September 7, 2019

Dracula vs. the Hippies: Special '70s Hammer Horror Edition, Part Two

Poster - Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)
Now Playing: Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)

Pros: Peter Cushing’s gravitas offsets some of the cringe-inducing aspects of the film; Stephanie Beacham is very good as Cushing’s granddaughter, Jessica Van Helsing.
Cons: The film’s attempt to capture the look and lingo of ‘70s London youth culture descends to near-parody.

In part one of my examination of Hammer’s early ‘70s attempt to crack the youth market, I reviewed Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970). Despite the lurid title, the film was a not-so-subtle dig at the establishment, what with almost all the adult characters being corrupt or incompetent, and a climax that had the young protagonists saving the day without any help from their useless elders.

Just a little over two years after Taste the Blood, Hammer released Dracula A.D. 1972, which on the surface looked to be an extreme concession to the youth market, set in the (then) present day and full of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. And yet, the underlying message is a mirror image to the previous film’s -- this time, it’s the younger generation’s turn to be almost uniformly corrupt and/or incompetent, and the old guard’s turn to save their butts from the evil they’ve unwittingly released.

Dracula (Christopher Lee) scores his first victim in Dracula A.D. 1972
"Hmmm, dense and full-bodied, with overtones of weed,
barbiturates and vodka, and just a hint of espresso..."
As for resurrecting Dracula, by 1972 Hammer had boiled it down to a few simple steps.

“Bloody Dracula” Recipe (with apologies to Bloody Mary)

1 vial of Dracula’s ashes
Liberal amount of blood from an acolyte or sacrificial victim
1 de-sanctified church
A group of bored, corruptible disciples
1 Black Mass
Optional: Dracula’s cape or ring


Mix the first two ingredients while celebrating the Black Mass with your disciples in the de-sanctified church. Wearing Dracula’s cape and/or ring is not required, but it looks cooler. Skol!

The creepy instigator in A.D. 1972 is Johnny Alucard (hmmm, that name seems familiar somehow), played by Christopher Neame. Johnny is part of a group of “with it” kids who have grown bored with their usual routine of crashing adult parties, smoking pot, and hanging out at bars until the wee hours.

Johnny proposes that they do something “way, way out,” by celebrating a black mass at the local abandoned, de-sanctified church. Most of the group thinks it might be good for some “giggles,” but Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham) and her boyfriend Bob (Philip Miller) are leery of playing around at something so dark and twisted. Still, they relent and everyone agrees to meet at midnight at the church.

Little do they know that Johnny is a deadly serious descendant of a disciple of Dracula’s, and intends to resurrect the Count on the 100th anniversary of the battle between the vampire and Lawrence Van Helsing that resulted in both their deaths.

Jessica and Bob are even more weirded out when they discover Van Helsing’s grave marker in the churchyard (Jessica is a great-granddaughter), and realize the significance of the date. But, peer pressure being what it is, they participate anyway.

Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) presides over the Black Mass, Dracula A.D. 1972
Johnny violates the laws of God and Man, and London's
regulations banning smoking in public places.
In this 1972 version of the Black Mass, Alucard, wearing a monk’s cowl (and Dracula’s ring!), presides to the accompaniment of weird music playing on a tape deck. His band of unwitting disciples are sitting around a pentagram drawn on the floor, swaying to the primeval beat. In one of the film's more embarrassing moments, Johnny exhorts them to “Dig the music kids!”

Johnny wants Jessica to come to the altar to complete the ritual, but she freezes like a deer in the headlights, knowing that something is definitely not right. Jessica’s friend Laura (Caroline Munro), gets caught up in the moment and enthusiastically volunteers (a decision she will very quickly regret).

Before you can say “Alucard,” there is the glint of the ritual knife, pouring blood, and Dracula’s ashes boiling up like an infernal stew. When Johnny pours the bloody mess all over Laura’s heaving chest, the other kids scatter to the four winds. Jessica doesn’t want to leave the sobbing Laura behind, but Bob’s self-preservation instincts win out and he drags her away.

Johnny delivers the coup-de-grace when he removes the stake (the splintered carriage spoke that killed Dracula a century before) from the Count’s remains, which were surreptitiously buried on the church grounds near Van Helsing’s.

Laura learns an important life lesson -- never voluntarily lie on a de-sanctified altar during a Black Mass -- but unfortunately it goes to waste as she becomes the revivified Count’s first victim. Her body, drained of blood, is discovered at a construction site near the church. Meanwhile, Johnny, who witnessed her demise, coolly tells his friends that she’s gone off to visit family.

Lorrimer (Peter Cushing) and Jessica (Stephanie Beacham) have a heart-to-heart talk in Dracula A.D. 1972
Jessica tells her grandfather all about the peer pressure
to smoke, drink, do drugs, and conduct ritual sacrifices.
To investigators, a body drained of blood and dumped near a de-sanctified church has all the earmarks of a cult ritual killing. When they identify the victim and connect the dots to her friends, Jessica’s name pops up. Lead Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) is intrigued, recalling that Lorrimer, Jessica’s grandfather and a respected anthropologist and expert on the occult (Peter Cushing), had helped Scotland Yard previously on a case involving modern-day witchcraft. Jessica and Lorrimer suddenly become persons-of-interest.

The inspectors interview Lorrimer first, who, upon learning that Laura’s body was drained, schools the skeptical policemen on the “positive proof” of vampires and his own grandfather’s battle with Dracula. “There are dark corners, horrors almost impossible to imagine, even in our worst nightmares,” he informs them. However, Lorrimer’s academic interest in a possible case of vampirism turns into real concern when he learns that his granddaughter is involved.

Scotland Yard turns out to be the least of their concerns, as Dracula, with the aid of disciple Johnny, begins hunting down the kids with the ultimate aim of wreaking vengeance on all living Van Helsings.

In Taste the Blood of Dracula, the young Londoners were both the instrument of Dracula’s revenge and his undoing. The corrupt, hypocritical Victorian establishment was responsible for the Count’s resurrection, and only incorruptible youth could save the day. Fast forward to 1972, and it’s now the establishment’s turn (in the form of Scotland Yard and the astute, scholarly Lorrimer Van Helsing) to save London from the actions of clueless youngsters.

Bar scene in Dracula A.D. 1972
Sex, drugs and black masses don't seem to be doing the
trick for the callow youths of London.

In both films, Dracula is the dark, merciless Karma that catches up with the hypocritical hedonists of the leisure class, young and old. Both are subversive in the sense that, in spite of the obvious suffering of the victims, there’s a little piece of us (or maybe a big piece) thinking that they're getting what they deserve.

A.D. 1972’s counter-counterculture message is that the kids are definitely not alright, that in their selfishness and hedonism they are nothing but spoiled lambs to the slaughter in the face of evil -- with the exception of Jessica of course, who after all, is a Van Helsing. Jessica’s head and heart are in the right place, but she has problems resisting peer pressure.

Stephanie Beacham is very natural and authentic portraying a girl torn between pleasing her less cautious, less intelligent friends and living up to her grandfather’s faith in her. Peter Cushing is a delight as usual as the refined, empathetic Lorrimer, surrounded by books and artifacts accumulated over a long academic career, yet willing to step up and be a man of action when the circumstances call for it. Their scenes together -- he, the doting, concerned grandfather; she, grateful for the concern but also feisty and wanting to live life on her own terms -- save the film from being just a cheesy horror genre rip on youth culture.

** SPOILERS: PROCEED WITH CAUTION! **

A.D. 1972 once again calls for Van Helsing to put aside his books and gentlemanly manner and become a man of geri-action. Since Cushing was pushing 60 at the time, he wasn’t required to get quite as physical as in earlier roles, but in vampire hunter mode he still is stabbed with a switchblade, chased up the old church stairs, and generally thrown around like a rag doll (okay, so I'm sure there was a stunt man involved, but still...).

Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) confronts Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) in Dracula A.D. 1972
Johnny is upset about missing his morning nap.
Of course, as every vampire slayer knows, you kill ‘em with brains, not brawn. Disciple Johnny, who by this point has been turned into a vampire, is first on the list. After Johnny stabs Van Helsing in the arm with a switchblade (I guess new vampires often revert to the tools they know rather than relying on their super-strength or sharp canines), it looks bad for the vampire hunter. But as the morning sun’s rays stream through the curtains of Johnny’s apartment, Lorrimer cleverly throws a bible and cross into his coffin, then uses a makeup mirror (vain boy, that Johnny) to direct the light onto the hapless lad and force him into the bathroom, where there is plenty of sunlight and clear, running water from the shower to dispense with him.

Sidebar: At the Monster Bash convention in Mars, PA this past June, Christopher Neame was asked about his experiences on the set of A.D. 1972. Being only 23 at the time, he recalled that the slender, self-effacing Cushing was as "strong as an ox,” during filming of the fight scenes. He also laughed about his death scene. Back in the day, English film crews observed strict union rules and hours. Once the director yelled cut, everyone cleared out, leaving him soaked and in full makeup.

With one disciple down, Van Helsing must confront Dracula in his lair, the abandoned church, where Jessica is hypnotized and laid out on the altar. Before it’s all over, he will have to pull out all the stops and all his vampire-fighting tools, including holy water, a silver-bladed knife, and a special surprise trap in the churchyard. The coup-de-grace he administers to Dracula is particularly brutal.

Dracula (Christopher Lee) is repulsed by the silver cross Jessica (Stephanie Beacham) is wearing in Dracula A.D. 1972
Jessica Van Helsing does her best imitation of the lady
on all those truck mudflaps.

Dracula A.D. 1972 is a competent, traditional Hammer vampire story wrapped up in Mod packaging in a fairly cynical attempt to keep the kids flocking to the theaters and drive-ins. The depiction of London youth culture is as phony as a three-dollar bill (or should I say three pound note?), dreamed up by middle-aged writers and producers who seem to have done their research looking at tabloids and bad TV shows.

Still, if you can get past the cringey pandering, there are good performances (especially Cushing and Meacham), touching scenes between grandfather and granddaughter, and exciting action sequences.

As mentioned previously, Christopher Neame was a newcomer at the time, having only appeared in a small role in Hammer’s Lust for a Vampire (1971) and a couple of TV series before scoring as pasty-faced Johnny Alucard. He since has done dozens of movies and TV series, including stints on Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. He’s still working, having recently made the Hammer homage House of the Gorgon (2019) with scream-queen icons Caroline Munroe, Veronica Carlson, and Martine Beswick and independent filmmaker Jamie Kennedy.

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee go at it in the final confrontation of Dracula A.D. 1972
"Look here Van Helsing, this is how you do the Monster Mash!"
Stephanie Beacham is also still working, with a similarly lengthy list of TV shows and movies on her eclectic resume, including Pete Walker's Schizo (1976), Horrorplanet (aka Inseminoid; 1981), and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I’ll leave the final word with Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes, the “biographers” of Hammer Films:
“[T]he film has long-suffered a reputation as a monumental misjudgement. … Dracula A.D. 1972 gets more entertaining with the passing of time, and is perhaps best enjoyed as an endearing, if naive, picture of an era that never was.” The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films, Titan Books, 2007, p. 157.
Where to find it: Dracula A.D. 1972 shares space with Taste the Blood of Dracula on a disc in the 4 Film Favorites: Draculas collection, available here.

August 27, 2019

Dracula Exploits the Generation Gap: Special ‘70s Hammer Horror Edition, Part One

Poster - Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
Now Playing: Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)

Pros: The backdrop of Victorian-era vice and hypocrisy is different and engaging; Ralph Bates is wonderfully hammy as a depraved aristocrat
Cons: The final confrontation with Dracula is something of a letdown
Generation Gap. Noun. : the differences in opinions, values, etc., between younger people and older people
-- Merriam-Webster.com
Merriam (may I call you Merriam?) further elaborates:
“The most famous generation gap is the baby boomers, many of whom came of age in the 1960s, and their parents, who grew up around the Great Depression and tended to have traditional values.

This generation gap was clearly evident in the rapid evolution of music during the 1950s and 1960s, when rock music, the Korean conflict and the Vietnam war forced many of America's young people to question many basic values. The beginnings of the women's movement, civil rights and the growth in birth control reinforced the baby boomers' controversial sense of self-determination that changed the course of the next several decades.”
As a boomer who was alive and somewhat sentient in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I can attest to that “controversial sense of self-determination.” We were gonna end the war, man, and shed all those bogus hang-ups, man, and live in peace, love and flower power, dig it?

Christopher Lee's first appearance in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
The youthful rebels of the late '60s and early '70s
had the establishment seeing red.
Then, as the ‘70s wore on and the bloom came off the counterculture rose, some of us looked around and realized that all that we’d accomplished was to participate in the greatest fashion catastrophe of all time, with its hideous polyester shirts, bell-bottoms, mini-skirts, go-go boots, and platform shoes. I challenge anyone my age to look at photos of themselves from that period and not wince at least a little.

At first The Man made fun of all those long-haired freaky people, but then realized he could pick their bell-bottom pockets just as easily as their parents’. Of course, all those regrettable clothes were a gold mine. On the entertainment front, pics like Beach Blanket Bingo and The Horror of Party Beach gave way to full-on youth rebellion stuff like the Hells Angels on Wheels and The Trip on drive-in screens.

Across the pond, Hammer Films, the birthplace of technicolor Gothic horror, was a little slow on the uptake. Motorcycle gangs and LSD trips weren’t their cup of tea, and were never going to be. But they did see the youth market’s writing on the wall, and gradually acknowledged it without abandoning the horror genre for which they were famous.

Taste the Blood of Dracula is set in Victorian-era London and is replete with Hammer’s signature costumes and mannered acting, but it also has a counterculture, don’t-trust-anyone-over-30 vibe to it. William Hargood (Geoffrey Keen) is an upper-crust patriarch who rules his home with an iron fist. He’s particularly hard on his sweet, innocent daughter Alice (Linda Hayden), having taken a visceral dislike to her intended suitor Paul (Anthony Higgins). He keeps her under practical house arrest to prevent the two from seeing each other.

The snake dance scene from Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
Hargood and his friends are busy doing their "charity" work
rescuing orphaned boa constrictors.
Although appearing to be a grim paragon of rectitude, Hargood leads a double-life. On the pretense of doing charity work, he and two other outwardly respectable partners in vice, Samuel Paxton and Jonathan Secker (Peter Sallis and John Carson) go slumming periodically in the brothels of London’s East End.

But alas, after all the debauched binging, the trio have become jaded and bored. Not even watching a voluptuous exotic dancer (Mailaika Martin) and her pet boa constrictor can properly wax their mustaches, if you know what I mean. Enter Lord Courtly (Ralph Bates), a dissolute libertine who’s been disowned by his aristocrat father and mooches off of his equally corrupt friends.

A drunken Courtly barges into the trio’s private brothel room during the snake dance. After some initial outrage, the glib Courtly piques Hargood’s and his friends’ curiosity when he promises an experience beyond their wildest imaginations. He takes them to a shady merchant (Roy Kinnear) who has the infamous Dracula’s cape and ring, and a vial of his powdered blood. Courtly convinces his new-found wealthy friends to purchase the items for a small fortune, which they will use to celebrate a black mass -- everyone’s favorite way to stave off boredom.

They find an abandoned, de-consecrated church to conduct the ceremony. Officiating at the altar, Courtly, wearing Dracula’s cape, cuts open his hand and bleeds into his and the other men’s chalices, each containing a portion of the powdered blood. As the cups begin to boil like witches’ cauldrons he rails at the cowards to drink up.

Ralph Bates leads the Black Mass in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
It's happy hour at the old de-consecrated church, with two-for-one Bloody Marys.

It’s all too much for Hargood and his crew, who refuse to partake of the bloody concoction. After Courtly lustily downs his brew he collapses to the floor, gagging and flailing. Disgusted, the wealthy reprobates beat him to death with their canes and hightail it out of there.

That’s not the end of it for the trio, as Courtly’s body transmutes into Dracula, who once again is dead-alive and kicking and looking to exact retribution on the wealthy slummers for killing his acolyte. (On the other hand, Courtly’s body was the mechanism for Dracula’s resurrection, so maybe they did him a favor.) Dracula goes after the men one by one, using their own children to seal their doom.

The film gives more than a passing nod to the era’s youth rebellion zeitgeist. All the adults -- with the exception of Hargood’s well-meaning wife Martha, played by Gwen Watford -- are either corrupt hypocrites, actual monsters, or officious incompetents. Most of the young cast are victims drafted into Dracula’s small army of revenge -- Alice is seduced by Dracula and held in his thrall; Lucy Paxton (Isla Blair) and Jeremy Secker (Martin Jarvis) are outright turned into vampires. Only Paul is left to combat the evil that has seized his upper-crust world.

Paul Higgins and Michael Ripper in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
Cobb is a graduate of the Inspector Clouseau
Detective Academy.
There is no cool, collected Van Helsing to save the day. The cops are worse than useless. When Alice goes missing, Inspector Cobb (played by veteran Hammer character actor Michael Ripper) dismisses Paul’s concerns with girls-will-be-girls flippancy.

** CAUTION: SPOILERS (SORT-OF) **

Ultimately it’s the kids, Paul and Alice (conveniently rescued at the last minute from Dracula’s spell), who save their little corner of London armed with only youthful purity and a cross. Unfortunately, the fateful climax in the abandoned church is one of the film’s disappointments. Without going into detail, dispatching the centuries-old Count is surprisingly easy. Dracula is reduced to throwing objects from the balcony like a toddler having a temper tantrum.

Another big head-scratcher is Dracula’s failure to turn sweet Alice into a vampire. He has two opportunities, but is distracted each time before he can do the deed. In his thrall, she has committed one murder for him and helped in another. I suppose a hypnotized human assistant is as good as vampire for a lot of things, but his lack of follow-through comes back to bite him in the end.

Linda Hayden and Christopher Lee in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
"You are completely under my spell Alice. Now go
and detail my car. Here are the keys."
On the plus side, Ralph Bates’ few minutes of screen time as the degenerate wastrel Courtly is a treat. Courtly is blithely arrogant, yet smooth enough to talk Hargood and his buddies into turning over vast sums of cash in order to finance their kinky predilections. At the Black Mass, Bates positively chews the scenery (in a good way) as he browbeats the faltering men to drink from their cups of blood.

According to Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes (The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films, Titan Books, 1997), when a reluctant Christopher Lee demanded a share of the gross to do yet another stint as Dracula, Hammer decided to turn the youthful Bates, only 29 at the time, into a new vampiric menace. Bates had a few TV series under his belt, but had yet to do a feature film.

The American distributor balked at the substitution, pointing out that they had co-financed the picture on the condition that Lee return as Dracula. Hammer execs had to backtrack and convince Lee to do the film. As a result, Bates’ role was drastically scaled back. (pp. 130-131)

Linda Hayden and Anthony Higgins (billed as Anthony Corlan) are fine as the young lovers. Hayden’s ‘70s horror resume includes The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), Night Watch (with Elizabeth Taylor, 1973), and Madhouse (with Vincent Price, 1974). Higgins/Corlan would go on to star in the excellent Vampire Circus (1972) as a handsome shape-shifting bloodsucker (see my review here).

Linda Hayden and Anthony Higgins at the climax of Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
"Alice, did you remember to bring the wooden stake? Alice?..."

James Bond fans will probably recognize Geoffrey Keen (Hargood) as the Defence Minister who appeared in 6 Bond films over the course of a decade, starting with The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and ending with The Living Daylights (1987).

Although Lee vowed this would be his last movie for Hammer, he was dragged back 3 more times to portray the evil count for the studio: Scars of Dracula (1970), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1974). Scars is a throwback to Hammer’s signature 19th century, Central European setting. But A.D. 1972 is set in (then) present-day London, and takes the youth culture themes that Taste the Blood dabbled with and explodes them into a generational war: Dracula vs. the hippies.

Stay tuned for Part Two, where we will dig up more generational conflicts in Dracula A.D. 1972.

Where to find it: The 4 Film Favorites: Draculas collection, including Taste the Blood of Dracula and Dracula A.D. 1972 is available here

August 12, 2019

Fear of Flying: Special TV Movie Double Feature Edition

They say that for many things in life, it’s better not to know how the sausage gets made. That may be doubly true if you find yourself in a jetliner 5 miles up, cruising along at 500 mph. All the little headaches that are a standard part of flying these days are probably a blessing in disguise. If you’re distracted by the guy on your right who snores like a jumbo jet revving up, and by the old lady’s “comfort” dog on your left that nips at you every time you move in your cramped seat, then you probably don’t have time to dwell on the fact that U.S. jet manufacturers are allowed to “self-certify” that their planes meet FAA safety standards, and that many airlines outsource their aircraft maintenance to uncertified mechanics in places like Mexico and China.

Poster - The High and the Mighty (1954)
The desire to avoid thinking about how safety gets fed into the industry meat-grinder perhaps explains why we don’t see too many airliner-based disaster movies these days. It’s interesting that during the heyday of air travel, when it was as well-regulated, safe and comfortable as it’s ever going to be, Hollywood brought out so many hair-raising airplane movies.

Way back in 1954 John Wayne got the ball rolling (or should I say the crippled plane flying?) with his production of The High and the Mighty, about a disgraced co-pilot (Wayne) who has to step up when the airliner he’s on loses an engine mid-way through their Hawaii to California run, and the pilot (Robert Stack) loses his marbles. With an all-star cast of characters and more dramatic backstories than you can count, the film eventually set the stage for a whole host of 70’s disaster epics, especially the Airport series that began with the megahit Airport in 1970 and ended on a flat note with The Concorde: Airport ‘79. The cycle would return to its roots when Airplane! (1980) directly parodied The High and the Mighty to hilarious effect (and as an added homage included Robert Stack in its all-star supporting cast).

Before audience demand for airplane disaster flicks crashed and burned, TV producers decided to get in on the act. For some people, the idea of a machine weighing several hundred tons flying miles above the earth seems unnatural, if not downright uncanny. Here are two TV movies from the ‘70s that add supernatural horror to an already uncanny, unnerving situation.

DVD cover art - The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)
Now Playing: The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)

Pros: Features an "all-star" cast of familiar faces from the '60s and '70s
Cons: The “horror” is a big letdown

This CBS TV movie starts out like so many disaster pictures of the period, with an assortment of passengers from different walks of life (an architect, an ex-priest, a businessman, an actor, a doctor, etc.) assembling at London’s Heathrow airport to board a special red-eye flight to New York. There are only about 10 passengers sharing the very spacious 747 cabin, as it’s mainly a cargo flight.

As some of the characters' backstories are explored, we learn that most of the cargo hold contains pieces of an old abbey that wealthy architect Alan O’Neill (Roy Thinnes) and his English wife Sheila (Jane Merrow) are transporting to New York to reassemble at their mansion (the abbey was part of Sheila’s ancestral estate). Also on the flight is Mrs. Pinder (Tammy Grimes), an English busybody who opposed the O’Neill’s plans to break up the abbey, and who threatens to sue them in U.S. court in a last ditch effort.

Russell Johnson in The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)
Flight engineer Hawley doesn't like the selection
of frozen entrees.
Mrs. Pinder ominously warns the O’Neills that they’ll be sorry they ever touched the old ruins, and sure enough, things start to get very weird very fast. First, the flight crew headed by Captain Ernie Slade (Chuck Connors) finds that the 747 is caught in the biggest headwinds ever, and the plane is making no progress at all over the Atlantic. When they try to turn around to head back to Heathrow, there’s still no progress, as if they’re caught in a whirlwind that’s keeping them stationary.

The next shoe to drop is in the cargo hold, where things are loudly banging around. A stewardess (Darleen Carr) who is preparing passenger meals in the galley next to the cargo hold is freaked out by strange noises, electrical power surges, and ice forming next to the cargo hatch. When the Captain and the flight engineer (Russell Johnson) go down to investigate, all heck breaks loose.

The problem with The Horror is that it’s not all that horrible, or even very spooky. Given the made-for-TV budget limitations, what we get is some weird music, some disembodied chanting, freezing ice, and something that looks like liquified silly putty that bubbles up from the plane’s lower decks.

William Shatner, Roy Thinnes and Jane Merrow in The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)
Paul toasts his fellow passengers for joining Satan's
Mile High Club.
Midway through, Mrs. Pinder turns extra creepy. She gleefully tells the O’Neills that the part of the abbey they’re shipping was built over an altar used by ancient Druids for unspeakable sacrifices to “the Old Ones.” To make things more interesting, it’s the Summer Solstice, when witches and all manner of evil entities are unleashed to run riot over the earth. Apparently the spirits attached to the abbey like to play with the thermostat and their own version of silly putty.

The other problem with The Horror is that it shamelessly telegraphs its climax. When we learn that Paul Kovalik (William Shatner) is a defrocked priest who has lost his faith and prefers anesthetizing himself with alcohol to facing his inner demons, we know for certain that he will have to redeem himself by facing the actual demons that have taken over the plane.

Paul Winfield is also on hand as the prim Dr. Enkala, the requisite voice of science and reason. His role is to hem, haw, look concerned, and be pretty much useless as panic takes over.

Buddy Ebsen, Lynn Loring and France Nuyen in The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)
"Oh Mighty Old Ones, we humbly offer up this Chatty Cathy
to you... A $29.99 value at finer department stores!"
The rest of the cast -- Buddy Ebsen as a no-nonsense businessman, Lynn Loring as sad-sack Paul’s companion, Will Hutchins as a B-list Hollywood actor, France Nuyen as a beautiful, sophisticated model, and Mia Bendixsen as an innocent little girl traveling on her own (!?) -- are set pieces to demonstrate in dramatic fashion how perfectly normal, rational people can degenerate into blithering, superstitious idiots in the face of supernatural evil.

In an odd scene, the desperate group decides that their only chance is to offer a sacrifice to the Old Ones to get them to back off. At first it looks as if they’re going to go after the helpless little girl, but instead snatch her doll away to dress it up in a scarf and a lock of Mrs. O’Neill’s hair. Then they offer it up to the bubbling green slime to propitiate the evil entities. Yikes!

The writers were obviously trying to elevate the proceedings with a serious message about the weakness of science and reason in the absence of faith, or something like that, but at this particular point their credibility with me bubbled away like so much demonic silly putty. They needed to invest a little less in the cliched message and a little more in a scarier supernatural menace. But that’s just me -- your results may vary.

Where to find it: A decent streaming upload can be found here, or the DVD here.


Video cover art for The Ghost of Flight 401 (1978)
Now Playing: The Ghost of Flight 401 (1978)

Pros: Generates nail-biting suspense in recreating a real-life airliner crash; Cast is top-notch
Cons: The ghostly scenes are creepy, but too brief; Much of the movie centers around various employees trying to convince the airline executive played by Gary Lockwood that the hauntings are real

Ghost aired on NBC in February of 1978. Based on the book by John G. Fuller, it is based on the real life crash of Eastern Airlines flight 401 in the Florida Everglades on December 29, 1972. The pilots and flight engineer were all killed, but 8 out of the 10 attendants and 67 (out of 163) passengers survived.

While the producers changed the name of the airline and many of the characters for the movie, it provides a nail-biting and apparently pretty accurate depiction of the run up to and aftermath of the crash. In this case, something very small -- an indicator light for the nose landing gear -- caused an enormous tragedy. When it fails to light up on their approach into Miami International Airport, the Captain (played by Russell Johnson in his second TV air disaster/horror movie of the decade) dispatches flight engineer Dom Cimoli (Ernest Borgnine) to the “hellhole” underneath the cockpit to try to visually determine if the gear is deployed or not.

Kim Basinger in The Ghost of Flight 401 (1978)
Kim Basinger appears as flight attendant Prissy Frasier
With the flight engineer busy below and the pilot and co-pilot obsessed with troubleshooting the indicator panel, they fail to notice that the autopilot has been disengaged in their holding pattern and the plane is steadily losing altitude.

The movie also accurately depicts the heroic efforts of an airboat operator (Robert "Bud" Marquis in real life) who was out hunting frogs in the vicinity, and who rescued many of the passengers.

Somehow Cimoli survives the initial crash but dies of his injuries later at the hospital. Borgnine as Cimoli adds poignancy to the story, portraying a very likeable, selfless colleague (he trades with another engineer for the fatal flight) and a loving husband. Carol Rossen is also effective as Cimoli’s wife, who has a bad feeling about the upcoming flight, but can’t talk her straight-arrow husband into calling in sick.

Most of the post-crash part of the movie is Gary Lockwood’s, playing Jordan Evanhower, a former pilot, close friend of the Cimolis, and an executive with the airline. Evanhower is a man caught between loyalty to his bosses and his good friends when those friends -- attendants and even experienced pilots -- report that Cimoli is still reporting for duty on various flights.

Ernest Borgnine in The Ghost of Flight 401 (1978)
The ghost of Dom Cimoli reports for duty with an
important message about the virtues of recycling.
Evanhower’s skepticism and company loyalty are tested when it appears that Cimoli is showing up on airplanes that have been fitted with recycled parts from the crashed plane. Even by the end of the movie, when he’s attending a seance aimed at trying to put Cimoli’s ghost to rest (held by a fellow pilot and spirit medium, no less!), Evanhower is battling conflicting emotions.

Fans of straight out horror may not find that much to whet their appetites here, as the ghost makes only a few brief (but effective) appearances. Much of the movie is about company politics and Evanhower’s soul-searching. Still, it provides some very suspenseful scenes of a disaster in the making, and the ostensibly true story is intriguing.

A posting in IMDb’s Trivia section maintains that the claims made in John G. Fuller’s source book have all been debunked. Other user posts on the movie’s page assert otherwise. Whatever you believe, The Ghost of Flight 401 is a tight drama with some very good performances and a couple of genuine chills thrown in for good measure.

Where to find it: A watchable streaming upload can be found here.

August 1, 2019

Films From Beyond’s Public Health Alert for Summer: Stay out of the Sun!

Poster - The Hideous Sun Demon (1958)
Now Playing: The Hideous Sun Demon (1958)

Pros: Effective monster mask/suit; Adds an unexpected alcoholism angle to its twist on horror movie themes.
Cons: The monster doesn’t have a lot to do until the final third of the film; The protagonist is so self-destructive he becomes unsympathetic at the end.

There’s bad news for those of us with extreme melanin deficiency. The killjoys at the Food and Drug Administration report that all that sunscreen we’ve been slathering on ourselves to keep from sizzling like a ribeye on the grill may not be so good after all. It seems that all those chemicals they list on the tube in micro-sized print -- the ones that end with -zone, -lene, -phate, -oxide, etc., -- can get absorbed through the skin (duh!), fan out through your bloodstream and potentially invite cancer cells to come party with them in your body.

While the media coverage of this development has been uniform in cautioning that the harm has not been definitively established and no one is recommending throwing out all of your sunscreen (at least not yet), I do find this quote from a Health.com article a bit concerning:
“The editorial [in the Journal of the American Medical Association] also calls for sunscreen manufacturers to commit to more safety tests, claiming that industry leaders have been hesitant to do so in the past. ‘Despite multiple efforts by the FDA to persuade sunscreen manufacturers to conduct key safety studies, the manufacturers have failed to produce such data, forcing the FDA to conduct its own studies,’ the editorial states.” [Maggie O’Neill, “FDA Warning Says the Chemicals in Sunscreen Can Be Absorbed in Your Bloodstream,” May 7, 2019]
So let me get this straight. A product that Americans coat themselves with to the tune of millions (billions?) of fluid ounces every year is not officially regulated (well hey, it’s not a food and it’s not a drug, so there you go), no one outside of the industry knows if it’s really safe or not, and if anyone on the inside has a clue, they’re not saying. All the government regulators can do is ask pretty please for more data, which they’re not getting, and only now, after all the ships have sailed and all the barn animals have disappeared, are conducting their own safety tests. Forgive me while I do a slow burn.

I suppose at this point I will have to trust the corporate media and keep applying all those -zones, -lenes, -phates and -oxides to my precious skin until some authoritative source tells me to stop. I don’t have much choice. I need my sunscreen to avoid living like the world’s most pathetic vampire. I don’t exactly turn to dust and blow away in direct sunlight, but within minutes, I feel my skin gently sizzling, and in no time at all I look like the main course at a Red Lobster.

On the upside, I have what you could call a very patriotic complexion. I start out white, then I add red stripes and patches where I haven’t applied the sunscreen well enough. The network of blue veins that I’ve developed in my old age completes the effect. No matter what time of year, I’m ready for the Fourth of July.

Robert Clarke as Dr. Gilbert McKenna, The Hideous Sun Demon (1958)
Mild-mannered scientist Gil McKenna contemplates the new
FDA report as he bakes under the summer sun.
But it could be so much worse. Like the poor protagonist in The Hideous Sun Demon, I could have been exposed to radiation causing me to transform into a reptilian monster whenever I stepped out into the sun. (And then the FDA -- or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- would politely ask the atomic lab for data about radiation that turns people into humanoid lizards, and no doubt be told to mind their own business. But I digress.)

Typical of B sci-fi of the time, Sun Demon showcases the mutating effects of radiation, but instead of amazing colossal men, radioactive dinosaurs, or giant insects, the result is a human-sized scaly monstrosity. (Of course, the very low budget in the ballpark of $50k precluded anything more sophisticated than a man in monster suit and mask.)

Although born out of atom-age fears, the Sun Demon is more closely related to the classic horse and buggy-age horrors of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Universal’s Wolf Man than the irradiated creatures that had paraded across drive-in screens in the ‘50s. Like Dr. Jekyll, a mild-mannered scientist (Gilbert McKenna, played by writer-producer-star Robert Clarke), morphs into a dangerous throw-back on the evolutionary ladder. Like Dracula, the night is his friend. And like Larry Talbot, Gil McKenna is a tortured soul.

Unfortunately, the cut-rate production values make the Sun Demon a poor cousin to his cinematic antecedents. To make matters worse, the film spends far too much of its short 74 minute runtime on dull scientific exposition and clunky dialog, while showing the hideous monster only sparingly until the denouement.

It all starts when the butterfingered Dr. McKenna drops an exotic new radioactive isotope in the lab, passes out, and is exposed for several minutes. His colleagues, Drs. Ann Russell and Frederick Buckell (Patricia Manning and Patrick Whyte), and his primary physician (Robert Garry) are baffled that he’s not showing any of the typical symptoms of extreme radiation poisoning. They wisely keep him in the hospital for observation.

Soon, the sun hits the fan. The doctor prescribes a bit of sun and fresh air for McKenna, so a nurse wheels him up to the solarium on the hospital’s top floor. After a fitful nap under the noonday sun (with no sunscreen!), McKenna wakes up and proceeds to scare the daylights out of a little old lady sitting next to him on the terrace. He races back to his room and for a split second sees a terrifying lizard-man staring back at him from a mirror before he smashes it.

In full Bill-Nye-Science-Guy mode, the doctor patiently explains to Ann and Frederick that the exotic radiation McKenna was exposed to causes his cells to mutate to a prior evolutionary stage -- a walking lizard -- but only when exposed to direct sunlight. The colleagues are alarmed, but still hopeful something can be done. McKenna on the other hand completely freaks out, checks himself out of the hospital and goes into hiding at a remote estate on the California coast.

Gil McKenna (Robert Clarke) is about to meet 'bad girl' Trudy in The Hideous Sun Demon (1958)
McKenna does his best Philip Marlowe imitation as he
watches Trudy croon a torch song at the local dive.
Earlier, Frederick had gently suggested to Ann that Gil’s drinking may have been a factor in the accident. Frederick’s assessment is confirmed when Gil decides to drown his sorrows in booze instead of seeking a cure. This is an interesting development for a ‘50s B sci-fi picture, and may at the time have caused some head-scratching among audiences used to seeing heroic (and sober) scientists successfully battling atom-spawned monsters.

The picture takes a noirish turn at this point, as McKenna, trying to avoid becoming a lizard-man by day, turns into a lounge lizard by night, throwing back drinks at a local dive while listening to Marilyn Monroe wannabe Trudy (Nan Peterson) croon songs at the piano.

Gil doubles down on his bad choices by hoisting a few with the torch singer, who of course has a sleazy jealous boyfriend (Peter Similuk). After a dominance-establishing fistfight, McKenna whisks Trudy off in his convertible to find a secluded beach for some moonlit romance. They indulge in some PG-rated horseplay, then, with the voluptuous Trudy wrapped only in a towel, Gil awkwardly celebrates the night with a bottle of whiskey he brought along.

In the morning, Gil wakes up on the beach, Trudy sleeping next to him. With the sun rapidly rising, he races to his car, leaving the confused woman on the beach to fend for herself. He’s already turned into a lizard-man when he pulls up to the house. Seeing Ann’s car in the drive, he climbs a fence and enters the house from an upper story to avoid running into her. She finally finds him, human again, in a dark cellar where he’s gone to de-tox from his reptilian state. After Ann tearfully pleads with him, Gil agrees to get help from a worldwide authority on radiation poisoning, Dr. Jacob Hoffman (Fred La Porta).

Patricia Manning and Robert Clarke, The Hideous Sun Demon (1958)
Ann tries to coax Gil out of the storage closet.
Drs. Hoffman and Buckell join McKenna at the house, where the seemingly ungrateful patient barks at Hoffman as he examines him. Cool as a cucumber, Hoffman calmly tells McKenna they will keep him at the house for a few days for observation before transferring him to the hospital, but under no circumstances should he leave the house, even at night (why they can’t transfer him right away under the cover of darkness is a bit of a mystery). Of course, we all know that alcoholics channeling their inner lounge lizards are their own worst enemies, and Hoffman’s warning will go unheeded.

Right on cue, the fretful patient wakes up in the middle of the night, needing a drink and just perhaps, needing to unleash his reptilian alter-ego. With no one at the house to watch him (?!), in a head-slappingly self-destructive move he heads right back to the bar where the girl he left stranded on the beach is a regular. Of course, he’s beaten up by the sleazo boyfriend and his gang, whereupon the astonishingly understanding Trudy takes pity on him, dusts him off, and takes him back to her apartment.

The next day, the boyfriend shows up at Trudy’s and discovers Gil there. At gunpoint, he forces Gil out into the sunlight to get what’s coming to him. Instead, the sleazeball gets his just deserts at the hands of an enraged lizard man. When the police investigating the murder show up at Gil’s place, things quickly go downhill from there…

Gil McKenna makes for a very interesting and unique B sci-fi protagonist. I can’t think of any others off the top of my head suffering from such a double whammy -- mutating radiation poisoning and alcoholism. Instead of the more conventional hubris that brings about the hero’s fall, it’s a plain old addiction that causes the tragic accident in the first place and greases Gil’s descent into chaos. The lizard-man is not a metaphor for addiction, it’s part and parcel of it. Sun Demon is the “Lost Weekend” of B monster movies.

Trudy (Nan Peterson) screams as the Sun Demon kills her sleazy boyfriend
"Hey Gil, wait up, you forgot your sunscreen!"
The problem is, Gil’s alcohol-fueled self-pity and self-destructiveness chip away at the audience’s sympathy for the character. After he kills Trudy’s boyfriend, McKenna retreats back to the house, where he confesses to Buckell and Hoffman. By the time he’s worked himself up into a self-pitying lather and screams at Buckell, “Why should I be the one, can you answer me that, why me!!!,” you want to reach through the screen and slap him silly (I flashed back to the classic scene in Airplane! where fellow passengers are lining up to shake, slap and bludgeon a woman who is freaking out).

Another problem is the film’s slow build-up to the action-packed climax. The first two-thirds of the film spends a lot of time on a scientific explanation of Gil’s condition (with charts!), Trudy’s torch songs, unconvincing bar fights, and shots of waves crashing on the beach, while only teasing us with brief glimpses of the monster. The core of the monster action, set in a forbidding industrial area on the edge of Los Angeles, is crammed into the last twenty minutes or so.

Xandra Conkling and Robert Clarke share a cup of imaginary tea in The Hideous Sun Demon (1958)
I don't know about you, but that doll in the background
creeps me out!
In addition to the Jekyll and Hyde angle, the film pays homage to another horror classic, Universal’s original Frankenstein, by having a little girl discover the fugitive scientist in a dark equipment shack that she’s been using for tea parties with her dolls. As she peppers him with innocent questions, there’s more than a little suspense that somehow the sun’s rays will seep through and transform him in the middle of the tea party. It’s a nice touch that compounds the suspense as the police -- and fate -- converge on McKenna.

The Hideous Sun Demon was the brainchild of prolific B actor Robert Clarke. Among the many B pictures on his resume at that point were Val Lewton’s Bedlam (1946) and Edgar Ulmer’s atmospheric The Man from Planet X (1951). But it was his recent experience on the ultra-low budget The Astounding She-Monster (1957) that planted the idea to make his own picture:
“I made a nice piece of change for myself starring in The Astounding She-Monster, but more important than those paychecks was the fact that the experience gave me an awareness that a very profitable picture of that sort could be made for a very small amount of money… If a shoestring picture like The Astounding She-Monster could make a pile of money, why wouldn’t a picture of my own, made with a bit more of an eye toward quality?” [Robert Clarke and Tom Weaver, To “B” or Not to “B”: A Film Actor’s Odyssey, Midnight Marquee Press, 1996, p. 181]
Part of that eye toward quality was borrowing from the classics. Together with a technical writer friend, Phil Hiner, who was an aspiring author, Clarke developed a concept which “flipped” Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde plot from a physician drinking a potion which transforms him, to a scientist suffering chromosomal damage from a lab accident. They also borrowed from the 1931 Frederic March film, giving the character “two girlfriends, one serious and loyal [Ann], the other a ‘bad girl’ from the wrong side of the tracks [Trudy]. [Clarke, p. 182]

Robert Clarke in the full Sun Demon mask and suit
This is what might happen to you if you don't use sunscreen.
Or maybe if you do. Oh, to heck with it!
Using a non-union production crew recruited from local film schools, a mix of experienced and amateur actors willing to work on the cheap (e.g., the little girl, Xandra Conkling, was Clarke’s niece), and locations that were either free or dirt-cheap to rent, they shot the film on twelve weekends over the course of thirteen weeks.

Elsewhere on the blog I go into Clarke’s luck finding Richard Cassarino, the actor who developed the unique creature mask and suit on a next-to-nothing budget, and who also appears in multiple bit roles in the film.

For all its faults, The Hideous Sun Demon delivers an impressive monster and pays respectful homage to its horror roots. Clarke himself summed it up:
“[I] am proud about two things with respect to Sun Demon: One, that we had a good story (we followed a very good pattern laid down by Robert Louis Stevenson) and, two, that the picture has pace. That picture never stops. It moves. And to this day I have people telling me that it holds up and it’s still interesting and it engages their interest as an action/sci-fi/horror film.” [Clarke, p. 198]
Where to find it: stream it on Amazon Prime.

July 20, 2019

Blazing Rockets: Hollywood’s Great Race to the Moon, Part Two

Fifty years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed Apollo 11's Lunar Module "Eagle" on the moon. In part two of "Blazing Rockets," we look at how one 1950s Hollywood producer launched his cinematic moon project in the popular press, and how another decided to ratchet up the space race stakes.

Book cover - The Conquest of Space (1949), by Willy Ley and Chesley Bonestell
George Pal’s timing was impeccable. His Operation Moon, later to become Destination Moon, was riding a wave of public interest in space, the culmination of nuclear anxieties coupled with V-2 rocket experiments and early space race cheerleading in the form of books like Willy Ley’s and Chesley Bonestell's Conquest of Space (1949). [1]

(Also not to be discounted is the first wave of public interest in flying saucers, precipitated by Kenneth Arnold’s famous 1947 sighting near Mt. Rainier in Washington state. The crest of the wave was a sensational article published in True magazine in January 1950, “Flying Saucers are Real.” Coming from a such an upright, authoritative source -- retired Marine Corps Major aviator Donald A. Keyhoe -- some readers might have been forgiven for thinking that space had already been claimed by the crafty Soviets or mysterious extraterrestrials.) [2]

Such anxious and heady times called for full blown efforts, not half measures. If we were going to conquer space, then we might as well conquer some territory as well. With mammoth multi-stage rockets already on the drawing boards, it seemed that our neighbor the moon, that destination of so many dreams over the centuries, was in reach.

Characteristic of the period was a lavishly illustrated Life magazine story, “Rocket to the Moon,” published in January 1949, while Pal’s Operation Moon was still in the planning stages. The article’s subtitle, “Man May Travel to Earth’s Satellite in 25 Years,” was prophetic, if somewhat conservative (it was just over 20 years later that the Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquility). Space travel’s burgeoning roots in military technology and atom fever were touched on in the article: “Long a subject of fantasy, travel to the moon is now, as a result of recent scientific developments, not only a possibility but a probability. From tests made with the V-2 rocket engineers believe that a similar rocket, adapted to carrying humans, could make the 238,000 mile trip in about 48 hours.”

The article also addressed the challenges of achieving escape velocity with current chemical-fueled rockets. An illustration dramatically showed the performance gain of atomic power over more conventional fuel mixtures. (Probably not by chance, the Destination Moon rocket that would take off on theater screens the following year was atomic-powered.) Subsequent pages showed beautifully done pen and ink wash illustrations of a very plausible mission for its time.

NASA diagram - Saturn V rocket in moon landing configuration
NASA diagram of the 'real world' moon rocket.
Twenty years of research and development would result in a very different looking Apollo spacecraft and flight plan, incorporating a lunar lander separate from the command craft, but all the necessary components were there in the article, especially a multi-stage booster rocket, a crew of specially selected men “in top physical condition and trained to act as reliable scientific observers,” and a no-time-to-spare EVA plan of picture taking, astronomical observations and rock sample collecting. [3]

Of course, it was a much more accurate prognosticator of the cinematic missions of 1950, with its moonship combining a command center, crew compartment and lander in one occupied by four astronauts. For both Destination Moon and Rocketship X-M, the Life illustrations could have been a storyboard -- particularly the moonwalk against a backdrop of craggy lunar mountains in the former case, and the sleek-looking spaceship with its bunk-style crew compartment in the latter.

With the dawn of a new decade, the synergy between popular magazines and movie productions, particularly Pal’s, became glaringly obvious. As Destination Moon was shooting, the canny producer invited a variety of scientific experts and writers to the set to witness movie history in the making. The resulting wave of articles celebrating the film months before it was released, was pure public relations gold. Articles in Life, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science and other publications rhapsodized over the production and its technical wizardry as if it were the final preparations for an actual moonflight.

Once the film was released, Pal exploited the coverage one more time in trailers: “The picture you’ve been reading about in every important national magazine and newspaper… among them, Life, This Week, The New York Times, Popular Science, Seein’ Stars, Popular Mechanics, Parade, The New York Daily News!” The trailer ends with the proclamation of Destination Moon as “The Miracle Picture of All-Time!” Indeed, a miracle for the time in its unprecedented special effects, and a miracle of promotion.

Lobby card - Destination Moon (1950) illustrating the crew experiencing G force
Pal wanted Destination Moon to be as authentic as possible,
right down to depicting the effects of G forces on lift off.
Popular Science’s May 1950 multi-page spread, “How Movies Take You on a Trip to the Moon,” focused on those unprecedented, ingenious effects to simulate zero gravity, spacewalks, and moon walks. It credited art director Ernst Fegte with inventing the “cement mixer” approach to portraying astronauts stomping around the floor, ceiling and walls of the crew compartment in magnetic boots: “If you can’t turn the actors upside down, why not turn the set? The result was a box-like set, representing the interior of the rocket’s cabin, that could revolve like a cement mixer. To show an actor walking on the ceiling, the set was simply rotated until the ceiling became the ‘floor.’ The next step was to rig up a camera in the revolving drum so that it could roll with the action or shoot upside down. What the audience sees is a right-side up set with upside-down actors.” [4]

Other production details included deflating couch cushions to make it appear the actors were sinking into their seats under the G forces of lift off, suspending spacewalking actors with body-length harnesses and wires, and making spacesuits appear to be airtight and pressurized with padding and wire stays.

In its coverage of Destination Moon around the same time period, Life’s writers seemed particularly intrigued by the use of “midgets” (sic) doubling as moon-walking astronauts in the background to provide the illusion of distance. One production still shows a little person actor being carried by a stagehand like a sack of potatoes over the set’s rough lunar terrain. The caption mentions moon-walking actors hoisted on wires to simulate leaps and bounds under the moon’s weaker gravity. (Interestingly, the Life article also picked up on the Cold War aspects of the film, opening with, “Believing that the nation that controls the moon will also control the world, four U.S. patriots prepare to take off in a 150-foot rocket ship based in the Mojave desert.”) [5]

Lobby card for Destination Moon (1950), depicting a cracked lunar surface
While it was already known by 1950 that there were no
cracks in the lunar surface, they were added to lend
perspective and make the set appear larger.
Popular Mechanics took a different tack and used Destination Moon to frame a May 1950 article about the feasibility (and inevitability) of spaceflight. It quoted a real rocket scientist, Dr. Hsue-Shen Tsien of the California Institute of Technology, about how the technology and know-how was already in place to send a rocket to the moon, and interspersed studio production stills with speculations about atomic powered rockets, hypersonic transatlantic flights, and other high flying applications. It described the flight path of Pal’s fictional moonship as if it were a real mission already on the drafting boards.

And it concluded, “There isn’t much doubt that a trip to the moon and back will actually be made some day; enthusiasts are convinced that a missile will be landed on the moon in the next 10 or 15 years even if a manned space ship isn’t built for the trip by then. The chances are that when the space ship is built that it will be pretty much like the ship that the movie portrays. ‘Destination Moon’ will be released this fall, and George Pal jokingly says that he wants to make the release date as early as possible, otherwise the newsreels may beat him!” [6]

The newsreels didn’t beat Pal’s thunder, but, as mentioned earlier, a rival studio did. In competitive Hollywood, imitation has not only been the sincerest form of flattery, but a means for smaller studios and production companies to feed off the hot property scraps of their larger, wealthier brethren. In this Cold War-era side story, Lippert Pictures was a stand-in for the sneaky Soviets stealing nuclear secrets, and company head Robert Lippert did his best B movie imitation of a pugnacious Commie dictator jealous of the accomplishments of the Free World, and determined to one-up his rivals.

Rocketship X-M’s musical director Albert Glasser was a direct witness to the perfidy, as colorfully related to Tom Weaver:
“Lippert, the boss, called me in one day. Short, fat guy. He said, ‘Look Al, we’re going to do a big one, a science fiction thing called Rocketship X-M, and we’ve got to work very fast. The guy who wrote the script [writer-director Kurt Neumann] tried to peddle it all around town for a couple of years, no one wanted it. Why? It’s science fiction, who gives a shit about science fiction? But now, that big idiot, that asshole George Pal is making one about going to the moon. He’s been making it for a year and a half, and there’s trouble, trouble, trouble -- all of those special shots, the photographic tricks and whatnot. He even took out a five page ad in Life magazine, announcing that Destination Moon is on the way and will be out in about three or four months.’ So, Lippert said, ‘We’re going to knock Rocketship X-M out in three or four weeks. We’ll do it real cheap, and get ahead of him. George Pal is making everyone conscious about moon pictures. We’ll give ‘em moon pictures!’ So he did. We worked day and night, like sons of bitches.” [7]
Poster - Rocketship X-M (1950)
While Rocketship X-M had been set to land on
the moon, it ended up on Mars instead!
Lippert was as good as his word. Neumann took just 18 days to film the project on a paltry budget of $94,000, giving Lippert bragging rights that he aggressively exploited in advertising. One publicity tagline trumpeted Rocketship X-M as “The screen's FIRST story of man's conquest of space!” (managing a sort of in-your-face tagline twofer, claiming an historic cinematic first as well as alluding to the popular 1949 Willy Ley/Chesley Bonestell book collaboration that had provided such inspiration to Pal).

To add insult to injury, another Lippert tagline blared: “You've Read About It! You've Heard About It! Now SEE it!” While there was indeed some direct publicity of Rocketship X-M leading up to its premiere, Lippert was no doubt aware that the vast bulk of the pre-release publicity was focused on Pal’s bigger-budget effort, and if there was any confusion in moviegoers’ minds, then that was just fine.

In a sense though, there was never any real cinematic race to the moon. And not just because Lippert, concerned about potential legal action, decided to send his crew to Mars instead. Despite superficial similarities, the films were very different projects from the start. Pal, inspired by popular press speculations about spaceflight and its Cold War era implications, wanted to make those speculations as real and authentic as possible on the motion picture screen. To accomplish this, he hired the very visionaries, Robert Heinlein and Chesley Bonestell among them, who had done such yeoman work in the early post-war years, keying the nation into the importance of spaceflight. He went to great effort and expense to get it right.

Lippert, by contrast, was satisfied with simply establishing a veneer of space-age authenticity, the better to piggyback off of Destination Moon’s ubiquitous pre-release publicity. It was all about seizing the moment and making a pile of money by “giving ‘em moon pictures.” Yet, in spite of its hardscrabble, pecuniary origins, Lippert’s knockoff achieved another first, perhaps more important than being the first “hard” science fiction space flight movie in the new decade. It became the first cautionary film of the postwar Atomic era, depicting the world-shattering devastation of a nuclear war (on Mars no less!) at a time when Americans were being assured that such wars were winnable and just another option in the nation’s military arsenal.

Lobby card - Rocketship X-M (1950)
The crew of Rocketship X-M wonder how Google Maps
steered them so completely off course...
As Bill Warren observed in his excellent Keep Watching the Skies, “Rocketship XM was probably the first film to expound such a grim warning about our possible future, at least in such graphic terms. It was only five years after the first atomic bombs were detonated, but the idea that we now had the potential to wipe out civilization entirely was already beginning to permeate our mass culture. Shortly after RXM, this idea of atomic devastation became a cliche in films, but it was novel in 1950.” [8]

Each film is so different in its intent, tone and approach, and each is such an interesting artifact of its time, that the temptation is to declare them both winners in their respective categories: optimistic, “we can do it!” quasi-documentary in the case of Destination Moon, and exciting, yet sobering Atom-age cautionary tale in Rocketship X-M’s. Destination Moon in particular was a sizeable hit in its time, making over $5.5 million in box office receipts on its $586,000 investment. Together they helped propel the wave of sci-fi that washed over drive-ins and matinees and came to almost characterize the decade’s Hollywood product. And each has made its mark over the years with TV broadcasts and home video releases.

Notes:

  1. Willy Ley & Chesley Bonestell, The Conquest of Space: A Preview of the Greatest Adventure Awaiting Mankind, Viking, 1949
  2. Donald E. Keyhoe, "The Flying Saucers are Real," True magazine, January 1950, 11
  3. "Rocket to the Moon," Life magazine, January 17, 1949, 67 
  4. Andrew R. Boone, "How Movies Take You on a Trip to the Moon," Popular Science, May 1950, 125
  5. "Destination Moon," Life magazine, April 25, 1950, 107
  6. Thomas E. Stimson, Jr., "Rocket to the Moon: No Longer a Fantastic Dream," Popular Mechanics, May, 1950, 89 
  7. Tom Weaver, Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes: Interviews with Actors, Directors, Producers and Writers of the 1940s through 1960s, McFarland, 1991, 100
  8. Bill Warren, Keep Watching the Skies: American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, Vol. 1, 1950-1957, McFarland, 1982, 11