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.

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