August 6, 2020

“Welcome to my parlor,” said the spider to the sci-fly

Arachnophobia is an abnormal or pathological fear of spiders. I don’t happen to share that fear, but I understand it. Spiders, especially in magnified close-up, look positively unearthly. They don’t have faces, per se, they have way too many legs, and many are bristly and hairy and have wicked-looking fangs. They look like they’ve been engineered to grab and eat other living things in the most nightmarish way possible.

Public domain image, an impressive looking arachnid
"You look absolutely mahvelous dahling!"

I love weird things, so I’m more fascinated by spiders than afraid. I suppose this won’t reassure arachnophobes, but house spiders are great at pest control, consuming ticks, fruit flies and cockroach larvae.

Like most things in nature, if you leave it alone, it will leave you alone (and maybe work doubly hard at consuming the truly irritating household pests). Plus, the chances of accidentally being bitten by a honest-to-goodness venomous spider are vanishingly small.

Keep repeating: "spiders are our friends, spiders are our friends..."

Because of their size, “hairiness,” and menacing look, tarantulas have gotten a particularly bum rap in popular culture. There are some tarantula relatives in Central and South America and Australia that are more aggressive and highly venomous, but by and large tarantulas are shy creatures who bite only as a last resort, and even then may only deliver a “dry” bite absent any venom. Most venomous tarantula bites are very treatable -- you don’t want to get one, but they’re not usually life-threatening.

When I was a kid, tarantulas often popped up in movies and TV, and in every case the implication was that one bite meant instant death. Villains were always turning their pet tarantulas loose on people as they slept or on heroes chained up in some dank dungeon. These scenes were guaranteed to make people’s skin crawl, but it’s hard to think of a more inefficient way to kill a person.

A high point for tarantulas in the movies (or low point, from the tarantula’s perspective), may be the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, when one of the villain’s henchmen slips an evil-looking specimen into Bond’s bed. The poor creature, a pink-toed tarantula, gets the brush off and the heel of a slipper for its troubles, even though that particular spider has small fangs, is reluctant to bite, and is not dangerous to humans.

"The name is Antula... Terry Antula."

Whereas Dr. No’s eight-legged would-be assassin seems feeble in hindsight, vintage sci-fi doubled down on the misunderstood tarantula’s skin crawl factor and blew it up to fearsome proportions, to the point where venom was an afterthought -- these gigantic creatures could literally eat you alive. Some were space-age cousins hiding out in caves on the moon, and others were terrestrial, their gigantism the result of radiation or some other misbegotten experimentation. And one was an ordinary house spider dwelling in a basement, patiently waiting for some mysterious radioactive cloud to turn a human into bite-sized prey for him.

Here are clips of some of my favorite retro sci-fi arachnids. As always, this is a select list. If I’ve overlooked any of your favorites, please share in the comments!

The astronauts of a pioneering moon mission discover a cave on the dark side of the moon with breathable air, but the cave also comes with not one but two (count ‘em!) giant, man-eating spiders!

Missile was a remake of Cat-Women (both distributed by Astor Pictures). The giant moon spider in this one makes his appearance much later in the movie, but the thing’s comically bulging eyes and huge, elongated mouth make it worth the wait.

Okay, so this is more of a rat-bat-spider hybrid, but I love how the astronauts at first mistake the creature for an odd-looking Martian tree. See also an earlier blog post with details about how Rat-Batty was brought to life by the effects artists.

Earth vs. the Spider (aka The Spider, 1958)

In a nod to The Blob, teenagers alert a rural town to the threat of a monster -- in this case, a giant mutant spider. Check out the monster spider’s web, which looks more like a net used in a circus high-wire act.

Tarantula (1955)

The King of ‘50s sci-fi monster spiders! This is one of the more effective scenes, set at night, with the added suspense of the horses sensing danger. At first the monster is only seen in silhouette, then it advances menacingly on the stable.

"Hey, go find your own sewing project!"

July 24, 2020

The Drive-in Rises from the Dead

Before the pandemic, the Great American Drive-in was on life-support, with only a little over 300 drive-ins left in the U.S. (down from a high of over 4000 in the late 1950s). Now that social distancing has become the new norm, drive-ins are suddenly cool again.

It's Intermission time at the drive-in

Many existing drive-ins are seeing big upticks in business, and some agile theater owners and entrepreneurs are converting parking lots into makeshift drive-ins. Even some performers are getting into the act, realizing that they can still play to live audiences in a much safer environment -- and instead of applause and laughter, get car honks and flashing headlights in return.

The new pandemic-era drive-in is not without its challenges. Having enough bathrooms and keeping them properly sanitized and users properly distanced is a big headache. And getting snacks out to the cars safely -- no more hanging around the scuzzy snackbar -- requires a lot of labor and planning.

In a recent interview, America’s "foremost drive-in movie critic" and fan, Joe Bob Briggs (aka John Bloom), predictably saw a sliver of a silver lining in dark times, declaring 2020 the “year of the drive-in.” He added:
"Films were designed to be watched together. ... The drive-in is the symbol of that. The drive-in was always a place where everybody gathered. And it was all races, creeds, genders. That’s still true online as we prove every Friday night with our show [The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs, recently renewed on Shudder for a 3rd season]. It’s a great thing and it’s an optimistic thing and I hope it helps the real drive-ins, the mom and pops that are still out there doing that good work keeping the drive-in alive.” [“Joe Bob Briggs Declares This the Summer of the Drive-in,” Kelle Long, The Credits,, 6/1/20] 
John Bloom as Joe Bob Briggs on the set of The Last Drive-in
As long as there are people out there like Joe Bob, the drive-in will never die.

I haven’t been to a drive-in in many years, but I am (ahem) old enough to have experienced its hey-day. My first movie memory is being taken by my parents -- in footie pajamas no less -- to the drive-in to see Darby O’Gill and the Little People. I dived down beneath the dashboard when the banshee appeared. I think that early shot of adrenaline jump started my love of horror movies. Thanks Disney!

Later, shortly after high school, a good friend was hired as an assistant manager at the local drive-in, and he would give me free passes. I’d sit on a lawn chair next to the concession stand and watch second-runs like Hannie Calder while scarfing down popcorn. I fantasized about running my own drive-in, but seeing as how they were already in decline at that point, that thankfully stayed a dream.

An interesting aspect of the drive-in resurgence is that in many cases, venues are going retro, playing movies like Jaws and Back to the Future instead of more contemporary second-runs. This is proving popular, as many apparently want to see older movies to complete the nostalgic effect.

This got me thinking about the movies I would show at my alternate universe drive-in where money is no object and I don’t have to worry about losing my shirt.

My first order of business would be to show truly retro movies that few under the age of 50 have seen. Second, have fun with themes, promotions and even the concessions. And of course, in my perfect universe, there’s no Covid19, so people can hang around the grotty snackbar and kids can get out and run around all they want. Oh, what a wonderful alternate world it would be!

Tonight, this drive-in is going to the dogs!
Dracula's Dog (1977) & Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978)

All cars with leashed dogs get in half-price
Featured Snack: Hot-off-Hell's-grill dogs

The "Hot-off-Hell's-grill" dog

Posters: Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957) and Frankenstein's Daughter (1958)
Two chips off the old Doc!
Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957) & Frankenstein's Daughter (1958)

Promotion: Ladies’ two-for-one night at the snackbar
Featured Drink: Mad Dr Pepper

The featured drink is "Mad" Dr Pepper

Posters: Satan's School for Girls (1973) and Satan's Cheerleaders (1977)
At these schools, detention is served in Hell, forever...
Satan's School for Girls (1973) & Satan's Cheerleaders (1977)

Promotion: Half-price admission with a student ID
Featured Snack: Satan's Red Hots

Grab some Red Hots before you get dragged down to Hell

Posters: Panic in the Streets (1950) and Panic in Year Zero (1962)
Don't Panic! It's only two movies!
Panic in the Streets (1950) & Panic in Year Zero (1962)

Promotion: Every admission gets a “Panic” sickness bag
Featured snack: Bring your sickness bag to the snackbar for a free popcorn fill-up

Posters: Night of the Blood Beast (1958) and The Blood Beast Terror (1968)
Your blood will freeze when you see these beasts!
Night of the Blood Beast (1958) & The Blood Beast Terror (1968)

Promotion: Free admission with proof of blood donation
Featured snack: Bloody Red Vines

Red Vines are for sharing

Posters: It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) and Terror from the Year 5000 (1958)
It's about time, it's about space, it's about two terrors vs. the human race!
It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) & Terror from the Year 5000 (1958)

Promotion: Show a selfie with your most terrorized face for half-price admission
Featured snack: Terror tots

Keep repeating: it's only a tot, it's only a tot...

July 13, 2020

Hanging out with Boris

The condemned man stands before the court of popular opinion, his head held high, his dignity still intact. A hush falls over the assembled witnesses as the sentence is pronounced:
“William Henry Pratt, also known as Boris Karloff, for the crime of scaring us silly by portraying the Frankenstein monster in three movies and searing the creature’s terrible image into our minds, the court condemns you to act in low-budget horror films for the rest of your natural life. May God have mercy on your actor’s soul.”
There is a mischievous gleam in the unrepentant man’s eyes as he addresses the court:
“[W]hat is typing? It is a trademark, a means by which the public recognizes you. Actors work all their lives to achieve that. I got mine with just one picture. It was a blessing.” [IMDb bio: personal quotes]
Later, surrounded by reporters, he reminisces,
“My dear old monster. I owe everything to him. He's my best friend.” [IMDb]
Boris was not one to complain about being consigned to B movie “jail.” Instead, he realized how spectacularly lucky he was that the role of his “dear old monster” led to a lifetime of secure, reliable work and worldwide fame.

Still - Court room scene, The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)
Boris explains to the court why he's grateful for being sentenced to B movie jail.

Karloff was already 44 when lightning struck Frankenstein’s lab in 1931, jump starting the monster and the gentle Englishman’s career. After his last stint as the monster in Son of Frankenstein in 1939, he largely eschewed the heavy make-up to portray more down-to-earth, human menaces -- sometimes consciously evil, sometimes unwitting facilitators.

Boris was one of those types who seemed to have been born old. In the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, he was a 50-something actor who often played characters 10 or even 20 years older than his actual age.

Naturally, the shadow of Frankenstein loomed large over his career at this point. He was tapped again and again to play a doctor or scientist dabbling in things man was not meant to know.

With Karloff’s shock of white hair and craggy features, he was a natural for this new scientific film career. The studios would often outfit him with wire rim glasses to complete the scholarly look. Coupled with Boris’ gentle lisp, the effect was to often make his characters sympathetic even as their work led to mayhem and murder.

Between 1935 and 1945, Karloff had more mad scientist gigs than you could shake a beaker at:
  • The Invisible Ray (1936) - A scientist goes on murderous rampage after being poisoned by radiation 
  • The Man Who Lived Again (1936) - A brilliant but unstable doctor creates mayhem with his mind transference experiments 
  • Black Friday (1940) - A doctor gets more than he bargained for when he transplants part of the brain of a gangster into the brain of a gentle college professor 
  • The Man with Nine Lives (1940) - Things go south when the medical establishment condemns the cryogenic experiments of a well-meaning doctor 
  • The Ape (1940) - A doctor resorts to murder to obtain the spinal fluid he needs to treat polio cases 
  • The Devil Commands (1941) - A scientist devises a bizarre electrical contraption to communicate with the dead 
  • House of Frankenstein (1945) - A demented doctor escapes from prison and revives Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster to take revenge on the town officials who condemned him
Predictably, in their attempts to push scientific and ethical envelopes, Karloff’s obsessed doctors would often run afoul of the legal establishment. But the seemingly gentle, elderly men of science were often hard to kill, judicially or extra-judicially.

Two of Karloff’s mad doctor movies stand out because they begin with the courts coming down like a ton of bricks on his characters for their overzealous experiments, with the mad, homicidal fun taking off from there.

Poster - The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)
Now Playing: The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)

Pros: More stylishly directed and photographed than most Bs of the era; Good acting; The climactic revenge sequence is well-conceived and suspenseful.
Cons: The revenge plan goes awry fairly quickly, leaving only a modest body count.

Boris plays Dr. Henryk Savaard, a brilliant but ethically challenged doctor who has developed an artificial heart that can restore the dead to life. When he enlists a healthy young medical student volunteer to be gassed to death then restored to life (!!), the doctor’s nurse (who is also the young man’s fiance) loses her nerve and calls in the police to stop the mad experiment. Tragically, the cops barge in and take Savaard away before he can bring the student back.

At his dramatic trial, Savaard, incensed that such plodding dullards would interrupt his work, blames the police, the medical examiner and the nurse for the student’s death. On the stand, he patiently tries to explain how his technique of stopping a patient’s heart and then reviving him again could revolutionize complicated surgeries:
"To operate on a living body, is like trying to repair a motor while it’s still running. But with a motor you can turn the power off, you can take it apart, find out what’s wrong, replace the worn and broken parts... it can be put back together and made to run just as good as new. … Our first great objective is the replacement of vital organs that have worn out. And with the body scientifically dead, the surgery in such operations is simple. But the real secret lies in the pumping of an artificial bloodstream through the body by means of a mechanical heart until the life functions pick up their own rhythm."
The jury and the court reject the good doctor’s auto mechanics theory of medicine, and he is sentenced to hang. After he is executed, prison officials blithely allow Savaard’s assistant Lang (Byron Foulger) to claim the body and take it back to the lab, where he fixes the doctor’s broken neck and restores him to life with the mechanical heart.

Still - Boris Karloff in court in The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)
If looks could kill, the prosecutor would be a pile of ash.

Re-animated and righteously angry, Savaard sets about to exact his revenge. When a plucky reporter, “Scoop” Foley (Robert Wilcox) notices that the jurors from the trial are hanging themselves at an alarming rate, he figures something’s up (well yeah…)

Foley and the major trial participants -- the judge, the prosecutor, the jury foreman, the medical examiner and the skittish nurse, among others -- end up at the doctor’s mansion, lured by phony telegrams.

Savaard reveals himself to the startled assemblage, and proceeds to toy with them like a gaunt cat playing with trapped mice, ominously informing them, “If I decided to kill all of you tonight, who would believe I had done it?”

Soon, the group realizes they are trapped in the dining room, with an electrified floor-to-ceiling grill barring the main exit and steel shutters preventing escape through the windows. Name cards on the dining table specify the order in which each person will be killed, as well as the exact time.

Their only hope is Savaard’s innocent daughter Janet (Lorna Gray), who shows up at the mansion well after Savaard’s diabolical plan for revenge has kicked into high gear.

The Man They Couldn’t Hang packs a lot of mad doctor ideas, lab paraphernalia and a fiendishly diabolical revenge plan into its spare 65 minute runtime. Savaard’s idea of temporarily killing his patients in order to more effectively operate on them is fascinating and stupendously cracked at the same time.

The doctor’s mechanical heart is indeed an elegant-looking piece of equipment, with two large glass “chambers” and a plethora of tubing to circulate the life-restoring fluid. Karloff is especially good in the courtroom scene, alternately calmly explaining his theories to the jury, and then becoming maniacally intense as he condemns the fools who interrupted his work.

"So Lang, remind me again what barking mad scheme this is. I've
done so many I can't keep 'em all straight."

We’re even treated to a fly-on-the-wall look at the jury’s deliberations, as a couple of hold-outs sympathetic to the doctor cause frustration for their fellow jurors. They eventually relent, but I couldn’t help thinking that if Savaar’s lawyer had somehow arranged to show the jury the elegant artificial heart, they might have been moved to acquit (and it would have been a much less interesting movie).

The elaborate trap Savaard sets for his judicial tormentors plays out very suspensefully. The sequence owes a bit to old dark house conventions, where the unwary prospective victims are summoned to their doom, but the means of that doom are elaborate, cunning and cruel, more reminiscent of the fiendish machinations of an exotic villain like Fu Manchu (which Karloff played in 1932’s The Mask of Fu Manchu).

The anxiety is heightened by Savaard’s disembodied voice emanating from the mansion’s intercom, calmly informing his involuntary guests whose turn it is to die. An ornate clock in the dining room ticks down the minutes and seconds to the next murder. Dick Curtis as the jury foreman gives it his all as a particularly agitated victim. When his turn is announced, the sweat beads on his face, his eyes bulge, and he bobs his head around like a chicken as he desperately tries to find a way out.

Still - The jury foreman is marked for death in The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)
"Hello, Domino's? Can you tell the delivery person to slip the pizza down the chimney?"

Nick Grinde’s
direction is uncommonly stylish for a knock-off B movie. He makes liberal use of worm’s eye shots to create a sinister, oppressive mood, and bird’s eye shots to emphasize the prospective victims’ helplessness against an unseen, almost god-like executioner watching their every move.

One knock on the movie is that time constraints prevent Savaard’s diabolical plans from going very far. We get a taste of Savaard’s cruel deceit and ingenious methods for bumping people off, and then it’s on to serving the vengeful doctor his just deserts. Some horror fans (perhaps most) will feel a bit cheated.

According to Richard Bojarski and Kenneth Beals (The Films of Boris Karloff, Citadel Press, 1974), “The film’s success encouraged Columbia to sign Karloff for several more films in the same theme, launching the actor onto his second ‘crazed scientist’ cycle which lasted until Karloff returned to the stage in early 1941.” [p. 144]

Some of that success was undoubtedly due to the then public notoriety of a real mad scientist, Dr. Robert Cornish. 
“The biochemist attracted publicity during the thirties by restoring dead dogs back to life after gassing them with nitrogen gas. Cornish also tried to obtain permission to restore life to executed convicts in order to further test his theories. But he did not obtain the opportunity to do so.” [Bojarski & Beals, p. 144]
Yikes! Thankfully, there is no record of Cornish exacting a fiendish revenge on the disbelieving authorities who frustrated his plans for human experimentation.

Regardless of the inspiration, The Man They Couldn’t Hang is a cracking good, well-paced horror-thriller, one of the best of Boris’ crazed scientist pictures.

Poster - Before I Hang (1940)
Bonus Review: Before I Hang (1940)

Pros: Karloff turns in a very solid performance in a more sympathetic role.
Cons: The murders are repetitive and relatively lacking in excitement or suspense.

A year later and Boris is back in court, answering for yet another death connected to unconventional medical experiments. This time, Boris is Dr. John Garth, a kindlier, less arrogant version of his previous role, who is nonetheless on trial for his life. Garth had tried to reverse the aging process in a dying man through a revolutionary new blood serum, but was forced to perform a mercy killing after the experiments failed and the patient was in unbearable pain.

Apparently back then they executed people for anything more severe than unpaid parking tickets, so naturally Garth has to die. While Garth is cooling his heels on death row, the prison doctor (Edward Van Sloan) talks the incredibly permissive warden into letting Garth continue the experiments with his assistance until the execution date.

Right before he’s scheduled to be executed, Garth injects himself with the serum in the hopes that the prison doctor can get usable data even after he’s dead. The governor’s pardon comes through with only minutes to spare, but Garth collapses and is taken to the infirmary.

When Garth comes to, he’s amazed to find that he no longer needs his thick glasses, and his prison friends remark that he looks twenty years younger. There’s just one catch. In order to make the new batch of serum, they had to draw blood from a condemned murderer.

Still - Prison laboratory scene, Before I Hang (1940)
Garth and his assistant put the final touches on their Visible Man model.
Show of hands: who had one as a kid?

In a Jekyll and Hyde moment, Garth kills the prison doctor, but another inmate is blamed. He becomes a free man, obsessed with the idea of inoculating his wealthy and accomplished friends against the ravages of old age. But every time he tries to perform the procedure, blind, murderous instincts take over.

It’s deja vu all over again for another of Boris’ patented mad doctor / hangin’ pictures:
  • Released by Columbia Pictures - ✓
  • Directed by Nick Grinde - ✓
  • Dramatic courtroom scene - ✓ (even the judge is the same, played by Charles Trowbridge
  • Small-minded, uncomprehending judicial and medical authorities - ✓
  • Death sentence by hanging - ✓
  • Loyal, loving daughter - ✓ (played by Evelyn Keyes
  • Crazy lab equipment - ✓ (in this case, a half-lifesize replica of the human body with a working heart and circulatory system) 
  • Bodies start piling up post-trial - ✓
For all its similarities, Before I Hang lacks the cracked energy of its immediate predecessor. The revenge plot of The Man They Couldn’t Hang is fiendishly complex, and the victims’ desperate attempts to escape and protect each other from sudden death add greatly to the suspense. In contrast, Garth’s murders are repetitive and not all that exciting. The well meaning doctor contacts old friends, tries to convince them to try the anti-aging serum, and when they balk, murderous instincts (born of contaminated blood!) take over. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Still - Boris Karloff in Before I Hang (1940)
Dr. Garth can't remember if he came to his friend's house
to save his life or to kill him.

The elderly victims are seemingly incapable of defending themselves, making the scenes even more anti-climactic. In the previous film, Savaard becomes a cold, calculating, remorseless villain who makes you wonder what he’ll do next. Garth is well meaning but clueless, and knocks off his colleagues in a fugue state with comparatively little muss or fuss. One has you on the edge of your seat, the other, not so much.

Still, Before I Hang is worth watching for another solid Karloff performance, one that allows him to ride an emotional roller coaster, from regret at not being able to complete his life’s work, to joy at being pardoned, to remorse and despair as he realizes what he has done. And while the murders are somewhat sedate, the emotions that play out on his face in just those scenes are worth the price of admission.

In their entry on the film, Bojarski and Beals quoted a contemporaneous review from the New York Post:
“No matter how well Boris Karloff starts out, he ends up bad… The picture is fanciful pseudo-science which builds to an exciting murder orgy. Poor Boris. Once a movie murderer, always a movie murder.” [p. 166]
The Post reviewer needn’t have felt sorry for Boris. As he murdered his way through movie after movie, he was laughing all the way to the bank.

Where to find them: The Man They Could Not Hang and Before I Hang are included on Mill Creek’s Boris Karloff Collection, available here

June 24, 2020

“What’s a nice girl like you doing on a rocketship like this?”: Women Astronauts in ‘50s Sci-Fi

Poster - Fritz Lang's Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond, 1929)
Last year I wrote about how, in spite of societal pressures to restrict women to roles as wives, mothers and homemakers, quite a few sci-fi movies of the ‘50s bucked the prevailing norms and featured strong, intelligent women scientists and doctors who were right there with the men battling all kinds of monstrous menaces. I purposely excluded women astronauts, as this was yet another robust category of sci-fi roles that went against the grain, and I wanted to give them their due in a post of their own.

Cinematic depictions of female pioneering astronauts got a very early start with Fritz Lang’s science fiction epic Woman in the Moon (aka Frau im Mond), which premiered in Berlin in October, 1929. Written by Lang’s then-wife Thea von Harbou, the silent movie tells the story of the first expedition to the moon.

A wealthy industrialist, Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch), becomes interested in Prof. Georg Manfeldt’s (Klaus Pohl) theory that the moon is abundant with gold, and starts planning for a trip to the moon to test the theory. The ship takes off with a crew consisting of Helius, Manfeldt, Walter Turner (representing a rival group of businessmen, played by Fritz Rasp), and Helius’s two assistants, Hans Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim) and Friede Velten (Gerda Maurus). After launch, they discover a stowaway in the form of a young boy, Gustav (Gustl Gstettenbaur), whom Helius had befriended earlier.

Lang took great pains to make his moon trip as realistic as possible according to the scientific knowledge of the day. The director brought in rocket expert Hermann Oberth to advise, and the result accurately predicted what many aspects of future space flight would look like. At a time when American Robert Goddard was experimenting with rickety-looking liquid-fueled rockets that could barely travel more than a mile high, Woman in the Moon depicted a multi-stage rocket launching from a pad, and the crew experiencing G-forces and zero gravity. The film is also famous for using the first launch countdown -- added for dramatic tension and adopted decades later by NASA.

The hard science fiction elements serve as a launch pad for more conventional human drama featuring a love triangle between the industrialist and his two assistants, espionage, blackmail, and betrayal. It’s not only remarkable that Friede is part of the crew of the first moon mission (and that the rocketship is named for her), but that she also takes heroic and poignant action to ensure the ship’s safe return to earth.

Gerda Maurus as Friede in Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond, 1929)
Okay, so Woman in the Moon didn't get everything right...

Such a passion for enlisting scientific expertise to ensure the most realistic cinematic spaceship ride imaginable wouldn’t be seen again for decades, until George Pal’s Destination Moon blasted off in theaters in 1950. Based on a Robert Heinlein novel (and co-scripted by the author), Pal’s film had libertarian, anti-government undercurrents amidst all the techno-razzledazzle. And it was definitely a “boys only” affair -- unsurprisingly, no women were selected for that mission. In contrast, the other quasi-realistic space picture that actually beat Destination Moon into theaters that year, Robert Lippert’s Rocketship X-M, featured a brilliant female scientist, Dr. Van Horn (Osa Massen), as part of the crew. To add further fuel to the competition, Rocketship X-M also set itself apart from Pal’s picture with a grim anti-nukes message (see my two part series on the race between Pal and Lippert to be the first to put a movie spaceship on the moon, here and here).

If the sausage-fest Destination Moon had been the only popular moontrip audiences saw that year, subsequent movie space flights might also have been largely male-only affairs. But Rocketship X-M captured a good share of the popular imagination, and Osa Massen’s dynamic, pioneering presence undoubtedly influenced a number of B moviemakers to add women to their spaceship crews.

Just like my previous post on women scientists in ‘50s sci-fi films, I’ve included a very select list of women astronauts -- please use the comments to add anyone that I’ve overlooked. Like last time, each entry lists the astronaut’s resume, her biggest screen moment, and, because the fifties weren’t exactly a high point of female empowerment, the biggest “cringe” moment of embarrassing sexism.

Rocketship X-M (1950)
Name: Dr. Lisa Van Horn (Osa Massen)

Resume: Dr. Van Horn is a distinguished chemist and assistant to moon mission commander and lead scientist Dr. Eckstrom (John Emery). Her research into “monatomic hydrogen” has resulted in a fuel concentrated and powerful enough to enable interplanetary spaceflight.

Biggest screen moment: SPOILERS! After a disastrous encounter with the savage remnants of an ancient Martian civilization that leaves two crewmembers dead and the navigator (Hugh O’Brian) injured and delirious, Van Horn and the pilot, Col. Floyd Graham (Lloyd Bridges) manage to lift off from the Martian surface. Lisa does her best to navigate the ship back to earth, but there’s not enough fuel left for a landing. She and Graham get on the radio and inform HQ of everything that went wrong with the mission -- and their theory about the Martians blowing themselves up in a nuclear war -- so that the people of earth can avoid future tragic mistakes.

Van Horn and Graham wax poetic under the light of the silvery moon.

Biggest cringe moment:
Early in the flight, the ship’s engines inexplicably power down. When the crew reports that they can’t find any equipment malfunctions, Eckstrom determines the problem must be with the fuel mixture. He and Van Horn get to work using pencil and paper (!!) to determine an optimal mixture to restart the engines. When their figures don’t agree, Van Horn adamantly insists that she hasn’t made any errors. In overruling her, Eckstrom becomes patronizing: “surely you’re not going to let emotion enter into this!” After she apologizes, he rubs salt in the wound: “[Apologize] for what? For momentarily being a woman? It’s completely understandable Miss Van Horn.” She refrains from saying “I told you so!” when the rocket accelerates exponentially and goes wildly off course, missing the moon entirely and hurtling toward Mars.

Additional notes: Massen, born in Denmark, was working as a news photographer and had plans to become a film editor when she was tapped for a role in a Danish crime film. She was quickly imported to Hollywood at a time when studios were recruiting waves of Scandanavian actresses in an attempt to find the next Greta Garbo. She worked mostly in B movies during the ‘40s, and television (of course!) starting in the early ‘50s. Her other sci-fi/horror credits include Cry of the Werewolf (1944) and a guest spot on the Science Fiction Theatre TV series (1955).

Flight to Mars (1951)
Name: Carol Stadwick (Virginia Huston)

Resume: Carol’s father was a respected physicist, and she has followed in his footsteps, becoming first assistant to the chief engineer and co-designer of the Mars rocketship, Dr. Jim Barker (Arthur Franz). Although she is a computational whiz with responsibilities for calculating navigational trajectories and fuel usage, she is also a whiz at pining hopelessly for Barker, who is more interested in spaceships than women.

Biggest screen moment: Unfortunately, Carol is a wash-out in the heroics department, as she spends almost the entire movie pouting over Jim. However, it’s a Martian woman who ends up saving the day. Alita (Marguerite Chapman) is Carol’s counterpart in the underground Martian civilization that the expedition discovers. She is also the daughter of a famous scientist and a formidable one in her own right. Alita steps in to assist Jim in repairing the ship for its return to earth. Moreover, when she learns that the Martian ruler plans to take over the ship once repairs are done and use it to invade earth, she devises a plan for the earthlings to stall for time while they secretly get the ship ready to blast off.

Virginia Huston as Carol Stadwick in Flight to Mars (1951)
Carol is not happy that shoulder pads have made a comeback on Mars.

Biggest cringe moment:
Mid-way in their trip to Mars, the crew members are sitting around ruminating about the mission, the cosmos, life, and the meaning of it all. When the senior scientist, Prof. Jackson (Richard Gaines) gloomily states that he expects the ship to be his coffin, the rest of the crew dumps on him for being so pessimistic. Carol passionately stands up for the professor: “He’s contributed more than any of us, a real wife, a home, two lovely grandchildren… I’d trade ten trips to Mars for that!”

Additional notes: Virginia Huston, like her character Carol, seems to have preferred marriage and family over career. She retired from acting in the mid-fifties after appearing in a baker’s dozen of movies and TV shows. Along the way, she appeared in the classic noirs Out of the Past (1947), Flamingo Road (1949) and Sudden Fear (1952), and also was Jane to Lex Barker’s Tarzan in Tarzan’s Peril (1951).

Marguerite Chapman kept busy during the 1940s making dozens of B movies. By the mid-fifties she was working almost exclusively in television, appearing in such classic anthology series as Lux Video Theatre and Studio 57. Her last film role was in Edgar G. Ulmer’s sci-fi cheapie The Amazing Transparent Man (1960).

Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)
Helen Salinger (Marie Windsor)

Resume: The film doesn’t waste any time on character backstories or preparations for the mission. Early on, we learn that Helen is the ship’s navigator on humanity’s very first mission to the moon. She’s apparently so good at her job, she can navigate a complex spaceship and attend to her looks at the same time (see her big cringe moment below).

Biggest screen moment: Alpha (Carol Brewster), leader of the ancient civilization of lunar Cat-Women, informs Helen that they plan on taking over the spaceship with her help and pilot it back to earth -- without the male crew members. When Helen, who is being telepathically manipulated by Alpha, objects that she’s only the navigator and needs the men to help operate it, Alpha’s second in command snickers: “Show us their weaknesses and we’ll take care of the rest.” Helen, staring off into space, responds, “It’s strange, I should care what happens to them… and yet I don’t!”

Marie Windsor as Helen Salinger in Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)
“Calling all stations…clear the air lanes…clear all air lanes for the big broadcast!”

Biggest cringe moment:
At the outset, the film tries to generate suspense by showing the crew in their reclining seats suffering from the g-forces generated by the rocket’s take-off. When the ship reaches outer space and the crew start to move around the cabin, the first thing Helen does is to fish out a comb and hand mirror from a drawer and fiddle with her hair. When the mission commander (Sonny Tufts) asks her if the ship is on course, she perfunctorily replies “On course,” without looking at her console and without missing a stroke.

Additional notes: “Queen of the B’s” Marie Windsor’s dark hair and smoldering eyes made her the perfect femme fatale for crime dramas and film noir. Among her better known noirs are Force of Evil (1948, with John Garfield), The Narrow Margin (1952), and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956). Sci-fi/horror outings were rare, but after Cat-Women she played the enigmatic Madame Rontru in Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955).

The Angry Red Planet (1959)
Dr. Iris ‘Irish’ Ryan (Nora Hayden)

Resume: Dr. Ryan is a brilliant biologist and zoologist, and the daughter of a renowned scientist (being related to a prominent male scientist seems almost to have been a prerequisite for women scientists of ‘50s B movies).

Biggest screen moment: SPOILERS! “Irish” heroically comes through in a pinch not once but twice. First, she saves the ship from a giant Martian amoeba that’s enveloped it by suggesting sending an electric current through it. Then, after she’s single-handedly piloted the ship back to earth, she comes up with a way to save the life of the pilot, Col. Thomas O’Bannion (Gerald Mohr), who is near death after a portion of the amoeba has attached itself to his arm. Even though she is recovering from shock and exhaustion, she rallies, and remembers an old experiment she conducted with earthly amoebas, also involving electric current.

Nora Hayden and Gerald Mohr in The Angry Red Planet (1959)
O'Bannion helps Irish adjust the straps on her spacesuit.

Biggest cringe moment: During some downtime on the way to Mars, O’Bannion tries out his lounge lizard lines on Iris:
O’Bannion: "You know Irish, you’re the first scientist I’ve ever known with lovely, long red hair."
Ryan: "And you’re the first pilot I’ve ever gone to Mars with. And listen, my name is Iris, not Irish! I never know if you’re calling me by name or nationality!"
O’Bannion: "When I call you by name, you’ll know it!"
A few minutes later, Iris dabs some perfume behind her ears when she thinks no one is looking.

Additional notes: After Angry Red Planet, Nora Hayden’s career largely consisted of guest shots on TV series. She wrote and starred in her last film, The Perils of P.K. (1986), about a former movie star working as a stripper in Las Vegas who has dreams of reviving her movie career. The film had an interesting and diverse cast including Dick Shawn, Sammy Davis, Jr., Larry Storch, Louise Lasser, and Joey Heatherton, among others.

June 8, 2020

Monster Trading Cards: Special Accidental Monsters of the ‘50s Edition, Part Three

Sample trading card, Topps' Mars Attacks series
Another monster trading card set that I recall from childhood is Topps’ Mars Attacks series that was first launched in 1962. The series depicted the Martians blitz-invading the earth in an attempt to colonize it before their own planet blew up. Unlike H.G. Wells’ Martians who hid inside their war machines, Topps’ invaders were out in the open and in humanity's face. They were weird-looking humanoid creatures with skull-like faces, bug-eyes and exposed brains under their clear space helmets. Veteran comic artist Wally Wood contributed many of the designs and pulp magazine illustrator Norman Saunders painted the first set of cards.

In comparison to the Spook theater and Outer Limits sets, Mars Attacks was pretty rough stuff for an eight year old kid. Many of the cards depicted the Martians blasting, crushing, vaporizing and siccing giant insects on men, women, children and even family pets.

I didn’t collect the cards myself, because they wouldn’t have gone down well with my parents, but I remember some of my bolder friends sharing them with me -- either their parents were more laissez-faire or they were better at hiding their dubious treasures. I didn’t keep any, but they sure made an impression.

Still, Mars Attacks! (1996)

I saw Tim Burton’s film tribute, Mars Attacks! (1996), when it first came out, and apparently was one of only a handful of people who thoroughly enjoyed the gross-out humor -- critics and moviegoers were not kind. You had to have experienced the original cards to really get the movie.

Speaking of dubious treasures and tributes, here are the last two entries in the Accidental Monsters of the ‘50s virtual card set. Enjoy!

Accidental Monsters of the '50s trading card #5: Teenage Monster (1958)
Teenage Monster (1958). In 1880, a young boy is helping his father mine for gold when suddenly a meteor (portrayed by a 4th of July sparkler) shoots out of the sky and crashes nearby, killing the father and grievously wounding and disfiguring the boy. Seven years later, the “boy” has grown into a powerful, towering hairy beast with the mind of a child. Charles (Gil Perkins) lives with his mother Ruth (Anne Gwynne) in a remote cabin near the mine. Ruth is still trying to find gold, but also has to reprimand Charles periodically for killing unfortunate strangers who happen to cross his path.

When Ruth finally strikes gold and becomes wealthy, she makes the mistake of buying a house close to town, thinking she can still keep Charles hidden and pacified. With his teenage hormones raging, Charles kidnaps a young woman, Kathy (Gloria Castillo) and takes her back to his room. Ruth rescues her, but when she offers Kathy a sizable sum of money to keep quiet, the young woman realizes she has her own “gold mine” in the form of a loyal, harried mother who can be endlessly blackmailed. Kathy doubles down on her sinister scheme by befriending Charles and getting the impressionable brute to kill some of the townspeople who have done her wrong.

Fun facts: Teenage Monster has several connections to the classic Universal monsters: 1.) the Teenage Monster’s make-up was done by Jack Pierce, creator of the immortal make-ups for Universal’s Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man; 2.) Anne Gwynne started out as a contract player for Universal in the 1940s, most notably appearing in Weird Woman (1944) as Lon Chaney Jr.’s wife, and in House of Frankenstein (1944); Gil Perkins doubled for Bela Lugosi as the Frankenstein monster in the fight scenes for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943).

4 out of 5 Pathos Points for Charles, who is severely let down by the two women in his life -- his loyal but feckless mother, and his sociopathic “girlfriend” Kathy.

Accidental Monsters of the '50s trading card #6: First Man Into Space (1959)
First Man Into Space (1959). Lt. Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards) is a cocky, hotshot Navy pilot who lives life to the fullest and often flouts the rules. His brother, Cmdr. Charles Prescott (Marshall Thompson), runs the Navy’s experimental rocket plane program designed to test the limits of man and machine in earth’s upper atmosphere. Charles is leery of sending his brother on another flight, but is ordered by his superiors to let him fly, as he’s considered the Navy’s best test pilot.

Charles’ reservations are confirmed when Dan disobeys orders, turns on the afterburners of his rocket plane, and blasts through the upper atmosphere into outer space. After getting pounded by some sort of mysterious space dust, Dan loses control of the plane. Charles and a rescue crew find the wreckage in a remote part of New Mexico, but Dan is missing. The wrecked plane is encrusted with something that is impervious to X-rays. Charles’ alarm grows as strange reports come in -- first of cows with their throats slashed open and drained of blood, then of a blood-bank nurse killed in the same bizarre way. Charles soon realizes that Dan has paid a heavy price by becoming the first man into space.

Fun fact: This story of an American aerospace program was actually a UK production, originally released in the U.S. by MGM. For the special effects, the producers used the German-Austrian team of Karl Ludwig-Ruppel and Flo Nordhoff, who had teamed up for the previous year’s Fiend Without a Face.

3 out 5 Pathos Points to test pilot Dan for being the first man to test the cosmic Shake ‘n Bake coating, with less than optimal results.

June 1, 2020

Monster Trading Cards: Special Accidental Monsters of the ‘50s Edition, Part Two

Topps' Monsters from Outer Limits trading cards
In my last post, I reminisced about all the cool monster trading cards that companies like Leaf and Topps circulated during the 1960s. I remember collecting Leaf’s Spook Theatre cards (featuring mostly the classic Universal monsters), and Topps’ Outer Limits series.

For kids that took the original The Outer Limits show very seriously (count me among them; more often than not it scared the hell out of me), the Topps cards may have seemed like a joke. For one thing, they colorized stills of the show's monsters and made them look like fugitives from a Superman comic book. Secondly, the brief stories on the flip side had nothing to do with the actual episode the monster appeared in.

In spite of my snooty fanboy reservations, I collected quite a few and enjoyed them in a guilty pleasure sort of way until, like so many collectibles, they vanished into the swirling eddies of space and time.

Without further ado, here is the second set of cards in the virtual Accidental Monsters of the ‘50s series, my tribute to the fun, cheesy trading cards of my youth.

Accidental Monsters of the '50s trading card #3: The Vampire (1957)
The Vampire (1957). A research colleague of small-town doctor Paul Beecher (John Beal) has been experimenting with pills synthesized from vampire bat blood in an attempt to isolate primitive, regressive instincts in the brain. After his colleague dies, Beecher finds a bottle of the pills among the scientist’s belongings and takes it home to analyze. When Beecher gets one of his migraines, his innocent young daughter mistakenly mixes up his regular medication with the experimental pills.

As Beecher starts having black-outs, people around him end up dead with vampire-like bite marks on their necks. To his horror, the good doctor realizes that the black-outs and the deaths are not coincidental.

Fun fact: Director Paul Landres used the name "Dr. Paul Beecher" again for a minor character in his film The Return of Dracula, released a year later.

Pathos rating: 2 out of 5 points
2 out of 5 Pathos Points for Beecher not getting FDA approval for his new migraine treatment.

Accidental Monsters of the '50s trading card #4: Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958). Wealthy socialite Nancy Archer (Allison Hayes) has a drinking problem and a no-good, philandering, gold-digging husband problem. To add insult to injury, when she reports seeing a UFO and a giant alien out in the desert, she becomes the butt of the town’s jokes. Keenly embarrassed, Nancy coerces husband Harry (William Hudson) into driving her around the desert to find the UFO and prove she isn’t crazy.
When the UFO and the giant show up again, larger than life, Harry panics and peels out in the car, leaving Nancy to an uncertain fate. Nancy soon shows up again at her house, unconscious, but alive. The doctor and nurse attending Nancy are shocked to find that the comatose woman has started growing to gigantic proportions. Unaware of his wife’s condition and not wanting to be bothered, Harry takes up again with his girlfriend (Yvette Vickers) at the local tavern. When the 50 foot tall Nancy wakes up from her coma, there’s hell to pay.

Fun fact: Premiere magazine (now defunct) included the film’s iconic poster in its list of the “25 Best Movie Posters Ever.”

Pathos rating: 3 out 5 points
3 out of 5 Pathos Points for Nancy going after her no good cheating husband instead of running off with someone her own size -- the giant space alien.
 Coming Soon! Stay tuned to this site for the third and last installment of Accidental Monsters of the '50s.

May 28, 2020

Monster Trading Cards: Special Accidental Monsters of the ‘50s Edition, Part One

I was going through one of my social media feeds the other day and saw some pics of movie monster trading cards from the ‘60s that triggered a bout of nostalgia. I was pretty sure I had owned a couple of the cards, but there wasn’t a lot of information, so naturally I googled ‘em.

Packaging for Leaf's Spook Theatre trading cards, circa 1962
I found a very helpful webpage on vintage monster trading cards from 1959 through the end of the ‘60s (“The 1st Ten Years of Monster Cards”), that helped me identify even more card sets that had gone through my grubby little kid fingers. One that I immediately remembered with great fondness was Leaf’s Spook Theatre, which was issued in two sets between 1962 and ‘65. The Leaf cards featured black & white pictures of (mostly) the classic Universal monsters complete with cheesy gag captions. On the flip side were jokes that were uniformly lame, even for an 8 year old.

Others I remember: Topps’ Outer Limits series, which featured colorized stills of the series’ monsters on the face and mini-stories on the flip side that had nothing to do with the actual episode; and the Mars Attacks cards (also from Topps), which included luridly violent color illustrations and stories to match.

Another card set I distinctly remember that topped (pun intended) Topps’ Mars Attacks series for graphic violence was their Civil War News set, which depicted gross-out scenes of bloody war carnage. The Spook Theatre and Outer Limits cards were innocuous enough, but I don’t think my parents would have approved of the other two sets, so my memory conveniently tells me that I owned a bunch of the former two and I had to rely on the wilder kids in the neighborhood to look at the latter two.

Sample cards, front and back, from Leaf's Spook Theatre set

To make a long story short, this jaunt down memory lane inspired me to design my own line of pretend monster trading cards (i.e., not printed, not for sale or other commercial purposes, available freely online to lucky readers of this blog, etc., etc.). For this first set, I decided to feature accidental monsters of ‘50s sci-fi and horror; characters who, by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, become ravening monsters through no fault of their own.

And, in honor of those endearing monster cards of yesteryear, I’ve included dumb captions, monster backstories, and, exclusively for this set, I’ve rated each accidental monster for pathos on a 1 to 5 scale (1 being the least pathetic, 5 the most).

Yeah, I’ve got a lot of time on my hands. Anyway, here are the first two in the set of six. Check back here for new cards. Collect ‘em all! (Bubblegum not included.)

Accidental Monsters of the '50s trading card #1: The Amazing Colossal Man
The Amazing Colossal Man (1957). Lt. Col. Glenn Manning (Glenn Langan) is inadvertently caught out in the open during a test of a new plutonium bomb in the Nevada desert. Horribly burned over most of his body, Manning nonetheless survives, and to the amazement of the doctors and his fiancee Carol (Cathy Downs), his wounds heal up overnight! Adding to the medical mystery, he starts growing ten feet a day. Getting enough to eat is the least of the colossal man’s worries, as the doctors discover that his heart is not growing enough to keep an adequate blood supply flowing to the brain. The prognosis: insanity, then death.
With his mind going, Manning escapes from the base and takes a walk over to Las Vegas, where he tears up part of the strip. Military helicopters herd the giant towards Hoover dam for his date with destiny.

Fun fact: American International Pictures adapted The Amazing Colossal Man from an old science fiction novel, The Nth Man (Homer Eon Flint, 1928) in order to cash in, in a reverse sort of way, on the earlier success of Universal’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).

Pathos rating: 4 out of 5 points
4 out of 5 Pathos Points for Manning having to walk down the Las Vegas strip wearing only a giant adult diaper

Accidental Monsters of the '50s trading card #2: Blood of Dracula
Blood of Dracula (1957). Only a couple of months after the death of her mother, troubled teen Nancy Perkins (Sandra Harrison) is sent away to boarding school by her unfeeling father who is only interested in his new wife. Nancy is harassed by the other girls, to the point of being injured in chemistry class when two of her conniving classmates switch chemicals on her.

The chemistry teacher, Miss Branding (Louise Lewis) seizes on the opportunity to gain Nancy’s trust and use her in an experiment to prove Branding’s theory that there is a terrible, destructive power in every person -- and therefore humanity can’t be trusted with nuclear weapons (!!) Branding hypnotizes Nancy with the aid of an amulet from the Carpathian mountains (Dracula’s old stomping grounds), and proceeds to unleash the unwitting Nancy’s inner vampire, with fearful consequences.

Fun fact: Blood of Dracula shares striking similarities with another American International Pictures release, I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), in that an unwitting teenager is hypnotized and turned into a monster by an adult obsessed with drawing out humanity’s primitive instincts.

Pathos rating: 3 out of 5 points
3 out of 5 Pathos Points for Nancy not being able to cash in on her rad new look and lifestyle in a pre-Instagram era.