lansing (Suzanne Pleshette) is a geneticist, Prof. Talbot Scott (Earl Holliman) is a biologist, chain-smoking Carl Melnicker (Nehemiah Persoff) is a physicist, and Prof. Norman Van Zandt (Richard Carlson) heads up the institute.

There is a lot of brainpower on the committee, but the members are startled when the token social scientist in the group, anthropologist Henry Hallson (Arthur O’Connell), announces in alarmed tones that, based on anonymous questionnaires and tests he’s given to his fellow committee members, one of the group has an IQ that is “off the charts,” and possesses “a force of intellect far beyond anything known on the earth today.”

When Nordlund asks if that could include paranormal or telekinetic mental powers, Hallson responds in the affirmative. Nordlund proposes a test for the committee to take right then and there, to see if the super-man (or woman) among them will reveal him/herself. Melnicker works up a makeshift pinwheel with a pencil and piece of paper and sets it in the middle of the table. If there is a telekinetic mutant among them, it should be no problem for the person to set the paper spinning through just the force of mind.

After a couple of abortive attempts, the group around the table all stare intently at the pinwheel, and sure enough, the paper begins turning by itself as ominous music swells.

Testing for telekinetic powers at the committee meeting
Scientists at America's elite space research institute play Spin the Paper.

The scientists are spooked at the thought that a telekinetic-capable superhuman is walking among them. Things take a much darker turn when Tanner and Lansing discover Hallson dead in the cabin of the institute’s experimental centrifuge. Alerted by Hallson’s wife (Yvonne De Carlo) that he had not come home, the two had gone to the institute looking for the professor, only to discover the centrifuge whirling around at top speed. Mysteriously, the emergency kill switch didn’t work, and by the time they managed to cut power to the entire facility, Hallson was dead, crushed by the tremendous G forces generated by the contraption.

The only clue that Tanner finds among Hallson’s effects is a name, Adam Hart, scribbled on a piece of paper. Tanner immediately becomes a prime suspect in Hallson’s death when his widow inexplicably tells the police she did not call Tanner to check in on her husband. The hot water he’s in gets even hotter when the police inspector (Gary Merrill) informs him that there is no record of his attending any of the universities listed on his resume.

Mystified and alarmed, Tanner decides to do some investigating himself. When he learns that Adam Hart was a childhood friend of Hallson’s, he drives out to the remote desert town that was Hallson’s boyhood home. Things get even weirder when Hallson’s father and other town members give wildly different descriptions of Adam Hart’s physical appearance.

Another boyhood friend of Hallson’s and Hart’s, Bruce (Aldo Ray), tells Tanner that he has something to show him that will reveal much more about the mystery man. When Bruce drives him out to the middle of the desert, Tanner senses that something’s off, and jumps out of the jeep. He seeks shelter in a patch of scrub brush and palm trees, but then quickly realizes he’s smack in the middle of an Air Force gunnery range -- and a squadron of jets is firing live rockets at him. He manages to light some brush on fire to get attention and the pilots abort the exercise.

Tanner (George Hamilton) runs from strafing air force jets
George Hamilton hopes with all his heart that
his film doesn't bomb at the box office.
When Bruce later admits that Hart had commanded him to kill anyone looking into his past, Tanner gets a healthy appreciation of the extent of the man's powers. Once back home, Tanner not only has to deal with a faceless psychic superman who apparently wants him dead, but also with his paranoid colleagues who think he might be the superpsychic killer.

As a sci-fi-based psychological/suspense thriller, The Power is an interesting product of its time. The idea of a genetic mutant masquerading as a government scientist and playing with normal humans like a cat toying with a mouse, seems emblematic, if in an unconscious way, of an era of mind-expanding psychedelic drugs and distrust of government authorities over the Vietnam war. (A couple of years before, Star Trek had featured a similar “monster” in the form of Charlie X, an orphaned human teenager who had learned fearsome telekinetic powers from the aliens who raised him.)

However, the film struggles somewhat under the weight of its ambitious premise. In the original novel, the protagonist’s investigations gradually uncover the mutant’s backstory and the extent of his powers. The movie’s 108 minute runtime doesn’t afford this luxury, so the viewer has to use his/her imagination to fill in plot holes and inconsistencies. For example, if Hallson’s boyhood friend Adam Hart is the culprit, how can he hide out at institute in plain sight, so to speak, without Hallson recognizing him? (The inability of Adam Hart’s hometown neighbors to agree on what he looked like is perhaps a clue.)

As the cat-and-mouse game begins in earnest, Tanner witnesses all sorts manifestations of the faceless Hart’s powers. At a crosswalk on a busy city street, Tanner watches as the Don’t Walk pedestrian sign suddenly morphs into an ominous message - “Don’t Run.” In another George Pal-esque scene, the weary Tanner stops momentarily at a toy store window, where to his amazement, a squad of tin soldiers become animated, line up, and shoot their toy guns at him. (This was a knowing wink to Pal’s early career as the creator and animator of stop-motion “Puppetoons” -- many of them depicting classic fairy tales -- that he did in the 1940s.)

The tin soldier sequence in The Power (1968)
Attack of the Puppetoons!
The game becomes potentially deadlier as Tanner stumbles aboard a kids’ merry-go-round at a downtown galleria. Before he knows it, the merry-go-round is whipping around at such great speed that Tanner’s facial muscles are pushed back by the G-forces, echoing the deadly centrifuge ride that killed Hallson earlier on. It’s a nice touch, having these seemingly innocent children’s amusements turned into weapons by the remorseless psi-chopath. Another nice touch is the overlay of a beating heart on the soundtrack as Hart hones in on his prey. It’s an eerie reminder that he can stop a human heart with just his mind.

Against the backdrop of these incredible powers, it’s perhaps a stretch when Tanner, on the run and with Lansing and the physicist Melnicker in tow, decides that the safest hiding place is among the teeming crowds of the big city. They crash a salesmen’s convention at a hotel, and additionally, Tanner warns his colleagues not to sleep. A scene in which they nervously keep watch as the clueless conventioneers dance awkwardly at an after hours party goes on way too long, especially for a scene that doesn’t make much sense. From what we (and Tanner) know of Hart, it should be no problem for him to get to the hapless scientists, regardless of whether they're asleep or awake, or in a big crowd or by themselves.

Some of the film’s logical lapses are explained by the twist ending, but not all. However, the end is punctuated by an hallucinatory, psychedelic montage that allows Pal to indulge in more of his beloved stop-motion animation.

Tanner (George Hamilton) is roasted in The Power's climatic psychedlic montage.
"Holy smokes! I turned the tanning bed up way too high!"

Many of the film’s production staff and cast were no strangers to sci-fi. The Power was the next to last feature film produced by Pal, whose resume was brimming with such classics as When Worlds Collide (1951), War of the Worlds (1953), and The Time Machine (1960), among others. Director Byron Haskin had previously helmed War of the Worlds and Conquest of Space (1955) for Pal, and Robinson Crusoe on Mars in 1964.

Richard Carlson was a sci-fi fixture, having appeared in such classics as Creature from the Black Lagoon (1953) and It Came from Outer Space (1953); he had even directed his own sci-fi feature, Riders to the Stars (1954) around the same time as those films.

Earl Holliman had the distinction of appearing in the one of the all-time great sci-fi films, Forbidden Planet (1956), as well as the inaugural episode of The Twilight Zone TV series in 1959. And of course, Michael Rennie will be forever known as Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).

Veteran character actors Arthur O’Connell, Nehemiah Persoff, Yvonne DeCarlo, Gary Merrill and Aldo Ray are also welcome familiar faces, but the small roles don’t take advantage of their respective talents.

Suzanne Pleshette as Dr. Margery Lansing in The Power (1968)
Dr. Lansing suddenly remembers that
she left the oven on at home.
Leads George Hamilton and Suzanne Pleshette do a credible job looking attractive and registering shock and horror at the appropriate points. Even at this relatively early stage of his career, everyone’s favorite Crispy Colonel was exhibiting the beginnings of the preternatural tan that was to become his signature.

One of the biggest “stars” of The Power is the atmospheric musical score by 3-time Oscar winner Miklós Rózsa. The main theme features a cimbalom, a kind of dulcimer that is played by striking strings with light hammers. The result is eerie and otherworldly. I remember getting a little chill hearing it the first time, and it worked its magic again with the latest viewing.

The Power is one of George Pal’s forgotten sci-fi features. It has minimal special effects, relying instead on generating suspense via a mysterious unseen menace. It has slow moments and logic lapses, but it’s worth looking up for its unique story, good cast, and great score.

Where to find it: Purchase the Warner Archive DVD at fine online outlets like Oldies.com.

May 1, 2019

Stream and Stream Again: Special May Day Edition

Spring is here. There’s a better than even chance that the sun is shining where you are; nature is blooming (time to stock up on the allergy meds); and at least for a brief moment, hope and renewal (along with pollen) waft on warm breezes.

We don’t really do May Day here in the States, what with its commie-hippie-fertility-tree-worshipping vibe that’s so at odds with our dog-eat-dog capitalism. Elsewhere, the old Soviet military parades are gone, but much of the world still recognizes it as International Workers Day, where workers of the world unite to binge on Game of Thrones and the latest Marvel blockbusters. There are even a few odd Europeans and Brits left who celebrate by dressing up and dancing around the maypole.

The maypole scene from The Wicker Man (1973)
"Okay kids, enough of this fresh air, let's go binge on
episodes of Sabrina the Teenage Witch!"
We’ve dispensed with the old Pagan maypole streamers in favor of net streams, but the dance is still the same -- we frolic around the great megalithic entertainment monolith, tied to it by our multiple streams, forever chasing after that elusive content that’s just one more subscription away.

Many of us have cut the cable and satellite TV cords, only to become entangled in a new Gordian knot of subscription streaming services. The cost of each by itself is reasonable, but put all of them together to get your Star Trek Discovery here, Game of Thrones there, and the Marvel Comics Universe behind the Disney paywall, and suddenly you’ve become nostalgic for the old cable bill.

Of course it all makes sense from the corporate monolith’s perspective. Why sell or rent your precious commodity one at a time when you can rope your customers into ongoing, monthly payments? Corporate suits are burning the midnight oil thinking of new recurring ways to separate us from our money: razors, clothes, food, you name it. “I’m sorry sir, that apple is not for individual sale, but I’d be happy to sign you up for our Apple of the Month Club.”

While the Fruit of the Month Club may be an easy pass, they really have us by the short hairs when it comes to our pop culture addictions. Disney is the new 800 pound gorilla in the streaming wars, pulling their content from other platforms to offer exclusively on their own service. The announced $6.99 per month cost is low compared to Netflix and other services, but it will be interesting to see if that price holds once they corral all their hottest properties -- Star Wars, the MCU, Pixar, etc. -- behind their paywall.

Even with its attractive entry price, I won’t be signing up for Disney’s streaming channel anytime soon. Because I’m a cheap old coot, I’m trying to hold the line at my outrageously expensive internet plan and the two streaming behemoths I’ve had for years now, Netflix (which just raised its rates again, daggummit!) and Amazon Prime.

Soviet leaders review a Victory Day parade, circa 1960s
The CEOs of Disney, Netflix, Amazon and Comcast wave approvingly
as their weapons of mass distraction parade by the reviewing stand.
Of course, Netflix has been moving in recent years from an emphasis on theatrical movies to original content and TV. I’ve sampled some of their original stuff, and overall it’s pretty mediocre. Every time they hike their rates I think about dropping it, but it has some shows my wife and I like, so I grin and bear it (yeah Netflix, you’re smiling now, but one more price hike, and you’ll be sorry!)

Amazon Prime is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates -- you never know what you’re going to get. B movie fans like myself can have quite a bit fun browsing through its catalog. Right now my watchlist is teeming with titles that are good candidates for the blog: Attack of the Mushroom People, Blood of the Vampire, Cry of the Banshee, Fire Maidens of Outer Space, Frankenstein’s Daughter, Invisible Invaders, Pharaoh’s Curse… it’s an embarrassment of B riches (or for some, just an embarrassment). Some of those licenses will expire, and other vintage Bs will take their place. The biggest downside is the queasy feeling I sometimes get paying dues to the online empire of the world’s richest, greediest man.

At least I summoned up the fortitude some time ago to cut the cable TV cord. We’d been bouncing between cable and satellite for years, shelling out for frequent rate hikes, tolerating poor signals and even poorer customer service, and marvelling, like millions before us, that there could be so many channels and so little to watch.

When we moved to a larger metro area, we finally cut and ran. I invested in an indoor digital antenna and a DVR for over-the-air broadcasts. In our location, the setup brings in not only the usual network channels and local news, but dozens of other channels as well. Fortunately for my interests, many of these are retro channels, including MeTV (with the beloved Svengoolie on Saturday nights), the Movies! channel, Comet, Decades, This-TV and many more. (A small downside is that occasionally the antenna needs to be adjusted to optimize the signal for certain channels. I have it hanging from a curtain rod, where it’s easy to move it back and forth to clear up the signal.)

The Citadel from Game of Thrones
Public libraries are a beacon of hope for all
those oppressed by high entertainment bills.
Another huge free resource is the local public library system. Again, living in a large city helps tremendously. Among all the branches, they get almost every title that anyone would want to watch on DVD, including blockbusters, foreign and independent films, and TV. If your local branch doesn’t carry it, you just put a hold on the title and it usually shows up within a couple days. We recently caught up with Game of Thrones by binging on library copies.

A big “secret” that people are finally discovering is that many libraries offer robust, free streaming services. Hoopla, a big player in the public library market, offers popular feature films and documentaries to stream, along with online courses and ebooks. Typically, each library card holder gets a limited number of views per month (but hey, it’s free!).

Our system also offers Kanopy, which has also been big in the higher education streaming market. Kanopy has a rich catalog of independent, foreign, classic and documentary films. For a relatively high-brow service, it also carries a surprising number of classic and B horror and sci-fi films. For example, my current Kanopy watchlist includes I Married a Monster from Outer Space, The Blood Beast Terror (with Peter Cushing), the Eurohorror classic Night of the Devils, and Sudden Fear (with Joan Crawford and Jack Palance). Like Hoopla, it’s a certain-number-of-views per month deal.

So, there are alternatives to selling your first born and your right arm for access to the movies and shows you love. Check out the local OTA broadcast situation and your local library. You may be able to stream and stream again without your wallet screaming “Uncle!”

April 17, 2019

Independent Filmmaking the Fred Olen Ray Way, Part Two: An Interview with Actor Jesse Dabson

Last post I profiled low budget filmmaker Fred Olen Ray and his extremely varied output, from his ‘80s and ‘90s knock-offs of popular sci-fi and action films to his current specialty, Hallmark Channel-style romantic TV movies.

Fred’s early path to success was to take box office-proven sci-fi concepts, enlist veteran name actors on the downswing of their careers, mix in young actors eager to work, and borrow as much as possible from other productions -- sets, props, costumes, etc. -- to keep costs low.

One of those eager young actors was Jesse Dabson, who at the time had just two movies on his resume when he went to work for Ray on Deep Space (1988). Jesse would work again with Ray on Alienator (1990), a Terminator clone featuring an impressive list of veteran actors (Jan-Michael Vincent, John Phillip Law, Robert Clarke, Leo Gordon and Robert Quarry), and a female cyborg terminator played by bodybuilder Teagan Clive.

Jesse Dabson and Dawn Wildsmith in Alienator (1990)
Benny (Jesse Dabson) gets a well-deserved rest after
a long night of battling the Alienator.
In Alienator, Jesse plays Benny, the brainy member of a group of vacationing college kids who, while driving their camper through the woods, accidentally hit a weird drifter (Ross Hagen). They enlist the aid of a park ranger (Law) to get him medical attention, but little do they know that the stranger is an intergalactic fugitive who is being hunted down by a unstoppable, deadly cyborg. When the Alienator shows up to menace the space renegade and his newfound earthling friends, Benny has to grow up fast and find his inner-hero.

Since Alienator, Jesse has appeared in a diverse array of movies and TV. He had a major recurring role in the 1990 TV series Elvis, co-starred with Susan Griffiths in the TV movie Marilyn and Me (1991), and has appeared in such shows as The Golden Girls and Beverly Hills 90210, among others. Most recently, he’s guested in two episodes of Chicago P.D.

In an exclusive Films From Beyond interview, Jesse talks about getting into acting, and his work on the sets of Deep Space and Alienator.

How did you become interested in acting?

I was always a bit of a ham and have one of those personalities that thrives on attention. I can remember as far back as childhood watching Creature Features on WGN in Chicago when we visited my Grandparents and wanting to be in those movies. I did a few plays in High School for something to do; small town Pecatonica Illinois didn't have a lot of diversions. However, it was my Freshman year of college at Knox College the bug bit hard. I was playing football and the ADD kicked in and I auditioned for a play fall term, got cast in the lead and proceeded to do a play every semester for the next 4 years. Of course it was supposed to be training for going to law school because I was majoring in Economics, but I soon picked up Theater as a second major and graduated with a BA in Economics and Theater.

Your first movie credit according to IMDb is The Hanoi Hilton (1987), a drama about U.S. POWs in a North Vietnamese prison camp. How did you get the part? What were the biggest challenges for you on your first movie set?

Actor Jesse Dabson
Jesse Dabson today.
Not only was that the first movie I did, that was the first movie audition I ever had. I met a Casting Director named Perry Bullington who worked at Cannon Films and was a Northwestern Grad. Back in the day there were "showcases" where you could pay a small fee to do a monologue or a scene and the organizers of the showcases would invite Casting Directors to come view them. It was sort of pay for play and has since been discontinued as a practice, but I viewed it as a ticket to get to know "people in the biz" because basically I didn't know anybody in Southern Calforinia except the bartenders and other waiters at the restaurant that I was working in. So Perry sees me in this show case, I don't remember what I did, but he sees on my Resume that I attended Northwestern for Grad school. I must have made an impression on him beyond the resume because the next thing you know I am driving up to Cannon studios and auditioning for this movie. I, of course, don't know the first thing about that whole process, so when it's my turn, I stride into the room, walk around the table, shake Lionel Chetwyn's hand and proceed to do three different versions of the sides, with commentary about the approach to the part blah blah, like I am auditioning for my college professor, wind things up and walk out. Perry comes dashing down the hall yelling "What the hell was that?" And the next day I got a call telling me I got the part. Sometimes its good to not know what you don't know.

You first worked for Fred Olen Ray on Deep Space (1988). How did you get that part?

I met Fred through some friends. He never had any money to do his movies. He shot very fast and was a genius at cobbling crap together and talking people into financing his projects. 1988 I think was the year of the writers strike so there wasn't a whole lot going on and Fred contacted me about making this movie over the course of about 5 days outside of LA near where he was renting a home. Fred always had great cigars, good booze and was a riot to work with so when he called, I went.

Your next role for Fred was in Alienator (1990), as Benny, the brainy member of a group of college kids threatened by the alien-cyborg assassin. At this point in his career, Fred was known for doing low budget knock-offs of sci-fi hits (Alien, The Terminator) with name actors who were in the twilight of their careers. What sorts of things about a Fred Olen Ray production stand out for you, as opposed to the other movie work you have done?

He had as much fun as you can have directing. He shot fast and furious, wasn't afraid to change stuff on the fly. It was all just run and gun and he would let you improvise if you had a decent idea. He was also a very bright guy and knew his film history so he told great stories. During Alienator he was dating or married to Dawn Wildsmith, I believe she was a wiccan at the time and the canyon we shot in was where her Coven met. To this day, I'm not sure we actually had permission.

In Alienator, you worked directly with veteran actors John Phillip Law, Leo Gordon and Ross Hagen. What was that like? Any other members of the cast who were especially fun or interesting to work with?

Teagan Clive as the Alientator (1990)
The Alienator sets the fashion scene ablaze with her no-cost outfit.
John Phillip Law was very funny and I enjoyed his stories about Barbarella. I don't remember a ton about Ross or Leo other than they came and went and were there for a paycheck. Old School. None of us ended up being drinking buddies. I do remember Gary Graver the Cinematographer also shot porn and those were some interesting conversations.

What did you think of the idea of a Terminator knock-off, but featuring a female bodybuilder instead of a male? The Alienator costume is unique to say the least. Did Teagan Clive have fun with the role?

I honestly don't remember Fred telling me what the movie was about when he called me. He said, you want a job? I said sure and the next thing you know we are shooting. I'm not sure Fred ever had the whole thing planned out when he started.

That costume was cobbled together from stuff Fred got for free or borrowed. He was a master at that kind of thing. When Teagan showed up on the set, let's just say she didn't look quite like the bodybuilder picture she submitted and there were some alterations.

What have been your most gratifying roles?

Definitely the first one in the Hanoi Hilton, playing Scotty Moore in Elvis the series and at this stage of game usually the last one I did because I'm happy to still be doing it.

April 11, 2019

Independent Filmmaking the Fred Olen Ray Way: Alienator (Part One)

Poster - Alienator (1990)
Now Playing: Alienator (1990)

Pros: Cast features an intriguing selection of action and horror stars of the past; The concept of a female cyborg assassin is a nice twist.
Cons:Several of the veteran actors are wasted; Too many storylines and character backstories slow down the action.

For over 40 years, Fred Olen Ray has been living the fantasy. A big horror & sci-fi movie fan in his youth, Fred, like many of us boomer “monster kids,” tried making his own movies on 8mm. Then in his early 20s, he landed a gig at a Florida TV station where he discovered an old 16mm camera and some unused film. Scraping together a few hundred bucks with the help of a friend, he made his first feature, The Brain Leeches (1978), featuring a “supreme alien intelligence” made out of tinfoil and manipulated like a puppet, and rubber ants purchased at the local dime store.

Although it was admittedly “dreadful,” the experience of getting a full-length movie in the can inspired him to keep going, and to this day he hasn’t stopped. In the intervening years he’s done it all -- producing, distributing, directing, writing, special effects and makeup, cinematography… you name it.

The range of films he’s directed -- over 150 and counting -- is similarly impressive (although the one constant is that none have been big budget productions). Fred started out in the ‘80s doing very low budget sci-fi, horror and action, gradually moved to softcore comedies in the ‘90s and 2000s (e.g., Girl with the Sex-Ray Eyes, 2007), and today is mainly cranking out made-for-TV romance movies (e.g., A Christmas in Royal Fashion, 2018).

Fred Olen Ray poses with some of his more memorable creations.
Over the years, Fred Olen Ray would get
many more films "in the can." cc
In his book The New Poverty Row: Independent Filmmakers as Distributors (McFarland, 2006), Ray talks frankly about the hard lessons he learned starting out, handing off his films to distributors with questionable ethics and accounting practices, and ending up empty-handed for all his trouble. In one egregious case, after a year out on the theatrical circuit, the distributor of one of Ray’s early films, Scalps (1983), reported back that instead of a payout, the filmmaker owed the distributor $30k (on a film that only cost $15k to make!) (New Poverty Row, p. 179)

After getting burned, Ray decided that he would either work for hire and get paid upfront, or control the distribution rights as much as possible. He would end up doing both under the banner of American Independent Productions, Inc., formed in 1985.

Like his predecessor from the previous generation, King of the B’s Roger Corman, Ray learned how to beg, borrow or steal (make that maximize) resources to keep the cameras rolling and keep costs way, way down. Fred’s women’s-prison-breakout flick set in space, Star Slammer (aka Prison Ship, 1986) is a perfect example:
“As in other films we cannibalized our fellow filmmakers to get this one together. Some costumes came from Metalstorm and Galaxy of Terror; we used Dean Jeffries’ Logan’s Run land rover; the monster from Ted Bohus’ Deadly Spawn was shipped in from New Jersey; and the spaceship footage was culled from several films including TV’s Buck Rogers, Carpenter’s Dark Star, and Battle Beyond the Stars. The picture certainly had a big look for its meager budget, but even after all these intervening years I have yet to see any of my profit participation money. This was yet another lesson in the film distribution game.” (New Poverty Row, pp. 182-83)
Maximizing resources to make pictures quickly and cheaply is one thing, but even the cheapest film needs paying customers to turn a profit (if only to line the pockets of shady distributors). Ray realized from the get-go that in order to make his low-budget films stand out from all the other product out there, he needed recognizable actors to goose the marketing.

Through his work at the TV station, Ray met Buster Crabbe, famous for his portrayal of Flash Gordon in the 1930s serials and for his work in countless westerns in the ‘40s, and enticed him with a decent wad of cash ($2k out of a total budget of around $12k) to appear in The Alien Dead (1980). Even though Crabbe had been out of the limelight for decades (and only worked one day on the set), his participation was a game changer.

In addition to being a plus for a film’s marketing, the ability to secure the services of a “name” actor -- no matter how old or out of the game -- bolstered the filmmaker’s legitimacy in the eyes of potential investors. Ray made the leap very early on and never looked back. His films of the 1980s and ‘90s in particular are a collective who’s who of actors in the downswings of their careers.

Poster - Commando Squad (1987)
Another early lesson was to take popular movie/pop culture trends and mix ‘em up just enough to distinguish your stuff from the rest of the pack. If sexy-women-in-prison is all the rage, mix it up and set in in outer space (Star Slammers). If Arnold Schwarzenegger can wrack up ticket sales as a special forces Commando (1985) going rogue to save a loved one, then bend genders and have ex-Playboy centerfold Kathy Shower lead a Commando Squad (1987) to save her boyfriend. At the same time, keep yourself interested by adding your own quirky style and humor to the mix:
“My feeling has always been that these films have been done before and all you can hope to do is give the audience something a little bit different that makes your tired concept a bit more entertaining. I have always leaned toward an offbeat sense of humor and self-mockery that tries to say ‘Yeah, I know you’ve seen it all before and better, but check this out…,’ and I’ll do something weird or funny.” (New Poverty Row, p. 182)
While not the best or the quirkiest of Fred’s output from the period, Alienator (1990), is a good object lesson from the Ray Film School of Hard Knockoffs. It took a popular title (The Terminator, 1984) and added a unique spin to it. It featured not just one, but a whole gaggle of name actors -- a couple of former matinee idols in Jan-Michael Vincent and John Phillip Law, and several veteran character actors in Robert Clarke, Leo Gordon and Robert Quarry. To top it off, it was released at a time when anticipation was building for the Terminator sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which hit theaters the next year.

For a low-budget quickie with a 93 minute running time, Alienator is very ambitious, with spaceships, laser cannons, a female bodybuilder dressed like a wild post-apocalyptic punk rocker, and a large mix of veteran and young actors running around in multiple storylines.

Ross Hagen as Kol in Alienator (1990)
Kol channels his inner-Luke Skywalker as he makes his escape.
The main story features Kol (Ross Hagen), a member of a humanoid alien race and rebellion leader who has been captured and sent to a remote prison planet to be executed. While the guards are distracted by the execution of another rebel, Kol manages to break free, steal a ship and crash land it in the woods of a California state park.

The prison commander (played by Jan Michael-Vincent in permanent snarl-mode) unleashes the Alienator (Teagan Clive) to track down and eliminate the fugitive. As a remorseless cyborg, she is programmed to let nothing stand in the way of her objective. Unfortunately, unwitting earthlings in the form of a group of vacationing college students (Jesse Dabson, Dyana Ortelli, Dawn Wildsmith, Richard Wiley), a park ranger (John Phillip Law), an alcoholic country doctor (Robert Quarry), two backwoods good ol’ boys (Fox Harris, Hoke Howell), and an ex-military survivalist (Leo Gordon) all get in her way and are forced to fight for their lives.

All well and good, but the film’s pace suffers as it tries to cram in all the characters and their exposition in between action sequences. As the Alienator lumbers around in pursuit of Kol, we see the comic relief backwoods boys ineptly trying to evade the ranger as they set animal traps on public land; the brainy college kid Benny (Dabson) gets his moment as he exalts about taking part in “man’s greatest historical encounter”; and we even get a bit of history of the tough-as-nails survivalist, Col. Coburn (Gordon) as he distributes his cache of weapons to the survivors of the alien assault.

Ross Hagen and Jesse Dabson in Alienator (1990)
Kol and Benny binge-watch Game of Thrones as they wait
for the Alienator to show up.
And that’s just what’s happening on earth. Yet another storyline, set on the prison station, plays out intermittently even after Kol has made his escape. Veteran B actor Robert Clarke plays Lund, a sort of space-based bureaucrat whose anti-capital punishment views are a thorn in the side of the prison ship commander. The prison side drama is vaguely reminiscent of Star Wars in its space Empire vs. feisty rebels backstory, and it (kind of) gets tied in with the earth-based action in a head-scratching “twist” ending, but it’s tedious nonetheless and could easily be jettisoned.

Ray’s lineup of veteran actors is impressive, but one movie can hardly do justice to all of the characters. Robert Quarry of Count Yorga fame is wasted in little more than a cameo -- he gets a brief scene talking on the telephone, then is promptly set on fire when he encounters the Alienator.

The Alienator herself is either inspired or laughable depending on your taste. The bodybuilder Ray hired for the role, Teagan Clive, is certainly impressive, giving even Schwarzenegger a run for his money in terms of sheer physicality. Her getup is fine (acknowledging that this is a very subjective call) -- it’s both cheesy and formidable-looking, what with the platinum wig, silver half-mask, chrome “hubcaps” covering her chest, and the huge laser weapon she wears on one arm.

Leo Gordon and John Phillip Law in Alienator (1990)
Coburn and Ranger Armstrong practice
skeet shooting with a surplus landmine.
Ray pays tongue-in-cheek homage to the original Terminator, when the cyborg stops in the woods to get her bearings. A doe wanders into the clearing, and at first we subjectively see the Alienator training her bionic crosshairs on the animal. When the digital read-out processes the data and delivers the verdict “non-hostile,” she relaxes. The doe walks over to the cyborg, who reaches out and pets it. I can see Ray smiling over that bit of “Bambi meets Alienator” business.

The Alienator doesn’t really become a proper menace until late in the film, when she confronts Kol and his new earth friends at Col. Coburn’s cabin, and is introduced to good ol’ American firepower in the form of guns, crossbows and even a surplus landmine. Nothing seems to faze her though. In one amusing scene, she pauses with the cyborg-equivalent of a perplexed look, reaches around the back of her head and pulls out a hunting arrow.


Teagan Clive as the Alienator (1990)
"As soon as I finish this assignment I need to turn myself in
for my 50 million mile check-up and an oil change..."
For all its faults, Alienator is still an interesting exercise in low, low budget sci-fi filmmaking, having been made near the cusp of the new era of CGI-driven blockbusters. Jurassic Park was released just a few years later, and its amazing computer-generated dinosaurs would spell extinction for Ray’s brand of low-budget sci-fi thrills. Digital bits and bytes effectively swept away the rented warehouses doubling as spaceship interiors, the borrowed spaceship models, the recycled costumes, and the optical effects and stop-motion creatures that were Ray’s early stock-in-trade.

Fred adeptly pivoted from cheap action pictures to softcore to Hallmark Channel-style romance, and is apparently doing quite well. Along the way, he gave audiences something “a little bit different” for pennies on the dollar. Here at Films From Beyond, where we treasure “different” and “low budget,” we salute him for it.

Coming soon! Don’t miss part two for an exclusive interview with Jesse Dabson, “Benny” from Alienator and a veteran of movies and TV.

Where to find it: Alienator is on Blu-ray or DVD from Shout Factory

March 31, 2019

Tribute to Larry Cohen -- Q: The Winged Serpent

Poster - Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)
Now Playing: Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)

Pros: Great performance by Michael Moriarty; Upends giant monster movie clichés with creativity and wit.
Cons: Choppy editing gives short shrift to the ritual murder storyline.

I was very sorry to see that one of my all-time favorite independent filmmakers, Larry Cohen, passed away recently at the age of 77. Larry exemplified the true independent spirit: passionate about his work, inventive, always trying to come up with fresh material, and uncorrupted by big money. Given $100 million, Larry would have preferred to make 100 1 million dollar movies that said something original than 1 blockbuster that served up the same tired old franchise clichés.

As a director Larry never worked with that kind of money, not because he wasn’t talented enough -- he had talent and drive in spades -- but because big money would have compromised his independence and vision. Thankfully, genre filmmaking is all the richer for his insistence on being his own man.

Larry poses with some of his creations
Larry Cohen, 1936 - 2019
It’s been a rough year so far, with the recent passing of Dick Miller, Julie Adams, Jan-Michael Vincent, and now Larry. Still, they live on in the films they made. The tradition at my house is to take time out from the regular viewing schedule to play one or two of the departed’s movies in celebration of their life and work. If the films are somewhat off the beaten track of their careers, so much the better (especially if I haven’t seen them before).

Q may be off the beaten track even in the sci-fi/horror genres, but in the context of Larry’s career, it’s one of his signature works. Nominally, Q is a giant monster flick about the living embodiment of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, a flying “serpent” that takes up residence in Manhattan and starts feasting on its residents. But Cohen, who was always looking to pour new wine into old genre bottles, upends a bunch of hoary monster movie clichés and creates a very interesting antihero while he’s at it.

The film starts out with a gory scene of an unfortunate window washer who, working high up on the Empire State building, is suddenly decapitated by an unseen thing. NYC detectives Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) are investigating, and the best they can come up with is that a shard of glass fell from the top of the building and took off the man’s head in a freak accident. Except there are no reported broken windows.

Next, we’re introduced to Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty), a befuddled ex-con and all-around doormat who seems to want to get his life together, but whose worst enemy is himself. He’s a talented pianist, but when he auditions at a local nightclub at his girlfriend’s urging, he messes around to the visible disgust of the proprietor and blows his chance. Jimmy’s back-up plan is to drive the getaway car for his old gang, who are getting ready to rob a diamond retailer.

Q zeroing in on another victim
Q avoids long restaurant lines by plucking her meals from the city's rooftops.
Meanwhile, the detectives are kept busy with a couple of bizarre murders. One victim has been skinned from head to toe, the other his heart removed while he was still alive. The ritual aspects of the murders intrigue Shepard, who enlists the aid of a university professor (Larry Pine) to help him understand what might be happening.

The professor introduces Shepard to Quetzacoatl, an ancient winged-serpent god that, legend has it, can be summoned by just this sort of ritual sacrifice. Coincidentally, reports start flooding in of a huge monstrosity flying among the skyscrapers, and of wealthy Manhattanites being plucked off the roofs of their luxury condos.

Quinn, the perennial loser, gets himself into another fine mess when he goes along with his buddies on the diamond heist. Despite insisting that he’s only there to drive the car and he doesn’t do guns, his accomplices shove a revolver in his hand and force him to accompany them inside the store. Predictably, shots are fired, chaos ensues, and Jimmy loses the satchel of diamonds as he stumbles into the street and gets clipped by a car.

In a panic he hobbles over to the Chrysler building to look up his lawyer. Finding the office door locked and paranoid that the cops are right behind him, he makes his way up to the deserted tip of the building. At the top of a construction access ladder, he finds to his amazement a large open gash in the structure, and a nest made out of large branches and boards that contains a huge, primeval-looking egg.

Jimmy (Michael Moriarty) discovers Q's nest
"That must be one mighty big pigeon..."
Fleeing down the ladder he disturbs some nesting pigeons, and in batting them away, accidentally brings down a human skeleton on top of himself. The thing has been stripped down like Thanksgiving turkey. Jimmy’s grisly find will soon put him on a collision course with Shepard, who is starting to see a connection between the ritual murders and the unidentified flying menace that has Manhattan in an uproar.

Cohen’s primary subversion of the standard monster movie formula is to relegate the action-hero stars playing the cops to the margins for much of the movie, while putting the hapless, fidgety Jimmy front and center. While the detectives are standing around scratching their heads over the murders and sightings, Jimmy, in inspired fits, is using his knowledge of the creature’s hideout to get back at his partners in crime and blackmail New York city authorities.

Michael Moriarty, who was relatively unknown at the time, is more than up to the task of carrying the film. By turns he is cocky, sniveling, greedy and clueless. After boasting to his long-suffering girlfriend (Candy Clark) that he led two of his gang buddies to their deaths, he is perplexed by her revulsion. And when he demands from the city authorities a million bucks and exclusive rights to Q’s story in exchange for information about the creature’s lair, he goes from self-pity to “top of the world ma!” egotism in a New York minute.

David Carradine, Richard Roundtree and Michael Moriarty in Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)
"Don't make eye contact, it will only encourage him."
But for all of Jimmy’s egregious faults, Moriarty breathes humanity into the character, one that we can sympathize with in a “there but for the grace of God” kind of way. In a lesser film of the type, Jimmy would have been a minor character, good for a little color and comedy relief, before being killed off so that we could get back to the real action of the cops going after the monster.

The cops do catch up to the monster at the climax, but in a clever turnaround of the classic King Kong story, they’re the ones holed up at the top of the skyscraper, defending it from the flying monster.

Cohen is also smart to reveal his monster gradually, in stages. At first, we only see a flash of a beak or claw as the torpid, unsuspecting humans are carried away. He intersperses these scenes with subjective, birds-eye shots that glide lazily over even the tallest Manhattan skyscrapers, suggesting god-like omniscience. Then, as the film heads to a climax, we finally see the monster in its entirety, done very competently via stop-motion animation.

David Carradine battles Q at the top of New York's Chrysler building
"I think it went that way!"
Cohen also makes great use of visual puns. At the end of the restaurant scene where the gang is planning their soon-to-be-botched heist, a cook in the foreground is carving meat on a platter… which cuts to a horrified hotel maid discovering the body of the man who’s been completely skinned. In another scene, a bizarre chicken-headed statue advertising a fast food place seems to be calmly watching as panicked New Yorkers cry out and run from the monster flying overhead.

Later on, Cohen inserts shots of decorative birds and eagles jutting out, gargoyle-like, from the facade of the Chrysler building, as if to suggest that, for all its technology, civilization is not that far removed from superstition and sky-god worship.

In Tony Williams’ book Larry Cohen: The Radical Allegories of a Guerilla Filmmaker (McFarland, 1997), Cohen related how important the Chrysler building was as a location, and the lengths he went to film there:
"[I]t was a perfect location since its feathered structure is bird-like. It also had gargoyles of birds jutting out on all sides. The Chrysler Building was an ideal spot for a giant ‘Q’ to choose for its nest. We could never have afforded to build the pinnacle of the Chrysler Building, so we had to shoot in the actual location. That meant hoisting all the cameras, equipment, and lights, etc., straight up into the tower. The actors had to climb up a very precarious series of ladders … David Carradine actually climbed into the very tip of the needle. It was only wide enough for one person to navigate. He fired his machine gun off from there and the helicopter cameras came as close as possible to get shots of him in action. Apparently, hundreds of people down below in the streets heard the machine-gun fire, and some of them thought an assassination was actually taking place. The New York Daily News is only a few blocks away, and they sent over reporters. They featured us in a front-page story with the headline, 'Hollywood Movie Company Terrorizes New York.'"[p. 396]
Larry never let low budgets or bureaucratic obstacles stand in the way of his vision. Although his films are not polished visual spectacles by contemporary standards, they all have an inventiveness, humanity, and subversive wit that many of today’s action and horror films lack. If you’re not acquainted with his work, Q is a great place to start.

Where to find it: Q is available on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as Amazon Prime.

March 23, 2019

How to Make a Monster, Part 2: If Life Gives You Lemons...

Last post I celebrated several of the more effective/imaginative creature effects done for low-budget sci-fi movies of the 1950s. In part 2 of How to Make a Monster, I thought I’d delve into some of my favorite stories of effects artists, crew members and even actors, who, when faced with adversity and little or no money to make things right, did everything they could to bring their monsters to life.

The great filmmaker John Ford once said, “Most of the good things in pictures happen by accident.” If true, then the accident-prone pictures profiled here must be very good indeed.

Or maybe, just as it takes money to make money, it takes money to take advantage of happy accidents. The accidents and workarounds described here didn’t necessarily make the films better, but they do exemplify the spirit of “the show must go on!”

Beulah, the Venusian vegetable-monster, is the victim of a hit-and-run

To recap from the last post, the extraordinarily creative B movie monster-maker Paul Blaisdell created a wild-looking creature for Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World (1956) that he affectionately dubbed Beulah (and that others at the time nicknamed the Space Cucumber).

Poster: It Conquered the World (1956)
It was more of a mechanical contrivance than a suit, 6 feet tall and over 12 feet at the base, with moveable arms and crab-like pincers that could be manipulated with interior cables. From within the creature Blaisdell could also move the mouth via a wire.

On a frenetic set like Corman’s, where the overriding imperative was to get the film shot as quickly and cheaply as possible, it was inevitable that Beulah would run into trouble. In his book Paul Blaisdell, Monster Maker (McFarland, 1997), Randy Palmer describes her harrowing first day on the set:
"Unfortunately, disaster struck the very first time the costume was wheeled to the set. With members of the crew scurrying about to set up the camera and lights, Paul left Beulah by herself in a stationary position, with the arms resting on the ground. Before he knew it, one of Corman’s crew dragged a grip cart over the outstretched arms. The weight of the cart, piled high with film equipment, snapped the inner cables inside that worked the claw-pincers. When he checked, Blaisdell found that he could still raise and lower the arms, but the pincers would never again be able to pluck a handkerchief out of a breast pocket unless they were rebuilt and rewired, and there clearly wasn’t time for that. … [Later], When Pvt. Ortiz (Jonathan Haze) rushes the monster and tries to kill it with a bayonet, 'It' crushes him to death with its enormous piledriver arms. Because the cables controlling the claws had been severed, Blaisdell was unable to operate the pincers, which flapped uselessly on camera as Paul worked the arms around his attacker. Despite the ludicrousness of the scene, Corman kept it in the final cut." (pp. 69-70)

Beulah is smokin’ hot!

Lee Van Cleef tries to set Beulah on fire
"A light? No thanks, I'm trying to quit smoking."

 Palmer also relates how director Roger Corman missed shooting a neat but unintended special effect by being a little too quick to complete a scene:

"For the scene in which the monster is riddled with bullets, Beulah was outfitted with explosive squibs to simulate gunshots. For reasons of safety Blaisdell remained outside the costume, watching from the sidelines as the soldiers let loose with a barrage of rifle fire. On cue the squibbs detonated, leaving trails of smoke drifting in the air. When he thought he had enough footage, Corman yelled 'Cut!' He failed to notice that Beulah’s interior had become saturated with smoke, which started leaking out of every orifice on the creature’s conical body.
    Dick Miller, who had badly twisted his ankle in an earlier scene but remained on the set because Corman had drafted him into the crew, countermanded the director’s order: 'Don’t cut!'
   'I said cut!' Corman screamed.
   'Keep filming!' Fingers were pointing at something behind Corman.
   Corman turned around and saw his movie monster smoking like a cherry bomb. He ran over the cameraman, Fred West. 'Did you get that?' Corman asked.
   'No, you said to cut,' West replied.
   [Expletive deleted]" (Ibid., p. 71)

The Terror from Beyond Space sticks its tongue out

Another classic “It” that Paul Blaisdell designed and created from scratch was It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958). More than 20 years before Alien, It! featured a terrifying humanoid-reptilian monster from Mars that stows away on a spaceship bound for earth and starts hunting the unsuspecting astronauts.

Ray Corrigan in the It! costume
"See if you can guess what this next shadow animal is!"
Inventive as always, Blaisdell built the suit up from a pair of long johns that the stunt man portraying the monster, Ray Corrigan, provided. He modeled lizard-like scales of different sizes in clay, then applied the finished latex ones in overlapping patterns to give the suit maximum flexibility. He fashioned the creature’s wicked-looking teeth and claws in soft wood.

However, a problem came up in fashioning the headpiece. Corrigan never showed up for Blaisdell to get a mold of his head, and with time growing short, Paul had to proceed using his own head as a guide. When it came time for the first fitting, the result was suboptimal:
"Ray Corrigan was standing in the center of the room wearing the It costume, holding the headpiece under one arm while the film’s makeup artist, Lane 'Shotgun' Britton, dusted his eyes with a mixture of powder and greasepaint. 'What’s going on?' Paul asked.
   By way of explanation, Corrigan pulled the mask down over his head. It was a tight squeeze -- the headpiece was much too small for Corrigan’s considerable countenance -- but with a little stretching and tugging he was able to wrestle it on. The only problem was that Ray’s bulbous chin stuck out of the mouth like a half-swallowed softball. …
   'You know, I’ve got an idea what you could do,' [producer] Bob Kent interjected. … 'You could paint his chin, or something,' Kent suggested. 'Maybe that would make it blend in better.'
   … Lane Britton had a better idea. 'What about this -- we’ll put some makeup on his chin and make it look like a tongue.' Before anyone had a chance to respond, Britton pulled out his greasepaints and went to work…" (Palmer, pp. 202-03)
Blaisdell added a bottom row of teeth to further conceal the chin, and It! was ready to go menace some astronauts.

Frankenstein’s monster undergoes gender reassignment

Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958), directed by B movie maestro Richard Cunha, updated the Frankenstein story to 1950s Los Angeles, and ambitiously featured two mad scientists and two (allegedly) female monsters.

Harry Wilson and Donald Murphy in Frankenstein's Daughter (1958)
"The girl at the mall told me this lipstick was perfect for my skin tone."
One of the scientists, Carter Morton (Felix Locher), decides to test his formula for ridding mankind of disease and old age on his niece Trudy (Sandra Knight). One of the regrettable side effects is a physical reversion to a bestial, cavewoman state. His partner, the truly mad Oliver Frank (Donald Murphy) is a chip off the old Frankenstein block -- he wants to sew the head of an innocent young girl onto a dead body and bring it back to life as… Frankenstein’s Daughter.

All well and good, except no one told the make-up man who was to create the monster that it was supposed to be female. All he knew was that he was making up a very male actor, Harry Wilson, and he made the natural assumption that the monster was male as well.

In an interview with Tom Weaver, Cunha reminisced about Harry and his reaction when he first saw the actor (who had dubbed himself “The Ugliest Man in Pictures”) in full-makeup for his role as Frankenstein’s daughter:
"He [Wilson] was a very patient man, and he suffered a great deal with that makeup and the suit that was required for him. And with the speed that we had to shoot at, it wasn’t like he could rest between takes…
   … We had no preparation time, and Frankenstein’s Daughter was designed on the set on the first day of shooting. And suddenly someone came up to me and said, 'Look, here’s your monster!' And I nearly died. We said, 'No, that's not quite what we need, but by God we can’t do anything about it!' And we pushed the guy on the set and started shooting -- the show must go on. So the monster wasn’t designed like that, it just … ended up like that, and once we achieved that [laughs], we had to keep it!” (Tom Weaver, Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers, McFarland, 1988, pp. 115-16)
They carried on in the finest B movie tradition by having the makeup man slap lipstick on Wilson’s mug, creating a monster that only a Franken-mother could love.

February 28, 2019

How to Make a Monster: FFB’s Low Budget Creature Effects Awards

Now that the slow, rolling train wreck that was this year’s Academy Awards is finally over, the Governors or whatever they call themselves must be breathing a heavy sigh of relief. Profiles in courage they were not. First, to address the show’s declining viewership, they tried to introduce a new “Popular Film” category. They backed down when social media exploded with derision. Next, they picked popular comedic actor Kevin Hart to host. The social media warriors immediately dug up dirt to prove that he was a normal human being who makes mistakes, and he was gone. Finally, adding insult to injury, they proposed offloading the cinematography and editing awards from the live show to a few seconds of tape, and once again they backed down after a tidal wave of indignation (rightly so, of course).

“Ladies and gentlemen, by technical knockout in the third round, your winner and new world champion, Social Mediaaaaa!!!!!!”

"I don't think I can last another round -- those tweets are so mean!"
I do feel sorry for the Academy. It’s an impossible task to try to please everyone -- fans, critics, industry types, the show’s advertisers, etc. IMHO, their biggest challenge is the growing chasm between the big budget, big effects, big box office movies that are loved the world over, and the smaller, character-driven dramas that dominate the major awards but that relatively few people see.

Lumping something like Roma or Green Book with Black Panther in one Best Picture category is like comparing apples and elephants. Ultimately, I think the Best Picture category needs to diversify, but instead of “Popular” (which focuses too much on marketing and box office), they should go in the direction of the Golden Globes, with possibly three best pictures in such major genres as Action, Drama, and Comedy/Musical.

Even with the current status quo, the popular big effects movies do have their own sort of best picture award -- Best Visual Effects. (Interestingly, the Academy delivered something of a rebuff to comic books and sci-fi this year, as the award went to the docudrama First Man. Damien Chazelle’s biopic of Neil Armstrong was nominated in various technical categories, but was shut out of the major awards. In spite of some initial positive press, a fact-based movie about white men with crew cuts flying phallic-like rockets to the moon was/is distinctly out of step with current Hollywood culture. On the other hand, it seems the effects artists voting in this category rightly acknowledged that recreating authentic spaceflight on the big screen has its own set of challenges, perhaps even greater in some ways than creating a complete fantasy world.)

Obviously, this is a collective, not an individual’s award. A veritable army of highly talented artists and technicians, backed by big bucks, labors months on end to bring fantasy worlds and action heroics to life.

Before CGI helped sci-fi and fantasy action dominate the movie market, filmmakers with ambitious visions still had quite an array of tools on hand, from mechanical props and foam rubber appliances, to stop motion photography, mattes and optical printers. But they could scarcely imagine how computers would transform the business to the point that anything someone could dream up could be vividly and realistically depicted on the screen. Or how much money would flow into sci-fi and comic book adaptations -- genres that in their time were often disreputable and threadbare.

Of course, this blog specializes in just those disreputable and threadbare movies of old that against all odds, still have a fan base to this very day. In the spirit of the recently concluded film awards season, I’d like to honor the special effects maestros who didn’t have wads of cash or supercomputers to work with, but still managed to create some of the more memorably weird creatures of ‘50s sci-fi with the equivalent of chewing gum and baling wire (and lots of foam rubber).

Without further ado, here are my nominees for Outstanding Achievement in 1950s Low Budget Sci-fi Creature Effects:

Nominee: Paul Blaisdell
Film: It Conquered the World (1956)
Creature: Beulah, the Venusian vegetable monster

Paul Blaisdell was the premier wizard of low budget effects in the ‘50s, responsible for some of the weirdest, most imaginative monsters of the pre-CGI era. He was a sort of one man effects shop, designing and fashioning props, mechanical creatures and monster suits, and then operating and/or wearing them on camera.

He worked so cheaply and reliably that he was the go to monster maker for Roger Corman and American International Pictures, creating such unforgettable menaces as Marty the Mutant from Day the World Ended (1955) and the surrealistic She-Creature (1956).

Still, Beverly Garland with Beulah, It Conquered the World (1956)
"I wonder if I still have that recipe for Venusian vegetable soup?"
Perhaps his most outlandish creation is the titular monster of It Conquered the World, which he affectionately dubbed “Beulah.” The film is about a Venusian creature that establishes radio contact with an earth scientist (Lee Van Cleef), who, believing the advanced alien intends to bring peace and prosperity to the world, unwittingly helps it to establish mind control over key government people in order to subjugate the planet.

In his biography Paul Blaisdell, Monster Maker (McFarland, 1997), author Randy Palmer relates that, in developing the concept of the Venusian menace, Blaisdell, director Roger Corman and American International Pictures president Jim Nicholson all agreed that a creature from Venus’s particular environment and gravity “should naturally be built low to the ground.” But Blaisdell took the conception even farther, and Palmer quotes him at length:
At that time the belief about the physiognomy of Venus was that it was hot, humid and conducive to plant life but not too well suited to animal life. If anybody would care to think it out, there is a kind of vegetation we have right here on earth that you wouldn’t particularly feel like fooling around with… something that grows in the darkness and dampness, something that might grow on the planet Venus. Something that might, in lieu of animal life, develop an intelligence of its own. … It would move like a perambulating plant, but it would not move very far. When it wanted to conduct direct action, it would send out small creatures which it would give birth to, and they would do its dirty work. (p. 65)
The result looks like nothing else from ‘50s sci-fi. Purportedly, when actress Beverly Garland first set eyes on the creature, she responded with a sarcastic “That conquered the world?!”  The press also got in on the action, referring to it as the “cucumber” from space.

However, “Beulah” got its revenge on the set.
According to the script, Garland’s character uses a Winchester rifle to fill the monster full of lead in between lines of dialogue, but ends up perishing in its lethal grasp. To help Blaisdell play the scene, Corman stationed two prop men below the camera lens who would help maneuver the costume’s monstrous arms into the frame. The first take was ruined when one of them misjudged the target and smacked Garland square in the chest with those oversized pincers. (Palmer, pp. 70-71)
Beulah is truly a one-of-a-kind monster next to all the rubber-suited humanoids and giant insects and dinosaurs that rampaged across drive-in screens in the '50s. After you get over your initial instinct to snicker, her distinctive WTF! ugliness commands attention. She reputedly was director Roger Corman’s favorite of all of Blaisdell’s creations.

Nominees: K.L. Ruppel and Baron Florenz von Nordhoff
Film: Fiend Without a Face (1958)
Creatures: The brain creatures

This category would not be complete without a stop-motion animated monster, and Fiend Without a Face delivers a ghastly gaggle of repulsive animated creatures that make your skin crawl even as another part of your brain is marveling at how ridiculous they are.

At a military nuclear research facility in Canada, Major Cummings (Marshall Thompson) has his hands full when several local townspeople die under mysterious circumstances and people start blaming the facility. At the same time, the facility experiences inexplicable power drains on the nuclear reactor. It seems a local scientist is hijacking the facility’s power in order to conduct experiments on turning thought into material form. What could go wrong?

Still, a brain creature from Fiend Without a Face (1958)
The brain creatures dial up the suspense in Fiend Without a Face.
 The terrifying mind-into-matter creatures were the brainchildren (pun intended) of German effects specialists K.L. Ruppel and Baron Florenz von Nordhoff. The duo managed to pull off some amazing stop motion effects using the SFX equivalent of a low rent Frankenstein’s laboratory. In his book Cheap Tricks and Class Acts (McFarland, 1996), John “J.J.” Johnson quoted from an old Fangoria magazine interview with the film’s producer John Croydon:
The entire maze [Ruppel’s studio] was a mixture of an aircraft control panel and a computer. Each button controlled a selsyn motor, used primarily for the activation of aircraft rudders and flaps on an early motion-control principle, refined years later by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. To these were attached wires which, in turn, activated a single movement of a fiend: to raise the head, to make it stand on its tail, to fasten its feelers beneath the wooden boards barricading the windows, to pick up and withdraw a hammer left on the sill. Ruppel had carefully timed the movements of the fiends to coincide with the camera shutter. The creature models were linked up with the camera in such a way that a single small movement of a fiend was photographed on two frames of film. … It was a long laborious process, taking three weeks to accomplish, but once this footage was combined with live-action through rear projection and blue-backing traveling mattes, the results were fantastically realistic. (pp. 72-73)
The beauty of the brain creatures is that when you first see them -- naked brains with insect-like antennae and spinal cord tails -- you want to guffaw. But when they wrap their tails around the necks of the horrified victims, they suddenly aren’t so ridiculous. This alone makes Fiend Without a Face one of the more memorable minor classics of the ‘50s.

Nominee: Richard Cassarino
Film: The Hideous Sun Demon (1958)
Creature: The reptilian Sun Demon

Although The Hideous Sun Demon had an ultra-low budget somewhat south of $50,000, it boasts one of the coolest (and yes, most hideous) creature masks in a decade that swarmed with all manner of foam rubber horrors.

Still, Robert Clarke as the Hideous Sun Demon (1958)
"Do you want pepperoni or mushrooms on your pizza?"
The Sun Demon was born when B actor extraordinaire Robert Clarke, noting the box office success of the cheap-as-dirt The Astounding She-Monster (1957) he had recently starred in, decided that he could do just as well producing his own monster movie.

He had the idea to do a sci-fi variant on the classic Jekyll and Hyde story, but instead of a serum, it’s accidental exposure to radiation that turns the mild mannered scientist into a ravening monster. Another story kicker is that as a result of chromosomal damage to his body, the protagonist only changes into a monster when exposed to the sun.

In an interview with Tom Weaver (Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers, McFarland, 1988), Clarke revealed that he had thrown in $5000 of his own money to get the project started. To keep costs down, he recruited non-professional actors, used students from nearby U.S.C. as crew members, and shot the film on weekends. He also got a screamin’ deal on the monster mask and suit (although at the time it seemed like a huge cost):
For us it was a major expense -- five hundred bucks is what it cost. I went to see Jack Kevan, the fellow who did Creature from the Black Lagoon, and he said, ‘To make what you want, I would charge you at least $2,000.’ He was not overpricing it, but luckily I found this fellow Richard Cassarino, who was a film buff and sometimes-actor. … The suit was made on the base of a skin diving wetsuit, and it was hotter than blue blazes! It was so hot that my perspiration ran down my body and [laughs] into my trunk area, shall we say, and during the fight we got so much energy going that one of the still shots shows me standing up there with this wet appearance -- it looks like I couldn’t make it to the men’s room... (p. 86)
Although overall the film looks as cheap as its budget and the acting is variable at best, the hideous, reptilian Sun Demon looks way, way cooler and scarier than its $500 cost would suggest.

Nominees: Herman Townsley and Howard Weeks
Film: The Angry Red Planet (1959)
Creature: The Rat-Bat-Spider-Crab

The rat-bat-spider-crab monster is featured prominently on the poster for The Angry Red Planet (1959)
When I first saw Angry Red Planet at about the age of 9 or 10, I was mesmerized by it. It had everything a sci-fi fan could want: a needle-nosed spaceship, wisecracking astronauts, a beautiful red-haired scientist-astronaut (Nora Hayden), a weird, glowing red Martian landscape (thanks to Cinemagic!), and monsters galore. There was a gelatinous blob with a huge rotating eye, a three-eyed Martian, and best of all, the unique Rat-Bat-Spider-Crab that towered over the terrified space travelers.

This hybrid horror was designed by effects supervisor Herman Townsley and brought to fruition by model maker Howard Weeks. It required a lot of finesse and “fly by the seat of your pants” ingenuity to pull off the ambitious creature sequence. In his biography of director Ib Melchior (Ib Melchior: Man of Imagination, Midnight Marquee Press, 2000) Robert Skotak notes how tricky it was to make the lightweight Rat-Bat-Spider puppet convincing for the big screen:
Known for his invisible wire work, Townsley had solved the problem of visible strings on the batrat puppet by casting the critter in the lightest weight resin known, allowing him to use superfine wires coated with a patented acid he’d developed, which eliminated the metallic reflections. Even the the whole thing, -- complete with monkey fur -- hardly weighed a couple of ounces, Townsley had faced knotty physics problems in working out the delicate weight-to-support ratios… Howard Weeks, who had created the effects for the low budget The Man from Planet X in the early ‘50s, employed a double ‘flying T’ rig to operate the creature, but, unfortunately, found the nearly weightless marionette had a bouncy quality that was difficult to eliminate in only one or two takes… He hired marionette maestro Bob Baker to help operate it. (pp. 110-111)
It’s a good thing that the crew found a way to make it all work within the limited budget, as it’s the most memorable scene in the film. And befitting his status as the lead attraction, Rat-Bat-Spidey is featured prominently on most versions of the film’s poster.

Nominee: Jack Kevan
Film: The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959)
Creature: A Poor Man’s Creature from the Black Lagoon

Like the Hideous Sun Demon, this nomination is all about the suit. While Robert Clarke found Jack Kevan to be a little too pricey for his production, the producers of The Monster of Piedras Blancas scored a coup in enlisting Kevan to work up their creature suit. Kevan had not only been involved in helping to create The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), he also lent his talents to such sci-fi classics as It Came from Outer Space (1953) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).

Still, the Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959)
"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy..."
The Piedras Blancas creature was partially built, Frankenstein-like, from other body parts. The Metaluna Mutant of This Island Earth (1955) contributed his feet and torso, and the huge claws came from The Mole People (1956).

Even with borrowed body parts, the monster has its own distinctive, gruesome look. The producers, perhaps feeling that a cool suit by itself wouldn’t bring audiences flocking to the drive-in, upped the gore factor considerably -- the monster likes nothing better than to decapitate its meals before eating them.

In his survey of American sci-fi films of the 1950s and early ‘60s Keep Watching the Skies (McFarland, 1982), Bill Warren compared the Piedras Blancas monster with its obvious inspiration, The Creature from the Black Lagoon:
Certainly the design … isn’t as interesting or as logical as those for the 1950s Universal monsters, although it is well-constructed. … The Monster … is in the ‘diplovertubron’ family, and was ‘created at the bottom of the sea.’ An amphibious ‘mutation of the reptilian family,’ he deserves comparison with the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Gill-Man. And on the basis of reasonableness, the Monster doesn’t measure up to the Gill-Man. The Creature, of course, is unlikely, but has an overall logic: to protect against the water, the eyes are shielded and glassy; it has a mouth like a frog, and no nose at all; there are highly visible gills; the hands and feet are webbed. While it plays hob with any know ideas of adaptability to the water, it has its own logic, and is such a plausible design that creators of amphibious monsters, whether for comic books, film or TV, have to work hard to make their monsters not look like the Gill-Man. It’s that persuasive and logical. (pp. 319-320)
Again, like the Hideous Sun Demon, the film suffers from cheap production values, but in the end is redeemed by an ultra-cool member of the Gill-Man family.

And the winner is:

"I only have eyes for you." Paul Blaisdell with his creation.
Paul Blaisdell for his freakish, yet endearing creation Beulah. She is both an imaginative suit and a mechanical contrivance. Some may disparage Beulah for her cartoonish appearance, but she is the result of Blaisdell’s thoughtfulness about what sort of a creature might evolve on a planet with extreme atmospheric pressures and gravity.

Ib Melchior, the director of The Angry Red Planet, was also an advocate of not just creating fearsome-looking monsters, but making them plausible:
To me, if you design a creature that lives in a world that is bathed under two suns, and you design a creature with huge eyes -- it’s nonsense. Its eyes would be tiny. … It seems most people just design these monsters which don’t bear any relationship to where they come from. Same thing if you design a creature that comes from a planet with 10 times the Earth’s gravity and you give it long, spindly legs. You don’t do that. They would be squat. This is what I object to in monster design, that there is no relationship between what they [look like] and their environment. (Skotak, p. 114)
There’s no record that Ib ever saw Beulah, but I think he would have approved.