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.

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